So here you are: you are out in the rain; you are late; you call a taxi cab. Those traditional black cabs in London, the all-famous yellow cabs of New York…Business as usual. Now think again: you are out, albeit maybe not in the rain; you are running out of time and, oh yes, this is a war and the enemy is at the gates. You may not think that calling a taxi cab is a good idea right now. But then again you may be proved wrong. And now all taxis are gone.
Interestingly enough, when trying to reach the origins of the word, you will find, for instance, that almost each article of the Wikipedia, either in French or English shows a different version. So appealing for a WWI related article… There is the Romantic version of the Von Taxis family, charged by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian with the responsibility of establishing a courier line between Holland and France (this is also compelling from our point of view) and keeping a growing business which involved mail, people and parcels throughout Europe and along the centuries, Hence the name “taxi”. Then there is the boring, but plausible, version of taxi as a form of tax, or fee, applied to the transport and different variations on this team that put the accent on a local entrepreneur.
Anyway, taxis are means of transport which for us are always available (except when we really need one). But in 1914, near Paris, the situation was far worse than having to pick a cab under the rain at peak hour downtown with your shopping bags soaking and getting late to an important appointment. There was a war there. And the local team and allies were losing it. But everyday life was on the verge of coming to the rescue in the form of some hundreds of four-wheel vehicles. In fact the important point here is how everyday life came to fight amidst the armies of the world and played an important part during the war. Like the Paris taxis did in what is now sometimes known as the “Miracle of the Marne”.
In fact, the so-called miracle was more about human force of will than divine intervention, and the Paris taxis were just one factor among others in the Allies effort to stop the German offensive. General Gallieni, in command of the Paris forces, saw an opportunity for attack in a change of direction of Von Kluck’s army. Finding an exposed flank, Gallieni, who have been very active rallying the Parisians to defend their city and believed that Germans must be stopped at all costs, first asked for troops, then asked for using them (in a very forcible way, it seems) in an offensive way so precipitating a general counteroffensive that, until this point, was everything but certain.
In order to carry troops in time to the front, some rough 40 miles away from Paris, in the valley of the Ourcq, Gallieni had to resort to everything available. Given that at least a hundred taxicabs were already in active service for the Paris Military Authority, the next step was almost inevitable. Gallieni’s Chief of Staff, General Clergerie, made the calculations: six hundred cars, transporting five soldiers each, taking two trips to the Ourcq…that was six thousand more soldiers to throw at the German armies. Six thousand very much-needed troops available. It seems that the requisitioning was made on the spot, with policemen halting taxis in the streets, even those on duty, and drivers asking passengers to get out as they were “called to combat”.
The order was issued at one pm, with the depart set at six pm. Gallieni himself review the six hundred taxis, refueled and loaded with soldiers, before they left. Most of them were the Renault AG1 Landaulet model. According to Boucard, in the aftermath of the battle and following city regulations, taxi drivers ran their meters thus charging the National Treasury with 70.012 Francs. That is “sprit de coprs” one guess…
There is some controversy about the real impact of this action in the outcome of battle. What it is unquestionable is that, somewhat fortuitously, everyday life came into the war and with it, a renewed feeling of hope and unity for the French, a new strength that would be increasingly needed to endure the ongoing conflict.
This “invasion” of the realm of war by the forces of daily life, as in this scene of simple taxis, only back lights lit to avoid enemy reconnaissance, marching to the battlefield, was new to everyone. Everyday life had been usually interrupted and disturbed by war and not the other way around; not that in this case simple, homely things, were in position to disturb war. But probably for the first time in the history of warfare objects from civilian life were brought into battlefields with shocking effects. And taxis were just the beginning.
Probably the most successful civilian object in WWI was barbed wire. And its appearance was, somewhat, a consequence of the use of taxis (granting romantically that the miracle of the Marne was real and taxis had an actual impact in the development of war): having reached Paris the German Army, the war most likely would had finished and barbed wire fields wouldn’t have cost thousands of lives. It seems fitting, albeit horrible, that soldiers were to be led like cattle to their deaths between lines of barbed wire, which is, more or less, the purpose of barbed wire also on civilian life.
Phones would have been a success also, given that the mass use of high explosive shells wouldn’t have rendered the lines completely useless most of the time, and giving the likes of Adolf Hitler a job to do coming to and fro through the trenches with orders and information.
Anyway, as Charles Chaplin will show in Modern Times, mass production was definitely taking care of things, at home and in the field, and the home front was to be closer than ever to the action during the war as a result of the application of industrialization to life. And to war. Sometimes, as we have seen, what was happily used in regular life, was also to be used, in far grimmer circumstances, to help killing enemies. Taxis were now taking soldiers to the battlefield instead of taking merry couples to a ballroom; phones were dictating orders to shell-shocked men; last but not least, barbed wire, from the Marne to the Kaiserslacht was to be responsible for the trapping, wounding, slaughtering of thousands of farmers who, probably, died with perplexity in their faces thinking on how something they were so familiar to could had betrayed them in such a ghastly way.