If you think of the first world war, your mind probably turns to images of trench warfare and thousands of men losing their lives to try and gain just a few meters of land.
However, in the first few weeks of the war, this was not at all the case. In fact, it initially looked like the war might not even last two months.
What stopped the collapse of France and began widespread trench warfare was a desperate battle that took place in the first week of September 1914.
Learn more about the First Battle of the Marne on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
It is hard to express just how differently the first world war might have turned out if events had proceeded just a little differently in the first weeks of the war.
When war broke out, Germany was far more prepared than any of the allied powers. In a previous episode went over the German plan for war, which was known as the Schlieffen Plan.
The Schlieffen Plan had been years in the making and was a highly detailed plan for what Germany would do in the opening weeks of a war with France.
The creator of the plan, Field Marshall Alfred von Schliefffen, knew that if war broke out between France and Germany and it turned into a war of attrition, Germany would eventually lose.
He felt that Germany had a window of about six weeks to take care of France before Russia could mobilize and threaten them from the east.
He also realized that things had changed dramatically since the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The movement of troops wasn’t limited to how fast men could walk or a horse could gallop. There were now trains and automobiles which could move large numbers of men, equipment, and artillery very quickly across long distances.
Schliefffen didn’t live long enough to see his plan put into action. It was Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff, who was responsible for the execution of the plan when the war started.
The plan was extremely detailed and made a lot of assumptions, some of which turned out not to be true. For example, they assumed that the Belgians would put up any resistance, which they did, and they didn’t plan for the British at all.
Nonetheless, despite the setbacks, the Germans were in control during the first month of the war. From August 3, 1914, when Germany declared war on France, they had been relentlessly advancing, and the allies had been falling back. The British and French forces were engaged in what became known as the Great Retreat during the month of August and early September.
By September 1, the British Expeditionary Force was considering falling back to the coast so they could evacuate back to Great Britain.
The Germans had been sending airplanes over Paris to drop bombs on the city. Granted, there were no real bombers at this point, and they didn’t do much damage, but it was a huge psychological blow to the Parisians.
The next day, September 2, planes flew over Paris and dropped leaflets that said, “There is nothing you can do but surrender.”
The French government fled the city for Bordeaux, taking all the gold from the central bank with them. Officials at the Louvre began packing up works of art to be sent to Toulouse.
That day German units crossed the Marne River and were on the outskirts of the city of Meaux, only 25 miles from Paris.
Parisians were now clamoring for Paris to be declared an open city, abandoning all defenses to avoid destruction and loss of life and allowing the Germans to occupy the city.
The military governor of Paris, General Joseph-Simon Gallieni, predicted that if nothing was done, Paris would be lost by September 5th. Paris and France needed a miracle.
On September 3rd, they got their miracle.
The Germans had changed their attack plans. The German First Army, led by General Alexander von Kluck, had changed directions.
The first army was supposed to be the lead army, but von Moltke changed his mind, and now the second army was to take the lead, with the first army protecting their right flank.
Von Kluck decided to ignore the order and chase the French fifth army across the Marne, turning southeast.
However, von Kluck went too far. He outran his supply lines, and after a month of advancing, his units were exhausted. He also had his right flank exposed from turning southeast.
The French used this opportunity to halt their retreat and order a counterattack. On September 5, the commander-in-chief of the French military, Joseph Joffre, ordered the attack. This was a do-or-die moment for France.
In his order, Joffre told all the counterattacking units, “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.”
He also had to plead with the British to take part in the action, as he had no authority over the British Expeditionary Force. He personally went to the British headquarters to plead with the head of the British force, the ironically named Field Marshall John French.
He was so desperate for the British to rejoin the fight he reportedly banged his fist on a table and shouted, “Monsieur le Maréchal, the honor of England is at stake!”
General Michel-Joseph Maunoury led his French Sixth Army against the exposed flank of the German First army.
As von Kluck wheeled around to meet the French, he left a 30-mile wide gap between the German first and second armies.
The French exploited this gap and poured troops into it, creating a 100-mile-wide front along the Marne River Valley.
This was an odd mix of new warfare techniques, using radio communications and airplanes, as well as old warfare, involving cavalry attacks.
Given the proximity to Paris, the French were able to bring in fresh troops using an unorthodox means of military transportation….taxis. 600 Parisian taxis managed to bring 6,000 soldiers to the front lines.
Each taxi carried five soldiers per trip. The taxis left at night and were ordered to run with their headlights off and only their rear lights on. Each taxi was just to follow the lights of the car ahead of them.
This was the first time in the history of warfare that automobiles were used to transport troops to a battle.
These taxis became known as “Taxi de la Marne.” Each taxi ran with its meters running, and the cab fare of 70,012 Francs was fully paid by the French government.
The British, too, advanced and managed to capture bridges across the Marne River but moved much slower than the French, despite having an even larger numerical advantage.
The counterattack, and the influx of new troops, managed to stop the Germans, and on September 9, they began to retreat to the north to a position on the Aisne River in northern France.
The German retreat was slow. Rainstorms turned the landscape into mud. It took three days for the German retreat to reach the new line near the Aisne.
In the orders issued by von Moltke to the retreating units was a relatively innocuous-sounding line that set the stage for the next four years. He said, “The lines so reached will be fortified and defended.”
By September 12, the Battle of the Marne, now dubbed the Miracle of the Marne, was over, but the war was now really just getting started.
With Germans now in a fortified position on the Aisne River, they began to execute von Moltke’s order…. by digging trenches. The trenches were not designed to be permanent structures.
For the next month, from September 17 to October 17, both sides kept trying to outflank each other. It became known as the Race to the Sea, as the flanking maneuvers continued until they ran out of space.
Neither side was able to get a decisive advantage, and both sides began to dig in, creating a long front that extended across the entirety of northern France and Belgium.
The Battle of the Marne took the lives of over 100,000 soldiers in just a few days and was a taste of what the next few years were to look like.
When von Moltke issued the order for the Germans to retreat, he knew that the Schlieffen Plan had failed. It had almost worked, coming within 25 miles of Paris.
The failure of the Schlieffen Plan, for which he had been given responsibility, caused him to have a nervous breakdown and be replaced. When he knew it had failed, he reportedly sent a telegram to Kaiser Wilhelm saying, “Sir, we have lost the war.”
However, the war was not lost. At least not yet. Von Moltke knew what von Schlieffen knew decades before when the plan was first concocted. If Germany were involved in a two-front war of attrition, they would eventually lose. It was just a matter of time.
The German high command dug in, thinking that the war was still theirs to be won, albeit with a different script than what they started with.
Although no one could have known it at the moment, the aftermath of the Battle of the Marne set the stage for the bloody trench warfare, which would define the rest of the war.
I previously did an episode on the Greatest Battles in History, and I placed the First Battle of the Marne on that list. It was not because it was the bloodiest battle of the First World War but rather because it created the conditions for the rest of the war.
As the historian, Barbara Tuchman wrote in her 1962 book The Guns of August: “The Battle of the Marne was one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would eventually lose or the Allies ultimately win the war but because it determined that the war would go on. There was no looking back, Joffre told the soldiers on the eve. Afterward, there was no turning back. The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.”
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Alex T.D. over on Apple Podcasts in Great Britain. They write:
This podcast is excellent, and I have learned so much. I found it when wondering about San Marino after England played them in the Euros. Now I have listened to every single episode! Nice one, Gazza
Thanks, Alex! First, I would like to welcome you to the completionist club formally. I assume you are referring to the 2021 San Marino vs. England match, where England narrowly beat San Marino by the score of 1-nill.
It was an exciting match where…..wait, it appears I read the score wrong. That should be 10-nil, not 1-nil.
Oh well, better luck next time, San Marino.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.