When the First World War broke out in 1914, Germany had a massive problem. The alliance between France and Russia left them totally surrounded, with only Austria Hungary on their side. Outnumbered, Germany's chances in a long war were slim.
And yet the German Army of 1914 was still confident of victory. In August, they launched a huge enveloping attack through Belgium, smashing the Allied forces in battle after battle, and Germany seemed to be on the brink of victory.
But just as Paris hoved into view, the tide of the battle, and arguably the whole war, changed. French and British forces counterattacked at the Battle of the Marne and forced the Germans back. Leaving their plan for a short war in tatters. So, what went wrong? Why did the German plan fail? And how close did it come to succeeding?
Germany planned for a short war: What went wrong?
Voice over: "When the First World War broke out, Germany had a massive problem. The alliance between France and Russia left them totally surrounded, with only Austria Hungary on their side. Outnumbered, it seemed that Germany's chances in a long war were slim. Yet, the German Army of 1914 was still confident of victory. In August, they launched a huge enveloping attack through Belgium, smashing the Allied forces in battle after battle, putting Germany on the brink of victory.
But just as Paris hoved into view, the tide of the battle, and arguably the whole war, changed. French and British forces counterattacked at the Battle of the Marne and forced the Germans back, leaving their plan for a short war in tatters. So, what went wrong? Why did the German plan fail? And how close did it come to succeeding?
To find out, we need to take a closer look at the German plan.
Germany’s difficult strategic situation had been evident since the early 1900s. With the German economy unlikely to last in a long war, Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen – Chief of Staff of the German Army - set out a new strategy aimed at a quick victory. It would become known as the Schlieffen plan.
Believing that Russia would take longer to mobilise than France, von Schlieffen decided that Germany should focus almost all of its resources on a decisive battle in the west. Once the French had been crushed, Germany could turn all of its forces against the Russian army.
But there was a problem. France had invested in huge fortifications across its shared border with Germany. Defeating them before a Russian mobilisation would be costly, if not impossible. So, von Schlieffen settled on a risky flanking manoeuvre through the low countries of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. With the bulk of their forces on the far-right wing, they planned to encircle Paris and drive the remaining French forces back. This plan did have risks. For one by attacking neutral Belgium, it threatened to bring Britain into the war. Worse, if it failed Germany would have expended vital manpower and resources it would desperately need to fight on two fronts. Those risks led von Schlieffen’s successor Helmuth von Moltke to make changes to the plan."
Bryn Hammond: "The German army hierarchy certainly wanted a quick victory and adopted a plan that might perhaps deliver one, but that doesn’t mean that they didn't take sensible precautions. When war came, their campaign plan involved many elements predicated on a prolonged conflict. They excluded southern Holland from the path of the German offensive thrust. They protected Alsace and the Lorraine iron ore fields from French re-conquest; and they placed an army corps in East Prussia to stem the anticipated Russian advance. If a quick victory was not achieved, these measures offered a sensible insurance against the difficulties of a protracted struggle. But the danger of these changes was that they made a short war even harder to deliver."
Voice over: "Meanwhile in France, the onset of war presented the chance to settle old scores. Rather than defending their territory, the French Commander in Chief Joseph Joffre planned to launch an all out attack of his own. First, he would make a ‘right jab’ into Lorraine to demonstrate to the Russians that France was honouring their alliance. Next would come a ‘left hook’ on the plains of Belgium, which he believed would be a knockout blow."
Bryn Hammond: "The French soldier was reckoned to be keen, fiery and full of initiative. Everything had to be done to create an ‘offensive spirit’ to carry the attacking men forward. With this thinking predominant in the French Army, everything was seen through the ‘spirit of offensive’ lens. Anything not ‘offensive’ enough was opposed. It was widely believed that the end of any future conflict with Germany would come in one huge battle, likely to be costly in human life, but decisive."
Voice over: "On August 4th 1914, German forces began their attack. While a few army corps held the border with France, the bulk of the German army moved forwards in Belgium, bringing Britain into the war the following day. The Schlieffen plan relied on speed and so the Germans committed their reserves with 1st and 2nd Armies on the right flank from the outset of the campaign.
The following day, German forces reached the fortress town of Liege. An important railway hub, the city had to be captured to allow the swift movement of German supplies. But the towns forts were only subdued after the arrival of super-heavy artillery – delaying the German advance. By now, French forces had mobilised and were ready to launch an offensive of their own."
Bryn Hammond: "It’s a common misunderstanding that the French deliberately and consciously went to war in 1914 with soldiers wearing the classic dark blue coat and red trousers, the pantalon Garance, that feature here in IWM’s First World War galleries. But in fact in July 1914, France had decided to adopt the horizon bleu that would eventually replace this traditional uniform. However, it was all too late. The speed with which the European crisis developed meant that France embarked on a modern industrial war of unprecedented scale in uniforms from the previous century."
Voice over: "Throughout August, 3 French armies launched a series of attacks across the border into Germany as part of the right jab, while the remaining forces moved into Belgium and prepared to deliver the left hook. But all these assaults were defeated within a matter of days, with terrible losses."
Bryn Hammond: "In their attacks, there was little co-ordination between artillery and infantry. The direct support of the otherwise-excellent French 75s wasn’t to the conditions of modern warfare actually encountered. Much thinking before the war had been based on the focus on infantry combat as exchanges of rifle fire, supported by direct fire from these guns. But they failed to take consideration of, or even mention the machine-gun. The losses the French suffered were appalling. On 22nd August 1914 alone, 21,035 French soldiers died. The tactics of the 19th century were utterly futile in the face of the weapons of modern industrial warfare."
Voice over: "Meanwhile in Belgium, German forces continued their advance. But the Belgians put up far more resistance than expected. They fought with determination and bravery, blowing bridges and railways in the German path. Frustrated by delays, these caused German troops to take aggressive actions against civilians, which eventually escalated to acts of atrocity."
Bryn Hammond: "The German fears of civilian resistance were almost wholly baseless, but what they believed were atrocities against their own men became a self-fuelling myth. Their reaction as they continued advancing through Belgium saw more and more civilian massacres. From August to October 1914 the German Army intentionally executed 5,521 civilians in Belgium and 906 in France - acts seized on for propaganda purposes by the French and British."
Voice over: "In late August, the German 1st and 2nd armies finally crashed into French and British forces at the battles of Charleroi and Mons respectively. The British Expeditionary Force or BEF, was Europe’s only fully professional army but they were heavily outnumbered by the German forces in front of them. After repulsing an initial attack, German heavy artillery arrived, and the British were forced back. Now the Allies began a long withdrawal into France itself, known as the great retreat. The German steamroller seemed unstoppable. But things were about to change.
In the east, Russian forces had mobilised far faster than expected. Instead of 6 weeks, two Russian armies invaded Germany after only 15 days. On August 25th von Moltke had sent two army corps from France to the east to sure up the defences, but before they could arrive German forces won a stunning victory at the Battle of Tannenberg. The Russian threat was over for now, but those two corps would be missed in the battle to come. As the German forces got steadily weaker, French forces began to get their act together."
Bryn Hammond: "It was now that Joffre showed his qualities as a leader and a period of savage discipline began in the French Army that lasted until 1915. Those even suspected of cowardice were sometimes summarily shot without proper trial by senior commanders, while Joffre took an axe to the existing corps of senior officers and sacked, demoted or transferred any he felt were inadequate. A disastrous situation had been brought under control and now France stood ready to take the offensive again."
Voice over: "In mid-September the Allied retreat finally came to halt at defensive lines behind the River Marne. Joffre transferred as many troops as possible to Paris via the French railway network and formed them into a new Sixth Army to defend the city. But as the Germans neared Paris, they began to face problems. There was a distinct lack of communication between the armies in the field and von Moltke in German high command. This led General von Kluck, commanding the German 1st Army on the vital right flank to change his direction of advance.
Instead of encircling Paris he decided to pursue the French, smashing them before they had a chance to reorganise. Von Kluck thought he could stake his place in the history books. But the decision would be remembered for all the wrong reasons. French commander Joffre had been waiting for a chance to counterattack. He now held a numerical advantage over the Germans and when he heard of von Cluck’s movements, he formulated a new plan to end the German advance once and for all. Everything was now set up for a titanic clash on the River Marne.
Joffre planed to focus his attack on the far-right wing of the German forces. 6th Army would move from the West, the BEF from the Southwest and the 5th army from the South. Meanwhile, the remain French forces would pin down the Germans in front of them.
On September 5th, the French 6th Army launched their attack, taking von Kluck 1st Army completely by surprise. The German cavalry had failed to mount any effective reconnaissance and generally had little idea where its opponents were. When the French attacked, they met German troops who had been on the march for over 30 days and were already running on empty."
Bryn Hammond: "In the German 1st Army the combat units were severely impacted by losses of around 50% through battle, fatigue, hunger and exhaustion. Their heavy artillery lagged far behind the main advance and the lead troops were operating far from places where supplies were being delivered by rail. All these factors ensured they did not have the force strength to add momentum at the critical time."
Voice over: "In the face of this attack, Von Kluck moved his army west to absorb the blow head on. But in doing so, he opened a 30-mile gap between himself and Von Bulow’s 2nd army. The next day, the BEF and 5th French armies moved through the gap. Slowly and cautiously, they began to build a bridgehead over the Marne, threatening to cut off von Kluck entirely. It wasn’t all plain sailing though. The Battle on the Marne was massive affair, stretching from Paris in the west to Nancy in the east, with over 2 million men taking part.
On September 7th von Kluck’s 1st Army counterattacked towards Paris, but reinforcements arriving by taxicab allowed the French to hold their ground. Meanwhile, the biggest danger to the allies came at the Marshes of St. Gond, where 2nd Army almost broke through the French lines. But the gap between the German forces had grown too large and with British forces bearing down on them it soon became clear that the Germans would have to retreat. The battle of the Marne was over, and the German plan had come to nothing.
By September 13th German forces had pulled back to positions behind the River Aisne. There they began to dig the first trenches of the war. Although the Germans had succeeded in depriving their opponents of economic assets and occupied significant parts of Northern France and Belgium, they now faced a long war on two fronts blockaded by the Royal Navy. This was the one outcome that Germany had hoped to avoid."
Bryn Hammond: "Meanwhile, France’s offensive obsession was far from over. Propelled now by a patriotic fervour to drive the invader from the nation’s sacred soil, the French Army’s offensives of late 1914 and 1915 would continue to result in barely sustainable manpower losses and a drain on the lifeblood of the nation. Germany's short war gamble had failed. A new kind of war - total war - had begun."