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World War I: Opening Campaigns

1914

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World War I: Opening Campaigns

French cavalry marching through Paris, 1914

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Previous: A Preventable War | World War I: 101 | Next: 1915 - A Stalemate Ensues

The Schlieffen Plan

With the outbreak of World War I, the armies of Europe began mobilizing and moving towards the front according to elaborate timetables. In Germany, the army prepared to execute a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan. Devised by Count Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905, the plan was a response to Germany's likely need to fight a two-front war against France and Russia. In the wake of their easy victory over the French in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, Germany viewed France as less of a threat than its large neighbor to the east. As a result, Schlieffen decided to mass the bulk of Germany's military strength against France with the goal of scoring a quick victory before the Russians could fully mobilize their forces. With France defeated, Germany would be free to focus their attention to the east (Map).

Anticipating that France would attack across the border into Alsace and Lorraine, which had been lost during the earlier conflict, the Germans intended to violate the neutrality of Luxembourg and Belgium to assault the French from the north in a massive battle of encirclement. German troops were to defend along the border while the right wing of the army swung through Belgium and past Paris in an effort to destroy the French army. In 1906, the plan was altered slightly by Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, who weakened the critical right wing to reinforce Alsace, Lorraine, and the Eastern Front.

The Rape of Belgium

After quickly occupying Luxembourg, German troops crossed into Belgium on August 4 after King Albert I's government refused to grant them free passage through the country. Possessing a small army, the Belgians relied on the fortresses of Liege and Namur to halt the Germans. Heavily fortified, the Germans met stiff resistance at Liege and were forced to bring up heavy siege guns to reduce its defenses. Surrendering on August 16, the fighting delayed the Schlieffen Plan's precise timetable and allowed the British and French to begin forming defenses to oppose the German advance (Map).

While the Germans moved on to reduce Namur (August 20-23), Albert's small army retreated into the defenses at Antwerp. Occupying the country, the Germans, paranoid about guerilla warfare, executed thousands of innocent Belgians as well as burned several towns and cultural treasures such as the library at Louvain. Dubbed the "rape of Belgium," these actions were needless and served to blacken Germany's and Kaiser Wilhelm II's reputation abroad.

The Battle of the Frontiers

While the Germans were moving into Belgium, the French began to execute Plan XVII which, as their adversaries predicted, called for a massive thrust into the lost territories of Alsace and Lorraine. Guided by General Joseph Joffre, the French army pushed the VII Corps into Alsace on August 7 with orders to take Mulhouse and Colmar, while the main attack came in Lorraine a week later. Slowly falling back, the Germans inflicted heavy casualties on the French before halting the drive. Having held, Crown Prince Rupprecht, commanding the Sixth and Seventh German Armies, repeatedly petitioned for permission to go on the counter-offensive. This was granted on August 20, even though it contravened the Schlieffen Plan. Attacking, Rupprecht drove back the French Second Army, forcing the entire French line to fall back to the Moselle before being stopped on August 27 (Map).

Battles of Charleroi & Mons

As events were unfolding to the south, General Charles Lanrezac, commanding the Fifth Army on the French left flank became concerned about German progress in Belgium. Allowed by Joffre to shift forces north on August 15, Lanrezac formed a line behind the Sambre River. By the 20th, his line extended from Namur west to Charleroi with a cavalry corps linking his men to Field Marshal Sir John French's newly arrived, 70,000-man British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Though outnumbered, Lanrezac was ordered to attack across the Sambre by Joffre. Before he could do this, General Karl von Bülow's Second Army launched an assault across the river on August 21. Lasting three days, the Battle of Charleroi saw Lanrezac's men driven back. To his right, French forces attacked into the Ardennes but were defeated on August 21-23.

As the French were being driven back, the British established a strong position along the Mons-Condé Canal. Unlike the other armies in the conflict, the BEF consisted entirely of professional soldiers who had plied their trade in colonial wars around the empire. On August 22, cavalry patrols detected the advance of General Alexander von Kluck's First Army. Required to keep pace with the Second Army, Kluck attacked the British position on August 23. Fighting from prepared positions and delivering rapid, accurate rifle fire, the British inflicted heavy losses on the Germans. Holding until evening, French was forced to pull back when the French cavalry departed leaving his right flank vulnerable. Though a defeat, the British bought time for the French and Belgians to form a new defensive line (Map).

Previous: A Preventable War | World War I: 101 | Next: 1915 - A Stalemate Ensues

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