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The beginning of World War One was marked the breakdown of the western powers’ war plans.  Leaders on both sides experienced surprises, shocks, and the failure of plans.  The first few months saw shocking violence on a scale never experienced before, at least not in Western Europe.  During the first few months of the war, an average of 15,000 lives were lost each day. (five times as much as the worst day in the Civil War). This happened at the Battle of the Marne, fought from September 6 to 12 in 1914. The Allies won a victory against the German armies in the West and ended their plans of crushing the French armies with an attack from the north through Belgium. Both sides dug in their trenches for the long war ahead.

The beginning of the war was marked the breakdown of the western powers’ war plans. Leaders on both sides experienced surprises, shocks, and the failure of plans. The first few months saw shocking violence on a scale never experienced before, at least not in Western Europe. In Dan Carlin’s words, there were many “haymakers” thrown, and both sides “hit the floor and got back up again.

  1. German and French War Plans
    1. The Schlieffen Plan
      1. Developed long before the war by General Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff from 1891-1906.
      2. Germany feared Russia and wanted to neutralize the Russian threat, but didn’t want to risk a two-front war. The Schlieffen Plan was designed to eliminate the threat of a two front war.
      3. The first part of the plan would involve a giant army marching quickly through Holland and Belgium (violating their neutrality) and into France. He chose to march through Belgium because the southern border between Germany and France (Alsace & Lorraine) was too well fortified.
      4. Once the army entered France, it would swing around, envelop Paris, and capture the city along with all French forces in the north. He wrote “When you march into France, let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.” The whole operation should take six weeks.
      5. Once France was defeated, Germany could turn and face Russia, which von Schlieffen assumed would take much longer to mobilize than either Germany or France. By the time Russia had mobilized, France would be defeated.
      6. After von Schlieffen’s death, his successor von Moltke modified the plan, dropping the march through Holland and allocating more forces to the southern border with France.
      7. The plan was extremely risky and perhaps unrealistic. Because Schlieffen died in 1913, it has been said that “A dead man had his finger on the trigger.”
    1. France’s “Plan 17”
      1. This called for an all-out attack into Germany to regain Alsace and Lorraine.
      2. The plan underestimated German reserves in the area.
      3. French soldiers marched into battle with bright blue and red uniforms, with officers mounted on horseback, waving sabers.
      4. When the plan was launched, the Germans gradually retreated, drawing the French army further away from French forces in the north (which were being attacked as a part of the Schlieffen Plan).
      5. After retreating four miles, the Germans stood their ground, giving the French heavy resistance. German gunners on hill tops mowed down the French, who were advancing along open fields much of the time. On August 22 alone, France suffered 27,000 soldiers killed. This is the greatest number of war deaths suffered by a single nation on a single day in the entire war.
      6. By the end of August, France had lost 75,000 killed, plus 200,000 others wounded, missing, and captured. They had to retreat back into France.
  1. The “Rape of Belgium” (August 4, 1914)
    1. Germany had warned Belgium to not resist their advance. The Belgian army was expected to just stand aside while the Germans marched through. They refused.
    2. Belgians destroyed bridges and railroads, obstructed roads, and deployed snipers in towns and other locations who picked off many German soldiers. This slowed the German advance.
    3. The Germans crossed the Belgian border on August 4, moving at 30 kilometers per day.
    4. The Germans committed many atrocities against Belgian civilians. In all, they killed about 6000 civilians. They burned the library of Louvan, along with much of the city. They drove 10,000 civilians from the city. They also shelled the cathedral of Rheims.
    5. The Allies played up German atrocities, exaggerating them and even inventing some. This in turn led to future skepticism about atrocities, which even affected WW2.
    6. The Belgian army holed up in a series of forts near Liege. Despite the fact that these forts used solid steel and reinforced concreate, German artillery reduced them to rubble. The biggest German guns fired a three foot long shell that weighed 1800 pounds. The guns had to be fired electrically from 300 years away, and their crews had to protect their eyes and ears.
    7. In Liege, a young officer named Erich Ludendorff marched up to the main door of the citadel of Liege, banged on the door with the hilt of its sword, and demanded the city’s surrender. It did.
  1. The Battle of the Frontiers (August 7 – September 4, 1914)
    1. A total of 6 million men were rushed into the initial conflict
    2. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) mobilized quickly and reached Mons. There they turned away a German attack on August 23. They soon realized they were overextended. The British commander Sir John French considered evacuating the BEF, but his boss Lord Kitchener ordered him to stay.
    3. The BEF and the French army both quickly retreated, trying to find a better location to make a stand. They retreated 200 miles and then deployed behind the Marne River. This became known as the “Great Retreat” (August 24 – September 5)
    4. As the German army crossed into France, the government fled to Bordeaux, although the army planned to defend Paris. They mined the bridges of Paris in case the Germans reached it.
    5. The German offensive was slowed by a variety of factors: stubborn rear guard actions on the part of the British and French, British and French cavalry blinding German cavalry reconnaissance, and poor air reconnaissance on the part of German pilots. Also, the further the Germans advanced from their railheads, the harder it became to supply their army.
    6. Casualties: Britain – 30,000 (? dead). France – 330,000 (75,000 dead). Germany – 260,000 (dead). Total: (dead).
  1. Changes to the Armies and the Plan
    1. In August, von Moltke sent two army corps to be sent to the eastern front to aid against the Russians. They turned out to not be needed (although they WERE needed in the West).
    2. In the first few days of September, Von Moltke changed the order of battle for the German attack. He ordered that Paris would now be bypassed and the sweep intended to encircle the city would now seek to entrap the French forces between Paris and Verdun.
    3. Joffre fired many of his generals, replacing them with better ones. He also reorganized his army, showing complete calmness all along.
  1. The Battle of the Marne (September 5 – September 10, 1914) (NEED MORE)
    1. By September 5, the German army had been marching and/or fighting for 33 straight days. They were exhausted.
    2. Meanwhile, a gap opened between the two German armies on the German right (closest to the sea). This forced the German armies to move closer together.
    3. This movement, in turn, meant that the German armies did not encircle Paris but instead began their inward turn further east, leaving their flank exposed to Paris.
    4. Joffre met with French, trying to convince him to join the French in a counterattack. The meeting ended with Joffre banging his hand dramatically on a table while shouting “Monsieur le Marechal, the honour of England is at stake!” French agreed to join the attack.
    5. At the Marne, the BEF advanced into the gap created by the Germans. At one point, the gap was 32 kilometers wide.
    6. The French army also attacked the Germans.
    7. The French army was aided by a fleet of 600 (400-1200?) taxis that shuttled troops from Paris to the battlefield on Sept. 6. (The government eventually paid 70,000 Francs to the drivers).
    8. German forces fell back to the Aisne River, crossed it, and began to dig in. The Schlieffen Plan had failed. Von Moltke suffered a nervous breakdown. He sent a message to the Kaiser saying “Your Majesty, we have lost the war.”
    9. The Kaiser replaced von Moltke with Erich von Falkenheim.
    10. Casualties: Britian – 13,000 (1700 dead). France – 250,000 (80,000 dead). Germany – 250,000 (67,000 dead). Total: 513,000 (148,700 dead).
  1. The “Race to the Sea” and Subsequent Actions.
    1. Both sides attempted to turn the northern flank of the other side, with the result that both sides’ flanks reached the English Channel and the North Sea.
    2. After an unsuccessful British attack at the Aisne River, both sides began to dig in. The age of trench warfare had begun.
    3. The Germans laid siege to Antwerp, which surrendered on October 10.
    4. On October 18, the first battle of Ypres broke out when the Germans attacked. The British fought them off, using quick rifle fire and superior machine guns. The battle lasted until November 22. (130,000 – 170,00 Allied casualties; 130,000 German ones)
    5. The Belgians opened the canal locks in the area, flooding the countryside and forcing the Germans to halt their advance.
    6. The French attacked the Germans in the Champagne region, but they made no gains. A few more minor battles occurred up and down the line, but for the most part, the two sides settled into their trenches for the foreseeable future. The Germans sent more soldiers to the eastern front.
    7. During the first few months of the war, an average of 15,000 lives were lost each day.

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