Primary Documents - Sir John French on the First Battle of the Marne, September 1914
Although French's report - addressed to War Minister Lord Kitchener - necessarily concentrated upon the actions of British forces, he came under criticism at the time for arguably overstating the role of the British at the expense of the French Army.
Account of the Battle of
by British Expeditionary Force Commander-in-Chief Sir John French
Gen. Joffre on September 5th announced to me his intention of wheeling up the left flank of the Sixth Army, pivoting on the Marne and directing it to move on the Ourcq; cross and attack the flank of the First German Army, which was then moving in a southeasterly direction east of that river.
He requested me to effect a change of front to my right - my left resting on the Marne and my right on the Fifth Army - to fill the gap between that army and the Sixth. I was then to advance against the enemy in my front and join in the general offensive movement.
These combined movements practically commenced on Sunday, September 6th, at sunrise; and on that day it may be said that a great battle opened on a front extending from Ermenonville, which was just in front of the left flank of the Sixth French Army, through Lizy on the Marne, to Esternay and Charleville, the left of the Ninth Army under Gen. Foch, and so along the front of the Ninth, Fourth and Third French Armies to a point north of the fortress of Verdun.
This battle, in so far as the Sixth French Army, the British Army, the Fifth French Army, and the Ninth French Army were concerned, may be said to have concluded on the evening of September 10th, by which time the Germans had been driven back to the line Soissons-Rheims, with a loss of thousands of prisoners, many guns, and enormous masses of transport.
About September 3rd the enemy appears to have changed his plans and to have determined to stop his advance south direct upon Paris, for on September 4th air reconnaissance showed that his main columns were moving in a southeasterly direction generally east of a line drawn through Nanteuil and Lizy on the Ourcq.
On September 5th several of these columns were observed to have crossed the Marne, while German troops, which were observed moving southeast up the left flank of the Ourcq on the 4th, were now reported to be halted and facing that river. Heads of the enemy's columns were seen crossing at Changis, La Ferte, Nogent, Chateau Thierry, and Mezy.
Considerable German columns of all arms were seen to be converging on Montmirail, while before sunset large bivouacs of the enemy were located in the neighbourhood of Coulommiers, south of Rebais, La Ferte-Gaucher, and Dagny.
I should conceive it to have been about noon on September 6th, after the British forces had changed their front to the right and occupied the line Jouy-Le Chatel-Faremoutiers-Villeneuve Le Comte, and the advance of the Sixth French Army north of the Marne toward the Ourcq became apparent, that the enemy realized the powerful threat that was being made against the flank of his columns moving southeast, and began the great retreat which opened the battle above referred to.
On September 7th both the Fifth and Sixth French Armies were heavily engaged on our flank. The Second and Fourth Reserve German Corps on the Ourcq vigorously opposed the advance of the French toward that river, but did not prevent the Sixth Army from gaining some headway, the Germans themselves suffering serious losses. The French Fifth Army threw the enemy back to the line of the Petit Morin River after inflicting severe losses upon them, especially about Montceaux, which was carried at the point of the bayonet.
The enemy retreated before our advance, covered by his Second and Ninth and Guard Cavalry Divisions, which suffered severely.
Our cavalry acted with great vigour, especially Gen. De Lisle's brigade, with the Ninth Lancers and Eighteenth Hussars.
On September 8th the enemy continued his retreat northward, and our army was successfully engaged during the day with strong rearguards of all arms on the Petit Morin River, thereby materially assisting the progress of the French armies on our right and left, against whom the enemy was making his greatest efforts.
On both sides the enemy was thrown back with very heavy loss. The First Army Corps encountered stubborn resistance at La Tretoire (north of Rabais). The enemy occupied a strong position with infantry and guns on the northern bank, of the Petit Morin River; they were dislodged with considerable loss. Several machine guns and many prisoners were captured, and upward of 200 German dead were left on the ground.
The forcing of the Petit Morin at this point was much assisted by the cavalry and the First Division, which crossed higher up the stream.
Later in the day a counter-attack by the enemy was well repulsed by the First Army Corps, a great many prisoners and some guns again falling into our hands.
On this day (September 8th) the Second Army Corps encountered considerable opposition, but drove back the enemy at all points with great loss, making considerable captures.
The Third Army Corps also drove back considerable bodies of the enemy's infantry and made some captures.
On September 9th the First and Second Army Corps forced the passage of the Marne and advanced some miles to the north of it. The Third Corps encountered considerable opposition, as the bridge at La Ferte was destroyed and the enemy held the town on the opposite bank in some strength, and thence persistently obstructed the construction of a bridge; so the passage was not effected until after nightfall.
During the day's pursuit the enemy suffered heavy loss in killed and wounded, some hundreds of prisoners fell into our hands and a battery of eight machine guns was captured by the Second Division.
The advance was resumed at daybreak on the 10th up to the line of the Ourcq, opposed by strong rearguards of all arms. The First and Second Corps, assisted by the cavalry divisions on the right, the Third and Fifth Cavalry Brigades on the left, drove the enemy northward. Thirteen guns, seven machine guns, about 2,000 prisoners, and quantities of transport fell into our hands. The enemy left many dead on the field. On this day the French Fifth and Sixth Armies had little opposition.
As the First and Second German Armies were now in full retreat, this evening marks the end of the battle which practically commenced on the morning of the 6th inst.
Although I deeply regret to have had to report heavy losses in killed and wounded throughout these operations, I do not think they have been excessive in view of the magnitude of the great fight, the outlines of which I have only been able very briefly to describe, and the demoralization and loss in killed and wounded which are known to have been caused to the enemy by the vigour and severity of the pursuit.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. II, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
A cartwheel was a particular type of aerial manoeuvre.
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