The First World War in 261 weeks

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011 Joseph Gallieni and the taxi’s that were quite something

Joseph Gallieni

Joseph Gallieni

Paris escapes the Germans

It is Sunday 6 September 1914. It is the eleventh week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Austrian troops cross the river Drina and penetrate Serbia again.

A German cruiser succeeds in cutting the Pacific Cable halfway down the Pacific Ocean.

The British are hunting down the German cruiser Emden in the Indian Ocean.

The Russians in East Prussia have to run from the Germans.

The same Russians bring the Austrian armies of archduke Joseph and  count Viktor Dankl von Krasnik down to their knees in Galicia.

For the first time a British submarine eliminates an enemy ship in the North Sea: the German cruiser Hela.

Australians capture the town of Herbertshohe, part of German New Guinea.

During the first ever air fight Russian pilot Pjotr Nesterov loses his life when crashing into an Austrian reconnaissance plane. 

The Battle of the Marne claims half a million dead and wounded on both sides in barely a week.

And Paris taxi drivers transport soldiers to the front, watched approvingly by general Joseph Gallieni.

When France calls upon him to defend the capital, his wife has just died. He is already 65 years old. Three years earlier he passed up a chance to occupy the highest post in the French army. He is ill. In the two years to come he will have to undergo operations on his prostate gland twice. This will be in vain as he dies halfway through the First World War.

His name is Joseph Gallieni, the man who snatched Paris away from the clutches of the Germans in September 1914. When hearing this story you immediately think of the Paris taxi drivers who were sent out by Gallieni to transport soldiers to the front. It is a story that has assumed mythical proportions. Gallieni is supposed to have stood by the side of the road, mumbling approvingly: ‘Eh bien, voilà au moins qui n’est pas banal!’ ‘Well, well, this is quite something.’

It is not that these taxis made a huge difference in the terrible Battle of the Marne, on which also the fate of Paris depended. The railway was the vital artery of the army. Military successes or defeats could frequently be traced back to the capacity of the railway network. The German Schlieffen Plan was also grafted on the railway timetable. But Gallieni’s taxis of course appealed enormously to the imagination. Obviously the idea must have come from Gallieni himself. When the overworking of the railways was discussed, he suggested: ‘Mmm, why not use taxis?’

One greedy taxi driver is reported to have asked: ‘How much do we charge?’ Lorries, limousines and even racing cars joined the convoy. Many taxi drivers turned back at their destination Nanteuil for a second ride. A taxi could take five soldiers. A total of around 4,000 men were taken to the front by taxi. ‘Eh bien, voilà au moins qui n’est pas banal!’ to quote Gallieni once again.

One of those taxis can still be seen in the army museum of the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. Hundreds of these droll little cars got together on 7 September to load soldiers for the French Sixth Army. It was formed in a hurry to take away the force of general Von Kluck’s sweep which was noticed late.

Gallieni watched the taxis  through his lorgnette hanging over his stately nose and grey drooping moustache. Joseph Simon Gallieni was tall and lean. French president Raymond Poincaré provided the following profile. ‘With his straight stature, his head held high and his penetrating look he came across to us as an impressive example of human strength.’ And his curriculum vitae showed this, too. When he was 21 Gallieni fought at Sedan as a second lieutenant. To France this was the fatal battle in the Franco-Prussian war. Gallieni was carried off to Germany as a prisoner of war. There he had also mastered the German language, in the same way as he would later concentrate on learning Russian. He kept a diary in German, English and Italian with the peculiar multilingual title ‘Erinnerungen of my life di ragazzo’.

All in all Gallieni, son of an Italian immigrant, was a man of the world. His career in the French army took place outside the old country. Gallieni was a colonial soldier. His career went from the island La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, via West Africa, Martinique, the Sudan and French Indo-China finally to Madagascar. There were those in the French army who characterized the colonial service as le tourisme, but Gallieni certainly did not restrict himself to sun-worship. He proved himself to be a master at oil-slick politics, spreading the colonial sphere of influence from the centre by entering into home alliances using common sense.

Gallieni was also ruthless, especially going on a rampage on Madagascar. He did not limit himself to banning British influences on the island, but also brutally suppressed a revolt of the natives. Many people apply the term genocide to this operation. His period on Madagascar gave Gallieni the local nickname jeneraly masiaka, ‘the cruel general’.

In 1911 his reputation as warhorse can bring him promotion to the highest military post of his home country. Commander-in-chief Victor-Constant Michel has been sidetracked. The man is aware of the German danger, reason for him to draw up a defensive plan. But defence is a forbidden word in post-Sedan France. Attaquer à l’outrance, attack to the extreme, is the motto. Michel the defender has to be replaced by an attacker that does not hesitate. Gallieni, however, declines the honour. He feels too old, but is also afraid that the national army will not swallow a colonial like him.

He knows somebody, one of his officers from his days in Madagascar. Yes, let Joseph Joffre do the job. Thus Joffre becomes the man who is entrusted in 1914 with his native country in distress. He will put all his cards on the attack via Alsace-Lorraine. For a long time Joffre is blind to the muscles the German army is flexing on his right in Belgium, and not much later in the north of France. But Gallieni is well aware of the danger.

Gallieni is a confidant of Adolphe Messimy, Minister of War. At the end of August they arrive at a double conclusion. Paris is about to fall and Joffre does not realize that. Messimy asks Gallieni to take the defence of Paris as governor upon himself. A remarkable detail is that this is still the task of Michel who was earlier on sent away as commander-in-chief. Roaring with anger he is sent away a second time, after which old Gallieni positions himself on the city walls of Paris. He demands more troops of his own, which will have to be withdrawn from Joffre’s armies. The latter, however, disregards this command. When Gallieni came to alert Joffre to the danger called Von Kluck some time earlier, Joffre had only allowed Galllieni a two minute appointment. The stubborn commander-in-chief obviously did not like a superior officer from the past breathing down his neck again.

Nevertheless Gallieni will resolutely take up the defence of Paris. The capital is in the right mood for it. During the first few days of September the people of Paris had looked up at the sky in amusement to see a Taube – a small yellow-white German plane – circling overhead. The ‘pigeon’ not only dropped small bombs, but also pieces of paper for the Paris population came fluttering down. The message was that the German army was at the gates of Paris. There was no other option than surrender. One old woman was killed by a bomb from a Taube. After that, however, the small aircraft that regularly came flying over was mainly light entertainment.

The American attaché Eric Fisher Wood described how ‘all Paris’ was waiting for ‘the six o’clock Taube’ on Friday 3 September. But ‘Von Heidssen’  – as Fisher Wood erroneously called him – did not show up. Up in the sky a bullet had gone straight through his heart. The following day it was announced that ‘Von Heidssen’ was found down on the ground, strapped in his undamaged crate. Perhaps this was propaganda, for from other sources it appears that Ferdinand von Hiddessen – which was his real name – is made a prisoner of war in 1915, after being shot down above Verdun. Years later the same name crops up again on an American list of nazi bigwigs.

In the beginning of September the situation in Paris really turns awkward. A true exodus starts. The need to run from the Hun is urgent. Spurred on by Gallieni the government also takes refuge. But on the same day two staff officers in Gallieni’s headquarters are jubilant. Apparently Von Kluck had his army bear off to the east, away from Paris, towards the river Marne. Then Gallieni sees his opportunity. Joffre entrusts him with the command of the Sixth Army. At the river Ourcq Gallieni attacks Von Kluck’s unguarded right flank. It is the opening phase of the unprecedently gruesome Battle of the Marne, when the German advance is halted.

Unlike in 1871 and 1940 Paris does not fall in 1914. Gallieni gets the credit. Historian Basil Liddell Hart even attributes a ‘Napoleonic coup d’oeuil’ to him, but it is commander-in-chief Joffre who can write ‘Miracle of the Marne’ after his name. For the time being the French people believe Papa Joffre can do nothing wrong any more. Gallieni, who does not even get a Croix de Guerre for his share, certainly does not agree with this.

As governor of Paris Gallieni no longer plays a prominent role. After the return of the government he is the odd one out. On the sideline of the western front he recognizes the deadlock. Together with politician Aristide Briand and fellow-general Louis Franchet d’Espèrey he thinks that opening a second front on the Balkan Peninsula is necessary.

In October 1915 a new French government with Aristide Briand as Prime Minister appoints him Minister of War. Energetic as always he starts his work. He sees it especially as his task to raise the matter of the mistakes made by the general staff under the command of Joffre. The neglect of Verdun’s defence becomes a divisive issue. In March 1916, however, it becomes painfully clear to Gallieni that he is going to lose this battle. The government retains the far too popular Joffre.

In the month of his death he presented a memorandum to the French cabinet about the change of high command. Gallieni does not beat about the bush. The military should deal with military matters.The Minister of War has governmental responsibility. Commanding officers who support ‘anachronistic ideas and outdated procedures’ should be sidetracked, according to Gallieni.

But then Gallieni resigns and not much later he is hospitalized. He dies on 27 May 1916. No one of military command is present at the funeral. Five years later, however, Joseph Gallieni is posthumously promoted to field marshal.


Gallieni has not sunk into oblivion. In Paris there is the Gallieni Metro station, an important junction which is connected directly with Gallieni bus station. The small town of Fréjus in the Provence not only has a grammar school and tennis club named after Gallieni. There is also a museum of the maritime troops. Its showpiece is the little 19th century car Gallieni used to drive around Madagascar.

He who saves Paris, will not be labelled ‘Butcher of Madagascar’.

Next week: Helmuth von Moltke

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

















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