Fight to Change All Fights

Battle of the Marne Reset the Great War

Posted January 25, 2010 at 2:26pm

The Battle of the Marne changed everything. In “The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World,— Holger Herwig, a history professor at the University of Calgary, reveals the historical importance of “the most significant land battle of the twentieth century.—

The Marne is a river that runs east and southeast of Paris. In September 1914, just at the war’s infancy, it was the setting of a pivotal battle between the French and the Germans. The Allied forces succeeded in reversing the Germany offensive that had opened the war and reached the outskirts of Paris. The battle carnage was stunning, with some estimating more than 200,000 casualties on either side. It was the opening salvo to an industrialized conflict, which “destroyed once and for all romantic notions of war.—

But Herwig’s opus is not primarily focused on the hell of the battlefield; rather, the author gives greater attention to the effects of strategy.

Herwig’s attachment to WWI is personal: his grandfather died in the war. The war is also his professional life’s work. Herwig is author of more than a dozen books, including “The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918— as well as “The Origins of World War I.—

With extensive sourcing from military archives and personal accounts, Herwig’s account is fresh and should be consulted by anyone with an interest in WWI.

He begins with the obligatory tracing of the war’s origins. The June 28, 1914, assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist provided the trigger. The great powers of the day were drawn into the conflict along the lines of alliance: the Allies, including Britain and France, against the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Herwig, in turn, provides a succinct overview of the calculus by each major power for entering the conflict.

Less familiar are the events that directly preceded the war’s bloodletting. Herwig traces the effects of initial mobilization and deployment on the entire course of the conflict. In between the war’s declaration and the battle itself was the arduous task of forming battle-ready armies.

Germany had its Schlieffen Plan, a deployment strategy named after Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German general staff from 1891 to 1905. The plan relied on a series of tenuous assumptions, namely that Russia would be slow to mobilize and that speed of advance against France — through neutral Belgium no less — would ensure swift victory.

“It was an all-or-nothing throw of the dice, a high-risk operation born of hubris and bordering on recklessness,— Herwig says. “It disregarded Carl von Clausewitz’s concepts of interaction, friction, escalation, reassessment, the ‘genius of war,’ and the ‘fog of uncertainty.’—

On the other hand, Herwig uses a different critique to describe the French plan: “Avoid making decisions.— In 1914, two things stood out in the French strategy: to push its allies to fight and to assure St. Petersburg’s support in the event of war.

Because Herwig employs extensive detail to explain the underlying strategies of both sides, it is easy to follow their disastrous results. More than anything, Marne is a story of flawed assumptions and poor adjustments.

If there is a flaw to the book, it is the weighty amount of military detail and jargon used to describe the war’s start and subsequent execution. The book requires more than a casual attention to follow and would prove rewarding to military connoisseurs. The inclusion of territorial maps helps offset the difficulty of following the battle’s execution.

Herwig also shows the personal side of war by painstakingly chronicling the blunders and personal foibles of generals on either side. France had Joseph Joffre, chief of the general staff who proved to be a “master of details— but also a “bureaucratic micromanager.— On the other hand, German forces were led by Helmuth von Moltke, a man “without the sharp Napoleonic eye for the main prize (coup d’oeil) or the necessary ambition and drive.—

Herwig does provide examples of the human toll even as the war was in its beginning stages. For example, Herwig quotes a despondent French soldier: “I led a life as different as possible from my ordinary existence: a life at once barbarous, violent, often colorful, also often a dreary monotony combined with bits of comedy and grim tragedy. … Our clothing was completely soaked for days on end. Our feet were chilled. The sticky clay clung to our shoes, our clothing, our underwear, our skin; it spoiled our food, threatened to plug the barrels of our rifles and jam their breeches.—

The lessons Herwig provides from his exhaustive study are possibly the most beneficial part of the book: mainly, that war is uncertain by its nature. At the end of the day, even with France’s loss of 213,000 men in September 1914, and Germany’s 99,000 casualties Sept. 1-10, Marne proved to be tactically indecisive. Germany failed to achieve victory at the outset and thereafter faced a two-front war. Herwig aptly quotes French Gen. Joseph Joffre: “I don’t know who won the Battle of the Marne, but if it had been lost, I know who would have lost it.—

The envisioned plan of a short war proved untenable and the Great War would span another four years, not to conclude until 1919. In all, some 10 million men would die.

To Herwig, our “would haves— and “should haves— have drastic results in war. In the case of Marne, if battle tactics were different, “perhaps the world would have been spared the greater catastrophe that was to follow in 1939-45.—