First Battle of the Marne

The First Battle of the Marne halted the German advance into Paris and changed the nature of World War I combat, placing the emphasis on position rather than on movement.

Summary of Event

Before the outbreak of World War I, Germany’s only battle plan to meet the contingency of war on two fronts against France and Russia was the 1905 Schlieffen Plan, Schlieffen Plan developed by General Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of staff of the Germany army from 1891 to 1906. He knew that the vast size of Russia and its undeveloped railroad system meant that the mobilization and deployment of the Russian armies on the German frontier would take two months. France, on the other hand, being a compact country and possessing a dense network of railroads, could bring up all its troops against Germany in three weeks. Schlieffen’s plan, accordingly, was to throw seven of the eight German armies against France initially. He proposed going around the strong fortifications on the border between France and Germany by marching two strong armies through Belgium in a westerly direction to the English Channel and then wheeling southward with the German First Army passing west of Paris and then turning back east to push the French against the German fortifications in the province of Lorraine. The French armies would be enveloped in a pocket southeast of Paris and they would be forced to surrender. Marne, First Battle of the (1914)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];First Battle of the Marne[Marne, First Battle]
[kw]First Battle of the Marne (Sept. 5-9, 1914)
[kw]Battle of the Marne, First (Sept. 5-9, 1914)
[kw]Marne, First Battle of the (Sept. 5-9, 1914)
Marne, First Battle of the (1914)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];First Battle of the Marne[Marne, First Battle]
[g]France;Sept. 5-9, 1914: First Battle of the Marne[03580]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 5-9, 1914: First Battle of the Marne[03580]
[c]World War I;Sept. 5-9, 1914: First Battle of the Marne[03580]
[c]Military history;Sept. 5-9, 1914: First Battle of the Marne[03580]
Bülow, Karl von
Foch, Ferdinand
Franchet d’Espérey, Louis-Félix-Marie-François
French, John
Galliéni, Joseph-Simon
Joffre, Joseph-Jacques-Césaire
Kluck, Heinrich Rudolph Alexander von
Moltke, Helmuth von
Schlieffen, Alfred von

Schlieffen’s plan called for massing a strong force on the right flank and leaving the weaker left flank exposed to lure the French into an attack on the left flank while the main German force overran the French from behind their lines. “It would be like a revolving door,” one military analyst explained, “if a man pressed heavily on one side, the other side would spring round and strike him in the back.” Once the French were defeated, the German forces could then be sent to the eastern front to destroy the Russian armies, which in the meantime were expected to have advanced through eastern Prussia but no further than the Vistula River. Within about four months, the whole war should have been over.

General Helmuth von Moltke succeeded Schlieffen as chief of staff of the German army in 1906. Fearful that the French might invade German Alsace while the German army’s right wing was still advancing, Moltke modified Schlieffen’s plan by strengthening the German left flank with new divisions that were formed before 1913. At the outbreak of war in 1914, this variant of the original plan was put into effect. The German First and Second Armies, consisting of thirty-two out of the seventy-eight German infantry divisions in the west, advanced through Belgium.

Meanwhile, the French launched a headlong offensive at the advancing Germans. Between August 20 and 24, 1914, a series of bloody collisions occurred along the Franco-Belgian frontier. Although the Germans were attacking, they were in fact more often thrown on the defensive, but their artillery and machine guns did repel the French attacks. On August 25, General Joseph-Jacques-Césaire Joffre, commander in chief of the French armies, was forced to order a general retreat of all the French armies. German troops followed the retreating French and British armies, who led them east of Paris and south toward the Marne River. There, the French would halt the retreat, turn around, and fight the Germans in the First Battle of the Marne, September 5-9, 1914.

On August 4, the day after Germany declared war on France, General Joffre established his staff headquarters at Vitry-le-François on the Marne, where he would be within eighty to ninety miles of each of the five French army headquarters. Unlike Moltke, who never visited the German field headquarters, Joffre remained in constant contact with his commanders in the field. Delayed communications between the German field commanders and Moltke’s headquarters in Luxembourg would be a decisive factor in the Battle of the Marne.

The British Expeditionary Force under the command of Field Marshal Sir John French entered the fight on August 23. Three days later, Joffre ordered the formation of a new French Sixth Army in Paris, where it came under the orders of the capital’s military governor, General Joseph-Simon Galliéni. Joffre also created from elements of other armies a French Ninth Army under the command of General Ferdinand Foch. Moltke was still intent on outflanking the French Fifth Army at the Franco-Belgian frontier, and on August 30, he abandoned the part of the Schlieffen Plan that called for an advance to the west of Paris. Instead, he directed the German First Army to advance east of Paris as an echelon of the German Second Army and one day’s march behind it. Nevertheless, the commander of the German First Army, General Heinrich Rudolph Alexander von Kluck, continued to push forward in line with the German Second Army on his left, commanded by General Karl von Bülow. Kluck did transfer one army corps from his left to his right as a flank guard against Paris, but this maneuver opened a small gap between himself and Bülow.

On September 3, Galliéni’s reconnaissance reported that Kluck’s and Bülow’s forces were slightly separated, and he suggested attacking Kluck’s army. On September 4, Joffre ordered a general “about-face” of the Allied armies, and a general offensive was to begin against the Germans on September 6. The battle began a day early, however, when troops dispatched from the Paris garrison ran into the right flank of the German First Army. When Galliéni’s troops made contact with Kluck’s flanking corps, Kluck transferred more men from his left to his right in order to avoid being taken from the rear. This deployment widened the gap between Kluck and Bülow to some twenty miles, screened only partially by light infantry and cavalry. If the German right wing had had the extra troops that Moltke sent to the German left flank on mobilization, there might have been no gap, and the Battle of the Marne might have developed differently. On September 6, however, the French Fifth Army, under the command of General Louis-Félix-Marie-François Franchet d’Espérey, and the British Expeditionary Force sent forward by Field Marshal French advanced slowly into the gap to threaten the flanks of both the German First and Second Armies. General Foch’s Ninth Army was instrumental in repelling German counterattacks for two days. Finally, on September 9, the Germans were driven back across the Marne and pushed sixty miles farther to positions across the Aisne River. The First Battle of the Marne was over.


The German plan to overwhelm France rapidly and then crush Russia with the help of Austria-Hungary was frustrated by this Franco-British victory. The Germans now were faced with the stalemate of trench warfare on the western front. The war continued for more than three years, with thousands of lives lost on both sides in futile efforts to break through the defensive positions marked by opposing trenches stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea.

During the First Battle of the Marne, none of the opposing generals proved to be a great leader. In the moment of crisis, Moltke lost his nerve, and German emperor William II consequently relieved him of his command on September 14, 1914. Joffre’s victory, although aided by German mistakes, was largely a result of the brilliant execution of orders by his subordinates. The decision to turn and fight at the Marne halted the German invasion, saved France from defeat, and kept the Germans from imposing their hegemony on Europe. Marne, First Battle of the (1914)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];First Battle of the Marne[Marne, First Battle]

Further Reading

  • Asprey, Robert B. The First Battle of the Marne. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1962. Analyzes the military operations and the capabilities of the commanders involved in the battle. Attributes the Franco-British victory to an inspired will to win.
  • Blond, Georges. The Marne: The Battle That Saved Paris and Changed the Course of the First World War. London: Prion Books, 2002. Provides a detailed account of the battle, in part by following the events experienced by one particular French soldier.
  • Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt, 1994. Comprehensive history provides incisive analyses of the causes and consequences of the war as well as detailed accounts of battles. Includes maps, illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Isselin, Henri. The Battle of the Marne. Translated by C. Connell. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. Attributes the Franco-British victory to the Germans’ abandonment of the Schlieffen Plan.
  • Joll, James. The Origins of the First World War. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 2000. A general examination of the causes of World War I, emphasizing the international system, strategic planning and the arms race, domestic politics, international economics, and imperial rivalries.
  • Ritter, Gerhard. The Schlieffen Plan: Critique of a Myth. Translated by Andrew Wilson and Eva Wilson. 1958. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. Examines the strategic thinking shared by Schlieffen and Moltke.
  • Strachan, Hew, ed. World War I: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Collection of essays covers all aspects of the war and the issues surrounding it. Includes many illustrations, maps, and index.
  • Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. 1962. Reprint. New York: Presidio Press, 1994. In-depth account of the preparations of Germany, Russia, France, and Britain for World War I, including operations preceding the Battle of the Marne. Includes maps, illustrations, and index.

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