First Battle of the Marne
Entente forces counter attack
5 - 12 September 1914
author Paul Boșcu, November 2015
During the First Battle of the Marne the Entente forces obtained a decisive defensive victory against the German Army. By organizing a successful counter attack the Entente managed to stop the Germans' advance towards Paris and stabilize the front.
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.

The First Battle of the Marne proved a stunning strategic triumph for the French. As might be expected there were many claimants for the laurels of victory, but there is no doubt who would have been blamed had it all gone wrong: the French Commander in Chief, General Joseph Joffre. Therefore, the greatest credit should go to him.

The 'Miracle of the Marne' saved Paris and dealt the final blow to German plans for a swift victory in the west. In many respects the Marne fighting had boiled down to a battle of wills between the opposing commanders. However, even though the Entente gained a momentous strategic success on the Marne, they were still a very long way from defeating the German armies.

The Aisne is a deep, wide river, passable only by bridge. At the outset of the battle there, not all the existing bridges had been destroyed, while others were improvised; none of the bridges were safe while within range of German artillery fire. The high ranking British and French commanders had recognized the need for energetic and rapid pursuit, seeking objectives beyond the Chemin des Dames, the road running along the northern ridge of the Aisne valley. But their subordinate commanders were more cautious.

At times the Germans had seemed close to success, but the French armies had shown a resilience in defence that had thwarted any decisive breakthrough.

If France were defeated by Germany, Britain would be left without a major striking force on the continent, and its hopes of neutralizing the Channel ports and Belgium would be dashed for the foreseeable future. Britain had already discovered that its need for security meant that it could not abandon the Entente in July; now the same imperative meant that it had to stick by it in the field. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and his ministers decided to support the French counterattack.

With deadlock gripping the front from the Aisne eastwards, each side tried to turn the other's open flank to the west and north in what became known as the 'race to the sea'.

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.

‘GHQ at that time consisted of some fifty officers, counting those belonging to the Services (railways, subsistence, medical department, mail section, code section, motor-cars and headquarters commandant). The routine at GHQ, as established from the very start, continued unchanged throughout the war. There were two reports each day: the first called the Grand Report, was held in my office at 7 a.m; the second took place towards 8 p.m. At the Grand Report there were normally present the Chief of Staff, the Assistant Chiefs of Staff, the Director of the Rear, the Chiefs of Bureaux and the officers of my cabinet. At both the morning and evening meetings I was informed as to the contents of reports sent in from the various armies relating the events of the preceding twelve hours, together with all information gathered during that time concerning the enemy. Naturally, if important reports or despatches arrived during the course of the day or night they were immediately presented to me; but the principal interest attaching to the two daily reports consisted in what might be called ‘taking our bearings’. At the morning report the general situation was established. I frequently requested the officers present to express their personal opinions on the questions before us; after listening to what they had to say, I gave my decisions.’ (General Joseph Joffre)

An army of millions had an enormous capacity to absorb punishment. But the French needed sure leadership if they were not to fall apart at the seams. This, then, was Joffre’s moment. He had based his General Headquarters at Vitry-le-François, where early on he had established a routine that would continue through good times and bad. It may not have been exciting or dramatic but the decisions made at the regular meetings would at times decide the fate of nations.

In many ways Joffre could only progress from the moment he accepted that his original assessments of the situation had been utterly mistaken: the wrong tactics had been followed and, to some extent, the wrong men had been put in charge of operations. One understandable response might have been panic, but that was not Joffre’s style. Slowly, methodically, he began working his way through the mass of problems that flowed across his desk.

Joffre issued orders to correct the previous mistakes, but in the press of battle it was difficult to get a whole army to adjust its long-standing mentality and for new ideas to penetrate. However, there was something he could do about the generals he considered to have been found wanting in action: ‘When the test came, a large number of our generals had shown that they were not equal to their task. Amongst them were some who in time of peace had enjoyed the most brilliant reputation as professors; there were others who, during map exercises, had displayed a fine comprehension of maneuver; but now, in the presence of the enemy, these men appeared to be overwhelmed by the burden of their responsibility. In some of the larger units there had been a complete abdication of command.’

‘My own preference consisted in creating on the outer wing of the enemy a mass capable, in its turn, of enveloping his marching flank. If we were to have time to assemble in the region of Amiens a force large enough to produce a decisive effect against the marching flank of the enemy, it was necessary to accept a further retreat of our armies on the left. But we had reason to hope that by making good use of every obstacle by which the enemy’s advance might be retarded, and by delivering frequent counterattacks, these armies need not fall back farther than the general line of the Aisne, prolonged by the bluffs running from Craonne to Laon and La Fère. The Third Army would rest on the fortifications of Verdun, which would thus serve as a pivot for the general movement in retreat. The French Fourth and Fifth Armies, the British Army and the Amiens group, constituted with forces taken from our right wing, would furnish a mass capable of resuming the offensive at the moment the enemy, debouching from the wooded regions of the Ardennes, would have to fight with this difficult ground lying behind him. My conception was a battle stretching from Amiens to Rheims with the new army placed on the extreme left of our line, outside of the British and in a position to outflank the German right.’ (General Joseph Joffre)

This might be Joffre’s last opportunity to avoid disaster. Timing would be all-important. In the meantime the Fifth Army and the BEF would continue to fall back, with the Third Army acting as the pivoting point, anchoring the two retreating armies to the rest of the French line. Military orthodoxy in 1914 regarded redeployment by rail during the course of operations as excessively dangerous. Troops in trains were necessarily out of the fighting line. But Joffre's own experience with railways, and the fact that he had already — before the war — studied the possibility of just the operation which he now proposed, encouraged him to try it.

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.

Creating the new Sixth Army would prove an amazing achievement in the midst of such a hectic campaign; more than that, it was a logistical marvel. Victory has many fathers but Joffre certainly deserves much credit for his decisive role in setting in motion the course of events that others would drive to victory.

Joffre also dismissed the pessimistic Charles Lanrezac, replacing him with the far more aggressive General Franchet d’Espèrey. The latter had already distinguished himself as a corps commander during the fighting on the Charleroi Front.

Joffre managed to create a significant concentration of forces on his left flank, having judged the manifold risks to a nicety. All along a great stretch of the front from Switzerland to the Verdun fortress sector, the situation had stabilized into a defensive stalemate. The French had gained superiority at the decisive point. Joffre, encouraged by Military Commander of Paris, General Joseph Gallieni, was ready to launch his Sixth Army into the badly exposed flank of Alexander von Kluck’s First Army, while the BEF and the Fifth Army counterattacked as vigorously as they could.

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.

In one particular matter, Joffre needed all his calm to maintain any semblance of Entente Cordiale: ‘French came in, accompanied by General Murray, his Chief of Staff. I expected to find the same calm officer whose acquaintance I had made a few days before; but, to my great surprise, the British Commander in Chief started out immediately in a rather excited tone to explain that his army had been violently attacked, and that, the evening before, General Haig’s corps had been obliged to fall back on Guise and the Cavalry Corps on Bohain (that is to say, into the zone assigned to the French Fifth Army); that his II Corps and General Snow’s 4th Division were being pressed by the enemy in the direction of Le Catelet. He explained to me that since hostilities had begun his troops had been submitted to such hardships that he could not for the moment contemplate resuming the offensive. He considered the situation as being very delicate. More than once he made complaints concerning the manner in which the Fifth Army, his neighbour, had acted. He accused this army of having broken off the fight and left him completely isolated. In reply, I said to the Field Marshal that all the Allied troops without exception had been pushed hard by the enemy and that he must not suppose that the British Army was the only one which had suffered from the severe conditions of the campaign.’

Joffre also managed to overcome the innate caution of Field Marshal Sir John French, the BEF commander. Joffre’s amusing account of their meeting at the Château de Vaux-le-Pénil has the ring of truth: ‘I put my whole soul into the effort to convince the Field Marshal. I told him that the decisive moment had arrived and that we must not let it escape – we must go to battle with every man both of us had, and free from all reservations. “So far as the French Army is concerned,” I continued, “my orders are given and, whatever may happen, I intend to throw my last Company into the balance to win a victory and save France. It is in her name that I come to you to ask for British assistance, and I urge it with all the power I have in me. I cannot believe that the British Army will refuse to do its share in this supreme crisis – history would severely judge your absence.” Then, as I finished, carried away by my convictions and the gravity of the moment, I remember bringing down my fist on a table which stood at my elbow, and crying, “Monsieur le Marshal, the honor of England is at stake!” Up to this point French had listened imperturbably to the officer who was translating what I said, but now his face suddenly reddened. There ensued a short impressive silence; then, with visible emotion he murmured, “I will do all I possibly can!” Not understanding English, I asked Wilson what Sir John had said. He merely replied, “The Field Marshal says, Yes!” I had distinctly felt the emotion which seemed to grip the British Commander in Chief; above all, I had remarked the tone of his voice, and I felt, as did all the witnesses to the scene, that these simple words were equivalent to an agreement signed and sworn to. Tea, which was already prepared, was then served.’

Joffre summed up his newly cautious demeanour: ‘In the presence of the enemy’s wide encircling movement against our left, it was evident that we could not accept battle immediately. The engagement of one of our armies would bring on that of all our forces. The Fifth Army would find itself in a situation which the advance of the German First Army, aided by the incursion of the German Cavalry Corps, would render extremely perilous. The slightest check would run the risk of becoming transformed into an irremediable defeat. Besides this, our troops had been marching and fighting continuously; they were worn out and greatly needed to have their ranks filled up. Our situation in the coalition imposed upon us the duty of holding out as long as possible, while keeping the maximum number of German forces occupied in front of us and wearing them down by attacks undertaken upon every favorable occasion; but we had to avoid any decisive engagement as long as we did not hold enough trumps in our hand to give us a distinct chance of success.’

Sir John French had proved a dashing cavalry leader in the British Army's small wars. At the head of his country's only field army in the largest war ever to involve it, he displayed an increasing tendency to nerves. The losses at Mons had unsettled him, the far heavier losses at Le Cateau had shaken his resolve. He feared that the BEF would fall to pieces unless given a respite to rest and re-equip. What heightened his anxieties was his fixed conviction that Lanrezac had let him down, retreating from the Sambre without warning and leaving the BEF to cover the withdrawal.

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.

Von Kluck was proud of the achievements of his men and was determined to press onwards, avoiding the lesser role of flank guard to any French troops massing in the Paris region: ‘The message of the Supreme Command, in accordance with which the First Army was to follow in echelon behind the Second, could not be carried out under the circumstances. The intention to force the enemy away from Paris in a south-easterly direction was only practicable by advancing the First Army.’

The equivalent of three corps had already been left behind to counter Belgian forces at Antwerp, to occupy Brussels and to invest the remaining fortress towns. Worse still, the Russian offensive on the Eastern Front was beginning to take effect: Moltke believed that victory was in sight over France and he had detached two corps and despatched them east. All told, this severely reduced the weight of the German right wing and gaps began to open between the Third, Second and First Armies.

The sheer distances covered were staggering, with the infantry marching between fifteen and twenty miles a day, a physically exhausting schedule even if they were not then required to fight as well.

‘The enemy,’ von Moltke admitted, ‘has eluded the enveloping attack of First and Second Armies and has succeeded, with part of his forces, in gaining contact with Paris.’ First and Second Armies were therefore to stand on the defensive outside Paris, while Third Army was to advance towards the upper Seine and Fourth and Fifth Armies were to attack to the south-east, with the object of opening a way for the Sixth and Seventh to cross the River Moselle and complete the encirclement of the enemy.

Without seeking Moltke's prior agreement, Kluck ordered his First Army to execute the wheel inwards. Instead of passing west of the French capital as planned, First Army would move north-east of it. This move exposed Kluck's flank to attack by Michel-Joseph Maunoury's French Sixth Army, now positioned north of Paris. With both events and his subordinates rapidly slipping beyond his control, Moltke tamely gave his blessing to Kluck's manoeuvre.

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.

Joffre issued a chilling order of the day: ‘We are about to engage in a battle on which the fate of our country depends and it is important to remind all ranks that the moment has passed for looking to the rear; all our efforts must be directed to attacking and driving back the enemy. Troops that can advance no farther must, at any price, hold on to the ground they have conquered and die on the spot rather than give way. Under the circumstances which face us, no act of weakness can be tolerated.’

Having retreated 200 miles, the BEF crossed the Marne. Aerial reconnaissance revealed the vulnerability of Kluck's left flank. At almost the same time Moltke tacitly acknowledged the failure of the German right wing's offensive by stopping Kluck and Karl von Bulow and directing them to swing round to face the eastern side of Paris.

Kluck coped brilliantly with the French Sixth Army's initial attacks against his flank and communications, pivoting to the west and sending three corps by forced marches to confront Maunoury along the Ourcq. Troops rushed from Paris in taxicabs could not prevent Maunoury's units from being pushed back. But Kluck's further movement westwards again extended the gap between the German First and Second Armies. Bulow too had responded capably to the pressure exerted by the French Fifth Army and the newly created French Ninth Army, under General Ferdinand Foch.

Kluck's withdrawals weakened his principal front. Indeed, the German First Army, instrument and hope of Schlieffen's vision, was not on the Marne at all, but had been withdrawn in its entirety to the Ourcq, where it faced not Paris, in popular imagination the object of the whole campaign, nor the mass of the French army, its strategic target, but Maunoury's detached maneuver force. Between the German First Army and Second an enormous gap had opened, thirty-five miles wide.

The aggressiveness Kluck's army had shown against Maunoury's had actually worked to enlarge the gap that now loomed between it and Second Army, a gap too wide for the only German troops not engaged elsewhere to fill. They were, moreover, too weak to oppose the force marching up to exploit the weakness in the German line.

The intervention of the British, who fought a sharp encounter action at Rozoy, alarmed von Kluck. Even more alarmed was von Bulow, whose Second Army was heavily engaged throughout the day against the French Fifth Army, galvanised by the leadership of its new commander, Franchet d'Esperey.

In the crisis of the battle, it was the Germans who lost their nerve. As the BEF re-crossed the Marne and advanced cautiously into the gap between the two German right-wing armies, an anxious and exhausted Bulow ordered a retreat. His decision was endorsed by Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch, a hard-working but impressionable staff officer sent to the front to represent the utterly demoralised Moltke. Kluck was left with no option but to retire northwards to the Aisne, with Bulow.

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.

Falkenhayn had experienced active service during the Boxer Rebellion in China. His evident abilities had brought him rapid promotion and in 1913 he had been made Prussian Minister of War. He was also noted for his cold-blooded detachment, which allowed him to assess a military situation on its merits, with the minimum of emotion.

The retreat that followed after the Marne was orderly but precipitate. Along a front of nearly 250 miles, the German infantry faced about and began to retrace its steps over the ground won in bitter combat during the last two weeks. Moltke gave the orders for the retreat of the left wing himself, in person. The Chief of Staff decided that he must visit his subordinate army commanders. He departed by road from Luxembourg, first for the headquarters of Fifth Army, next to Third Army, then to Fourth Army. Those were the last general orders he issued to the German armies. They were also the most crucial orders to be given since those for general mobilization, because the ‘fortification and defence’ of the Aisne initiated trench warfare.

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.

Despite their reverse on the Marne, the German right-wing armies fell back to strong positions, especially the Chemin des Dames ridge, some four miles north of the River Aisne between Craonne and Soissons. Deriving its name from a road built along its crest for Louis XV's daughters, this steep, wooded ridge had a series of finger-like spurs extending down towards the Aisne. By the time the Germans reached the Aisne they had dug a line of trenches along the heights and established their artillery on the rear slopes.

Neither the BEF nor the French had the artillery, or tactical skills, required to turn the Germans out of such a strong natural defensive position, especially as the Germans began to move up reinforcements to plug any remaining gaps in their lines. The Allied response was to dig in directly facing the German trenches.

The Aisne had now become the critical front and there both sides mounted a succession of attacks as troops became available. The Entente hoped to press their pursuit further, while the Germans wanted to hold their line or even go on the offensive again.

The BEF's commanders have since been criticised for lack of drive and unnecessary concern about their flanks, yet the troops were tired after three weeks of marching and fighting. Moreover, the BEF was advancing through countryside intersected by rivers; many bridges had been demolished by the Germans; poor weather restricted aerial reconnaissance; and there was increased congestion on roads. Upon reaching the Aisne, the BEF again found that most bridges had been destroyed and that the Germans had a considerable concentration of artillery. Nonetheless, the bulk of the BEF's three corps managed to cross the river and probe forwards up the valleys and spurs.

It was here, on the BEF's line of advance, that a significant gap remained between the German First and Second Armies. But neither the BEF nor neighbouring French formations could push on quickly enough to exploit the situation. The delays cost the Entente dearly, for the British were just too late in assaulting the heights north of the Aisne. The fall of Maubeuge released German troops for other tasks and German reserve troops rushed to plug the gap on the German right.

In a true 'soldier's battle' of confused, close-quarter fighting, British attempts to take the ridge met heavy artillery fire and entrenched German infantry. Some British battalions managed to pierce the German line and cross the Chemin des Dames to look down into the Ailette valley beyond. They were subsequently forced back but maintained a foothold near the crest.

Joffre's object was to deploy across the rear of the Germans' thickening front on the Chemin des Dames and so to regain possession of the northern departments, rich in agriculture and industry, lost to France during August. While Sir John French was ordering his troops to entrench wherever they occupied ground on or above the Aisne, Joffre was seeking means for this new maneuver. Three days earlier, Falkenhayn had likewise ordered counterattacks along the whole front with a similar object.

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.

Whatever the technical factors limiting the German army's capability to maneuver with flexibility and at long range from railhead in 1914 – lack of mechanical transport, rigidity of signal networks working along telephone and telegraph lines– none constrained its power to dig.

Even the French recognized the strength of the German position. Joffre's directive, reflecting the tactical difference between all-out pursuit and a methodical attack against a prepared position, announced the switch from the first to the second: 'that means that every position, as soon as it is occupied, must be fortified.'

The entrenching tool had become, by 1914, part of the equipment of the infantryman in every army. However, while the British cavalry took pride in avoiding entrenchment exercises, and the French disregarded ‘the most demanding notions of cover’, the German soldier had been obliged to use the spade on maneuver since at least 1904.

When the French and British troops pursuing the enemy came up against the positions on which the Germans had halted, they found their counter-offensive halted by entrenchments which ran in a continuous line along the crest of the high ground behind the Aisne.

The ease with which the soil was worked hastened the construction of positions, despite the relative lack of tools. The trenches themselves were narrow and rarely continuous. They were not yet ends in themselves, but means to an end. Tactically, they were sited to provide protection from artillery fire. Operationally, they enabled ground to be defended with fewer troops, so allowing tired men a chance to recuperate and — above all — permitting the creation of new formations for mobile operations elsewhere. Bitterest of ironies, trench warfare was adopted to enable mobile warfare to take place.

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.

During the first stages, the BEF remained dug in on the Aisne sector, while the French and German forces engaged in a bloody series of encounter battles as they leapfrogged to the north. Although the war would clearly not be over in the near future, there were still the Channel ports of Boulogne, Dunkirk, Calais, Zeebrugge and Ostend, the industrial heartlands and coalfields of northern France, the vital rail junctions at Hazebrouck and Roulers, and the fate of the bulk of the Belgian Army still trapped in Antwerp – all these glittering prizes – to consider in addition to the chance of outflanking and thereby ‘rolling up’ the opponent’s trench lines.

Like tiring heavyweights, the German and French forces exchanged blows, each finding it within them to thwart their opponent, but unable to go on to achieve a worthwhile victory. The logistical problems were phenomenal. Whole armies were consigned to overstretched railways and then pushed on from the railheads down crowded roads.

Maunoury's French Sixth Army struck first astride the Oise but was blocked near Noyon by the Germans. Two days later another German corps, coming from Reims, stopped an advance over the Avre by Noël Édouard Marie Joseph De Castelnau's Second Army, itself brought from Lorraine to bolster the Entente left.

Joffre formed a new French Tenth Army, under General Louis de Maud'huy, which attempted to get round the German right flank further north but subsequently struggled to hold Arras against a thrust by three German corps.

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.

Both the French and British armies, like the Germans, had marched off the maps with which they had been issued. Even more importantly, the soldiers themselves were exhausted. The thrust of Joffre's orders, to close the line up, and to direct the line of march to the north-east, was a reflection both of his justified hope that the German center would break and of the physical resources of the men under his command.

The territory bounded in the west by the line from Paris to Antwerp, through which the German communications ran, was effectively untenanted. Two forces seemed to be available to take this opportunity. The first was the 6th army. But the 6th army's passage of the Aisne was no faster than that of the others. Maunoury found himself facing Kluck frontally and in strong positions. The only other force available was Sordet's cavalry corps. But France's cavalry was deficient in a number of respects. French cavalry corps had no artillery, and their divisions lacked firepower and efficient radios.

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.

Worried about becoming enmeshed in the Aisne stalemate, Sir John French urged Joffre to allow the BEF to disengage and resume its former position on the Allied left. Tactically the BEF — lacking heavy artillery but possessing effective cavalry — would be of greater value on the open left flank. Strategically, it seemed sensible to shorten its lines of communication with the Channel ports. Despite the problems which would arise from the passage of British divisions across French lines of communication, Joffre sanctioned the move.

With the Germans setting the pace, the Entente were at greater risk of being outflanked near the end of the ‘race’. The German Sixth Army, which had moved across the front from Lorraine, strove to dislodge the Entente from their positions between La Bassee and Menin. A reconstituted Fourth Army, under Duke Albrecht of Wurttemberg, closed in on Ypres.

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.

On the 6th of September, 280 kilometres of the line, from Switzerland to Verdun, were already stable. By the 9th a further 100 kilometres, from Verdun to Mailly, were also fixed. The movement on that day was confined to 105 kilometres between Mailly and La Ferte-sous-Jouarre.

Moltke had ordered the positions of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th armies from Reims to north of Verdun to be built 'as fortresses'. The Entente commanders renounced the resumption of an immediate general offensive. Orders were for local attacks only; positions were to be consolidated.

The immediate consequences of the battle were political. France and the French army were saved: without that the Entente would have had no base for continuing operations in western Europe. Italy was confirmed in its decision to be neutral. The longer-term effects were strategic. Germany had failed to secure the quick victory on which its war plan rested. From now on it was committed to a war on two fronts. With hindsight, some would say that Germany had already lost the war.

In Germany, the truth about the Marne was never fully divulged. The press releases presented the withdrawal around Paris as tactical, a regrouping preliminary to a fresh attack on the French capital. Thus, an essentially false picture of the military prospects was allowed to develop, one which was embraced not only by the press but also by many of the main power groups in Germany.

Above all, the German Imperial Army could not recognize that it had been defeated, that its position at the heart of German society had been implicitly challenged by its failure to succeed in its prime role. Thirty-three generals were dismissed after the battle, but rather than acknowledge a collective responsibility, the army blamed Kluck for having disobeyed orders and created the gap, Bulow for having been the first to decide to retreat, Hentsch for having ordered the 1st Army to conform, Hausen and Crown Prince Rupprecht for not having achieved the breakthroughs that would have retrieved the situation, and Moltke for having failed to prove himself a true Feldherr.

In the immediate aftermath of the Marne, some at general headquarters accused Moltke of following the prescriptions of Schlieffen too closely. By 1919 it would be widely held that Moltke's failure was not to follow Schlieffen closely enough. Thus, the debate was about operational ideas, not about grand strategy. It continued to reflect the belief that ideal intellectual solutions could be imposed on the conduct of war; and it showed that even at this most basic level of generalship the German army had not found consensus.

By seeking explanations in the shortcomings of individuals, and by arguing that a particular error was decisive, the German Army could conclude that the Marne was really a battle which it had effectively won. Thus, the Marne did not form the basis for a strategic reassessment of Germany's objectives in the war, or for self-appraisal by the German army as an institution.