In times of war, a symbolic gesture can sometimes be far more powerful than the amount it contributes to military strength. The taxicabs of Paris played this role for the French defenders at the Battle of the Marne, which broke the Schlieffen Plan and prevented early French defeat.
In the days leading up to World War I, most people were expecting a fast war, to be over by Christmas. At that point in history, some commanders doubted that any rapid conclusion was possible, but no one could have envisioned the horrible 4-year slog which lay ahead.
Of all the major powers involved in World War I, the Germans were closest to making the popular expectation a reality. The German High Command knew that the only way Germany could pull off a final victory was to eliminate the threat from the Western Front before Russia could attack on the Eastern Front. This would depend completely on defeating France before the other Allied powers had fully mobilized.
= The Schlieffen Plan =
General Count Alfred von Schlieffen had developed a viable plan which could potentially have ended the war against France in 6 weeks. Later, during World War II, an updated version of a similar plan, making full use of updated military technology, did defeat the French army in 6 weeks.
The Schlieffen plan consisted of a modified pincer movement on a grand scale. It required 7 separate armies to act in close coordination. It also depended on effective communications and transportation of troops and materiel, which were German strengths. However, it overlooked some logistical difficulties.
Under the Schlieffen plan, the German armies were divided into 3 major groups. The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Armies became part of a massive Northern Army. The 5th Army, at just 130,000 troops, became the Southern Army of the manouver. Meanwhile, the 6th and 7th Armies guarded the Alsacian border against a French counteroffensive.
Ideally, the Southern Army would cross the border and attack in a straight line towards Paris. It was not intended to succeed. It was intended as bait to draw French forces away from Paris. Once this was accomplished, it would tactically retreat, even to the point of giving up some German territory, until it could be supported by the 6th and 7th Armies. At that point, the retreat would stop and the southern counteroffensive would begin.
Almost simultaneously, the Northern Army would sweep through the Netherlands and Belgium and into France, cutting off all northern French access to the English Channel. Having reached the English Channel, it would then curve back towards the southeast. The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Armies would sweep in behind the French army, cutting it off from Paris and completing the envelopment. The 1st Army would continue its sweep on the other side of Paris, preventing British reinforcements from gaining traction.
If the plan worked as intended, the French army would be caught between a "hammer and an anvil." Paris would be completely isolated and forced to surrender. The British would have been neutralized. With the Western Front under complete control, the Central Powers would then have been free to concentrate on the Russians.
= Changes to the Schlieffen Plan =
It will never be known if the Schlieffen Plan could have worked in its original form. Most grand plans don't survive the first encounter with the enemy. The Schlieffen Plan didn't even survive first contact with the next in command.
The new commander, Helmuth von Moltke, found himself stuck with a plan which he deemed much too risky. It was much too late to rework German tactics completely. Instead, he made 2 major changes.
Firstly, Moltke pulled a large number of troops from the northern pincer to reinforce the southern border. Even more troops were pulled later to deal with an unexpectedly fast Russian mobilization on the Eastern Front. This still left the Northern Army with well over a million troops, but undermanned for the ambitious plan.
The second change was to attack only through Belgium, instead of through both the Netherlands and Belgium. This change was necessary in part because of the lower troop allocation to the northern armies.
Attacking Belgium and not the Netherlands would still bring Great Britain into the war, although the Germans hoped that particular "scrap of paper" would be deliberately ignored by Great Britain. While it would avoid a confrontation with the Dutch army and preserve German access to Dutch ports, the Germans would not end up with access to Dutch railroads for troop and materiel movement. Other troop economies balanced out the 2 corps committed to containing the Dutch army against the fewer number of troops used to occupy Antwerp.
= Leadup to the Miracle of the Marne =
As it turned out, the German High Command had underestimated the amount of resistance they were likely to face. By the beginning of September 1914, the German armies had been seriously delayed by the Belgium army and the highly-trained British Expeditionary Force. By the time the German Northern Army was able to enter France, it was more than a month behind schedule. This bought time for France to mobilize its reserves and to transfer troops to its northern front.
Because of the delay, Alexander von Kluck, the commander in charge of the 1st Army, decided that the original plan was no longer viable. Instead, he turned southeast toward Compiegne before reaching the English Channel, in an attempt to make up part of the schedule and envelop the French army.
The delay had also bought enough time for France to mobilize its reserves and transfer over a million troops to meet the northern threat. As of early September 1914, the support routes to Paris were still open, but the French railways had reached the limits of their capacity. This is where the taxicabs of Paris come in.
The Battle of the Marne
Von Kluck's move had left the right flank of the Northern Army vulnerable. When French Commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre realized what had happened, he sent the French 6th Army and the British Expeditionary Force to exploit the weakness. This counterattack, on Sept. 5, 1914, marks the beginning of the Battle of the Marne.
Von Kluck had wheeled his army back to the west to counter this move. Although he succeeded in pushing the French 6th Army onto the defensive, the maneuver caused a 30-mile gap between the 1st and 2nd Armies. The Schlieffen Plan had been seriously compromised.
Joffre immediately set the French 5th Army through the gap to hold the route to Paris and to attack the German 2nd Army from an unexpected direction. However, if the gap was to be exploited to its fullest, it was vitally important for the French 6th Army to hold the line.
This was easier said than done. Although it had just 150,000 troops, the 6th Army had been taking the brunt of the fighting thus far. It was furthest away from the rest of the French Army, and the hardest to resupply. To make matters worse, in 1914, the French Army owned fewer than 200 trucks, nearly all of them caught in the south by the German 5th Army's feint.
On September 7, the northern flank of the 6th Army collapsed. That could have been the end of the miraculous counteroffensive, except for the taxicabs of the Marne.
The contribution of the taxicabs of the Marne
During September 6-8, reinforcements for the French 6th Army arrived by long convoys of taxicabs. They also arrived by truck, limousine, and even by racing car. Altogether, General Joseph Simon Gallieni, the military commander of Paris, had commandeered 630 vehicles, including at least 150 taxicabs.
The strange procession left the Esplanade des Invalides in Paris at 10 pm on September 6. On the other side of Paris, they picked up the 103rd and 104th infantry regiments, 4-5 men per vehicle. Then they drove overnight, without headlights, to Nanteuil-le-Haudouin and Silly-le-Long, a stone's throw away from the fighting. After their passengers got out, many of the taxicab drivers turned around to do it again.
The contribution of the taxicab drivers to the Battle of the Marne had been small, but the effect on morale was incalculable. Altogether, the drivers of the Marne managed to bring 6,000 reinforcements to the French 6th Army. Although it wasn't much compared to the millions of men engaged on both sides, it enabled the 6th Army to hold until von Kluck's new orders finally took the pressure off that part of the front.
When the Battle of Marne came to an end, the German advance had been stalled completely. Instead of a 6-week war on the Western Front, all the World War I powers were now faced with a grinding war which seemed at times to have no end in sight. To make matters worse, the Germans were caught between the Western Allies and a fully mobilized Russia.
Moltke recognized the significance of the loss completely. He reported the situation to Kaiser Wilhelm II: "Your Majesty, we have lost the war." Either then or afterwards, he also had a nervous breakdown. Gallieni would later assess his own contribution more stoically: "I do not know who won [the battle], but I know well who would have lost it."
In the end, the taxicab drivers did not have to go completely without compensation for their expenses. They would later be compensated at 27% of the meter reading, and their contribution became a part of French legend.