A hundred and fifty miles in eleven days, along dusty roads under a fierce midsummer sun, was a creditable enough achievement for the young British troops. On 18th and 19th August they had reached the Belgian frontier, and a few days later found them in position at Mons. Their information was scanty and misleading. They did not know that Namur had fallen, that the remains of the Belgians had taken refuge in Antwerp, and that Brussels was in the hands of the Germans, who were rapidly descending on Northern France in a two-hundred-mile line. The French army under General Joffre—rushing also to the help of Belgium—met the great German army at Charleroi on the Meuse, where they were speedily defeated, and obliged to retreat.
They had indeed been in retreat for some twelve hours, when on Sunday, 23rd August, the British troops about Mons came into action, still in complete ignorance of the disaster at Charleroi, ignorant too of the strength of their foe. True, a British aeroplane had reported that roads to the north were "alive with advancing Germans," but all forecasts with regard to numbers proved wrong.
With the first streak of dawn came the first German shells, and one by one the British guns "roared into action." Growing fiercer and yet more terrible, the battle lasted till late afternoon. The British position was grave, but not critical. Then at 5 o'clock came a telegram from General Joffre. It contained grave news to Sir John French. It told of the fall of Namur, of the French defeat at Charleroi, of the overwhelming forces against them of some 200,000 men, with another 40,000 working round. It was indeed a perilous position. The British troops were alone and isolated in the face of an enemy twice its strength.
"It seemed a force marked out for destruction."
Sir John French did not hesitate; only one course was possible, bitter as it was—immediate retreat. The order was given to fall back, and the now famous retreat from Mons began. For part of the army, it began at once; for many, not till 25th August, a day of glaring summer heat, changing to a downpour of rain at night, when the British army, disappointed and weary, faced southward for the long hard march back through France. Battle-worn and exhausted though they were, there could be no rest until they had extricated themselves from the immediate danger of being surrounded and cut off by the ever-pursuing Germans. On they marched, by different highways, ever toward Paris, now through drenching rain, now through intolerable dust and the glare of the mid-day sun, throwing away their packs, coats, rifles—all that impeded them. Added to this, part of the army had to turn and fight the oncoming foe at Le Cateau in a position from which escape seemed impossible. Here some eight thousand lost their lives. The remainder were ever hard-pressed, and with great empty gaps in their ranks—the places of those who had marched so hopefully with them but a short week ago—they pushed bravely onwards.
Day after day it was the same story, "March on," until at the last point of human endurance, the British soldiers staggered on, to the distant sound of German guns.
It was not until 2nd September that the whole army met again, at the crossing of the Marne, a tributary of the Seine. Their losses had been heavy; out of the 100,000 men who fought at Mons, some 15,000 never returned.
It has been said that "the old Regular Army, led by the best in the land, saved the national honour in the acutest crisis in history, and ceased to exist in the doing of it."
But if the retreat from Mons is a glorious page in the history of the British army, the advance after the retreat was no less remarkable, enabling the French to win the battle of the Marne, which saved Paris and changed the whole course of the first year's campaign.
The French army, too, had been hastily retreating toward Paris, after their disastrous defeat at Charleroi, before the advancing foe, for the German armies were even now rushing down upon the French capital.
"If the Generals would allow it, the men would run to Paris instead of walking there," remarked one of the German leaders of the great invading force.
As it was, indeed, their rate of progress was little less than thirty miles a day, for their leaders, Von Kluck and Von Billow, knew that a decisive victory over the Allies must be gained at all costs, and that soon.
Joffre and his armies, backed up by the British Allies, were ready for the Germans; the defence of Paris was already arranged, when on 5th September Joffre issued his famous order: "The hour has come to advance at all costs, and to die where you stand rather than give way."
It was the eve of the battle of the Marne, and the German army was likewise stimulated to great deeds: "The objects of our long and arduous marches have been achieved. The principal French troops have been forced to accept battle. For the honour of Germany, I expect every officer and man to do his duty unswervingly and to his last breath."
Von Kluck and his great army had crossed the River Marne and his patrols had reached the Seine. "It was a bright and solitary glimpse of the river on which stood the capital of France."
For, owing to the unexpected rally of the British troops after the retreat, owing to lost time in Belgium—a priceless asset to the Allies,—the French were able to place an undefeated French army across the German path, so that any siege or encirclement of Paris became impossible. So Von Kluck hurriedly changed his plans, and with that change of plan, Paris was saved. The French Government had already left the capital for Bordeaux when the first shots of the battle of the Marne were fired.
It was Sunday, 6th September. Soon the fighting became desperate, and for the next three days the battle was to "swing and sway" from side to side. The French—with everything at stake—were fighting for their lives and their land, but at times it seemed as though Von Kluck's desperate efforts would defeat the Allies once more. At one moment the French position was indeed desperate; unless reinforcements could be brought up, disaster seemed certain. It was a dramatic move when all the taxis in Paris were suddenly commandeered, filled with soldiers, and rushed forty miles to the fighting line. The tragic situation was saved. Saved, too, was Paris. For, suddenly and unexpectedly, aeroplanes reported that the Germans were retreating. They were moving by many roads to the north. The famous Prussian Guard, hitherto undefeated and held to be invincible, were falling back in haste.
Back across the Marne they scrambled, pursued by the Allies, hustled over some thirty miles of the same country across which they had so triumphantly marched but a short time since—till they reached the river Aisne—the first chill of disaster on them. The great German surprise, so long, so carefully planned, had failed; the blow had been turned aside. In a far-flung contest every man in the French and British armies had done his appointed task, and earned a share of the triumph.
But it was the unconquerable spirit of France that achieved the victory of the Marne—"the most decisive incident in the Great War."