Using French journalism in teaching The First World War: (1) The First Battle of the Marne

So much of our understanding of the First World War on the Western Front is derived from areas where the British Army was the predominant presence – notably parts of Picardy and the Ypres salient. The flooded shell craters and sunken duckboards around Passchendaele in the autumn of 1917 have become a visual signature for the war on the western front as a whole. This concentration on the British contribution to the Western Front is perhaps understandable, constituting as it does an on-going act of national remembrance as well as a core aspect of school history syllabus.

However, a very large proportion of the fighting across the hundreds of kilometres of the Western Front was undertaken by French forces. Save perhaps for the scenes of lunar desolation around the principal forts of Verdun in the later stages of that struggle, there is less familiarity with the imagery of the French sections of the front-line in British teaching and learning. British public awareness of the First Battle of the Marne – arguably the most decisive of Western Front encounters – extends little beyond the tales of Parisian taxis and buses pressed into service to rush French soldiers to the approaching front line.

As in all the belligerent states, there was a vast appetite in France for news from the front, and in France this was satisfied by an array of newspapers and journals. Maps showing changes to the front line and the dispositions of allied and enemy forces were common features – but also photographs and war art were particularly popular. French wartime journalism also shaped and reflected a commonly shared sense of outrage of the violation and occupation of territory. Civilian casualties, the destruction of buildings, and the devastation of historic monuments, all feature prominently in French print and photographic journalism of the First World War. This is where the French (and Belgian) First World War experience differs, as its farmland, infrastructure, civic and religious buildings and architectural patrimony were directly in the firing line for more than four years, as opposed to the occasional but devastating bombardment of towns such as Grimsby and Scarborough, and the largely ineffectual Zeppelin attacks on London.

In addition to 1.4 million military casualties, France’s civilian populations fell under a brutal occupation that included hostage-taking and reprisal executions, facts potentially lost amid classroom enthusiasm to root-out the “fake news” of false atrocity stories. This devastating experience shaped French foreign policy priorities during the peace negotiations of 1918-1919, and in the post-war period.

Of course, such journalistic writing needs to be read with an awareness of the patriotic and political priorities of the editors and proprietors, and of course the strictures imposed by the French state. However, a more nuanced approach can be taken to the evaluation of such material beyond those two tiresomely overused terms – “bias” and “propaganda.” In teaching and learning of History we need a more subtle and context-specific lexicon to capture the background, purpose and intended audience or readership for sources of all types.

Source: ‘Toward the Battle of the Aisne,by Gustav Babin, L’Illustration, 26 September 1914. (Text and photo captions tr. Alastair Dunn)

Commentary: L’Illustration was a popular fortnightly news magazine, first published in 1843, and which appeared throughout 1914-1918, combining large feature articles, maps, photography and war art. (By 1917 advertisements for prosthetic limbs were appearing regularly in the back pages.) In the aftermath of the First Battle of the Marne, Babin followed the line of the river from Lagny, just to the east of Paris, to the town of Chateau-Thierry. This sector, only just recaptured from the Germans, had seen highly fluid fighting that had saved Paris from direct assault and possible siege. A selection of the images that accompanied Babin’s text have been included.

‘Of all the epic battles where our men have fiercely driven the barbarian hordes out of France, exerting their heroism and spilling their blood without thought for the cost, we will only understand its terrible beauty from the accounts of those played a glorious role there.  There can be no passive observer of such valiance and self-denial.  And those who most fervently wish to bear witness these great deeds that are accomplished on a daily basis, are kept at a safe distance from the battlefield.  They are made to stay a long way in the rear, and have long journeys to collect evidence of the virtues of those who are fighting and dying for the Patrie. Also, they have to explore furtively as these routes are well guarded.

I was made to show my rather doubtful pass ten or twenty times between the gate and the far end of the entrenched camp at Paris. The last defences, and final checkpoint, are at the gates of Lagny.  That morning I found a bleak Lagny, normally so gay in the summer, full of the cries and shouts of the rowers on the Marne. That day however, it received a comforting visit from Monsignor Marbeau, the dignified bishop of Meaux. As we arrived, the bishop crossed the Marne on the temporary pontoon built by the engineers to replace the stone bridge and the railway bridge, both of which had been blown up as a defensive measure against the invader.  And, at his crossing, all hats were doffed and all heads respectfully bowed out of respect for the courageous attitude in the face of adversity, of this man of duty and priestly character.

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Mgr Marbeau, bishop of Meaux, crossing the temporary bridge at Lagny

It was only 20 kilometres from here that we found the traces of the enemy’s presence and of the scenes of the recent fighting at Haute-Maison and Pierre-Levée.  I think that after so many days have passed I can name these locations without fear. Also, this is not the place to give oneself over to retrospective strategy, but rather to note my impressions of the journey.

We were, it seemed, at the extreme left of the fighting on the Marne, at one of those points where the enemy began its retreat.  The Germans could do nothing other than show themselves. The inhabitants have kept the same horrible memories of the attack that are left wherever the Germans pass. They saw them arrive like the flooding that comes with a storm. For twelve hours they marched in close ranks, coming from the direction of Trilport and Meaux – cavalry, infantry and artillery. One of their officers who led them shouted, as they passed, “You wanted this! It was you who declared war on us. In eight days we will be in Paris, victorious.” On the following day they returned on the same road.  An important English force had been looking out for them. It attacked them on the plain at Pierre Levée, drove them back, diverting them towards Trilport and La Ferté-sous-Jouarre.  Farewell Paris!

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The bridge at Trilport, near Meaux, and a German car that had crashed into the Marne. German officers, unaware that sappers of the French Engineers had already blown the bridge at Trilport, tried to cross it in a car at 80kph. The car, after a prodigious jump, crashed into the river. Alongside the body of the driver were found those of a captain and a lieutenant.

If the inhabitants retain their memories of the labour duties that they were made to carry out, such as drawing water for their horses, the requisitions that that they were made to endure, and which were paid for in goods – in reality “scraps of paper”, in the phrase of M. Bethmann-Hollweg[1] – the landscape does not show many signs of fighting. These are not the great marks that one would imagine, huge craters opened by shells.  Only some tree trunks shredded by shells; and in the stubble some traces of bivouacs; on the road side, banks of earth by the sides of the ditches, and under the apple trees the ground strewn with green fruit brought down by artillery fire – then, here and there, a grave.

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A faithful dog on the common grave of ten soldiers of the 5th Infantry Regiment.
Falling during the battle of Esternay, near the village of Champguyon, ten soldiers of the 5th Infantry Regt. were buried side by side in the middle of a field. The regimental dog refuses to leave the graveside where those who cared for it lie.

There had not been time to loot the villages, and the inhabitants, who knew of the fate of certain of the neighbouring localities, which were stripped from floor to ceiling – Etrépilly among others – wondered at their good fortune. Alas, in other places the Teutonic savagery gave itself free rein!

La Ferté-sous-Jarre has known the worst ecstasies, a brutal occupation, bombardment – by friendly forces as the allies rushed to bring support – then the fires set by the Prussians as they fled.  Her two bridges are destroyed, blown up by the enemy keen to ensure themselves a relatively calm retreat.

The flow of the Marne, which is usually so charming here, is split by bent iron girders, and foams over the stones that have fallen on to its bed, and its green surface reflects the walls blackened by petrol-fuelled fires, the stripped roof of a fine building – a chateau that had been converted into a convent, burnt by the Germans as they retreated. On the verdant walls of the terraces where the inhabitants used to walk in calm reverie, you can see the bullet holes, and where the arcing machine-gun fire took down the willow and yew trees in the gardens by the river. One burns up, as if in response to a sacrilege, when recalling the ruins of this beautiful city, where Jeanne Poisson, marquise de Pompadour[2], once lived…

… Montreuil-aux-Lions was also under the German boot the week before last.  A horrific nightmare for this little township, clinging to a hillside, which has scarcely recovered.  At last the English arrived, following them headlong. A very heavy fight followed.  For almost the whole day a battery of seven guns, carefully dug-in, troubled our allies. Around 5pm, determined to finish this off, they gained a fix on these troublesome guns.  An aeroplane appeared in the sky, reconnoitring the fields and woods. One hour later it was all over: the seven Krupp guns were dead. The place won by a hard-fought struggle. The Germans buckled. In the neighbouring fields the grave mounds attest to the slaughter that took place there.

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Priests blessing the dead on the battlefield at Varreddes

We were told, “the guns are still there. Come and look at them.”  A steep path led to the middle of the copse which fully sheltered the battery. Trenches cut across the glebe field, littered with wreckage of all types, rucksacks, aluminium pots, dented and punctured helmets, bloody bandages – and also an album of clocks[3], the illustrated pages of which had scattered in the wind.  But the guns remained. “The English will come back for these tonight,” our guide murmured.  The seven gun carriages remained, and around them lay destroyed shells, peppered with shrapnel, allowing us to see the powder fuses in their torn-open casings. The man who buried them was there. He declared that not one of the crews survived. At each position, with dramatic gestures, he described the positions of the bodies that he collected.  This was fine work, and was a credit to the British artillery spotters. By the half broken wheel of one of the gun carriages was a grey forage cap, covered in dark brown blood, and punctured by a single hole. At least one of them had died without suffering.

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The chateau of Gué-a-Tresmes, near Congis, after the Germans had visited. The boots and personal effects of dead soldiers, now buried in the park, from an ambulance stationed there


We entered Chateau-Thierry as night fell. The melancholy of the fading light added to the sadness of the deserted town, which showed on all sides the evidence of its looting. Only those houses were the residents were present had been spared. And if we hadn’t found the hospitality of the most welcoming of hearths, that of the grandson of M. Alexandre Lenoir, founder of the Museum of French Monuments – we would, I think, have had to go without dinner and sleep beneath the stars.

At the foot of the garden of this blessed house, the river Marne was half-blocked by a strange wreck that, as we awoke, shone in the rising sun. When the Germans arrived a barge filled with petrol had been sunk there. And rather than see a cargo, precious beyond all others, fall into enemy hands, the boatman, a man of vigorous calibre, had set it alight. The barge burned like a match and then sank. A proportion of the petrol cans were saved and they are now used to store drinking water, a fortunate discovery in such times.

I can say that the homes here that had not been abandoned were, in a manner, respected.  Sometimes they were even protected, we even found proof of this delicate preoccupation at our host’s. On one of the fine paintings in the hallway, a large classical landscape with dense vegetation, a hand had written with the precise calligraphy of a sergeant-major, Bitte Nicht Plundern (“please don’t plunder”) a touching expression of the not so boorish side of the soldiers. We take this as an echo of the clumsy kindness of these people from beyond the Rhine, not long after they had tried to conquer us by steel and fire.

Since the previous evening we had heard in the distance the rumbling of the guns. Their low murmuring had attracted us; but hearing them a little closer now, we left in haste, as soon as we had woken.  It seemed that we were always following the same path. In this quick succession of places and horizons, the images became juxtaposed and merged.  Always on the battlefields the same shards of metal glittering in the sun, the same debris, traces of bivouacs and shredded tree trunks.  Once again the lost wander in these fields and woods, not knowing to whom to surrender, lying at the foot of the haystacks and behind hedges – the many dead without graves.

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The grave of a Zouave between Meaux and Chambry

At each stop the noise that assaulted our ears got closer. It was only in the morning that the rumbling was muffled, like that of a distant storm at the horizon of a summer sky. Now the blasts sounded more distinct ad clear, redoubled by the echoes. Soon the sound of engines no longer muffles them. And here on our left, our careful eyes have picked out, on the side of the hill, a white cloud rising into the azure of the morning sky. The smoke from a fire, we thought, perhaps a farm or another village burned by these savages. But the cloud faded soon after, replaced in the sky a little further away, towards the right, by one and then a second and a third.  Soon the whole crest of the hill in front of us was covered with plumes of smoke, vanishing as soon as they appeared, while the voices of the heavy guns growled ceaselessly. The battle was there, just a few kilometres from us, and we realised that evening, that we had passed close to the rear of our positions…

…After a brief stop at the next village, swarming with troops coming and going, where the long red cloaks of the Moroccan soldiers mixed with the grey coats of our gunners, it was time to head back. Travelling by roads flooded with English soldiers heading towards the front, we only got back to La Ferté-sous-Jarre with the greatest difficulty. It was fully dark by the time we returned, a sinister night of squalls and rain.  And at that moment not one of our thoughts was not with THEM, our hearts torn with anguish at the thought of THEM without shelter, under the inclement skies, after the rigours of the day.’[4]

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After the Battle of the Marne. German wounded treated at The Mairie at Varreddes


*     *     *

Using the Babin’s text and images in teaching and learning


Portrayal of the Germans

Babin describes the Germans at various points throughout the article

Discussion point: Why do you think Babin uses a variety terms to describe the Germans ?  Why do you think his tone changes at different points in the text ?


Physical destruction

Babin gives significant attention to the physical destruction of the towns along The Marne.

Discussion point: Why do you think Babin focuses on this detail ?


The dead

Babin’s narrative makes frequent references to the dead.

Discussion point: How do these various descriptions differ at various points in the story?


Extension task

-What memorials and cemeteries are there today in the towns mentioned in Babin’s account ?

-Can you find examples of modern-day images of the locations and buildings mentioned in the article ?

-How does Babin’s account and accompanying differ from any other First World War journalism you may have read, perhaps British sources, or those written later in the war?

* * *

[1] Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856-1921), German Chancellor 1909-1917, who described the British guarantee of Belgian neutrality of 1839 as “a scrap of paper.”

[2] Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764), one of the many mistresses of King Louis XV (ruled 1715-1744), who spent some of her time at the Chateau of Champs-sur-Marne.

[3] Presumably a photographic album of French clocktowers to help orientate German gunners in the flat lands of the Ile de France.

[4] The capitalisation follows the original French text.


I have reproduced these texts and images purely for educational purposes. I make no claim to the copyright of the original French text or the photographs.

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