Aug/Sep-1914 - War Erupts in the West

German painting depicting hand to hand combat during the Battle of the Frontiers

Contributed by Wendell Vest (


2-Aug-1914: Germany invades Luxembourg
4-Aug-1914: Germany invades Belgium

On 1-Aug-1914, the Great Powers of Europe were at war. Mobilization notices were posted in Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Serbia, the target of Austria-Hungary's wrath, also mobilized. Belgium, threatened by the German juggernaught, mobilized on 1-Aug as well. Great Britain and the British Empire would declare war on Germany and Austria- Hungary when the German forces invaded Belgium in violation of a treaty signed by Prussia to respect Belgian neutrality. Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on 4-Aug.

Mobilization meant war. Each nation's war plans were supported by its mobilization. France mobilized 1,781,000 men and transported them to its northeast frontier. They were organized into five armies arrayed from the Swiss border to the Belgian frontier. Germany brought 1,500,000 men to the French and Belgian frontier, and another 200,000 to East Prussia to defend against the Russians. In the west, they were organized into seven armies, and in the east one army. All of these forces were in place between 5-Aug and 15-Aug-1914.

Austria-Hungary and Russia were much slower in reaching full mobilization. The Dual Monarchy declared war on Serbia on 28-Jul-1914 but was unable to mobilize sufficiently to cross the Danube to attack Belgrade until the 15-Aug. The Russians, on the other hand, did not wait for the full mobilization of their vast army, but began to advance into East Prussia on 18-Aug with two armies, each with 300,000 men.

The British, because they didn't declare war until 4-Aug, were behind schedule in their mobilization. They had considerably fewer forces to mobilize, but had to transport those forces first to France and then to the French frontier. The British Expeditionary Force, or BEF, consisted of two army corps and a cavalry division, numbering 150,000 men and would assemble at the French frontier on the left of the French armies. They would reach this position and be ready to fight on 21-Aug.

On 2-Aug-1914 the German First and Second armies occupied Luxembourg and crossed the Belgian frontier. Though the Germans had demanded that the Belgians allow them passage through their country, the Belgians under King Albert chose to fight against great odds. The Belgian Army, on mobilization consisted of 200, 000 men. In addition to the field army, the Belgians manned a system of forts which controlled the crossing over the Meuse River at Liege and Namur. The Belgians put up a spirited defense, and for a day or so confused the Germans and denied them the Meuse crossings. The Germans brought up very heavy siege artillery and were able to demolish the Belgian forts. Nonetheless, the delay caused by the Belgian resistance altered the timetable for the right wing advance with consequences later in the battle. The Germans were unable to achieve safe passage over the river at this major crossing until 14-Aug. The First Army on the right and the Second Army in echelon behind it began the great envelopment through Belgium at that time.

Opening Battles in the West

The French plan called for a vigorous offensive into Lorraine and Alsace to recover the lost provinces for France. The French First army attacked to seize Mulhouse in Alsace and the Second Army to seize Metz in Lorraine. These attacks were a severe test of the French tactical system, a system which relied upon the offence a outrance, that is, the infantry assault would win the battle and the army with the most elan and vigor would carry the day with the bayonet charge! Unfortunately, high explosive and shrapnel shell, and the machine gun, made this a costly way of war in spite of the bravura of the French. These attacks, while initially successful, were driven back to the French frontier by 20-Aug, with heavy casualties.

The first encounters with modern war, while shocking, did not deter the French Commander in Chief, General Joffre, from ordering the massive offensive by the three northern French Armies to begin on 23-Aug. This offensive, in a northeast direction into Lorraine and the Ardennes, commenced in spite of ominous intelligence that there was a massive German army marching westward, north of the Meuse River.This offensive smashed into the German Armies advancing east of the Meuse, and were driven back, toward the French fortified line between Verdun, Toul and Belfort.

22-Aug-1914: Battle of Charleroi
22-Aug-1914: Battle of Namur
23-Aug-1914: Battle of Mons
25-Aug-1914: Battle of Le Cateau

The Fifth French Army and the British Expeditionary Force met the massive German force moving north of the Meuse on 22-Aug, and after a series of sharp encounters( Battles of Mons, Le Cateau, Charleroi and Namur) were forced to retreat to keep from being enveloped and destroyed. The French Fourth and Third Armies were also forced to fall back by the attacks of the German Second and Third Armies east of the Meuse.

The French and British, on the left, were able to break contact, and through a series of forced marches, safely crossed the Marne River west of Paris. Joffre, in the meantime, had formed another French Army, the Sixth, using forces garrisoning Paris and moving forces from the French armies to the south, notably the Army of Alsace. The Sixth Army was positioned in Paris.

The two German armies on the right of the German wheel into France lost contact with the left wing of the French and British forces. In order to maintain contact between the First and Second Armies, the First army advanced to the southeast and passed to the north of Paris rather than envelope the city as originally planned. This exposed the German flank to the French forces in Paris. Moreover, the Germans, having been on the march for over 20 days with some heavy fighting during those days, were beginning to lose some of their vigor. A counterattack by the French at Guise against the German Second Army had made its commander cautious, and slowed the headlong pursuit of his army. This caused some gaps between the German forces and friction between the commanders.

First Battle of the Marne

Between 5-Sep and 9-Sep-1914, a series of battles were fought in the area between Paris and Verdun in northeastern France that were collectively known as the Battle of The Marne. The battle began when the French Sixth army in the fortified zone of Paris sortied and struck the flank of the advancing German First Army on the Ourcq River. (This move made its mark in the record books because General Manoury, the French Sixth Army commander, commandeered Paris taxicabs to speed some of his troops to the front.) The German First army commander directed two of his advancing corps to move to the west to meet this attack. This movement created a gap between the First and Second German Armies north of the Marne. At the same time Joffre, The French Commander in Chief directed the French Fifth Army, to turn about from their retreat south and attack north across the Marne. This attack was coordinated with the attack of the newly formed French Ninth Army to the east, and the British Expeditionary Force to the west. At the same time the French force to the west put up a vigorous defense against the German Second and Third Armies on the Meuse river and around the fortress of Verdun. Fierce fighting took place between The French Ninth Army, commanded by General Foch, and the German Second Army in the Marshes of St. Gond. In it, Foch evoked the spirit of the French tactical doctrine, Offense a la outrance, when he told Grand Quartier General Joffre's headquarters; "My right has been pushed back, my left is retreating and my center is caving in, I am attacking!" The French held and the Germans were confused by such fierce resistance from a "beaten" army. As the French Fifth Army and the BEF attacked north, they penetrated the gap between the German First and Second Army. Suddenly the First Army, fighting the French Sixth on the Ourcq River was threatened from the rear and in danger of being cut off.

The German Great Headquarters which had moved forward into Luxembourg feared that they had lost control of the battle. General von Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff sent an officer of the operations section to visit Second and First Army headquarters and evaluate the situation. Lt.Col Hentsch visited the general staff officers in these Army headquarters. From their information, Hentsch determined that the flank of the First Army was endangered and that it was no longer possible to achieve its objective of rolling up the French armies on the Marne. Hentsch recommended that the First and Second Armies withdraw to the Aisne River and establish a defensive line there. The German First and Second Armies withdrew to the Aisne River and there went on the defensive. This action, along with the change from the offense to the defense of all German forces ,ended the Battle of the Marne and the German aim of a quick victory in the West.

© 1996 Wendell Vest - All rights reserved