The Annales School

The Battle of the Marne

By Marc Bloch

Source: Annales. Économies, Sociètés, Civilisations. 1967, Vol 22, No 3;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2009.

I had the honor of taking part in the first five months of the campaign of 1914-15. I am now in Paris on convalescent leave, slowly recovering from a serious typhoid fever that forced me to leave the front. I have plenty of leisure time. I will use it to fix my memories before time erases their colors, today so fresh, so vibrant. I will not gather all of them; one has to grant forgetfulness its part. But I don’t want to abandon to the whims of my memory the five amazing months that I have just lived through. It has a habit of performing a triage of my past that often seems injudicious. It encumbers itself with details of no interest and allows images to fade away whose least stroke would have been dear to me. That choice it so badly makes, I this time want handed over to my reason.

August 1914! I can still see myself, standing in the corridor of the train car that was bringing us, my brother and I, from Vevey, where we had learned on July 31 of Germany’s declaration of war. I watched the sun rise in a beautiful, cloudy sky, and I softly repeated to myself these words, in themselves perfectly insignificant and which yet appeared to me to be heavy with a fearful and hidden meaning: “This is what a dawn is in August 1914.” Upon arriving in Paris, at the Gare de Lyon, we learned from the newspapers of Jaurès’ assassination. A poignant disquiet was mixed in with our mourning. The war seemed inevitable. Would a riot soil its premise? Today we all know how unfair these fears were. Jaurès was no more. But the influence of his noble spirit survived him; the Socialist Party’s attitude proved this to the nations.

The picture that Paris offered during the first days of the mobilization remains one of the most beautiful memories that the war has left me. The city was peaceful and a bit solemn. The slow-moving traffic, the absence of buses, the rarity of taxi cabs rendered the streets nearly silent. The sorrow that lay deep in all hearts didn’t display itself; all that could be seen was that many women had swollen and red eyes. The national armies made the war a democratic ferment. There were only two classes in Paris, one made up of “those who left,” and this was the nobility, the other of those who, not leaving, seemed for the instant to only care was to pamper the soldiers of tomorrow. In the streets, in the stores, on the trams, people spoke amongst themselves familiarly. And the unanimous benevolence was transmitted in words and gestures, often childish and clumsy, but nevertheless touching. For the most part men weren’t happy; they were resolute, which is even better.

Early on the morning of August 4 I left for Amiens. I traveled a part of the long road which goes from Avenue d’Orleans to the Gare de la Chapelle in a produce wagon which a police agent had requisitioned for my transport. I was seated in the back, wedged in among the baskets of vegetables. This is why the healthy and slightly bitter odor of cabbage and carrots will always evoke in me the emotions of this early morning departure: enthusiasm and a clenching of the heart. At the Gare de la Chapelle an old white-haired papa embraced an artillery officer and made a heroic and vain effort to hold back his tears. In Amiens I found the city prodigiously animated, the streets were naturally filled with troops; I never understood why there were so many pharmacy officers there.

On August 10, at 1:30 AM, the 272nd Infantry Regiment, which I had been assigned to as sergeant (18th company, 4th section), left Amiens and via the streets of its suburbs, in the nocturnal silence, reached the Gare de Longueau where we embarked. A long and tiring voyage, in the crushing heat of a broiling hot day. The official dispatch announcing the taking of Mulhouse was communicated to us at the station in Sedan. I read it to the men in my car. I was happy to speak of a victory at the great battlefield of the defeat. We disembarked in Stenay.

From August 11-21 the regiment stayed in the region of the Meuse, first in the valley itself, where we guarded the bridges, and then closer to the border, on the right bank. I naturally have few clear memories from that period. Beautiful, calm days, a bit monotonous, filled with the tiny details of camp: the sun, bucolic pleasures – fishing, bathing in the river, siestas in the grass – the spectacle of an unknown country which, without gaiety or pomp, is not without charm, would have made the days quite pleasant had the wait not made them feverish.

On the night of the 20-21 the section I belonged to was on police guard duty at the town hall of a village in northern Woevre called Quincy. In the middle of the night an officer from the general staff appeared in the classroom where we were sleeping. Abruptly awakened, our section chief, hopping in his socks, went to take the orders from the party-pooper, who asked to be taken to the colonel. The regiment departed one hour later. It was the advance. In the fields, passing below the citadel of Montmédy, whose bastioned old walls rose over the grassy escarpment, for the first time we heard the cannons, the “brutal,” as the soldiers called it. We were to see the first shrapnel from afar – white flakes in the azure sky – the next day during a halt. We had set up camp on the evening of the 21st in a small village near Montmédy, Irèles-Prés, and in the morning we set off again as escorts for a combat train of the army corps. We had been told that we were going to penetrate into Belgium. I’ll never forget the men’s joy when they got this news. Along the way a counter-order came and a long and difficult march took my company to Velosnes, a village right on the Belgian border. Troops of the 4th Corps occupied it. Some had just fought. On a small square where there was a laundry trough, a house held three German prisoners who we looked at through the window. We slept piled up in a cold barn. As for me, I had stretched out on a pile of sticks and didn’t pass too bad a night.

The 23rd we met the first wounded that I saw during the campaign. Our company had received as mission to dig trenches in front of a village called Thone-la-Long – near the border, like Velosnes, but further to the west – that we occupied until the morning of the 25th. I lived the first two nights of bivouac there. I find in my notebook for the date of the 23rd these words: “First day where the impression is really serious... Many wounded along the roads. We saw on the road (it was a question of a road perpendicular to our trenches that we were guarding) the debris of two battalions of the 87th...In summary, the reverse side of a great battle, I think of a great victory. But since the 21st I know the Germans are in Brussels.”

On the morning of the 25th we retreated, and I understood that the hope testified to by the last few lines I cited had been betrayed. This infinitely cruel disappointment, the suffocating temperatures, the difficulties of the march on roads cluttered with artillery and convoys, and finally the dysentery that I’d been suffering from since the previous day, make it so that the 25th remains in my memory one of the most painful I’ve ever known. But will I ever forget the two cups of hot coffee I got from a peasant woman from the village near which we’d halted that day, Han-les-Juvigny? I hadn’t drunk since the morning, for reason. No; however old I might live to be, no drink will ever procure for me a pleasure as voluptuous as those two cups of awful “juice.”

We passed the night in the woods. In the summer, when the weather is good, there is no more agreeable place to bivouac nor, I think, any more agreeable bedroom. The shelter of the leaves removes the chill from the outdoors, and their barely perceptible smell lightly perfumes the fresh breezes that caress the face of the sleeper. This sleep in the great outdoors, this free though not very deep sleep, where the breast breathes with ease and which we never come out of heavy-headed, has a voluptuousness that walled-in sleep doesn’t have. While we tasted its charms, the enemy was approaching. A delay in the transmission of the order to depart almost caused us to be taken by surprise. Our awakening was abrupt and followed by a forced march. Along the way we saw people hastily leaving their village. Men, women, children, furniture (often the most heteroclite!), packages of sheets piled up on the wagons. These peasants of France, fleeing before an enemy we could not protect them against, composed a cruel tableau, the most infuriating perhaps of all those that the war offered us. We were to see them often during the retreat, the poor evacuees, blocking the roads and the village squares with their wagons; lost, frantic, pushed by the gendarmes, in the way and pitiful. In Baricourt, where we slept the night of the 26th in a kind of stable, they for their part slept out in the wind and rain in their carts, the women with babies in their arms. The next day, in reserve on the plateau that looks out over the left bank of the Meuse, we watched climb to the sky, flecked with shrapnel, the smoke of the burned down villages.

The retreat lasted until September 5, interrupted by a rest of three days in the Grandpré depression, first in Ternes and then in Grandpré itself, ending in four days of difficult march. It left me a vague and uniformly unpleasant memory, like the ache that follows a bad night. The dusty roads where the company was too often strung out; the crushing heat, especially the crossing of the woods, whose undergrowth, which didn’t provide much shade, blocked the rare breezes, the late bedtimes, the too early departures, the discomfort of the resting places, the monotony of the days, all of this would have counted for little if we didn’t constantly have our backs turned to the border in continuous retreat without ever fighting. What was happening? We didn’t know anything. I suffered horribly from this ignorance. I put up less well with uncertainty than with bad news, and nothing upsets me like the feeling that the truth is being hidden from me. Oh cruel days of retreat, days of lassitude, boredom and fear.

On September 6 we saw the first wounded from the great battle that had begun, and which history was to know as the Battle of the Marne. This was in front of the chateau of Plessis, near Orconte, in the Champagne. The wounded – from the colonies – passed on the road and we gave them drink. We were then posted as skirmishers. We thought that we were going to fight. Tired of inaction, the men were happy, though serious. But it was nothing but a false alert. On the morning of the 7th we went to Larzicourt, a village of white stone on the right bank of the Marne; the orchards there bear exquisite plums. We stayed there three days; we stayed in the village only at night. During the day we occupied trenches we had dug in the wheat fields to the north. The weather was hot and beautiful. Woods closed off the horizon in front of us. To the left, towards Vitry-le-François, in the sky – which appears immense above this flat countryside – we saw shells exploding without pause in the distance.

On the evening of the 9th, barely had we lain down in the hayloft, where my section slept, than we were awakened and put on alert. Our regiment took its place in a long column of infantry, and an interminable night march began. Upon leaving Larzicourt we crossed the Marne. Our trenches had always seemed to me a fallback position, aimed at covering if need be a retreat beyond the river, consequently a position that had to be held at whatever cost, and which was to be abandoned only after an irremediable defeat. At Larzicourt hadn’t they read us the order in which General Joffre commanded us “to be killed in place rather than retreat?” And here, it seemed, the great retreat was beginning, since we were crossing the bridge that we should have defended. We set out again on the long and crushing retreat that had taken us from Belgian Luxembourg to the Marne. We had so many times hoped to see its end: on the Meuse at Grandpré, in almost all the villages where we had camped for a night, and for the last time in the trenches of Larzicourt. Once again we were setting off. I thought that all was lost. If only I’d known. But while during the night I sadly walked down a winding road, at the sides of which, against the darkened skies, small groups of trees took on the air of ghosts; while, with my heart filled with rage, feeling my rifle – which had never been fired – weigh on my shoulder, I listened to the sound of the uncertain step of our half-asleep men, and thought I was nothing but one defeated man among the defeated; defeated men without glory, who had never spilled their blood in combat, while over there, in the headquarters in Paris, they knew, they at least foresaw victory. But in Larzicourt we were unaware of everything. I lived through painful hours on this road.

A moment came when, despite the infinite detours, I realized we weren’t headed towards the southwest; realized that we were participating, not in a retreat, but in one of those troop movements that are so frequent on the outskirts of battlefields. And this was the case. As dawn approached, a cold driving rain began to fall. We kept on marching, worn out, our bellies empty. A man found a German helmet and we took turns putting it on as a joke. An automobile joined us at a crossroads. A headquarters officer got out; he spoke to our colonel for a few minutes, and then quickly left. We left the road to climb, to our right, through high, wet grass, the steep slope of a hill. We had abandoned the march in column and adopted the formation in lines of sections of four that the regulations prescribe when, under the threat of artillery a troop approached the line of fire. The regiment halted before reaching the crest, and they had us kneel. The sun was rising. The air was cool. The rain had stopped. The damp capes were heavy. I was no longer sleepy. Our lieutenant went to the captain, or the battalion chief, I don’t know who and, upon returning said: “You are going to fight. You’ve wanted to do so for long enough.” We started to move again and passing over the crest we descended into a valley that a road followed, along which we halted again. To the left we glimpsed the buildings of a farm. Called Grand Perthes, I think. The halt lasted quite a while, an hour I think. The men were peaceful, a bit pale. Our old captain, hoarser than ever, lit a pipe and couldn’t help saying that it was perhaps his last. A lieutenant mechanically protested, just to be polite. I opened a can of cherry preserves that the company cyclist had gotten for me the day before in I don’t know what village, and I distributed some. The first cannonballs arrived, whistling. They fell a few hundred meters from us, giving off heavy black smoke. A cow was killed, as well as a man who was near it. Then we took up our forward march, crossing the road and climbing the slope opposite the on we had com from. We passed through a line of trenches occupied by another regiment, the 100th, I think.

It is likely that if I don’t fall into imbecility, as long as I live I will never forget September 10, 1914. And yet my memories of that day are not very precise. It’s especially true that they don’t follow each other in order very well. They form a discontinuous series of images, in truth quite vivid, but not very well coordinated, like a roll of movie film with large tears here and there and which, without our even noticing, change the order of certain tableaus. That day, under extremely violent artillery and machine gun fire, we advanced a few kilometers, probably three of four, from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. We had suffered heavy losses: for my company, which wasn’t the one most tested, it was about a third of the effectives. I don’t know if my memory plays me false, but it doesn’t seem to me that the time dragged. Those horrible hours doubtless passed quickly. We advanced across hilly terrain, at first scattered with small woods, then completely exposed. I recall that upon passing a hedgerow I rudely addressed a man who had halted. He answered me, “I’m wounded,” and in fact he’d just been, if not wounded, at least bruised by an explosion. He was the first one wounded. A little further on I glimpsed the first corpse. It was a corporal who didn’t belong to our regiment. He was laying on a slope, huddled up, his head towards the bottom; from his campaign pot, which had opened in his fall, potatoes had escaped, lined up on the ground below him. We crossed several copses. At each halt we lay down. Machine gun bullets buzzed through the branches like swarms of wasps. The heavy detonations of shells shook the air, followed by the song sung by the shrapnel when it falls after the explosion. The shrapnel rockets in particular gently vibrate while spinning in the air, and only go suddenly silent at the end of their fall. How many of these funereal melodies did I hear that day? I drew my head into my shoulders and awaited the arrival of silence, and perhaps with it, the deadly blow.

I lost my section behind one of the small woods. I found it again a bit further on. The men were laying flat on their bellies on the yellow earth. Behind us the colonel was knocked over by a shell. He got up and rejoined us without having been wound. My neighbor, a corporal, was wounded in the arm and the knee. The other sergeant and myself set out to bandage him, but we had ourselves been wounded, my colleague quite seriously in the thigh, and I very slightly in the right arm. The bullet, after having entered the sleeve, had had the good taste to immediately exit, and did nothing more than burn my skin. As the pain was quite sharp I had at first thought I’d been seriously wounded. But I quickly realized that it was nothing. At this moment there was a kind of panic in our section caused, as far as I can recall, by the horses of the machine gunners. They had quite foolishly brought the pieces up to there, and they sought to form them in a battery which , under such a fire, was hardly possible. The animals panicked and spread panic among us. I still see myself running upright in front of two horses I was seeking to avoid and who, I don’t know why, appear enormous in my memory. “Don’t panic or we’re lost!” And then, on the lieutenant’s orders, we ran to the right to reach an earthen levee behind which the neighboring sections had already set themselves up. Samuel, the quartermaster, was set up, half-sitting, half laying, his back against the embankment. As I passed him, running as fast as I could, he yelled out to me to lie down in the hollow in front of him. I took his wise advice.

How long did we remain in that fold in the land? How many minutes or how many hours? I have no idea. We were huddled against each other, piled one on top of another. Since the enemy artillery was taking us on our right flank, the embankment that rose before us offered us only an illusory shelter. Many men were killed or wounded. For a while, on my right, I had our sergeant major, a fat blond boy of cordial manner and rustic language. He had been wounded in the hand and a bloody cloth was wrapped around it. The wound was slight. The poor man was killed towards day’s end, but by then I’d lost sight of him. I was half-laying against my neighbor on the left. I think that I never hated anyone as much as I hated that person, who I’d never seen till that day, who I have never seen since, and who I wouldn’t recognize if I were to meet him. He had cramps in his legs, which I was weighing on, and in order for him to relieve the cramps he absolutely wanted me to get up, which would have meant foolishly exposing myself to death. I am still happy today to have refused, and I hope that that egotist often suffers from rheumatism. In front of me, next to Samuel, his back leaning against the slope, my company’s adjutant was seated. In order to protect himself he’d put his knapsack on his head. He leapt, starting every time a shell whistled. Wounded men cried out. One of them implored the colonel, calling on him to either rescue him or kill him. I think I was quite calm. The spirit of curiosity, which rarely abandons me, hadn’t left me. I remember that I noted for the first time that the smoke of explosive shells has an ochre color, unlike those of percussion shells, which is very black. But I found war to be a nasty affair. I decided that the faces of men who await death and fear it are not a pretty sight, and I vaguely recalled some pages of Tolstoy.

The colonel was to my left, with his adjutant major. One knee on the ground, he tried to see over the embankment. He was pale and seemed undecided. He ended up ordering a leap forward. A small portion of the regiment had pushed ahead of us and we had to join them. I said “order,” but “beg” would be more accurate. “Let’s go, my children. We have to advance. Your comrades are over there, in front of you. They’re firing. You can’t leave them alone. Non-coms, set an example.” It was tough to leave our embankment; I’ve explained why it protected us only imperfectly, but we thought ourselves better sheltered than we were in reality. We had faith in this chance retrenchment, however poor it might have been, and we felt a natural repugnance at throwing ourselves upright into an open space. I remember having very clearly thought at this moment: “Since the colonel wants it, I have to get up and charge. But it’s all over; there’s no use hoping. I’ll be killed.” And we stood up and ran I shouted: “Forward, the 18th!” We reached a path that bordered a small earthen projection. There we found a small group of soldiers and we halted. Through the not very dense grass with which the embankment was planted we saw a vast landscape. With good eyesight it appeared you could make out the enemy positions. The officers had us open fire. My arm hurt too much for me to maneuver my rifle. I communicated the orders. In any event the fire, at a great distance and on objectives difficult to make out, was doubtless ineffective. Men were wounded near me. The day approached its end. We hoped for the moment when it would be completely extinguished, preventing combat. The German cannonade little by little slowed down. At the same time, our pieces joined in. Oh the joy of hearing whistling above you French shells on their way to the enemy instead of German shells. Since night was falling I took the chance of leaving the shelter of the embankment to go, a few meters behind me, to one of our corporals, who was laying there wounded. I couldn’t do much for him. When night came I had him carried to the ambulance by two men who, in the event, incapable of going to the end, had to abandon him along the way. In the growing darkness the regiment withdrew to the earth levee we had left for our final leap.

It was there that we passed the night. A few bullets whistled from time to time. Around 10:00 I think the German machineguns began to fire again without doing us any harm. They quickly fell silent. We were famished. I had a can of sardines. I opened it, ate a few and offered the rest. It was cold out. In the course of that summer campaign we had never before felt such a chill. The wounded cried out or groaned. Many asked for something to drink. We organized a team to search for water which traveled a great distance without finding anything. Its return provoked an alert, and I’m almost sure it was shot at. During the night, we also had a few moments of worry. I remember getting up to have our men, who we had gathered together as best we could, and who after a sleepless night followed by a hard day, would perhaps only have weakly resisted an attack, attach their bayonets. The smell of blood floated in the air. Despite this sickly perfume, despite the cries and groans, despite our fears, I slept a few hours stretched out in a furrow.

A little before daybreak the order came to pull back. We regained the valley where the day before we’d passed the hour that preceded combat. The colonel commanding the brigade passed on horseback. He congratulated us, crying out: Long Live the 272nd!” and informed us that the Germans were retreating. Since we had nothing to eat, he ordered the lieutenant who was fulfilling the functions of company chief in place of the wounded captain, to have a cow and a sheep killed from among the flocks which, deprived of shepherds, scattered and doubtless confused, grazed the hills behind us. These innocent victims were put to death by pistol shot. In the morning I went to visit the ambulances, where a wounded man called me. I saw there horrible wounds and men in their death agony. The wounded were no longer crying out, as they had the day before on the battlefield; they hardly groaned. Their faces bespoke lassitude more than suffering.

Despite so many cruel spectacles it doesn’t seem to me that I was sad, that morning of September 11. I doubtless didn’t feel like laughing. I was solemn, but with that solemnity lacking in melancholy that a satisfied heart soon accommodates itself to with ease. I think that my comrades were like me. In my memory I find their serious and content faces. Content with what? In the first place, content to be alive. It was not without a secret pleasure that I contemplated my canteen with a gaping wound, my cape with holes from three bullets that hadn’t wounded me, that I felt at my painful, but intact arm. After great carnages, unless there are particularly poignant bereavements, life seems sweet. Let whoever wants to be indignant at this selfish joy. Such sentiments are all the more solidly rooted in souls because they ordinarily remain half unconscious. But our good humor also had – especially had – a nobler source. The victory that in brief terms the colonel passing at a trot on his horse had announced to us exalted me. Perhaps had I reflected I would have had a few concerns. The Germans were retreating before us. Did I even know if they were advancing elsewhere? Fortunately my thoughts were vague. The lack of sleep, the efforts of the march and the combat, the emotions experienced had exhausted my brain. But I felt strongly. I understood the battle poorly. It was the victory of the Marne. I wouldn’t have known what to call it. What did that matter? It was victory.