First Battle of the Marne

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First Battle of the Marne
Part of the Western Front of the First World War
French soldiers ditch 1914.jpg
French soldiers waiting for assault behind a ditch.
Date 5–12 September 1914
Location Marne River near Paris, France
49°1′N 3°23′E / 49.017°N 3.383°E / 49.017; 3.383Coordinates: 49°1′N 3°23′E / 49.017°N 3.383°E / 49.017; 3.383
Result Decisive Allied victory[1]
France France
United Kingdom United Kingdom
German Empire German Empire
Commanders and leaders
France Joseph Joffre
France Michel-Joseph Maunoury
France Joseph Gallieni
United Kingdom Sir John French
France Franchet d'Espèrey
France Ferdinand Foch
France Fernand de Langle
German Empire Helmuth von Moltke
German Empire Karl von Bülow
German Empire Alexander von Kluck
German Empire Duke of Württemberg
39 French divisions
6 British divisions
1,485,000 (on 2 August)
27 German divisions
Casualties and losses
263,000, of whom 81,700 died 256,000

The Battle of the Marne (French: Première bataille de la Marne) (also known as the Miracle of the Marne) was a First World War battle fought from 5–12 September 1914. It resulted in an Allied victory against the German Army under Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke the Younger. The battle was the culmination of the German advance into France and pursuit of the Allied armies which followed the Battle of the Frontiers in August, which had reached the eastern outskirts of Paris. The counterattack of six French field armies and the British Expeditionary Force ("BEF") along the Marne River forced the German Imperial Army to abandon its push on Paris and retreat north-east, leading to the "Race to the Sea" and setting the stage for four years of trench warfare on the Western Front. The Battle of the Marne was an immense strategic victory for the Allies, wrecking Germany's bid to 'unhinge' the Verdun-Marne-Paris line in their first campaign of the war and forcing them to breach it directly in their next campaign against France.


Battle of the Frontiers, 7 August – 13 September[edit]

The Battle of the Frontiers is a general name for all of the operations of the French armies until the Battle of the Marne.[2] A series of encounter battles began between the German, French and Belgian armies, on the German-French frontier and in southern Belgium on 4 August 1914. The Battle of Mulhouse (Battle of Alsace 7–10 August) was the first French offensive of World War I against Germany. The French captured Mulhouse until forced out by a German counter-attack on 11 August and fell back toward Belfort. The main French offensive, the Battle of Lorraine (14–25 August), began with the Battles of Morhange and Sarrebourg (14–20 August) advances by the First Army on Sarrebourg and the Second Army towards Morhange. Château Salins near Morhange was captured on 17 August and Sarrebourg the next day. The German 6th and 7th armies counter-attacked on 20 August and the Second Army was forced back from Morhange and the First Army was repulsed at Sarrebourg. The German armies crossed the border and advanced on Nancy but were stopped to the east of the city.[3]

France, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium, 1914

To the south the French retook Mulhouse on 19 August and then withdrew. On 24 August at the Battle of the Mortagne (14–25 August), a limited German offensive in the Vosges, the Germans managed a small advance, before a French counter-attack retook the ground. By 20 August a German counter-offensive in Lorraine had begun and the German 4th and 5th Armies advanced through the Ardennes on 19 August towards Neufchâteau. An offensive by French Third and Fourth armies through the Ardennes began on 20 August, in support of the French invasion of Lorraine. The opposing armies met in thick fog and the French mistook the German troops for screening forces. On 22 August the Battle of the Ardennes (21–28 August) began with French attacks, which were costly to both sides and forced the French into a disorderly retreat late on 23 August. The Third Army recoiled towards Verdun, pursued by the 5th Army and the Fourth Army retreated to Sedan and Stenay. Mulhouse was recaptured again by German forces and the Battle of the Meuse (26–28 August), caused a temporary halt of the German advance.[4]

Liège was occupied by the Germans on 7 August, the first units of the BEF landed in France and French troops crossed the German frontier. On 12 August The Battle of Haelen was fought by German and Belgian cavalry and infantry and was a Belgian defensive success. The BEF completed its move of four divisions and a cavalry division to France on 16 August, as the last Belgian fort of the Position fortifiée de Liège surrendered. The Belgian government withdrew from Brussels on 18 August and the German army attacked the Belgian field army at the Battle of the Gete. Next day the Belgian army began to retire towards Antwerp, which left the route to Namur open; Longwy and Namur were besieged on 20 August. Further west the Fifth Army had concentrated on the Sambre by 20 August, facing north either side of Charleroi and east towards the Belgian fortress of Namur. On the left, the Cavalry Corps of General Sordet linked with the BEF at Mons.[3]

Great Retreat, 24 August – 5 September[edit]

Main article: Great Retreat
German and Allied positions, 23 August – 5 September 1914

The French Fifth Army fell back about 10 miles (16 km) from the Sambre during the Battle of Charleroi (22 August) and began a greater withdrawal from the area south of the Sambre on 23 August. The BEF fought the Battle of Mons on 24 August. The French First and Second armies had been pushed back by attacks of the German 7th and 6th armies between St. Dié and Nancy. The Third Army held positions east of Verdun against attacks by the 5th Army; the Fourth Army held positions from the junction with the Third Army south of Montmédy, westwards to Sedan, Mezières and Fumay, facing the 4th Army; the Fifth Army was between Fumay and Maubeuge; the 3rd Army was advancing up the Meuse valley from Dinant and Givet, into a gap between the Fourth and Fifth Armies; the 2nd Army pressed forward into the angle between the Meuse and Sambre directly against the Fifth Army. On the far west flank of the French, the BEF prolonged the line from Maubeuge to Valenciennes against the 1st Army, and Army Detachment von Beseler masked the Belgian army at Antwerp.[5]

On 26 August, German forces captured Valenciennes and began the Siege of Maubeuge (24 August – 7 September). Leuven (Louvain) was sacked by German troops and the Battle of Le Cateau was fought by the BEF and the 1st Army. Longwy was surrendered by its garrison and next day British Marines and a party of the Royal Naval Air Service ("RNAS") landed at Ostend; Lille and Mezières were occupied by German troops. Arras was occupied on 27 August and a French counter-offensive began at the Battle of St. Quentin (1914) (Battle of Guise 29–30 August). On 29 August the Fifth Army counter-attacked the 2nd Army south of the Oise, from Vervins to Mont Dorigny and west of the river from Mont Dorigny to Moy towards St. Quentin on the Somme, while the British held the line of the Oise west of La Fère.[6] Laon, La Fère, and Roye were captured by German troops on 30 August and Amiens the next day. On 1 September Craonne and Soissons were captured and on 5 September the BEF ended its retreat from Mons, German troops reached Claye, 10 miles (16 km) from Paris, Reims was captured, German forces withdrew from Lille, and the First Battle of the Marne (Battle of the Ourcq 5–12 September) began, marking the end of the Great Retreat of the western flank of the Franco-British armies.[7]

By 4 September the First and Second Armies had slowed the advance of the 7th and 6th armies west of St. Dié and east of Nancy, from where the Second Army had withdrawn its left flank, to face north between Nancy and Toul. A gap existed between the left of the Second Army and the right of the Third Army at Verdun, which faced north-west, on a line towards Revigny against the 5th Army advance, west of the Meuse between Varennes and St. Ménéhould. The Fourth Army had withdrawn to Sermaize, west to the Marne at Vitry le François and crossed the river to Sompons, against the 4th Army, which had advanced from Rethel to Suippes and the west of Chalons. The new Ninth Army held a line from Mailly against the 3rd Army, which had advanced from Mézières, over the Vesle and the Marne west of Chalons. The 2nd Army had advanced from Marle on the Serre, across the Aisne and the Vesle, between Reims and Fismes to Montmort, north of the junction of the Ninth and Fifth armies at Sezanne. The Fifth Army and the BEF had withdrawn south of the Oise, Serre, Aisne, and Ourq, pursued by the 2nd Army on a line from Guise to Laon, Vailly and Dormans and by the 1st Army from Montdidier, towards Compiègne and then south-east towards Montmirail. The new French Sixth Army, formed from divisions pulled from the right of the French line and of newly formed reserve divisions, linked with the left of the BEF, west of the Marne at Meaux to Pontiose north of Paris. French garrisons were besieged at Strasbourg, Metz, Thionville, Longwy, Montmédy and Maubeuge. The Belgian army was invested at Antwerp in the National Redoubt, and Belgian fortress troops continued the defence of the Liège forts.[8]

The overwhelming advantage of the German right against the French left at the start of the war had had been reversed by the end of August. Some German forces were left to fight in Belgium, some were withdrawn to the Eastern Front, and reserves had been committed to the German center. Meanwhile the French had moved forces from their right to their left.


French infantry charge, (1914)

As the German 1st and 2nd armies approached Paris, they began to swerve to the south-east away from Paris, to envelop the retreating French armies, exposing their right flank to the allies. By 3 September, Joffre had become aware of the positions of the German armies. On 4 September, he made plans to halt the French and British withdrawal and attack the Germans all along the front with the French Sixth Army (150,000 men) and the BEF (70,000 men). The attack was set to begin on the morning of 6 September. However, General Alexander von Kluck, the commander of the 1st Army, detected the approach of the Allied forces on 5 September and began to wheel his army to face the west. On the morning of 5 September, battle commenced when the advancing Sixth Army came into contact with cavalry patrols of the IV Reserve Corps of General H. H. K. Gronau, on the right flank of the 1st Army near the Ourcq River. Seizing the initiative in the early afternoon, the two divisions of IV Corps attacked with light artillery and infantry into the gathering Sixth Army and pushed it back before the planned allied assault for the following day. The threat to the French offensive by the 1st Army in this preliminary Battle of the Ourcq (Bataille de l'Ourcq) ignored the Franco-British forces advancing against the right flank and was later reduced both by the arrival of the taxicab reinforcements from Paris and orders for Kluck to retreat to the Aisne River, delivered by Oberstleutnant Richard Hentsch.[9]


Western flank[edit]

Von Kluck, in turning to meet the potential for attack on his right flank, opened a 30 mi (48 km) gap in the German lines between their 1st Army and 2nd Army on its left. Allied reconnaissance planes discovered the gap and reported it to commanders on the ground.[10]

On 3 September, Joffre replaced French Fifth Army commander General Lanrezac (deemed too cautious and lacking in "offensive spirit") with General Franchet d'Esperey.

The Allies were prompt in exploiting the break in the German lines, sending the BEF and the Fifth Army through the gap between the two German armies. The right wing of the Fifth Army simultaneously attacked and thus pinned the 2nd Army in the Battle of the Two Morins (Bataille des Deux Morins), named for the two rivers in the area, the Grand Morin and Petit Morin.

The Germans still hoped to achieve a breakthrough against the Sixth Army between 6 and 8 September. The Sixth Army was reinforced on 7 September by 10,000 French reserve infantry ferried from Paris, 6,000 of whom were transported in 600 Parisian taxi cabs sent by General Joseph Gallieni, military governor of Paris.[11] The "taxis de la Marne" became in France a symbol of unity and national solidarity beyond their strategical role in the battle. The following night, on 8 September, the Fifth Army launched a surprise attack against the 2nd Army, further widening the gap between the 1st and Second armies.

By 9 September, it looked as though the German First and Second Armies would be encircled and destroyed. General von Moltke suffered a nervous breakdown upon hearing of the danger. His subordinates took over and ordered a general retreat to the Aisne, to regroup for another offensive. The Germans were pursued by the French and British, although the pace of the exhausted Allied forces was slow and averaged only 12 mi (19 km) per day. The Germans ceased their retreat after 40 mi (64 km), at a point north of the Aisne River, where they dug in, preparing trenches. Both sides dug in and four years of stalemate ensued.

The German retreat of 9–13 September marked the abandonment of the Schlieffen Plan. Moltke is said to have reported to the Kaiser: "Your Majesty, we have lost the war."

Eastern flank[edit]

On the eastern flank (close to Verdun), by 6 September, serious fighting was taking place between the attacking German 3rd, 4th and 5th armies and the defending French Third, Fourth and Ninth armies. Fighting included the capture of the village of Revigny in the Battle of Revigny (Bataille de Revigny) and fighting from Vitry-le-François in the Battle of Vitry (Bataille de Vitry) to Sézanne in the Battle of the Marshes of Saint-Gond (Bataille des Marais de Saint-Gond).[12]



French infantry pursue Germans near Meaux

The war became a stalemate after the Allies won the Battle of the Marne. It was the second major clash on the Western Front (after the Battle of the Frontiers) and one of the most important single events of the war. The German defeat and subsequent retreat ended any hopes of Germany being able to push the French back beyond the 'Verdun-Marne-Paris' line. As a result Germany would be forced to assault this line directly in their next campaign if they chose to continue focusing on France in the name of knocking them out of the war eventually - but assaulting such an excellent defensive position was sure to be costly for her forces. Ultimately the cost of breaching this line was greater than Germany was willing to pay for France's defeat, as shown in Germany's first and last concerted effort to breach this line in the 1916 Battle of Verdun.

The Battle of the Marne was also one of the first major battles in which reconnaissance planes played a decisive role, by discovering weak points in the German lines and allowing the Allies to take advantage of them.[13] The mobility and destructive power of the numerous French 75 batteries engaged in the Battle of the Marne played a key role in slowing down and then halting German progress everywhere.

A famous episode of the First Battle of the Marne was the commandeering of c. 600 Parisian taxicabs, mainly Renault AGs, by French authorities in order to transport 6,000 French reserve infantry troops to the battle. Their arrival has traditionally been described as critical in stopping a possible German breakthrough against the Sixth Army. Today, some historians question their real impact. Their impact on morale, however, is undeniable: the taxis de la Marne were perceived as a manifestation of the union sacrée of the French civilian population and its soldiers at the front, reminiscent of the people in arms who had saved the French Republic in 1794.


Over two million men fought in the First Battle of the Marne and c. 500,000 were killed or wounded. French casualties totalled 250,000 men, 80,000 killed. Charles Péguy was killed while leading his platoon's attack at the beginning of the battle. British casualties were 13,000 men, 1,700 killed. The Germans suffered 250,000 casualties. No future battle on the Western Front would average so many casualties per day.[14] In 2009, Herwig wrote that the French Official History, Les armées françaises dans la grande guerre, gave 213,445 French casualties in September and assumed that c. 40% occurred during the battle of the Marne. Using the German Sanitätsberichte, Herwig recorded that from 1–10 September, the 1st Army had 13,254 casualties, the 2nd Army had 10,607 casualties, the 3rd Army had 14,987 casualties, the 4th Army had 9,433 casualties, the 5th Army had 19,434 casualties, the 6th Army had 21,200 casualties and the 7th Army had 10,164 casualties. Herwig estimated that the five German armies from Verdun to Paris had 67,700 casualties during the battle, compared to 1,701 British casualties.[15]

Subsequent operations[edit]

First Battle of the Aisne, 13–28 September[edit]

Opposing positions: 5 September (dashed line) 13 September (black line)

On 10 September Joffre ordered the French armies and the BEF to advance and exploit the victory of the Marne and for four days the armies on the left flank advanced and gathered up German stragglers, wounded and equipment, opposed only by rearguards. On 11 and 12 September Joffre ordered outflanking manoeuvres by the armies on the left flank but the advance was too slow to catch the Germans, who ended their withdrawal on 14 September on high ground on the north bank of the Aisne and began to dig in, which reduced the French advance from 15–16 September to a few local gains. French troops had begun to move westwards on 2 September, using the undamaged railways behind the French front, which were able to move a corps to the left flank in 5–6 days. On 17 September the French Sixth Army attacked from Soissons to Noyon, at the westernmost point of the French flank, with the XIII and IV corps, supported by the 61st and 62nd divisions of the 6th Group of Reserve Divisions, after which the fighting moved north to Lassigny and the French dug in around Nampcel.[16]

The French Second Army completed a move from the eastern flank of the French line and took over command of the left-hand corps of the Sixth Army, as indications appeared that German troops were also being moved from the eastern flank.[17] The German IX Reserve Corps had arrived from Belgium by 15 September and next day joined the 1st Army for an attack to the south-west with the IV Corps and the 4th and 7th Cavalry divisions, against the attempted French envelopment. The attack was cancelled and the corps was ordered to withdraw behind the right flank of the 1st Army. The 2nd and 9th Cavalry divisions were dispatched as reinforcements next day but before the retirement began, the French attack reached Carlepont and Noyon, before being contained on 18 September. The German armies attacked from Verdun westwards to Reims and the Aisne on 20 September, cut the main railway from Verdun to Paris and created the St Mihiel salient, south of the Verdun fortress zone. The main German effort remained on the western flank, which was revealed to the French by intercepted wireless messages.[18] By 28 September the Aisne front had stabilised and the BEF began to withdraw on the night of 1/2 October, with the first troops arriving in the Abbeville area on 8/9 October. The BEF prepared to commence operations in Flanders and join with the British forces which had been in Belgium since August.[19]

Race to the Sea[edit]

Main article: Race to the Sea
German and Allied moves to Picardy and Flanders, September–November 1914

From 17 September–17 October the belligerents made reciprocal attempts to turn the northern flank of their opponent. Joffre ordered the French Second Army to move to the north of the French Sixth Army, by moving from eastern France from 2–9 September and Falkenhayn ordered the German 6th Army to move from the German-French border to the northern flank on 17 September. By the next day French attacks north of the Aisne led to Falkenhayn ordering the 6th Army to repulse French forces to secure the flank.[20] When French advanced it met a German attack rather than an open flank on 24 September and by 29 September the Second Army had been reinforced to eight corps but was still opposed by German forces near Lille, rather than advancing around the German northern flank. The German 6th Army had also found that on arrival in the north, it was forced to oppose the French attack rather than advance around the flank and that the secondary objective of protecting the northern flank of the German armies in France had become the main task. By 6 October the French needed British reinforcements to withstand German attacks around Lille. The BEF had begun to move from the Aisne to Flanders on 5 October and reinforcements from England assembled on the left flank of the Tenth Army, which had been formed from the left flank units of the Second Army on 4 October.[21]

The Allies and the Germans attempted to take more ground after the "open" northern flank had disappeared, the Franco-British attacks towards Lille in October being followed up by attempts to advance between the BEF and the Belgian army by a new French Eighth Army. The moves of the 7th and then the 6th Army from Alsace and Lorraine had been intended to secure German lines of communication through Belgium, where the Belgian army had sortied several times during the period between the Franco-British retreat and the Battle of the Marne. In August British marines had landed at Dunkirk.[22] In October a new 4th Army was assembled from the III Reserve Corps and the siege artillery used against Antwerp and four of the new reserve corps training in Germany. A German offensive began by 21 October but the Fourth and Sixth armies were only able to take small amounts of ground, at great cost to both sides at the Battle of the Yser (16–31 October) and further south at Ypres. Falkenhayn then attempted to achieve a limited goal of capturing Ypres and Mount Kemmel, in the First Battle of Ypres (19 October–22 November).[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ History (TV channel) [1]
  2. ^ Skinner & Stacke 1922, p. 7.
  3. ^ a b Skinner & Stacke 1922, pp. 7–8.
  4. ^ Skinner & Stacke 1922, pp. 8–9.
  5. ^ Tyng 1935, p. 128.
  6. ^ Tyng 1935, p. 154.
  7. ^ Skinner & Stacke 1922, p. 9.
  8. ^ Tyng 1935, pp. 173, 210.
  9. ^ Spears 1930, pp. 554–555.
  10. ^ Mead 1983, pp. 55–56.
  11. ^ Tyng 1935, pp. 239–240.
  12. ^ Herwig 2009, pp. 266–306.
  13. ^ Mead 1983, pp. 56–58.
  14. ^ The First World War: Part 2: Under the Eagle (1914)
  15. ^ Herwig 2009, pp. 315–316.
  16. ^ Edmonds 1926, p. 388.
  17. ^ Doughty 2005, pp. 97–99.
  18. ^ Edmonds 1926, pp. 400–401.
  19. ^ Edmonds 1926, pp. 407–408.
  20. ^ Foley 2005, p. 101.
  21. ^ Doughty 2005, pp. 98–100.
  22. ^ Strachan 2001, pp. 269–270.
  23. ^ Doughty 2005, pp. 103–104.


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]