ON THE NIGHT of September 7, 1914, 600 Paris taxis, according to legend, saved France from disaster. The cabs transported 5,000 soldiers to bolster a French and British attack on the German army rolling like a grey fog towards Paris. The arrival of the taxi passengers tipped the balance in one of the decisive battles of history. Against the odds, the relentless German advance through Belgium and northern France was halted.
According to the French war ministry, the total taxi bill to transport the 7th Infantry Division to the Battle of the Marne, 30 miles east of Paris, was Fr 70,102, approximately £280,000 today. There was another bill, though: The battle saw some of the most concentrated slaughter of the war, with nearly half a million casualties.
At La Musce de la Grand Guerre, France’s excellent First World War museum on the Marne battlefield, near Meaux, one of the original scarlet taxis is on display. In the animated wall map of the Marne battle, the arrival of reinforcements from Paris is shown through the icon of a taxi.
Alas, the legend of The Taxis of the Marne is only partly true. Renault Landaulet taxis were indeed commandeered from the streets of Paris, many of them from the G-7 cab company, which still exists. Each could seat five men. On the orders of the French army, the first convoy of about 250 taxis left La Villette, the meat market on Paris’s outskirts, and headed out on National Road 2 in single file. The convoy was probably the largest procession of motorised vehicles in history to that date. The troops inside were delighted to be taxied to the front. Most had never ridden in a motorcar before.
To the French troops tramping the road to war, the convoy of taxis left an indelible impression. One infantryman recalled: “The Moon had risen and its rays reflected on the shiny peaks of the taxi-drivers’ caps.