As the sun rose on the morning of September 5th 1914, its first rays fell on an Allied Force that was almost completely spent. The British and French had been driven in retreat for the better part of two weeks; they had been driven nearly to the gates of Paris, whose government—fearing that nothing could stop the Germans—had already fled for Bordeaux. The war, only a month old, seemed to be almost over on the Western Front.

However, the early morning sun of September 5th brought with it a turn of the tide. Marcel Dupont, a young French cavalry officer, wrote of that fateful morning:

“The Colonel had drawn up the officers of the brigade in front of the squadrons. He held a paper in his hand and read it to us in a resonant voice, full of unfamiliar vibrations. On hearing the first few sentences we drew closer around him as by instinct. We could not believe our ears. It was the first time we had heard anything like it since the outbreak of the war.

[I]n a few noble, simple words the Commander-in-Chief told us that the trials of that hideous retreat were over, and that the day had come to take the offensive. He asked us all to do our duty to the death and promised us victory.

We returned to our squadrons in animated groups. Our delight was quickly communicated to the troops, who understood at once. The men exchanged jests and promises of fabulous exploits. They had already forgotten the fatigues of the fortnight’s retreat. What did they care if their horses could hardly carry them further, and if many of them would be incapable of galloping?

What did it matter?” (1)

Just as suddenly as it had started, the Great Retreat was over. Revitalized with offensive spirit, and spurred on by their commanders, the Allied armies resolved to attack in a last-ditch effort to stave off defeat. The stage was set for the titanic Battle of the Marne.

And titanic it was. The battle involved roughly 2 million troops on both sides, caused over 500,000 casualties, and lasted for six days: a battle of unimaginable proportions. It is tempting, when we look at a battle that size and casualty lists that long, to lose track of the individual human experience; the sheer size and power of the battle can overwhelm us. In the midst of tens of thousands of dead, individual tragedies get sanitized and repackaged as statistics.

But to those on the ground, the fighting could not be experienced in the abstract. For them, there were no statistics—only death, loss, and tragedy. On the first day of the Battle of the Marne, Marcel Dupont saw that tragedy written on the face of his comrade after his horse had been shot out from under him. Marcel wrote in his memoire:

“Lemaître was standing in great grief over poor ‘Ramier’ lying inert on the ground and struggling feebly with death. His eyes were already dull and his legs convulsed. Every now and then he shuddered violently.

I looked at Lemaître, who felt as if he were losing his best friend. And, indeed, is not our horse our best friend when we are campaigning—the friend that serves us well to the very last, that saves us time and again from death, and carries us until he can carry us no longer? I dismounted and threw the reins to Lemaître:

“Don’t grieve, my good fellow; it is a fine end for your ‘Ramier.’ He might, like so many others, have died worn out with work or suffering under some hedgerow. He has a soldier’s death. All we can do is to cut short his sufferings and send him quickly to rejoin his many good comrades in the paradise of noble animals. For they have their paradise, I am sure.”

But Lemaître hardly seemed convinced. He shook his head sadly, and said:

“Oh, mon Lieutenant! I shall never be able to replace him. Such a good animal! such a fine creature! He jumped so well…. And his coat was always so beautiful; he was so sleek and so easy to keep…. No, I shall never find another like him.”

“Oh! yes, you will.”

However, I must confess my hand trembled as I drew my revolver. […] Lemaître was right. “Ramier” was a good old servant, one of the kind that never goes lame, can feed on anything or on nothing, and never hurts anybody. It was hard to put an end to him; but since he was done for….

I put the muzzle of my revolver into his ear. I did not wish him to feel the cold metal; but his whole body shuddered, and his eye, lighting up for a moment, seemed to reproach me. Paff! A short, sharp report, and ‘Ramier’ quivered for a moment. Then his sufferings ceased, and his stiffening carcass added one more to the many that strewed the country.” (2)

After days of desperate fighting—after days of blood, tears, toil, and sweat—the Allies found themselves in possession of the field. At the cost of tens of thousands of dead, they had won a tremendous strategic victory which was immediately hailed as the “Miracle of the Marne.”

However, this miracle was a double-edged sword. The German advance had been broken, but all hopes for a short war broke with it. Henceforth, neither the Germans nor the Allies would have the strength to win a decisive victory. The Battle of the Marne may have saved the Allies from defeat, but it also guaranteed that the war would now continue for years.

It sometimes strikes me as funny that in the middle of the Battle of the Marne, Marcel would choose to focus so much attention on the death of a horse. But it’s times like these that I have to remind myself that I’m thinking of the battle in terms of arrows on the map—that hindsight has blinded me to the experience of the soldier on the ground. To me, September 5th 1914, and the Battle of the Marne, have huge historical implications. But for Marcel and his comrade there were no arrows on the map or historical implications. To them, September 5th saw the death of a friend. Nothing more.


Notes:

1. Marcel Dupont, In the Field: Impressions of an Officer of the Light Cavalry, trans. H.W. Hill (London: William Heinemann, 1916), 76 – 77.

2. Dupont, 98 – 100.

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