September 9th, 1914 - German Right Wing Retreats
Pictured - The sudden, massive French counterattack caught the Germans off-guard.
By September 8th, von Moltke and the German High Command (OHL) were in panic. No word had come from the First or Second Armies for two days, and aerial observers confirmed that a 50 km gap had opened between the two armies. The BEF, finally back in action, was reported to be moving through this gap and around the German armies.
Moltke called for a subordinate officer named Richard Hentsch to tour the German line, with power to sort out whatever problems he might find. Whereas Joffre drove hundreds of miles, sometimes through enemy lines, to see his generals, Moltke refused to leave his command. The German commander’s enthusiasm for war was swiftly waning.
Hentsch found the German Fourth and Fifth armies on the left of the line in alright condition - engaged in furious fighting in the rugged Argonne terrain but confident of victory. Von Hausen, commander of the Third Army, was equally confident, though perhaps falsely since a massive attack by his troops had just been repulsed.
On the German right, Hentsch found sheer chaos. The armies of von Kluck and von Bülow, already exhausted by their long marches, were engaged in furious warfare.
In one skirmish, typical of the ferocious days, a battalion of the German 74th Reserve Infantry Regiment was surrounded on all sides when it didn’t hear an order to fall back. When the men realized their predicament and tried to surrender, the French mercilessly gunned them down, even as the Germans stood waving white handkerchiefs desperately. 93 men survived to be taken prisoner while 450 of their comrades lay dead at their feet. This was only one instance in a battle that saw over half a million casualties.
With no reserves to bring to bear and seeing no solution, Hentsch contemplated withdrawal. Before he could give the order, though, von Bülow of the Second Army jumped the gun. Bülow had despised Kluck and his hard-driving nature for some time now, he leapt at the opportunity to withdraw.
Now, with no support, Kluck was forced to retreat. There had been no major breaking point yet for von Bülow’s army - he could have stayed and fought, and then Kluck could have too. If the Germans had held to their position, they could have beaten the French just in front of Paris.
Such are the what-if’s of history. Kluck, his decision made for him, began his retreat. Thus ended Kluck’s bloody thirty-day, 600 km advance on Paris.