Cycling 100 km along the frontline of the 1914 Battle of the Marne, which was arguably the biggest and bloodiest battle of all time

(#10 – Top 10 Highlights from 2016 Tour de Travoy) Today’s photo shows a memorial plaque at a roundabout in Nanteuil le Haudouin commemorating the Taxi de la Marne and the role they played during the First Battle of the Marne. This battle  in September 1914 was one of the biggest and bloodiest battles in World War 1 and resulted in almost half a million casualties. Over a million German soldiers fought against a million French and British soldiers along a front-line between here and Provins over 100 km to the south. Some of the French soldiers were transported to the front-line in a convoy of taxis, which had set out from the center of Paris a few days previously. While the taxi’s only played a small minor part in the battle, the incident has been known ever since as Taxi de la Marne by the French.

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Taxi de la Marne memorial in Nanteuil-le-Haudouin. The Taxi de la Marne is the name given to a convoy of 500 taxis which set out from Paris on the 7th September 1914 to transport troops to the frontline in WW1. In all, 500 taxi’s were requisitioned by the French army and they spent the next 2 days transporting troops from Dammartin, 10 km away to the frontline here at Nanteuil.

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Close up of the memorial at Nanteuil-le-Haudoin. The writing on the plaque translates as “Here, on the 7th September 1914, the taxis of Paris were requisitioned by General Galliani, miliary commander of Paris. These reinforcements enabled the French army to win the Battle of the Marne. This decisive manoeuvre has ever since been known as Taxi de la Marne.”

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Train station in Nanteuil-le Haudouin. During September 1914, the station here at Nanteuil was destroyed by German artillery and the train tracks were inoperable. The French Army could use trains to get their troops to the next nearest station at Dammartin, 10 km away, but had no way of getting their troops from there to the frontline. That’s when the French commander in Paris, General Joseph Galliani, ordered that taxi’s be requisitioned and sent to the frontline.

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Renault AG1, also known as Taxi de la Marne. In 1914, 85% of the taxis in Paris were made by Renault and their AG1 model was by far the most common taxi in Paris. It was the first taxi anywhere in the world to be fitted with a taxi meter and thousands were built by Renault between 1905 – 1910.  Out of about 3,000 operational taxi’s in Paris in 1914, 500 were rounded up and requisitioned by the French police. In some cases, the taxis were stopped by police in the middle of the road and their passengers ordered to get out. All the taxis were  ordered to assemble at the Hotel des Invalides in the centre of Paris and to await further instructions..

WWI Paris Taxi
Source : Daily Mail

Convoy of Taxis leaving Paris. At 11 o’clock in the evening of the 6th September 1914, the convoy of taxi’s set out for the frontline reaching Dammartin at 4 o’clock in the morning. The taxi’s were ordered not to use their front lights and each taxi followed a lantern hanging from the taxi in front. Later that day, the taxis picked up troops from the train station at Dammartin and ferried them to Nantueil.

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View of the train line north of Nanteuil-le-Haudouin. On the 5th September 1914, this view of the railway tracks and of some trees in the distance more or less was the frontline in World War 1. Between the 7th August and the 5th September, the German forces advanced almost 300 km defeating the French at Mons and Chareloi in Belgium and forcing the French Sixth Army army to retreat to the outskirts of Paris. But on the 5th September, the French commander,  General Joseph Joffre, ordered the French Sixth Army between here and Meaux to counter-attack to try and encircle the German troops.

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Map showing the frontline 5th September (dashed line) and 12th September (solid line). Joffre’s counter-attack caught the German army by surprise and led to panic amongst the German commanders fearing their army would be encircled and cut off from vital supplies. The German 1st and 2nd Armies were forced to suspend their attack on Paris and retreat and by the 12th September, had been pushed back about 90 km to the Aisne near Rheims. It was the bloodiest week of the war with each side suffering over a quarter of a million casualties each, roughly double the number of casualties during the first week of the Battle of the Somme.

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N2 motorway to Paris. Nanteuil-le-Haudouin is just 43 km from the centre of Paris and this is the closest German troops got to Paris during World War 1. The battle in this part of France between 5th and 12th September later became known as the First Battle of the Marne. Over 2 million men were involved with casualties of 250,000 on both the Allied and German sides. The 5,000 troops transported by the Taxis de la Marne played only a small part in the battle as most of the troops were in reserve.. The Germans had already started retreating by the time most of the troops arrived in Nantueil. But the success of the French in pushing back the Germans became known as “The Miracle on the Marne” and the part played by the taxi’s became part of French folklore.

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Marian shrine near Senlis. Unlike in Ireland, Marian shrine are not that common in France but on the road to Senlis, I came across this shrine alongside the road. It looks like it pre-dates World War 1 and probably commemorates the apparitions in Lourdes in 1858. However, the road between Nanteuil-le-Haudouin and Senlis more or less was the frontline in WW1 at the start of September 1914 so it is possible that this shrine commemorates the First Battle of the Marne.

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Statue commemorating Moroccan troops during World War 1. I first thought this statue commemorated some French king out hunting in this region many years ago. But it actually has a much more interesting story to tell. This statue has only been here since 1965 and before that was actually located in Casablanca in Morocco. It was sculpted by Paul Landowski in 1921 as a thank you gift to Morocco for helping the French Army during World War 1. When Morocco declared independence in 1965, this statue was returned to France and placed here, even though Senlis had very little to do with Moroccan troops that fought in WW1. The dates on the monument 1914 – 1918  and 1332-1337 confused me as  well as I thought it may have something to do with the Hundred Years war. But 1914 is actually 1332 in the Islamic calendar and 1918 was 1337 on the same calendar. The Islamic calendar started in 622 AD when Mohammed went from Mecca to Medina. But because each Arabic year is 12 lunar months or 355 days long, the Islamic year is actually 10 or 11 days shorter than the Christian year. So that is why 1914 is not 1292 in Arabic years but actually 1332. World War 1 ended on the 11th of November 1918 which was the sixth day of the 2nd month (Safar) of the 1337th Arabic year.

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Moroccan troops in October 1914 in Flanders in Belgium. Morocco was a colony of France when war broke out in 1914. As France had a population only half that of Germany, recruits were enlisted from all French colonies worldwide including Indochina, Algeria and West Africa as well as Morocco. Altogether about 450,000 Colonial troops were recruited, including about 50,000 Moroccans. Some of these troops were already in the French army as part of the French Foreign Legion. The Foreign Legion is now known as the Marines of the French army but it was originally founded in 1831 so that foreign soldiers could join the French army. Foreign legion troops fought at many WW1 battles and the Moroccans were very prominent at Vimy Ridge in 1917 alongside Canadian troops. Indeed, there is a small memorial to the 1st Moroccan Infantry Division opposite the massive Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge. However, there was little fighting in Senlis during World War 1 apart from during the first week of September 1914, when the town was captured by Germans. But the German onslaught was halted during the First Battle of the Marne and the following week the German troops retreated from here 50 km to the north to a new frontline along the Somme. There is a WW1 cemetery not far from the Moroccan memorial in Senlis and perhaps some Moroccans are buried in it and this might explain why the memorial was placed here. In all, 8.000 Moroccans were killed in WW1 along with 26,000 Algerians. But the French colonies of Mali (60,000 deaths) and Senegal (36,000 deaths) suffered even worse.

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First Battle of the Marne. In all, the frontline in the First Battle of the Marne stretched for 500 km from Verdun to Belgium. However, the fiercest fighting during the battle took place along the 100 km long section between Provins and Senlis to the north and east of Paris. The French victory during the Battle of the Marne prevented the Germans from encircling Paris and quickly winning the war. But the French victory came at a cost as over 200,000 French soldiers lost their lives during this battle.

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French troops during the Battle of the Marne. Although World War 1 would last over 4 years, France suffered roughly 1/6th of all its casualties during the first 6 weeks of the war. In all, France lost about quarter of a million troops during this battle out of a total of 1.5 million soldiers that were killed during the whole of WW1. About 2 million German troops were killed in WW1 but over 250,000 German troops were killed in the First Battle of the Marne or 1 in 8. More troops were killed during August-September 1914 on the Marne than on the Somme in 1916 or in Flanders in 1917 but because British and Irish casualties were relatively light, it is not mentioned as often as those other 2 battles. Even in France, there is very little trace of the battle apart from a small memorial to the Taxi de la Marne in Nanteuil-le-Hadouin. But with over a million troops taking part and an average of 100,000 deaths every week for 5 weeks, the Battle of the Marne was arguably the biggest and bloodiest battle in the history of mankind.

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