Two essential first hand accounts and histories of the French Army in 1914
Experienced British correspondent George Herbert Perris accompanied French troops during the opening campaigns of the First World War, and the two books he wrote concerning his observations and experiences have provided us with an essential view and history of the conflict. Accounts of the period, by those who were there, are usually written from the perspective of the writer’s own country and armed forces, so there are a number of books by British writers about the B. E. F and its activities on the far western flank, including the retreat from Mons and stand around Le Cateau. These books, written in English but concerning the French at war are therefore fundamentally different. The first of these two linked accounts deals with the outbreak of war and the invasion of German forces through Flanders and into France. Particular attention is given to the activities of the French Army on the eastern end of the front and Perris provides us with perspectives on French Army actions that are free of the usual biased interpretations given by observers with the British Army. Interesting observations on British actions are also included. Perris’ second book concerns the great turnaround before the gates of Paris, which confounded the momentum of the German plan for a quick, incisive and conclusive victory. There can be little doubt that the Battle of the Marne, which resulted in a massive reversal for German forces, the retreat back to Ypres and the war of stalemate and attrition which ensued, was the first step on the bloody path to eventual victory. Although British forces took part in the battle, it is usually accepted that the Marne was a French battle and victory, so Perris’s observations are invaluable.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
At 3 a.m. on September 8, after a sharp cannonade, the French machine-gunners on Mondemont Hill observed spectral forms approaching in open order—these were advanced parties belonging to the X Corps, with some elements of the Guard. They were easily repulsed; and, immediately afterwards, the much-thinned ranks of the 42nd and Moroccan Divisions, with the 77th regiment of the 9th Corps, were launched anew towards St. Prix. Although Bülow had received reinforcements, and had placed more batteries between Congy and Baye, the Moroccans occupied Oyes and its hill and the Signal du Poirier by 8 a.m., while the left of the 42nd carried Soisy at the point of the bayonet. Unfortunately, the debacle that was happening coincidently on Foch’s right put any exploitation of this success out of the question. A fresh defensive front had to be created south of the marshes, facing east; the 77th regiment was recalled to St. Loup in the middle of the afternoon for this purpose. The 42nd Division seems to have been shaken by this removal of a sorely-needed support; and Bülow, promptly advised of it, ordered his columns forward once more.
On an islet in the west end of the marshes, between the villages of Villevenard and Oyes, stand a Rennaissance gateway and other remnants of the ancient Priory of St. Gond, and in their midst the humble dwelling of “the last hermit of St. Gond,” as M. le Goffic calls him, the Abbé Millard, corresponding member of the French Antiquarian and Archaeological Societies. A victim of dropsy, the abbé was laid up when the approach of the Germans was announced. “So, then,” he calmly remarked, “I shall renew my acquaintance with Attila.” His housekeeper, a typically vigorous Frenchwoman, would have no such morbid curiosity. “You have no parishioners but the frogs. Monsieur le Curé; and they can take care of themselves against your Attila. Come along”—and, bundling some valuables into a wheelbarrow, and giving Father Millard a stick, she carried him off into safety. As they left, a body of Senegalese sharpshooters came up, and began to build across the highway an old-fashioned barricade of tree-trunks, carts, and blocks of stone. “Some barbed wire and a continuous trench, such as the Germans use, would have been better,” remarks M. le Goffic; “but we remained faithful to our old errors, and, nearly everywhere, our men fought in the open or behind sheaves and tree trunks.”
After hours of an ebb-and-flow of bayonet charges and hand to hand combats, the French lost in succession Broussy-le-Petit, Mesnil-Broussy, Reuves, and Oyes—all the morning’s gain had vanished by nightfall. With the Germans entrenched a mile away, and only a single Zouave battalion in reserve, Humbert insisted that Mondemont must be held; and his corps commander, Dubois, desperately seeking to cover the void on his right with the 77th Regiment, told the officers that retreat was not to be thought of. Heavy rain fell during the evening, obstructing the movements of all the armies. On both sides, that night, the chiefs knew that the issue was a matter of hours, of very few hours.
So, in the misty dawn of September 8, the grey-coats, picked Prussians and burly Saxons, swarmed forward, seeming to renew themselves irresistibly. Foch, talking to his Staff overnight, had exclaimed that such desperation suggested the need of compensating for ill fortune elsewhere; and now he opened a black day with a characteristic phrase of stubborn cheer: “The situation is excellent; I order you again vigorously to take the offensive.” The situation excellent! Foch would not use words of meaningless bravado; he may have been thinking of d’Espérey knocking at Bülow’s side door.
At this hour (7 a.m.), he could not yet know that the loss of Lenharrée had been followed by the turning of two regiments of the 20th Division, and two others of the 60th Reserve Division, defending the passages of the Somme-Soude, and that the hues on either side were crumpling up. So it was. From a number of personal narratives, often contradictory and exaggerated, we can draw an outline of what occurred in the surprise of Fère Champènoise, without pretending to determine exactly where, or by what failing of exhausted men, the confusion originated.
Before Normée, outposts of the 11th Corps, scattered by the sudden fierceness of the onslaught, left uncovered the 35th Brigade (of the 18th Division), which lay bivouacked in the woods. One regiment, the 32nd, was surrounded, and only a half of its effectives, with a few junior officers, escaped. The 34th Brigade, behind it, had time to fall back without loss, through Connantre to Oeuvy, along with the survivors of the 35th. The remnants of the defenders of Lenharrée retreated toward Connantre, firing steadily. As far as Fère Champènoise, the chase ran fast along the four roads, from Bannes, Morains, Ecury, and Normée. In the little country town, crouched in a depression of the hills, and so indefensible, an army chaplain 4 was conducting service in the parish church, at 9 a.m., when bullets began to spatter on the walls, and the first cries of flying men were heard above the noise of breaking windows. At 10.30, the Prussian Guard entered the town, drums and fifes playing. Presently, with bodies of Saxons from Normée, they continued the pursuit, which proceeded more slowly toward Connantre and Oeuvy and the valley of the Maurienne. Here and there, small French groups turned at bay, because they could go no farther, or hoping to stem the retreat.
Thus, 200 men of the 66th and 32nd Regiments came to a stand in one of the dwarf-pine woods south of Fère. They had no officer among them; but a sergeant-major named Guerre took them in hand, and disposed them in four sections, “like the square at Waterloo,” he said. One German attack was beaten off; but when a field-gun came up. Guerre decided that the only hope was to make a sortie. It cost the brave man his life. About 30 of his fellows got away, including two privates, Malveau and Bourgoin, who, after wandering in the German lines, and being directed by a dying German officer, brought the flag of the 32nd Regiment during the evening to the commander of the 35th Brigade.
Perhaps it was because of the convergence of roads upon Fère, noted above, that, whereas the original breakdown occurred on Foch’s right, the pursuit became concentrated upon his centre. The most important consequence of this fact was that the German Command never discovered the weakest part of the French front, and the dislocated right was able to escape from restraint and to re-form. The greater part of the 60th Reserve Division, which had extended from Vassimont and Haussimont to Sommesous, where two regiments arrested the Saxon advance for two hours, rallied early in the afternoon between Semoine and Mailly. General de l’Espée’s cavalry, with some infantry elements, held up a brigade of the Saxon XII Corps south of Sompuis; and the neighbouring army of de Langle effectively engaged the XIX Corps between Humbauville and Courdemange.
Westward of the main stream of pursuit, the position of Foch’s left was more delicate and critical. At the extreme left, we have seen that, during the morning, the 42nd Division recaptured Villeneuve and Soisy, while the Moroccan Division reached St. Prix and the Signal du Poirier. The 42nd held its gains throughout the day; but the 9th Corps, shaken by frontal attack across the marshes, and left with its flank in the air by the breakdown of the 11th Corps, had no choice but to withdraw its right, and suffered heavily ere it could take up new positions. Coming on from Morains, the Prussian Guard took the homesteads called Grosse and Petit Fermes, on the way to Bannes, in reverse by the east. Three French regiments were here thrown into confusion, cavalry plunging into the batteries, and fugitives obstructing the roads. The panic, however, was soon over.