5-12 September 1914

French Renault taxis outside the École Militaire in Paris wait to ferry reinforcements to the French armies defending the capital in the First Battle of the Marne. The 600 taxis moved around 4,000 men to the front at a key moment in the battle.

The First Battle of the Marne became immortalized by the story of the plucky Parisian taxi drivers who ferried half the French 7th Division out of the capital to fight the advancing Germans and at the last moment turned the tide of the battle. The story has become greater in the telling, though it is not untrue. If the strange cavalcade of taxis did not quite amount to the cavalry arriving in the nick of time, the men had to be moved somehow. The 7th Division was one part of the offensive by the French 6th Army against the encroaching German forces, an attack that distorted the German front line and opened the way for the hasty German retreat back across the River Marne. The taxi drivers did their bit to ensure that Paris did not fall to the oncoming enemy.

The crisis in early September 1914 had been looming since early August, when the bulk of the German army took the offensive through Belgium and further to the south through Luxembourg in order to carry out a version of the famous ‘Schlieffen Plan’, originally drawn up a decade before by the then German chief-of-staff, General Alfred von Schlieffen. The plan was to wheel through Belgium and northern France, encircle Paris and the left wing of the French defences, and then attack the remaining French armies from the rear. It was a grandiose operation and it depended on speed and co-ordination before the French, supported in 1914 by a small British Expeditionary Force (BEF), could rally. An annihilating victory would then open the way to a similar destruction of the Russian forces in the east.

The cover of the French magazine Le Rire Rouge for the New Year in 1915 shows a grateful Marianne embracing the French commander-in-chief, General Joseph Joffre, who holds the statue of victory to mark his triumph at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914.

A modified version of the plan, directed by General Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger), came close to success. The French, Belgian and British forces in the north were driven back in a month of frantic and draining campaigns. By early September they had not yet broken but the soldiers were demoralized by weeks of retreats and some of the highest losses recorded throughout the four-year war. By early September, there were further signs of panic. The French government left Paris for Bordeaux on 3 September, and the roads nearing the capital were clogged with refugees streaming away from the conflict. The German advance was nevertheless achieved at great cost. High losses, the difficulty of supply over long distances and sheer exhaustion after a month of battling movement all took a toll. The French commander-in-chief, General Joseph Joffre, recognized that opportunities still existed. He shifted the focus of the French army away from Alsace-Lorraine, where the French 1st and 2nd Armies were trying to hold back a sustained German offensive, in order to meet the German sweeping manoeuvre towards Paris with a reformed and strengthened front. This was difficult to do with a rail system already under heavy strain, but by early September a new French 9th Army under General Ferdinand Foch and a 6th Army under General Michel-Joseph Manoury were forming against the onrush of General Alexander von Kluck’s German 1st Army and the 2nd Army under General Karl von Bülow.

The critical point came by 3 September. The German armies decided to move south rather than encircle Paris from the west, which was beyond their capabilities. As they did so, von Kluck’s forces ran ahead of von Bülow’s, creating a growing gap between them and exposing Kluck’s right flank. This news was understood by the commander of Paris, General Joseph Galliéni, who pestered Joffre for permission to use his garrison and the 6th Army to assault the German flank. It was at this point that the 600 famous taxis were ordered to drive out to Nanteuil-le-Haudoin with their military fares. They moved five infantry battalions, a total of around 4,000 men, along the 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the front line. The advance from Paris worked. The German 1st Army flank was fully exposed and von Kluck was forced to turn and defend himself. In doing so, a large gap opened between the two German armies and the French 5th Army and the BEF (which needed all Joffre’s imploring to move again) poured into the gap, exposing von Kluck to attacks from the rear and von Bülow to an equally damaging flank attack. To make matters worse, von Moltke had now lost effective contact with his front commanders and did not know what decisions they had taken.

The answer was clear: the German army had tried to do something too large and operationally sophisticated for the tired forces at its disposal. Moltke sent a liaison officer, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, from his headquarters in Luxembourg to find out what was happening. When he arrived on 8 September, Hentsch could see at once that the German plan was close to collapse. Despite von Kluck’s assertion that the British and French he had fought were not up to scratch, it was evident that without a withdrawal, the German 1st and 2nd Armies risked being cut off and destroyed. Hentsch ordered both commanders to pull back behind the River Marne to rest and regroup. With reluctance they complied and within weeks the long, trench-covered Western Front solidified along the line where the Germans stopped their retreat. The French and British success was not decisive, since the war dragged on for four more years, but it ended the prospect of Germany defeating the Allies quickly and opened the way for the bloody war of attrition that followed.

The taxi drivers were rewarded for their pains. They had been allowed to keep their meters running throughout the two-day operation to move the troops and were paid on their return by the garage clerks, an average of 27 per cent of what was actually on the clock. The taxi drivers were even mentioned in dispatches for their ‘keenness and devotion to duty’. Moltke, on the other hand, was close to a nervous breakdown and was replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn on 14 September. Some thirty-three German commanders were sacked, but for the Allies General Galliéni and his taxis became the unlikely heroes of the hour.