Battle of the Ourcq

Allied Forces, 515,000

Sixth French Army, 175,000
General Maunoury, Commander
General Pau, Chief of Staff

Paris Garrison, 50,000
General Gallieni, Commander
Admiral Ronarch (Marines)

British Expeditionary Force, 130,000
General Sir John French, Commander

Fifth French Army, 160,000
General D'Esperey, Commander

German Forces, 520,000

First German Army, 270,000
General von Kluck, Commander
General von Kühl, Chief of Staff

Group Commanders:
General von Linsingen
General von Armin
General von Quast

Second German Army, 250,000
General von Buelow, Commander

The Battle of the Ourcq, which inaugurated and so largely determined the issue of the First Battle of the Marne, is properly viewed, not as a single isolated action, spending itself wholly) on the banks of a remote little stream, but rather as a sequence of widely separated battles, requiring for their vast theater the entire region lying between the Aisne and Aubertin Rivers, and involving four gigantic armies — a third of the whole embattled host of the Marne — throughout the period of the German repulse and retreat.

Timed for the strategic moment of the Allied offensive, when General Joffre was preparing to launch his surprise attack on the German right flank, the Battle of the Ourcq River began just at dawn on September 5th with the movement Eastward from Dam- martin of four divisions of General Maunoury's Sixth French Army, then secretly concentrating in the fortified area north of Paris, to give battle to General Gronau's Fourth Reserve Corps and General von Marwitz's cavalry brigade, which were posted on the west bank of the Ourcq as the flank guard of General von Kluck's First German Army. It was the French intention, after disposing of this German rearguard, to cross the Ourcq above Lizy and then advance eastward in the general direction of Chateau Thierry, thus getting in rear of von Kluck's main army, which was then massed below the Marne. Neither von Kluck nor the German high command as yet suspected the existence of a new French Army north of Paris.

The chosen battlefield west of the Ourcq presented the aspect of a broad level plateau, traversed by numerous small streams and dotted over with small villages, ending in an abrupt descent as it approached the river. The level monotony of the whole region is relieved by two forested heights, the Monthyon and Penchard hills, a mile or more in length, which rise near the confluence of the Ourcq and Marne Rivers, just north of Meaux. These heights, trenched throughout their length, and fairly bristling with machine guns, had been occupied in force by the German Reserve Corps. Von Marwitz's cavalry brigade was positioned further north. Strong German outposts held all the villages west of the Ourcq. The high east bank of the river, from Lizy to La Ferte Milon, was lined with German howitzers and fields guns of large caliber.

Though much exhausted, after their forced march from the eastern frontier, and lacking in artillery support, the French troops advanced confidently against the German foe, liberating scores of villages before noon. Barcy and Etripilly were carried at the point of the bayonet by the French Reserves. Before evacuating, the Germans had deliberately set fire to all the villages and a heavy pall of smoke settled over the whole extent of the battlefield.

Advancing toward the Monthyon and Penchard hills, the French Zouaves encountered a hail of machine gun bullets, which took a heavy toll. Nevertheless, before night set in, the Germans had been driven from those fortified hills, recoiling towards the Ourcq valley. Meantime, further north, General Sordet's French Cavalry brigade had begun a flanking movement around the German right wing, compelling the German Uhlans to retire northward across the little Thourianne River in the direction of Antilly. Though the west bank of the Ourcq, between Meaux and Crouoy, was now practically cleared of Germans, the French divisions could not yet cross the stream, since all the crossings were commanded by those ominous German howitzers emplaced on the Eastern bank.

Dismayed by the danger which threatened his flank, but which he still wrongly attributed to a sortie out of Paris, General von Kluck on the 6th detached two full corps from his line below the Marne and sent them north to the relief of General Gronau. The Second German Corps, commanded by General von Linsingen, moved in two columns, one northwards across the Marne in the direction of Vareddes, the other eastwards across the Ourcq at Lizy in the direction of Trocy. These columns quickly established a liaison with Gronau's Reserve Corps holding the line from Vincy south to Vareddes. The Fourth Regular German Corps, commanded by General Sixt von Armin, went further north, crossing the Ourcq at Crouoy and establishing a line from Antilly south to May-en-Multien, which placed them in a position to counter-flank the French.

General Maunoury's new army, meanwhile, had been gradually taking shape north of Paris. Two reserve divisions from the East, under General Ebner, which had arrived at Pontoise on September 4th after an exhausting march, were ready to advance to Abblainville on the 6th. The 45th Algerian Division under General Drude, although reporting at Dammartin on the 5th, did not enter the battle till the next day. General Boelle's Fourth Corps was not fully detrained at Gagny until the 7th. Some eight or nine other battalions, chiefly Zouaves and Spahis, were expected at Paris on the 9th. So, as yet, Maunoury's available forces were outnumbered by the Germans.

The battle of the Ourcq widened on the second day, but in despite of their superiority in numbers, the Germans were compelled to give ground everywhere. The French infantry fearlessly faced the terrific German artillery fire, winning village after village at the point of the bayonet. The slaughter on both sides was terrible. When night closed in on the scene, the whole landscape was lit with burning villages, farms and haystacks. By the light of these burning structures, the Germans built enormous pyres of wood and straw, saturated them with paraffin and cremated their dead on the battlefield. One of the special horrors of the battle was the burning alive of 1500 Germans who had been trapped in a sugar refinery which afterwards caught fire. Of the 1800 occupants, only 300 won their way to safety.

General von Kluck, sensing his plight at last, tardily decided to carry out his orders from headquarters to protect the flank of the German line. On the evening of September 6th, he recalled from the Marne front the Third and Ninth Corps, which he had obligingly lent that very day to General von Buelow's hard-pressed Second German Army on his left, ordering them to wheel about and proceed northward on the morrow as far as Mareine and Crouoy, cross the Ourcq River at those points and come into action on the right flank of the German army group commanded by General von Armin north of Antilly. With these additions to his forces in the Ourcq area General von Kluck would have 250,000 German infantry and 10,000 German cavalry, together with a tremendous assemblage of artillery to oppose Maunoury's army of 175,000 men.

The tide of battle turned with the arrival of the Third and Ninth German Corps in the Ourcq area. Maunoury's fatigued army, now hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, had lost its chance of outflanking von Kluck. Instead of turning the German west flank, Maunoury's own west wing was now being pressed back and in danger of envelopment. To avert this fate, Maunoury ordered all the troops of the French Fourth Corps still available to hasten to the support of his left flank at Nanteuil-le-Haudoin. Obedient to his wishes, the entire Paris garrison force, 50,000 men, was packed into 10,000 motorcars and dispatched to him post haste. But before the arrival of this "Taxicab Army," at its destination, the situation had changed for the worse. General von Quast, with two German infantry corps and a division of cavalry, already had bent back Maunoury's flank north of Antilly. An added misfortune was the arrival at Verberie that day of two fresh German divisions, one from Brussels, the other from the Maubeuge fortress which had just fallen. These new divisions cooperated with von Quast in a wide encircling movement against Maunoury's northern wing. Proceeding down the Nanteuil-Senlis road as far as Baron, it was their purpose to cut Maunoury's path of retreat towards Paris. With his flank thus threatened, Maunoury on the 8th began his retirement from Nanteuil to a line based on La Plessis- St. Soupplets-Monthyon, only a few miles above Paris. Nevertheless, on the same day, Maunoury's "Taxicab Army" made a desperate attempt to break through the German front at Trocy, but the attack was repulsed.

On September 9, 1914 when Maunoury had all but lost hope and when the Paris garrison stood to arms expecting any moment to see the German foe, the situation underwent a sudden and startling change. General von Kluck had received peremptory orders from the Supreme Command to break off the battle at once and retire northward as far as Soissons, in conformity with the retreat of von Buelow's army on his left which had already begun. Before daybreak of the 10th von Kluck's forces had departed. Let us now review the events which were taking place below the Marne during the battle on the Ourcq and which brought about this sudden retreat of the entire German right wing.

Von Kluck's plunge across the Marne in pursuit of D'Esperey's Fifth French army had carried five corps of his army as far south as the Grand Morin River. Below that stream, and concealed behind the Forest of Crecy on a line extending from Rozoy to Beton-Bazoches, lay the British Expeditionary Force, now increased to three full corps and well supported with cavalry and heavy artillery. Von Kluck seems to have been unaware of the close proximity of a reinforced British Army to his southern flank, but he was very soon to be enlightened. On the morning of the 6th, as already shown, von Kluck had withdrawn the Second and Fourth German Corps from the right of his line on the Grand Morin, sending them north to the relief of General Gronau on the Ourcq and filling the gap so created with General von Marwitz's Second Cavalry Corps. Apart from his cavalry, he now had but three corps at his disposal below the Marne. These troops were vainly endeavoring to turn the left flank of D'Esperey's line which extended from Courtacon east to Esternay.

The long awaited moment had arrived when the British forces, hidden in the woods to the west, could retaliate upon the foe! Emerging suddenly from the Forest of Crecy, General Haig*s First British Corps surprised and annihilated several squadrons of von Marwitz's cavalry, driving back the rest of the Huns towards Coulommiers, where von Kluck had established his headquarters. Advancing on Coulommiers before dawn on the next day, the British brought their heavy guns into play, shelling the Huns out of their headquarters. So sudden and furious was the British assault, that von Kluck himself and Prince Eitel, second son of the Kaiser, were interrupted in the midst of their morning repast, barely escaping in their pajamas to their motor cars. An intense artillery duel ensued throughout that day. Whole batteries of German cannon were smashed to pieces and the path of retreat was littered with broken gun carriages. Ten thousand casualties, mostly German, resulted from this brief and bloody engagement.

Continuing their pursuit of the Germans, the British on the 8th engaged the enemy at La Tretoire. The Germans struck back savagely at the British, but were swept by a hail of machine-gun bullets and forced to retreat across the Petit Morin, leaving behind them many dead and wounded, besides great stores of guns and ammunition.

Meantime, the German line to the East of von Kluck had fallen into confusion for a variety of reasons. In their blind plunge across the Marne the Germans had failed to detect either the hidden British Army on the left of D'Esperey's line or General Foch's hidden French army on his right. Supposing D'Esperey's battered army to be wholly isolated, neither von Kluck nor von Buelow anticipated much difficulty in enveloping his flanks. Von Buelow experienced his first rude awakening when General Foch, bringing his army into action on the 5th, had struck hard at the left of his line. Though von Buelow had the assistance of von Hausen's Army further East, the two together were still unequal to the task of overcoming Foch. Moreover, a part of von Buelow's Army was yet engaged with D'Esperey. Von Buelow was in fact so hard pressed on the 6th that he induced von Kluck to lend him two of his three remaining infantry corps, the Third and the Ninth. This left von Kluck with only one infantry corps and one cavalry corps at his disposal, since his second and Fourth Corps had gone north to the Ourcq that morning. He was soon to repent his generosity, for on that very day the observant Britishers successfully attacked his western flank, which was guarded only by von Marwitz's Cavalry Corps, and an urgent appeal had come to him to send additional reinforcements to the relief of his hard pressed forces on the Ourcq. Von Kluck that evening beseeched von Buelow to release his Third and Ninth Corps in order that they might go north to the Ourcq. Von Buelow consenting, the two Corps early next morning began their backward wheel. Their departure left a gap some 30 to 40 miles wide between von Kluck's and von Buelow's Armies.

Into this gap, on the heels of the retiring German corps, General D'Esperey sent two corps of his Fifth French Army. The French pursued von Kluck first across the Grand Morin River at LaFerte Gaucher and then across the Petit Morin at Montmirail. The battle at Montmirail was a desperate encounter m which the French proved their superiority over the Germans, man for man.

The retirement of von Kluck from Mont- mirail had the effect of exposing the right wing of von Buelow's army. Both the French and the British pounded away at this flank, bending it back until envelopment seemed certain. A retreat was necessary if the whole army was to be saved. Von Buelow, accordingly, without permission from the high command, gave orders for a retreat across the Marne on 8th. This necessitated the withdrawal of von Kluck's corps also. By clever maneuvring the battered remnants of the two German armies succeeded in escaping from the trap laid for them. Crossing the Marne on pontoons at Chateau Thierry and LaFere-sous-Jouarre, the Germans for a time held the French and British at bay on the banks of the stream, and at the same time reinforced Von Kluck's flank guard on the bank of the Ourcq, enabling the army engaged with Maunoury to break off the battle in that sector and withdraw on the 10th to the Aisne River.

Throughout September 6, 1914, Manoury had consistently driven back the one German reserve corps opposing him, had reached the Ourcq and was threatening to get behind the main Germain line. The outnumbered Germans resisted stubbornly, but were steadily compelled to withdraw from one position after another. On the next day, however, the advance guard of von Kluck's returning army began to reinforce the Reserve Corps and Manoury made all haste to achieve a crushing defeat before further reinforcements against him could arrive. At the same time, he himself was strengthened by the arrival of fresh troops from the Paris garrison, rushed to the scene of battle in every kind of vehicle Paris was able to provide. But throughout September 7, 1914, the German forces were being constantly strengthened by new detachments hastening up from the German First Army, and on the whole Manoury was unable to gain further headway. He could foresee nothing but defeat on the next day when the main body of the German First Army should arrive. Von Kluck was executing a difficult manoeuvre with extreme skill and rapidity. Indeed, on September 8, 1914, the German First Army arrived in force opposite Manoury, and not only launched tremendous frontal attacks against him, but also started extremely dangerous flanking movements; and on September 9, 1914, Manoury's position was desperate. He was still taking the offensive at times, but his case was hopeless. His men were at the end of their resources, knew they were beaten, and could anticipate nothing better than a wild retreat back into Paris. His northern flank 'had been driven back until it bent far behind the remainder of his line, and even retreat might not save his outnumbered and overwhelmed troops. He could get no further help from the Paris garrison, which could now itself expect an attack by von Kluck, and only by a miraculous Allied victory on another portion of the line could the pressure exerted by von Kluck be lessened.

And it was a miracle, the "Miracle of the Marne," which was occurring on the Allied centre. Events transpiring there were so disastrous to the German plans and so threatening to von Kluck's position that when day broke on September 10, 1914 and Manoury's men were wearily awaiting the final onslaught of von Kluck's troops, they found that the victor had become the vanquished overnight, and that, under the cover of darkness, von Kluck had withdrawn and was retreating to the north with all speed.