Battle of La Fere Champenoise
French Ninth Army, 120,000
Corps of Fifth French Army, 40,000
General Ferdinand Foch, Commander
German Forces, 500,000
General von Buelow's Army
General von Hausen's Army
This was one of the two phases of the First Battle of the Marne.
The Allied battle line, 150 miles long, had been sagging at its center, around Fere Champenoise, where the brunt of the German assault was borne by the Ninth French Army, commanded by General Ferdinand Foch, destined to become generalissimo of all the Allied armies. Formed out of units from other French armies, the Ninth had not previously functioned in battle as a separate organization. Its formation had been completed on September 4, 1914 after the retreating British and French armies from Mons and Charleroi had reached the Mame.
On September 5, 1914 General Foch was ordered to move his army back to a position on the line Sezanne-Fere Champenoise, between the armies of General D'Esperey on his left and General Langle de Carey on his right. The southern part of the terrain which the Ninth Army was assigned to defend is a country of low ridges and hills, traversed by innumerable water-courses flowing toward the Marne. Its northern part is occupied by the great marshes of St. Gond, an impassable morass whose eastern and western edges are penetrated by two military roads extending north and south.
This battlefield was historic ground. There Attila and his Huns made their camp 1500 years before. Near by, at Chalons, the Turks had met defeat. There, at Domremy, Joan of Arc was born. And there, in 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte had won a decisive victory.
Pursuant to his orders to fall back, General Foch directed the movement of the Ninth Army southward toward the River Aube. The Germans were now in close but slow pursuit. Von Buelow's Prussian Guards-already had crossed the Petit Morin River, occupying the northern villages of the plateau of Sezanne on the western edge of the St. Gond marshes. Von Hausen's Saxon troops were skirting the western border of the St. Gond marshes in the direction of Fere Champenoise.
At midday, on September 5, 1914 General Foch received the memorable order from Marshal Joffre to halt and prepare for' a general counter-offensive at daylight on the morrow. Foch's army was ordered to cover the right wing of D'Esperey*s Army on his left, to hold the debouches south of the marshes of St. Gond, and to post a part of the forces on the plateau north of Sezanne.
General Foch did not wait for the morrow before putting his army into action. Instead, at 3 p. m., on September 5, 1914 he ordered an attack on the German front. His left wing, in co-operation with D'Esperey's right, was to drive von Buelow's Prussian Guards from the Sezanne Plateau and recover the high ground west of the marshes which Foch had vacated that morning under orders from Marshal Joffre. His center was to advance northward from Fere Champenoise in the direction of Vertus and expel von Hausen's Saxon troops from the high ground they occupied just north and east of the marshes.
On the French left, batteries were dragged swiftly up the slope of Mont Août and the spur of Allemont, and thence to the high ground near the village of Mondement. The 42d Division, led by General Gro- setti, moved rapidly from Sezanne to the northeastern heights of the plateau; the Moroccan Division, with General Humbert in the lead, reoccupied the villages of Brous- say le Grand and Le Petit, and advanced to seize the adjacent roads; the Ninth Corps pushed forward through Bannes.
At 4 o'clock, on September 5, 1914, 17 hours before the Battle of the Marne had officially opened, General Foch's batteries opened fire on the German advance west and north of the marshes. The German guns replied from the heights of Congy, from the plateau toward Charleville, and from the Gault woods.
Undeterred, the French infantry pressed forward; Grosetti's Division seized the St. Prix bridge over the Petit Morin River ; the Moroccans, crossing the marshes to the northern side, drove the German detachments out of Joches and Corzard ; the Ninth Corps captured the wooded hill of Toulon-la-Mon- tagne, planting three batteries of 75's on its crest; and German outposts were driven out of the villages round about.
The French right wing, meantime, in its advance west of the marshes, had encountered no opposition. The Eleventh Corps had occupied the bank of the little Somme-Champenoise River from Ecurie-le-Repos to Sem- mesous. Aviators and cavalry scouts reported the near proximity of von Hausen's Saxon army, disposed along the upper Marne. That night von Buelow's Prussian troops delivered a surprise attack on the French left, expelling the Moroccans from the villages of Joches and Dorzard.
At dawn on Sunday, September 6, 1914 the great Battle of the Marne opened officially all along the line from Paris to Verdun, except in the center, where Foch held sway. There, for an hour after sunrise, the Germans hesitated to advance.
On Foch's left, Grosetti's 42d Division was holding the northeastern heights of the Sezanne plateau in touch with the right wing of D'Esperey's Fifth French Army; next came Humbert's Moroccan Division, holding the south edge of the marsh hollow, with some detachments north of it ; then came the 17th Division of the Ninth Corps, under General Dubois, one brigade disposed about Toulon- la-Montague, north of the St. Gond marshes, the other brigade holding the ground at their eastern and about Morains le Petit; General Eydout's Eleventh Corps carried the line southeast for some miles along the course of the Somme-Champenoise to Sommesous.
Here there was a break of ten miles, between Foch's right wing and the left of General Langle de Carey's Fourth French Army, south of Vitry le Francois. This gap was thinly covered by General De l'Espec's 9th cavalry division, comprising only 24 squadrons with 12 guns.
For a reserve, General Foch had General Bat- testi's 52d Division near Mont Août and General Joppe's 60th Division between Fere Champenoise and Sommesous. A considerable part of Foch's artillery had been massed on the height near his left and center.
Shortly after 7 o'clock the French guns began to bark and spit on the left wing. Then, protected by the covering fire of the French batteries on the Toulon-la-Montague, Dubois' Ninth Corps and Grosetti's 42d Division pushed forward to capture the Congy heights. Attack after attack was launched against the Germans, but no ground was gained.
As the morning advanced, the enemy batteries from the curve of the Congy heights concentrated their fire on the Toulon-la- Montague, occupied by the French. West of the marshes, the Hanoverians retook the bridge of St. Prix and the adjacent hill. Most of the ground gained by the French in the direction of Charleville had to be abandoned. Grosetti's 42d Division, however, doggedly held on along the Sezanne road without losing touch with D'Esperey's Tenth Corps on his flank. East of the marshes, a brigade of the Ninth Corps stopped the rush of the Prussian Guards at Morains le Petit, and a regiment of the same corps held on steadily at Auloray.
By late afternoon, the Germans had gained a footing south of the St. Gond marshes; their artillery had crowned the height of Toulon-la-Montague and their infantry had driven the Moroccans out of Corzard and Aunizeus. With the converging attack from these two directions, the Germans fought their way into Bannes, but the French clung to the southern exists of the village. West of Bannes, they held on to the villages of Brousy-le-Petit, supported by the artillery on Mont Août and the Allement Spur.
East of the marshes, the situation was unchanged. The French still held the line along the Somme-Champenoise River. Beyond this, Eydoux's Eleventh Corps was defending a ten-mile front, with only 3000 men to the mile. And where that front ended, there opened that wide gap of eleven miles between the two French armies, with only De l'Espec's Cavalry Division to cover it.
Fortunately, no serious attack developed on this flank during the day. Once only the German cavalry pressed forward toward the gap, but De l'Espec drove them back so promptly they did not care to repeat the performance.
On the third day of battle, September 7, 1914, D'Esperey's right wing gave useful support to Foch's hard-pressed left by clearing the Gault woods of the enemy and joining with Grosetti's 42d Division in the counter-attacks toward Charleville. Humbert's Moroccans also assisted on the eastern heights of the plateau, where ground was lost and regained and lost again all through the day.
The rallying point for the French defense was Mondement Chateau, standing on a bold spur of the Sezanne Plateau, looking out northward over the wooded slopes that sink down to the marshes of St. Gond. The Germans, heavily reinforced, had gained possession of the villages on the margin of the marsh, north of the Mondement Spur. The position formed a sharp salient, projecting into the enemy's lines and subject to fire from three sides. German batteries sent plunging fire over the woods and into Mondement, but the French clung to the ground. Aulnay had to be abandoned, while Morains- le-Petit was in flames and no longer tenable. The Prussian Guards pressed forward and by nightfall held the firm ground at the eastern end of the marshes. A fourth advance might have endangered the left of the Breton Corps about Ecury-le-Piepos.
Meantime, to the east of the marshes, von Hausen's Saxons were attacking the French line along the Somme-Champenoise River, but the Bretons held firm, repeatedly charging with the bayonet to check the rushes of the Saxons. General Foch had sent in his reserves and directed that "the offensive should be vigorously maintained."
Before this order could be communicated to the troops, a crisis arose. In the darkness of the night, at 3 a. m., on Tuesday, September 8, von Hausen's army suddenly attacked all along the line of the Somme, Normee was stormed and set ablaze, and the French garrison, after a hard fight amidst the burning houses, withdrew to the railway line beyond the river. At Lenharee, two companies held back an entire German column for fully an hour.
On the right of the line, Vaussimont, Haussimont, and Sommesous held out till some hours after daylight. The Eleventh Corps retreated in some disorder, but at the call of Foch they rallied along the railway line.
Coincident with this retreat, many of the peasantry, fleeing from Ecury and Normee, had poured into the artillery positions of the Ninth Corps, putting several of General de Monssy's batteries out of action. At the same time the Prussian Guards attacked in front. The right of the line, in consequence, was compelled to fall back and form again for battle in the scattered woods between Mont Août and Fere Champenoise.
Fere Champenoise, lying in a hollow, is commanded by the higher ground to the north and east of it. These heights were seized by the Prussian Guards and the Saxons.
With Foch's center broken and the whole Ninth Army on the point of collapse, the Germans supposed the battle was won. But Foch was not defeated. He telegraphed to Marshal Joffre: "My center is broken; my right is giving way; the situation is excellent; I will attack immediately."
And attack he did. Sixty French guns, posted from the slopes of Mont Août to the St Sophie farm, bombarded the German positions about Fere Champenoise. Supported by their fire, Battesti's 52d Division attacked the Prussian Guards, preventing their gaining ground beyond the low ridge west of the town. Another French attack across the Bannes-Champenoise road toward the railway was stopped by a mile of German machine guns athwart the line of advance.
When night fell, the French right wing had fallen back to a line based on Corray-Gourganeon-Mailly. On the French left, Grosetti's 42d Division had scored heavily in a number of counter-attacks and was keeping in touch with the advance of D'Esperey's Fifth Army, which had reached Montmirail, the center resting on the Petit Morin. Humbert's Zouaves and Marines were clinging to the ground round about Mondement, which was now in flames from the rain of German shells that were falling.
It seemed as if Foch's army faced destruction, and in its fall it might involve the whole Allied line in ruin. The center was wavering and the right wing bent back at an angle. Only the left of the line held firm.
Challenging two huge German armies with a broken army, the strategical genius of Foch was put to the supreme test. He decided to risk all on one bold stroke. If he could pierce the enemy's line at its weakest point and strike one sudden, powerful, unexpected blow, he might be able to throw both German armies into confusion. Foch discovered that weak place in the enemy line. The two German armies while driving the French backward, had not preserved their alignment. Thus, von Buelow's Prussian Guards, having met with stellar opposition on the part of the French left wing, had been held up just west of Fere Champenoise. Moreover, von Kluck's retreat near Paris was tending to draw von Buelow's line ever toward the west.
Von Hausen's Saxons on the other hand, had pressed the French center and right wing far to the south of Fere Champenoise, with the result that the Saxon right toward Corroy and Gourgancon was well south of the Prussian left on the ridges west of Fere Champenoise.
But what troops could Foch spare for this enterprise? His reserves were all spent; his outnumbered troops, except on the left flank, were thinly holding the line.
He resolved, nevertheless, to create a reserve by withdrawing Grosetti's 42d Division from the line and employing it as a battering ram. That night, September 8, 1914, General Foch perfected his plans for the masterstroke of the war. Fortunately, the retreat of von Kluck enabled D'Esperey to spare one of his corps to strengthen Foch's left wing.
General Foch ordered Grosetti to disengage his battalions and batteries from the line, re-form to the southeast on a new line between Linthes and Pleurs, then push forward, on September 9, 1914 between the Ninth and Eleventh Corps of the French army, and fall upon the flank of the Saxon army.
The order was duly carried out, but while Grosetti's Division was withdrawing and before D'Esperey had sent the promised reinforcements, a Hanoverian brigade was flung against Mondement, driving out the French. Luckily, reinforcements were at hand. Humbert's Moroccans, assisted by a regiment from Dubois' Ninth Corps and three of Grosetti's batteries, prevented the further advance of the Germans on this wing.
Meantime, on the center and right, the Germans were moving successfully. Ey- doux's Eleventh Corps and De l'Espec's cavalry were steadily forced back. Still Grosetti had not arrived. Early in the afternoon the Ninth Corps gave ground in the center, the Prussian Guards advancing to Conantre, compelling the French to evacuate Mont Août.
The broken French line was re-established from Mont Chalmont across the railway in front of Linthes and Pleurs, to keep in touch with the retiring Eleventh Corps, whose left was now near Fresnay. But the progress of the Saxon advance had made the fissure between von Hausen's right and von Buelow's left even more vulnerable than before.
And now Grosetti was arrived at the designated line with his 42d Division—Foch's battering ram. At a given signal, Grosetti led his troops between the two French corps and fell upon the Saxon flank. At the same time Foch ordered a general offensive all along the line. The Saxons and Prussians both were immediately thrown into confusion, and were forced steadily backward upon divergent lines of retreat. Grosetti drove the Saxons out of Conantre and Corray and got into touch with the left of Eydoux's advance ; one regiment of his division went forward that night in pursuit of the Saxons and at dawn the next day occupied Fere Champenoise, which the Saxons had evacuated in the night.
On the left flank, Humbert's Moroccans renewed their attack on Mondement with reckless daring. After many desperate assaults had been repelled, Col. Letoguoi ran three guns close up to the wall of the fortress, breached it and stormed the gap thus made. The Prussians were driven out, after both combatants had suffered heavy losses.
D'Esperey's Corps, which he had loaned to Foch, meantime had advanced across the Petit Morin as far as Fromentieres and was pressing toward Baye on the end from St. Prix northward to Epernay.
The Prussians, fearing their direct line of retreat would be cut, hastily fell back by way of the narrow metaled roads across the St. Gond marshes. Everywhere the Prussians and the Saxons were in retreat. General Foch had won a great victory-—how great he did not realize till the morrow.
General Foch that night ordered the resumption of the offensive before daylight on September 10, D'Esperey's Tenth Corps was to attack north of the marshes of St. Gond, in the direction of Bergeres-lez-Vertus, against the enemy's northern line of retreat. General Dubois, with his Ninth Corps, was to advance between the east end of the marshes and the Fere Champenoise-Vitry railway. General Grosetti's 42d Division was to advance through Fere Champenoise. General Eydoux's Eleventh Corps was to push through Envy toward Lenhares. General De l'Espec's Cavalry Division was to protect the right of the advance and keep in touch by patrols with the left of the Third Ai'rny, which was moving on Vitry-le-Francois.
The Saxons, though beaten, were far from demoralized. A large part of von Hausen's army was imprisoned in a deep salient pointing south, with Foch's army on one side and Langle de Carey's army on the other, threatening it with envelopment. But under cover of darkness the remnant of this Saxon army was safely withdrawn. The Prussians, too, made good their retreat, and both armies finally reached the new line on the Aisne.
This brilliant victory of General Foch compelled the retreat of all the German forces in France to the new line on the Aisne. The Battle of the Marne had been won by an army outnumbered three to one, and which had been all but enveloped a few hours before. As a result of this victory, Foch was proclaimed "the master strategist of Europe."
The armies of General von Hausen and the Duke of Württemberg had been pounding hard against General Langle de Carey. After the victory at the St. Gond marshes, Foch came to the rescue of General de Carey. General Hausen's Saxons were driven in wild disorder across the Marne and that unfortunate commander subsequently was retired in disgrace.
Everywhere the Huns were in retreat. By masterly generalship, von Kluck escaped from the double pressure of General D'Esperey's French army and General French's British army, bringing his forces practically intact to the new position on the line of the Aisne River.
The sole dubious success achieved by German arms during the entire campaign of the Marne was that of the army nominally commanded by the Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia. This army, 350,000 strong, had attacked fort Troyon, defended by General Sarrail with a garrison of 80,000 men.
The heavy German siege guns had reduced the fort to a heap of ruins, and General Sarrail's slim forces were in extremis when the general German retreat from the Marne compelled the Crown Prince to relinquish his offensive and turn tail. Had Troyon fallen, the way to Verdun would have been opened and the whole course of the war might have been changed. Foch's decisive victory therefore saved France and Europe.
No official report on the losses of both armies in the Battle of the Marne has ever been published. Unofficial estimation places the number of the slain and wounded at 300,000, the losses of the two combatant forces being about equal.
My center is broken; my right is giving way; the situation is excellent; I will attack immediately.”— Gen. Foch
In the view of this almost overwhelming defeat of Manoury's Sixth French Army along the Ourcq by von Kluck's forces, why should the victory of the Marne be laid to the formation of Manoury's Army? Because that formation caused a general shift in the German line. When the First German Army moved westward to end the thrust on its flank by Manoury, the Second German Army under von Riilow was compelled also to shift to the westward. Opposite the German Second Army, the French Fifth Army under d'Esperey was in good fighting trim, and as von Billow retired northwestward, d'Esperey followed closely upon his heels, constantly attacking the retreating German forces, which were compelled to retire without making a stand, and which were hence severely punished en route.
We have seen that to the east of the French Fifth Army, the French Seventh Army, under Foch, in the centre of the line between Paris and Vitry-le-Francois, had been viciously attacked by the Third German Army under von Hausen. German success in this onslaught was imperative, as the German Third Army had not moved westward with its neighbor on its right, and hence had allowed a gap to come into existence in this strategic point in the German line. If the German Third Army should be defeated, the left flank of the German Second Army would be exposed. On the other hand, if Foch's forces should be driven back, the French Fifth Army would be exposed on its right flank. Accordingly, the crux of the entire situation developed by Manoury's unexpected drive at the extreme west of the German line lay in the action in the centre between the German Third and the French Seventh Armies. At the east of the battle-line, Verdun and Nancy had held fast, so that the fate of France once more was being determined in the west.
Foch was greatly outnumbered, and from the beginning of the attack on September 7 he was steadily driven back. In his rear was a series of marshes, so that his forces soon found themselves in difficulty. The French and the Germans, realizing the gravity of their endeavors, were fighting with sharp fierceness, and many were the deaths in the centre of the line of the Battle of the Marne. The troops advancing on the French lines were the flower of the army of the Imperial German Government, they were supported by magnificent field artillery magnificently equipped, and they would not be denied. The French on their side were equally magnificent, and man for man, the result would have been in doubt. But greater numbers told, and step by step Foch was forced to the south, into the difficult marsh land. Foch's centre, indeed, withdrew only gradually, but his extreme right wing was driven farther back than his centre; so that he was no longer able to present a straight line to the foe. The considerable withdrawal of Foch's right broke the connection with the left flank of the French Fourth Army, and on September 9, 1914, it seemed as though the gap in the French line which was the German goal and token of final victory had indeed been opened up.
Foch accordingly sent out despairing calls for reinforcements. Both the Germans and the French had staked their all upon this struggle and had thrown all their reserves into the fray, so that there were no reserves to come to the assistance of the French Seventh Army. Assistance could come only from the armies to the left and right. But on Foch's right the French Fourth Army under de Cary was also being attacked, although it was not in peril as dire as was the French Seventh Army. Indeed, de Cary was also being slowly forced back; and only reinforcements from the French Third Army under Sarrail on his own right saved de Cary also from complete defeat. But the story on Foch's left was a different one. Von Biilow was retiring in so good order to keep in touch with von Kluck and yet was retiring so rapidly that d'Esperey could neither find use for all his forces nor flank von Biilow. Accordingly d'Esperey hastened to send a considerable force from his army to the relief of Foch. This relief was made possible only by the withdrawal of von Biilow, forced by the withdrawal of von Kluck, which in turn had been forced by the formation of the French Sixth Army under Manoury; and it was this force dispatched by d'Esperey to the relief of Foch which turned the tide and won the Battle of the Marne.
In the midst of retreat, Foch's uncanny military penetration showed him a weakness in the line of his enemy, and with uncanny skill he took advantage of it. The reinforcements lent by d'Esperey Foch placed on his left, thus relieving the pressure there; and at the same time he removed a corps from the left to serve as relief for his right, which was so sorely pressed, which was being driven so far to the south, and which accordingly was endangering the entire French position. The corps withdrawn from his left wing Foch transferred to his right wing, and on the afternoon of September 9 sent it with terrific impetus against the German line driving back his right wing where the German line had become thin. At the same time, he launched a counter-attack along his whole line.
Foch had picked the one point of weakness on the German left, and his transferred corps cut through the thinned German line as a knife cuts through cheese (Simonds) ; and two of von Hausen's corps found themselves flanked. The entire line of the Third German Army was thus broken and with the victorious division on the east working around to get behind the German centre and right, strong detachments from these sections had to be sent by von Hausen to meet the flank attack. But von Hausen's centre was left so thin by the dispatch of these detachments that Foch's counter-attack won out all along the line. Almost within several hours, under the relentless hammer- blows of the French, the entire Third German Army suddenly crumpled. All order disappeared in its ranks, and it broke into a wild retreat back toward the Belgian frontier. The gap which would decide the victory had indeed been made; but it had been made not in the French, but in the German line.
Foch now threw his entire strength into the hole, or, rather the chasm, left in the German position by the retreat of the German Third Army. For French purposes, the hole could not have been in a better position—it was in the very centre. Foch's army could flank one-half the German force, either the half to the east of Paris or the half to the west of Verdun, There was but one remedy for the Germans to adopt—from both the east and the west of their lines, they dispatched strong forces to hold back Foch's flanking movement into their vitals. Thereby they considerably weakened all their armies between Paris and Verdun, and for the first time the French were not outnumbered. Joffre ordered a general advance. The Germans were driven sharply back all along the line. At this moment, the British, now left largely unopposed through the manoeuvering of von Kluck's and von Billow's armies, also advanced and threatened to cut a second wedge into the German line. Foch thereupon directed his wedge toward the west. On the west, accordingly, only a small neck of land free from French and British troops was now available for the German retreat. All attempts to rally the flying German Third Army were in vain. Foch was still cutting in. The German Second Army had to come to von Hausen's rescue. It thereby withdrew its support from von Kluck. Menaced now by the British on his left, von Kluck was also compelled to withdraw, and as we have seen, Manoury was thus saved over-night. The entire west half of the German line was making north for the Aisne in as great haste as it had advanced south to the Marne. To the east of the gap made by Foch in the German line, the German Fourth and Fifth Armies had engaged the French Fourth and Third Armies with extreme vigor. Neither side had been able to gain decisively, although the losses suffered were very severe. Even after von Hausen retreated, the armies of Wiirttenburg and the Crown Prince held their ground, but the bend in the German line to the west was too sharp for safety, and by September 12, 1914, the German Fourth and Fifth Armies had also withdrawn, although in good order and without severe loss. At the same time, a terrific attempt made by the Crown Prince of Bavaria and von Heeringen to break through the French line on the Alsace-Lorraine border (the Second Battle of Nancy) had also come to grief. This was the strongest line of the French defence, but the First and Second French Armies had been sadly weakened by reinforcements dispatched to the western front; and the Germans sacrificed thousands of men in a violent attempt to break between Toul and fipinal and thus flank the Franco-British line on the east as von Kluck had tried to flank it on the west. But, aided by their strong natural position, the French finally managed to roll back the German drive; and later when the Germans also were compelled to send reinforcements from their eastern to their western front, Castelnau drove forward and recaptured much of the ground toward the Alsace-Lorraine frontier.
After five weeks, the German advance had been stopped. Not only had the advance been stopped, the Germans had been thrown back. The German plan to overthrow France within six weeks or two months had failed. The greatest danger to face the Allies for many months was now a thing of the past.
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