THE German general staff did not fail in the Marne campaign of 1914. The tragic climax, following the marvelous feats of the imperial army in the battle of the frontiers, must be laid at the door of a few men who proved themselves unequal to their tasks when called upon for decisive action. Inherent insufficiency of a leader is due to fate. It is not the fault of a system.
An ancient maxim says: "Leaders are born, not appointed."
The identical system produced Count Schlieffen, the military giant who conceived the German plan of campaign, and his successor, the younger Moltke, who squandered the heritage of his predecessors. Both were rooted in the soil of the self-same system.
The mistakes of the German supreme command are cited as proving the complete bankruptcy of "that damnable old system." One of the proudest pillars of the venerable state structure of the past, the German general staff, is constantly being pilloried by political propagandists who fail to make any distinction between the system and the personalities. A plan, however good, may be spoiled by bungling execution.
The responsibility for the tremendous and staggering tragedy of the Marne falls directly upon General von Moltke. He believed so little in his own star that he remained behind at his headquarters, a little red brick school in Luxemburg, where it was impossible for him to keep in close contact with his fighting troops.
He was utterly incapable of those "inspiring slogans" which Count Schlieffen declared an absolute essential for a "Modern Alexander"-the sort of burning phrases which his antagonist Joffre sent forth, and which reacted on his troops like the blare of martial music. Moltke, as he himself frankly confessed, "mortally hated all hurrah sentiments," and, far more serious for a military commander, he lacked all sensitiveness to the moral factors in the conduct of the war.
The kaiser has been repeatedly criticized for the choice of the younger Moltke as chief of staff in 1906 on the retirement of Count Schlieffen. Gossip would have it that my father, the emperor, was bent on having "a Moltke" at his side, since the kaiser's grandfather had had Moltke's uncle as his chief of staff in the victorious wars of 1864, 1866, 1870 and 1871. Some even said that the kaiser had fondly cherished the idea of being his own chief of staff in case of war, and named Moltke because he was extremely amenable.
All these charges were untrue. The kaiser undoubtedly chose Moltke because he was not a servile courtier, but an individual with backbone who spoke to his emperor as man to man. The kaiser and Moltke were friends. Moltke had his Majesty's full confidence, and this unrestricted confidence of the supreme war lord in his responsible adviser was an absolute necessity for successful cooperation.
It is popularly believed that Moltke originally had asked the kaiser not to entrust him with the office of chief of staff, as he doubted his own ability to fill it. I know this also is untrue. Moltke merely insisted on certain very sensible conditions when taking over the office conditions which aimed at assuring his success. This conscientious attitude naturally intensified the kaiser's confidence in his choice, and he unhesitatingly accepted Moltke's conditions. The emperor did not desire in the least a "mere puppet" as chief of staff.
But there were other generals available at the time of Moltke's appointment who were better fitted for the post. Field Marshal von der Goltz's name has often been mentioned of late. I myself am convinced that, as far as character and natural gifts are concerned, Von der Goltz would have been a most suitable man for the post. But I also know that no such state of confidence prevailed between the kaiser and Von der Goltz as existed between the kaiser and Moltke. Marshal von der Goltz himself cheerfully acclaimed the choice of Moltke.
I personally doubt whether Count Schlieffen was really serious when he recommended Moltke as his successor. It was not that he considered Moltke lacking in ability, but rather that he felt himself still in such splendid condition, both physically and mentally, that he believed he was capable of conducting his office for a long time to come. The count's advanced age, seventy-three, however, made it necessary to pick a successor for him while he was still alive and could give the man who was to shoulder his burdens the benefit of his instruction.[ Count Schlieffen was born in 1833 and died in 1913.]
The possibility must also be considered that the kaiser's advisers directed his attention to Moltke for reasons of their own and to gratify their own ends. The emperor could hardly know that the serious, high-minded Moltke, imbued with an exemplary loyalty and possessing an untiring will to work, should utterly lack those traits of character which make a man a leader in the field. Only the actuality of war could demonstrate this.
Count Schlieffen, whenever somebody mentioned any general as a born field marshal, would say: "That will be shown soon enough in case of war " Still another statement of Schlieffen's fits well here: "The sovereign naturally believes that the man he is promoting will prove to be a genuine leader in the field. He is often disappointed, as field marshals cannot be made by a mere promotion. They are born ! They are predestined!"
In peace-time the kaiser was under the impression that in choosing Moltke he had chosen well. War soon proved to him how much he had been deluded.
Count Schlieffen's plan of a war on two fronts called first for a quick and thorough decision in the west. This desired decision could not be attained by a frontal attack upon the fortresses along the Franco-German frontier. It was necessary to envelop the enemy's left wing, resting on the Belgian frontier, at the same time as an advance was made along his front.
According to the original plan which Schlieffen elaborated between 1894 and 1899S the First and Second armies, forming the German right, would cross the Meuse River along the front Douchery-Stenay, being covered by the Seventh Army against attacks of the Belgians on their northern flank.
The German left, consisting of the Fourth and Fifth armies, was to carry Nancy by storm and march upon Neufchateau, their southern flank being covered by the Sixth Army. The Third Army was to connect the two groups of armies, one of which was to pass to the south and the other to the north of the powerful barrier, Verdun-Toul.
As the enveloping movement progressed, the frontal attack was to be abandoned. The turning of nearly the entire German force upon Metz as a pivot provided a vast zone of operations across Belgium and northern France. The movement was planned not merely to envelop the first French line of defense, but also the second-the line Rheims-La Fère.
Moltke, in spite of certain changes in apportioning his military effectives, held on to Schlieffen's basic scheme the offensive along the whole French front and the enveloping movement by way of Belgium. He did not, however, dare to leave Alsace and Lorraine so unguarded as Schlieffen had contemplated. And we shall see that it was this timidity of Moltke's concerning Alsace and Lorraine which eventually played an important part in causing the tragedy of the Marne.
According to Moltke's plan, the First and Second armies were to invade Belgium and cross the Meuse River between the Dutch frontier and Namur. The Third, Fourth and Fifth armies were to cross southern Belgium and Luxemburg and reach the Meuse River between Namur and Verdun. The Sixth and Seventh armies were to occupy an intrenched position along the French frontier, south of Metz.
At the outset of hostilities in early August, the conduct of operations by the enemy commands seemed to favor a speedy destruction of their armies. The hope of a final decision in a short time ran high! in the German camp.
Both sides were extremely aggressive from the outset. A tremendous field battle was soon under way along the international frontier. It began in Lorraine on August 20 and in a few days had embraced all the armies as far north as Namur and Mons.
In this gigantic action both numbers and topography were decidedly to Germany's advantage. That a thorough and decisive victory was not achieved is because of the self-effacing conduct which the German supreme command indulged in at this time. It left the leadership of the all-important strategical right wing in the hands of subordinate commanders.
The frontier battle was a tactical victory for the Germans, but it left the French and English armies, although beaten and severely shaken up, still a formidable fighting-machine and able to conduct an orderly retreat.
The question now arose: Was it permissible still to hold to the original plan, aiming at a speedy decision in open field battles along the western front, after these battles had yielded only unsatisfactory strategic results?
The answer was an unqualified "Yes," if the Schlieffen plan, providing for crushing the enemy by sheer masses concentrated on the German right, was fulfilled. Unfortunately, by the end of August, 1914, the strong right wing anticipated by Schlieffen was hardly noticeable. Count von Moltke, on August 25, withdrew two army corps from the right wing of the western front to reinforce the eastern front.
The necessity of guarding lines of communication all through Belgium had deprived the right wing of still further troops. Two army corps were covering the fortress of Antwerp, where the bulk of the Belgian field army had taken refuge. An additional army corps was besieging the fortress of Maubeuge. And one division of reserves of the Third German Army was tied up opposite Givet.
At the beginning of the German offensive on the western front, the three armies of the right wing had consisted of thirty-four divisions of infantry. On August 27, only twenty-three divisions were left for immediate action in field operations. One-third of the forces had been withdrawn for other purposes.
It was now rather late, perhaps too late to bring up strong reinforcements by railroad from Lorraine. These reinforcements would have had to come from around Aix-la-Chapelle, by forced marches through Belgium, as it was not feasible at this time to use the Belgian railroads in the occupied area.
The order of the supreme command dated August 27 adheres to the Schlieffen plan as far as directions are concerned. The five armies advancing through Belgium and northern France were instructed to proceed as follows:
First Army, toward the lower Seine, west of the Oise River; Second Army, toward Paris; Third Army, toward Chateau-Thierry; Fourth Army, toward Epernay by way of Rheims, and the Fifth Army, toward Châlons-sur-Marne and Vitry-le-François, after circling around Verdun to the northeast.
This order was dictated by the original underlying thought of the Schlieffen plan-the encircling of the left wing of the enemy. But what about the numerical strength of the German armies? The First Army marching without a fixed destination toward the lower Seine consisted of only ten infantry divisions [about 150,000 men]. The other four armies being brought into play along a front reaching from Paris to Vitry-le-Francois, over one hundred miles by air-line, comprised but thirty-three divisions. Of these, a number of units belonging to the Fifth Army could not be employed in any field action, as it was necessary to cover Verdun on the north and west.
This seeming contradiction between direction of march and strength of armies is entirely explained by the fact that the general orders of August 27 were based upon conditions utterly unlike those actually prevailing. The supreme command labored under the delusion that the hardest part of the campaign on the western front was over. The retreating enemy was expected to fight furiously and make a stand at every suitable location, especially along the rivers.
But Moltke did not believe that the Allies intended to bring about a decisive action in a second extensive field engagement. He believed they were merely intent on tiring out their pursuers and endeavoring to prolong the war long enough to profit from the Russian offensive then under way on the eastern front.
This extremely optimistic view of the general situation led the supreme command to believe that all that was left to do in the west was a slight "finishing up" ! And this, it was believed, could be best achieved by a merciless pursuit of the Allies, making it impossible for them to reorganize their depleted forces and consolidate their lines.
The plan of the supreme command was simply to overrun the enemy's country on as broad a front as possible. No definite detailed goal was held in view.
It is only fair to admit that the supreme command's exaggerated optimism was due to the reports of victory which they received from subordinate commanders who painted the situation in a too rosy hue. This encouraged Moltke to underestimate the enemy's efficiency and power. But, even if the supreme command had had a correct appreciation of the actual situation, the attempted solution by "keeping after the enemy along the whole front" was hardly suitable.
This solution might have been possible as far as the First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth armies were concerned. They were operating in the open. But what about the Sixth and the Seventh armies on our southern wing? These armies faced the powerful chain of French frontier fortresses. Keeping after the enemy here was a matter of siege warfare. The French, in this area, relying on the power of passive resistance inherent in their line of fortresses, might withdraw units facing the Sixth and Seventh German armies and use them to reinforce their center or left.
Such a maneuver of the French meant a new and formidable battle for the ultimate decision. It was this battle which eventually took place at the Marne.
Now, at the very moment when every possible soldier was needed on our center and right, the supreme command issued an order prescribing an attack by the Sixth and Seventh armies against the Toul-Epinal line. The object was to tie up the French fighting forces in the south so they could not be removed elsewhere. On the surface this might seem like good tactics. But was it?
General Krafft von Delmensingen wrote in his diary at this time: "If the enemy really wishes to retreat, not even God Almighty could stop him. Everywhere we are up against fortifications. The enemy is in a position, even with an inferior fighting force, to hold all fortified sectors long enough to enable the mass to get away."
Thus the fateful situation was brought about that at a time when it was essential to consolidate the entire German fighting forces at the center and right of the west front, so as effectively to pursue the enemy, not less than twenty-four divisions of infantry, one-third of all the effectives available for action in the field, were employed with a special task. This task, difficult and long drawn out, involved all the elements of siege warfare in a sector where important decisions could not be brought about.
It would have been possible to employ strong parts of these forces-at least half of those tied up in siege warfare to reinforce the pursuit operations. With almost seerlike wisdom, Count Schlieffen had repeatedly warned against the massing of German troops along this south wing, opposite the French frontier fortresses.
I believe it is fair to say that the gravest of all those blunders in generalship eventually leading to the unsatisfactory result of the Marne campaign, consisted in the unemployment of the Sixth and the Seventh armies in the main action.
The result of this blunder would have been far more serious if the enemy had been wide awake to the advantages which he enjoyed because of the cover offered his right flank by his chain of fortresses.
I cannot better sum up my criticism thus far than by quoting Von Clausewitz, Prussia's great military writer of the eighteenth century.
"Keep your fighting strength well concentrated! This is both the simplest and foremost law of strategy. Nothing should be separated from the mass unless it serves a very immediate purpose. It is wise to be as strong as possible in general, but it is absolutely essential to be strong at the points of decision."
Military genius was conspicuously absent in all the three armies during the campaign culminating with the battle of the Marne. Neither the Germans nor the Allies possessed a leader sufficiently gifted to effect the complete destruction of the enemy. The military strength of both sides was squandered. There was an utter lack of strategic art. The battle was conducted in a wholly mechanical and conventional manner. The resultant trench warfare was the natural outcome of an exhaustion brought on by a failure on both sides to develop a decisive strategy.
"Armies equipped in accord with the latest developments of military science can no longer decisively defeat one another!"
This conclusion is drawn by various modern tacticians from the experience of the battle of the Marne.
I cannot agree with them!
If either the Germans or the Allies had been led by a truly great commander, such as Napoleon or the elder Moltke, the war in France might have ended with a crushing victory for one side or the other but a few weeks after hostilities began.
The fact that the campaign of 1914 on the western front ended in a draw cannot be logically ascribed to the effect of the new equipment. It was due to lack of generalship ! In war, as well as in diplomacy, the imponderables, to use Bismarck's phrase, weigh heavily in the scales. Airplanes, tanks, gas, machineguns, powerful artillery-these things are important; but even more important is the genius of the commander.
Mobile warfare, aiming at a speedy decision, is not obsolete. It offers today, as always, the opportunity for talent and generalship of the highest order.
Count Schlieffen had prepared long in advance a brilliant plan of quickly destroying the French armies by encircling their left wing. He retired as head of the general staff at the age of seventy-three in 1906. Count von Moltke, his successor, failed to carry out his plan. He weakened the German right wing by sending two army corps to reinforce the eastern front in Poland, and left three and a half additional army corps in Belgium to cover the fortresses of Antwerp, Maubeuge and Givet, still holding out against our siege. He had also abandoned the original Schlieffen plan by tying up a large part of his forces in Alsace and Lorraine in a mere siege of the French frontier fortresses, whereas all the mobile troops were needed at the vital point.
The Allied armies, after the battle of the frontiers, were badly shaken, but still intact. They were retreating rapidly, but in good order. They had escaped our enveloping movement. Our armies were ordered to pursue them without mercy.
The German pursuit operations conducted along the entire mobile front by General von Kluck's First Army, General von Bülow's Second Army, General von Hausen's Third Army, the Duke of Würtemberg's Fourth Army and my own Fifth Army began on August 27. These operations lasted until the beginning of the battle of the Marne on September 5, 1914.
The general orders of pursuit issued by the German supreme command on August 27 were based largely on conjectures. Neither the direction of the enemy's retreat nor the definite location of our own armies was completely ascertained.
The supreme command assumed that the armies of the Allies' left and center, consisting of Marshal French's British army, General Lanrezac's Fifth French Army, General Foch's Ninth Army and General Langle's Fourth French Army, were in full retreat toward the southwest in the general direction of Paris. In reality Generals Foch and Langle were engaging the Fourth German Army of the Duke of Würtemberg in the battle at the bridge-heads of the Meuse River between Sedan and Stenay.
General orders of August 27 reported the Allies' loss of positions along the Meuse River opposite my own Fifth Army. As a matter of fact we had not even reached that river at this time.
This utter misunderstanding by the supreme command of the true situation has never been explained. Perhaps the supreme command was dominated by "the wish-is-father-to-the-thought" sentiment.
On August 28, however, the supreme command came to a clearer conception of the situation. The German Fourth Army, in the midst of the severe battle along the Meuse River, clamored for assistance from both General von Hausen's Third Army, its neighbor on the right, and from my Fifth Army, its neighbor on the left.
But Moltke insisted that General von Hausen continue advancing toward the southwest as ordered, so as to consolidate his somewhat loosened contact with the Second and First armies of the German right wing. The Duke of Würtemberg must take care of himself with what assistance he could get from me.
This was good tactics. The decision of the battle depended on the right wing, now northwest and north of the Oise River, about ninety miles north of Paris. Any diversion of units of General von Hausen's Third Army toward the left at this moment would have further reduced the number of troops at the essential point where the battle was to be won or lost.
The Duke of Würtemberg's Fourth Army and later my Fifth Army could spend considerable time in forcing the Meuse River by frontal attacks without endangering the general situation. It was even an advantage to tie up the enemy in defensive operations at this point. The longer he made a stand along the Meuse the more he would be threatened by the advance of the German right wing.
If the German right wing continued to roll back the severely battered Allied forces, which were now steadily retreating, the effect upon the enemy's morale would be tremendous. Also, this movement would imperil the French center along the Meuse River. Its flank and then its rear threatened, the French center of General Foch's Ninth Army and General Langle's Fourth Army would be forced to begin an irregular southerly retreat.
There was a possibility of widening the already yawning gap in the French front and of entirely severing from the main body of the French forces the Allies' left wing, now made up of General Lanrezac's Fifth French Army, the British army and General Maunoury's newly formed Sixth French Army.
Unfortunately the German supreme command did not follow this sound strategical plan. It meekly acquiesced when General von Hausen, instead of obeying orders to advance in a southwesterly direction, turned his Third Army eastward in support of the Duke of Würtemberg's Fourth Army. General von Hausen thereby utterly relinquished contact with the German right wing. Moltke and his aides were apparently permitting events to shape their own course. How differently his uncle, the great Moltke, would have handled the situation!
The second great mistake in German generalship, which ultimately led to the strategically negative result of the whole Marne campaign, was the separating of the German right wing from the mass. The reckless weakening of this right wing by diverting troops to remote and less important theaters of war had been the first fatal blunder.
The question arises as to what extent the leaders of the individual armies were responsible for the second blunder. It is only natural that a leader in the field whose army meets strong opposition along its entire front should appeal to his neighbors for assistance in attacking the enemy's flanks.
Whether the general plan of action is best served if the requested aid is given can hardly be decided by the local commander. His information regarding the general situation is necessarily limited. His neighbors must decide whether they are in a position to render the demanded assistance. And the supreme leader must make sure that there is no change in the development of operations as a whole.
General von Hausen was conscious of the fact that, in going with his Third Army to the aid of the Fourth Army of the Duke of Würtemberg, he was ignoring the precise wording of general orders issued by the supreme command on August 27. But he was nevertheless carrying out the meaning of these orders which had expressly stated that "all armies should cooperate and through mutual understanding support one another in engagements within individual sectors."
The general orders also stressed: "Strong resistance encountered on the Aisne, and subsequently on the Marne, may render necessary the turning of the armies from the southwest toward the south." It was only natural for General von Hausen to decide that this change in direction also applied if strong resistance were encountered along the Meuse River.
It was on the evening of August 29 that General von Hausen changed the direction of his advance to the south. The supreme command, though continually informed of developments, did not interfere. The army leader was justified in assuming that his measures had official approval.
Meeting strong and unexpected resistance north of the Aisne River on the next day, General von Hausen appealed to the supreme command for directives. On the evening of August 30 he was instructed that his Third Army, cooperating closely with the Duke of Würtemberg's Fourth Army, was to continue pursuing the enemy toward the south and across the Aisne River. Thus, Moltke himself placed his official approval on the operations of General von Hausen, which resulted in his Third Army abandoning connections with the German right wing.
I maintain, regardless of the decisions made and orders issued by General von Hausen at this critical moment, that the responsibility for the German front breaking at the center (leaving a wide open breach) must be laid at the door of the supreme command.
If General von Hausen had steadily continued his advance toward Château-Thierry, as was originally ordered, he would have been able in good time to thrust the weight of the Third Army's flank right into the path of retreat of General Lanrezac's Fifth French Army. And one may well remain within the limits of sober contemplation in saying that such a development, resulting in the smashing of General Lanrezac's army, would have decided the western campaign in favor of our arms.
Now let us examine the pursuit operations of the German right wing. After defeating the British at Le Cateau on August 26~ General von Kluck's First Army endeavored, by forced marches, to reach the lower Somme in the general direction of Péronne. It had hardly succeeded in occupying the bridgeheads in this sector when, on August 29, it unexpectedly came in contact with Maunoury's Sixth French Army in process of organization around Amiens and along the Aire River. This threat from the side against the right flank of all the German armies was obviated by quick and decisive measures. Maunoury's Sixth French Army was forced to retreat before it was fully formed.
The Second German Army, under General von Bülow, was following on the left the First Army in echelon formation. Along the Oise River, east of Saint-Quentin, it was attacked by General Lanrezac's Fifth French Army. In the battle of Guise, lasting two days, General von Bülow showed consummate ability by preventing the thrust of the French forces. He then counter-attacked, hurling back the numerically stronger enemy along the whole front from La Fère to Laon.
On the evening of August 30, at General von Bülow's request, General van Kluck turned his army southeastward toward the Oise River. He was intent on overtaking the flank of his opponent to block his retreat. The encirclement of the enemy's mass, which had not been achieved at Mons and Le Cateau, was now to be accomplished by strenuous forced marches.
The subsequent crossing of the Oise by General von Kluck's First Army and the ensuing pursuit operations to the southeast in the direction of Soissons should not be regarded as the reason for the unfavorable developments along the front as a whole. If the supreme command had believed this maneuver of General von Kluck to be dangerous, it could at any time have saved it.
In fact, a careful study of documents in the imperial archives shows that the supreme command on the evening of August 30, while still uninformed as to the intentions of General von Kluck, had already decided to shift southward the direction of the three pursuing armies of the German right wing.
The supreme command not only ordered General von Hausen's Third Army to continue its pursuit of the enemy toward the south in close tactical cooperation with the Duke of Würtemberg's Fourth Army, but it also ordered General von Kluck's First Army and General von Bülow's Second Army to move in the same direction, so as to close up the gap in the German front.
Both General von Bülow and General von Kluck were directed to cooperate closely with General von Hausen. The left wing of General von Bülow's Second Army was to proceed in the direction of Rheims. The center of gravity of operations was thus shifted toward the south end and to the center of the German front.
There now took place one of the many inexplicable phenomena which make the psychology of the supreme command so incomprehensible. General von Moltke in Luxemburg-130 miles from the vital battle-point-became convinced that a tremendous battle was in progress along the fronts of the Third, Fourth and Fifth German armies.
This battle, he believed, had begun with counterattacks of the French between the Meuse and the Moselle rivers, and appeared to expand to the west, along the southern bank of the Aisne. He, thereupon, apparently jumped to the conclusion that the enemy was numerically stronger, without having received the slightest intimation to this effect from the various army commanders. Once completely imbued with this belief of German numerical inferiority, his first exaggerated optimism gave way to an equally exaggerated pessimism.
The chief of the imperial staff now called upon the left wing of General von Bülow's Second Army to enter into the battle south of the Aisne a battle which existed only in his imagination! This phantom battle, not reality, determined his strategy.
Actually, on September 1, neither General von Hausen's Third Army nor the Duke of Würtemberg's Fourth Army was engaged any longer in heavy fighting. Both armies were occupied with a successful pursuit of the enemy.
Anybody reviewing today the conditions in both camps on September 1 will agree that the` situation on September 1 called for the halt of the entire German front along the Aisne River for the purpose of introducing new strategical measures.
General von Moltke could not bring himself to this decision. In that narrow schoolroom in Luxemburg where he made his headquarters, destined to achieve such sad fame, he hesitated and wavered, wrestling with his own irresolution. When he finally issued an order it was usually the wrong one. On the other hand, there was generally some strategic reason, sound in itself, to justify his decision. One should, therefore, be careful not to dismiss his reasons too lightly.
Foremost among the reasons for not stopping at the Aisne was that it would mean renouncing the initiative, which up to that time was successfully maintained. It is of inestimable value in battle to retain the initiative.
It is not true that Joffre embarked voluntarily and according to an inspired plan upon the retreat from the Sambre to the Meuse and then beyond the Marne. Joffre did not possess full freedom of action. He suffered to a great extent from the strategical compulsion of his pursuers.
At the very moment when the victorious pursuit of a fleeing enemy stops, the victor must be ready to accept the possibility that the enemy, once more master of his own decisions, may create an entirely new and surprising situation. Developments may ensue which make it impossible to exploit or even to maintain results already achieved.
The renunciation of the initiative, however, cannot lead to a more difficult situation than exists at the opening of hostilities, when everything is shrouded in a fog of uncertainty.
I am of the opinion, therefore, that in the course of warfare, a temporary and conscious renunciation of the initiative is in order, as soon as the leader realizes that the execution of his plans is not going to lead to the desired ultimate result, and might even lead to an unfavorable change in the general situation.
I do not believe that after the strategically abortive developments of the pursuit operations of the German armies up to September 1, there was still any certain chance of bringing about a speedy decision on the western front. The most important task of this moment was to maintain what had been gained thus far.
It appears to me that the wisest plan would have been to turn the five armies of the mobile German right and center back into the directions prescribed for them in the general orders of August 27. These directions were: General von Kluck's First Army- the lower Seine west of the Oise; General von Bülow's Second Army-the general direction of Paris; General von Hausen's Third Army-Château-Thierry; Duke of Würtemberg's Fourth Army-Epernay by way of Rheims; and my own Fifth Army-Châlons-sur-Marne and Vitry-le-François, after circling Verdun to the northwest.
It would have devolved upon General von Kluck's First Army to cover the fortification of Paris whence the enemy was likely to launch a forceful counterattack. Whether it would still have been possible to encircle the enemy's western wing is doubtful. This plan, however, would have left the Germans in possession of northern France as far as the lower Somme. Serious preparations for taking the Channel ports could then have been developed. The whole German west front would have been in an incomparably better position than was the case at the end of the Marne campaign.
On the evening of September 2, General von Moltke issued the following order to Generals von Kluck and von Bülow:
';The intention of the supreme command is to cut off the French from Paris to the southwest. The First Army will follow the Second in echelons and will insure the protection of the flank of all the armies."
In regard to the appellation "French," it may be assumed that General von Moltke referred exclusively to the French mass, and not to those isolated parts of Maunoury's Sixth French Army, which were spread out eccentrically along the Allies' utmost western wing. Maunoury's army along with the British apparently had succeeded by uninterrupted retreat in completely extricating itself from the German pursuit. It is difficult to conceive how General von Moltke could really hope to exert a pressure strong enough to force the west wing of the French mass southeastward from Paris with General von Bülow's Second Army alone advancing against the Marne. To push the mass of the French to the southeast of Paris, General von Kluck's First Army would have to be drawn upon for decisive cooperation. But it could not give this cooperation if following the Second Army in echelon formation, as instructed in the supreme command's orders of September 2. The supreme command's ignorance of the real situation is again demonstrated here by the fact that the Second Army, which the First was to follow in echelon formation, was at this time a day's march behind the First Army. Also the First Army, in spite of forced marches, had failed to overtake the enemy's left, retreating toward the south by way of Soissons. What chance, therefore, did the Second Army have of catching up with the enemy and engaging it in decisive combat ?
The order of the supreme command created a very difficult situation for General von Kluck. His subordinate, General von Quast, commanding the Ninth Army Corps on the left wing of the First Army, was quite independently pursuing the French in the direction of Château-Thierry when the supreme command's order arrived at First Army headquarters on the night of September 2. And on September 3 General von Quast, contrary to his orders, advanced beyond the Marne.
General von Kluck himself believed that the intention of forcing the French from Paris in a southeasterly direction could still be realized. He, therefore, accepted General von Quest's program as his own, and permitted his Third and Fourth army corps to cross the Marne to cooperate with Von Quast In this he definitely disobeyed an order issued to him by his superior command.
General von Kluck has been severely criticized for his disobedience. Reading, however, in the documents of the imperial archives how he arrived at his decision, one can appreciate his point of view.
General von Kluck was insufficiently informed regarding the situation as a whole. He did not know that the French behind their front were effecting important regroupings and were entraining strong forces for Paris from the French right wing more than one hundred miles to the east.
Possibilities of success beckoned to him beyond the Marne. According to reports received, it did not seem unreasonable to believe that it was still possible to exert the intended pressure on the left flank of the enemy's west wing, now retreating toward the south across the Marne.
When members of Von Kluck's staff warned him of the possible attack on his flank from the direction of Paris, he replied: "The specter of Paris does not frighten me so long as it fails to materialize in flesh and blood!"
The official publications of the imperial archives direct attention to the fact that a number of reports from reconnoitering fliers, according to which enemy forces approximating two and one-half army corps and one and one-half cavalry divisions were concentrated northeast of Paris, failed to reach the commander of the First German Army.
This probably explains why General von Kluck on September 5 permitted his Second Army Corps also to cross the Marne toward the south. This left only the weak Fourth Reserve Corps and one division of cavalry on the north side of the river to defend the whole German flank and rear.
How did the supreme command react to the operations of General von Kluck's First Army, which were in contradiction to orders?
Communications between the supreme command and General von Kluck's headquarters were maintained almost exclusively by short wireless messages. Most of these were received after they had been overtaken by events. The supreme command was therefore not in a position to gain a clear and continuous picture of developments relating to the First Army. It had to rely to a great extent upon suppositions.
On September 3, however, the supreme command had been informed of General von Kluck's decision to advance with two army corps in the hope of catching up, north of the Marne, with the enemy retreating before General von Bülow's Second Army. Moltke accepted this surprising development without raising any objection, although it was definitely contrary to his order: "The First Army will follow the Second Army in echelons...."
A wireless message sent on the night of September 3 from General von Kluck at First Army headquarters to the Second and Third armies was picked up at Luxemburg. This carried the startling information that during September 3, the left wing of the First Army had crossed the Marne at Château-Thierry. But even now Moltke did not interfere. This proves that, as far as the German right wing was concerned, the supreme command not only "gave the horse his head," but allowed the reins to slip entirely out of its hands.
There is hardly any doubt that on September 5, General von Kluck would have stopped pursuing the enemy south of the Marne with his First Army-a procedure which eventually led to tragic results-if on the morning of September 4 the supreme command had issued a clear and unequivocal order, instructing him to assume immediately the position with his First Army which had been assigned to him in the order of September 2. That is: "The First Army should follow on the right of the Second Army in echelons."
The supreme command, therefore, cannot be exonerated from blame for developments on the right wing. To my mind, the guilt of the supreme command surpasses that of General von Kluck. Moltke was in receipt of messages from headquarters of the Third, Fourth and Fifth armies, stating that the enemy was withdrawing units facing them and entraining these units for other parts of the front.
I have already mentioned that General won Kluck was not aware of this. Now, what could seem more obvious than that these forces were being transported to Paris to be employed against the right German flank? This danger had been worrying Moltke since September 2. But it was after 7 o'clock on the evening of September 4 that the order was issued to General von Kluck to remain with his First Army in the sector between the Oise and the Marne facing the front east of Paris.
Here I might say that the sector between the Oise and the Marne is not east of Paris, as the supreme command's order states. It is north and northeast. It was not possible for General von Kluck's First Army to remain in this sector which it had already left with the major portion of its troops. It could only march back to it.
On September 5, the enemy began his attack. The Fourth Corps of Reserves of the First Army, lone guard of the German right flank north of the Marne, met with a force of superior strength near Daumartin and retreated behind the Therouanne River. The tremendous and fateful battle for the decision in the western theater of war had begun !
"A commander's decisions must be guided not by the hope of not being beaten, but by the burning desire to vanquish the enemy."
This famous maxim of the great Count Schlieffen, the man who preceded General von Moltke as chief of the imperial general staff, was totally ignored by the German supreme command in the battle of the Marne.
It was fear of the German armies in Poland being defeated that had led General von Moltke first to weaken the all-important German right wing armies on the western front. Two army corps from General von Kluck's First Army and General von Bülow's Second Army had been dispatched to the eastern front to fight the advancing Russians. '
Now, on September 5, on the eve of the fateful battle of the Marne, the fear of English troops landing in Antwerp and Ostend and threatening the German rear led General von Moltke to take two army corps and one division of cavalry from the Sixth and Seventh German armies in Lorraine and send them to Belgium.
If these troops had been sent to support the First Army of General von Kluck, or had been used to reinforce the German thrust south of Verdun-the two vital points-the 1914 campaign on the western front might have had a wholly different ending. The whole course of the war would have been changed.
General von Moltke was at this stage of the campaign under the hypnotic spell of Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch, a man who, apparently, took counsel only of his fears. It was he who later, as the emissary of the supreme command to the various army commanders, ordered the German retreat which definitely ended all hopes of quick success for our arms on the western front.
Under Colonel Hentsch's pessimistic influence, General von Moltke sensed serious troubles in Belgium. The dangers-the landing of English troops in Antwerp and Ostend and the concentration of fighting units of the enemy near Lille which he now proceeded to offset by dispatching troops northward-really existed only in his imagination.
A few days previously? Field Marshal von der Goltz, Governor-General of Belgium, and a man of sober judgment, had informed the supreme command that there was no reason at the moment to expect a thrust of the Anglo-Belgian forces against our lines of communications.
But even the assurances of Von der Goltz could not still the fears of the chief of the imperial staff, who now sensed disaster on all sides. The specter of defeat appeared to General von Moltke even in those areas where developments were entirely satisfactory and wholly favorable.
Let us now examine the tactical situation of the German armies on the eve of the battle of the Marne.
On September 5, the supreme command admitted in a general directive, sent to all the armies, that it was no longer possible to cut off the French from Paris and to force them in a southeasterly direction against the Swiss frontier, as planned in its order of September 2.
It was known that the enemy, in order to protect his capital and at the same time to threaten the right German flank, had begun to concentrate large masses of troops in the neighborhood of Paris.
General von Kluck's First Army and General von Bülow's Second Army therefore were ordered to counteract any attack from Paris by starting a broad and intense offensive movement in that direction. The supreme command, however, still endeavored somewhat to adhere to the program of "continually forcing the opponent toward the southeast.>' The Duke of Würtemberg's Fourth Army and my own Fifth Army were chosen as the main instruments used in this design, and we were ordered to continue our advance as originally prescribed.
The supreme command reserved decision regarding General von Hausen's Third Army. For the moment it was to advance southward from the Marne toward Troyes and Vendeuvre. According to later developments of the general situation, it would either go westward to the support of the right wing armies of General von Kluck and General von Bülow, or it would join in the engagements of the German left wing towards the south and southeast. This attempt to try to master with insufficient forces two utterly different tasks-the defeat of those Allied armies before Paris and at the same time planning to push the bulk of the French forces toward the Swiss frontier-was wholly unjustifiable. It was typical of the policy of stopgaps to which the supreme command had now been reduced.
General von Moltke, according to the memoirs of Secretary of State Helfferich, was at this time thoroughly depressed. At his headquarters in far-off Luxemburg he kept saying to his staff:
"Don't let us fool ourselves. We have had successes, but we have not yet achieved victory. Victory means destroying the enemy's power of resistance. When armies of millions face each other, the victor ought to have prisoners. Where are our prisoners? Also, the small number of guns we have taken proves to me that the French have retreated in good order and according to plans. The worst is yet to come !"
This shows a clear enough conception of the actual situation. What, therefore, made General von Moltke stick to his original program of offensive operations? The only possible answer is fear of losing the initiative.
I maintain that on September 5, as on September 1, renouncing the initiative was a lesser evil than continuing the strategically abortive pursuit operations. Even at the earlier date there was no longer any certain chance of bringing about a speedy decision on the western front.
I have already shown that the most important task on September 1 was to maintain what had been gained thus far. On September 5 this was even more urgently the case.
The battle of the Marne began with the attack of General Maunoury's Sixth French Army on the Fourth German Reserve Corps of General von Kluck's First Army. This lone army corps and one cavalry division were the only troops left north of the Marne to guard the right flank of all the German armies when General von Kluck, with the bulk of his forces, vainly endeavored to catch up with the retreating left wing of the Allies south of the Marne.
It soon became evident that north of the Marne a battle of tremendous dimensions was in progress. The First German Army found itself in an extremely difficult situation. North of the Marne its right flank was in grave danger of being turned, and south of the Marne it had failed to engage in decisive combat the enemy which it had so relentlessly pursued.
There is no better means of judging the abilities of a general than to observe the dexterity with which he straightens out a situation arising from an operation that has well nigh miscarried. General von Kluck was now faced with such a situation. He proved his worth in a brilliant manner.
When General von Gronau, commanding the Fourth German Reserve Corps, received the information that the enemy was marching against his right flank, he was completely in the dark as to his opponent's strength and intentions.
There were no fliers at his disposal. Imbued, however, with the maxims of the old Prussian spirit of offense, he knew that the best means of tearing away the veil enshrouding all movements of the enemy northeast of Paris was for him to attack.
This decision of General von Gronau has repeatedly been compared to that of General von Alvensleben preceding the battle of Vionville in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-The battle in which Germans faced 130,000 French.
I, myself, feel that General von Gronau's intrepidity ranks higher than that of General von Alvensleben. The latter had some information in reference to the enemy, and ordered his troops to attack, thinking he was merely facing strong rear-guards. General von Gronau, however, was groping wholly in the dark, while thoroughly aware that he might hit upon a far stronger antagonist.
General von Gronau, having by his boldness discovered the strength of the enemy's attack, withdrew his troops behind the Therouanne River. Here he was joined by General von Linsingen's Second Army Corps, part of the First Army which had come from south of the Marne. On September 7 the Third and Ninth army corps of the First Army, which had been cooperating with General von Bülow's Second Army south of the Marne, were also ordered north. They were to assist General von Gronau and General von Linsingen in bringing about a decision in the battle against -General Maunoury's Sixth French Army along the Ourcq River.
This maneuver naturally exposed General von Bülow's right wing to the danger of tactical encirclement. It also widened still more the already yawning gap between the First and Second German armies, and increased the possibility of the enemy breaking through this part of the front.
General von Kluck appears to have recklessly exposed his neighbor General von Bülow to disaster. But it must be remembered that General von Kluck was in a situation where no half-measures would serve. A compromise was out of the question. He was intent upon turning the left wing of General Maunoury's Sixth French Army. To achieve this end he needed all his forces north of the Marne. He was compelled to risk the danger of having the German front broken through.
This radical solution of a dangerous situation is conclusive proof that General von Kluck possessed a great and embracing talent for leadership. He was not intimidated by uncertainties, but manifested a firm will to force a definite decision.
Encircling the enemy will, or at least should, lead to such a decision. Breaking through a front, on the other hand, is merely preparation for a more decisive maneuver. If the front is broken in the course of an encircling operation the ease with which the break can be mended is in direct proportion to the success of the encirclement. To exploit fully breaking-through operations strong forces and much time are required.
This, of course, is merely military theory. But General von Kluck was fully justified in applying this theory to his problem, because, as subsequently proved, it was possible for inferior forces, if managed with dexterity, to hold the naturally strong Marne sector, where the gap existed between his own left wing and General von Bülow's right wing. Here the thin line of General von Marwitz's cavalry was facing the British, and from experience thus far it was not to be expected that the British would act quickly and boldly to exploit their numerical superiority.
The threatened break through the German front by the English was successfully warded off. General von Kluck's First Army, by the incomparable feat of an encircling movement on the decisive northern wing near Nanteuils had achieved a complete tactical victory over General Maunoury's Sixth French Army. This was the well-deserved reward for holding unshakingly to a plan, the moral grandeur of which marks its originator as a born leader in the field.
The leaders of the First Army survived trials which, from a psychological point of view, could not have been more strenuous. Great admiration is also due to General von Kluck's soldiers, whose valiant spirit and readiness for self-sacrifice made it possible for their commander to aspire to so much and actually achieve it. Their losses were terrific, as shown by the official figures. The German troops never flinched.
All criticism is silenced before the evidence of facts. General von Kluck and his First Army persisted along the Marne until the very moment on September 9 when the supreme command ordered a retreat.
When General von Kluck's First Army was fighting so successfully to the northeast of Paris, I, with my Fifth Army, was endeavoring to break through the French front between the Rhine-Marne Canal and Aire. In this maneuver I requested the cooperation of the left wing of the Duke of Würtemberg's Fourth Army. Duke Albrecht, however, was concentrating all his forces on his right wing for an encircling movement along the Marne southeast of Vitry-le-François.
It looked as if my right flank was being jeopardized by the duke's maneuver, so I appealed to the supreme command for a decision. Its reply was "mutual understanding between the Fourth and Fifth armies in the course of battles seems advisable." This, of course, was no decision at all. I cite it to show that the smoothening hand of the supreme command was missing, even where adequate telephonic connections existed.
General von Hausen's Third Army was now finding itself in a very disagreeable position. This army, never too strong in fighting units because of constantly weakening itself to the benefit of both its right and left neighbors, had finally been forced to split in two. The supreme command's habit of allowing things to go any-way the individual commanders of five German armies or fate willed was responsible for this unfavorable development.
The credit for the Third Army rendering essential assistance during the successful combats of the left wing of General von Bülow's Second Army against General Foch's Ninth French Army belongs to General von Hausen, commanding the Third Army, and not to the supreme command.
On September 9, when the supreme command ordered the retreat, the chances of the left wing of General von Bülow's Second Army, assisted by units of the Third Army, gaining a complete tactical victory over the French at La Fère-Champenoise were excellent. Behind the battered units of General Foch's Ninth Army there were no reserves, and if the attack, halted by the order to retreat, had continued, there would have been splendid chances of its growing into an encircling operation.
What were the events which brought about the fateful retreat-the retreat which not merely checked General von Bülow's left wing in its triumphant attack against General Foch's Ninth French Army, but also checked General von Kluck in his victorious turning of General Maunoury's Sixth French Army?
On the evening of September 7 the kaiser, as supreme war lord, gave General von Moltke certain explicit directives. He commanded:
"Attack as long as possible! Do not retreat one step under any circumstances!"
The kaiser, by starting out for Châlons---unfortunately he abandoned the trip before arriving at his destination---had intimated to the chief of his general staff where he really belonged at this moment. But all in vain ! General von Moltke remained closeted in the little red brick school in Luxemburg.
Looking back today, it seems doubtful whether Moltke, broken by the pressure of fate, would have been of more value in Châlons than in Luxemburg, where spiritual bankruptcy overtook him. He entirely abandoned his responsibilities as the master mind of his armies, although as a soldier he was perfectly willing to lay down his life. He reminds one of General Benedek, supreme commander of the Austrian forces in the war against Italy in 1866.
It was only on the morning of September 8 that General von Moltke, persisting in his self-imposed retirement from the active direction of his armies, did finally summon up enough energy to dispatch Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch to the headquarters of General von Kluck's First Army and General von Bülow's Second Army.
Certain points regarding this fateful mission of Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch will probably never be sufficiently explained. Regarding the actual purpose of his errand, the explanations of Moltke, Hentsch and Colonels Tappen and son Dommes vary decidedly These were the four men who participated in the conference which decided upon the mission. Colonels Tappen and von Dommes insist that Hentsch was instructed "to see to it that the armies did not retreat."
This, of course, was entirely in agreement with the kaiser's order of September 7. It was only if parts of the right wing had already started to retreat that Hentsch, according to Tappen and Dommes, was "to attempt to direct these movements in such a way that the gap between the inner wings of the First and Second armies would be bridged in the direction of Fismes." Moltke, himself, protested on numerous occasions that he never gave Hentsch an order for the retreat of the First and Second armies.
According to Moltke's written statements, Hentsch was merely instructed "to inform the First Army that in case a retreat became necessary it should be executed along the line Soissons-Fismes, so the First Army could again join up with the Second Army." It is still an open question whether such an order gave Hentsch the power to decide as to the necessity of the First Army retreating.
Hentsch's own reports are full of contradictions. He insists that he was authorized "to order in case of necessity a retreating movement of the entire German front-the First to the Fifth armies inclusive to a line behind the Vesle River and the hills forming the northern border of the Argonne."
In view of these contradictions, it seems probable that each of those present at the conference put an individual interpretation on instructions which were none too clearly defined and which were not reduced to writing.
Hentsch's conviction that at least a retreat of the right wing could not be avoided was in full accord with Moltke's pessimism He started on his mission imbued with the preconceived idea of the necessity for a retreat. It was impossible for him to adapt himself to the situation as he found it at First and Second Army headquarters-a situation radically different from the conception which he had arrived at through mathematical deduction while far removed from the actual field of battle.
The conversation between Hentsch and General von Bülow on the evening of September 8 at Castle Montmort should have made it plain to Hentsch that his conception of the situation was not borne out by reality. General von Bülow seriously remonstrated when Hentsch suggested "a voluntary and timely retreat." The leader of the Second Army pointed out that his troops were not at all in an unfavorable situation. General von Bülow and Hentsch, however, did agree that the situation of General von Kluck's First Army was untenable, as its flank and rear were jeopardized from the direction of the Marne. They also agreed that the First Army should immediately retreat.
General von Bülow thought it possible for Von Kluck's First Army to regain contact with and the support of Von Bülow's army forces by merely moving back to a line running from La Ferté-Milon to Château-Thierry. Hentsch could not be convinced that this was possible.
He was certain that the reestablishment of connections between the two armies could only be achieved by a retreat of the inner wings of both armies in the direction of Fismes.
A compromise was finally reached. General von Bülow agreed to order the retreat of his Second Army if the enemy actually crossed the Marne with strong forces, thus threatening the rear of General son Kluck's First Army. This agreement was a victory for Hentsch. As long as no information came from the First Army to indicate that it was unable by its own sole power to cope with threats at its flank and rear, there was no reason, except Hentsch's pessimism, for the retreat of the Second Army.
The fact that General von Bülow agreed to order his Second Army to draw back without making any attempt to inform himself of the actual conditions of the First Army, and without waiting for a clarification of the whole situation, constitutes, to my mind, his part of the guilt in the fateful retreat.
An extenuating circumstance, however, is the fact that General von Bülow did not know that it was the intention of General von Kluck to bring about a decision of the battle by an attack on his extreme right. In the stress of events, communications between the First and Second armies did not function properly. This was regrettable but understandable.
This same extenuating circumstance does not apply to Hentsch. Through messages from First Army headquarters received at Luxemburg before he left, Hentsch was well informed of General von Kluck's intentions. He did not disclose this information to General von Bülow. On the contrary, he painted the situation of the First Army in very drab colors.
On the morning of September 9, Hentsch left for the headquarters of General von Kluck's First Army. It was later the same day that General von Bülow, informed of enemy forces pressing forward north of the Marne, ordered his army to retreat.
The decision of General von Bülow in this crisis will always remain a point for keen argument among military critics. The official publications record General von Bülow's thought to have been somewhat as follows:
"It was obviously the intention of the enemy to encircle the German right wing by first separating General von Kluck's army from the mass and then annihilating it. This had to be prevented at any cost. The defeat or the retreat of the First Army seemed impossible to avoid. Either eventuality meant that the Second Army would be seriously endangered as its right flank would be left unprotected. The next few hours might bring this disaster. Something had to be done quickly.
"As the First Army must retreat, the Second Army, in agreement with the compromise of the previous day, must also retreat. The Second Army must support the First Army north of the Marne and offer it a chance to connect with the Second Army's own right wing. With the assistance of the Seventh Army now approaching from Belgium, it would thus be possible to establish a new front along the Aisne River."
General von Bülow is not to be blamed if he looked upon the operations of General von Kluck's First Army as dangerous foolhardiness, which could only be prevented from developing into a complete catastrophe by the First Army's immediate retreat. He had not the slightest inkling that the First Army was not preparing a retreat, but was tenaciously holding the advanced position in the firm hope of a decisive victory almost at the gates of Paris.
Only a real genius of the battle-field, one of those born leaders of remarkable gifts, would, in a case like this, have taken a very long chance and decided, come what may, simply to remain where he was. Perhaps General von Bülow, famous for his strong will, would have found strength for such a decision if he had not on the previous evening come under the influence of Hentsch's pessimism-his belief that Von Kluck must fail and retreat.
When Hentsch arrived at First Army headquarters, he found the situation far different from what he had pictured it in his conference with General von Bülow. But it was now too late to undo the damage he had wrought. The Second Army was already retreating. There was nothing for General von Kluck's First Army to do but retreat also. It was, however, impossible for the two armies to join at Fismes as intended in Hentsch's plan. The Aisne River would have to be the new point of consolidation.
The retreat of General von Bülow's Second Army also meant the compulsory retreat of General von Hausen's Third Army, which in turn compelled somewhat later the retreat of the Duke of Würtemberg's Fourth Army and my own Fifth Army.
It was on the morning of September 10 that Hentsch arrived at my headquarters and demanded that the Fifth Army withdraw to a line running approximately from Sainte Menehould to Clermont. I made short shrift of him. He embarked on his return trip to Luxemburg with the information that I would not recognize his demands without a written order from either the supreme war lord or the chief of the imperial general staff.
Hentsch, on arriving in Luxemburg, induced General von Moltke to undertake a trip to the headquarters of the Third, Fourth and Fifth armies. At the close of this trip of General von Moltke, his last journey as chief of the imperial general staff, he ordered a general retreat.
This was successfully executed, and on September 14 the German armies had consolidated their front from the Oise River to the Swiss frontier.
The German offensive on the west front had been wrecked. The success of the original plan for a war on two fronts, which depended upon a quick and thorough decision in the west, was no longer possible. The Miracle of the Marne had saved France, and with France, her Allies.
Marshal Foch's narrative