If, on a trip to Paris this past summer, you again were astounded by the beauty of the city and the rudeness of the taxicab drivers who transported you around it, consider for a moment that without the latter there might not now be the former. For this week (Sept. 5) in 1914, in what was perhaps the decisive battle of World War I, 600 Parisian cabbies, shuttling from Paris to a battlefront near the Marne River, carried 6,000 soldiers to reinforce the French 6th Army, which was in mortal combat with the German 1st Army. In fierce fighting the French 6th was almost overrun, but the 6,000 new recruits arrived just in time, reinforcing the French position against the German right wing. This allowed another French Army, the 5th, to punch a hole in the German center, forcing a German retreat.
Had it been otherwise, this battle — known today as “The Miracle of the Marne” — might well have meant a quick and decisive German victory in what became our first world war. History subsequently would have taken a very different course.
As it was, the French victory was only made possible because the commander of the German 1st Army, General von Kluck, made a crucial mistake. Von Kluck was supposed to envelop Paris from the Southwest, but, believing that the exhausted French 5th Army on the Marne was ripe for a quick defeat, he made a sharp southeastern turn that exposed his right flank to any army attacking from Paris. At the time that hadn’t worried Von Kluck because he thought Paris was virtually undefended, and he planned to lay siege to the city right after his easy victory over the French 5th.
Von Kluck seriously underestimated the determination of the French general charged with defending Paris, Joseph Gallieni, who not only assembled the French 6th Army that went out to meet von Kluck, but also assembled the hack brigade that would give the “Miracle of the Marne” its second nickname, “The Taxicab Battle.” Calculating that 600 cabs, carrying five troops each, could make the trip two times (6,000), Gallieni ordered all Paris cabbies to assemble, which they did proudly, explaining to their astonished passengers that they were no longer in service because they had to “go to battle.” And history was made.
In George Gershwin’s famous symphony, “An American in Paris,” he opens with the sound of automobile horns — Beep! Beep! Beep! — which were meant to evoke the honking horns of annoyed Parisian cabbies as they sped through the city. Yet had it not been for those cabbies, Gershwin might instead have written “An American in Potsdam,” which — no offense to Potsdam — would have been a very different tune.