These are the days that will determine the future course of the war. Not for nothing is the popular title “Miracle of the Marne” applied. The ongoing actions at the Ourcq and the Two Morins are joined by three eastern actions, both large enough to be battles in their own right. The Battle of the Marshes of Saint-Gond, the Battle of Revigny, and the Battle of Vitry.
Miracle of the Marne
There is precious little glory to be had on the Western Front of the Great War. The origins of the war itself are usually described as “dubious” at best. The vast majority of the battles, and the day-to-day existence of a soldier, consist in the popular imagination of the following things. Hiding in trenches. Getting eaten by lice. Blown up by shells. Shot at by snipers while using the latrine. Gassed. Ordered over the top to assault impossible positions. Being patronised by callous, wine-swilling generals. All of it while wading through three feet of water (if you were lucky) or three feet of mud (if you weren’t). And not to mention some romantic subaltern’s fumbling attempts to deal with the horrors by writing poetry. None of this is glorious, or stirring, or makes a particularly exciting story. A lot of it is a very accurate picture, to some degree or another.
And then there’s the Battle of the Marne. It has everything the rest of the war doesn’t. Its entire existence is a last-ditch reversal of fortune, a final throw of the dice against a seemingly unstoppable enemy. It’s the French poilus with their backs to the wall, having been so heavily defeated in the early going, making their last bid to defend their homeland against an invading force. The battered BEF pulling itself off the canvas to once again play a small-but-crucial role in support of its ally. The weather is bright and dry. It’s a naturally great story, a Hollywood ending to the tale of the German advance into France, a battle fought mostly in open country without time to dig more than the most rudimentary defences. Leaders of armies exchange emotionally charged sentiments as battle is joined There’s even a moment when it seems all is lost, before the good guys are saved by the most unlikely of reinforcements. If there is any kind of glory or honour to be won in this war, it happens on the Marne in September 1914.
The Miracle of the Marne begins in earnest today. The German 1st Army completes its redeployment at the Ourcq, and can now meet the French 6th Army in force. The 5th Army and the BEF are heading for the gap in the German line at the Grand Morin as quickly as they can march. Further east, the French 4th, 3rd and 9th Armies all advance and give battle. By the end of the day, fighting rages not just on the Marne, but from the Ourcq to Nancy without interruption.
The 6th Army is fighting as hard as it can on the line of the Ourcq (you try spelling it over and over, it’s a pain in the arse). Its commanders are painfully aware that they have to stay engaged long enough for their comrades to exploit von Kluck’s temporary lowering of his lederhosen. The battle is fierce, and they’re losing men fast. They need reinforcements from somewhere to keep up the pressure. The only “where” available is the Paris defensive garrison under General Gallieni. He’s more than willing to commit his men, but they’re nearly two full days’ march away. By then, von Kluck could be secure enough to pull his pants back up. The railways are full to bursting, and there are still men who could go forward, but for want of transport.
The French launch a heavy counter-attack at the Grand Couronne itself (the heights to either side of Nancy) and succeed in temporarily removing the Germans from them. Over at Verdun, it’s the Germans who are attacking towards the vital town of St Mihiel. It also sits in the middle of high ground, and from the heights an army is in the perfect position to see Verdun, and strike out to cut the fortresss off. Ancilliary fighting continues all the way along this sector of the front. The line is in serious danger of being broken.
Also today, in Serbia, the Battle of Drina opens. Someone did a nice blog post about the Austro-Hungarians getting hilariously and unceremoniously turfed out of Serbia at the Battle of Cer in mid-August. They open the Battle of Drina today; but the Serbs put up stiff resistance and. Although they must fall back in places, they extract a heavy price from the Austrians.
(Incidentally, although “Drina” is a river, for some reason the battle is usually known as “Battle of Drina”, rather than “Battle of the Drina. Don’t ask me why.)
In Galicia, the Austrians make a last-ditch attempt at an encirclement of Russian forces, which fails miserably, and they’re soon advancing hastily to the rear, seeking the shelter of the Carpathians.