The Battle of the Marne: The German Offensive is Stopped

The French called the Battle of the Marne River, the “Miracle on the Marne” because it saved the French from a humiliating and total defeat. The hugely successful German advance brought some disadvantages to the short-term victor. As the Germans conquered more territory, they extended their supply lines further and further, making them more vulnerable to sabotage by the locals in France and Belgium. Plus they had ever more ground to defend with fewer troops. The French, on the other hand, reaped the benefits of fighting on their home territory where they could rely on knowledge of their home geography, communication lines, and transportation infrastructure. Furthermore, the French intercepted uncoded telegraph communications about German troop movements on the German right wing. After many defeats and retreats, General Joffre, the chief French commander, told his officers, “Gentlemen, we will fight on the Marne” (Tuchman 551). In truth, he had little choice.

The Battle of the Marne, fought mostly between September 5 and 12, was a turning point in the war. Fighting with desperation to defend their homeland, the French stopped the German offensive and then counter attacked on September 7. The Battle of the Marne ended in a German retreat, but the French and British did not follow up quickly enough to stop the Germans from digging in on the high ground. Over two million soldiers fought across hundreds of miles of terrain. In the end, there were over 500,000 casualties (Wikipedia). The two sides now settled into four years of continuous trench warfare and stalemate. The Germans still controlled much of northeast France. But there would be no bold victory or quick capture of Paris. The Germans would now be forced to slog out a protracted two-front war. The Schlieffen Plan almost worked. Prince Wilhelm of Germany was gloomy after the Battle of the Marne: “We have lost the war. It will go on for a long time but it is already lost” (Lewis 43).

As 1914 came to a close, the rapid and extensive movement of armies that marked the first month of the war settled into a static battle of the trenches. The German advance had been successful in almost everyway but had failed to find the decisive victory and had exhausted its troops. Still, the Germans possessed Belgium and much of northern France, including 90 percent of France’s iron mines and two thirds of its steel production (Meyer210). The toll of the first few months of the war was extremely costly for both sides. The original British Expeditionary Force, for example, lost 80% of its soldiers by the end of 1914 (Tuchman 522). As the conflict bogged down into trench warfare, the armies raced to outflank each other all the way to the sea, creating hundreds of miles of trenches across eastern France. Both sides now settled into a long, strained stalemate. On one unusual evening, some exhausted soldiers in the trenches disobeyed their commanding officers and took a pause from the war. On December 24, 1914, a spontaneous Christmas truce occurred in which German and British soldiers celebrated Christmas Eve together unarmed in “no man’s land” (the land in between the front line trenches), exchanging food, conversation, and cigarettes. Outraged generals on both sides made sure that it did not happen again.

Content by Vern Cleary    Design by Stephen Pinkerton