Stalemate on the Western Front
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
"All you could hear was this heavy rifle fire, the blowing of bugles, beating of drums and the Germans shouting 'Hoch der Kaiser.' Of course we couldn't see them, we couldn't get at them, so our own fellows were calling out to them, 'Come out in the open and fight clean.'"
Drummer E.L. Slaytor, 3rd Battalion, The Coldstream Guards, 4th Brigade, 2nd Division, British Expeditionary Force, September 1914, Battle of the Marne.
By the end of August 1914, the situation for the Allies was tenuous at best. The Germans were closing in on Paris, and the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force were in retreat. The French government abandoned the capital and headed to Bordeaux along with nearly a million refugees. A British diplomat would telegram the Home Office that “the Germans seem sure to succeed in occupying Paris.” But there were signs that the apparent German juggernaut was beginning to slow down as the two opposing armies turned their attention to the Marne River.
Since unification in the 1870s, the German empire had one concern: being outflanked by both France and Russia. A two-front war meant a division of resources. Therefore, any war strategy would mean defeating one or the other quickly. But France, after their humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, had constructed a network of fortifications along the eastern border. These defenses would slow down any direct German invasion. In 1905, the German Chief of Staff, Field Marshall Alfred von Schlieffen, proposed a bold strategy. In assessing Russia’s recent performance against the Japanese, Schlieffen felt that the Russians would be slow to mobilize in the event of war. The Germans needed to take advantage of this. Schlieffen’s plan was to send almost the entirety of the German army through Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg and sweep down through the less defended region of northeastern France. By doing so, the German military would be able to outflank the French and, as a result, capture Paris. Schlieffen boldly predicted victory within 40 days. The plan was not without its critics, who felt it was too costly and risky to involve neutral countries. One of these critics was General Helmuth von Moltke.
Moltke took over as Chief of Staff in 1906 and set about modifying Schlieffen’s original strategy. He reduced the size of the invading force and eliminated the Netherlands from the plan. This version was implemented when the Germans invaded Belgium on August 4, 1914. From the start, the flaws in the plan began to reveal themselves. Though surprised by the invasion, the Belgians put up enough resistance to slow down the German advance. It would take the Germans longer than anticipated to enter France and allow the French army to adjust to the new offensive. Violating Belgian neutrality also guaranteed British military involvement. The entente with France did not bind England to provide military support, but the English government had pledged to come to the assistance of Belgium. Along with this was the speed of Russian mobilization. Instead of months, it only took weeks. Now Germany was facing what it feared the most - a two-front war.
France, for its part, spent much of the pre-war years attempting to decipher what the Germans intended to do. French military commanders firmly believed that the most likely route of a German invasion was across the border through Lorraine and the Ardennes. The French strategy evolved to include both a defensive and offensive component. The line of fortifications from Verdun south to Epinal was meant to repulse any initial German attack. Constructing an internal railroad network to the frontier allowed for the quick transport of troops. The offensive part of the strategy would then be to launch a counterattack across the same border between the two countries. By the spring of 1914, the last iteration of the French military plan, Plan XVII, accounted for a possibility of at least a small German force sweeping through Belgium to strike at the French flank.
When the war began, the French were fully committed to Plan XVII. Only two German field armies invaded across the border of Alsace-Lorraine, which aimed to pin down the bulk of the French army. The French leadership had already committed their forces to the region before they realized another five German armies were heading into Belgium. Only the French 5th Army and then the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) stood in the way of this more significant German force. During the first few weeks of August, the series of battles known as the Battle of the Frontiers saw the French suffer heavy casualties despite having the numerical advantage. Much of the French assault faltered, and the French fell back. At the northern end of the front, on the border of Belgium, the French 5th Army and the BEF attempted to hold back the advance of three German field armies. The French 5th Army met two German field armies on August 21 at the battle of Charleroi. The two armies fought over the crossings of the Meuse and Sambre Rivers near Namur, Belgium. Meanwhile, the BEF saw its first significant action of the war at the battle of Mons further north on August 23. The British attempted to hold the line, but when the French ultimately had to retreat, their flank became exposed, and they were also forced to retreat.
Over the next week, the British and the French fell back towards positions along the Marne River. The Germans, of course, pursued the retreating allies and pressed the attack. But the French and British had achieved at least a partial strategic victory despite the losses. The entire Schlieffen Plan was predicated on speed. Infantry mobility was still limited to foot, and the German army had been on the march since invading Belgium at the beginning of the month. Added to this was battle fatigue, as they ran into more resistance than anticipated. When they approached the Marne, the German army was tired and wounded and starting to slow down. But Paris was still in their grasp.
The opposing commanders were vastly different from each other. On the French side, General Joseph Jacques Cesaire Joffre, affectionately known as Papa Joffre, was perceived to be unimaginative. Still, he had little patience with those who were not aggressive or failed to follow orders. Despite being heavy set and taciturn, he had boundless energy and an affable charm when necessary. All these attributes would serve him well in redeeming his initial failures at the start of the war. On the German side, General Helmuth von Moltke was aware of his more illustrious namesake uncle, a hero of the Franco-Prussian War, and the demands of the Schlieffen Plan. Moltke was stricken with self-doubt, believing he was not up to the task. Added to this were his concerns regarding the mobilization of Russia and the lack of German troop numbers. Whereas Joffre could be seen along the front, in close communication with his officers, Moltke remained back at the German High Command in Luxembourg. Lines of communication would play a significant role in the forthcoming battle.
After the defeats at Charleroi and Mons, Joffre realized that he could no longer pursue Plan XVII. Any attempted invasion along Alsace- Lorraine would have guaranteed the Germans completing a sweep around the French army. Instead, Joffre, on August 24, decided to make a pivot. He ordered his center and left flank to swing back, using Verdun as the pivot point. He drew troops from the right flank and set about forming a fresh Sixth Army on the left near Paris to give respite to the retreating Allied forces. Meanwhile, Moltke had divested the main army of seven divisions to occupy the towns of Maubeuge, Givet, and Antwerp rather than using reserves or replacement troops. In addition, on August 25, he ordered four divisions to the Eastern Front to slow the Russian advance into East Prussia, unaware that the Germans had already secured a significant victory at Tannenberg. As the German army advanced, communications between the German command and the front showed signs of breaking down, and movements along the front became disjointed. Supplying the front was also becoming a significant concern for German commanders.
The Allies themselves had their problems. The relationship between Joffre and his British counterpart, Sir John French, was not at its best. There was mutual distrust between the two sides. Joffre knew that the small British force was the only thing separating the French Army from being completely enveloped by the Germans. Yet he had little confidence in the British and feared they might head for home. His fears were not ungrounded. Sir John French had little faith in the French Army, especially after being left isolated at Mons during the French army retreat. He would gladly have headed to the coast and then returned to England if given the orders. It would take all of Joffre’s charm and powers of persuasion to convince the British commander to participate in any counteroffensive when the opportunity arose.
The situation along the front in the waning days of August gave Joffre some degree of hope that the timing might be right for an offensive against the Germans. Keenly aware of keeping Sir John French mollified, Joffre ordered the French Fifth Army, under the command of General Charles Lanrezac, who had earned much of French’s disappointment, to attack the Germans near Guise, providing the English much valuable respite from the fighting. Meanwhile, in Paris, the city, with the shadow of 1871 hanging over it, began preparations for a siege. The military governor, General Joseph Gallieni, had been tasked with defending the city. But more than anyone else in the French chain of command, Gallieni sensed an opportunity to strike at the Germans before they reached the capital. He was one of the first to make Joffre aware of a growing gap between the German First and Second Armies as they swung southwest towards the Marne River. Gallieni organized the commandeering of a host of vehicles, including all the taxis in Paris, to transport troops to the front. The legend of the Parisian “Taxis of the Marne” exaggerated the actual impact they had. Still, the story of a convoy of taxis delivering fresh troops served as a morale booster and a symbol of French resilience, resistance, and unity. These troops swelled the ranks of the French Sixth Army deployed to protect Paris, and the British left flank.
An unlikely source supported suspicions of a weakness in the German advance. Relatively new technology would prove vital: the airplane. The airplane's potential was still underappreciated, but the French and British flying corps conducted reconnaissance over a broad swath of the front. Aerial observation provided Joffre with the information he needed. The German armies were out of step with one another. The commander of the German First Army was the combative General Alexander Von Kluck. Paris had not been the main objective. The goal was the complete envelopment of the French Army. Von Kluck believed that the First Army, being on the far right German flank, was the main force to achieve this goal, and the Second Army was there to protect his left. Therefore, he began making a wide swing to the southeast under the assumption that the British were too broken. In doing so, he had exposed his right flank to Paris and the growing number of French troops. General Karl von Bülow, the commander of the German Second Army, was more cautious. He recognized that his troops were fatigued from constant marching and combat and that the supply lines were stretched thin. He slowed the pace of his advance and grew concerned with Von Kluck’s quick movement. A line from a diary retrieved from a fallen German soldier hinted ominously: “Our men are done up.” A gap began to form between the two armies leaving both of them exposed and unprotected. It would be this gap that Joffre hoped to exploit.
Unlike Joffre, who shuttled up and down along the front assessing the situation and meeting with his British counterpart, Moltke remained sixty miles behind the front in Luxembourg. He did not have the same advantage as Joffre in seeing the changing situation in real-time. Communication with the front was, in many cases, spotty. Some messages along the weak radio relays took up to twenty-four hours. Moltke, who did not share the optimism of his officers, was concerned with the growing Sixth Army outside of Paris. He saw a potential threat to the German right flank, and on September 4th, he ordered both the First and Second Armies to remain facing the eastern side of Paris.
On September 5th, Joffre gave the orders to advance. The French Sixth Army attacked east towards Chateau Thierry. Von Kluck wheeled his army to the west to meet the advancing French army. Over the next few days, he would redeploy his forces along the north bank of the Marne. This swift reaction to this new offensive further widened the gap between Von Kluck and Von Bulow. On September 7, Von Bulow ordered two of his corps to retreat to better positions just before Von Kluck’s request to have them as reinforcements. Meanwhile, Von Kluck decided to strike at the Sixth Army and halt their advance. On the other hand, Von Bulow shifted his attention to his left flank in the opposite direction of the widening gap between them. It was into this gap that Joffre sent the British BEF (after much urging) and the French Fifth Army beginning on September 6. The BEF moved towards Montmirail, and the Fifth Army headed north along the St. Gond marshes. The objective was to establish a bridgehead across the Marne River. By September 8th, the Sixth Army, reinforced by troops from Paris, held against Von Kluck’s counterattack while the Fifth Army executed a surprise attack against Von Bulow, thus driving a wedge between the German armies.
All this time, Moltke was out of communication with the front. On September 8th, he sent his intelligence officer, Richard Hentsch, to the front. Hentsch was to assess the situation and, in consultation with Von Bulow, agreed that the Second Army was in danger of being cut off. Both men decided to retreat to the Aisne River. Hentsch then continued to meet with Von Kluck. Von Kluck objected to any form of withdrawal, believing he was on the verge of breaking the Sixth Army. Hentsch pointed out that he was speaking directly for Moltke, and the Second Army was already retreating. Beginning September 10th, the German forces west of Verdun were in full retreat back along the Aisne River, where they had already started strengthening their positions. The French and the British would take the next few days to pursue, but they, too, would be too exhausted to capitalize on their newfound advantage. Moltke, hearing the news, suffered a breakdown, and his subordinates needed to take over. On the night of September 9th, Moltke wrote to his wife: "Things have not gone well. The fighting east of Paris has not gone in our favor, and we shall have to pay for the damage we have done".
The opening month of the First World War has been termed the “War of Movement” by some historians. By the end of the Battle of the Marne, both sides would begin to dig in. The trenches that would define the Western Front were started as each army settled into a war of attrition. Even though they had not secured a tactical advantage, the Allied forces halted the advance of the German army and, by doing so, altered the course of the war. It could be argued, perhaps, that the Battle of the Marne was the most significant battle of the First World War. Any pretense that the war would be short was dispelled along the Marne River. And it changed the nature of war as both sides sought new technologies and weapons to break the stalemate. The Battle of the Marne would end 19th-century notions of war and transition the world toward more modern warfare.
The Guns of August: Barbara Tuchman
1914: Lyn Macdonald