First Battle of the Marne begins - HISTORY
Year
1914

First Battle of the Marne begins

On September 6, 1914, some 30 miles northeast of Paris, the French 6th Army under the command of General Michel-Joseph Manoury attacks the right flank of the German 1st Army, beginning the decisive First Battle of the Marne at the end of the first month of World War I.

After invading neutral Belgium and advancing into northeastern France by the end of August 1914, German forces were nearing Paris, spurred on by punishing victories that forced five French armies into retreat after the Battles of the Frontiers at Lorraine, Ardennes, Charleroi and Mons. In anticipation of the German attack, the anxious French government appointed the 65-year-old General Joseph-Simon Gallieni as the military governor of Paris. Gallieni, predicting that the Germans would reach Paris by September 5, did not wish to sit idly back and wait for invasion. In the first days of September, he managed to convince the French commander in chief, Joseph Joffre, to spare him an army—Manoury’s 6th Army—from the front in order to aggressively defend the capital.

At the same time, General Alexander von Kluck, at the head of the German 1st Army, was disobeying orders from its own headquarters to double back and support General Karl von Bulow’s 2nd Army, thus protecting itself from possible attacks from the French on its right flank, from the direction of Paris. Not wanting to subordinate himself to Bulow’s command, Kluck ordered his forces to proceed in their pursuit of the retreating French 5th Army, under General Charles Lanrezac, across the Marne River, which they crossed on September 3. When Gallieni learned of Kluck’s move that morning, he knew the French 6th Army—the new army of Paris—had been given its opportunity to attack the German flank. Without hesitation, he began to coordinate the attack, urging Joffre to support it by resuming the general French offensive earlier than army headquarters had planned.

On September 4, Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the German general staff, learned that Kluck had disobeyed orders, and that his troops—exhausted and depleted of resources, having outrun their lines of supply over the course of their rapid advance—had crossed the Marne. Fearing the attack from Paris on the 1st Army’s exposed flank, Moltke ordered that the march of the 1st and 2nd Armies towards Paris be halted in order to face any threat from that direction. The order came too late, however, as Gallieni had already readied his army for an attack, and Joffre—with help from the British minister of war, Lord H. H. Kitchener—had obtained the promised support of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by Sir John French, for the French 5th and 6th Armies in their renewed offensive against German forces at the Marne.

On the morning of September 6, the 150,000 soldiers of Manoury’s 6th Army attacked the right flank of the German 1st Army, whose turn to meet the attack opened a 30-mile-gap between Kluck’s forces and Bulow’s 2nd Army. Acting quickly, the French 5th Army—under a new leader, General Louis Franchet d’Esperey, appointed by Joffre to replace Lanrezac—and divisions of the BEF poured into the gap and simultaneously attacked the German 2nd Army. Fierce fighting continued over the next several days, with Manoury’s exhausted army managing to hold its ground only after being reinforced on September 7 by a corps of 6,000 rushed from Paris in taxi cabs. After Franchet d’Esperey’s 5th Army launched a successful surprise attack on the German 2nd Army, Moltke ordered a general German retreat on September 9. Over the next few days, Allies slowly pushed the Germans back towards the Aisne River, where the 1st and 2nd Armies dug in, beginning the entrenchment of positions that would last well into 1918.

The Allied check of the German advance during the Battle of the Marne made the struggle one of the most decisive battles in history. Events at the Marne signaled the demise of Germany’s aggressive two-front war strategy, known as the Schlieffen Plan; they also marked the end of the general belief, held on both sides of the line, that the conflict that broke out in the summer of 1914 would be a short one. As the historian Barbara Tuchman wrote as a conclusion to her book The Guns of August (1962): “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. There was no looking back, Joffre told the soldiers on the eve. Afterward there was no turning back. The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.”

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Architect of apartheid assassinated

South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd is stabbed to death by a deranged messenger during a parliamentary meeting in Cape Town. The assailant, Demetrio Tsafendas, was a Mozambique immigrant of mixed racial descent–part Greek and part Swazi.As minister of native affairs and ...read more

First tank produced

On this day in 1915, a prototype tank nicknamed Little Willie rolls off the assembly line in England. Little Willie was far from an overnight success. It weighed 14 tons, got stuck in trenches and crawled over rough terrain at only two miles per hour. However, improvements were ...read more

Italian resistance fighters persevere

On this day in 1944, British intelligence receives word that, despite setbacks, Italian guerillas fighting the German occupiers of their country are continuing to widen their activity.Since the Italian surrender in the summer of 1943, German troops had occupied wider swaths of ...read more

Thieu abolishes popular elections

South Vietnamese President Thieu abolishes popular elections in the country’s 10,775 hamlets and supercedes a 1968 law establishing the election of hamlet and village officers. The 44 province chiefs, all appointed by Thieu, were ordered to reorganize local government and ...read more

Ho Chi Minh to be succeeded by committee

South Vietnam’s Communist Party newspaper Nhan Dan and Radio Hanoi announce that Ho Chi Minh is to be succeeded by a committee of leadership consisting of Le Duan, first secretary of the party; Truong Chin, member of the Politburo and chairman of the National Assembly; General Vo ...read more

Ripken breaks record for consecutive games played

On this day in 1995, Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. plays in his 2,131st consecutive game, breaking “Iron Horse” Lou Gehrig’s record for most consecutive games played. “The Iron Man” was credited with reviving interest in baseball after a 1994 work stoppage forced the ...read more

President William McKinley is shot

On this day in 1901, President William McKinley is shaking hands at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York, when a 28-year-old anarchist named Leon Czolgosz approaches him and fires two shots into his chest. The president rose slightly on his toes before collapsing ...read more

John C. Fremont reaches the Great Salt Lake

On this day in 1844, the western explorer John C. Fremont arrives at the shores of the Great Salt Lake, one of the many areas he will map for the lasting benefit of a westward-moving nation.When Fremont reached the strange saltwater inland lake (a remnant of the much larger ...read more

Train derails on way to New York

A new high-speed train traveling between New York City and Washington, D.C., derails, killing 79 people, on this day in 1943. An apparent defect in an older car attached to the train combined with the placement of a signal gantry resulted in the deadly accident.The Congressional ...read more

Volkswagen moves to Virginia

On this day in 2007, Volkswagen of America announces that it is moving its headquarters from Auburn Hills, Michigan to Herndon, Virginia. The company made the move, it said, to be closer to the East-Coasters who buy most of its cars. “You want to work in an environment where you ...read more