Grand Couronne | Marne | 4 Sep 1914

The Great Retreat ends today. But, before we can turn to the Marne, there’s an important offensive somewhere else to be talked about.

Grand Couronne

The Grand Couronne of Nancy is a series of fortified heights around the town. We’ve mostly been concerned since Mons with north-western France and Belgium. The situation in south-eastern France has been relatively static. And unsurprisingly so; the Germans want the French army as far forward as possible. The further east they are, the easier they will be to encircle once their flank is turned. Also, the further their men have to travel if they are to head west as reinforcements.

The French are also content, for the time being, to occupy their present positions. They’re on an important prepared line of fortifications. Nancy and the Grand Couronne are one of its key strong-points, and it must be defended. If the Germans can drive a gap in the French line at any point and then exploit it, they’ll at least be able to push the French off their line. At most, they might be able to conduct a southern encirclement, and that will certainly end the war.

The Grand Couronne is not the only important point that will be attacked during the battle named for it. The Germans are planning an offensive all along the south. They will simultaneously seek breakthroughs against the Grand Couronne and Verdun, to the north-west. First, they fall against Nancy with such force that General Castelnau soon begins to worry whether or not he can hold his line, and whether it wouldn’t be better to withdraw now and save his army.

The Marne

The preparations are complete. General Joffre has given his orders. The pfennig now begins to drop for von Kluck, in command of the German First Army, that he might just be in a little trouble here. His men have crossed the Marne, and now his recon reports are telling him about a worrying number of Frenchmen loitering with intent on his right flank. This is General Manoury’s new 6th Army. It soon becomes obvious that if something is not done, they’ll slip in behind von Kluck and cause all kinds of obstructions in his rear area. He orders one of his reserve corps west to take up a shielding position. It’s all he can do at the moment. He’s committed to a southward advance along with the Second Army.

Tomorrow begins the Battle of the Marne, the first and last chance to hold back the tide of the invasion. All the French eggs have finished up in this one basket. It’s to be a truly vast offensive, over a front of hundreds of miles. And both sides, let’s not forget, are exhausted already. No trenches, just men and rifles and guns and shells.


Today, the war is unquestionably one month old, and the Great Retreat is over. Casualties on all sides are staggering by any definition. The most reliable casualty figures are those of the BEF. They have incurred 14,409 casualties, from an initial strength of 80,000. That’s 18% of their total strength no longer available to fight. All of them are invaluable professional soldiers.

Due to their systems of record-keeping, casualty reports from France and Germany are rather less reliable and have become a Matter of Some Debate. However, ~200,000 German and ~325,000 French are enduring estimates. If prisoners are excluded, this means that German and French casualty figures have already surpassed those of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. And now France is about to launch another major offensive involving hundreds of thousands more men. Not only that, but they’re not even fighting to win the war, yet. They’re just fighting not to lose it.

Actions in Progress

Great Retreat
Battle of Galicia
Siege of Maubege
Battle of Grand Couronne

Further Reading

The excellent tumblr Today in World War I goes where I’m not interested, touching on the relationship between Joffre and Gallieni as it covers the end of the Great Retreat.

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