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The start of the fighting

The start of the fighting

The Schlieffen Plan

As of the 19th Century, battles and wars were no longer all about the heat of the action alone but also the comfort to be found in peace.

Alfred von Schlieffen, former Chief of Staff for the German services who died in 1913, would not, therefore, see the plan for invading France that he had conceived in 1898 and ‘perfected’ until he retired in 1906. Instead, his successor Moltke was put in charge of implementing it in the wake of the declaration of war.

Bearing in mind the Franco-Russian alliance of 1892 and the risk of being caught in a stranglehold in the event of confrontation, Schlieffen anticipated a quick war on the western front before bringing the German army back to the eastern front to fight the Tsarist Empire, the Germans estimating it would take the tsarist troops six weeks, forty-two days, to cross the vast expanses of Russia. For Schlieffen, this quick victory could only be accomplished by avoiding the French defensive curtain erected around the squares of Verdun, Toul, Epinal and Belfort. The German solution involved moving through Belgium, despite the neutral status granted to the country by treaty in 1839, and Luxembourg to surround the French army, Verdun being in a pivotal position, and driving it back towards the Swiss border having taken Paris along the way. Seven eighths of the German army were sent to the western front and the Schlieffen Plan was put into action.

Joffre attacks in the east

Joffre meanwhile, was planning his offensive on the eastern front but his attacks on Lorraine and Alsace fail. The war was soon raging in the Ardennes and the Mangiennes (10th August 1914) before spreading to the outskirts of Verdun. The Kronprinz’s army was fighting in the Hauts de Meuse region on 24th August in an attempt to isolate the city. Coutanceau was the then governor of Verdun, whilst the Third Army which was now moving through the area south and west of Verdun had been led by General Sarrail since 30th August. During this time, the ‘marching’ flank of the German army continued to advance through Belgium and on into French territory. The battle of the borders was lost. Verdun was still in a pivotal position and preparations were underway for the Battle of the Marne.

The Battle of the Marne : from Senlis to Verdun (6th-13th September 1914)

Some historians claim that the term ‘Battle of the Marne’ is a somewhat simplistic one to use since in reality, although the epicentre of the battle and the furthest point of the German advance were close to the Ourcq River in the Marne region, the fighting which began on 5th September 1914 took place on a 250-300km-long front spanning from Senlis, to the north of Paris, to Verdun. It was also the first time in human history that a battle had been fought on such an extensive front and the first time in European history that the French and the British had fought side-by-side under the same command.

A spectacular German advance

The German advance of 5th September 1914, the 35th day of the war (which had been declared on Russia on 1st August and on France on 3rd), was spectacular and the Germans were convinced they would enjoy a decisive victory, as outlined in the Schlieffen Plan, following the retreat of the French. This retreat, however, was a very orderly one – not the crushing defeat the enemy was expecting but rather a withdrawal – and the morale of the troops remained high.

The fighting which took place at the two strongholds Joffre had reinforced, namely Paris and Verdun, was very bloody. To the north and west of Verdun, General Sarrail, who had been leading the Third Army since 2nd September, was containing enemy attacks with the aim of uniting the ‘marching’ flank, which had come through Belgium, with its left flank, which had been in a more defensive position since the start of the hostilities. Under the orders of Coutanceau, Verdun served a pivotal role for the French Third Army, which was fighting around Verdun to fend off the Kronprinz’s Fifth Army.

The German defeat

The German army was continuing to advance through the Marne region and was seeking a breaking point in the French line of defence in the Ourcq sector, but the Franco-British counter attack, which included the legendary ‘Taxis of the Marne’ episode, was launched. The 750 Parisian taxis requisitioned by Parisian defence counsel Gallieni were used to transport reinforcements posted in the capital to the sector where they were needed. The reality was that the strategy put forward by Joffre, which consisted, among other things, of extending the front to isolate the Germans from their bases, was starting to take effect. The conditions for a general counter offensive were prepared. The allies were not in the least bit demoralised and continued to fight ferociously, much to the surprise of the attacking forces, whose command was still not up to speed with the events that were taking place. The armies of Von Kluck and Von Bulow broke away from each other and the Germans failed to achieve the decisive victory they were expecting, now fearing isolation from their furthest advanced troops. On 10th September 1914, the 40th day of the war, it was Moltke’s turn to order his troops to retreat. The Schlieffen Plan had failed.