Topic: Military History
(For clarity, German formations are rendered in italics.)
Up to 25 August, the German offensive against France proceeded more or less according to plan. The three armies of the German right wing had swept over Belgium into France, pressing back the French and British forces in that area. Meanwhile the French offensives in Lorraine and the Ardennes had been repulsed with heavy losses. But General von Moltke, Chief of the Great General Staff and de facto commander-in-chief, was far from easy in his mind.
It will be recalled that Schlieffen’s original Aufmarsch I West plan demanded the strongest possible concentration of forces on the right. Lorraine and Alsace were to be defended by only a thin screen of reserve and Landwehr troops, who would give ground if necessary in the face of a French offensive. Moltke, however, worried about a French breakthrough in this sector and took forces from the right wing to bolster up the left. Additional troops had to be subtracted from the right wing to guard the advancing armies’ lengthening lines of communication. Moreover the Belgian Army, seven divisions strong, had withdrawn into the fortified camp of Antwerp on the Channel coast. From this redoubt it posed a threat to the German flank, requiring a corps to contain it. And of course the series of engagements that the right-wing armies had fought cost them many casualties. Thus their strength steadily diminished as they drew closer and closer to Paris.
Another worry nagged at Moltke. In far-off East Prussia the Russian Army had commenced a major offensive. Urged on by French pleas for the earliest possible action, the Russians had gone ahead without waiting for their mobilization to be completed. Now two Russian field armies were bearing down on the ancient heartland of the Hohenzollern monarchy. The defenders, embodied in Eighth Army, were outnumbered at least two to one. Formally the plan was to yield ground in East Prussia if necessary but patriotic sentiment and considerations of public morale argued against this. As the Russians advanced, pressure grew on Moltke to send reinforcements east, and these could only come from the armies in the west. Eventually he succumbed to that pressure, taking two corps from the armies of his right wing and dispatching them to East Prussia—where they arrived too late to take part in the Battle of Tannenberg.
Moltke also erred in giving in to the pleas of the commanders of his left-wing armies for permission to launch a counteroffensive against the French in Lorraine. Having won a great defensive victory they were now eager to go over to the attack, tempting Moltke with visions of a double envelopment of the French armies. He therefore sanctioned an attack by Sixth Army and Seventh Army. But they made little headway against the French, who whom the advantages of the defensive now accrued, and suffered heavy casualties.
Still, between 25 August and 1 September the advance of the German right wing continued. By the latter date the French line was bent at a ninety-degree angle with Verdun as the hinge. But Moltke continued to fret, observing to his staff that the evidence of decisive victory—prisoners, captured guns and impedimenta—was thus far lacking. Nor could he gain a clear impression of the situation in the field. Moltke and his headquarters (OHL) were situated at Trier, now far from the fighting front. There were no reliable telephone or telegraph communications; radio communication was fitful and uncertain. Information came to hand late or not at all. Gradually but steadily, Moltke was losing his grip on the operations of his armies.
The problem of command was compounded by a lack of intermediate headquarters between OHL and the field armies. No provision had been made for army group commands to coordinate, for example, the three armies of the right wing. In their absence the movements of the individual armies became disjointed, each commander deciding as he thought best. This failure of command was to have fateful consequences.
On the Allied side, though, the picture was quite different. Despite the breakdown of his offensive the French commander-in-Chief, General Joffre, preserved an invincible calm. His fixed intention was to stop the German advance and resume the offensive at the earliest possible moment and to that end he took energetic and decisive action. Troops were taken from Lorraine to reinforce the French left wing and in the Paris area, which constituted a great fortified camp, a new Sixth Army was set up using reserve and Territorial divisions. The Allied left wing continued to fall back but as it did it consolidated itself.
If the strain of command told on Joffre he gave no sign of it. He preserved his normal working routing, including three meals a day—which were taken in silence, all shop talk being banned. Nor did he tolerate the failures and shortcomings of subordinates. Generals thought to be lacking in aggression or grit were ruthlessly sacked. Among them was the unfortunate commander of the Fifth Army, Lanrezac. His warnings that the Germans were attacking in great strength through Belgium had been ignored and his army, denied reinforcements, had nearly been encircled and destroyed. Thus Lanrezac paid the penalty for his prescience.
The stage was now set for the First Battle of the Marne, whose outcome was to decide the whole course of the Great War in the west. Still advancing, the armies of the German right wing now sought to envelop the French left flank. To that end First Army and Second Army swerved southeast of Paris—a major departure from Schlieffen’s plan. He had projected for First Army a southwesterly march, enveloping both Paris and the left flank of the French armies. But now the German right wing was exposing its own flank to an attack from Paris by Joffre’s new Sixth Army.
Even so the odds were nicely balanced. Despite increasing exhaustion and confusion the Germans yet held the initiative, they were still advancing, and one final effort might give them victory. On 5 September, battle was joined.