From the Frontiers to the Marne

(Note:  This post is only for those with an interest in military history.  In it I describe cataclysmic events in the summer of 1914 when western civilization rushed into war, a war that tore Europe apart and left a terrible legacy that continues to exercise a malevolent influence on our world today. I wrote of this before in my very first entry in this blog, “War and Madness”, some of which is repeated here.  In the following post my primary emphasis is on the gargantuan struggle between the several armies on the western front during the fateful period between mid-August and mid-September 1914.)     



The major European states had trembled on the brink of war for years before the final explosion in the summer of 1914.  

France was the principal Continental power from the time of Louis XIV until mid-19th century.  French military leaders continued to bask in Napoleon’s aura and were arrogantly confident of their military’s superiority.  Their chief continental competitor was the Kingdom of Prussia.  Emperor Napoleon I had once remarked that “Prussia was hatched from a cannon ball.”  The north-German state gloried in its military prowess, but, under Napoleon’s leadership, the French had smashed the Prussians in a series of battles.  Following the ignominy of these defeats, Prussia reorganized its military and developed the General Staff, creating a highly professional war machine.  In mid-century, Prussia stood as a militaristic state with expansionist ambitions; and, after its defeat of Austria in 1866, it stretched uninterrupted across the northern two-thirds of Germany.  Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of Prussia, decided to challenge French dominance, and in 1870 he goaded France into war. Bismarck had anticipated this confrontation with France, and through it he hoped to create a truly united Germany.  As war erupted, most of the German states were persuaded to ally themselves with Prussia.     

Though France had declared war, the outbreak of hostilities found it totally unprepared for hostilities. The French army was of a high quality and and had an excellent reputation.  It was a standing army of regulars, many experienced in colonial wars; but there was no organized, trained reserve, and it was a smaller force than the armies being mobilized against it.  Prussia was ready for war.  It and some of the other German states had universal military conscription, which meant sizable standing armies and ready reserves. 

The French declared war on July 19.  They were slow to organize and concentrate their forces.  On the other side, the German armies were quickly assembled and moved to attack.  They advanced rapidly into France and defeated the badly outnumbered French in a series of  of battles, culminating in a disastrous surrender at Sedan on September 1.  Napoleon III was captured, and the Second Empire came to an end.  France fought on under new leadership for another five months, but the final outcome was inevitable.  Germany was united under William I,  King of Prussia, as the new German Empire, and France was defeated and reconstituted as the Third Republic. The humiliated nation was forced to pay a large war indemnity and lost the important provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, integral parts of France since the 17th century.

Most observers had been shocked by the war’s outcome, but many were not unhappy to see the French receive their comeuppance. Unfortunately, French arrogance was soon succeeded by even more dangerous chest-thumping on the part of the newly established German Empire.   

Western Europe saw a golden age in the years following the Franco-Prussian War.  The great nations of Europe were governed by civilized men, most of whom espoused Christian values, and many of the ruling families were related to one another.  Peace and progress were the watchwords of the day, and science and the arts flourished.  There remained a great disparity in income and living conditions between the rich and the poor, but society appeared to be on its way to gradual improvement.   

Germany in particular saw amazing progress.  By 1910 the German population was 67 million and growing. German universities were the best in the world, German music was unequaled, and German factories were turning out high-quality products at an ever-increasing rate.  There were the beginnings of social security and unemployment compensation.  The future looked bright indeed. 

France also prospered.  It recovered quickly from the 1870-71 disaster.  Even with its smaller, older, and somewhat static population of 40 million, la belle France  was still a wonderful place to be.  Agriculture remained the dominant occupation, but French industrial output was not insignificant.  The arts and letters flourished.

The United Kingdom was perhaps at the peak of its prestige and power.  The sun never set on the British Empire of 1910.  From New Delhi to Capetown, from Toronto to Sydney, ultimate allegiance was to the British monarch, and much wealth from these vast lands flowed into the imperial coffers or enriched British traders and merchants.

Eastern Europe was not as well off.  Both Austro-Hungary and Russia were polyglot empires containing a variety of ethnicities with questionable allegiances.  In Austro-Hungary, a ruling class of Germans and Magyars sat upon a boiling cauldron of restive Slavs.  Russia was also politically unstable and industrially backward.  Despite its great size and large manpower resources, it had suffered a humiliating defeat by Japan in 1905, and Russia’s huge underclass of peasants and disaffected sub-nationalities was restive.  As for the smaller east-European states, they were a heterogeneous mix of progress and stagnation.  Only recently had some of them been removed from centuries of Ottoman repression. 

With the accession of William II to the German throne in 1888, Europe slowly began trending toward confrontation and conflict. 

William was a grandson of Queen Victoria, long reigning British monarch.  George V, King of Great Britain, was his uncle, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia was his cousin.  Unfortunately, William was somewhat erratic, and he had an inordinate love of the military.  Soon he threw off the restraining influence of his old chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, and began putting his own somewhat bellicose imprint on the German military establishment and on German foreign policy.  He sought to overawe Europe with his magnificent army, and he began building a navy that could potentially challenge the British.  William was prone to frequent undiplomatic and provocative threats, and prime ministers and ambassadors were often on tenterhooks. France and Britain were alarmed, and it was apparent that the smallest spark could ignite a conflagration.  The spark came in the summer of 1914.

 Europe 1914

EUROPE 1914 

By 1914 Germany was in in a state of total military readiness.  Its industrial capacity, including arms production capability, eclipsed that of its European competitors.  Germany had a standing army of 840,000 with 3 million trained reservists. Its forces were magnificently equipped with modern equipment superior to that of any other nation.  Also, under the aegis of the German General Staff, military strategy and tactics had been developed into virtual sciences  The Staff officers had been preparing for a general European war for years, and many of them believed that the time was ready to strike. The army had never been better prepared, and its commanders were supremely confident. Realistic military exercises and maneuvers had been used to ready the troops for combat.  The development and deployment of artillery and machine guns had been a particular emphasis, and the German army had an impressive inventory of  heavy caliber guns and the training to employ them effectively.  There was much thought among senior leaders that it was time to finally dispose of their ancient enemy, the French.  They knew that the French longed to revenge 1870 and take back Alsace-Lorraine.  Never would Germany be better prepared to crush France once and for all.   

France, Germany’s age-old foe, was also in a state of preparedness. Even with its smaller population,  France still managed to field a standing army nearly as large as that of Germany, though it had fewer reserves.  As the threat of European war grew in 1913, France tried to compensate for its smaller manpower pool by drafting men for three years of service rather than two.  The French army was of a high quality, but it was not nearly so ready for modern war as its enemy to the east. The infantry was still attired in the traditional blue coats and red trousers, beautiful targets for its camouflaged opponents.  French war planning was comparatively weak, and the army’s tactical doctrine and training were better suited to the 19th century. Infantry weapons were adequate, but heavy artillery was far inferior to that of the Germans.  The German army had more than a three-to-one advantage in heavy guns such as high-angle howitzers and mortars.  It was true that many Frenchmen  wanted revenge for 1870.  They bitterly resented the loss of Alsace-Lorraine.  Nevertheless, few Frenchmen wished to start a war, and they looked anxiously at developments in Germany.

The British had no desire to become involved in a European land war, but they had become alarmed by the growth of the German navy and William II’s increasingly bellicose comments.  The United Kingdom, along with other major powers, had guaranteed Belgian neutrality and it was concerned that Germany might violate that state’s neutrality to attack France.   Britain had a large navy but only a few superb divisions of professional soldiers.  

Germany and Austro-Hungary were allies, and France and Russia had also formed a defensive alliance. British and French military staffs had a sort of cooperative understanding, but it did not amount to a true alliance, and it was questionable whether Britain would become involved in a general European war.  A German invasion of Belgium would make it much more likely.

The Germans realized that if war broke out it would be a two-front war, France to the west and Russia on the east.   France was considered the most dangerous enemy. Russia had a huge army, but it would be slow to mobilize.  If war came, a small part of the German army, along with Austro-Hungarian forces, was expected to hold the Russians in check while the French were dealt with.  Once France was out of the war the Germans had no doubt of their ability to defeat the poorly equipped, poorly trained Russian army.  A quick victory in the west was critical.

In late June 1914 Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated.  The Austrians held Serbia responsible and wished to destroy the Serbian state.  Germany assured Austria of its support.  As a fellow Slav state, Russia considered itself Serbia’s protector; and on July 31, 1914, following an Austro-Hungarian declaration of war against Serbia, Russia began to mobilize.  If  the Russians mobilized before Germany was ready for war it would disrupt Germany’s entire strategic planning.  Faced with this dilemma,  the German high command insisted on an immediate response. This resulted in German mobilization followed by a declaration of war against Russia and France.  The Great War had begun.



Germany’s war strategy was predicated on the total defeat of France in six weeks.  To accomplish this, a plan had been meticulously developed and constantly refined during field exercises over a period of many years.  As the British feared, the plan involved attacking France through Belgium.  Since the German-French border was well defended, that appeared to be the only possible path to a speedy victory.  The German strategy called for a massive sweep through Belgium into northeastern France aimed at enveloping Paris and trapping the major French forces against the German border.  The German high command realized that invading Belgium might bring Britain into the war on France’s side, but that was a relatively minor concern.  The British could only field an army of about 80,000 troops, an insignificant force as compared to the 1,500,000 Germans and 1,070,000 French moving toward each other along the frontiers.  With France out of the war in six weeks, the British could be persuaded to make peace.

Upon mobilization, German troops were quickly concentrated on the Belgian/French frontiers, with the heaviest concentration being in the north. Once war was declared,  they moved quickly into Belgium.  That small nation was able to field an army of about 120,000 men, mostly reserves, to face them  The Belgians fought bravely but were ill-prepared for such a massive invasion. Ninety percent of Belgium was overrun during August, and the remnants of the Belgian army continued to hold a small slice of land near the English channel till war’s end.  It played a very small role in the overall campaign, but Germany’s invasion of Belgium did cause Britain to enter the war; and a British army was deployed in northeastern France by mid-August.

The German armies were numbered from north to south.  The German First Army consisted of approximately 320,000 men, the Second 260,000, the Third 180,000, the Fourth 180,000,  the Fifth 200,000, the Sixth 220,000, the Seventh 127,000.  Opposing them, the French armies were numbered as follows.  The French Fifth Army, farthest north, had about 254,000 men, the Fourth 193,000, the Third 168,000, the Second 200,000, and the First, in the extreme south,  256,000.  The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), consisting of 80,000 men, was to the north of the French Fifth Army.



The Germans charged into Belgium on August 4 and swept rapidly toward the southwest.  Two weeks later elements of the German First, Second and Third Armies began to encounter BEF and French First Army units not far from the French frontier.  These Allied forces were badly outnumbered and in danger of being overwhelmed.  Desperate fighting occurred at places like Mons, Charleroi and Le Cateau, and the French in particular suffered very heavy casualties.  French infantry doctrine of 1914 emphasized the necessity to attack in virtually all circumstances (attaque a outrance), and it led to horrendous losses of men.  In many early engagements the number of French dead and wounded was twice that of their enemy.  Within days the BEF and the French First Army were in rapid retreat toward Paris.  It was not, however, a full rout.  The retreating soldiers retained unit cohesion, and they turned at times in an attempt to slow the pursuing Germans.  For example, on August 29 the French Fifth Army turned and gave a sharp check to the German Second near St. Quentin. The following day the Fifth resumed its retreat.

In the far south of the battle line French generals pursued their pre-war plan to take the war into Germany.  That meant an advance into Alsace-Lorraine, France’s lost provinces.  Within days of war’s outbreak French First Army troops charged into Alsace and captured Mulhouse.  The Germans counterattacked, and the city exchanged hands several times before the French established a defensive line on high ground to the west, leaving Mulhouse in German hands.  Alsace was ill-suited for offensive action, and this part of the front remained relatively quiet for the remainder of the war.

In the middle of the front, east of the city of Nancy, the French Second and Third Armies attacked the German Sixth and Fifth.  Again, it was a near disaster for French arms.  The forces were roughly equal in manpower, but the Germans were in prepared positions and ready for action.  German artillery fire was murderous, and that alone accounted for perhaps 75% of French casualties.  The French infantry was repulsed everywhere and fell back toward Nancy.  The Kaiser came to the front anticipating a triumphal march into that French city, but his arrival proved premature.  The French were now in more defensible positions, and they were learning from experience.  The Germans were now the attackers, and they were repeatedly thrown back. By early September the fighting line in this area was stabilized near the frontier.  Both sides had sustained grievous losses.

The French suffered an even more bitter repulse in the Ardennes region.  Marshal Joffre, the French Commander in Chief, had based his war plan on hopes of a breakthrough in the German center.  This breakthrough was to be achieved by the Second and Third Armies advancing east of Nancy and the Fourth Army attacking through the Ardennes.  He was aware of a German thrust through Belgium, but he gravely underestimated its strength and believed that the French First Army could contain it.  He also thought the German’s Belgian sweep would weaken their center and expose them to a counterpunch. He was wrong.  The attacking French troops did not outnumber the defenders.

The Fourth Army contained some of the very best divisions in the French army, and Joffre had high hopes for the success of its attack.  But determination and bravery were not enough.  Poor French tactics were pitted against superbly trained German infantry supported by an overwhelming advantage in heavy artillery.  Entire divisions and regiments literally ceased to exist.  As an example, the elite Third Colonial Division suffered about 10,500 casualties, lost its commander and both brigade commanders, and was effectively destroyed as a fighting unit.  The entire French Fourth Army reeled back some disarray and was pushed back deep into France.  

All along the front the French had been repulsed.  Casualty figures were almost incomprehensible.  On one day alone, August 22, 1914, an estimated 27,000 French soldiers died in battle and another 70,000 or more were wounded – almost 100,000 casualties in a single day; and similar bloodletting went on up and down the line from mid-August into September.  By September 3 more than a quarter of the French soldiers that started the war were hors de combat.  In the north the BEF along with the French Fifth and Fourth Armies were retreating.  Elsewhere the French armies were binding their wounds and holding on.  The situation appeared desperate, but Marshal Joffre still had hope.  How could he snatch victory from defeat?

The German army had not escaped unscathed.  Though theirs were not so severe as French casualties, German units had also suffered heavy losses; and early in the campaign General von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff, weakened his offensive thrust by transferring two Army corps (about 80,000 men) to the Eastern Front to help counter a Russian incursion into Prussia. Adding to their problems, German supply lines were lengthening while those of the French compressed.

 Sep 5


Taking advantage of his interior lines, Marshal Joffre began transferring units from the right to his left.  Two new armies were formed, the Sixth Army on the extreme left, and the Ninth Army between the Fourth and the Fifth.   By thinning out his First and Second Armies and calling up more reserves, Joffre had reversed the numerical imbalance on his left flank.

On September 3 the four armies of the advancing German right wing stretched along a line from Verdun to Amiens.  Their First Army was within 30 miles of Paris, and on that day the French government announced its relocation to Bordeaux. The BEF had retreated so far south that they were virtually out of the fight.  The situation appeared desperate. At this critical moment, a French reconnaissance flight revealed that the German First Army had started an eastward wheel north of Paris in an apparent effort to trap and destroy the French Fifth Army.  When Marshal Joffre saw that the German First Army was turning east, he realized that the enemy’s own right flank was exposed.  It was time for a counterstroke.     

French and British troops on the left were exhausted by their long retreat in the blazing August heat, but the German’s were just as tired by seemingly endless marches in pursuit.  Though they had been badly defeated all up and down the line, the French infantry was beginning to improve its tactics.  There is no military school like combat, and French officers and men had experienced graduate level instruction from some true professionals. The Allies were tired of retreating and reacted positively when the French commander-in-chief gave orders to turn and fight. On the eve of battle, Marshall Joffre issued the following communique to his troops:    

At the moment when the battle upon which hangs the fate of France is about to begin, all must remember that the time for looking back is past; every effort must be concentrated on attacking and throwing the enemy back….Under present conditions no weakness can be tolerated.”

Receiving Joffre’s order, French and British soldiers stopped their retreat and moved northeast to face the foe. On September 6, they attacked.  The entire German line was overextended, and gaps had appeared between some of the advancing armies.  The French Fifth Army moved quickly into the gap between the German First and Second Armies, with the BEF following.  On the German extreme right, the newly formed French Sixth Army struck the German First.  The fighting there was fierce, and it appeared that the Sixth Army might be overcome, but critical French reinforcements arrived during the evening of September 7, and the Sixth held its ground.  Late the following day the French Fifth Army launched an attack against the German Second, further widening the gap in the German lines.  The Second was being pressed by the Fifth on its right and the French Ninth Army on its left, creating some danger of encirclement. The high command became seriously alarmed over the deteriorating situation, and on September 9 it ordered a general retreat in order to regroup.  

The retreating armies were pursued by the Allies, but the pace of their advance was too slow to force continued German retirement, and the Germans stopped their retreat after falling back about 40 miles to a point north of the Aisne River.  There they dug in on high ground and prepared trenches.  As it developed, there was no regrouping and resumption of the offensive. The German retreat between September 9 and September 13 marked the abandonment of the Schlieffen Plan and all hope of a quick decision in the west.

Marne 4


(Note the blue coats, red trousers, and no helmets)

Hundreds of thousands of young men were already dead or wounded, and the slaughter had only just begun.  Four more bitter years of war were to follow, then came a twenty year truce.  In 1939 it all began again.  Western Civilization has never fully recovered from these self-inflicted wounds.  The day that marks the beginning of World War 1 should be a day of mourning for all mankind.

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