Early days on the Western Front, September 1914

Photo:  Alfred Leete’s recruitment poster of Kitchener

480 words / 2 minute read

On September 5, as the battle on the Marne began, the magazine London Opinion published a graphic drawing of Lord Kitchener, his gloved finger pointing out of the page, with the caption:


The poster, drawn by Alfred Leete, had been prepared during the retreat from Mons.  It was later to be reproduced ten-thousand fold, though at Kitchener’s insistence the words “God Save the King” were quickly added to it.  Peter Simkins, the historian of the recruitment drive which this poster symbolised, has written:  “In view of the fact that it became arguably the best known poster in history, it is perhaps churlish to note that its widespread circulation in various forms did not halt the decline in recruiting.”  

Even as Kitchener’s appeal for men was being published for the first time, based upon the shock of retreat and heavy losses, the British public was following the new British military successes in France with a rapidly enhanced confidence, pride and moral superiority.  This feeling was expressed in verse on September 5, by the much-respected novelist and poet Thomas Hardy:

In our heart of hearts believing

Victory crowns the just,

And that braggarts must

Surely bite the dust,

Press we to the field ungrieving

In our heart of hearts believing

Victory crowns the just.

Among the troops confronting the Germans on September 5 were 5,000 native Moroccans, led by 103 French officers.  In an attempt to relieve the pressure on the Moroccans, who were at one moment falling back, a nearby battalion of French soldiers was ordered to charge the Germans.  The captain in command was killed instantly as he led his men at the double over open ground under continuous German machine-gun fire.  His place was taken by Lieutenant Charles de la Cornière, who led the men forward to where they could lie down and fire back.  As his men took what cover they could, he remained standing.  As he ordered them “At five hundred yards, independent fire!” he was shot and fell.  A sergeant who tried to help him was killed instantly.  The cry went up, “The lieutenant is killed, the lieutenant is killed” and there was some sign of panic, whereupon  the lieutenant managed to raise himself to his knees and shout:  “Yes, the lieutenant  has been killed, but keep on firm!”  The men advanced.  As they did so, de la Cornière died.  His exploit quickly became a rallying point for French patriotic sentiment.

The Battle of the Marne lasted four days.  It marked the destruction of the Schlieffen Plan and the end to any chance of a rapid German victory in the west.  The number of troops engaged during the battle was enormous:  1,275,000 Germans in action against 1,000,000 French and 125,000 British troops.  The ferocity of the actions reflected the determination of the Anglo-French forces to reverse the tide of retreat.

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