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(The WAR to DECEMBER 1916 – continued)

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The WAR to DECEMBER 1916 (1 of 11)

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The War to December 1916

France and Germany, Aug-Nov 1914 | Stalemate also in the East | War Spreads across the Globe | Germans Choose more War | The Armenian Massacre | Italy Joins the War | The Germans, British and French in 1915 | Russians, Bulgarians, and Jews in Lithuania in 1915 | The United States Considers War, 1915 | Failures in 1916 | Suffering on the Home Fronts, 1916-17

France and Germany, August to November 1914

French military leaders were counting on self-confidence and verve, and they believed that the five armies they were sending into Alsace-Lorraine were going all the way to Berlin. Their offensive began on August 12, their foot soldiers dressed in red pants and blue jackets, their cavalrymen wearing bright plumed helmets and armed with sabers. They had inadequately appreciated the new mechanistic nature of warfare. The Germans mowed them down with machine guns. By August 23 the Germans had broken the French offensive and were driving the French back, the French suffering in the first few weeks of the war about 200,000 wounded and 100,000 dead – almost twice as many men as the United States, a more populous nation, was to lose in Vietnam in eight years.

From August 12 to 23, the British were transporting their Expedition Force -- about 26,000 men – across the channel to France, the British throwing themselves into the fight alongside the French and joining them in retreat.

French cavalry in Paris

French cavalry in Paris, on their way to Germany. Photo showing French cavalry in Paris on their way to Germany

The Germans were marching through Belgium, having broken through Belgium's system of border fortresses at Liège on August 12. As the Germans marched in columns with their rifles on their shoulders they were fired upon by Belgian civilians. The Germans called this terrorism and a cowardly abomination, and they retaliated by executing a few local citizens chosen at random, viewing this as just and as a means of discouraging further assaults. It was a useless tactic. Rather than the Belgians being cowed, the attacks upon the Germans increased. The Germans retaliated again, killing more civilians and burning towns. In the city of Louvain, frustrated German troops rioted, and they destroyed much in the city, killing civilians and looting. Headlines in Britain and the United States spoke of the Germans sacking Louvain and of women and clergy being shot dead. There were stories of Germans bayoneting babies and nuns and other gruesome rumors. It was a turning point in what was already a propaganda war, with the Germans appearing to many in the United States and Britain as brutal and bloodthirsty aggressors.

Germany crossed from Belgium into France on August 24, but the Germans did not march to Paris as they had planned. Paris as a communications center, as the hub of France's railways and its psychological value was not given precedence by Germany's military commander Von Moltke. Instead he was searching out the enemy's army – the traditional military tactic. The German offensive swung short of Paris and southward. The German troops were exhausted after weeks of marching. Gaps appeared in the German positions. And the regrouped French and British forces south of Paris counterattacked in what became known as the Battle of the Marne.

The French and the British Expeditionary Force drove the Germans back across the Marne River. There, favorable circumstances for the French ended. The Germans dug in. The French armies pushed against but could not penetrate Germany's defensive positions. The Germans, in turn, were unable to penetrate French positions or sweep around the French or British. The generals were bewildered. At this point in European history defensive warfare was superior. The best defense was not a good offense as they had believed.

It was obvious that the war would not be over by autumn as Germany's military planners had anticipated. By mid-November a line of trenches and barbed wire stretched from the English Channel, in Belgium south to Swiss border. The Germans were more than fifty miles from Paris at its closest point. Von Moltke was blamed for the defeat at the Marne. He had a nervous breakdown and resigned from his command.

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