The Great War for Peace: Battle of the Marne

Your Majesty, we have lost the war.’
– General Helmuth von Moltke to Kaiser Wilhelm, following the Battle of the Marne, 9th September 1914

Our series of extracts from William Mulligan’s The Great War for Peace concludes today with the anniversary of the Battle of the Marne. The battle was the first decisive victory for the Triple Entente, and marked the abandonment of the Schlieffen Plan for the German forces. A determined counter-attack on the German’s over-exposed First and Second Armies by the British Expeditionary Force and six French field armies led to a 40-mile German retreat before they were able to dig in, heralding the beginning of four years of trench warfare. Helmuth von Moltke, the German Chief of Staff, suffered a nervous breakdown on learning that his forces were about to be encircled and had to be replaced. And while Allied commanders such as Joffre were jubilant, the slow speed of the Allied advance following the battle, and the scale of the violence (over 250,000 casualties on each side), was a grim harbinger of what was to come.

The Battle of the Marne
from Chapter 3 of The Great War For Peace

The shock of violence might have mattered less had one or other side scored a decisive military victory. In the west, the German army’s advance into France came to a halt at the battle of the Marne, fought between 6 and 10 September. Already slowed down by the delay in capturing Liège and the timely arrival of the British Expeditionary Force, a gap opened between the 1st and 2nd German armies. Josef Joffre, the French commander, ordered a counter-attack against the German 1st Army, which retreated back across the river Marne. In France relief combined with euphoria in celebration of the miracle of the Marne. Barrès saw the Marne as a moment in which France was restored, forty-four years almost to the day after the battle of Sedan: ‘We return to the true France. We are exiles who have found our country again.’ ‘It is as quiet as a mortuary in the school-buildings in Luxembourg [the headquarters of the General Staff],’ noted Karl von Wenninger, the Bavarian military plenipotentiary, on 10 September, ‘one tip-toes around, the General Staff officers rush past me with their eyes cast down – best not to address them, not to ask.’ Helmuth von Moltke, suffering from a nervous breakdown, was replaced as Chief of the General Staff by the Prussian Minister of War, Erich von Falkenhayn. By November, after the first battle of Ypres, the front had stabilized and a rudimentary trench system was constructed. Germany had gained considerable territory in Belgium and northern France, a potential bargaining chip and a source of raw materials. On the other hand, by holding out, France and Britain could now bring their greater combined economic and demographic resources to bear on the war.

On the Eastern Front, Russian forces advanced into East Prussia. After losing confidence in the commander of the German 8th Army in mid-August, Moltke appointed Eric Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg to take charge of the defence of East Prussia. The Russian 1st and 2nd Armies lost contact with each other and were poorly coordinated. ‘How disastrously the conditions of warfare had changed,’ lamented Alexander Samsonov, the commander of the Russian 1st Army in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s fictional account, August 1914, ‘making a commander as impotent as a rag doll.’ Yet the disparity between the performance of the Russian and German commanders showed that leadership was not a lost art in 1914. Better-trained soldiers, more effective communication, and reliable supplies enabled the German 8th Army to defeat Samsonov’s forces. Following the loss of 140,000 casualties (the Russian General Staff had ordered soldiers to collect rifles from their dead comrades),Samsonov walked into woods nearby and committed suicide. Although the battle of Tannenberg – as Hindenburg christened the victory, as a kind of historical revenge for the defeat of the Teutonic Knights by Polish forces five hundred years previously – provided the basis for the duumvirate of Hindenburg and Ludendorff to become key figures in German politics until 1918, it was not a decisive victory. Russia remained very much in the war with vast reserves of men and territory.

Meanwhile the Austro-Hungarian government had generously allowed the Serbian Chief of the General Staff, Radomir Putnik, to return home from his spa holiday in Gleichenberg, Bohemia. Over the following months the front moved back and forth. On 2 December Habsburg forces captured Belgrade but by the end of the year the Serbian army had forced them to withdraw. In a war of attrition, however, Austria-Hungary had a decisive advantage over Serbia. Only in East Asia was there a decisive victory in this period when Japanese forces captured Tsingtao, a German colony, on 7 November. However, Japanese possession was directed as much against Chinese claims as against German ones.

The experience of violence was a shock. The visceral experience of battle, captivity, occupation, and flight was new for the vast majority of Europeans in 1914, including soldiers. The conflicts before the First World War had provided some sense of what modern warfare might entail, but the actual physical experience of violence proved shocking, disturbing humanitarian sensibilities. These sensibilities were not expressed simply through references to codes of international law, but rather reflected the peacefulness of early twentieth-century Europe. This is not to say that violent death was absent from Europe before 1914 – but it was either the product of natural catastrophes, such as the earthquake in Messina in 1908, industrial accidents, such as the collapse of mines, or murder. War, however, was viewed as an organized form of violence that transformed the institutions of civilization into iron cages of destruction. Duhamel’s lacerating description of wounded men forming a queue at the medical station demonstrated the bitter incongruity of violence and order. ‘The great European massacre,’ he wrote, ‘insists on order. Every act of the drama is regulated with minute exactness. As fast as the men filed past, they were counted and enveloped in red tape; secretaries verified their identity with the cold exactness of custom-house clerks. As for them they answered with the patience of the eternal public at the administrative wicket.’ Anyone who wants war, one Bavarian soldier wrote in October 1914, ‘is no longer human’. The point is not that morale collapsed – soldiers’ morale held up remarkably well until about 1917 – but that violence shocked most Europeans, at least early in the war.

Extract taken from ‘The End of Civilization, 1914’, Chapter 3 of The Great War for Peace.

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