The feeling of a battle is often lost in dry historical accounts of strategy and tactics. Into the morass of maps, troop movements, divisions, organizations, commanders, the reality of soldiers and their experiences vanishes like snow under the brilliant sun of paper and ink. This makes a book such as The Marne The Story of a Battle that Saved Paris and Marked a Turning Point of WW1by Georges Blonde and translated by Macdonald and Company is a welcome and refreshing work, comparable in its elegance, verve, and humanity to Alistair Horne’s various workers on the French army. It gives both a good grasp of the battle from above, as well on the ground.
This makes for some memorable moments, such as the death of Lieutenant Charles Péguy, the meeting between Joffre and General French, the swarms of drunk German troops in the recaptured cities and cellars of Champagne, with carpets of broken glass from the shattered bottles that could reach nearly a foot in depth, and which made the passage of troops and horses impossible. Or, most importantly for te men of both sides, the exhaustion, hunger, and miserable heat of the summer days which made the battle into such a nightmare for the soldiers involved. Marching forwards for the Germans over hundreds of kilometers, in the great looping path through Belgium, without rest and their supply lines failing to keep up, nourished only on the hopes of victory as they approached Paris - and then the shattering of these dreams as the withdrawal came. Or the French, dogged with defeat during the long retreat, supply lines in chaos, ragged soldiers retreating hungry, sore, defeated - only to rally so magnificently on the Marne, to pick up their rifles, turn, and attack! The battle of emotions and the fierceness and fatigue: these do not show up on a map but are the backbone of the book and of the battles of 1914.
Such a personal note carries over to the high command. It has some excellent portraits of the actors in the drama: Joffre, Moltke the younger, Joffre’s even more portly deputy chief of staff Berthelot, Foch, and their interpersonal discussions, thoughts, personalities. One of the most incredible elements of the book is its massive usage of quotations, recording an incredible number of conversations throughout. They make it almost novel-esque, with the discussions between commanders, the Franco-British meetings, as the French tried to drive the slow British into action, the visit of Joffre to the subordinate general Lanrezac to dismiss him - to limoger, send off to the quiet rear area military sector of Limoges in Southwest France - ostensibly on grounds of poor relations with the British. Little touches to these superb dialogues give a human feeling to the book, already bursting at the seams with these details and touches. Little things: the desks and structures of the staff headquarters, the British-French meetings and the cream cakes which the French provided in lieu of sufficient biscuits - and how the cakes vanished with such stunning speed!
A fight over hundreds of kilometers on a front stretching from Switzerland to Paris, already in the first months of the war. Even the name of the Marne was a clear neologism, selected after the fact from a wide range of possibilities. Even with maps, understanding the vast expanse of the battle is nigh impossible. But the focus on the most threatened zone, Foch’s 9th army, brings to light the bitter struggle, where the French fought in the swamps of Saint-Gond and struggled to contain and push back the German offensives. German bayonet night attacks, shelling, fighting in chateaux and the dreadful massacres of machine guns that made attacks so bloody and futile. The desperate effort to hold, and the morale factors along the great line, the confused and chaotic fighting, the heroic movements of the Taxis of the Marne, perhaps exaggerated in impact in the book, but certainly deeply symbolic and highly emotionally charged, morale-raising part of the battle. There is a sense of both what fighting was like, and of the operational and tactical side of the battle which led to the French victory.
As a perspective of what fighting was in 1914, the struggles of the soldiers, the personalities and key decisions of leadership, and the battle’s course, The Marne is a brilliant book, revealingly detailed, intensely human, and grippingly exciting in the battle’s course. It is well worth the read to give another facet to France and the Great War.