The Marne, 1914
The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World
(If any tax is payable it will be calculated and shown at checkout.)
Print & copy permissions
About the author
Holger H. Herwig holds a dual position at the University of Calgary as professor of history and as Canada Research Chair in the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies. He has published more than a dozen books, including the prize-winning The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918 and (with Richard F. Hamilton) The Origins of World War I.
From the Hardcover edition.
For the first time in a generation, here is a bold new account of the Battle of the Marne, a cataclysmic encounter that prevented a quick German victory in World War I and changed the course of two wars and the world. With exclusive information based on newly unearthed documents, Holger H. Herwig re-creates the dramatic battle and reinterprets Germany’s aggressive “Schlieffen Plan” as a carefully crafted design to avoid a protracted war against superior coalitions. He paints a fresh portrait of the run-up to the Marne and puts in dazzling relief the Battle of the Marne itself: the French resolve to win, and the crucial lack of coordination between Germany’s First and Second Armies. Herwig also provides stunning cameos of all the important players, from Germany’s Chief of General Staff Helmuth von Moltke to his rival, France’s Joseph Joffre. Revelatory and riveting, this is the source on this seminal event.
War: "Now or Never"
War is . . . an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.—carl von clausewitz
Since i have been at the foreign office," arthur nicolson noted at Whitehall in May 1914, "I have not seen such calm waters."1 Europe had, in fact, refused to tear itself to pieces over troubles in faraway lands: Morocco in 1905-06 and in 1911; Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908-09; Libya in 1911-12; and the Balkans in 1912-13. The Anglo- German naval arms race had subsided, as had the fears about the Berlin- to-Baghdad Railway, since Berlin had run out of money for such gargantuan enterprises. Russia had overcome its war with Japan (1904-05), albeit at a heavy price in terms of men and ships lost and domestic discontent. Few desolate strips of African or Asian lands remained to be contested, and Berlin and London were preparing to negotiate a "settlement" of the Portuguese colonies. France and Germany had not been at war for forty-three years and Britain and Russia for fifty-eight.
Partition of the Continent by 1907 into two nearly equal camps-the Triple Alliance of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy, and the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia-seemed to militate against metropolitan Europe being dragged into petty wars on its periphery. Kurt Riezler, foreign-policy adviser to German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, cagily argued that given this model of great-power balance, future wars "would no longer be fought but calculated."2 Guns would no longer fire, "but have a voice in the negotiations." In other words, no power would risk escalating minor conflicts into a continental war; instead, each would "bluff" the adversary up the escalatory ladder, stopping just short of war in favor of diplomatic settlement. Peace seemed assured.
Domestically, for most well-off and law-abiding Europeans, the period prior to 1914 was a golden age of prosperity and decency. The "red specter" of Socialism had lost much of its threat. Real wages had shot up almost 50 percent between 1890 and 1913. Trade unions had largely won the right to collective bargaining, if not to striking, and their leaders sat in parliaments. Many workers had embraced social imperialism, believing that overseas trade and naval building translated into high-paying jobs at home. Germany had paved the path toward social welfare with state-sponsored health insurance, accident insurance, and old-age pensions. Others followed. Women were on the march for the vote. To be sure, there was trouble over Ireland, but then official London hardly viewed Ireland as a European matter.
Paris, as usual, was the exception. The capital had been seething with political excitement since January 1914, when Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro, had launched a public campaign to discredit Finance Minister Joseph Caillaux-ostensibly over a new taxation bill.3 When Calmette published several letters from Caillaux's personal correspondence, Henriette Caillaux became alarmed. First, that correspondence could make public her husband's pacifist stance vis-à- vis Germany during the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911; second, she knew that it included love letters from her to Joseph that showed she had conducted an affair with him at a time when he was still married. The elegant Madame Caillaux took matters into her own hands: On 16 March she walked into Calmette's office, drew a revolver from her muff, and shot the editor four times at point-blank range. Her trial on charges of murder dominated Paris in the summer of 1914. Two shots fired by a Serbian youth at Sarajevo on 28 June paled in comparison.
Gavrilo Princip's murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Habsburg throne, and his morganatic wife, Sophie Chotek, caused no immediate crisis in the major capitals. The dog days of summer were upon Europe. There ensued a mad rush to escape urban heat for cooler climes.4 French president Raymond Poincaré and prime minister René Viviani were preparing to board the battleship France for a leisurely cruise through the Baltic Sea to meet Tsar Nicholas II at St. Petersburg. Kaiser Franz Joseph took the waters at Bad Ischl. Wilhelm II was about to board the royal yacht Hohenzollern for his annual cruise of the Norwegian fjords. Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg was off to the family estate at Hohenfinow to play Beethoven on the grand piano and to read Plato (in the original Greek). Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow saw no need to curtail his honeymoon at Lucerne.
Nor were military men much concerned. German chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke struck out for Karlsbad, Bohemia, to meet his Austro-Hungarian counterpart, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn was off to vacation in the East Frisian Islands. Navy Secretary Alfred von Tirpitz left Berlin for St. Blasien, in the Black Forest. Habsburg war minister Alexander von Krobatin took the cure at Bad Gastein.
Even the less prominent escaped the July heat. Sigmund and Martha Freud, like Moltke and Conrad, vacationed at Karlsbad. V. I. Lenin left Cracow to hike in the Tatra Mountains. Leon Trotsky took solace in a small apartment in the Vienna Woods. Adolf Hitler was back in Munich after a military court-martial at Salzburg had found the draft dodger unfit for military service ("too weak; incapable of bearing arms").5
But had the exodus of European leaders been all that innocent? Or had some deeper design lain at its root? The first move in what is popularly called the July Crisis rested with Vienna. Few in power lamented the passing of Franz Ferdinand. He was too Catholic; he detested the Czechs, Magyars, and Poles within the empire; and he distrusted the ally in Rome. But the spilling of royal blood demanded an official response.
for more than half a dozen years prior to 1914, Conrad von Hötzendorf had pressed war on his government as the only solution to the perceived decline of the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire. Daily, the frail, thin, crew-cut chief of the General Staff had stood at his desk and drafted contingency war plans against "Austria's congenital foes" Italy and Serbia as well as against Albania, Montenegro, and Russia, or against combinations of these states. Each year, he had submitted them to Kaiser Franz Joseph and to Foreign Minister Aloys Lexa Count Aehrenthal. And each year, these two had steadfastly refused to act.
Why, then, was July 1914 different?6 Conrad saw the murders at Sarajevo as a Serbian declaration of war. He cared little about the high school lads who had carried out the plot and about the secret organization "Union or Death," or the "Black Hand," that had planned it; his real enemy was Belgrade. He was determined not to let the last opportunity pass by "to settle accounts" with Serbia. He was haunted by the empire's failure to use the annexationist crisis over Bosnia- Herzegovina in 1908-09 to crush Serbian annexationist aspirations. There was also a personal motive: He informed his mistress Virginie "Gina" von Reininghaus that he was anxious to return from a war "crowned with success" so that he could "claim" her "as my dearest wife." Honor was at stake as well. While the war might be a "hopeless struggle" against overwhelming odds, Conrad informed Gina on the day of the Sarajevo killings, it had to be fought "because such an ancient monarchy and such an ancient army cannot perish ingloriously."7 In a nutshell, Conrad's position in July 1914, in the words of the new foreign minister, Leopold Count Berchtold, was simply: "War, war, war."8
By 1914, Franz Joseph shared Conrad's "war at any price" mind-set. Serbian arrogance had to be rooted out, by force if necessary. The kaiser was plagued by nightmares-of Solferino, where in 1859 he had led Austrian armies to defeat at the hands of France and Piedmont- Sardinia; and of Königgrätz, where in 1866 his forces had been routed by those of King Wilhelm I of Prussia. Thus in July 1914, Franz Joseph was prepared to draw the sword. Honor demanded no less. "If we must go under," he confided to Conrad, "we better go under decently."9
That left the foreign minister. In the past, Berchtold, like Aehrenthal, had resisted Conrad's demands for war. But diplomacy had brought no security. Thus, Berchtold, emboldened by the hard-line stance of a small cohort of hawks at the Foreign Office, endorsed military measures. Just two days after the Sarajevo murders, he spoke of the need for a "final and fundamental reckoning" with Serbia.10 And he worked out a set of assumptions to underpin his decision: Early and decisive action by Berlin would deter possible Russian intervention and "localize" the war in the Balkans.
But would Berlin play the role of gallant second? During past Balkan crises, Wilhelm II and his advisers had refused to back Habsburg initiatives with military force. Would July 1914 confirm that pattern? Berchtold, knowing that he needed diplomatic and military backing from Berlin, on 4 July dispatched Alexander Count Hoyos, his chef de cabinet, to sound out what the German position would be in the event that Vienna took actions to "eliminate" Serbia as a "political power factor in the Balkans."11 It was a clever move, given the kaiser's well-known propensity for personal diplomacy. In meetings the next two days with Wilhelm II, Bethmann Hollweg, Falkenhayn, and Undersecretary of the Foreign Office Arthur Zimmermann, Hoyos and Habsburg ambassador László Count Szögyény-Marich obtained promises of "full German backing" for whatever action Vienna took against Belgrade. There was no time to lose. "The present situation," the kaiser noted, "is so favorable to us." Diplomats and soldiers "considered the question of Russian intervention and accepted the risk of a general war."12 Austria-Hungary could count on "Germany's full support" even if "serious European complications"-war-resulted. And in the apparent interest of "localizing the war" in the Balkans, Berlin was ready to point to the soon-to-be-vacationing Wilhelm II, Moltke, and Falkenhayn as "evidence" that Germany would be "as surprised as the other powers" by any aggressive Austro-Hungarian action against Serbia.13
Having obtained what is often referred to as a blank check from Germany, Austria-Hungary was free to plot its actions. On 7 July, Berchtold convened a Common Council of Ministers at Vienna and apprised those present of Berlin's staunch support, "even though our operations against Serbia should bring about the great war."14 War Minister von Krobatin favored war "now better than later." Austrian premier Karl Count Stürgkh demanded "a military reckoning with Serbia." Conrad von Hötzendorf as always was set on war. Only Hungarian premier István Tisza demurred. He desired no more Slavic subjects, given that his Magyars were already a minority within their half of the empire. And he feared that an attack on Serbia would bring on "the dreadful calamity of a European war." But within a week he joined the majority view-on condition that Belgrade be handed a stringent ultimatum that would allow Habsburg officials to enter Serbia to hunt down the assassins.
The final decision for war was made at a special Common Council of Ministers convened at Berchtold's residence on 19 July. It was quickly decided to hand the ultimatum, carefully crafted by the foreign minister's staff to assure rejection, to Belgrade on 23 July and to demand acceptance within forty-eight hours. The day after the Common Council, Berchtold advised Conrad and Krobatin to begin their planned summer holidays "to preserve the appearance that nothing is being planned."15 Tisza's countryman István Count Burián laconically noted: "The wheel of history rolls."16 Serbia rejected the ultimatum on 25 July. Sir Maurice de Bunsen, Britain's envoy to Vienna, informed Whitehall: "Vienna bursts into a frenzy of delight, vast crowds parading the streets and singing patriotic songs till the small hours of the morning."17
Berchtold visited Franz Joseph at Bad Ischl. He informed the kaiser that Serbian gunboats had fired on Habsburg troops near Temes-Kubin (Kovin). It was a lie, but it served its purpose. "Hollow eyed," the aged Franz Joseph signed the order for mobilization. His only recorded comment, delivered "in a muffled, choked voice," was "Also, doch!" ("So, after all!") Was it said in conviction? Or in relief? The next day, mobilization began and civil liberties were suspended. Vienna, in the words of historian Samuel R. Williamson Jr., "clearly initiated the violence in July 1914" and "plunged Europe into war."18 It had set the tempo, defined the moves, and closed off all other options. In doing so, it was motivated by fear-of Pan-Slavic nationalism, of losing the military advantage to Serbia (and Russia), and of forfeiting Germany's promised support.
why war in 1914? Why had Germany not drawn the sword during crises in 1905, 1908, 1911, 1912, or 1913? What made 1914 different? The answer lies in the seriousness of the Austro-Hungarian request for backing and in the changed mind-set at Berlin. First, a few myths need to be dispelled. Germany did not go to war in 1914 as part of a "grab for world power" as historian Fritz Fischer19 argued in 1961, but rather to defend (and expand) the borders of 1871. Second, the decision for war was made in late July 1914 and not at a much-publicized "war council" at Potsdam on 8 December 1912.20 Third, no one planned for a European war before 1914; the absence of financial or economic blueprints for such an eventuality speaks for itself. And Germany did not go to war with plans for continental hegemony; its infamous shopping list of war aims was not drawn up by Bethmann Hollweg21 until 9 September, when French and German forces had squared off for their titanic encounter at the Marne River.
This having been said, Berlin issued Vienna the famous blank check on 5 July. Why? Neither treaty obligations nor military algebra demanded this offer. But civilian as well as military planners were dominated by a strike-now-better-than-later mentality. Time seemed to be running against them. Russia was launching its Big Program of rearmament, scheduled to be completed by 1917. Could one wait until then? Wilhelm II mused on the eve of the Sarajevo murders.22 The Anglo-French- Russian Entente Cordiale encircled Germany with what it perceived to be an iron ring of enemies. More, there circulated in public and official circles dire prognostications of what Bethmann Hollweg summarized for the Reichstag in April 1913 as the "inevitable struggle" between Slavs and Teutons-what historian Wolfgang J. Mommsen called the classical rhetoric of "inevitable war."23
On 3 July, when Ambassador Heinrich von Tschirschky cabled
Vienna's decision to avenge the Sarajevo killings, Wilhelm II noted "now or never" on the report.24 Three days later, the kaiser promised Austria-Hungary "Germany's full support" even if "serious European complications" resulted from this-and advised Vienna not to "delay the action" against Belgrade. Pilloried in the press for having been too "timid" and for having postured like a "valiant chicken" during past crises, Wilhelm on 6 July three times assured his dinner guest, Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, that this time he would not "cave in."
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
“Makes vivid the full tragedy of what the Marne set in motion.”—The Wall Street Journal
“A thoroughly informed panorama of the immense and bloody campaign that kicked off World War I.”—The Washington Times
“As fine an addition to scholarly World War I literature as has been seen in some time.”—Booklist
“[An] engrossing narrative . . . Herwig combines colorful evocations of the horrors of the fighting with a lucid operational history of the campaign.”—Publishers Weekly
“The commanders you’ll encounter in The Marne, 1914 aren’t familiar names to most people today, but their mistakes, fears and courage make them excellent dramatic characters.”—The Oregonian
“Meticulous research and solid writing.”—North County Times
From the Trade Paperback edition.