War plans – Battle of the Frontiers
German infantry on the battlefield, 7 August 1914
At the outbreak of the First World War, the German Army, with seven field armies in the west and one in the east, executed a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan, moving quickly through neutral Belgium to attack France, and then turning southwards to encircle the French Army and trap it on the German border. The Western Front was the place where the most powerful military forces in Europe, the German and French armies, met and where the war was decided. Belgian neutrality had been guaranteed by Britain under the Treaty of London, 1839; this caused Britain to join the war at the expiration of its ultimatum at 11 pm GMT on 4 August. Armies under German generals Alexander von Kluck and Karl von Bülow attacked Belgium on 4 August 1914. Luxembourg had been occupied without opposition on 2 August. The first battle in Belgium was the Siege of Liège, which lasted from 5–16 August. Liège was well fortified and surprised the German Army under Bülow with its level of resistance. German heavy artillery was able to demolish the main forts within a few days. Following the fall of Liège, most of the Belgian field army retreated to Antwerp, leaving the garrison of Namur isolated, with the Belgian capital, Brussels, falling to the Germans on 20 August. Although the German army bypassed Antwerp, it remained a threat to their flank. Another siege followed at Namur, lasting from about 20–23 August.
The French deployed five armies on the frontier. The French Plan XVII was intended to bring about the capture of Alsace-Lorraine. On 7 August, the VII Corps attacked Alsace to capture Mulhouse and Colmar. The main offensive was launched on 14 August with the First and Second Armies attacking toward Sarrebourg-Morhange in Lorraine. In keeping with the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans withdrew slowly while inflicting severe losses upon the French. The French Third and Fourth Armies advanced toward the Saar River and attempted to capture Saarburg, attacking Briey and Neufchateau but were repulsed. The French VII Corps captured Mulhouse after a brief engagement on 7 August but German reserve forces engaged them in the Battle of Mulhouse and forced a French retreat.
The German Army swept through Belgium, executing civilians and razing villages. The application of "collective responsibility" against a civilian population further galvanised the allies. Newspapers condemned the German invasion, violence against civilians and destruction of property, which became known as the "Rape of Belgium".[d] After marching through Belgium, Luxembourg and the Ardennes, the Germans advanced into northern France in late August, where they met the French Army, under Joseph Joffre, and the divisions of the British Expeditionary Force under Field Marshal Sir John French. A series of engagements known as the Battle of the Frontiers ensued, which included the Battle of Charleroi and the Battle of Mons. In the former battle the French Fifth Army was almost destroyed by the German 2nd and 3rd Armies and the latter delayed the German advance by a day. A general Allied retreat followed, resulting in more clashes at the Battle of Le Cateau, the Siege of Maubeuge and the Battle of St. Quentin (also called the First Battle of Guise).
First Battle of the Marne
The German Army came within 70 km (43 mi) of Paris but at the First Battle of the Marne (6–12 September), French and British troops were able to force a German retreat by exploiting a gap which appeared between the 1st and 2nd Armies, ending the German advance into France. The German Army retreated north of the Aisne River and dug in there, establishing the beginnings of a static western front that was to last for the next three years. Following this German retirement, the opposing forces made reciprocal outflanking manoeuvres, known as the Race for the Sea and quickly extended their trench systems from the Swiss frontier to the North Sea. The territory occupied by Germany held 64 percent of French pig-iron production, 24 percent of its steel manufacturing and 40 percent of the coal industry – dealing a serious blow to French industry.
On the Entente side (those countries opposing the German alliance), the final lines were occupied with the armies of each nation defending a part of the front. From the coast in the north, the primary forces were from Belgium, the British Empire and then France. Following the Battle of the Yser in October, the Belgian army controlled a 35 km (22 mi) length of West Flanders along the coast, known as the Yser Front, along the Yser river and the Yperlee canal, from Nieuwpoort to Boesinghe. Meanwhile, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) occupied a position on the flank, having previous occupied a more central position.
First Battle of Ypres
From 19 October until 22 November, the German forces made their final breakthrough attempt of 1914 during the First Battle of Ypres, which ended in a mutually-costly stalemate. After the battle, Erich von Falkenhayn judged that it was no longer possible for Germany to win the war by purely military means and on 18 November 1914 he called for a diplomatic solution. The Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg; Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg, commanding Ober Ost (Eastern Front high command); and Hindenburg's deputy, Erich Ludendorff, continued to believe that victory was achievable through decisive battles. During the Lodz offensive in Poland (11–25 November), Falkenhayn hoped that the Russians would be made amenable to peace overtures. In his discussions with Bethmann-Hollweg, Falkenhayn viewed Germany and Russia as having no insoluble conflict and that the real enemies of Germany were France and Britain. A peace with only a few annexations of territory also seemed possible with France and that with Russia and France out of the war by negotiated settlements, Germany could concentrate on Britain and fight a long war with the resources of Europe at its disposal. Hindenburg and Ludendorff continued to believe that Russia could be defeated by a series of battles which cumulatively would have a decisive effect, after which Germany could finish off France and Britain.