Primary Documents - The Fall of Liege - Alexander von Kluck on the First Battle of the Marne, September 1914
Reproduced below is a portion of German General Alexander von Kluck's memoirs (published as The March on Paris and the Battle of the Marne in 1920) pertaining to the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914. As commander of the German First Army at the Marne, von Kluck was widely held as a scapegoat for his decision to order a retreat of First Army, an action which signalled the end of German hopes to capture Paris in short order.
In his account von Kluck argues forcefully that the decision to retreat was not his, but instead mandated by the Army's central command (i.e. Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke); indeed, von Kluck suggests that rather than retreat First Army should have pressed on with the attack with the possibility of winning a great victory over combined French and British forces.
General von Kluck's Account of the First Battle of the Marne, September 1914
A chance of dealing a decisive blow against the British Army was now no longer to he hoped for, and it was therefore decided to move the two corps on the left wing, the III., and IX., in the general direction of Chateau Thierry against the flank of the French retreating from Braisne-Fismes on Chateau Thierry-Dormans in front of the Second Army.
In cooperation with the Second Army it might be possible to damage the French western flank very considerably. The First Army by its deep formation was in a position both to cover the flank and rear of such an attack and also to hold in check the garrison of Paris and the British.
During the night of the 2nd/3rd September a wireless message arrived from the Supreme Command: "The intention is to drive the French in a south-easterly direction from Paris. The First Army will follow in echelon behind the Second Army and will be responsible for the flank protection of the Armies."
The general directions of August 28th, which had ordered the First Army to move west of the Oise towards the lower Seine, had therefore been abandoned, and the wheel inwards of the First Army towards the Oise and its passage of the river about Compiegne and Noyon on the 31st August in order to exploit the success of the Second Army had evidently been approved by the Supreme Command.
On the evening of the 2nd September, when that day's movements had been completed, the four corps of the First Army and the Cavalry Corps were still in the region of Creil-La Ferte Milon, north-east of Paris, ready for any operation west of the capital, against it, or east of it, whilst the IX. Corps, like an arm of the Army reaching out to the left, was making the most creditable efforts to fulfil its mission and hold up the western flank of the retreating French Army by Chateau Thierry.
The First Army Commander considered that to force the enemy away from Paris in a south-easterly direction (which would involve the passage of the Marne and the Seine) would be a difficult and risky undertaking. There would probably be initial successes, but it would be scarcely possible in the circumstances to continue the offensive until the enemy was decisively defeated or partially annihilated. Another group of four or five divisions was needed by the Armies on the German right wing, in order effectively to guard the right flank against Paris and protect the long communications of the First and Second Armies, if the advance was to be continued into the centre of France.
The Supreme Command, however, seemed to be firmly convinced that the garrison of Paris need not be taken into account for any operations outside the line of forts of the capital. It is true that all the reports up to date seemed to confirm this point of view, but the situation of the flank armies might and would be most dangerous as soon as the French Higher Command was in a position to move a mass of troops from a part of the front where they could be spared through Paris, and thence begin a big offensive, making use of the great facilities for deployment from behind its extensive line of forts.
The Supreme Command, however, had no anxieties with regard to the risks here suggested, and evidently placed complete confidence in the accuracy of its intelligence service on that point. At First Army Headquarters this view of the general situation also found many adherents. All the more urgently, therefore, did the First Army Commander renew his request for the long-delayed transfer to the front of the Brigade of the IV Reserve Corp retained by the Governor-General of Brussels, and for the relief by Landsturm and Landwehr troops of all the active units on the line of communications, so that they also night be brought up to the front.
A further appreciation of the tasks of the First Army in these critical days was finally concentrated into a memorandum sent by the First Army Commander to the Supreme Command.
The First Army Commander had up till then - at La Ferte Milon - imagined that the German plan of campaign had so far been carried out as arranged, that all the armies were advancing from victory to victory, and that the enemy was being decisively beaten along the whole front. That such was not the case - particularly that the German left wing to the south-west had withdrawn from the front of the French line of fortresses - was not realized at First Army Headquarters, owing to the scanty information which was given to it on the general situation of all the armies.
The rapidity of the advance frequently made it difficult to maintain the telephonic cables leading to the rear, which were often destroyed by the inhabitants or by fire, sometimes accidentally by our own troops, and in other ways. Communication with the Supreme Command had therefore to be carried on mainly by wireless stations, which again were overworked in keeping touch with the Cavalry Corps and the neighbouring armies, a fact which the Army Commander was frequently made aware of by personal experience.
There was consequently no means for the personal exchange of views so urgently needed between Army Headquarters and the General Staff of the Supreme Command. Nevertheless, no doubt existed at First Army Headquarters that the protection of the flank of the armies was increasing in importance as they advanced, and that the troops at the disposal of the First Army, which, under force of circumstances, had to be used for purposes of attack and flank protection simultaneously, would not suffice in the end for this.
The reinforcement of the right wing by a group of about two corps appeared, therefore, to be absolutely indispensable.
These reflections found expression in a wireless message sent to the Supreme Command on the morning of the 4th September, which ran as follows:
The First Army requests to be informed of the situation of the other Armies, whose reports of decisive victories have so far been frequently followed by appeals for support. The First Army, which has been fighting and marching incessantly, has reached the limits of its endurance.
It is through its efforts alone that the crossings of the Marne have been opened for the other Armies, and that the enemy has been compelled to continue his retreat. The IX Corps has won the greatest merit by its bold action in this respect. It is now hoped that every advantage will be taken of this success.
The message of the Supreme Command No. 2220, in accordance with which the First Army was to follow in echelon behind the Second, could not be carried out under the circumstances. The intention to force the enemy away from Paris in a south-easterly direction was only practicable by advancing the First Army. The necessary flank protection weakens the offensive strength of the Army, and immediate reinforcements are therefore urgently needed.
Owing to the ever-changing situation, it will not be possible for the commander of the First Army to make any further important decisions unless he is kept continuously informed of the situation of the other armies who are apparently not so far advanced. Communication with the Second Army is constantly maintained.
On the evening of the 5th September detailed instructions arrived from the Supreme Command, and from them it appeared that the enemy was transporting troops from the front Belfort-Toul westwards, and was also withdrawing troops from the front of our Third, Fourth, and Fifth Armies.
The Supreme Command, therefore, calculated that very strong enemy forces were being concentrated near Paris to protect the capital and threaten the German right flank. The bearer of these instructions from the Supreme Command, Lieut.-Colonel Hentsch, gave a verbal account of the general situation, and, to the amazement of First Army Headquarters, who believed all the Armies to be advancing victoriously, it appeared that the left wing of the German Armies - namely, the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Armies - was held up in front of the French eastern fortresses, so much so that it could scarcely pin the enemy in front of it to his ground. There was consequently a possibility that the enemy would move troops by rail from his eastern wing towards Paris.
A very different aspect was thus given to the situation confronting the First Army. It was intensified by a report which arrived late in the evening of the presence of strong enemy forces about Dammartin, to the north-east of Paris.
During the night of the 5th September it became obvious that further and more drastic changes in the movements of the First Army were essential, if the danger of an envelopment was to be effectively countered in time. Owing to the reports of the IV Reserve Corps in its fighting during the 5th, a special order was sent to the II Corps to begin its march in the early hours of the 6th, so as to be ready to support the IV Reserve Corps on the 6th if needed.
Its commander, General von Linsingen, moved the 4th Infantry Division by Lizy towards Trocy and the 3rd by Vareddes, to the relief of the IV Reserve Corps, which in the meantime had been attacked by about a corps of the enemy on the front Bregy-St. Soupplets-Penchard.
The 3rd Infantry Division came up against strong British forces west and north of Vareddes. The first strong reinforcement to deal with the new opponent had thus arrived on the scenes.
By an Order issued at 5.30 p.m. the IV Corps was withdrawn across the Marne to the district north of La Ferte-sous-Jouarre, so that in case of necessity it could be put into the fight, the enemy having now brought superior forces into action. At 10.30 p.m. the IV Corps was ordered to move again that same night, so that at dawn it would be in a position to attack across a line Rozoy-en-Multien-Trocy.
Thus, on the morning of the 7th September, the II Corps, the IV Reserve Corps (still without its Brussels Brigade), and the IV Corps stood between the Therouane and the Gergogne (a tributary of the Ourcq), with their units rather intermingled, with the 4th Cavalry Division immediately to the north of them: they were to hold up the Army of Maunoury, of the strength and composition of which nothing was known at First Army Headquarters. The pressure of superior forces was perceptible from the very first.
The Second Army, wheeling round, pivoted on its right flank at Montmirail, intended to continue the pursuit up to the Seine with its centre and left wing, the latter moving on Marigny-le-Grand. The III and IX Corps thus came in front of the right wing of the Second Army. By an Army Order issued at 10 p.m. that evening both these corps were therefore withdrawn to the line Sablonnieres-Montmirail on the northern bank of the Petit Morin.
They gained touch again with the right flank of the Second Army at Montmirail, and, to ensure united action, were to conform to its instructions. Marwitz's Cavalry, which had advanced to Lumigny and Rozoy, covered the right flank of the III Corps against the enemy forces.
During the morning of the 8th September it became evident that the British were advancing towards the Marne, while strong forces. An order was therefore sent to the IX Corps at 11.20 a.m. to occupy the line of the Marne from La Ferte-sous-Jouarre to Nogent-l'Artaud, so as to guard it against this flanking movement of the British, but in the end only an infantry brigade and two field artillery regiments were sent, and the General Reserve at Montreuilaux-Lions was handed over to the Corps Commander.
The Marne bridges were to be prepared for destruction, and, if necessary, to be demolished; in the latter case, the fact was to be notified to headquarters.
Meanwhile, the French attempt to break through our front at Trocy on the morning of the 8th had been frustrated without the assistance of the 5th Infantry Division, which was ready at hand in support. Late in the evening, Army Headquarters went to La Ferte Milon in order to be close to the critical part of the battle.
At dusk an audacious detachment of French cavalry had attacked an aeroplane station south of La Ferte Milon, just as the line of cars of Army Headquarters was approaching the scene of action. All the members of the Staff seized rifles, carbines, and revolvers, so as to ward off a possible advance of the French cavalrymen, and extended out and lay down, forming a long firing-line.
The dusky red and clouded evening sky shed a weird light on this quaint little fighting force. The thunder of the artillery of the IX and IV Corps boomed and roared defiantly, and the gigantic flashes of the heavy guns lit up the deep shadows of the approaching night. In the meantime, the French squadrons had been apparently shot down, dispersed, or captured by troops of the IX or another Corps. These bold horsemen had missed a goodly prize!
The Army Operation Order for the 9th September issued from La Ferte Milon late in the evening of the 8th, stated that the First Army had maintained its position on the whole front from Cuvergnon, north of Betz-Antilly, to the Marne salient at Congis; also that enemy reserves were reported south and west of Crepy-en-Valois. A decision would be arrived at on the morrow by the enveloping attack of General von Quast with the IX Corps and the 6th Infantry and 4th Cavalry Divisions from the wooded country north of Cuvergnon.
Shortly after 1 p.m. the following wireless message arrived from the Second Army: "Airmen report the advance of four long enemy columns towards the Marne; at 9 a.m. their advanced troops were on the line Nanteuil-Citry-Pavant-Nogent-l'Artaud. The Second Army is beginning to retreat; its right flank on Damery."
This retreat widened the gap between the two Armies, which up till now had been screened, into a serious breach in the western wing of the German Armies, extending - with every possibility of a further increase - from Chateau Thierry to about Epernay - that is to say, on the breadth of front of an Army. Not till twenty hours later did the Second Army Headquarters correct their message by another to say their right flank was retiring not on Damery, but on Dormans.
The attack of General von der Marwitz against the British ended successfully, and part of the enemy who had crossed the Marne was thrown back into the vicinity of Montbertoin by evening.
Towards midday the situation of the First Army was thoroughly favourable, even taking into consideration the withdrawal of the Second Army north-eastwards. For victory seemed assured on the decisive wing of attack, the left wing was standing firm, and the flank appeared to be sufficiently guarded by General von der Marwitz with two cavalry divisions, the 5th Infantry Division, and Kraewel's Brigade.
At about this period Lieut.-Colonel Hentsch, on the Staff of the Supreme Command, arrived at Mareuil from Second Army Headquarters. His arrival was only made known to the Army Commander after he had already hastily departed - a regrettable circumstance, which would have been avoided had the Colonel personally reported himself to the Army Commander; the latter at the moment was close to the scene of the meeting.
Colonel Hentsch made the following communication, which was taken down in the form of a minute in the still existing records of First Army Headquarters:
The situation is not favourable. The Fifth Army is held up in front of Verdun and the Sixth and Seventh in front of Nancy-Epinal. The retreat of the Second Army behind the Marne is unalterable: its right wing, the VII Corps, is being forced back and not voluntarily retiring.
In consequence of these facts, all the Armies are to be moved back: the Third Army to north-east of Chalons, and the Fourth and Fifth Army, in conjunction, through the neighbourhood of Clermont-en-Argonne towards Verdun.
The First Army must therefore also retire in the direction Soissons-Fere-en-Tardenois, and in extreme circumstances perhaps farther, even to Laon-La Fere. (Lieut.-Colonel Hentsch drew the approximate line to be reached by the First Army with a bit of charcoal on the map of Generalmajor von Kuhl, Chief of the Staff.)
A new Army was being assembled near St. Quentin, so that a fresh operation might be begun. General von Kuhl remarked that the attack of the First Army was in full swing and that a retreat would be a very delicate operation, especially as the Army was in an extremely exhausted condition and its units intermingled. To this Lieut.-Colonel Hentsch replied that there was nothing else to be done; he admitted that, as the fighting stood at the moment, it would not he convenient to retire in the direction ordered and better to go straight back to behind the Aisne with the left flank at least on Soissons. He emphasized the fact that these directions were to remain valid regardless of any other communications that might arrive and that he had full powers.
It must be repeated that information of such a kind, throwing an entirely different light on the whole situation, should have been given by Lieut.-Colonel Hentsch direct to the Commander of the First Army.
From French sources now available, it is clear that General Maunoury had so early as the evening of the 8th considered the advisability of a retreat to a position of defence on the line Monthyon-St. Soupplets-Le Plessis Belleville.
A tactical victory of the First Army over the Army of Maunoury on the extreme left wing of the French forces seemed indeed certain, and it was possible that by the continuation of the offensive on the 9th a far-reaching success might have been obtained. It is probable also that the British could not have come forward very rapidly at first after the fight at Montbertoin.
Nevertheless, after the instructions from the Supreme Command, there could be no longer any doubt as to the necessity for the retreat ordered.
The full advantages of the success begun against Maunoury could be reaped with certainty within the next few days; but the breaking away from the enemy and the reorganization of units which would then be necessary, as well as the bringing up of fresh supplies of ammunition and food, moving forward the trains and making the communications secure - all being measures requiring time to carry out - would enable the British force only temporarily held up at Montbertoin and other British columns immediately east of it, as well as the left wing of the more mobile Army of General d'Esperey, to come up on the flank and in rear of the First Army, which had already reached the limits of its powers of endurance.
Unless it is assumed that the enemy would make extraordinary mistakes, the First Army would then have to isolate itself from the other Armies by a withdrawal in a north-westerly direction towards Dieppe, or in more favourable circumstances towards Amiens - in any case, a long march, with a corresponding wastage of man-power.
In view of the completely altered situation, the Army Commander, fully conscious of the tremendous consequences of his decision, decided to begin the withdrawal immediately in a northerly direction towards the lower Aisne, between Soissons and Compiegne.
Once the decision was made, the situation called for its execution without delay. Not a single hour was to be lost. Army Operation Orders were issued from Headquarters at Mareuil at 2 p.m. and at 8.15 p.m., as follows:
The situation of the Second Army has necessitated its withdrawal behind the Marne on both sides of Epernay.
By order of the Supreme Command, the First Army is to be withdrawn in the general direction of Soissons, to cover the flank of the Armies.
A new German Army is being assembled at St. Quentin. The movement of the First Army will begin today. The left wing of the Army, under General von Linsingen, including the group under General von Lochow, will therefore be first withdrawn behind the line Montigny-Brumetz.
The group under General Sixt von Armin will conform to this movement so far as the tactical situation will allow, and take up a new line from Antilly to Mareuil.
The offensive of the group under General von Quast will not be proceeded with any further than is required for the purpose of breaking away from the enemy, so that it will be possible to conform to the movement of the other Armies.
(Signed) VON KLUCK
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. II, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
The Russian war ace Alexander Kozakov claimed 20 victories during the war; his nearest compatriot, Vasili Yanchenko, claimed 16.
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