The First Battle of the Marne was fought on the Western Front of World War One between the German and Entente forces. The battle was the conclusion of the Battle of the Frontiers that put the Germans in pursuit of the retreating Franco-British armies. The Germans had reached the outskirts of Paris when a counterattack by the British Expeditionary Force and six French armies, along the Marne river, forced the Germans into retreat.
With disaster looming everywhere up and down the front, the attention of the Entente countries now fell on the figure of French General Joseph Joffre. The Germans were seeking absolute victory prior to turning their attentions to the Russian Army. Joffre knew that his armies were hurting, but he was also convinced that France was not yet beaten. The French Army was so huge that a knockout blow was extremely difficult for the Germans to deliver. Joffre also began to consider his tactical options if he was to counter the onrushing march of the German right wing now wheeling through northern France.
Joffre was determined to get the right men in charge. Once people were identified – rightly or wrongly – as too timid, too slow, too stupid or too old, then they were simply replaced by younger, better men. To build up this powerful new army on the left of the line, Joffre had to act decisively, taking risks in stripping divisions or even corps from the armies already fully engaged in fighting the Germans right along the front. This meant taking up a decidedly defensive posture in most places. The end result was the creation of a new Sixth Army on the left flank of the fast retreating BEF.
The British perception of the retreat was centered around their own concerns, while giving scant consideration to the situation of the French. But from the French perspective the BEF was failing to pull even its meagre weight, falling back faster than either the French Fifth Army on the right or the Sixth Army, still under creation, on the left. Throughout, the pace of the BEF retreat forced Joffre to continually adapt his plans. He had originally hoped to stop the withdrawal on the Somme but this was doomed, so the Marne or even the Seine would be where he planned finally to stand.
By this time the Germans were also encountering ever-increasing difficulties. Their plans demanded a great deal of the troops on the right wing. The requirements of the strategic situation made it impossible to give any rest days in the true sense of the word. Marches and fights followed one another without interval. Even as the German right wing advanced it was decreasing in strength. Helmuth von Moltke acted to counter this by shortening the original planned line of advance circling round Paris. Instead, the Second, Third and Fifth Armies were to turn south early. This did not sit well with Alexander von Kluck. As the German First Army wheeled round to push in a south-easterly direction, von Kluck was turning a naked flank to the newly created French Sixth Army.
What followed was a complex battle that defies easy explanation. By this time the German right wing was actually outnumbered by the French divisions rushing up from the south. As the German First Army tried to turn to face the assault from the French Sixth Army along the line of the River Ourcq, a huge chasm of some thirty miles opened up between von Kluck and the Second Army on his left flank. Amidst the chaos, the men of the BEF found themselves advancing alongside the French Fifth Army into the gap between the German First and Second Armies. Moltke ordered his right wing to retreat towards the River Aisne.
After the First Battle of the Marne, General Helmuth von Moltke was dismissed and replaced as Chief of General Staff by General Erich von Falkenhayn. Moltke had proved incapable of successfully prosecuting the war: the Schlieffen Plan as defined by Moltke had failed.
Over the next few days, the German First and Second Armies fell back on the heights of the Chemin des Dames Ridge which rose up to 600 feet behind the Aisne. This was an obvious position for them to stand and fight, gaining time for a much-needed reorganization. Joffre used all his considerable powers of persuasion to drive on his armies in close pursuit, but it was physically impossible for the exhausted troops. The Battle of the Aisne is often presented as a British affair, but on their flank were the French Sixth and Fifth Armies. From Switzerland to the Aisne, the front was stabilising. The fighting had been hard.
Over the following fortnight, German efforts to drive the British back across the Aisne were thwarted by the BEF's superior musketry, and a defensive stand-off – dominated by machine guns, rifles and artillery – descended on the Aisne battlefield as both sides dug in. The stalemate of trench warfare had arrived on the Western Front.
The next phase of the fighting has often been described as the ‘Race for the Sea’, which accurately describes what it was not. In fact, it consisted of a series of outflanking maneuvers, in which both sides sought, not to reach the sea, but to get round the northern flank of their opponent. Both sides still had hopes of victory, moving spare units out of the line in areas where the situation had settled, and rushing them north. The ‘race’ ended when Belgian troops, on the North Sea coast of Belgium, occupied the last open area of the front. The Belgians had retreated from the city of Antwerp which had fallen to the Germans.
Critics of the Allied failure to exploit the victory on the Marne argue that two strategic options presented themselves. The first, which is what the Allies attempted, was to drive into the gap between Kluck and Bulow. But they moved too slowly and too cautiously. That they did so, given the experience of the earlier German victories, is not surprising. The second option at least theoretically available to Joffre was to exploit the Germans' open flank to the north. But the French forces that could have profited from the situation were in no position to do so after two months of heavy fighting.
These operations between the Aisne and Belgium did not, however, lead to a cessation of fighting elsewhere. The French beat off repeated assaults at Verdun. The German Fifth Army, under Crown Prince Wilhelm, gained ground in the Argonne forest and a troublesome German salient was established on the western bank of the Meuse, at St Mihiel. The shape which the Western Front would largely retain until 1918 was fast being moulded.
The Marne is remembered as a great maneuver battle — rightly, as it was the maneuvers which made it decisive. Moreover, both sides were on the attack. But in reality most of the battle was characterized by fighting that was static. On the Aisne this process was taken one stage further. Much of the combat on the Marne was, therefore, tactically indecisive. And yet strategically and operationally the Marne was a truly decisive battle. The Germans' initial victories were worthless because they had neither fixed nor destroyed their opponents, but left them free to maneuver and to fight again.