Following the Western Front's first outbreak of fighting at the Battle of the Frontiers (Battle of Mulhouse; Battle of Haelen; Battle of Lorraine; Battle of the Ardennes; Battle of Charleroi; and the Battle of Mons) in France and Belgium, the First Battle of the Marne took place. Fought from 5 to 12 September 1914, Germany and the Franco-British alliance battled in the Marne River valley area spanning a distance of 140 miles from Paris to Verdun. The German invasion of France aimed to destroy the French and British armies, occupy Paris within 40 days, and win the war quickly. The Germans initially succeeded in the Battles of Mons and the Frontiers, advancing deep into France and Belgium. However, their victories were short-lived, and the French and British were able to halt and eventually repulse their advance. The battle marked the end of the German attempt to defeat France quickly and the beginning of a four-year stalemate of trench warfare. The battle's success was due to Joffre's reforms, the redistribution of French troops, and Gallieni's perception of the German right flank's vulnerability, which led to the French and British counteroffensive.

The German invasion forced the French and British armies to retreat in what is known as the Great Retreat. The British commander, Field Marshal John French, who had lost faith in his French allies, planned for a British retreat to English Channel port cities for evacuation to Britain. On the other hand, the French commander, Joseph Joffre, maintained good order in his retreating army and reinforced it by integrating reserve units into the regular army. By early September, the Franco-British forces outnumbered the exhausted Germans and had outrun their supply lines, suffering from shortages.

Of these German shortages before battle had even commenced, Holger Herwig writes of the German Army's dilemma "Each army corps consumed about 130 tons of food and fodder per day, requiring 1168 railroad wagons for resupply. The 84,000 horses of Kluck's First Army alone ate up 2 million pounds of fodder per day--an amount requiring more than 900 wagons. Motor transport was out of the question: 60 per cent of the 4000 German trucks broke down before the armies reached the Marne.; in any event, it would have taken 18,000 trucks to move just the German right wind." (Herwig 1997, 100)

On 3 September 1914, the military governor of Paris, Joseph Simon Gallieni, perceived that the German right flank was vulnerable and positioned his forces to attack. On 4 September, Joffre gave the order to launch a counteroffensive that resulted in some of the heaviest fighting in the western half of the Marne River valley area. The Franco-British forces' success left the German 1st and 2nd Armies at risk of encirclement, and they were ordered to retreat to the Aisne River. The German armies ceased their retreat after 40 miles on a line north of the Aisne River, where they dug in on the heights and fought the First Battle of the Aisne.

The Battle of the Marne itself involved over two million soldiers and resulted in approximately 250,000 casualties on each side. (Herwig 1997, 105) In the Western Front: A History of the Great War, 1914-1918, author Nick Lloyd writes: "French losses totaled over 18,000 dead, 111,000 wounded and 83,000 missing for September 1914. German losses seem to have been fewer, although no official figures were ever published. The ten-day casualty returns from 1 to 10 September totaled just shy of 100,000 dead, wounded and missing." (Lloyd 2021, 52)


Top photo:  Battle of the Marne. French soldiers behind a ditch waiting for a German assault. Source: War History Network license.

Bottom photo: Battle of the Marne. French soldiers giving first aid to wounded German soldiers. Source: War History Network license.


The Battle of the Marne ended the German attempt to defeat France quickly and marked the beginning of the stalemate of trench warfare that lasted for four years. The war of movement ended with the Germans and the allied powers facing each other across a stationary front line of trenches and defenses that remained nearly stable for four years. While the German invasion had failed to defeat the French and British, the German army still occupied most of Belgium and a large portion of northern France, which had severe effects on the French economy.

12663632263?profile=RESIZE_584xThe battle's success was due in large part to Joffre, who was able to reform his forces and move troops from his right wing to the critical left wing. He also sacked generals, ensuring that the best men were in the right positions. Due to the redistribution of French troops, the German 1st Army had 128 battalions facing 191 battalions of the French and BEF. The 2nd and 3rd German armies had 134 battalions facing 268 battalions of the French Fifth and new Ninth Army. Joffre resisted counter-attacking until the time was right, then put his full force behind it. D'Esperey should also receive credit as the author of the main stroke, which helped to ensure the victory at the Battle of the Marne.

The German defeat at Marne was highlighted by not only their necessary tactical retreat, but also the fall of Helmuth von Molkte. Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke was a member of the small German coterie; whose most serious failing was his own self-doubt and lack of self-confidence concerning military capability. The coterie of which von Moltke was part, took the notion of war lightly--a necessary inevitability to cure Germany’s ills. There existed popular sentiment among Germany’s elite as well as select segments within its citizenry for war – along with the accepted ideal of social Darwinism which further enabled von Moltke to a war decision. The much-favored Schlieffen Plan was to be the vehicle for a quick, winnable war against France while Austria-Hungary battled Russia--one that the demure and unconfident von Moltke could manage. Holger Herwig notes that "Moltke, as its commander, must bear the responsibility for losing the campaign. Battle had not shown him to possess what Schlieffen had termed 'that certain fire of a determined will to victory, a wild drive to advance, and an unerring desire to annihilate the adversary'. (Herwig 1997, 105)


Beckett, Ian F. The Great War: 1914-1918. London: Routledge, 2014.

Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.

Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War: Explaining World War I. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Hart, Peter. The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2013.

Hastings, Max. Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. New York: Knopf, 2013.

Herwig, Holger H. The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918. London: Arnold, 1997.

Lloyd, Nick. The Western Front: A History of the Great War, 1914-1918. New York: Liveright Publishing, 2021.

Strachan, Hew. The First World War: Volume I: To Arms. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Tyng, Sewell T. The Campaign of the Marne, 1914. Yardley: Westholme, 1935.

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