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A Centenary to remember

French soldiers await an assault at the Marne Photo: public domain, Wikimedia Commons French soldiers await an assault at the Marne Photo: public domain, Wikimedia Commons

A hundred years ago yesterday the first major battle of World War I come to its bloody conclusion. This might be a surprise to those watching Australian television at present, where war commemoration is firmly planted on the Australian experience of war, and the Australian experience of war is of course code for Gallipoli.

The Battle for Marne, disappointingly now referred to as the First Battle of the Marne as this patch of dirt would be fought for again before the war was over, was fought between the Germans and the French, with support from the United Kingdom, between September 5 and 12, 1914.

The war, just over a month old at this point, had gone fairly well for the Germans and they were pushing well into France and threatening Paris. As the various generals and other elaborately beared men tried to figure out this new type of warfare the average soldier came to a shocking realisation. This was going to be a war unlike any war ever fought, and a soldier’s life now counted for almost nothing.

In the one week of the battle the French suffered 81,700 deaths. That’s not eight thousand, that is a staggering eighty one thousand men killed. Twice the population of Dubbo wiped out two times over in just seven days. The Germans suffered roughly equal losses.

Try to put that in perspective. In the battle of Waterloo around 100 years earlier, Napoleon lost 28,000 men (including killed and wounded). Such was the shock he surrendered his crown. That’s about one third the loss at the Marne. One has to go back to the Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE between Hannibal and the Romans to see single battle casualties of this size (75,000 killed is the upper limit most commonly accepted). Again the losses at Cannae saw Rome, for perhaps the only time until it finally fell 600 years later, contemplate surrendering to the victor. Gallipoli saw just under 9000 Australians lost in battle over a period of months.

There was no hint of surrender at the Marne. Instead, the generals recalibrated their maps, adjusted their slide rules and turned men into a commodity. It was now accepted that men would be consumed by battle, just as would be bullets, bomb and bandages. In the past the loss of men was a serious issue, an army was an independent fighting force. If it suffered losses its fighting ability was diminished, too many losses (such as at Waterloo) and its fighting ability was extinguished. (As an aside the Greek King Pyrrhus was a great foe of Rome in the 280s BCE and a far better general, but the losses he suffered even in victory saw him eventually lose the war, hence the Pyrrhic victory.) This was no longer the case after the Marne. World War I saw the onset of total war. Entire empires had been mobilised, untold millions of men were enlisted; the loss of one man simply meant that one man extra had to be brought up from behind the lines. The trenches became obstacles of flesh – a soldier was often being asked to do little except not get killed by an enemy shell. All this no doubt became obvious to the common soldier fighting at the Marne.

Yet the Marne is rarely sighted amongst the romantic-horror list of famous WWI battles; Verdun, Ypres, Paschendale, the Somme and, of course Gallipoli. Each of these battles was imprinted on the memories of those who fought them and they were, no doubt, awful places where awful things happened. But the First Battle of the Marne is different. It is the battle that saw the end of so called mobile war, where large armies of men manoeuvred around the country side as generals sought the right time and terrain to give them maximum advantage for the battle. Instead, the Marne degenerated into the trench dominated battle that became the hallmark of WWI. It set the general front line for the Western Front that would still be there four years later.

So spare a thought today for the men of one hundred years ago. They were the ones who thought war was an adventure; they were the ones who carried back stories that it was not. World War I did not begin on April 25, 1915 and we should remind ourselves of this. As tragic as Gallipoli was, the scene had been set over six months earlier and tragedy was about to become a greatly overused word.

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