in Book Review

The Marne, 1914

The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World

The Great War, during its first few weeks, was a war of movement. As armies were mobilized, and war plans were implemented, the opposing sides waged a war which they believed would be over pretty soon. They were, of course, to be proved wrong. Nonetheless, they didn’t know then that the War will be a long conflict of attrition. And it was in these fateful days of August and September 1914 that the course of the War would be set.

Despite its title, The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World, by Holger Herwig, isn’t strictly just about the titular battle. In fact, much of it is about the so-called Battle of the Frontiers, when the German forces put into motion the now well-known Schlieffen Plan, wheeling through the Belgian plains as millions of men marched towards the expected invasion of France.

Both the Schlieffen Plan, and France’s less cohesive Plan XVII, are discussed and examined at the beginning. The Schlieffen Plan is an offensive plan meant to quickly and decisively defeat France, a method for avoiding a more gruesome two-front war against both France and Russia. Meanwhile, the Plan XVII is a defensive plan hinged on an assumption that the main German force would be concentrated in the Ardennes. Additionally, Plan XVII is meant to provide a method for retaking the Alsace-Lorraine region occupied by the Germans since the French defeat in 1871.

The following narrative of the opening weeks of the Great War then serves as a study and examination of how these two plans were implemented, how successful (or unsuccessful) they were, and whether the opening battles effected the bloody trench warfare that followed, and ultimately defined the Great War.

Moreover, the decisions taken by the respective commanders of the German and French forces – Moltke and Joffre – are checked against both the plans they were supposed to proceed with, and the realities on the battlefields. A sharp contrast between the two leaders’ conduct of the war will emerge throughout the book, making it clear why the Germans failed to win decisively, and why the French were able to prevent defeat, but fail to make a breakthrough.

The Marne, 1914 is an excellent book on the opening battles of the Great War, and indeed it’s the most recommended book for the subject. The focus on military operations can be daunting and dry, especially with all the details presented. Nonetheless, it is a readable and illuminating work on the Battles of the Frontiers and the Marne, and how pre-war plans are bound to be broken once the armies are mobilized and the actual war begins.