Greetings, folks. My name is Biff ‘Doc’ Kensington, resident amateur historian extraordinaire and all-around nice guy, and you’ve stumbled into the fresh, wholesome goodness that is the Colloquium.
What is the Colloquium, you ask? Simple: it is the belief that history is a rich and vibrant canvas, upon which incredible, engaging scenes are painted for all to partake in. It is our collective shared story, vibrant and impactful in the lives of each and every one of us. We live in the shadow of history, and we make today what will become the history of tomorrow.
Cool as hell, right?
Whatever your past experience studying history may be, we seek to infuse some intellectual whoop-ass into your experience here with a brand-new feature that strives to bring a whole new understanding of history to our readers. We will explore various episodes of history, both great and small, that contributed to the world in which we live. History is not merely the study of events, but of the people (and the places) that define the underlying characteristics of who we are. It is the sinew of our existence which binds people together. But more than anything, we will be looking to bring you a hefty dose of intellectualism that is both enlightening and entertaining. These, in a very real sense, are the stories which created our world, and which helped to create you.
And what better way to start then by looking at blowing shit up…
Episode I: Maelstrom on the Marne
The Event: The First Battle of the Marne, World War I / Date(s): September 5, 1914 to September 12, 1914 / The Result: Modern Warfare, Real Life Edition
World War I resonates deeply in the global consciousness today, a century removed from its barbarity and insidiousness. Even those who care little for the study of history are generally aware of its existence, if only because there has to be a ‘World War I’ before there can be a ‘World War II’. Some consider World War I to be the demarcation line between modernity and postmodernity; others see it as a sort-of ‘baptism of fire’ for the world into the 20th Century. People can (and have) spent entire careers studying the causes and effects of the conflict so destructive, it earned the sobriquet “The War to End All Wars.” But while the match that lights the proverbial tinder pile that is World War I is universally understood to be the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo by Serbian separatist Gavrilo Princip, many struggle with the ‘tinder pile’ itself.
Understanding how World War I started is very different from understanding why World War I happened in the first place. You could look to the alliance system in Europe as a preliminary cause, but then you would need to explore how and why the alliance system came to be. Chasing those breadcrumbs would take you back centuries; therein lies the great trap for historians. What looks to be clear cut turns into the proverbial rabbit hole, with an event’s tendrils snaking back through multiple generations. For our purposes though, we need not understand why World War I happened to show how it impacts our world today; rather, we need to ask the second, less considered question — What made World War I such an epic suckfest?
Enter the First Battle of the Marne, otherwise known as one of the first big “Oh, Shit” moments of the War.
The Backstory: A Man and His Plan
In order to understand the importance of the First Battle of the Marne, one has to understand the Schlieffen Plan, so named for German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, who helped devise a basic battle plan more than a decade before the Great War began. Because of the alliance system in place in the build-up to World War I, Germany’s role as the head of the Quadruple Alliance — more commonly known as the Central Powers — was more than a bit symbolic. The German Empire was inconveniently situated in between their French and Russian adversaries, two-thirds of the Triple Entente which would later evolve into what was known as the Allied Powers. Strategically speaking, being positioned in the middle of two powerful enemies in warfare is about as advantageous as picking a bar fight with Stipe Miocic. Ergo, the Germans required a unique strategy that would help prevent them from being bogged down fighting a war on multiple fronts.
This is the genesis for the Schlieffen Plan, loosely understood to be a plan which would “knock the weaker of our enemies out quickly”. The basic thinking of the German military before the War was that the French, with whom they shared a burgeoning rivalry by 1914, was relatively weak compared to the larger Russian Empire to their east. Because it was felt that the Russians would require more time to mobilize their forces, any war between both the French and the Russians could only be won if the French were eliminated from the fight quickly. To this end, the German military would need to quickly invade France through Belgium, capturing Paris and forcing the French to capitulate as rapidly as possible. This would enable the Germans to focus their full attention and resources east to confront Tsar Nicholas II and the Russian Empire, whom the Germans felt were the more formidable foe.
Unfortunately, this plan was a bit… problematic. For starters, German military planners greatly underestimated the resolve of the French, who in hindsight were the more potent combatant compared to the relative incompetence of the Russian leadership. There was also the slight matter of Belgium’s refusal to allow German troops to pass through their country to invade France, which meant that Germany would have to invade Belgium before entering France-proper. This act carried grave consequences for the Germans: not only would they have to slug it out through Belgium to even reach their target, but they would also now be forced to contend with a third European power: Great Britain. By invading Belgium, the British would be bound to enter the war against the Germans, bringing the full weight of what was arguably the world’s leading superpower at the time against them.
Another important distinction to make was the changing nature of warfare. In the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the understanding of warfare as a political tool began to evolve. Whereas warfare previously meant relatively-containable conflicts between professional armies, industrialization and the rise of nation-states began to reshape the idea of warfare along broader, more ideological lines. With industrialization came new technologies which rendered previous models of warfare obsolete, themes which author Barbara W. Tuchman famously chronicled in the 1962 work The Guns of August (highly recommended as a read). Between flawed strategies, inaccurate beliefs, and a woefully poor appreciation for the carnage a Twentieth-Century war would unleash, the Schlieffen Plan was doomed to failure. For his part, though, Alfred von Schlieffen would not experience blowback for his plan’s failure, because he was already dead.
The Event: Two Steps from Hell
The German advance began in early August 1914, with a series of engagements known today as the Battle of the Frontiers gradually pushing the Allies back. Though costly in terms of men and materiel, the initial push of the Germans westward seemed to indicate the possibility of achieving the quick victory over the French that the Schlieffen Plan was designed to achieve. By September, the Germans under the command of the Chief of the German General Staff Helmuth von Moltke the Younger had punched through into Northern France, leaving the Western Allies teetering on the brink of collapse. Sweeping down from the North Sea coast, the French capital of Paris was directly under threat, the capture of which would knock the French out of the war and greatly jeopardize the ability of the Allies to overcome the Imperial German Army.
Several events would unfold however that would ultimately sow the seeds of the Germans’ defeat. The Russian military, long thought to be slow in mobilizing its forces, had surprised most of Europe by being one of the first to prepare its forces for war. As a result, Moltke felt compelled to divert almost two hundred thousand men east to confront Russian forces, which weakened the already-exhausted German military forces pushing on to Paris. Further complicating matters was the unexpected resolve of the British Expeditionary Force and the French Sixth Army under Joseph Joffre, who helped initiate a counteroffensive against the forces of German General Hans von Gronau near the Ourcq River. Due to unexpected Allied resistance following their “Great Retreat”, German forces began to solidify near the banks of the Marne River. Forces of the French Sixth Army under the command of Michel-Joseph Maunoury met the German First Army of Alexander von Kluck, initiating the battle proper.
The fate of the French military, and by extension the Western Allies largely hung in the balance. Unbeknownst to the German military command however, the maneuvering to face the combined British-French offensive had opened a large gap in the German lines, approximately thirty miles wide. This fact, reported by reconnaissance planes flying over the battle field, marks one of the first such uses of aircraft in human history. The information would prove critical in the ensuing battle, with the British and French desperately trying to split the German lines while beleaguered German forces clung to the increasingly vain-hope of threatening Paris. What would follow was a Hellish episode as thousands upon thousands of human lives would be caught up in the midst of the fighting. It is estimated that over five hundred thousand casualties occurred in the span of a week. French casualties alone are thought to have approached a quarter of a million.
In the end, the Allies’ ability to divide the German lines proved fatal to the Schlieffen Plan. Moltke the Younger, confronted with the very real possibility of seeing German forces encircled and destroyed, suffered a massive panic attack. His adjutants put out the call for a general retreat, ending the direct threat on Paris and saving the French from capitulation. The Germans withdrew to the Aisne River, where their lines stabilized enough to allow them to face Joffre on September 13. Thereafter, both sides began moving north in an attempt to outflank the other, in what became known as the Race to the Sea. Neither side was able to achieve the decisive victory that could bring the war to its conclusion in the West. By mid-October, battle lines began to solidify on the Western Front, and the two sides began preparing trenches for the protracted fighting to come.
For all intents and purposes, the First Battle of the Marne marked the events which would ultimately doom Germany in the war, bogging them down in France and realistically ending their chance at achieving victory. Though some historians consider it apocryphal, Moltke (who would wind up being replaced as a result of his failure in the battle) is alleged to have wired Kaiser Wilhelm II following the German failure to capture Paris that the war “had been lost”. Though it would take another four years of bloody fighting to bring this prophecy to fruition, the general sentiment is correct. It is the First Battle of the Marne, and the saving of Paris which leads to the rise of static trench warfare in the West, setting in motion the events of history that would change the world.
The End Result: War Really Sucks
The First Battle of the Marne was not the first battle of World War I, nor was it the bloodiest, biggest, or the longest. The pants-shitting casualty totals of the battle would ultimately be topped, though the brevity of the battle itself makes the bloodletting which occurred all the more grisly in retrospect. Why, then, does the First Battle of the Marne represent a fundamental moment in human history? Simply put, the world in which you live is a legacy of the battle.
Much of the popular images that we come to associate with the Great War stem from the failure of the Germans to capture Paris during the battle. The bloody futility of trench warfare is a direct byproduct of the maneuvering between the two sides, which took place because of the First Battle of the Marne. Therefore, by natural extension, the effects of the Great War on the nations of the world stem from this seminal battle. It forever altered the nature of warfare, reducing antiquated theories with the reality that modern world wars would involve not just small professional armies, but entire populations mobilized into the war effort. The casualty totals from the First Battle of the Marne alone rivaled some of the casualty totals of entire wars fought previously, and it was merely the tip of the iceberg to come.
The intense conflagration would compel both sides to begin using more and more destructive weapons, inventing entire new concepts of war, such as fighter aircraft and tanks. Desperation would ultimately propel both sides into using chemical agents like Mustard Gas, introducing the concept of Weapons of Mass Destruction to modern warfare and, by extension, the world in general. These trends stem from the stalemate on the Western Front created by the First Battle of the Marne. Most importantly, the battle would ultimately doom the Central Powers to defeat, which would set the stage for World War II a quarter-century later, which would then set the stage for the Cold War, which helped shape the modern world in which we live.
That’s the beauty of history, in a nutshell: one event can blossom into a tangential web of effects that cause other events, and their effects can ripple onward in a never-ending chain that influences events throughout time. Why is extremist terrorism and sectarian violence such a major problem in the Middle East today? It largely stems from the Sykes-Picot Agreement made between Britain and France in 1916 to betray their Arab allies and divide up the oil-rich region to themselves, an Agreement that would have been impossible were France to have fallen during the First Battle of the Marne. Why do we have a United Nations in the world to help head-off possible global catastrophes? Because world leaders saw the need for such an organization after the League of Nations experiment failed, an institution only possible because of an Allied victory that would have been untenable had they lost the First Battle of the Marne. Syrian civilians are attacked with chemical weapons because of the evidence of their macabre success during the First World War, made possible due to the desperation which resulted again from the First Battle of the Marne. In a very real sense, we live under the threat of seeing weapons of mass destruction used against us, all because of the static war a single battle facilitated.
In the end, the gory fighting will go down as one of the bloody opening chapters in history’s second-most destructive war. In a very real sense however, it is the opening chapter to modern warfare as it exists today. So much of the 20th Century and the technological advances we enjoy stem from the natural progression of historical events, among which the First Battle of the Marne ranks highly. Much like a Jenga tower, you pull the wrong block, and everything resting on that foundation could topple. The world in which you live could look drastically different were it not for the actions of people fighting along the outskirts of Paris in September 1914. And that is why history is so important; after all, if our leaders fail to heed the warnings of history, the first battles of the next World War could make the First Battle of the Marne look like foreplay in comparison to how badly screwed we all would be.~
I hope you enjoyed the first installment of The Colloquium. If you liked what you saw and have ideas you would like to see discussed in future episodes, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter @BiffKensington. Next week, we will take a look at a guy who was told climbing Mount Everest was impossible, to which he replied ‘Hold My Beer’ in the most manly way possible. Until then, take care, all.