August, 1914. Look at the photographs: the brilliant, smiling faces of the young recruits; the dignified surety of the commanders; the brave faced mothers and wives waving handkerchiefs of farewell. Massive enthusiasm sends French, German and British troops off to war. Military commanders feel in control. Raw troops are ready to show their courage and fulfill their sense of adventure. Politicians look forward to the spoils. Instead, the first cataclysmic battle of World War I, the Battle of the Marne, leads to no quick resolution, but rather points the way toward a brutality that the world had never before witnessed.
Sometimes it is really emotionally hard to be a historian. As I see those men board for trains for the front, I feel like Cassandra. I know what awaits them and it is unspeakable. Death and carnage run amok. The crude slogging of trench warfare on the Western Front that results in an acceptance of human suffering that staggers the mind. Shells. Machine guns. Mortars. Bayonets. And gas.
As a military historian, I was excited at the prospect of delving into the archives of the Bavarian, Prussian, Saxon, Baden, and French armies--many only made available to me by the collapse of East Germany in 1990. I wanted to learn more about the Battle of the Marne. This battle has not received nearly the attention or dramatic play that the Somme or Verdun, for instance, have. Yet it was brutal, vicious, demanding of the utmost effort by the common soldier, on either side. The Marne was an extraordinary, inconceivable battle which involved two million men for six weeks across a battle front from Switzerland to the English Channel. I followed its tortuous path first in the archives, and then on foot and by car--from the southern slopes of the Vosges Mountains where Julius Caesar had defeated the German tribes, to the vineyards of Alsace, to the rocky canyons of the River Meuse, to the baked fields of Brabant. And I stop in awed silence in places such as Dinant and Louvain, where civilians suspected of sniper fire brought immediate, brutal retaliation: German troops executed about 4,400 francs-tireurs in Belgium alone.
When I got into the archives, I was amazed at what I found. I was able to retrace the horror of the men marching to the front in stifling heat, slaking thirst in mud puddles and satisfying hunger with half-ripened fruit. The French poilu or the German Landser or the British Tommy endures boils and sores, typhus and diarrhea. He fights, is wounded, fights again. Afterwards, a German general is simply amazed that "men who have slept on the ground half dead with fatigue, should have the strength to take up their rifles and attack"; that, he muses, was something "that we never spoke about in our war academies."
I wanted to write about the Battle of the Marne because I regard it as the most decisive land battle since the Allies defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. I regard its impact to have been spectacular: Germany was denied victory and hegemony over Europe; France was spared occupation; Britain maintained its foothold on the Continent. Without the Marne, places such as Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele would not resonate with us as they do. Without the Marne, no Lenin, no Stalin, no Hitler.
The 100th anniversary of the Marne soon will be upon us. I want it remembered. I want the young men who died or were wounded along that river--some 200,000 of them--remembered. And I want this generation--which is about to be called upon again to march off to war in ever greater numbers to distant parts of the planet--to understand fully what is involved in war. As Carl von Clausewitz, the great German military theorist reminds us, war at its most elemental level is "slaughter" (Schlacht), pure and simple. We need never to forget that.
I believe journalists perhaps captured the immensity of the Marne best. Will Irwin, reporting for Collier's Weekly, speaks of the grayness of it all: "gray transport wagons," "gray motor-cycles," "gray biplanes," "gray machines of war." Ever onward, he notes, rolls the German "gray machine of death." And he finds something that he has never read in a book on war: "the smell of a half-million un-bathed men, the stench of a menagerie raised to the nth power."
The archives convinced me that there was nothing preordained about the Battle of the Marne. Chance, choice, contingency, agency, lurked at every corner. I was struck by the words of Joseph Joffre, the French commander: "I don't know who won the Battle of the Marne, but if it would have been lost, I know who would have lost it." Above all, in the archives I see links long missing in one of the most enduring puzzle of modern times--the Battle of the Marne, 1914.