The First Battle of the Marne

A photographic depiction of trench warfare in WWI

Fototeca Storica Nazionale./Getty Images

From September 6-12, 1914, just one month into World War I, the First Battle of the Marne took place just 30 miles northeast of Paris in the Marne River Valley of France.

Following the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans had been moving swiftly toward Paris when the French staged a surprise attack that began the First Battle of the Marne. The French, with the aid of some British troops, successfully halted the German advance and both sides dug in. The resulting trenches became the first of many that characterized the rest of World War I.

Because of their loss at the Battle of the Marne, the Germans, now stuck in muddy, bloody trenches, were not able to eliminate the second front of World War I; thus, the war was to last years rather than months.

World War I Begins

Upon the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, by a Serbian, Austria-Hungary officially declared war on Serbia on July 28—a month to the day from the assassination. Serbian ally Russia then declared war on Austria-Hungary. Germany then jumped into the looming battle at the defense of Austria-Hungary. And France, who had an alliance with Russia, also joined the war. World War I had begun.

Germany, who was literally in the middle of all this, was in a predicament. To fight France in the west and Russia in the east, Germany would need to divide its troops and resources and then send them in separate directions. This would cause the Germans to have a weakened position on both fronts.

Germany had been afraid this might happen. Thus, years before World War I, they had created a plan for just such a contingency—the Schlieffen Plan.

The Schlieffen Plan

The Schlieffen Plan was developed in the early 20th century by German Count Albert von Schlieffen, chief of the German Great General Staff from 1891 to 1905. The plan aimed to end a two-front war as quickly as possible. Schlieffen’s plan involved speed and Belgium.

At that time in history, the French had heavily fortified their border with Germany; thus it would take months, if not longer, for the Germans to try to break through those defenses. They needed a faster plan.

Schlieffen advocated circumventing these fortifications by invading France from the north via Belgium. However, the assault had to happen quickly—before the Russians could gather their forces and attack Germany from the east.

The downside of Schlieffen’s plan was that Belgium was at that time still a neutral country; a direct attack would bring Belgium into the war on the side of the Allies. The positive of the plan was that a quick victory over France would bring a swift end to the Western Front and then Germany could shift all of its resources to the east in their fight with Russia.

At the beginning of World War I, Germany decided to take its chances and put the Schlieffen Plan, with a few changes, into effect. Schlieffen had calculated that the plan would take only 42 days to complete.

The Germans headed to Paris via Belgium.

The March to Paris

The French, of course, tried to stop the Germans. They challenged the Germans along the French-Belgian border in the Battle of Frontiers. Although this successfully slowed the Germans down, the Germans ultimately broke through and continued southward toward the French capital of Paris. 

As the Germans advanced, Paris readied itself for a siege. On September 2, the French government evacuated to the city of Bordeaux, leaving French General Joseph-Simon Gallieni as the new military governor of Paris, in charge of the defense of the city.

As the Germans advanced rapidly toward Paris, the German First and Second Armies (led by Generals Alexander von Kluck and Karl von Bülow respectively) were following parallel paths southward, with the First Army a little to the west and the Second Army a bit to the east.

Although Kluck and Bülow had been directed to approach Paris as a unit, supporting one another, Kluck got distracted when he sensed easy prey. Instead of following orders and heading directly to Paris, Kluck chose instead to pursue the exhausted, retreating French Fifth Army, led by General Charles Lanrezac.

Kluck’s distraction not only did not turn into a quick and decisive victory, but it also created a gap between the German First and Second Armies and exposed the First Army’s right flank, leaving them susceptible to a French counterattack.

On September 3, Kluck’s First Army crossed the Marne River and entered the Marne River Valley.

The Battle Begins

Despite Gallieni’s many last-minute preparations within the city, he knew that Paris couldn’t withstand a siege for long; thus, upon learning of Kluck’s new movements, Gallieni urged the French military to launch a surprise attack before the Germans reached Paris. Chief of the French General Staff Joseph Joffre had exactly the same idea. It was an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up, even if it was a surprisingly optimistic plan in the face of the ongoing massive retreat from northern France.

Troops on both sides were utterly and completely exhausted from the long and fast march south. However, the French had an advantage in the fact that as they had retreated south, closer to Paris, their supply lines had shortened; while the Germans’ supply lines had become stretched thin.

On September 6, 1914, the 37th day of the German campaign, the Battle of the Marne began. The French Sixth Army, led by General Michel Maunoury, attacked Germany’s First Army from the west. Under attack, Kluck swung even further west, away from the German Second Army, to confront the French attackers. This created a 30-mile gap between the German First and Second Armies.

Kluck’s First Army nearly defeated the French’s Sixth when, in the nick in time, the French received 6,000 reinforcements from Paris, brought to the front via 630 taxicabs—the very first automotive transport of troops during the war in history.

Meanwhile, the French Fifth Army, now led by General Louis Franchet d’Esperey (who had replaced Lanrezac), and Field Marshal John French’s British troops (who agreed to join in the battle only after much, much urging) pushed up into the 30-mile gap that divided the German First and Second Armies. The French Fifth Army then attacked Bülow’s Second Army.

Mass confusion within the German army ensued.

For the French, what began as a move of desperation ended up as a wild success, and the Germans began to be pushed back. 

The Digging of Trenches

By September 9, 1914, it was apparent that the German advance had been halted by the French. Intending to eliminate this dangerous gap between their armies, the Germans began to retreat, regrouping 40 miles to the northeast, on the border of the Aisne River. 

German Chief of the Great General Staff Helmuth von Moltke was mortified by this unexpected change in course and suffered a nervous breakdown. As a result, the retreat was handled by Moltke’s subsidiaries, causing the German forces to pull back at a much slower pace than they had advanced. 

The process was further hampered by the loss in communications between the divisions and a rainstorm on September 11 that turned everything to mud, slowing down man and horse alike. In the end, it took the Germans a total of three full days to retreat. 

By September 12, the battle had officially ended, and the German divisions were all relocated to the banks of the Aisne River where they began regrouping. Moltke, shortly before he was replaced, gave one of the most important orders of the war—“The lines so reached will be fortified and defended.”1 The German troops began digging trenches.

The process of trench digging took nearly two months but was still only meant to be a temporary measure against French retaliation. Instead, gone were the days of open warfare; both sides remained within these underground lairs until the end of the war.

Trench warfare, begun at the First Battle of the Marne, would come to monopolize the rest of World War I.

The Toll of the Battle of the Marne

In the end, the Battle of the Marne was a bloody battle. Casualties (both those killed and wounded) for the French forces are roughly estimated around 250,000 men; casualties for the Germans, who had no official tally, are estimated to be around the same number. The British lost 12,733. 

The First Battle of the Marne was successful in halting the German advance to seize Paris; however, it is also one of the main reasons that the war continued past the point of initial brief projections. According to historian Barbara Tuchman, in her book The Guns of August, "The Battle of the Marne was one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would eventually lose or the Allies ultimately win the war but because it determined that the war would go on."2

The Second Battle of the Marne

The area of the Marne River Valley would be revisited with large-scale warfare in July 1918 when German General Erich von Ludendorff attempted one of the final German offensives of the war. 

This attempted advance became known as the Second Battle of the Marne but was rapidly halted by Allied forces. It is viewed today as one of the keys to ultimately ending the war as the Germans realized that they lacked the resources to win the battles necessary to win World War I.

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Goss, Jennifer L. "The First Battle of the Marne." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Goss, Jennifer L. (2023, April 5). The First Battle of the Marne. Retrieved from Goss, Jennifer L. "The First Battle of the Marne." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).