World War I (1914–1919)
Germany’s Assault on France
The Battle of Mons
After completing their occupation of Belgium on August 20, 1914, German forces moved quickly upon France with two armies. Although fighting between French and German forces had taken place in the region of Alsace-Lorraine in southeastern France, the first joint French-British encounters with Germany occurred near the town of Mons along the Franco-Belgian border on August 23, 1914.
As French and British armies tried to halt the advancing Germans, they found themselves under heavy fire from long-range German artillery. With the German troops still well outside the range of their own guns, the Allied Powers were quickly forced to retreat. The allied retreat continued for two full weeks, allowing the Germans to advance over 120 miles to the river Marne, on the outskirts of Paris. For the Germans, the advance was not an easy one. As they retreated, the French and British armies took every opportunity to fight back and to hold each piece of ground for as long as they could.
The Battle of the Marne
On September 4, the Allied retreat was halted. The exhausted and sleep-deprived German troops faced an Allied defense reinforced with fresh troops brought in from Paris. On September 5, a decisive battle began that lasted five days. More than a million troops fought on each side as the Allies made their stand, determined to prevent the fall of Paris.
As the Germans drove at Paris from the southeast, a gap emerged between the German First and Second armies, and British and French commanders seized the opportunity to split the German forces apart by moving into the gap. French reservists were even ferried in to fill the breach using streams of taxicabs. The Germans were never able to regroup.
Formation of the Western Front
On September 9, after four days of intense fighting, the German armies found themselves unable to maintain their position on the Marne and began to fall back. British and French forces pursued the Germans doggedly and were able to drive them back forty-five miles, all the way back to the river Aisne. At this point, the Germans managed to dig in successfully and hold their position, taking advantage of a shorter supply line. A deadlock ensued, with neither side able to budge the other. The western front that formed would remain centered near this position for the rest of the war.
Failure of the Schlieffen Plan
The aborted German invasion of France, though just a month into the war, marked a major turning point. Although World War I continued for four more years, this first failed advance is often cited as the point when Germany lost the war it had entered with such confidence. Unable to conquer France outright, Germany became mired in a war on multiple fronts. The Schlieffen Plan, according to which Germany would have quickly attacked and defeated France before Russia could mobilize and attack Germany, had failed. German military leaders, failing to adapt their strategy to cope with the new situation, suddenly faced a long, drawn-out war on an entrenched front.
Reasons for Germany’s Failure
The German invasion of France failed for several reasons, although historians disagree about which was the most important. First, the unexpectedly early Russian attack in the east forced Germany to divert some of its troops from the west in order to help fight the Russians.
Second, the Germans did not foresee Britain’s entry into the war and did not alter their plans when Britain did so. The British Expeditionary Force in France reinforced the French armies and gave them an edge, especially since Germany was fighting with fewer troops than originally planned.
Third, Germany overextended itself by advancing too far with the limited forces it had at its disposal. The farther into France the Germans pushed, the longer their supply line became. Ultimately, troop rotation became impossible—a crucial factor considering that by the end of the Battle of the Marne, the German armies had been marching on foot for more than a month with little if any sleep.
Finally, the diversion of the German First Army to the southeast split Germany’s forces in two, thus increasing their vulnerability to attack. The Allies were able to exploit this division and force Germany backward, stopping German momentum and miring the war in an entrenched front.