The Battle of the Marne – also known as the Miracle of the Marne – was fought at the furthest point of the German advance following their invasion of Belgium and northern France and subsequent pursuit of Allied forces in the opening weeks of the First World War. On 5th September 1914 a counter-attack along the River Marne by six French Armies and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) forced the Germans to retreat north-west. The battle comprised three major actions – the Battle of the Ourcq, the Battle of the Two Morins and the Battle of the Saint-Gond Marshes, plus numerous smaller operations.
Key to the Allied success was the formation of a new French Army using troops moved from the eastern frontier on more than 300 trains. This Sixth Army, under General Michel-Joseph Maunoury, joined with the left of the BEF, west of the Marne. The transfer of men from the east to the French centre and left began on 26 August and continued until 10th September, resulting in the balance of forces tipping decisively in favour of the Allies (55 divisions to 44).
As the German First Army, under General Alexander von Kluck, and General Karl von Bulow’s Second Army advanced towards Paris, they began to veer to the south-east, away from the city, in an attempt to envelop the left flank of the retreating French forces. However, in doing so they exposed their own right flank to the Allies. On 5 September the French Commander-in-Chief, General Joseph Joffre, halted the Allied retreat and ordered Sixth Army to attack eastwards from Paris across the Ourcq while the BEF advanced towards Montmirail and Fifth Army attacked northwards.
As the Germans realigned to face this unexpected threat a 30-mile gap opened up between their First and Second Armies. This was spotted by Allied air patrols and on 6th September the French Fifth Army and the BEF advanced into the gap. The BEF crossed the Petit Morin river, captured bridges over the Marne and established a bridgehead five miles deep.
The Germans still hoped to smash Sixth Army, but were forced to abandon these plans when the French ferried 10,000 reserve troops (including some 3,000 men transported in a fleet of taxis) from Paris to the front on the night of 7th/8th September. The following night the French Fifth Army launched a surprise attack against German Second Army, further widening the gap between the two German forces. With Second Army in danger of encirclement, the Germans began to pull back from the Marne.
The German Commander-in-Chief, Helmuth von Moltke, who was effectively out of communication with his Army HQs, suffered a nervous breakdown when he heard of their predicament. His subordinates took over and ordered a general retreat to the River Aisne where they hoped to regroup to prepare a fresh offensive. The exhausted French and British pursued the Germans for 40 miles to just north of the Aisne. Here the Germans dug in, preparing the first trenches to be seen on the Western Front.
After the German retreat, which marked the end of the Schlieffen Plan, Moltke is reported to have told the Kaiser: ‘Your Majesty, we have lost the war.’ Certainly the Battle of the Marne was a strategic victory for the Allies as it saved Paris and denied the Germans a swift knockout blow on the Western Front. However, it also set the stage for four years of trench warfare stalemate.
1st Hampshire at the Battle of the Marne, 6th – 12th September 1914
Following its retreat across the Marne in early September 1914, 4th Division, including 1st Hampshire, was reassigned to the newly-formed III Corps under Major-General Sir William Pulteney. When the Allied counter-attack began on 6th September, III Corps joined up with the other two Corps of the BEF at Villeneuve le Comte. From here the BEF, with III Corps on the left, advanced north-east into the gap now opening in the German line.
On 7th September, 1st Hampshire, as part of 11th Brigade, reached Montdenis, beyond the Grand Morin river, before advancing the following day to Les Corbieres. 11th Brigade was some way behind the advance brigades of 4th Division which were involved in stiff fighting around La Ferte. Meanwhile, I and II Corps had successfully forced a crossing of the Petit Morin, enabling both to advance over the Marne on 9th September and threaten von Kluck’s retreating First Army. At this point I Corps halted (due to inaccurate air observation reports of German troops movements) and this allowed von Kluck to break off his battle against French Sixth Army and extricate his forces from a precarious position, thus ensuring they got back across the River Aisne.
The evening of 9th September saw the 1st Hampshire cross the Marne at La Ferte, using rowing boats that had not been destroyed by the retreating enemy. By 2am on the 10th the Battalion was on the move again, occasionally glimpsing German cavalry patrols but otherwise meeting no resistance. In pelting rain and short of rations, the Hampshire toiled on through 10th and 11th September, reaching Septmonts, just three miles from the Aisne, by early evening on the 12th. In the early hours of 13th September, 1st Hampshire, together with the rest of 11th Brigade, were ordered to cross the river at Venizel in what marked the opening salvo of the Battle of the Aisne.
1st Hampshire at the Battle of the Aisne, 12th – 15th September 1914
The German positions on the Aisne were among the most formidable on the Western Front. Between Compiegne and Berry-au-Bac, the river is some 30 yards wide and 12-15 feet deep with low-lying ground extending a mile either side. Beyond this on the northern bank a line of steep cliffs rises to between 300 and 400 feet before levelling to a plateau. It was here, about two miles beyond the crest, that the Germans turned to face the pursuing Allies.
At about midnight on 12th September 1914, 1st Hampshire began to lead 11th Brigade across the River Aisne at Venizel, using a bridge that had been damaged, but not destroyed, in the German retreat. It was a tricky business – one officer wrote that ‘to cough on the bridge was to set the whole structure shaking’ – but by 3am (13th September) the brigade was able to advance towards higher ground, the Hampshire in the centre making for Bucy de Long.
This was a daring move, given that it was carried out in the dark over unreconnoitred ground. However, it paid off. The 1st Hampshire found Bucy de Long unoccupied and they pressed on, sweeping up the cliffs through started enemy outposts just as day was breaking to establish a position on the crest. Here, with the Rifle Brigade on the right and the Somerset on the left, the battalion began to dig in.
Unfortunately, Allied attacks across the Aisne elsewhere were less successful. The French Fifth Army did capture the eastern tip of the Chemin des Dames ridge near Berry-au-Bac but other forces made only negligible progress. The positions held by 11th Brigade also proved to be seriously exposed. In particular, the British guns south of the river were too far back and not powerful enough to shell enemy artillery emplacements. The German guns, superior in calibre, range and numbers, were thus able to inflict heavy casualties on 11th Brigade while also making any further advance by 4th Division impossible.
It quickly been apparent that neither side could dislodge the other and on 14th September Sir John French ordered the entire BEF to begin digging in. Initially the troops merely dug shallow pits, but these soon became trenches up to 7ft deep to afford greater protection against the German heavy artillery. The Hampshire, like the rest of the BEF, was ill-equipped for trench warfare and had to learn ‘on the job’. Behind the front line the steep slopes leading up from the Aisne contained a number of caves. One of these, described as ‘weird … and quite romantic’ was used as the battalion headquarters. The Hampshire Regimental cap badge, inscribed on the cave wall at the time, can still be seen to this day.
While the 1st Hampshire were pinned down, crucial fighting was taking place further upstream on the Aisne. Here, however, the timely arrival of German reinforcements prevented the BEF from advancing into the gap between the two German Armies and repeating the success of the Marne.
The last two weeks of September 1914 saw a new phase in operations, with both the French and Germans trying – unsuccessfully – to turn their opponents’ uncovered western flank in what became known as the ‘Race to the Sea’. This extended the line of trenches northwards from the River Oise over the Somme into Flanders and the Belgian coast. From 1 October the BEF began to move to the Flanders sector where it could be more easily supplied. On 11th October the 1st Hampshire entrained for Flanders, in time to take part in the fighting for the Channel ports.