French Soldiers in Traditional Uniform, August 1914
When war broke out in August 1914, both sides expected that it would end relatively quickly. Each side had optimistically proclaimed that its troops would be in their opponent's capital by Christmas. Short quick wars had been the European pattern for the prior 50 years. The two Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913, the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the Prussia-Austrian War of 1866 had all been short wars. Neither side was prepared to fight a long war nor did either side anticipate the demands that such a war would place on its manpower and industry.
All sides mobilized quickly, or at least as quickly as they could, fearful that the war might be settled before they could bring the full power of their militaries to bear. Both sides anticipated a relatively mobile battlefield, especially on the Western Front. The Germans anticipated a quick sweep through Belgium in a week or less, but it took them almost three-times as long to cross the French border. The French had anticipated a deep, decisive thrust into Alsace-Lorraine. Their Plan 17 delivered an advance that was neither deep nor decisive and that found them back where they had started within two weeks.
It was a modified version of the original Schlieffen Plan that was put into action when the German First, Second, and Third armies launched their attack on Belgium on August 4, 1914. The German Fourth and Fifth armies made up the center wing and the Sixth and Seventh armies the left wing of the German line. Instead of the forty-one and a half Corps envisioned by Schlieffen, the actual number deployed on the Western Front was closer to thirty-five Corps; roughly seventy-eight divisions instead of the original one hundred divisions.
Last minute revisions, prompted by a fear of Russia's growing military strength, saw three army corps and one cavalry division transferred from the Western Front to the east. In total, approximately 250,000 men were transferred to the Eastern Front, roughly 180,000 in the period prior to the attack, and the balance, in response to Russian advances, subsequent to it. The original plan had envisioned an attack by some forty-one and a half corps, followed by a rapid advance through Belgium by the German right wing, while the center and left wing maintained defensive positions along the French border. In this way, the strategists believed, Paris could be bypassed and the French army defending it enveloped between the German right wing and its left and center wings, and utterly destroyed. In total, roughly ninety-one percent of German military strength was initially deployed on the Western Front and the balance of nine percent on the Eastern Front.
Fifty-five of those divisions made up the right wing of the German attack. The cavalry corps of General von der Marwitz was the first German units to cross the border. The tiny territory of the Duchy of Luxembourg, which stood in the Germans' way, had been overrun on August 2 and was allowed to retain its independence throughout the war.
France's initial response to the Schlieffen Plan consisted of two major elements. First was a series of strategic plans that culminated with Plan XVII. This plan envisioned a French counter-thrust through Alsace-Lorraine into Germany, threatening the flank of the Germany army advancing through Belgium.
The second element of the French response saw the government encouraging Russia to seek funds on the French bond market in order to expand and modernize its railroad system and speed up the rate of mobilization. The faster Russia could mobilize, the French planners insisted, the less time Germany would have to defeat France before being forced to engage what the German General Staff dubbed the "Russian Steamroller." These are the infamous "Russian Bonds" that Lenin repudiated after the Bolshevik revolution, claiming that interest and principal had long since been paid with the blood that Russia had shed for France on the Eastern front. The bonds, still unredeemed and many of which still circulate to this day remain at the root of countless financial scams.
The first setback the German forces encountered came just one day into their attack on Belgium. The highly fortified city of Liège and its ring of protecting forts lying astride the Meuse valley, turned out to be far more resistant than the Germans had expected. Heavy artillery, including two mighty, Krupp built, 420-millimeter (roughly 16 inch) siege howitzers, which had been hastily shipped from Essen, was brought into play.. The city eventually fell on August 16, after twelve days of bombardment. Following the fall of Liège, most of the Belgian army fell back to Antwerp and Namur, while the advancing Germans advanced on the Belgian capital, Brussels.
The first shots of France's Plan XVII were heard on August 7, when the French VII Corps launched an attack on Alsace with the aim of taking the cities of Colmar and Mulhouse. Mulhouse had been captured, without opposition, by French forces on that same day. The event provoked delirious festivities in France, but German reinforcements were not long in arriving and a counter-attack came two days later. The French commander-in-chief, Marshal Joseph Joffre, dispatched a reserve division to help defend the city, but it was too late. Mulhouse fell into German hands once again on August 10, with the French withdrawing back towards the town of Belfort.
A few days later, on August 14, the French First and Second Armies also went on the offensive with an assault towards Sarrebourg in Lorraine. They suffered heavy losses as the Germans withdrew slowly, in keeping with the Schlieffen Plan, and brought their rapid fire machine guns into play against infantry troops who were still wearing nineteenth century uniforms of blue coats and red pants. Simultaneously, the French Third and Fourth Armies advanced towards the River Saar, in a second attempt to take the city of Sarrebourg, but once again they were beaten back.
By August 14th neither the French nor the German army was meeting its schedule. The French counterthrust into Lorraine against the flank of the German army had fizzled out and the French army was back where it had started. In the meantime, a tenacious Belgian defense, first at Liege and then at Namur and Brussels had slowed down the German advance. "Six weeks to Paris and victory" still seemed achievable, but Germany had suffered heavy losses and the advance had been delayed.