How a Stroke of Improvisation and Inspiration Saved Europe in WWI
Parisians could have been speaking German a hundred years ago if a retired general, on the outs with his own bosses, didn't come up with one of the most innovative improvisations in warfare -- a lesson in inspiration any business leader should love.
With the centennial of the beginning of World War I upon us, most of the commentary falls on the length and nature of the warfare at the time. Germans, French, British, Americans and others dug in, literally, in muddy, bloody trenches and fought and died amid barbed wire, disease and the dreaded machine gun.
But the war started differently, and almost ended in its first months. The Germans, under Gen. Helmuth von Moltke, had moved switfly through Belgium and France and were looking to take Paris in August 1914. It could have been a death stroke for the French, who, though backed up by the British at the time, were largely outnumbered by the size of the German First and Second armies.
The plan was for the First and Second armies to surround Paris from the west and the east. The trouble was, a lack of communication -- and some might argue a lack of nerve -- caused the plan to change, and the Germans suddenly found themselves with both army groups east of Paris and moving southeast. That move left the Germans' right flank exposed to the French.
Trouble was, there was no way to get French soldiers to the front to take advantage of the opportunity.
Enter Gen. Joseph Simon Gallieni. Gallieni had declined to lead the French forces during the war and had retired, but he was recalled in August to help manage Paris's defenses. The actual commander of French forces, Joseph Joffre, didn't keep Gallieni in his inner circle. But, seeing the Germans' military mistake, Gallieni ordered an attack from Paris in early September to smash into the German's exposed flank and support Joffre.
Moving men and material isn't easy, and rail lines and truck infrastructure in Paris were clogged. When told there weren't enough vehicles to get the 5,000 French soldiers to the Germans, Gallieni found inspiration right in front of him: the thousands of taxis that puttered around Paris's streets.
He ordered taxi drivers to assemble their red Renault AG1's and start ferrying troops to the front. That move allowed the soldiers to reinforce the fight that was already underway against the Germans in what became known as as the First Battle of the Marne. It was the most important battle of the Great War, ending in a Germans retreat, the salvation of Paris and the hunkering down of the armies for years to come.
The Taxis of the Marne have become legendary in France. It is true that, from an operational standpoint, their influence on the battle was probably small. In a battle where millions took part, the involvement of a few thousand didn't tip the scales.
But, as a motivating tool, and as a lesson in leadership, the decision by Gallieni to commandeer the taxicabs was invaluable.
For one thing, it rallied the city. With the Germans bearing down on Paris, the civilian population was near panic. They felt that there was nothing they could do, that their fate was in someone else's hands. Gallieni got what modern business professors would call "buy in," giving the citizens a way to support their own defense and the overall war effort. There is nothing more civilian than a taxi. Folks felt they could do their part.
What's more, Gallieni's improvisation was a huge morale booster for the miliary. No one likes to feel trapped and out of options. Gallieni found options where none other had seen them: right in front of everyone else's face. That was viewed as a stroke of genius, and became something to talk about and help drive the rest of the army. It would have been easy for Gallieni to hold back the troops for lack of transportation. Instead, he showed that innovation and inspiration can solve problems, and win a war.
So, no, the Taxis of the Marne didn't win the battle, but they helped in ways that are far from insignificant.
While Gallieni gets most of the credit for the Taxis of the Marne, it is important to note the role of the drivers. They did most of the heavy lifting, but, ever the businessmen, they also left their meters running. In the end, they got roughly a quarter of the fares charged, but the French government did pay their bills. Who says the French don't have a word for entrepreneur?