One hundred years ago today, the First Battle of the Marne began.
Germany had declared war on France back on August 3. The very next day in response Great Britain did the same on Germany.
The Marne is a river that flows into the Seine just north of Paris. On September 3 the Germans had advanced within 30 miles of the City of Light. The Allies —the French and British—were poised for a last stand in its defense.
But in a tactical blunder, the German 1st and 2nd Armies– under General von Kluck and General von Bulow respectively—moved to the southeast of Paris to cut off the Allied retreat. The thinking was that Allied forces would be overtaken and defeated quickly and Paris as a result would fall without resistance. Perhaps factored into the decision was a reluctance to subject the glorious city to rampant destruction.
The French Commander-in-Chief General Joseph Joffre recognized the shift in German strategy and together with the British Expeditionary Force under Sir John French launched an attack on the German Armies. Von Kluck reacted to the French offensive and reversed direction to protect his flank. The German maneuver was picked up by Allied aerial reconnaissance—the first important use of aircraft in warfare.
After a week of bloody fighting, the Allied forces turned back the German advance on Paris.
Winston Churchill called the battle “the greatest battle ever fought in the world. The elemental forces which there met in grapple and collision of course far exceeded anything that has ever happened. It is also true that the Marne decided the World War. Half a dozen other cardinal crises have left their gaunt monuments along the road of tribulation which the nations trod…But never after the Marne had Germany a chance of absolute triumph.”
The Allies lost more than a quarter million men in the battle; the Germans slightly fewer.
Afterwards, it would be trench warfare on the Western Front. Four years in duration. The Germans managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The war would drag on and on. And when its savage carnage finally ended in German defeat, the terms of peace would only sow the seeds of yet a greater conflagration.