From First Shots to Stalemate

4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, 22nd August, 1914

In France, the Commander in Chief of the French army, General Joseph Joffre, had adopted Plan XVII, which revolved around the recapture of the territories of Alsace and Lorraine. The bulk of the French army would, therefore, be stationed in that region, leaving only a small force in the north. Joffre erroneously believed that Germany would not risk British involvement by invading Belgium, and also that many German troops would be required from the outset on the Eastern Front, leaving Germany’s border with France relatively undefended. The French also believed that the German troops would be terrified into submission by the threat of ‘cold steel’, intending, therefore, to rely on the infantry, armed with bayonets. Germany had other ideas and fought with heavy artillery and machine guns. Within weeks, the French army were defeated and in retreat; civilians fled from the advancing Germans and Joffre anticipated that the enemy would be in Paris within twelve days.

By now, the BEF were also participating at Mons, further north. Initially, the battle seemed to go well, as British troops held off the German onslaught. However, in the knowledge that the BEF were seriously outnumbered and, hearing that the French were pulling back further south, the order was given to retreat. A long, exhausting march ensued, as the BEF and the French army both headed west towards the River Marne. The German army followed behind, but soon began to outstretch their supply lines and, rather than encircling Paris, wheeled round to the east of the capital. This enabled the Allied troops to launch an attack on the German flank, which commenced on 5th September. Within four days, it was clear that the German armies were facing defeat and they were ordered to pull back to the north of the River Aisne.

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With the Schlieffen Plan in ruins, the German army began to dig defensive trenches, in order to hold the ground which had been gained. The First Battle of the Aisne followed, with little success for the advancing Allies, who soon received the order to entrench themselves. Initially, it was only intended that these trenches should provide the troops with cover against enemy fire, as they began the ‘Race to the Sea’, with both sides attempting to outflank the other and be the first to reach the coast. As each army progressed further north, they constructed more and more trenches.

Over the coming weeks, many battles and skirmishes followed, culminating in the First Battle of Ypres, which was initially held by the British forces. The Germans launched their attack on 14th October. Despite several attempts, this would prove unsuccessful. French troops arrived to reinforce the British and the Germans were repulsed. The cost of this battle was immense as more than half of the troops in the BEF became casualties, with German losses amounting to over 100,000 men. In addition, this battle really saw the end of any pretence at a mobile war, as both sides dug in, and stalemate ensued.