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World War I Western Front (1914) - Part 1

World War I Western Front (1914) - Part 1

Events that took place in the first year of WWI

Germany’s strategy, decided long before the war, was to contain Russia on the Eastern Front and make a lightning attack on France; and having defeated that nation, transport the bulk of the German forces to mount an offensive against Russia, a plan made practical by the swift movement possible on the extensive railway system.

As put into effect, however, the German offensive in the west was not the original Schlieffen Plan: chief-of-staff Moltke watered it down by keeping larger forces than planned originally on the Eastern Front and in Alsace-Lorraine (where it was predicted the main French offensive would be mounted), so as not to surrender the German territory which Schlieffen had been prepared to lose temporarily; by so doing, Moltke weakened the major offensive and made it impossible to carry out Schlieffen’s reputed dying words, “keep the right wing strong”.

 

Index of content

 

Battle of the Frontiers

On the western front, the period from August 2 to August 26, 1914, constituted the Battle of the Frontiers. The mass movement of troops occupied this opening month of the war, as Germany advanced through Belgium and into France. Belgium had been a neutral power since 1839, and a multilateral international agreement guaranteed its neutrality. Belgium’s King Albert had long recognized the threat posed by Germany, but he dared not coordinate military planning with Britain or France, which might be interpreted as an abrogation of neutrality. At the outbreak of war, they left Belgium to defend itself. The army of Belgium was small, a mere 100,000 men, but it had one of the most formidable systems of fortresses in Europe.

The mightiest, Liège, a veritable fortress city, commanded the Meuse River at a highly strategic point. According to the Schlieffen Plan, which outlined Germany’s war strategy, the German First and Second Armies, the northernmost of the five German armies invading France, had to pass through the area dominated by Liège. A special task force of 30,000 elite troops was assembled to attack Liège by night. In the meantime, other units invaded Luxembourg, securing vital railheads into France and Belgium.

On August 2, the German ambassador delivered an ultimatum demanding free passage through Belgium. King Albert refused and began blowing up bridges and rail routes into his country. Two days later, German troops crossed the Belgian frontier at Gemmerich, and on the night of August 5–6, the task force began its assault on Liège. Belgian resistance was fierce and inflicted disproportionate losses on the Germans.

However, by August 6, a German brigade, with the aid of bombardment by zeppelins, forced the Belgians from the main citadel of the fortification system, and Liège fell on August 16. The Belgian army, what was left of it, retreated to Antwerp, where it compromised the Schlieffen Plan timetable by harassing the German right wing.

 

French Errors

The commander-in-chief of French forces, Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre (1852–1931), rotund and superannuated, called “Papa Joffre,” mistakenly interpreted the attack on Liège as nothing more than a feint to decoy French forces away from the Ardennes, where, according to the assumptions of French Plan XVII, the Germans would make their main attack.

In strict adherence to the plan, Joffre largely discounted the Belgian front and instead deployed his First and Second Armies to thrust toward the Saar River into Lorraine, while, to the north (the French left), the Third and Fifth Armies would stand prepared to launch an offensive between Metz and Thionville or to strike from the north at the flank of any German drive through the Ardennes. Because this deployment was well to the south of the Belgian border, Joffre had thus left his forces vulnerable to a devastating attack on their left flank and rear.

 

British Errors

Great Britain declared war on August 4 and mobilized quickly and efficiently. The declaration had been motivated by Germany’s invasion of Belgium; however, British strategy called for rendering aid directly to the French, not the Belgians. Sir John French (1852–1925), commanding the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), asked permission to deploy to Antwerp to aid the Belgians but was overruled by his government.

The BEF, having arrived on the Continent on August 9, marched toward Mons in northwestern France. As Joffre had failed to deploy troops where they could halt the German advance, so now the British lost another opportunity to check the Germans.

 

The German Advance

After the “Liège bottleneck” had been broken, the German right wing, the two northernmost armies, under General Alexander von Kluck (1846–1934) (First Army) and General Karl von Bülow (1846–1921) (Second Army), advanced rapidly through Belgium as the “rim” of a great wheel movement that would take them deep into France and behind the main positions of the French army. Wherever the Allies resisted, they were swept away. The technology of defensive weaponry, especially the machine gun, had outstripped the technology of offensive weaponry. This gave defenders a significant advantage if they knew how to use it.

France’s Plan XVII, however, was wholly offensive. This meant that as the Germans advanced, the Allies would put up defensive lines, which typically halted the advance. As soon as it was halted, however, the Allied defenders would resume the offensive called for in Plan XVII. The Germans, the invaders and attackers put strong emphasis on defensive and offensive tactics. By the time the Allies mounted their offensives, the Germans had dug themselves in and were prepared to defend. The result, invariably, was Allied slaughter, as German machine gunners cut down the attackers. In this way, the Allies were forced into retreat.

By the end of August, German troops were just 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside of Paris. Back in Belgium, the civilian population suffered terribly at the hands of the German invaders. Ordinary Belgians laid ambushes for the advancing soldiers and destroyed or sabotaged bridges, railways, and telephone lines. The Germans responded with outrageous cruelty, including mass reprisals as summary executions. German theft, vandalism, arson, and rape were widely reported by the press and even magnified by the Allied propaganda machine.

The stories not only provoked the Allies into pressing the fight even in the face of mounting losses and increasing discouragement, but also deeply affected neutral nations, especially the United States, where public opinion steadily turned against Germany.

 

Action in Lorraine and Ardennes

On August 8, General Paul Pau (1848–1932) led the French Army of Alsace to Mulhouse, in German territory, close to the Swiss border. This was followed farther north, during August 14–22, by a full-scale offensive led by General Auguste Dubail (1851–1934) (First Army) and General Noël de Castelnau (1851–1944) (Second Army) against the German Sixth Army led by Crown Prince Rupprecht (1869–1955) of Bavaria and the Seventh Army commanded by General Josias von Heeringen (1850–1926). Both forces withdrew under attack before converging and returning with a strong counterattack, which forced the French into retreat west of Nancy.

Through the heroic efforts of General Ferdinand Foch (1851–1929), in command of the French XXth Corps, Nancy held, but the French First and Second Armies suffered devastating losses.

Just north of the First and Second armies, the Third Army, under General Pierre Ruffey (1851–1932) and, behind him, in reserve, the Fourth Army, commanded by General Fernand de Langle de Cary (1849–1931), held the Ardennes. These forces collided head on with the German Fourth and Fifth armies, under Duke Albrecht of Württemberg (1865–1939) and Crown Prince Wilhelm (1882–1951), respectively. Badly outnumbered, the French resisted vigorously during August 20–25, suffering stunning losses before finally withdrawing to the Meuse River and into the great fortress of Verdun.

 

Battles on the Sambre and at Mons

Joffre had largely ignored warnings of the great German advance through Belgium, but General Charles L. M. Lanrezac (1852–1925), commanding the French Fifth Army on the French left flank (extreme north), was so insistent in his demand for reinforcements that Joffre directed British and Belgian forces at Namur, Belgium, to join with Lanrezac in battle to the north. On August 9, Lanrezac sent a reconnaissance force into Belgium and quickly concluded that he would be trapped in the Ardennes if he proceeded with the attack Joffre demanded there.

At last, on August 15, Joffre agreed to send the Fifth Army north to Namur, at the confluence of the Sambre and Meuse rivers. Here, on the 21st, Lanrezac collided with Bülow’s Second Army. Lanrezac panicked and dug in for defense, but failed to issue adequate orders to his subordinate commanders. The result was a weak and poorly coordinated defense. Uncertain of the state of his left flank and of the intentions of his British and Belgian allies, Lanrezac defended the high ground along the Sambre.

The Battle of the Sambre began on August 21 and continued, in its first phase, through the 22nd, when Bülow repelled all French attacks. Bülow then launched a counterattack, which forced a further French retreat, even while other German forces took the key Belgian fortress of Namur.

By August 23, the BEF was in position at Mons, Belgium, about 13 kilometers (eight miles) west of where Lanrezac was engaged. Lanrezac, incredibly, made no attempt to coordinate an attack or defense with the BEF, instead withdrawing under cover of darkness. On the morning of the 24th, the German commanders were stunned to find that they had no one to fight. Lanrezac and his Fifth Army were gone. However, Bülow, having been given operational control of Alexander von Kluck’s First Army, ordered that unit to move south to support the Second Army’s attack on Lanrezac’s left flank. This unexpectedly brought Kluck into collision with the BEF under Field Marshal Sir John French at Mons on August 22.

Although outnumbered, the British had time to dig into favorable defensive positions, against which the notoriously aggressive Kluck mounted a full-scale attack, beginning on August 23. Highly trained British riflemen responded with devastating rifle fire, which forced the attackers to withdraw and regroup. French prepared to resume defensive operations on the 24th, in the expectation of a reinforcement from Lanrezac.

In the nick of time, however, French learned Lanrezac had withdrawn. French felt he had no choice but to withdraw as well. Kluck pursued, inflicting 7,800 casualties on the British rear guard (a force of 40,000 men) at the Battle of Le Cateau on August 26. The rest of the BEF now joined the French Fourth and Fifth Armies in a general retreat.

 

The Allies Face Disaster

The French attempt at an offensive had failed, at the cost of over 300,000 of France’s best troops and additional great losses among the other Allies. From August 27 to September 4, the defeated Allies withdrew deeper into France. The Germans, though victorious, faced grave problems of their own. Supply and communication lines were thin and vulnerable. In this all-out effort, there were no reserves to relieve the fatigued or replace the wounded and dead.

 

The Defense of Paris

With their nation deeply invaded and the army badly beaten, the French faced the imminent prospect of the fall of Paris, which was poorly defended and could not long withstand a siege. General Joseph-Simon Gallieni (1849–1916), a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, appointed military governor of Paris, was charged with mounting a last-minute defense, even as Marshal Joffre ordered troops out of the capital to reinforce positions at the front.

Joffre was willing to sacrifice the capital if need be. Against all odds, Gallieni worked tirelessly to transform “the city of light” into an armed camp. He decided not to defend Paris from siege but to use it as a base of operations for battles that would be fought on the outskirts of the city. Gallieni understood that the “front” was about to become Paris itself.

Preparations were made for mass demolition of buildings, to provide fields of fire, and of bridges, to impede German progress. Gallieni recruited bakers, butchers, and greengrocers to stockpile provisions, and farmers brought their cattle into the city to graze on the elegant Bois de Boulogne. In a rush to gather stores of ammunition, Gallieni pressed into service every transport vehicle available, including the city’s legion of taxicabs.

 

The Reprieve

At Le Cateau (August 25–27), the BEF successfully, though at significant cost, resisted the entire strength of Kluck’s army. On the 29th, Joffre at last ordered the French Fifth Army to the relief of the British, directing it to attack Kluck’s flank. Initially unsuccessful, the attack eventually checked Bülow’s advance by forcing him to come to Kluck’s aid, and was, therefore, the first French tactical victory in the Battle of the Frontiers. This comparatively minor triumph would have profound consequences.

General Bülow was forced to call on Kluck for help. The Schlieffen Plan called for the right wing of the German army to make a great sweeping movement of encirclement. This was vital to the plan. Now, in response to Bülow, Kluck instead turned his First Army, the German right wing, abruptly to the southeast in order to hit what he believed was the vulnerable left flank of the entire rest of the French army.

Up to this point, the Schlieffen Plan had rolled the French army over. Now the entire German right wing was turning so that it would pass east of Paris instead of west and around the capital. Realizing the opportunity this presented, Marshal Joffre now gave Gallieni an entire army, ordering the Sixth Army to concentrate in the Paris area.

Worried only that the French forces would escape him, Kluck had driven his First Army with great speed far before the Second Army. He was totally unaware of the buildup of the French Sixth Army in and around Paris. Helmuth von Moltke (1848–1916), the German chief of staff, had learned of the buildup, however, and ordered Kluck to protect the right flank of the Second Army. But Moltke failed to specify a reason for his order, and Kluck, reasoning that this would allow the French to escape, concluded that he could disregard the letter of Moltke’s order and still obey its intention by continuing to move south in order to ensure that the French, whom he believed beaten and disorganized, were driven well to the southeast of Paris, where they could not menace the Second Army.

Thus, Kluck departed even further from the already badly compromised Schlieffen Plan. He marched across the Marne River, exposing his own right flank just east of Paris, the very location at which the French Sixth Army had assembled. On September 4, Joffre issued orders for the Sixth Army to attack eastward, toward Chateau Thierry, just to the northeast of Paris, while the BEF would move against Montmirail, farther east.

The French Fifth and Ninth armies would operate in concert with the Sixth and the BEF as the developing situation required. The Fourth Army would hold on along the Marne, well to the east of these positions, ready to advance when ordered. The Third Army, stationed at the fortress of Verdun on the Meuse River, would strike westward. Properly coordinated, these attacks would cause the double envelopment of the German right wing. Kluck’s turn had presented nothing less than an opportunity to save France.

 

The Battle of the Ourcq River

Under temporary command of Gallieni, the Sixth Army advanced from Paris to the Ourcq River, where Kluck had left exposed his right flank. At first, Kluck, still operating from his conviction that the French were done for, believed the attack on his right was nothing more than a feint. But when the Battle of the Ourcq raged for two days, Kluck realized that the French, although badly mauled, were not beaten.

Quickly, he reversed himself and pulled his troops back north of the Marne, then turned to the west and unleashed a series of savage counterattacks, which sent the French reeling. They fell back toward Paris during September 7–9, even as Gallieni responded by rushing to the Marne, the last of the troops stationed within the capital.

Between Kluck’s First Army and Bülow’s Second was a wide gap, which the BEF and the French Fifth Army, now under General Franchet d’Esperey (1856–1942), were striking at the flank of the German Second Army. Southeast of this combined French and British operation, the French Ninth Army, under General Foch, attacked at St. Gond, only to be battered by the other end of the German Second Army and by the German Third Army.

On September 8, Third Army troops launched a violent bayonet attack, which threw the French into confused panic, except for the unshakable Foch, who ordered an immediate renewal of his attack. Stunned by this resilience, the Germans halted their advance.

Elsewhere along the extensive Marne front, the fighting raged intensely, although indecisively. From his distant headquarters, Moltke at last dispatched a staff officer to inspect the front personally. What he saw was the German right flank being turned under pressure from the French Fifth Army. Bülow was beginning a retreat. Kluck, always aggressive, was making progress, but his left flank and rear were highly vulnerable to the BEF. Moltke approved Bülow’s retreat and ordered Kluck to withdraw as well. Next, Moltke ordered a general withdrawal to the Aisne River and, on September 14, acknowledged the failure of his stewardship of the Schlieffen Plan by turning over command of the armies to General Erich von Falkenhayn (1861–1922).

Within the space of a month, the German army had made a massive invasion of France, only to turn before Paris. The initiative lost would never be regained. From the Battle of the Marne onward, World War I on the western front would cease to be a war of movement and would become a static orgy of death and destruction between opposing trench lines.

 

The Race to the Sea

Erich von Falkenhayn immediately set about trying to rescue what he could of the Schlieffen Plan by massing strength on the right flank to attack the Allies’ left. This strategy brought about what historians have called the “Race to the Sea”, a movement toward the North Sea coast as each army tried to outflank the other by moving progressively farther north and west. As the two armies maneuvered in this way, they dug into a series of trench lines that would come to characterize the western front for the next four years.

Although the Germans had let victory slip, they were hardly defeated and occupied a powerful position on high ground. They deployed the German armies from west to east, beginning with the First Army (Kluck), the Seventh (under Josias von Heeringen), and the Second (Bülow); the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth German armies stretched from this point eastward to the Swiss frontier. Against the First, Seventh, and Second armies, Joffre hurled, beginning on September 14, the Sixth (under Michel Joseph Maunoury), the BEF (Sir John French commanding), and the Fifth Army (under d’Esperey). To the east, the French Ninth, Fourth, Third, Second, and First armies were positioned. Despite these massed Allied attacks, the German defenses could not be breached, and on September 18, Joffre called off the offensive.

The two armies jockeyed for position, and by the beginning of October, the Allies had reached the North Sea at Nieuwpoort, Belgium. German forces drove the Belgian army out of Antwerp and sent it fleeing to the coast and then south from the coast to Ypres. The BEF took over the line from Ypres, Belgium, south to La Bassée, France, while the seven French armies entrenched themselves from this point to the Swiss border. The long line of entrenchments became the western front.

The First Battle of Ypres begun on October 14 and lasted through the first three weeks of November. The first phase was a nine-day German offensive halted at last by a massing of French reinforcements and the deliberate flooding of the Belgian front by opening dikes. More than one-third of the Belgian army had been lost by this historic point in the war. On October 20, Foch counterattacked in vain. Falkenhayn counterattacked on the 28th, also without success. The heavy rains and snows that closed in by the middle of November brought the First Battle of Ypres to a close.

Dead, missing, or wounded were 2,368 British officers and 55,787 enlisted men, some 80 percent of the BEF committed in this region. French casualties numbered perhaps 50,000, whereas the Germans had lost at least 130,000 men. Overall, in the first three months of fighting, France had lost 380,000 men killed and about 600,000 wounded. German losses were only slightly less.

 

The Big Frustration

At the end of 1914 and the beginning of 1915, the Allies and the Central Powers were frustrated by the prospect of a stalemated war, a war that apparently could not be won, only lost.

Germany’s chief of staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, believed that they would ultimately decide the outcome on the western front, but he also recognized that the only opportunities for immediate gain lay in the East. In sum, the Germans were caught between the notion that victory had to be achieved in the west but that, at least in the short term, productive action was possible only in the East. Thus, Germany’s western-front strategy became thoroughly dominated by defense.

The Allies were even more frustrated than the Central Powers. France and Britain were deeply divided over the conduct of the war. The subject of supply and provisioning created especially bitter disputes. After Turkey entered the war and cut off Russian access to supply from France and England, as well as Allied access to the Ukrainian grain fields, the young first lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill (1874–1965), advocated an immediate campaign to seize from Turkish control the Dardanelles, the strait affording passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Others, including the British war minister Field Marshal Horatio H. Kitchener (1850–1916) and France’s “Papa” Joffre, believed that diverting resources from the western front to address the Dardanelles would bring disaster. In the end, an amphibious operation against the Dardanelles was reluctantly approved, only to end in costly failure.

 

Action in the Champagne

At the end of 1914, Joffre mounted a general Allied offensive from Nieuport on the Belgian coast of the English Channel all the way southeast to Verdun in the Argonne Forest. From December 14 to December 24, British and French forces beat vainly against German lines. On December 20, the First Battle of Champagne began and expanded into an Allied offensive throughout the Champagne and Artois regions. Joffre focused on the Noyon salient, an extensive pocket of German troops bulging into central France between Reims and Verdun.

The First Battle of Champagne gained 500 yards for the Allies, at the cost of 50,000 troops. The Germans made limited counterattacks along the La Bassé Canal and near Soissons during January 8 through February 5, halting the French advance. Joffre regrouped and made another foray in March but got nowhere. Combat in Champagne and Artois resulted in some 400,000 French casualties. British and German losses were also heavy.

Period/s:
WWI (1914-1918)
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