Between the 6th and 10th of September 1914 the Allies and Germans fought the First Battle of the Marne. Though a short battle compared to ones that would follow, it was hugely significant. After the opening exchanges of the war, in the Battle of the Frontiers, the German army was poised to advance on Paris. The British Expeditionary Force and French army launched a counter attack along the Marne River. The ‘Miracle of the Marne’ saw the German Army forced to retreat. Paris was saved. The consequence though was the onset of four years of Trench Warfare.
The early stages of the First World War had seen German forces attack along the Frontiers of North East France and into Belgium. These battles proved indecisive. Germany had hoped to sweep to a quick victory. However, reinforcements had been unable to reach the front lines fast enough in these early exchanges. Though they had had some success, they had been unable to capitalise upon them. The next phase saw German troops manoeuvre into positions where they could sweep around Allied lines toward Paris. If successful, the war could be won quickly.
Strategically this was quite important for the Germans. The Schlieffen Plan that they were basing their strategy on required France to be defeated before the Russians mobilised. Even at this early stage in the war, it was clear that this objective was not going to be met: the Russians had already engaged with German troops at Tannenberg on 26-28th August 1914.
Related content: Public reaction to the outbreak of war (British)
Objective: Holding Paris
The British and French troops had struggled against the German army in the Battle of the Frontiers. German troops were well equipped, mobile and strong in number. After each small scale battle they had moved along the frontier and launched another assault. It appeared that they would now assault Paris. Should the french capital be lost, the war in the west may be over quickly. The British began planning for an evacuation, Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force was concerned at the likely losses and doubted the ability to hold Paris. The French were determined to continue and to fight for Paris. Lord Kitchener was persuaded of the need to do so and plans for withdrawal were shelved. The French Governor of Paris, Joseph Gallieni.
The Plan for the First Battle of the Marne
Neither the British or French had huge numbers of soldiers available for the defence of Paris. Any prolonged siege would be hard to sustain defensively. This meant that the best means of protecting the city was to drive back the Germans. The plan was relatively simple. The German army was now in the Marne Valley. The combined forces of the French and British would launch a full scale assault on the German army. All available forces would be committed to the attack. As the main attack hit the centre of the German line, reserve troops would assault the Germans flanks and replace men and units lost or withdrawn from the central engagement. It would be a hard drive through the centre with two large flanking maneuvers.
Battle of the Marne
The way that troops had moved in the days leading up to the start of the battle meant that the French and British had a solid defensive line that was compact. The Germans had halted their advance and had two armies along the banks of the Marne. On the 6th September 1914 the assault commenced. As the French 6th army advanced the German General von Kluck ordered his men to cross to the north bank of the Marne. This prevented the French from crossing. However, the move opened up a gap in the German line which was observed by British air reconnaissance. This identified a gap in German lines which the Allies were able to exploit during the battle.
The French suffered heavy losses against the Germans. It led to the need for urgent reinforcements being sent to the front. Famously, these reserves were ferried to the front by Parisian taxis. Some 6000 troops from the reserve arrived at the front and were instrumental in enforcing the German retreat. Whilst the footage clearly shows that taxis were used, and there is documented evidence of the actual taxi fares (70,012 francs is cited in several books) there is also a strong suggestion that many were transported by train. The success of moving the reserve to the front through use of vehicles had a huge impact on morale in Paris. The 6th French Army pushed back the Germans. Legend or otherwise, the movement of reserves by public transport was highly effective.
The French 5th Army
With the French 6th Army being reinforced and holding its ground, the Allies now made use of the gap that had appeared in German lines. The French 5th Army launched a surprise attack against the German 2nd Army. The French forced this German Army back, widening the gap between the two German forces.
While the French were having success against the German 2nd Army on the Western flank of the Battle of the Marne, they faced another threat from German armies to the East, near Verdun. The plan had been for the French and British to launch flanking movements of their own. Here, the Germans launched an attack near the fortified town of Verdun. German advances created a gap between the French 2nd and 3rd armies and a salient was formed into allied lines. Plans were made for a tactical withdrawal by French troops but High Command ordered that positions were to be held at all costs.
Related Content: The Germans attacked at Verdun in February 1916 in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war.
Encirclement of the German Army
The success of the central and Western assaults against the German Army threatened to encircle German troops. Were this to happen the Germans would struggle to continue the war. The German Commander, von Moltke, was some way from the front. He is believed to have suffered a breakdown upon hearing of the situation his forces faced. An order was made for the German forces along the Marne to retreat. They did so to defensively strong positions along the Aisne.
Outcome of the First Battle of the Marne
The British Expeditionary Force and French armies had managed to prevent the Germans from advancing into and capturing Paris. This was a major success. The Germans now made the decision to tactically withdraw to positions that were easier to defend. These were along the Aisne Valley which provided them with elevated positions that were naturally strong. At the Aisne, they dug in. This was to be a line from which they would press forward but one that the Allies would not be able to pass if they counter attacked. A last attempt was made by both sides to outflank the other. Known as the Race for the Sea this saw repeated flanking moves cancelled out until the coast was reached and neither side had succeeded.
The First battle of the Marne as a cause of Trench Warfare
After the Marne the Germans created the firms defensive line along the Aisne Valley. Once the Race for the Sea had concluded without any breakthroughs, that line had extended from the Belgian coast across Flanders and Northern France. The nature of their defences led to Trenches becoming common. They were to be used for the next 4 years.
BBC (Archived) Battle of the Marne
Imperial War Museum: 12 Significant Battles, included archival materials