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The First Battle of the Marne – Major Turning Point of World War I

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The Battle of the Marne was a major battle between the German and Anglo-French armies, which took place on September 5-12, 1914, on the Marne , during the First World War, ending in the defeat of the German army. As a result of the battle, the German army’s strategic plan for the offensive was foiled, intended to be a quick victory on the Western front causing the surrender of France.

Before the battle

German armies, sweeping away the enemy’s defenses, swept forward, intending to bypass Paris from the west and attack the French army from the rear. But to complete the operation bypassing Paris and the French army, the Germans simply did not have enough strength. German troops, after fighting over hundreds of kilometers, were exhausted; communications were stretched, and there were no reserves to cover flanks and gaps. The German command had to maneuver the same army group, driving them back and forth. Therefore, the German Supreme Headquarters agreed with an officer from the First Army; to make a roundabout maneuver to strengthen the front of the offensive and then turn the army. Germans had their right flank and rear under attack by the French army, under the command of General Gallieni.

There were no reserves to cover the right flank and the rear; two corps and the cavalry division, originally intended to strengthen the advancing group, were sent to East Prussia, to the aid of the defeated 8th German Army. Nevertheless, the German command conduced a bold maneuver, turning its’ troops to the east, not to reach Paris, hoping for a defensive stance by the enemy. But the French command did not fail to take advantage of this opportunity, and hit von Kluk in the weakened flank and rear of the First German Army.

The Beginning of the Battle

On September 1, the 1st Army turned east to the north of Paris, on the heels of the British army, which on September 4, came to the river Marne. They crossed the Marne, without blowing up the bridges, and continued their retreat to the southeast. Arriving at the Marne at the same time from the north, came the 5th French Army. The troops of von Kluk, crossing the intact bridges of Marne, marched after the English, wedging themselves between the 6th and 5th armies of the French and approaching the rear of the entire French front.

On September 3, Gallieni (the commander of the defense of Paris) received aerial reconnaissance data that the 1st Army of the Germans was moving to the east, substituting Paris for its’ flank and rear. He persuaded the commander-in-chief of the French armies, Jeoffrey, who was about to give an order to retreat to all the armies across the river Seine, to immediately go on a counteroffensive. From Jeoffrey’s  headquarters, orders were sent to the French armies and to the British troops to support the counterattack. However, the British refused to support the French and ordered their troops to retreat further, and only after a personal and rude conversation with Jeoffrey, did they agree to take part in the counteroffensive.

On September 4, General Jeoffrey issued a directive on the offensive. The main attack was made by the left flank of the Allied armies, along with the right flank of the German front, an auxiliary strike – west of Verdun. The 9th, just formed, and the 4th French armies were given the task of engaging the Germans in the center.

In the Verdun-Paris group, the forces of the army totaled 1,082,000 men, 2,816 light artillery, and 184 heavy guns from the Allies against 900,000 men, 2,928 light artillery, and 436 heavy guns from the Germans. In the center of the main attack, the Anglo-French forces were almost twice as many as the Germans in manpower.

Counter-attack by the Allies

On September 5, the French Army struck the flank and rear of the 1st German Army. Von Kluk, saving the situation, stopped the offensive to the east. On September 6, conflict broke out across the entire front. Particularly violent battles unfolded on a tributary of the river Urk – between parts of the 6th French and two corps of the 1st German army.

On September 7 came the critical point of the battle. In support of the two corps of the First Army, who fought against the Sixth Army, von Kluk, from the Marne, threw two more divisions, and the French were actually defeated. Monory urgently demanded reinforcements. In Paris, the Moroccan division had arrived and was quickly moved to the forefront.

Having no reserves to conduct a counterstrike, von Kluk was forced to transfer two more corps, the 3rd, and the 9th, from the Marne. Thus, he exposed the front on the Marne, a gap of 35-40 km between the flanks of the 1st and 2nd German armies. The British entered this gap. In principle, a favorable situation had been created for a serious defeat of the enemy. Before the three British corps was only a thin line of several cavalry divisions. The British could well have struck at Kluk’s rear or on the flank of Bylov. But they advanced very slowly, with an eye toward their neighbors, stopping at the least appearance of any resistance. However, even their advance into the gap between the armies created a serious threat to the continuity of the German front.

On September 9, von Kluk brought down a crushing blow, intending to destroy the left flank of the entire French front; and it was a success. But at the same time, Bulov learned that through the gap in the defense of the Germans, the British and the 5th French armies marched to the rear, cutting him off from the First Army. To avoid encirclement, he ordered a retreat, and his neighbors, Kluk (1st army) and Hausen (3rd Army) had no choice but to retreat as ordered. The German armies began to retreat to the north. In battle, they suffered significant losses, and the retreat caused a psychological breakdown among the troops; superimposed on extreme fatigue. There were instances when the Germans were captured while asleep. Exhausted by all the fighting, they slept so hard that the French, upon finding them, could not wake them.

The French army won the victory at a high price: it lost 250 thousand troops killed, wounded and captured; and was in such a state that it could not organize the persecution of the retreating enemy.

Ending the Battle

The Allies could not use the resulting favorable opportunities that arose after the victory on the Marne. The gap between the 1st and 2nd German armies could not be closed by the Germans for another week, which, with vigorous persecution, could have been catastrophic.

However, the French and the British moved too slowly and wedging themselves into the enemy’s  formations failed. The Germans broke away and retreated 60 kilometers to the north, on September 12, occupying defenses along the rivers Ena and Vel.


John Keegan . World War I
Barbara Takman . The first blitzkrieg. August 1914

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