France recalls centennial of ‘Taxis of the Marne,’ desperate operation to save Paris in the First World War

The next time you flag a taxi on a crowded city street, spare a thought for the cabbie — and perhaps consider a bigger tip.

Weeks after the First World War erupted, with the capital under threat from German invaders, French military chiefs devised a novel way for soldiers to travel to the front lines: by taxi.

To that end, they requisitioned hundreds of cabs, and their drivers were charged with the risky mission of getting thousands of troops to the battlefield.

This weekend, France honours the centennial of the “Taxis of the Marne,” which have become the stuff of legend for millions of French school kids present and past. Paris City Hall, the Defence Ministry and private company Alpha taxis plan commemoration parades on Sunday that will include 10 taxis from the era.

Germany opened the Western Front on Aug. 4, sweeping into Belgium and hoping to overwhelm France before Russia had a chance to fully mobilize to the east. The lightning-fast Schlieffen plan aimed to bring German forces into Paris within weeks. After the guns of August blared, the French army looked as if it was on way to defeat.

On Sept. 6, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm’s troops were just a few dozen kilometres northeast of Paris. The French army requisitioned the taxis over two days to carry bedraggled troops returning from the collapsed front back to new battle lines. The call-up was part of a rising, nationwide war effort that also commandeered horses and called up more than three French million peasants to drop plowshares for guns.

Gen. Joseph Gallieni, the military governor of Paris who concocted the plan, ordered the taxis to gather on a grassy esplanade in front of the gold-domed Invalides military museum, which honours war victims and is the burial site of Napoleon Bonaparte. The commute to battle through the Paris environs must have been quite a sight: A rumbling caravan of hand-cranked red cars with bright yellow spokes packed a half-dozen soldiers behind primly-dressed drivers.

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