Opening Round in the West (2)

August 1914: British cavalry during the Great Retreat (Imperial War Museum)

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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 Alsace-Lorraine and the Ardennes had been repulsed with heavy losses. But General von Moltke, Chief of the OHL (Oberste Heeresleitung or Army High Command) 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. Alsace-Lorraine was to be defended by 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. Then, as the offensive progressed, additional troops had to be subtracted from the right wing to guard the advancing armies’ lengthening lines of communications. The Belgian Army, seven divisions strong, had withdrawn into the fortified Antwerp position on the Channel coast. From this redoubt it posed a threat to the German flank, requiring a corps to contain it. And the series of engagements that the right-wing armies had already fought cost them many casualties. Thus their strength steadily diminished as they drew closer and closer to Paris.

Colonel-General Helmuth Graf von Moltke, Chief of the Great General Staff 1906-1914 (Bundesarchiv)

Moreover, the German right wing’s axis of advance had diverged from that set down in Schlieffen’s 1905 plan. “Let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve,” he had famously advised—but in the series of battles that punctuated the Great Retreat, the three armies of the right wing were drawn farther and farther to the southeast. The map below shows the German advance between 30 August and and 5 September; note particularly First Army’s sharp turn to the southeast. Sensing the gap between Fifth Army and the BEF, Kluck sought to exploit it. He was also anxious to maintain touch with Second Army on his left. These tactical considerations, though not without validity, were incompatible with Schlieffen’s grand design: the envelopment of both Paris and the left wing of the French Army.

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 attacked without waiting for their mobilization to be completed. Now two Russian field armies were advancing into 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 Russian offensive developed pressure grew on Moltke to send reinforcements east, and these could only come from the western theater. Eventually he succumbed to that pressure, taking three corps and a cavalry division 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 Alsace-Lorraine. Having won a great defensive victory they now were 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 Fifth Army and Sixth Army. But they made little headway against the French, to whom the advantages of the defensive now accrued, and suffered heavy casualties (see map below).

Map: Department of History, USMA West Point

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 (see map above). But Moltke continued to fret, observing to his staff that a truly decisive victory had so far eluded the German armies. And because OHL was situated in occupied Luxembourg, far from the fighting front, the exercise of command from headquarters was increasingly difficult. Bit by bit, Moltke was losing his grip on the battle. And as the fog of war enveloped him, the Chief of Staff's nerves began to fray.

This command crisis 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 maneuvering as he thought best. Attempts to remedy this by putting one army commander in charge of another, e.g. Bülow (Second Army) over Kluck (First Army) caused more problems than it solved. This command defect was to have fateful consequences.

General Joseph Joffre, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, 1914-16 (Wikimedia Commons)

But on the other side it was a different story. 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 transferred from Lorraine to reinforce the French left wing, while north of Paris a new Sixth Army was set up using reserve and Territorial divisions. If the strain of battle affected Joffre he gave no sign of it. He kept to his normal working routine, 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, General 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. Lanrezac's reward for being right when the Commander-in-Chief was wrong was to be deprived of his command.

The stage was now set for a battle whose outcome was to decide the whole course of the Great War in the west. Still advancing, the armies of the German right wing 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. The map above shows the situation on the eve of the First Battle of the Marne; note especially the axis of advance of First Army, passing east of Paris—where General Joseph Gallieni, the recently appointed Military Governor of Paris, was organizing the new Sixth Army.

It was a critical moment, with the odds were closely balanced. Despite increasing exhaustion and confusion the Germans still held the initiative, they were still advancing, and one final effort might give them Paris and victory. But as the French and British left wing fell back, reinforcements began to reach it and the front gradually consolidated itself some 25 miles south of the Marne River. The battle that soon followed was to determine the whole subsequent course of the Great War.

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