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The Western Front: 1914-19161914: Opening Battles - The Schlieffen Plan and the Race to the Sea

The war in Europe had been set off by Austria-Hungary and Serbia, but the conflict between these two nations was soon dwarfed by the fighting between their allies. In the east, Russia’s huge armies moved into Germany. In the west, German’s attack on France drew in Belgium and Great Britain. This struggle on the Western Front would eventually bring the United States into the conflict, but not until after three years of slaughter and futility. 

The Schlieffen Plan

Germany’s war plan, the Schlieffen Plan, called for it to quickly defeat France and then shift east to fight Russia. Its armies were to sweep down through Belgium and northern France toward Paris, like a giant swinging door. On August 4, Germany invaded Belgium, violating its neutrality. The British upheld their commitment to defend Belgium, and declared war on Germany.

However, all Britain could immediately do was to blockade Germany with its navy and to prepare its undersized army for battle. Belgian fought fiercely, but German forces quickly overwhelmed its tiny army and occupied much of the country. Germany’s aggression, and the harsh actions of its troops during the invasion and occupation, outraged the civilized world.

To the southeast, France opened the war by pushing into territory it had lost to Germany in their 1870 war. Tens of thousands of Frenchmen fell to German rifle and machine gun fire in wasteful attacks: 27,000 died on August 22 alone.

The Germans then began their sweep into France. The French armies, supported by the small British Expeditionary Force, could not hold them back. By early September, German troops were within sight of Paris. The Allies launched a desperate counterattack; the Battle of the Marne finally halted the German advance.

The Race to the Sea

For the next few weeks, each side tried to get around the northern end of the other’s lines, in a so-called “race to the sea”. Finally, both sides ran out of room to maneuver. By year’s end, the Allies and Germans faced each other along a continuous line that ran for 450 miles from the coast of Belgium, through northern France, down to the border of Switzerland. This line would remain essentially unchanged for over three years.

In less than five months, the armies on the Western Front had suffered nearly two million casualties, including half a million deaths.