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  • James Houser

September 6, 1914 - The First Battle of the Marne

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 6, 1914. Five weeks into World War I, the German Army is miles away from Paris, riding on the crest of victory. The French are planning to make a last, desperate counterattack to save their capital, but will the British come to their rescue? On the banks of the Marne River, history swings in the balance, as the decisive battle of the First World War – and the 20th Century – is here.

When Count Alfred von Schlieffen had designed the plan that bore his name, and the plan that Imperial Germany would try to carry out in the opening days of World War I, he had done so knowing that it was an enormous gamble. Schlieffen was convinced that a two-front war with France and Russia was unavoidable, especially thanks to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s bungling and aggressive diplomacy. Alfred von Schlieffen, though, was the textbook Prussian-German soldier, the man who believed any war could be won with a short, overwhelming blow.

According to the Schlieffen Plan, which I’ve talked about before, Germany would hurl virtually its whole army through Belgium on the road to Paris to take out France in a single decisive battle once war began – whenever war began. This would leave minimal forces manning Germany’s southern frontier facing France, as well as the Eastern Front facing Russia. The plan only worked if Germany defeated France completely in a matter of weeks, enough time to send their forces sprinting back east to fight the inevitable Russian steamroller. If it didn’t work perfectly…well. Good luck, Germany.

Schlieffen refused to address Germany’s diplomatic weakness or consider any outside factors that might impinge on his plan, a drastic miscalculation since the invasion of Belgium helped bring Britain into the war. During Schlieffen’s tenure as Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1906, the circumstances changed. Russia grew stronger, France tougher, Britain more skeptical of German goals. Even as the chance of the Schlieffen Plan’s success grew slimmer and slimmer, the man himself doubled down obsessively, refining and reorganizing his plan almost in a vacuum from anything that could challenge its efficacy.

His successor, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger – nephew of the great Moltke – inherited Schlieffen’s plan without his decisive, rigid inflexibility. This could have served him well, because like any product of genius, there was a lot of insanity rolling around in Schlieffen’s plan. It required units that had not been raised, timetables that would be near impossible to meet, and took as a given that Britain would not send troops to the continent.

Schlieffen died in 1913, one year before the war began, leaving his ill-suited successor with a mess of a plan that would determine the future of Germany in one throw of the dice. The Schlieffen Plan was a high-risk operation born of hubris, bordering on recklessness, and created in complete blindness to political, economic and social factors, and even the usual hiccups and unforeseen events that happen all the time in warfare.

And for all that, it almost worked. But Moltke the Younger was not the man to make it work.

By the last days of August 1914, the Kaiser’s army was on the march south, Paris in its sights. It had been a long, bloody road already. I’ve literally explained these events in three posts in the last month, but just to recap: the war officially began on August 1. Schlieffen’s great iron sledgehammer, three German armies advancing abreast, had cleaved through the Belgian fortress of Liege starting on August 5. The French launched their own attack, and from August 14 to 25 smashed themselves into German forces in Lorraine and the Ardennes, before horrifically high losses sent them streaming back in defeat. This left that great sledgehammer to come swooping down to their west, resisted only by the French and newly arrived British forces in southern Belgium. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) gave the German 1st Army a bloody nose at Mons on August 23, but in danger of being overwhelmed by the Kaiser’s men were forced to pull back.

By August 26, the Germans had crossed the border from Belgium into France. Schlieffen’s plan seemed to be working. The Allies were crumbling everywhere, and the French armies – concentrated to the east, where they had launched their attack – were in danger of being encircled by the German forces sweeping south, to their left and rear. The gamble might actually be paying off. Someone should have told the German planners, though, that the enemy always gets a vote.

General Joseph Joffre, commander of the French army, suddenly woke up to the enormous danger he was in. Even if his troops all held their current positions – not a given – there was almost nothing left between the German Army and Paris. To prevent complete disaster, he would have to shift everything west and shorten his lines – which would mean abandoning large portions of northern France to the advancing Germans. On August 24, Joffre ordered the “Great Retreat” to begin. It was a desperate move. France had begun the war believing one great attack could defeat the Germans in a decisive battle; now, with Joffre ordering a full-blown withdrawal, it seemed like the end was nigh. The French government evacuated Paris. The Germans pushed forward, the French capital in their sights.

All across France, the French armies fell back, somehow keeping their discipline despite the demoralizing retreat and the pleas of French citizens to stay and defend them. Soon columns of refugees were streaming south alongside the French soldiers, fleeing the coming iron onslaught. It had to have seemed like the apocalypse for the French people, as hundreds of thousands of women and children hobbled south with all their earthly possessions on a wagon. Soon the roads south were strewn with debris, wounded soldiers, sobbing women and discarded luggage. All did their best to stay ahead of the advancing Prussians.

General Joffre, though, displayed the trait that would save his army – and France – in this darkest hour: utter, implacable calm. Racing between his army’s command posts in his car, chauffeured by a literal stunt driver he had hired for the task, he began to use France’s railroad network to shuttle troops west to defend Paris. He raised a new army, the 6th, to slow the Germans in front of the city, and enlisted the Paris taxicab drivers to shuttle this force from the Paris rail stations to the frontlines. The taxi drivers of Paris brought their soldiers forward in a scene that would become almost as legendary as the civilian sailors rescuing the British Army at Dunkirk – one of the enduring legends of the Battle of the Marne.

The Germans, meanwhile, were facing a crisis. Helmuth von Moltke the Younger did not have the iron will or flexible mind of his much more famous uncle. Another German officer once remarked that “Moltke’s brain ended when Schlieffen’s notes did,” and that about summed it up. The supply problems that Schlieffen had ignored in his intricate plan were finally coming to fruition, and the frontline German soldiers were nearly starving from lack of food, shambling along in states of exhaustion. They were driven forward by the will of their leaders – especially 1st Army’s indomitable Alexander von Kluck – and the promise that they were about to capture Paris and end the war. All the suffering, the misery, the exhaustion, would be worth it. Paris beckoned.

Except it didn’t. Moltke had changed Schlieffen’s plan once he realized that it was falling apart. Kluck’s 1st Army and Karl von Bulow’s 2nd Army, which had been designated to take Paris, were redirected to the east of the great city. Instead of launching his direct attack on Paris, Moltke hoped to shorten his supply lines and complete his military victory by encircling and destroying the retreating French Army before they could escape. He had learned of Joffre’s “Great Retreat,” and feared that if the French Army was allowed to withdraw intact the whole Schlieffen Plan would collapse whether the Germans took Paris or not. The Plan was supposed to end the war in six weeks. If the French Army was still intact when that time was up…

I talked about the Battle of Tannenberg about a week ago, but it’s important to remember that all these opening battles of World War I are happening at the exact same time. Right now, Moltke was already getting wind of a crisis in the East – the Austrians had been completely blown out, and the Russians were horning in on Germany’s eastern frontier. They needed to end the war in France *now.* NOW now. Otherwise, Germany would face their nightmare of a two-front war. So Moltke concentrated on destroying the French Army rather than taking Paris. The controversial “turn to the left” would haunt him ever after. It also dispirited the German soldiers, who had fixated on Paris as the panacea for their trauma.

Joffre realized what Moltke’s change of plans meant, thanks to the small numbers of aircraft the French had used to keep tabs on the German advance. Moltke’s 1st and 2nd Armies would be heading directly for the Marne River, which stood a chance of severing the rail links between Paris to the west and the French armies to the east. This was a crisis, *but* also an opportunity. The German spearhead would poke itself right between the French 6th Army, being shuttled by taxicab out of Paris, and the bulk of the French Army. Here was the chance to counterattack, throw back the Germans, and save France from utter defeat.

His generals thought counterattacking was crazy. “It’s mad!” one said. “The troops are exhausted. They don’t sleep or eat—they’ve been marching and fighting for two weeks! We need arms, ammunition, equipment. Everything is in terrible shape. Morale is bad. I’ve had to replace two generals of division. The Staff is worth nothing and good for nothing. If we had time to refit behind the Seine .…”

But there was no time. The attack had to come now, or there would be no chance. There was nowhere to retreat. Joffre needed one ingredient to make it work. He needed the British.

The BEF had retreated after its brave but pointless victory at Mons, and then just…kept retreating. Sir John French, its commander, was fully aware that he had Britain’s only army in his possession, a tiny drop in the sea of armed men that was Europe in 1914. As soon as he realized France was on the verge of disaster, his thoughts turned to escape. He was beelining south as fast as possible, scrambling to plan an evacuation from France. He figured the war was already lost, and saving Britain’s army was now his primary objective. Joffre had been trying to get the British to cooperate this whole time – they were key to making his plan succeed – but he could not get General French to agree to the attack.

On September 5, Joffre made the hair-raising drive to British headquarters, where he dramatically confronted the frazzled British general to try and bring him on board. Instead of his usual calm demeanor, Joffre bubbled over with six weeks of boiling tension, a passionate flood of speech and entreaties. The “supreme moment” had arrived, “the future of Europe” depended on the offensive. As he rambled on, he finally slammed his fist on the table and said “Monsieur, the honor of England is at stake!”

That did it. French suddenly reddened, and tears suddenly appeared rolling down his cheeks. He struggled to reply in French, gave up, and just said, “Dammit, I can’t explain. Tell him we will do all we can.”

With French’s promise, Joffre motored back to his headquarters, arriving nearly at night. On September 5, he told his staff, “Gentlemen, we will fight on the Marne.”

The Battle of the Marne began on September 6, 1914. The French attacked from Paris to the west, and from their fallback position to the east, just as the German spearheads were crossing the Marne River. Kluck’s 1st Army, surprised by the strength of the French attack, turned to face Paris, and the two armies collided in a wall of steel, flesh and fire. Both sides struggled with the desperation and courage that had come to define 1914. For France, it was their last stand after a month of defeat and retreat; for Germany, they were only miles from the City of Lights and total victory. As hundreds of thousands of men boiled across the green fields of France, the citizens of Paris listened in anxious horror to the thunder of guns.

Kluck’s turn to the west to face the attack from Paris opened a gap between his 1st Army and the German 2nd Army, which had turned to the east to face the other prong of the French counterattack. General Ferdinand Foch harangued his troops into the attack on 2nd Army, “Attack, whatever happens! The Germans are at the extreme limit of their efforts .… Victory will come to the side that outlasts the other!” All the armies were at the limits of their efforts. It was the 4th Quarter of the Guns of August, the final gasp, the final push.

And then the critical element fell into place. The British Expeditionary Force, such a tiny army compared to the others fighting to either side, came roaring into the gap between the two German armies. All of a sudden Moltke’s nerves collapsed. The staff officer he sent to see the progress of the battle saw the German armies running out of steam, the French resurgent and fighting with determination, command confusion, snarls of exhausted German soldiers running from the fight, and worst of all – the British appearing out of nowhere and driving into the undefended German rear.

Moltke did something at this point that German military historians never forgave him for. He ordered a retreat. On September 12, 1914, the German armies began to fall back from the Marne, to regroup in northern France. The Allies would pursue them there...and then everyone would start to dig trenches that would span from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps. Schlieffen’s grand plan had crumbled into dust. The throw of the dice had failed. Germany was locked into the two-front war of her nightmares, and no one knew where to go from here.

The Battle of the Marne was the closest the Germans ever really got to victory in World War I. They would defeat Russia, Italy, Romania, and Belgium. They could knock country after country out of the war, but they never got closer to knocking out France than they did when Paris was only a day’s march away in September 1914. And world history streamed from that critical fact.

The Schlieffen Plan had failed, but it left Germany in possession of most of Belgium and much of northern France, forming a frontline that would become the nightmarish Western Front for the next four years. The failed French attacks of August had caused this to occur, and for this the French would pay a terrible cost in lives that would turn 1914-1918 into the parent of 1940. Sucking up lives and resources at a crippling cost, the Western Front turned Britain, France, and Germany into shells of themselves by 1918. Nations could not withstand a test of such magnitude and incredible suffering without undergoing great transformation.

The Battle of the Marne was not the decisive battle of World War I – or maybe the 20th Century – because it determined who would win or lose. It just determined that the war would go on. Instead of a short, decisive victory, the Marne ended up in an apocalyptic stalemate. Had the Germans taken Paris in 1914, the possibilities were endless. But they didn’t, and Europe would remain locked in a grinding struggle of total war and annihilation that changed the face of world history in more ways than could ever be summed up in a history post. The Guns of August, which everyone had counted on to deliver battle in a matter of weeks, instead birthed a catastrophe that lasted years and chewed up nations like a meat grinder.

There was no turning back now. Welcome to the 20th Century.

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