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 land power from the time of Louis XIV until mid-19th century. French military leaders basked 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.”  Under his leadership the French had thoroughly smashed the Prussians in a series of battles.  Following the ignominy of these defeats, Prussia had reorganized its military and created the General Staff.  It remained a highly militaristic state; 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 a declaration of war. Bismarck had anticipated this confrontation with France, and by this means he hoped to create a truly united Germany.  As war erupted, all major German states (except Austria) were persuaded to ally themselves with Prussia.     

Though it had been tricked into declaring war, the French were totally unprepared for hostilities. They had a standing army of long-term soldiers, many experienced in colonial wars; but there was no ready reserve, and the French army was much smaller force than the armies being mobilized against it.  Bismarck  had alerted the Prussian general staff to prepare for the coming hostilities, and Prussia was ready for the conflict.  Unlike France, Prussia and some of the other German states had universal military conscription, which meant sizable standing armies and trained reservists. 

The war began on July 19, 1870. The French 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 French territory and defeated their outnumbered French opponents in a series of  battles, culminating in a disastrous surrender of a major French army 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 the 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 mid-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 unequalled, 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 Cape Town, 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 consisting of 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 immense manpower resources, it had suffered a humiliating military defeat by Japan in 1905, and Russia’s huge underclass of serfs and disaffected ethnicities was restless.  The smaller east-European states were a heterogenous mix of progress and stagnation, many being only recently 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 unstable, 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 2

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 approximately 800,000 with 3.1 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 superbly 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 relatively weak as compared to Germany’s, 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 is true that many Frenchmen wanted revenge for 1870.  They bitterly resented the loss of Alsace-Lorraine.  Nevertheless, most Frenchmen did not wish 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 were 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.

Austro-Hungary had a population slightly larger than France and an army of roughly equivalent size, but it was not nearly so well equipped and trained as were the French and German.  It’s main focus was Serbia and Russia.   

With Russia’s population greater than 120 million, its army outnumbered those of Germany and Austro-Hungary combined; but it was poorly trained, poorly equipped, and often poorly led.  

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 or not Britain would become involved in a general European war.  A German invasion of Belgium would make it much more likely.

Because of the French-Russian alliance, The Germans realized that if war broke out it would be a two-front war.   France was considered the most dangerous enemy.  Russia had a huge army, but it would be slow to mobilize.  If war came, a smaller part of the German army, along with Austro-Hungarian forces, could be 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 Russians.  A quick victory in the west was crucial.

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 it would totally disrupt Germany’s war plans.  Faced with this dilemma, the German high command insisted that Russia cease its mobilization.  When Russia refused, strategic considerations caused Germany to initiate hostilities against both France and Russia. The Great War had begun.


Germany’s grand war strategy was predicated on the total defeat of France in six weeks. To accomplish its objective, the German General Staff had developed highly detailed campaign plans and refined them by means of war exercises over a period of many years.  As the British feared, these German’s plans called for an attack on France through neutral Belgium. The Germans believed this to be the only possible path to a speedy victory since the German-French frontier was well defended.  The Schlieffen Plan, authored by the former chief of the German general staff, called for a massive sweep through Belgium into northeastern France aimed at 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 field an army of no more than 120,000 troops, an insignificant force as compared to the massive German and French armies facing each other along the frontiers. 

Germany’s annual class of recruits numbered approximately 400,000 men, and five of these classes were activated as the regular field army, nearly 2,000,000 men including the professional cadre.  There were approximately another 3,000,000 in the general reserve.  In defiance of normal conventions, 400,000 of these older reservists were organized into 20 or more divisions and mixed in with the regulars.  This gave German commanders even greater confidence that they would be able to overwhelm French resistance.  Only eleven German divisions (about 250,000 men) were stationed on the Eastern Front, where they, along with the Austro-Hungarian Army, were expected to hold the slow-mobilizing Russians in check while the western campaign was concluded.  Approximately 2,150,000 German soldiers were available for the western thrust. 

French recruitment classes numbered about 250,000 men, and when mobilized the regular army was almost 1,250,000 strong, with another 2,000,000 reservists.  Metropolitan France received some additional manpower support from French North African colonials and African native units, but their contribution was limited to about 50,000 men during the war’s early stages.   Whereas the Germans had increased the size of its armies by incorporating older reserves among its active combatants, the French initially rejected that idea and were unaware that Germans had done so.  As a result, the sweep through Belgium was much stronger than the French thought possible even as the Germans continued to maintain powerful units along the French-German border.

Upon mobilization, German troops were quickly concentrated on the Belgian/French frontiers, with the far heavier concentration being in the north. Once war was declared, they moved quickly into Belgium.  That small nation was able to field a army of about 200,000 men, including reservists, to face them. The Belgians fought bravely but were poorly equipped. Ninety percent of Belgium was overrun during August, but the remnants of the Belgian army continued to hold a small slice of their 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 small but superbly trained British army, 100,000 strong,  was deployed in northeastern France by mid-August.

The seven German armies were numbered from north to south, with the German First Army on the extreme right.  Opposing them, the five French armies were numbered from the south.  The French Fifth Army, farthest north, was flanked by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).  They faced the German First and Second Armies and parts of the Third.  On this critical front the French and British were outnumbered approximately two to one. 

Frontiers 2



The Germans charged into Belgium on August 4 and, after taking the great fortresses around Liege, swept rapidly toward the southwest.  Little more than 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.  The 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, “attaque á outrance“, emphasized the necessity to attack in virtually all circumstances, and it led to horrendous losses of men.  French dead and wounded in many early engagements was at least twice that of their enemy.  German superiority in heavy artillery and machine guns was particularly devastating.  Within days the BEF and the French First Army were in rapid retreat toward Paris.  It was not, however, a rout.  The retreating soldiers retained unit cohesion, and they turned at times to counterattack 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.

South of the northern battle 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.  French offensive capabilities there were soon reduced by the transfer of troops to bolster hard-pressed Allied units in front of Paris.   The Alsace region was best suited for defensive warfare, and the sector remained relatively quiet for the remainder of the war.

Meanwhile, the French had suffered bitter repulses in the Ardennes region and further south in Lorraine.  Marshal Joffre, the French Commander in Chief, had based his war strategy on hopes of a breakthrough in the German center.  This breakthrough was to be achieved by the Fourth Army attacking through the Ardennes and the Second and Third Armies advancing east of Nancy.  He was aware of the probable German thrust through Belgium, but he grossly underestimated its strength and believed that the French Fifth Army could contain it.  He also thought the German’s Belgian sweep would weaken their center and expose them to a counterpunch.  Since the Germans were employing many reserves as first-line troops, Joffre was wrong on both counts. The Fifth Army and the BEF were nearly overwhelmed by the three powerful German armies in the north, and the attacking French troops did not outnumber German defenders in Lorraine and the Ardennes.

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

East of the city of Nancy the French Second and Third Armies attacked the German Sixth and Fifth in Lorraine.  Again, contrary to Joffre’s estimates, the forces opposing them were roughly equal in manpower, and 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.  It was a near disaster for French arms.  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 horrendous  losses.

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 50,000 or more were wounded – almost 80,000 casualties in a single day; and similar bloodletting went on up and down the line from mid-August into September. By September 3 perhaps a quarter of the French soldiers that started the war were either dead or hors de combat.  In the north the BEF along with the French Fifth, Fourth and Third Armies were retreating.  Elsewhere the French armies were binding their wounds and holding on.  Reserve units were now being called up and thrown into battle. The situation was desperate, but Marshal Joffre still had hope.  How could he snatch victory from defeat?

The German army had not escaped unscathed.  Though 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 120,000 men) to the Eastern Front to help counter a Russian incursion into East Prussia. To add to their problems, German supply lines were lengthening while those of the French compressed.  Lines of communication required defending and strong points needed garrisoning, therefore the advancing armies front line troops began to thin out. 

Taking advantage of his interior lines and a well-developed railroad system, Marshal Joffre began transferring units from his right to the left.  Two new French armies were formed, the Sixth Army on the extreme left, and the Ninth Army between the Fourth and the Fifth.   By removing units from  his First and Second Armies and calling up reserves, Joffre had removed 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 it  


Marne Key


was 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 southeastward 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 toward the southeast 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 perhaps even more 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 doctrine of “attaque á outrance” was abandoned in favor of a more judicious use of cover and entrenchment.  They were ready to stop retreating and confront the enemy. As for the BEF, its commander had virtually given up the battle as lost, but Joffre finally persuaded him to join the counteroffensive. British and French soldiers reacted positively when the French commander-in-chief gave his order 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, the Allied 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 German 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 French and British, and the Allied despair of September 3rd was replaced by thoughts of victory.  However, 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 victory in the west.

Marne 1


(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 what amounted to 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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