Battle of the Marne, 1914

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Joseph Joffre versus Helmuth von Moltke: A German army under Moltke tries to push a French army under Joffre back a few more kilometers to decide the war. Will the Schlieffen Plan prove supreme or was it meant to be altered? Also known as the Miracle of the Marne and First Battle of the Marne.

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Despite the dramatic significance of this battle in preventing a quick German victory in World War I, the battle was anti-climactic. There was no triumphant pursuit of the enemy after defeat and therefore illustrated the coming of modern warfare; Isselin refers to the Battle of the Marne as the last set-piece battle fought on rules of classical strategy (1969: 257). Most World War I theaters of 1914 featured similar set-piece battles: the Germans defeated the Russians at Tannenberg, the Russians defeated the Austrians at Lemberg, and the Serbians defeated the Austrians at Kolubara. All of these battles also share the fact that while some of them seemed decisive, no single battle could defeat any major power. 1914’s war of maneuver was a fleeting, failed chance to end the war within any reasonable time frame. It would be significant hindsight bias to assume the war could not have ended much sooner regardless of events.


Superior French command and control decided this battle; Moltke was content to remain in headquarters hundreds of kilometers from the front and let his armies execute a rigid plan while Joffre successfully coordinated his armies in a coherent strategy in real time. Joffre surely had a better understanding of what Kluck was doing than Moltke as German transfers from the Marne to the Ourcq were transparent from ground level. Modern warfare had clearly not reached a stage where managing the actions of hundreds of thousands of men was impossible.

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Originally slated for Season 2, this animation was consistently postponed for literally years for a reason I do not really understand. Each time I planned on doing it, another animation become more urgent and interesting. However, this is an important battle, especially to France and Germany which record heavy traffic to the site, and so I am glad I researched the battle when my methods have improved. I do not list sources for the sake of appearing more legitimate; each source should be valuable in some way and this animation required thirteen valuable sources, the most of any animation thus far.

Always a contentious issue, the strength of each side was fairly easy to estimate because I was able to arbitrarily decide how far east the animation would narrate. The three German armies mustered 760,000 men by the third week of August (all sources agree) and lost 225,000 men to combat, transfers, sieges and guarding lines of communication by September 6 (David, 1987: 140) which means 535,000 Germans took part based on the parameters of this animation. The French armies were changing rapidly so this was more difficult. Palmer provides the strength of a few French armies (1976: 27) and Fuller another (1967: 223n) but not all of them. Whitton’s extensive order of battle (1917: 125-128) allowed me to use basic algebraic skills to determine the relative size of each army; Whitton’s estimate of 700,000 under Joffre’s command just happens to be mine as well (1917: 130).

Casualty figures are extremely low compared to sources which predominantly cite 250,000 for each side without specifying which combination of armies contributed to this figure (Dupuy, 1986: 939). McRandle and Quirk’s excellent article on German casualties during World War I helped clarify this aspect by stating German casualties among all armies on the Western Front for September 1914 were 202,000 out of a total of 1,327,000 men (2006: 682-695). I reasoned that this 15.2% casualty rate was as accurate along the Marne (if not higher) as it was at Verdun and that half of the monthly casualties likely occurred in the fiercest five days of fighting of the month. This works out to be 40,000 German casualties which indicates that French casualties were 65,000 based on the 1.61:1 ratio of French casualties to German casualties between August and November 1914 (McRandle and Quirk, 2006: 693).

– Jonathan Webb

Works Consulted

Blond, Georges. The Marne. Harrisburg: Stackpole, 1965.

Van Creveld, Martin L. Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

David, Daniel. The 1914 Campaign: August-October, 1914. Turnbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987.

Dupuy, Trevor N. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present, Fourth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Fuller, J.F.C. The Decisive Battles of the Western World Vol. 3. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956.

Isselin, Henri. The Battle of the Marne. London: Elek, 1965.

Keegan, John. The First World War. London: Hutchinson, 1998.

Madelin, Louis. The Victory of the Marne. Paris: Coln, 1917.

McRandle, James and James Quirk. “The Blood Test Revisited: A New Look at German Casualty Counts in World War I.” Journal of Military History 70.3 (2006): 667-701.

Owen, Edward. 1914: Glory Departing. London: Buchan & Enright, 1986.

Palmer, Alan. “The Marne.” In Decisive Battles of the 20th Century, edited by Noble Frankland and Christopher Dowding, 24-35. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1976.

United States Military Academy History Department. “World War I – The Western Front.” United States Military Academy. (accessed Apr. 25, 2010).

Whitton, Frederick Ernest. The Marne Campaign. London: Constable, 1917.


Alexander von Kluck:

French soldiers:

German soldiers:

Helmuth von Moltke:

Map of Europe:

Map of the world:

Joseph Joffre:

Sir John French:


If you enjoyed the Battle of the Marne 1914 battle animation, you may also enjoy these other battle animations:

Battle of Blenheim 1704, another battle in which a British army successfully used the penetration of the center maneuver:

blenheim preview 1

Battle of Warsaw 1920, another battle in which an army exploited a gap in the enemy center:

warsaw preview 1

Battle of Gallipoli 1915-1916, another battle fought during World War I:

gallipoli preview 1

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