Why was Germany defeated at the First Battle of the Marne (1914)

French troops 1914

The First Battle of the Marne was a WW I battle fought from 5–12 September 1914. It is generally regarded as one of the most important battles of the war. The battle was fought between the allies and the Germans. It was the allies first major victory in the war and it possibly saved France and Britain from defeat in 1914. The battle was fought on the very edge of Paris and its hinterland and was a counter-attack by the French field army and the British Expeditionary Force leading to the German withdrawing from the area around Paris. The Battle of the Marne was a victory for the Allies, but it also set the stage for four years of trench warfare stalemate on the Western Front. This article will discuss the reasons for the allied victory at the Marne.

Battle of the Frontiers and the Great Retreat

French troops 1914

When war was declared between Germany and France and later Britain, the allies went on the offensive. French troops crossed the border in Alsace-Lorraine, which had once been part of France until 1871. A series of battles were fought between France and Germany, with the French achieving some notable success such as the capture of Mulhouse.[1] The Germans then invaded France via Belgium and this transformed the dynamics of the war. They swiftly occupied almost all of Belgium and they advanced deep into Northern France. This forced many French divisions which had been stationed on the eastern border with Germany to retreat. This came to be known as the Great Retreat.

For a few weeks in August, the French were unable to hold any defensive line, even with the aid of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The British engaged with the advancing Germans at the Battle of Mons. At the Battle of Mons on the 23rd of August, the British attempted to hold a line on the Mons-Conde canal. However, the collapse of the French 5th army left them exposed and they had to retreat. The retreat from Mons lasted for two weeks, and the British had to rapidly withdraw some 200 miles. At one stage during the retreat, the British Commander General John French asked the government in London for permission to evacuate his forces to save them from annihilation. By the end of August, the British and the French had been forced by the Germans to the outskirts of Paris.[2]

The Threat to Paris

The River Marne is to the north of Paris, which is located on a natural plain. The river is the last natural obstacle between northern France and Paris. If the Germans could cross the Marne and make it onto the plains around Paris, then the allies would have no natural line of defence in order to stop the German advance. This made the French capital very vulnerable. It looked as if there was a real possibility that the Germans would repeat their success in 1870, when they had besieged the city and forced the French government to agree to a conditional surrender.[3] The situation was critical for Paris. The Military governor of Paris was ordered to prepare the defences of the city. In and around the city, citizens dug trenches and defences were built. Thousands of Parisians began to stream out of the city and the roads south came to be filled with civilians fleeing the German advance.

If Paris was to fall to the Germans’, then they had as good as won the war. It was evident to the Allies that the Germans had to be stopped at the Marne.[4] The French commander in chief initially advised the government, to evacuate the city. General Joffre then began the regroup the French forces after the weeks of retreat after the sets backs in mid-August. He formed new units and divisions and reinforced those units that had been depleted during the Great Retreat. He also ordered troops from the east to the central area of the line to guard Paris, even though this led to the Germans taking more territory. This remarkable transfer of troops from the east to the area around Paris just behind the front line involved using, using over 300 trains Joffre fired many Generals, who had not shown enough aggression. He also took absolute control of the situation and made sure that his generals did not contact figures in the government and this reduce political meddling in the army. Very important, a gap in the line had developed between the French forces and the BEF and he formed a new cavalry division to fill in this breach in the line. [5].

The Battle

French taxi used at the Marne

The First Battle of the Marne was fought over a period of roughly nine days. In the first week of September, there were indications that the Germans had begun to tire and that there was some confusion in the chain of command because of the rapid advance[6]. At this point, the Germans made a crucial mistake. The First Army under von Kluck, on the right wing of the German advance, swung north, rather than advance to the west, of Paris. This left the First Army flanks vulnerable to General Maunoury’s French Sixth Army. This was the opportunity that Joffre was hoping for. He ordered more reinforcements to be sent to the 6th army. He ordered every vehicle in Paris requisitioned for military use. All the buses and taxis in Paris were enlisted to drive French soldiers to the front. This was the first time that motor vehicles had been used in war on a large scale.

The German army, by contrast was largely dependent on the horse for its transportation needs. The French sixth army launched its attack and drove a wedge between the German First army and the Second Army. The BEF advanced into the gap in the line. The French Ninth Army resisted a massive German counter-attack on the right-wing. Despite this, the German First Army nearly defeated the French army between the 6th and -8th of September. The French were only saved by 6000 reserves brought up from Paris. The Germans came very close to a victory. By the 9th of September, the German chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke saw that his front line was in danger ordered a partial retreat. Joffre pursued, but the Germans were able to hold their new defensive line.[7] Soon the two lines became increasingly fixed. This was the time usually regarded as the end of the First Battle of the Marne. Each of the army begun a series of manoeuvres to outflank the others. This led both sides to develop a network of trenches and barbed wire defences to protect their flanks. This was called the ‘race to the sea’. The outcome of these manoeuvres was the trench warfare that was to dominate the war until the Autumn of 1918.

Outcome of the Battle

The battle was a victory for the Allies, it had thrown back the apparently unstoppable German advance on Paris. It also demonstrated that the British and the French could work together and coordinate attacks on the Germans. More importantly, the battle ended German hopes of a quick victory in the western theatre. Although the war was to drag on for another four years, Paris was never to be threatened again by an Imperial German offensive. As a result of the battle the Imperial German Army was driven back some 40 miles.[8] The allies had saved Paris but the Germans remained in control of much of northern France and almost all of Belgium. Within weeks of the setback at the Marne the Germans launched a series of local offensives, such as Ypres. However, the allies had not only saved Paris but they had pushed them back far enough to save the city from shelling. The casualties of the Marne were high for both sides. The French suffered almost one-quarter of a million men, and it is believed that the Germans suffered about the same number of casualties. The BEF suffered some 13,000 casualties.[9] The high casualties proved to be only the beginning of the horrors on the western front.

Why did the Allies Win

Perhaps the biggest factor in the German defeat was that they had become overextended. The army had advanced very rapidly and their chain of command had come under pressure and Moltke had lost control of the battlefield. Even a stronger leader may not have been able to control the German Generals on the ground because the army had become so over-extended and this was made them very vulnerable to a sustained counter-attack. Joffre sensed this and he used his forces to exploit the German weakness and this more than anything else contributed to the Allies victory.[10]

The Anglo-French victory had been due in part to the fact that the Germans had advanced too quickly and they their supply lines had been stretched to breaking point. This meant that the suffered shortages of shells in particular and their artillery was ineffective. Then there were the commanders, their characters and decisions had a major impact on the outcome of the battle. Moltke, the German Chief of Staff lost control of his army commanders. This is best seen in the actions of Von Kluck whose unauthorized swing to the east of Paris allowed the French and British to counter-attack. He was also showed intense mental strain and many believed that he could not cope with the demands of the battle. Joffre, in particular proved to be an effective leader. He ended all political influence in the army and stopped the arguments among his generals. He also selected aggressive leaders and replaced those he deemed to be overcautious.[11] Joffre was the right man at the right time. This and the fact that the allies had much shorter supply lines was to prove crucial.

Technology

The Germany army was in many ways superior to the British and the French, in terms of training, strategy, and weaponry. However, the allies employed the latest technology to gain the upper hand at the First Battle of the Marne. Joffre and the other French generals used motorized vehicles to ferry troops to the battlefield. They utilized trains and automobiles to transport troops the front line and this was a decisive advantage. The troops transported to the front on the fateful night of the 7th of September possibly swung the battle in favour of the allies. This willingness to adapt allowed the French General Staff to achieve an advantage over the Germans in terms of mobility. Then the French utilized other technologies to gain intelligence on the German army. They obtained key intelligence through radio intercepts and aerial reconnaissance. This allowed Joffre and the French General Staff to counter any German threats and to exploit any German weaknesses. The French use of the latest technologies be it the motorized vehicle, the radio or the airplane allowed them to win, with their British allies the First Battle of the Marne and save Paris.

Conclusion

The First Battle of the Marne saved not only Paris but prevented the Germans from securing a quick victory. If Paris had fallen it seems unlikely that the French government would have continued to fight. The British may or may not have as in WWII fought on by themselves[12]. The Marne was a victory for the Allies but it was a defensive one and they did not regain much territory or remove the German threat to France and the BEF. The Allies achieved victory because they exploited the overextension of the German army, whose supply lines could not provide them with enough shells and other munitions[13]. Then there was the failure of Von Moltke to control his advancing forces and this led to a critical mistake prior to the battle. The allies also exploited the latest technologies to great effect. Then Joffre provided the allies with the direction and leadership that was needed at a critical time. These factors meant that the allies won the battle although the immediate outcome of the Marne was that it led to four brutal years of trench warfare.

References

  1. Brooks, Richard, Atlas of World Military History. (London: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 117
  2. Evans, M. M. Battles of World War I (Devizes: Select Editions, 2004) , p. 15
  3. Evans, p. 18
  4. Evans, p. 19
  5. Tuchman, B. The Guns of August. London: Constable, 1962), p. 213
  6. Evans, p. 115
  7. Isselin, H. The Battle of the Marne (Elek Books, Paris 1965), p. 134
  8. Isselin, p. 178
  9. Isselin, p. 234
  10. Asprey, R. B. The First Battle of the Marne (London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1962), p. 14
  11. Asprey, p. 57
  12. Keegan, John, The First World War (Penguin, London, 1998), p. 34
  13. Asprey, p. 45