Before the outbreak of War in 1914, Europe had enjoyed nearly a century without a major conflict and had benefited greatly in the age of industrialization, as a result the entire continent had experienced unprecedented growth and prosperity the likes Europe had ever seen.
Although the coming of the Great War took the European peoples by surprise, no one could however ignore the significance of the arms race. Military expenditure had quadrupled since an end to the Franco - Prussian war of 1871. With Europe divided by powerful rival alliances of equal strength, it was generally believed these would make for a continuance of peace rather than war.
Yet mutual distrust and growing antagonism was intensifying rather than diminishing. Europe's leaders knew that once orders had been given for mobilization, the alliance system would work against any localization of the conflict. In the early weeks of January 1914, Peace was an extremely fragile concept to hold on too.
The assassination of the heir to the Austro - Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife the Duchess of Hohenberg in Sarajevo on June 18th by a nineteen year old Serbian Nationalist by the name of Gavrilo Princip, was to be the primer that would set off a chain of events which by the middle of August, would lock seven Great Powers in battle, from the plains of France to the heart lands of Russia and the desserts of the Middle East.
Adopted by the German General staff in 1905, " The Schlieffen Plan " was to engage in a series of holding operations against the Russians in the East while the bulk of the German Armed Forces would strike against France in one massive enveloping maneuver through Flanders and Picardy, which would then invest Paris from the west and south thus forcing the French armies eastward away from the German border. Once France was defeated, the Germans planned to use their superior railway network to shift the victorious armies eastward to fully engage the Russians.
However in the three years preceding the war, the Chief of the German General Staff, Count Von Moltke, would implement a series of variations on the original plan which would weaken the main northern thrust and allow the German Commanders more excessive independence of maneuver on the battlefield.
On August 3rd 1914, it was Imperial Germany which began hostilities launching five armies across the border into Eastern Belgium, whose territory was essential for the passage of the German forces destined to wheel through northern France. Superior German tactics and firepower quickly overwhelmed the forward Belgium defenses, taking thousands of prisoners and pushing the surviving units westward.
In the defense of their country the Belgian's unfortunately had placed a heavy reliance on outdated forts and redoubts which were completely inadequate to withstand the pounding from German Artillery. On August 16th the great fortress city of Liege was captured. The bulk of the Belgium army, some 80,000 men now fell back upon the capital of Brussels.
With the fall of Brussels some four days later, the Belgians now withdrew further west towards the coastal city of Antwerp. With Brussels capture all advancing German Armies could now wheel south towards France. On August 22nd the French 5th Army was severely mauled at Charleroi by the German 2nd and 3rd Armies, forcing the French left wing to fall back towards Paris.
With the news of stunning German advances also came reports that two Russian armies had marched into East Prussia. So alarmed was Von Moltke, that he began detaching units from France to the east, thus weakening the German right wing.
These fresh troops had arrived in time to support General Hindenburg's 8th Army in the encirclement and destruction of the Russian 2nd army under General Samsonov at the Battle of Tannenberg, August 23rd - 30th The. Russians suffered 78,000 killed and wounded with 92,000 troops taken prisoner and over 500 artillery pieces captured. The Germans in comparison lost fewer than 20,000 casualties.
After the failure to relieve their beleaguered comrades at Tannenberg, the Russian 1st army under General Rennenkampf now fortified their positions and awaited the coming German assault. This would culminate in the Battle of the Masurian Lakes September 9th - 14th. The battle itself was another complete disaster for Russian arms with another 125,000 killed and wounded including 45,000 prisoners taken. German casualties numbered 40,000 men.
With this defeat the Russians were now forced from East Prussia and had been expelled from German soil. The German victory had been so total and complete, it effectively prevented the Russians from offensive operations against Germany until spring 1915, some seven months later.
MARNE COUNTER OFFENSIVE
News for the Allies on the Western front was also not very favorable, by the end of August the French had suffered 300,000 casualties and the German 1st Army had advanced to within thirty miles of Paris.
On September 1st, the French commander in chief General Joffre, ordered the newly formed French 6th Army under General Maunoury to fall back on the capital and support the Paris garrison under General Gallieni. Joffre also gave standing orders to all commanders along the lower Marne River to prepare for a counter attack
On September 5th, the Allied offensive began along a 125 mile front. Three French and one British army comprising just over one million men marched forward against an equal number of enemy formations in an attempt to halt the advancing German forces and save Paris from occupation.
As the fighting between the French 6th Army and the right wing of General Von Kluck's German 1st Army grew more fierce with each passing hour, Kluck ordered the transfer of two Infantry Corps from his left flank to support his right. This created a dangerous gap between his army and that of Field Marshall Von Bulow's 2nd Army.
To help Maunoury cope with the German reinforcements, General Gallieni commandeered 1200 taxi cabs to rush reinforcements from the Paris garrison to support the French 6th Army. On September 6th the British Army (BEF) marched into the gap between the German 1st and 2nd armies reporting that it had encountered virtually no resistance. Joffre now ordered his Fifth Army under General D'Esperay forward to protect the British right flank and drive a wedge between the two German Armies.
On the 7th with his flanks crumbling, Kluck ordered his entire army to fall back. Von Bulow's right wing now disintegrated under the intense Allied pressure and he too ordered his army to retire. With their central lines broken to an extent of thirty miles, Von Moltke and the German High Command ordered a general withdrawal some forty miles, stabilizing their front once again behind the Vesle and Aisne rivers.
If the Allies had not themselves been so utterly exhausted, they may have turned the German retreat into a complete route and had ended the war with a sensational victory. Allied casualties in the eight day battle numbered 250,000 French and 13,000 British dead wounded and missing. German losses amounted to 220,0000 men.
As a direct result of the German defeat, Von Moltke was dismissed from active service and replaced as Chief of staff by General Von Falkenhayn, who's first order was to launch a series of attacks through Belgium against the exposed Allied left flank. But Joffre and the French high command also had the same battle plan and began shifting forces north, this upcoming phase of the war would be known as ''the race to the sea''.
THE ALLIED BREAKTHROUGH
GENERAL JOFFRE GENERAL FALKENHAYN
The engagements along the staggered 100 mile northern front ultimately resulted in neither side gaining an advantage, both sides did however make an almost simultaneous concentrated effort to turn their opponents flank near the town of Ypres, in western Belgium.
As the BEF moved northwards on the town, the Germans marched on Ypres from the opposite direction. Although the British troops were fresh (being spared the hardest fighting at the battle of the Marne) they were smaller in number to the Germans who had raised and brought up a new reserve corps largely comprising university student volunteers with little or no military training.
During the first battle of Ypres (October 19 - November 22) the British, later joined by French and Belgium reinforcements would conduct a more defensive battle in stark contrast to the Germans, who would launch three major attacks on the Allied positions, October 20th, 31st and November 11th.
Although all three German attacks were just narrowly repulsed. At battles end, it was clear the Germans could not take the town and were forced to dig in and await developments.
Lasting twenty three days, the casualty numbers would reach a staggering 259,000 casualties. The battle itself had virtually destroyed the peacetime British regular army which lost 58,000 men. France and Belgium would add an additional fifty and twenty thousand men to the Allied total. It would be the Germans who would however suffer the most as a single nation suffering a generation loss of 131,000 of their best and brightest young men.
There was now no longer any danger of an outright German victory, but equally their was no prospect of an Allied breakthrough. First Ypres would mark the end of open warfare, the opposing armies on the Western Front now became paralyzed by minefields, barbed wire, machine gun emplacements and entrenchment networks.
During the battle, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) formally entered the war on the side of the Central Powers with the bombing of Russia's Black Sea ports on October 28th.
Turkey's justification for the alliance, was their constant friction with Russia in the Turkish straights over shipping and trade routes leading in and out of the Black Sea. The early German victories over the Allies in Western Europe and that being on the apparent winning side, would reverse the imminent disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.
Along the South Eastern front, by early September the Russians had clearly defeated the Austro - Hungarians in Galicia. The Russian General Staff chose to follow up their victory with a quick invasion of Silesia. General Hindenburg had intercepted Russian radio communications of the proposed attack and saw an opportunity to strike the exposed Russian flank as it moved into Silesia.
On November 11th, General Mackensen's Ninth army struck the flank of the Russian 1st army and destroyed an Infantry Corps capturing 12,000 prisoners in the process. This left a ten mile gap between the 1st and 2nd Russian armies which quickly lost contact with one another.
Wishing to avoid another Tannenberg, the Russian Grand Duke ordered the 2nd and 5th armies to fall back on the Lodz sector, the latter of the two armies covering the seventy miles in just two days.
On November 18th, General Plehve's 5th army smashed into Mackensen's right flank while at the same moment General Rennenkampf's 1st army began their attack along the east banks of the Vistula River. The Germans soon found themselves threatened with encirclement.
After eight days of fighting In bitter winter conditions, the German 9th army just managed to fight their way out of the trap, incredibly taking the prisoners captured from the Russian 1st army with them. German pressure on the Lodz sector would continue until December when the Russians, short on supplies withdrew to form more stronger defensive lines near the Polish capital of Warsaw.
Although the battle itself was indecisive, the Russians lost 95,000 men where as the Germans in stark contrast sustained 35,000 casualties.
At Sea, the German Naval victory at the battle of Coronel off central Chile on November 1st, had effectively cut England's' supply routs from South America. A German squadron comprising two Armored and three light cruisers under Vice Admiral Graf Maximilian Von Spee, had crippled a British force sinking two enemy cruisers HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth while severally damaging two others. In the defeat Englands' naval arm also lost 1,570 sailors killed to just three German wounded.
The German victory did however cost Admiral Von Spee nearly half his supply of ammunition which was impossible to replace. He therefore ordered his Squadron to sail for Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands with the intention of destroying the British wireless station and replenishing his stocks of coal.
In the early morning hours of December 8th as the German squadron approached Stanley, naval warships were seen coaling in the port. Von Spee mistakenly translated these reports to be nothing but the small remnants of the British force he had decimated the previous month.
Unbeknownst to Spee however, this was a powerful British Task Force under the command of Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee, sent to reverse the defeat at Coronel and destroy the German squadron.
The German squadron consisting two Armored cruisers, SMS Sharnhorst and Geneienau each armed with eight 8.2 inch main guns and three lighter cruisers, SMS Nurnberg, Dresden and Leipzeig armed with ten 4.1 inch main guns could average a squadron speed of 22 knots.
The Germans would face a British force comprising seven warships, the Battle Cruisers HMS Invincible and Inflexible each fitted with eight 12 inch main guns and three armored cruisers HMS Cornwall, Canarvon and Kent with an average armaments package of fourteen 6.0 inch guns, the light cruisers HMS Glasgow and Bristol would round out the force with ten 4.0 inch guns and a task force average speed of 25 knots.
Realizing too late the gravity of the situation before him, Spee ordered his ships to sail for the open sea with all haste. Admiral Sturdee quickly gave chase and slowly began to overtake his foe. Faced with the inevitable that he could not outrun the British force, Admiral Von Spee decided to bring his squadron about and force an engagement just after 1:20 pm.
Despite scoring hits on the HMS Invincible by Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, the German squadron could not match the enemies superior firepower and Von Spee ordered his ships to disengage and attempt to escape. Within the hour however Admiral Sturdee managed to bring his Task Force within extreme firing range and began to shell the fleeing German vessels without impunity.
Admiral Von Spee's flagship SMS Sharnhorst was struck multiple times and sank first, quickly followed by Gneisenau, Nurnberg and Leipzig, only the Dresden managed to escape.
The battle of the Falkland Islands had been a complete British reversal of the German victory at Coronel, for the loss of ten British seamen, the Germans lost their commanding Admiral, four cruisers and 2,200 sailors killed.
In Europe the Allies were determined to break the German lines as they had done so at the battle of the Marne Joffre had resolved to launch a major offensive extending the front lines from Verdun to Nieuport and throughout the Artois and Champagne regions.
Set for December 20th, the plan involved a double flanking attack against the German Third Army at its most northern and southerly flanks. It was also to be the first large scale assault against the enemy after the Germans' had completed the construction of their defensive trench fortifications.
After initial French gains of only two miles, the Germans' had successfully demonstrated the superiority of defensive warfare, in particular their use of the tripod machine gun. The stalemate would continue well into March of 1915, when Joffre called off the entire offensive due to the inability of the French to penetrate the German defenses. After three month's of continuous battle, both the Germans' and French suffered some 90,000 casualties apiece.
At the end of 1914, there was complete deadlock over every battlefront within Europe. The Western Front now stretched from the North Sea some five hundred miles South East to the borders of Switzerland. The German lines also enclosed much of France's coal and steel industry including almost the whole of Belgium which amounted to 80% of its pre war land mass.
Yet their seemed very little prospect of a decisive victory, all combatants had by now abandoned all hope of a short war.
BACK TO GREAT MILITARY BATTLES
This Literary work © GreatMilitaryBattles.com