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The Great War
Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Timeline Maps & Battles The Shaping of the 21st Century Historians


The Outbreak of War
German forces mobilizing
German forces mobilizing
At the outbreak of war, the German High Command activated the Schlieffen Plan, which called for a major offensive to capture Paris in precisely 42 days.
 
The German army would avoid France's line fortifications by sweeping west through neutral Belgium and then turning in a huge arc south into France. The French army would be destroyed defending Paris. The German generals were so confident of success that Kaiser Wilhelm II proclaimed that he would have "Paris for lunch, St. Petersburg for dinner." If the plan worked, France would be forced to surrender and Germany could shift its forces to the eastern front and defeat the Russians before they were fully prepared to fight. According to the German generals the war would be over by Christmas, only five months after it began.
 
As the German army advanced through Belgium, the French believed that this was a diversion, and sent most of the French army northeast to attack Germany through the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. The French would loose 27,000 men in a single day, proving that the machine gun and the long-range rifle were devastating defensive weapons against traditional warfare tactics.
 
Popular French poster
Popular French poster
But the Schlieffen Plan soon began to unravel. The German army, having advanced rapidly through Belgium and deeply into France, found themselves physically exhausted and far ahead of their supply lines. As the German right flank drove towards Paris, it separated from the rest of the invading force. Recognizing their vulnerability, the Germans pulled up twenty-five miles short of Paris. Now it was France's chance to attack. French General Joffre ordered a stand along the Marne.
 
Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, a Russian army of some 350,000 men engaged Germany at the Battle of Tannenberg. For Germany it was one of the greatest victories of the war: one third of the Russian troops were either killed or captured; the rest ran for their lives in a disorganized retreat. But even though the victor, the brief penetration into Prussia by the Russians hurt Germany in the end by taking pressure off the beleaguered French Army, as two German Army corps and a cavalry division destined for the final push to take Paris were diverted to the Eastern Front. In early September, the first Battle of the Marne took place, with over two million men participating. The German army was stopped and Paris was saved.
 
Immediately following the first Battle of the Marne, both sides tried to out-flank one another in an effort to swing around the other's defensives. The resulting actions, called by some the "race to the sea," ended with a line of trenches that extended from Switzerland to the English Channel. By mid-September, stalemate had begun and trench warfare had set in. No one suspected that the trench lines that stretched across Western Europe by the end of December 1914 would not change much over the next four years.

   
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