The war gets bogged down on the river Marne
It is Sunday 30 August 1914. It is the tenth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.
Outrage about the cultural barbarism of the Germans in the Flemish town of Louvain is snowballing worldwide.
The Germans move their headquarters from Koblenz to Luxembourg.
A small German Taube aircraft drops bombs on Paris and the French government leaves the capital.
The Germans in Cameroon chase a British column into the bush.
The Austrians in Galicia suffer heavy losses.
The British government decides to send Lord Kitchener to the continent.
As it sounded too German the Russians rename Saint Petersburg Petrograd.
Japanese troops land on the Shantung peninsula.
The French general Charles Lanrezac is blamed for all adversity and has to step aside for Louis Franchet d’Espérey.
Crown prince Rupprecht of Bavaria goes onto the attack of Nancy.
The Germans in East Prussia advance towards the Masurian lakes.
The French, the British and the Russians promise each other not individually to strive for peace.
And Paris sees the First Army of the Germans approach under the command of Alexander von Kluck.
‘Macht mir nur den Rechten stark.’ This must have been the final plea of count Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of the German plan of attack, who died a year before the war. In August 1914 the man on the right wing of the German army, the strong side, was called Alexander von Kluck. He was a general, born in Münster, who had sufficient Sturm und Drang to please Von Schlieffen posthumously. He had experienced the baptism of fire some 48 years earlier in the war that brought Prussia victory over Austria, gaining German dominance as a trophy. This Von Kluck fellow was rather a field soldier than a member of the staff.
Von Kluck’s First Army, the biggest of the seven German armies on the western front, had to make a big sweep through Belgium, ‘scouring the sleeves along The Channel’. After that he should go below Paris and then get the French army by the short hairs, together with the German troops that had first been waiting in the east to see which way the wind would blow. Von Kluck was the German hammer.
From the moment he was appointed chief of staff in 1891 Von Schlieffen had been polishing his plan, often until midnight. To relax he would like to read stories from military history to his daughters. Initially he had put his cards on the destruction of the French fortifications along the border. However, he changed his tack, when he feared that the German artillery was going to waste his energy on this. In order to gain a quick victory it was necessary to move across Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. Soldier Von Schlieffen did not ponder too long on the political consequences of all this. He had a greater fear of a concentrated attack on the Central Powers by France, Russia, Great Britain and perhaps even Italy. When Russia was involved in a war with Japan in 1905, Von Schlieffen insisted in vain on attacking France as a precaution.
The war should be quick as lightning, Von Schlieffen determined. He was referring to economic interests. ‘The war with its thousands of wheels, providing a living for thousands of people, cannot stand still for a long time. It is impossible to move from one position to the other for one or two years in twelve-day battles until the warring parties are both completely exhausted, beg for peace and are willing to accept the status quo.’
The Schlieffen plan, included in his famous Grosse Denkschrift, was worked out in great detail. It was rocket science, especially when troop movements following the railway timetable were concerned. On the eve of the war The Military Itinerary made it possible to transport 2 million men and 600,000 horses by train in 312 hours’ time.
In case they had to continue on foot the infantry marched twenty kilometers a day according to Von Schlieffen’s calculations. This average would be just about right in Auguts 1914. Von Kluck would even manage 22 kilometers a day. It would take six weeks, again according to Von Schlieffen, to complete the Vernichtung of the French army on the western front. After that the German army could focus on the Russians, assuming that the latter had not succeeded in getting ready for battle on the eastern front within six weeks.
Von Schlieffen was anything but free from doubt. He expected to need an additional 200,000 men for the decisive battle in the heart of France. Two hundred thousand men for whom there was simply not enough room on the roads of Belgium and France. In any case, the expansion of the German armed forces in peacetime was lagging behind the ambitions of the Schlieffen plan. That was the fault of the conservative element within German militarism. In order to maintain the aristocratic proportion of the land army on as high as possible a level, successive war ministers had accepted that the budgets were spent on admiral Von Tirpitz’s navy.
Military historians have extensively discussed the question whether a precise carrying out of the Schlieffen plan would have led to a German victory. That was at least the general drift in German military circles immediately after the war, but later an increasing number of historians started to see the Schlieffen plan as a big gamble. Von Schlieffen had drawn up a great plan to start the war with. He had, however, neglected to provide a happy ending.
Opinions on Alexander von Kluck are equally divided. One considers Von Kluck the most devoted pupil of Von Schlieffen. Another blames the German foundering on von Kluck’s personal blunder. The English language is left with a fine insult, dumb Kluck, as a result of the failed campaign. It more or less means something like ‘silly goose’. Old Von Kluck was also called Old one o’clock by the Tommies.
It was especially chief of staff Helmut von Moltke who had been fiddling considerably at the plan of his predecessor Von Schlieffen. Already before the war Von Moltke had decided to ignore the Netherlands. Trade motives were at the bottom of this, but also the fear of an English attack in the back. Also in the beginning of the war Von Moltke quickly had to adjust his plan in East Prussia. In order to stop the Russians there many tens of thousands of soldiers were taken away from ‘Von Schlieffen’ in the west. The generals in Lorraine and the Ardennes put pressure on Von Moltke to start the attack quickly there, which Von Schlieffen had strongly advised against. Then there was the fierce resistance of the Belgians and of the small British Expeditionary Force at Mons and Le Cateau that threw a spanner in the works. The result was that Von Kluck’s right arm did not sweep through France as powerfully as Von Schlieffen had thought necessary on his deathbed.
Yet an imperturbable Von Kluck, seconded by his competent chief of staff Hermann von Kuhl, managed to approach Paris by a couple of dozens of kilometers. On his Great Trek he had succeeded in seizing the capital of Belgium, Brussels. After three days Von Kluck approached Compiègne in the north of France. Here German high command was to be presented with an armistice four long war years later. Would the Germans have been spared this humiliating experience, if Von Kluck had pushed on west of Paris in accordance with Von Schlieffen? Instead he sought to join Karl von Bülow’s Second Army in the east, who had met with more French and British opposition.
The reversal takes place in Louis XV’s castle at Compiègne, where Von Kluck has put up his headquarters on 3 September. By radio Von Moltke orders him to bear southeast. Aggressive and arrogant by nature, Von Kluck takes the liberty of going after the French general Charles Lanrezac. The renowned Great War military historian John Keegan thinks that French chief of staff Joseph Joffre has pulled Von Kluck’s leg.
Von Kluck leaves a gap, which is spotted by a French aviator. The French cleverly fill the gap. Joffre moves up men from Lorraine to assault Von Kluck’s rear guard. Provisioning his troops is already quite a problem to the German general. Things are so bad that Von Kluck has all the German dead and wounded searched for cartridges.
The troops are tired, dead tired. Listen to what happened to the 4th Reserve Corps on 5 September. ‘In big clouds of dust, raised by men and horses, now and then limping soldiers stand still and collapse in the trenches, at the end of their tether. Fuseliers, grenadiers, riflemen and artillerymen, they have all been marching from sunrise. Worse still, they have been marching for almost three weeks without a day’s rest. They have covered the whole distance from the Rhine valley to the Île de France, from Düsseldorf to Nanteuil-le-Haudoin via the Campine, Brussels, Hainaut, Artois and Picardy.’
The Battle of Ourcq River, a small stream that flows into the Marne, introduces the big clash. That First Battle of the Marne –the second was in 1918 equally important – lasts until 12 September. The mission on which Von Moltke has sent a certain lieutenant colonel Richard Hentsch from his headquarters in Luxembourg is crucial for the course of the battle. On the site Hentsch recognizes the danger of the gap between the First and Second Army. With Von Bülow he agrees upon a tactical retreat, which as subordinate officer he can also proclaim for Von Kluck’s First Army by the mandate of Von Moltke. The resentment about this and the bickering between Von Kluck and Von Bülow, who is held in higher regard by the Oberste Heeresleitung, can be read again in ‘The March on Paris and the Battle of the Marne’, which Von Kluck published in 1920.
On the day Hentsch drove to First Army Headquarters, Von Kluck already expressed his growing pessimism in a letter to his wife: ‘It goes badly. The battles east of Paris will not end in our favour. And we certainly will be made to pay for all thas has been destroyed.’
The Germans have lost the initiative at the end of the First Battle of the Marne. And since the French and the British are not in a position to take over, the First World War changes from a Blitzkrieg into a Grabenkrieg, a trench war without end. Halfway through the First Battle of the Marne a young officer named Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox of the Second World War, writes in his diary: ‘Our recent experiences make clear that the deep trench is the only way to limit the number of losses.’
For Alexander von Kluck the war has lasted too long. When in March 1915 he is inspecting advanced posts, Old one o’clock is hit by shrapnel near Vailly-sur-Aisne. The injuries on his leg are so serious that the general, who is then already 68 years old, will not appear on the front any more. In October 1916 he is given a send–off with the Pour le Mérite medal pinned on him. He dies at the age of 88 in Hitler’s Germany. The year is 1934.
His granddaughter Mulino von Kluck adds an insignificant footnote to Von Kluck’s story. At the end of the twenties she appears to become a filmstar. It does not really turn out that way, although TIME Magazine writes the following about her in April 1929: ‘Mulino von Kluck, 17, tall, blue eyes, blonde – has entered the world of the movies. Her first role is in ‘1813’, a film about the liberation of Germany from the hands of Napoleon. She says she will never visit Paris’. In the article TIME Magazine omits to say why. Maybe she did not get grandfather Von Kluck’s permission. Granddaughter to Paris, but no Paris for von Kluck. Now that would be quite something.
Next week: Joseph Gallieni
Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)