September 1914: end of the Shlieffen Plan and Beginning of Stalemate

It is the centenary of the First World War.  From now until 2019 (and even 2020 in some places), there will be commemorations of the First World War and re-evaluations of the reasons for it and its consequences.

The Battle of Marne took place in September 1914, and it was critical for the shape that the war on the western front took.  After executing the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans began their march through Luxembourg and Belgium, on their way to France.  The plan was to take Paris and force the collapse of France so that they could then concentrate on defeating Russia, which they felt would be much more difficult due the massive size of its army.  By the Battle of the Marne, the Germans already had a victory over the Russians and had taken nearly 100,000 Russian prisoners of war in the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes.  These victories had been much easier than anticipated; victory over France proved much more elusive.

Although the Battles in Belgium were successful and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was severely depleted, the Germans were slowed.  As they approached France through Belgium, they found that the French still had the bulk of their forces on the frontier with Germany, wrongly anticipating that the main thrust of a German offensive would occur there.  It was to their surprise that the German offensive from Belgium was the main attack and the Allied forces were initially overwhelmed, and the Germans felt that their plan was working and that they would soon be closing in on Paris.

However, the French recovered and dispatched as many forces as they could, some in taxis, which managed to hold the Germans and prevent further advance.  Although this was successful, it did not lead to a retreat.  Instead, the Germans remained in place, 40 kilometers from Paris, by digging trenches .  The German defensive position that began at Marne (and the Aisne River) extended from the English Channel to the frontier with Switzerland, and an elaborate network of trenches was built by either side.

From this point forward, the Western Front was a stalemate in which there would be little movement until the very end of the war.  Instead, both sides pursued a war of attrition in which both sides sought victory through attempting to wear out and outlast the enemy and bring about peace negotiations.

It was also at this point that the Germans announced the September Program – a statement of their war aims.  These were designed to weaken France and deter it from future wars with Germany. The program included:

  • Cession of French territories and forts to Germany;
  • French payment of indemnities to Germany;
  • Establishing Belgium as part of the German sphere; and
  • Annexation of Luxembourg.

The Allies saw these as overtly aggressive and it confirmed British and French fears that Germany was expansionistic.  Their war aims were designed to limit German expansion.  France simply sought a return of Alsace-Lorraine but the British wanted the elimination of the German navy and an end to its colonial empire.  With such sweeping and potentially punitive terms, neither side was interested in negotiation, and this further confirmed that the war was going to be long lived.

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