Friday, September 05, 2014

September 5th, 1914

- Today is the 35th day since the mobilization of the German Army.  According to the schedule of the Schlieffen Plan, the French are to be defeated by the 39th day.  The battle brewing on the Marne will thus be the decisive battle of the campaign, and indeed one of the most important in history.  A German triumph would mean victory over France and guarantee permanent German hegemony over the European continent, while defeat would plunge Germany into a prolonged war in which the weight of numbers would be against them.  It is a fight to determine the course of the 20th-century, and as the soldiers of both sides begin their marches this morning they advance into history.

The Western Front, Sept. 5th, 1914.
- At 3am, Joffre, desperate to confirm British confirmation in the impending offensive, sends a staff officer to BEF headquarters with a copy of General Instruction No. 6.  When the officer returns to Joffre's headquarters at 930am, he reports the British 'lukewarm' to the idea of joining the French attack.  Meanwhile, General Wilson takes General Instruction No. 6 to Sir John French, and spends the morning trying to persuade him of the merits of attack.

Joffre decides that a personal appeal must be made to secure British co-operation, so he drives the 115 miles to BEF headquarters, arriving at 2pm and meeting with Sir John French and his staff.  With every hour crucial, Joffre dispenses with formalities and immediately launches into a passionate appeal.  He says that this is the decisive moment of the war, and that every French soldier will be thrown into a fight upon which the future of France itself depended.  Turning to the British, he exclaims 'I cannot believe the British Army will refuse to do its share in this supreme crisis.'  Banging his fist on the table, he concludes 'The honour of England is at stake, Marshal!'

Silence fills the room as all eyes turn to the British Field Marshal.  He has been listening with rapt attention.  For the past two weeks he has struggled to preserve his command, in obedience to Kitchener's original instructions, only to be upbraided by Kitchener in Paris on the 1st.  Now, at the decisive moment, the emotional appeal of Joffre breaks through his fears.  His face reddens, and tears rolls down his cheek.  He struggles to say something in French before giving up.  Turning to Wilson, he cries out 'Damn it, I can't explain.  Tell him that all man can do our fellows will do.'

For Joffre it is a moment of great relief - the last piece of his counteroffensive is now in place.  The fact that, due to last night's march, the BEF is further south that originally believed, is a matter of mere detail.  On returning to his headquarters Joffre states simply to his staff: 'Gentlemen, we will fight on the Marne.'

- At 7am, Moltke's General Directive of yesterday arrives at 1st Army headquarters.  Again, the instructions for 1st Army to halt its advance makes no sense to General Kluck.  He has a growing awareness that the French army has not yet been decisively defeated, but to his mind this makes his advance that much more essential, in order to turn the flank of the French 5th Army as soon as possible.  Moreover, ignorant of the wider strategic situation, he is unaware of the extent to which French units have been redeployed from Lorraine to Paris, and thus continues to underrate the threat from the west.  Finally, by the time Kluck receives Moltke's General Directive, his army has already begun its morning march.  Kluck thus does not alter his orders for the day, and 1st Army crosses the Petit and Grand Morin Rivers, two tributaries of the Marne.

- Further to the east, two corps of 3rd Army have been in heavy combat with Foch's newly-renamed 9th Army.  This morning, 3rd Army commander General Hausen, believing his force exhausted and overstretched, orders it to rest for the day.  This order is a crucial gift to Foch - it allows him to close up a gap that had opened between his army and 4th Army to the west, and to entrench itself at the Saint-Gond Marshes.

- This evening a visitor arrives at 1st Army headquarters at Rebais between the two Morins - Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, head of OHL's Intelligence Section.  Moltke has sent Hentsch on the 175-mile drive from OHL headquarters in Luxembourg to explain the state of the fighting along the Western Front and ensure that his General Directive of yesterday is obeyed.  The information Hentsch brings hits Kluck like a bolt out of the blue.  The Colonel informs Kluck that 6th and 7th armies have failed to break through at Nancy, and 4th and 5th armies are making poor progress near Verdun.  This has allowed the French to redeploy significant forces to Paris, and that Kluck can expect an attack from that quarter any day.  Kluck at last grasps the reasons behind Moltke's instructions to halt his advance - the further he moves south, the less able he will be to parry a major French attack from Paris, one which IV Reserve Corps alone cannot halt.  At 10pm Kluck reluctantly orders 1st Army to turn around and retrace its steps northward beginning tomorrow morning back over the Marne.  It is portrayed as a redeployment to prevent the French from interrupting German attacks further to the east, but there is no disguising the fact that, on the 35th day after mobilization, the German army is not supposed to be marching north.

- Even as Hentsch is en route to Kluck, and Joffre on the road to BEF headquarters, the Battle of the Marne begins before either side expected it.  The French 6th Army is marching eastward out of Paris this morning towards the start line for its attack scheduled to begin tomorrow.  General Manoury expected no fighting today, his cavalry having informed him that there were no Germans directly on his line of advance.  However, his cavalry had missed the German IV Reserve Corps.  Its commander, General Hans von Gronau, has been informed this morning by his own cavalry patrols that the French are advancing in strength on his position.  Gronau is acutely aware of his place on the western flank of the German line - not only is he guarding the flank of 1st Army, but he is protecting the flank of the entire German army as it advances southward into France.  The rest of 1st Army has marched far enough south to leave Gronau's corps on its own, and it quickly becomes apparent that the approaching French force significantly outnumbers his own, and intends to push by him and roll up the German flank.  Gronau thus makes the courageous choice to attack - if the French advance can be disrupted, it might buy enough time for reinforcements to arrive from 1st Army.  At noon, as the French 6th Army approaches the Ourcq River near Meux north of the Marne, they come under heavy artillery and machine gun fire.  Taken by surprise, 6th Army goes to ground, engaging in a fierce firefight with IV Reserve Corps through the afternoon.  By nightfall, Gronau concludes that he has won enough time to avoid the risk of envelopment to 1st Army, and withdraws IV Reserve Corps to the defensive line the French expected to assault tomorrow.  In the last hours of the day, elements of the French 6th Army launch attacks on German positions that have already been abandoned.

- Heavy fighting continues around Nancy, and is particularly fierce near the Grand Couronné, where villages and even houses exchange hands several times today.  The unrelenting German pressure prompts 2nd Army commander Castlenau to inform Joffre that his army is under heavy attack and may have to withdraw.  Meanwhile, the Kaiser visits 6th Army headquarters today, in the expectation that he will witness the fall of Nancy.  His hopes are disappointed, and Rupprecht is not impressed by Wilhelm II's presence, decrying his 'crass dilettantism' and 'deficient knowledge' of the military situation.

- Moltke is increasingly concerned with the situation west of Verdun.  In addition to feeling that the decisive fight is on the front of 3rd, 4th, and 5th armies, a variety of reports prey on his pessimism.  One agent reports numerous British reinforcements have landed in Belgium, while another report is downright fantastical.  For the past two weeks, rumours have been rampant among the civilian population in Britain that tens of thousands of Russian troops have arrived in Scotland en route to the Western Front.  It seems everyone knows someone who has seen the Russians moving south to the Channel ports.  There is no factual basis for this rumour whatsoever, but by today the rumour has reached OHL, and Moltke, pessimistic and lacking confidence, is inclined to believe such reports.  He is thus convinced there is a massive Anglo-Russian force assembling in Belgium and the French Channel ports, ready to descend on the rear of his armies on the Marne and annihilate them.

To forestall such a disaster, Moltke decides to create a new army in Belgium.  His initial plan, however, is foiled by, of all people, the Kaiser.  When OHL telegrams Rupprecht to redeploy two 6th Army, Wilhelm II, present at 6th Army headquarters, vetoes the order, believing that Rupprecht is on the brink of victory.  Moltke lacks the will to overrule the Kaiser, so he has to scale down his plan.  Instead, only XV Corps, currently part of 7th Army, is withdrawn from Lorraine to Belgium.  In addition, General Heeringen and 7th Army headquarters accompanies XV Corps, and will assume command not only of XV Corps but of all other German forces in Belgium.

- In order to protect his own reputation in the worsening situation in Galicia, Conrad looks for scapegoats among his subordinate commanders - today he fires the commander of 3rd Army.

- The British light cruiser Pathfinder is torpedoed by the German submarine U-21 off the Scottish coast.  Pathfinder, which sink with over half of her crew of 360 lost, is the first British warship to be sunk by a German submarine.

- Britain, France, and Russia today sign the Declaration of London, in which each agrees not to sign a separate peace with Germany and to continue in the war together until absolute victory is achieved.

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