Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Marne - Part 1. Joffre's Finest Hour

One of the factors bestowing 'miracle' as descriptor for the Marne was that it followed a long disastrous month of reverses, defeats and retreat. The seemingly unstoppable German armies continued with their advances, and showed little sign of weakening. In fact the clashes and battles fought all along the way were having an impact on their energy and resilience. The further they advanced, the longer their supply lines became.
Joffre, for all his earlier misjudgements, was magnificent in this phase.
Georges Bouillot
The image of him being chauffeured by Georges Bouillot a former Grand Prix driver and criss crossing the front is a powerful one. The most significant move was the creation of a new 6th Army under Maunoury, which wheeled from the right of the front in the south east to the north of Paris, to strengthen the position of Gallieni (defender of Paris) and the BEF on the 
left, and made the decisive counter stroke against Kluck.

Bouillot later became a fighter pilot

French’s defeatism threatened dire consequences, and brought the previously noted strong reaction from Kitchener. In reality, Joffre had achieved some strategic gains from the events of August. Albeit at dreadful cost, the French onslaughts in Alsace-Lorraine, such as at Nancy on 25 August, had made it impossible for the Germans to shift troops to reinforce their right flank in Belgium and northern France where the ‘hammer’ of Kluck and Bulow’s armies was getting to the state of exhaustion and short supply at the extreme of its advance.
Joffre’s car was chauffeured at breakneck speeds around the front by a former racing driver, Georges Bouillot, who had earned the appointment by winning the 1912 and 1913 French Grand Prix. The commander-in-chief’s hurtling convoy became a familiar sight in the rear areas of the armies, boosting morale.

 On 31st August, the advancing German army was seen to turn south east towards Compiegne rather than pass to the west of Paris. By evening of 1st September there were no German troops to the west of a line North to Senlis from Paris. Gallieni was in the perfect position to capitalize on this. He had the massive artillery of the  6th army at his disposal to use for the defense of Paris. He could not believe his luck. Could he persuade Joffre and the BEF led by French to join him in attacking the right flank of the Germans and to allow him to use the artillery? Joffre’s original plan was to retreat further, and then hold the line between the two great fortresses of Paris and Verdun, stretching the German line to make it more vulnerable to attack.
On the morning of 1 September, for the first time since Le Cateau excepting skirmishes, the Germans caught up with elements of the BEF. Kluck was not looking for the British, in whose affairs he had lost interest; he was pushing south-eastwards towards Lanrezac's 5th Army. The right wing of the German army was passing across the allied front, exposing itself to counter-attack, and in consequence his leading elements crossed the British sector as they headed towards Château-Thierry and bridges across the Marne. 
Gen. Louis Franchet d'Esperey
On September 3rd at Bar-sur-Aube, where Joffre had now transferred his HQ, Lanrezac was fired, and replaced as General of the 5th Army by his foremost corps commander, d’Espèrey. D'Esperey was a tigerish officer who had distinguished himself in the fighting at Dinant and Guise, and would eventually become one of the most admired French generals of the war. The British envoy at the meeting, Lt Louis Spears, wrote that ‘his head reminded me of a howitzer shell’.
By 4th September, Gallieni was still waiting for a response from Joffre, so he drove off in his car to find French at the BEF HQ at Melun. Although French was not unwilling to fight on the Marne, he was of the view that the French army was on the edge of collapse, and would retreat much further. In any case, he was out with his troops when Gallieni arrived to speak with him. While Gallieni was searching for French, Joffre was pondering his letter urging the attack on Kluck’s flank. At noon on 4th September he agreed Maunoury’s army could be used for Gallieni’s purpose, and also involve d’Esperay, commanding the 5th Army on Maunoury’s right. Unfortunately,  there were delays in co-ordinating these orders for a general counter-attack, and by the morning of 6th  the BEF was still retreating further south.

In the midst of this communication confusion,  in London on September 4th representatives of the British, French and Russian governments emphasised their solidarity by signing an agreement, which became known as the Declaration of London, whereby each pledged not to conclude a separate peace with Germany.

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