Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Around the First Battle of the Marne: 3 victory

The third (and last) part of visiting the 1914 battlefields of the Marne in connection with my Osprey on the First Battle of the Marne.

Although the fighting had gone on for several days, the Germans had not succeeded in defeating the Allies, although they had been driven back in places with heavy casualties. But the front was too long for the number of men engaged, and gaps, small and large, began to appear. Both sides rushed to fill the gaps, but began to run out of men. The clash to the west of the town of Montmirail was the straw that broke the German camel's back.

We stayed at the Hotel Le Vert Galant in Montmirail.

More by chance than design, the French had found the open flank of the German 2nd Army. On 8th September, masking Montmirail itself, French infantry from 36th Division crossed the Petit Morin river and climbed the wooded slopes opposite, supported by artillery. The key combat was the struggle for the small village of Marchais-en-Brie. The German commander, Generalmajor von Unruh, had spread the units of his 25th Brigade (13th Division) out along the ridge line overlooking the river, and could not bring all their guns to bear against the French advance in and around the Bois de Courmont. By the time the defenders had changed front it was too late. If the division's flank was turned, then the corps' flank was turned. If the corps' flank was turned, the 2nd Army's flank was turned, and the only way out was retreat.

Walking out from Montmirail along the country road on the north bank towards the hamlet of Les Marais gives you a good idea of the dominating position of the ridge line, and turning up-slope on the D20 into Marchais, one can only admire the effort of the French infantry who performed the same feat under fire and carrying a full pack.

Montmirail was also the site of a battle in 1814, involving someone called Napoleon (whoever he was). There is a monument and several information boards concerning this battle along the main road.

The action at Marchais lasted most of the day, but, by the later standards of the war, was not very bloody. Perhaps that is why the regimental histories of the units involved do not devote a great deal of space to it. However, their war diaries survive, and their consultation is free of charge: 36th Division, its constituent brigades, 71st (34th and 49th Infantry) and 72nd (12th and 8th Infantry), as well divisional units such as 249th Infantry and 14th Artillery.

The photo-blog La défaite oubliée is a site largely concerned with the 1814 battlefield, but as there is a good overlap on the ground, many of the photos show the 1914 one as well. A site devoted to IR13, who bore the brunt of the French attack, is here.


We also spent some time at Chateau Thierry, staying at Le Jardin des Fables guesthouse. We walked out to the impressive US Memorial, connected, of course, with the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918, rather than the First. From here, it was possible to continue walking westwards, amongst the vineyards. It is easy to see how the Marne crossings are dominated by the hills to the north, and how difficult it was for the BEF to make the crossings when they were faced with a determined opponent.

We also took the opportunity when changing trains to visit La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, but there was little time to do other than climb the hill above the town, to appreciate the importance of the place as a crossing, and to see the memorial to the British dead, close by the bridge (left).

A Google map with the places listed is here.

Pictures: cover of the penny-dreadful from Gallica (I don't what effect she has on the enemy, but by God she frightens me!); the north side of Courton Wood from the German positions; an old postcard of the main square of Chateau-Thierry; the monument at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre from Wikipedia