Episode 28 – The Battle of the Marne versus Tours

Today we move to the Battle bracket where we will delve into the Second Battle of Marne, occurring during World War I and the Battle of Tours in October of 732. Both of these encounters ended their opponents’ chances of overall victory. Marne stopped the German offensive and helped bring an end to the war while Tours stopped Muslim advance into western Europe and helped to make the Franks the dominant power in the region.

2nd Battle of Marne
2nd Battle of Marne

Now, I’d like to start today’s podcast with a clarification. There are two Battle of the Marne, one occurred in 1914 at the start of World War I, and the other occurred in 1918 and hastened the end of the war. It is the second one that I will be discussing today although the first one was of great consequence on its own.

The First Battle of the Marne stopped the German advance into France in September of 1914. The Marne River is in north-central France not far from Paris. It was a key battleground for much of the war. But it was not the decisive type of fight that the Second Battle of the Marne would be some three and a half years later.

Starting on July 15, 1918, 23 German divisions attacked the French Fourth Army which was led by General Henri Gouraud. The German First and Third armies were led by Bruno von Mudra and Karl von Einem with the overall commander being Erich Ludendorff.

Ludendorff had come up with a plan to win the war known as the Spring Offensive or in German Kaiserschlacht or Kaiser’s Battle. He planned to create a number of feints to make the Allied troops unaware of where the primary attack was going to happen. Ludendorff believed that this would pin down British, French and American soldiers in areas where the Germans may or may not attack. Problem with this strategy is that it wasn’t a strategy at all as there was no clear goal in mind.

By 1918, the German High Command knew that they could no longer win a war of attrition. The Russian’s left the war due to the Bolshevik’s taking over their government, which freed up 50 divisions of German troops to move to the west. The problem was, the American’s entry into the war added their approximately 1.5 million men, most of whom were fresh and not shell-shocked like everyone else. Ludendorff wanted an offensive that would take so much ground that the allies would sue for peace. It might have worked if the plan they tried to execute was plausible.

Before the Second Battle of the Marne, there were four separate attacks, Operation Micheal, Georgette, Blucher-Yorck and Gneisenau. The main thrust was Michael, and while it was a German victory in a sense, it did not break the British and French Armies. The Allies lost 255,000 men who could be easily replaced by the newly arrived Americans. The German loss of 239,000 men could not be so easily exchanged with new fighters. On top of it, many of those casualties were of the elite stormtrooper variety, the cream of the German fighting crop.

Georgette cost both sides 110,000 men each, Blucher-Yorck, about 130,000 each and Gneisenau, 30,000. All in all, the Germans lost 509,000 men and the Allies, 525,000. This was the war of attrition that the German’s knew they couldn’t win. They needed a knockout victory, and the focused on an area that they lost in 1914, the area surrounding the River Marne.

This offensive was called Marneschutz-Reims-Friedensturm and would encompass the German Seventh, First and Third armies. It is here that I would like to share a quote from Liddell Hart’s book, The Real War. “How apt, if how strange, the historical coincidence by which, as the Marne had been the first high-water mark and witnessed the first ebb of the tide of invasion in 1914, so four years later it was destined to be the final highwater mark from which the decisive ebb began.”

By now there were a series of salient, bulges in the Allied lines which threatened to end the war on German terms, but the problem with these large protuberances was the increased line of defense necessary to protect the gains made. Since so many men had been killed in the previous offenses, Ludendorff was faced with another, army depleting issue, desertion.

No longer seeing a successful end to the war, German soldiers began to desert by the tens of thousands. They were also concerned about their fellow soldiers and despised their higher-ups like Ludendorff. They began to tell the Allies all the plans the German High Command had for the upcoming battle which was to start on July 15, 1918.

Knowing what was coming at them, the British, French and American troops were very well prepared for the onslaught. The First and Seventh German armies crossed the Marne which turned out to be a ruse. Quickly, the Allied artillery and aircraft destroyed the bridges over the river which trapped them, with no possibility of retreat.

The Third Infantry Division of US forces blocked the German advance. Things were now getting hopeless for the Germans. Seeing their growing advantage, the Allies began a counteroffensive starting on July 18th. Ludendorff ordered a full retreat. Within two days of the attack the German’s knew the gig was up. By the end of the Second Battle of the Marne, which some say ended on the 18th and others claiming it went on until August 6th, the Germans had lost all of the gains they made in their Spring Offensive.

The bottom line results for the Germans was a devastating loss of morale for the troops as they lost 1.5 million men who either were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Ludendorff was forced out of his position by October, and the war ended on November 11, 1918. Instead of being “the big push, the great leap forward that would win the war,” It was the beginning of the end.

The Second Battle of the Marne gave the Allies the boost it needed but its horrors, along with the rest of the war, would cause the Treaty of Versailles to punish Germany so severely, that it would lay the groundwork for the next global conflict, World War II to generate a far more significant loss of life.

Now on to our second contestant in today’s podcast, the Battle of Tours.

Battle of Tours
Battle of Tours

Also, know in Europe as the Battle of Poitiers, the Muslim world would know it by its other name, the Battle of the Highway of the Martyrs.

Fought on October 10, 732 at Moussais-la-Bataille in modern day France, the Battle of Tours was fought between the Kingdom of the Franks and the Umayyad Caliphate which had penetrated into Spain and was threatening to go further into Europe if not stopped here.

When it comes to the number of men fighting at Tours, we have wildly divergent claims. Some would pin the number of those led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi at 25,000 while others have the figure at around 80,000. The Frankish forces were led by Charles Martel, and they were populated by anywhere from 10-30,000 fighting men. Whatever the actual numbers were, there were significant differences in the type of warriors that would face off that October day.

During the years before the battle, the Frankish peoples were sparring with each other after the death of their king, Pepin II in 714. Eudo or Odo of Aquitaine was one of the claimants as was Charles Martel. It has been claimed by many historians that Charles was an illegitimate son of Pepin but if we delve in deeper into the society of the time, having multiple mates was not out of the ordinary and their children would not be deemed illegitimate regardless of their birth mother. By 719, Charles took the throne, but not without Odo being a thorn in his side for years to come.

Charles began to increase the size of his realm by attacking enemies in Swabia, Germany, and Saxony until 1725 when he started to hear of the Muslim armies making incursions into southern Gaul.

Odo had made an alliance with Othman ben abi Neza to protect his territory of Aquitaine. This angered the Muslim governor of the Spanish regions, Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. Abdul defeated the rogue Othman in 731 and decided to drive deeper into Gaul. This caused great concern in Europe, especially among the Franks who saw Gaul as their territory.

Abdul Rahman defeated an army led by Odo who luckily escaped to Paris to meet with his half-brother Charles. During that time, the Muslim army began to pillage the countryside around the monastery near Tours. Odo begged Charles to help him which he did but only after Odo pledged a lifetime of loyalty. The march to Tours was on.

Here is where the real numbers of the men that were to be involved in the battle are lost. What we do know is that the two armies were very different which would give the Franks a decided advantage. Most of them had some form of heavy armor and fought with swords and axes. Their main weaknesses were the lack of time together to train and a minimal supply train which forced them to live off the land. They also had some German mercenaries with them, a fearsome and well-trained group of soldiers.

The Muslim Moors fought primarily with their cavalry, scimitars, and lances with little or no armor. They also had a single-minded manner fighting style, cavalry charges. All they knew was how to attack, which, given their successes over the past few decades gave them a great deal of confidence. They also needed to live off the land.

The amount of loot the Moorish army had gathered after raiding southern Gaul was bogging them down. Abdul Rahman began to hear of an approaching Frankish army which surprised him. He didn’t think there was any chance of such a large number of men coming after him. Rahman and Charles began to poke at each other, sending out small raiding parties to assess their enemy. This stalling before the big battle allowed the Moors to send some of their loot south, towards the safety of Spain.

After a week of this back and forth, the battle lines were being drawn. Of course, the Muslims were gearing up to charge at the Franks with the men under Charles’s command were ordered to bunch up into defensive squares. What happened at the battle is lost to history as we have no eyewitness accounts of the event.

What has been surmised from post-battle reports is that the Franks stood their ground and their use of javelins and axes were highly effective against the countless cavalry charges the Moors kept throwing at them. Isidorus Pacensis wrote, “The men of the North stood motionless as a wall; they were like a belt of ice frozen together and not to be dissolved, as the slew the Arabs with the sword. The Austrasians (as they were called at the time), vast of limb, and iron of hand, hewed on bravely in the thick of the fight.”

Odo then turned his men into the Moorish flank which caused a mass panic. The Battle of Tours was over as Charles decided not to pursue the enemy. Abdul Rahman was killed in the action which persuaded his men to take whatever they could of the loot they had and make it back to safety. Charles supposedly believed that they would fight the next day again, but all he found were empty tents and a large amount of loot.

The result of the Battle of Tours was to halt the expansion of Islam into the rest of Western Europe. It stopped in the Pyrenees in the north of Spain, gradually eroding for years to come. Also, had Charles Martel lost at Tours, no army would have been able to beat back the Islamic warriors. The world would have been a much different place had the tides turned the other way.

Another aftermath of the battle was the formation of the Carolingian Dynasty. Charles Martel’s grandson, someone you will hear about in episode 79 when he faces off against Ramses II is Charlemagne.

Now on to our putting it into perspective segment of the podcast. In the 730’s Umayyad forces sack the Byzantine fortress of Charsianon in Anatolia, hops are first cultivated in Germany, Leo III ordered the destruction of all icons in his realm, and in Japan, one-third of the population dies from a smallpox epidemic.

Time to head to the scoring.

We begin with the number of people involved in the battle. Well, this one is an easy victory for the Second Battle of Marne as there were millions of men fighting while even if we take the absolute largest estimate at Tours, we come up short of 150,000. Fifteen points for Marne, 5 points for Tours.

Next up we have the 20 points for how the battle affected the rest of the world at the time. Marne marked the beginning of the end of the bloodiest war in human history to date, saving countless tens or hundreds of thousands of lives. Tours, on the other hand, stopped Islamic incursions into Western Europe. I have to rule a close win for Tours, as they both had an enormous impact on the world, but the medieval fight was a little bit more influential. Twenty points to the earlier battle, 17 to Marne.

Next, the battle’s effect on world history. As I mentioned earlier, Marne would set the stage for the end of World War I, but it would also lay the groundwork for the disastrous Treaty of Versailles which would eventually lead to a more significant conflict, namely World War II. Tours, on the other hand, was a critical fulcrum point in world history. Had Marne not been won, it would have been likely that there would have been a peace treaty somewhere soon as all sides were exhausted. It is also likely that another world war would have broken out eventually as all parties still hated each other. Tours gets 25 points, Marne receives 18.

Last but certainly not least, we have the big points, forty, for how the battle affected their country or countries for the better. This is a tight battle as the Second Battle of Marne saved the lives of countless thousands of young men by hastening the end of World War I. This is the case for both the Allies and the Germans as thousands of men on the Central Powers side deserted instead of fighting. With the realization that the war was lost, the Germans went into a defensive mode instead of attacking, which would have led to more slaughter.

As for the Battle of Tours, there are two sides to this story. From a Christian point of view, we obviously have a significant victory that prevented Islam from becoming the predominant religion of Europe. From the Muslim side, maybe things would have been better for Europe had they won and taken over. Whatever your point of view, the Battle of Tours stopped further bloodshed as the Moors realized that there was no way to penetrate into Gaul anymore.

For these reasons, I give each battle the full forty points. So, let’s go to the scorecard. The Second Battle of the Marne received 90, and the Battle of Tours received the same score. For the first time in Battle Ground History, we have a tie.

Well, it just so happens that I have a tiebreaker designed for just such a possibility. We go back to the scoring and the contestant that won the score for the highest point total wins. While each battle scored the full 40 points for their effect on their country for the better, Tours score the most points for the effect, it had on world history. The Battle of Tours moves on to the second round to face, the winner of the Battle of Gaugamela or Hastings. Because of the tie though, the Second Battle of Marne becomes the third contestant in the loser’s bracket joining Albert Einstein and Giuseppe Garibaldi.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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