The First World War, 1914-1916

Author: Louis Madelin  | Date: 1914

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The Marne

ON the morning of September 9th the situation is extremely critical. The enemy obviously aimed at taking the higher ground which, with the marshes, separates the Petit-Morin valley from the plain of the Aube. Had our line been forced back on the Aube, the results would have been incalculable, probably obliging d’Esperey, who was advancing north, to fall back and exposing de Langle do Cary who continued to hold on desperately in the valley of the Saulx and Ornain. That is why the struggle for Saint-Prix was so fierce; during the first four days of the battle it was taken and retaken five times, so was the Castle of Mondement, which, according to a witness attached to General Humbert who commanded the Morocco division, was lost, retaken, lost and retaken again and again. The 10th corps of the 5th Army came to the help of the 9th Army on the morning of September 9th, but in vain; the Prussian Guards intending to keep up their reputation hurl themselves on Fere Champenoise, our line gives way under the assault: Fere-Champenoise is lost. General Foch shows no discouragement. Fere is lost, but Fere will be recaptured. "The situation is excellent," he writes on the 9th. Excellent! what faith there is in such optimism! And he adds: "I command that the offensive be ressumed."

In truth, such optimism was not only on the surface. With his quick eye the Commander of the 9th Army had just perceived a break in the German line. Von Bulow, influenced by Von Kluck, had to his great disappointment been forced to fall back in this maneuver, and, as happens sometimes in improvised retrograde movements, a gap occurred between Hausen and himself. Foch in his turn thought of driving a wedge into the weak spot.

The first thing was to reconstitute our line. The 42nd division attack and carry Fere-Champenoise. Then Mondement becomes the center of a deadly struggle. General Humbert has butted himself against it. This old castle, torn by our shells, and the enemy’s, becomes for a moment the center of the battle. "Forward, boys," cries Colonel Lestoquoi, to his men who are storming for the third time; "and we shall succeed." And we did succeed. General Hum bert once again took up his post of observation in the old tower, now a mass of ruins, while 3,000 German corpses strewed the avenue of the park.

"One last effort and we shall succeed!" General Foch might have used Colonel Lestoquoi’s cheering words to his entire army. The high ground above the marshes is now ours, the enemy is giving way, the valley is open to us and we rush through it….

By the evening of the 10th he held the marshes, and thanks to the energy with which he had transformed his difficult defensive movement into a victorious offensive, the troops advanced northwards and at a blow carried the line Vertus-Vatry. Foch took up his headquarters in La Fere Champenoise, occupied a few hours previously by the Prussian Guard, who gorged themselves and drank to the certain destruction of the French army. "Let the troops eat the bread made for the enemy," wrote Napoleon to Murat; "that bread will taste better to them than cake." Our soldiers not only found bread baked by the enemy, but thousands of empty bottles, the sight of which made them smile and explained certain shortcomings. Many drunken soldiers belonging to the Guard and other corps, the victims of champagne, were taken prisoner that day….

While Maunoury on the Ourcq was making a "bulge" and the armies of Sir John French and d’Esperey threatening to envelop Von Kluck, so contributed to his retreat, d’Esperey’s right wing seconded the valiant 9th Army which repulsed the great piercing movement attempted against our center. The two armies on the right meanwhile fulfilled their mission, which was to protect the "pivot" by hurling the enemy back from the triangle formed by the heights of Verdun, Bar and Vitry….

On the 10th, the Imperial Crown Prince was obliged to relinquish his great dream. Sarrail had shaken his army and was pushing it to the north of Verdun.

But with what confidence in his own powers had the Crown Prince attacked! Bearing down in the neighborhood of Revigny, he intended to seize the bridges of the Ornain as far as Bar and enter the little ducal town in a few hours. It is reported that on the 6th, an officer informed an inhabitant of Vaubecourt that "To-morrow we shall burn Poincare’s town. And in fact the XVI corps intended to occupy, if not destroy Bar, while the IV cavalry corps, no doubts being entertained as to victory, would move south, towards Saint-Dizier, Langres, and la Bourgogne.

A great danger had threatened Sarrail’s flank; it caused the last incident in the huge battle. German forces were reported to be massing near Woevre and preparing to attack Saint-Mihiel. This is very serious news, for if the Germans should succeed in piercing through to Saint-Mihiel and cross the Meuse there, Verdun would be cut off from the 3rd Army and the latter would be turned. Once again our pivot is threatened. The danger does not, however, divert the Commander of the 3rd Army from his first duty; at day break on the 8th, he sends forward troops who dislodge the German corps from the valley of the Ornain and push them on to Vassincourt, Villers-aux-Vents, Triaucourt, while the 6th artillery corps crushes the XV corps at Aire. The menace is, however, increasing on the Heights of the Meuse, the enemy glides towards Saint-Mihiel; at 1 p. m. he has begun to bombard Fort Troyon. In the meantime, General Sarrail, in order to protect his right flank, gives the order to destroy the bridges at Saint-Mihiel. This, though it did not paralyze the attack of the 3rd Army, made things harder. The repulse, on the 9th, of the enemy’s advance on every side had to suffice for the time being. The situation becomes worse in the rear; after Troyon, Genicourt is bombarded, and the guns at Troyon now seem silent. General Coutanceau, who had just sent an urgent appeal to the 2nd Army (under Castelnau), telegraphs to the Commander of the fort: "General situation of our armies excellent. It is of consequence that the fall of Troyon should not open a way to the Germans. Hold indefinitely." But the German columns continue to advance on Saint-Mihiel. On the 10th Sarrail’s army holds the whole day through, the battle rages and spreads destruction among the enemy (7,000 casualties) from Revigny to Vaubecourt. The situation is extremely critical, a defeat in the Saint-Mihiel direction may jeopardize everything at a moment when things are turning in our favor from the Ourcq to the Ornain.

No faltering, however, occurred. Troyon shelled, and half in ruins, repels the attack, the enemy is unable to cross the Meuse; General Castelnau sends the 73rd division and the 2nd cavalry division, detached from the 2nd Army, to support the threatened forts which in their turn menace the assailant. On the 11th, the German cannon suddenly ceases firing. "The calm was impressive," said an officer. For the Crown Prince has just been informed that the German armies, defeated on the Ourcq and thrown back on the Marne, are beating a retreat. Even he wavers now. Sarrail pushes forward his offensive, the 5th corps captures Laimont and Villotte, while on his left, the 15th corps advances beyond the Marne au Rhin canal. The 6th corps and the reserve divisions on our right, try to take part in this forward movement in spite of the German howitzers covering the Prince’s retreat. By the end of the day, the 15th corps has occupied Rancourt and Revigny, and has advanced to Brabant-le-Roi, making enormous captures of light and heavy artillery taken from the XVI corps in retreat. Our 6th corps meets with fierce opposition from the XVI corps southwest of Souilly. The Germans attempt one last bombardment of Troyon: the fort stands firm. All is over! Defeated all along the line, the enemy is unable to play his trump card at Saint-Mihiel. Our pivot has held and we are saved. The enemy owns himself vanquished on every side, for his retreat becomes more and more marked and so rapid that in certain places it looks very like flight. It is, at any rate, a formal admission of defeat.


THE battle which we have been fighting for the last five days has ended in an undoubted victory. The retreat of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd German Armies before our left and center becomes more and more marked. The enemy’s 4th Army in its turn has begun to withdraw to the north of Vitry and Sermaise.

Everywhere the enemy has left on the field numerous wounded and a quantity of munitions. Everywhere we have made prisoners while gaining ground. Our troops bear witness to the intensity of the fight, and the means employed by the Germans in their endeavors to resist our elan. The vigorous resumption of the offensive has determined our success.

Officers, non-commissioned officers and men! You have all responded to my appeal; you have all deserved well of your country.


September 11th.


THE completeness of our victory becomes more and more apparent. Everywhere the enemy is in retreat. The Germans are abandoning prisoners, wounded, and material in all directions. After the heroic efforts displayed by our troops during this formidable battle, which has lasted from the 5th to the 12th of September, all our armies, exhilarated by success, are carrying out a pursuit which is without parallel in its extension.

On our left we have crossed the Aisne below Soissons, thus gaining more than 100 kilometers in six days of battle. In the center our armies are already to the north of the Marne. Our armies of Lorraine and the Vosges are reaching the frontier. Our troops, as well as those of our Allies, are admirable in morale, endurance and ardor. The pursuit will be continued with all our energy. The Government of the Republic may be proud of the army which it has prepared.


September 13th.


OUR valiant armies have, during the last four days’ fighting, again given striking proofs of their bravery and high spirit.

The strategic idea, conceived with so much clearsightedness by the Commander-in-Chief and realized with so much coolness, method and resolution, has been carried out in recent operations by faultless tactics.

Far from being fatigued by long weeks of marching and unceasing battle, our troops have shown more endurance and keenness than ever. With the vigorous assistance of our English Allies they have forced back the enemy to the east of Paris, and the brilliant successes they have gained and the magnificent qualities they have shown are sure guarantees of decisive victories.

I beg you, my dear Minister, to be good enough to transmit to the General Commanding-in-Chief, to the officers and the rank and file, the congratulations and good wishes of the Government of the Republic, and with them the personal expression of my own deep admiration.


Bordeaux, September 11th.


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Chicago: Louis Madelin, "The Marne," The First World War, 1914-1916 in America, Vol.11, Pp.184-192 Original Sources, accessed January 21, 2020,

MLA: Madelin, Louis. "The Marne." The First World War, 1914-1916, in America, Vol.11, Pp.184-192, Original Sources. 21 Jan. 2020.

Harvard: Madelin, L, 'The Marne' in The First World War, 1914-1916. cited in , America, Vol.11, Pp.184-192. Original Sources, retrieved 21 January 2020, from