The First Battle of the Marne from 5-10th September 1914 ended in defeat for the Germans. Up until this skirmish their armies had looked invincible, and all of their best laid plans had come to fruition. However, two mistakes altered the course of the war; first, the German army over-stretched itself in trying to combat a Russian threat in the east while still fighting the French and British in the west; second, instead of coming around Paris to the west, the German First Army unexpectedly moved east, giving the Allies time to mount an effective counter-attack. In an attempt to correct his mistake General von Kluck turned the army back west, but in doing so strayed from the side of the Second Army under von Bulow, allowing the Allies to drive a wedge between the two. Isolated, the First Army was forced to beat a hasty retreat.
The Allied forces were hugely relieved that Paris was saved, but were wary and worn out after the long spell on the defensive. It wasn’t until the 11th, then, that they even began to set off in pursuit, realising that the German retreat had halted on the banks of the River Aisne. Hoping to capitalise on the victory by driving the two German armies further off, the French Fifth and Sixth Armies under d'Espèrey and Maunoury and the British Expeditionary Force under Sir John French reached the river on the 13th September.
To their dismay, the Allied armies discovered that the Germans had found a very strong position on the high Chemin de Dames Ridge on the northern bank of the Aisne, between the valleys formed by the rivers Aisne and Ailette. There they had dug a trench. ‘Trench Warfare, 1850-1950’ by Anthony Saunders explains that, up until this point, the First World War had actually been a very dynamic war. The artillery had acted in support of the infantry rather than the other way round, long spells of marching between battles had been the norm, and the side that won had been the one most capable of pummelling the enemy in a firefight at a range of 400-800 yards.
Now the Germans were settling into a defensive stance, and despite having successfully established their own bridgehead north of the river, try as they might the Allies couldn’t find a way to mount a successful frontal attack without completely exposing themselves to the German gunmen. As it was, they took a pummelling; ‘The First World War: a Miscellany’ by Norman Fergusson attests that by the end of the battle the 1st Battalion of The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment was left with just 34 men, having begun the war with 1,026. Frustrated, the Allies first scaled back, then abandoned their attack when it became plain that neither side was going to gain any ground. The first stalemate of World War One had been reached. Reluctantly, the Allies too began to dig. They expected to move on again almost straight away, but remained in that first trench for a week as the fighting continued to the north.
From now on, most battles would be fought trench-to-trench. The ‘Race to the Sea’ began, with both armies moving ever-northwards, sometimes one ahead, sometimes the other, leapfrogging each other over and over, but with nobody ever decisively winning or losing. Even when they reached the sea, neither side would claim a win as the Belgians, already in situ, opened sluice gates and flooded the countryside to prevent the Germans from taking Antwerp. This was not a war that would be over by Christmas after all.