World War I was won a hundred years ago this weekend.
Oh, the war continued on for over 4 more years. But Von Moltke, the commander of the German armies had a nervous breakdown because he knew it was a done deal.
The Germans were always most worried about the Russians. So their plan was to eliminate France first. Without France in the west, and with the UK unable to mount an amphibious large enough to reopen the western front (the technology used for D-Day was 30 years in the future), Germany could spend herself defeating Russia.
The Schlieffen Plan went like this: devote almost all Germany’s forces to knocking out France in a few months. This had been done in 1870, and would be done again in 1940. The specifics were that a very strong German right wing would circle through Belgium and northern France … so broadly that it would envelop Paris.
The plan went more or less perfectly until the canny French, under Joffre, retreated further to the southeast than the Germans expected. Instead of defending Paris, the French maintained a shortened line of defense that ended east of their capital. And they publicly announced that they would not defend the city. The government even fled to Bordeaux.
But the French fibbed. They kept some forces in Paris. And they kept open rail lines going east to west, and started transferring troops towards Paris.
As the French concentrated their armies along a front to the east of Paris, the Germans followed them, trying to maintain a continuous front of their own. And across the rear of that front, the French transferred several divisions to their far left.
But what I find most interesting about the whole thing is that the Germans lost track of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). It wasn’t large, but it was the only truly professional army at that time (the German and French armies were all reservists).
The strong German right had mauled the British at Mons, on the Belgian border in late August. The British were able to “steal a march” and retreat in orderly fashion, 10 miles in front of the Germans, for two weeks across 200 miles of French countryside.
And then the Germans lost track of them. Perhaps they thought they’d gotten on trains and gone east to where the final battle was shaping up? Maybe they thought they’d taken trains for the coast? Even now, no one really knows.
In fact, the whole BEF had marched into and camped in the Forest of Crecy, east-southeast of the Paris suburbs. A day later, Von Kluck*, the commander of the strong German right wing army split his forces: 1/3 to cover Paris to the west, and 2/3 to follow the retreating French to the southeast. And the British watched from the woods as the Germans marched right by. Only the tail end of that 2/3 of Von Kluck’s army remained within shooting distance of the BEF; the rest stretched to the east to maintain contact with the other German armies.
Then the French came out of Paris (remember the hidden troops? remember the stories of troops being delivered to the front in taxis?) and attacked the third of Von Kluck’s army facing them. With more troops transferring by train from the east, the French started winning.
When the French started beating the 1/3, Von Kluck started to withdraw the other 2/3 back towards them. He didn’t think this was a problem because he was withdrawing towards the northwest and the rest of the French were off towards the southeast. But his move opened up a gap between his army and the next one over.
And into that gap marched the missing BEF. Effectively they were splitting Von Kluck’s army off from the others (that’s bad) and turning the flank of the rest of the German armies (which is worse). The Germans recognized their difficulty, and ordered a full scale retreat back some 40 miles to get those armies connected again.
The battle was named after the River Marne. It wasn’t a perfect victory. And on the field, it was tactically even. But strategically, it was all it took. The war dragged on. The Germans got in their share of victories. But they never got so close to Paris again. And they never had the French and British on the run again.
The French and British followed after, and found the Germans had settled into defensive trenches. And that was the start of the trench warfare along the western front that would last for another 50 months: 100 years ago this past weekend.
And how did the rest of the war go? Without eliminating France first, the Germans pretty much had to beat everyone else instead. And they more or less did. But they still faced the French, British, and Belgians in the west, and when the Americans joined them it was only a matter of time.
* When I was a child in the early 1970’s, one still occasionally heard someone who’d made a blunder refereed to as a “dumb Kluck”.