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First World War home page The First World War, 1914 - 1918
Origins of the conflict
'Over by Christmas'
Britain and the outbreak of the war
German ascendancy
Stalemate and change : the war 1916 -18
Final stages of the war
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'Over by Christmas'

Schlieffen Plan - opens new window
The Schlieffen Plan

German military strategy - based on the Glossary - opens new windowSchlieffen Plan - was predicated on the idea of avoiding a 'two-front war' in the east and the west by first rapidly defeating France and then turning the full might of the German army against Russia.

German success, then stalemate
Initial successes were striking. By 20 August, German troops had occupied large swathes of Belgium, including the capital Brussels. The road to Paris seemed to lie open. Meanwhile, in the east, German forces inflicted a crushing defeat on the advancing Russians at the Battle of Glossary - opens new windowTannenberg (26-31 August).

However, the German army was stopped in its tracks by retreating Anglo-French forces at the Battle of the Glossary - opens new windowMarne in early September 1914. This staunch rearguard action destroyed German hopes of a rapid victory in the west and defeated the Schlieffen Plan. The battle on the Western Front descended into a bloody stalemate that was not broken until the spring of 1918.

Battle of the Marne - opens new window
Battle of the Marne

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Global conflict

From the outset, the First World War was a global conflict. The very first engagement of the war took place in West Africa, where British forces from the Glossary - opens new windowGold Coast colony occupied the neighbouring German-owned territory of Glossary - opens new windowTogoland. During the autumn of 1914, Britain co-operated with Japan, which had declared war on Germany on 23 August, to ensure that it gained control of the German stronghold of Glossary - opens new windowTsingtau on the eastern coast of China.

By the end of 1914, the two sides in the conflict could each claim the services of millions of soldiers from a total of six empires. The Glossary - opens new windowTriple Entente of Britain, France and Russia was pitted against the triumvirate known as the Glossary - opens new windowCentral Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey (the latter had declared war on the Entente on 29 October). British and Indian troops were immediately dispatched to the eastern Turkish province of Glossary - opens new windowMesopotamia to instigate what was widely expected to be the rapid disintegration of the Glossary - opens new windowOttoman empire.

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Increasing intensity of the conflict

The war was evidently not going to be 'over by Christmas', as so many had initially thought. The extraordinary but brief - and unofficial - truce between British and German soldiers on the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914 could not mask the increasingly harsh intensity of the conflict.

The first British civilian casualties of the war were caused by German naval attacks on Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool on the north-east coast on 16 December. Allegations of Spotlights on historyGerman atrocities against civilians and captured Allied soldiers in Belgium were beginning to surface. Conditions in the trenches became increasingly desperate over the winter months. In the first five months of warfare alone, 300,000 Frenchmen had been killed - a figure greater than the total number of British war dead during the Second World War.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

CAB 45/162: Misrepresentation of the role of the BEF in the Battle of the Marne in the French official history of the war, 1933-35.
WO 32/4996B: Report on the operations of the British Expeditionary Force in Tsingtau, 1914-15.
WO 32/5788: Various material on operations in Togo and their aftermath, 1914-15.
WO 106/1533: Report on operations in Togo between 5 and 26 Aug 1914, Dec 1914.
WO 153/1295: Map showing 'Crisis of the Marne', 9 Sep 1914.
WO 161/28: Tsingtau Expeditionary Force: report of medical officer with British troops, Nov-Dec 1914.

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