Alexander von Kluck was a German general of the First World War most famous for his decision to march to pass to the east instead of to the west of Paris at the end of August 1914. He had joined the Prussian Army in 1865, and fought in the war of 1866 against Austria and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. In the years that followed his rose to colonel (1896), major general (1899) and general of infantry (1906). In 1909 his family was ennobled, turning Alexander Kluck into Alexander von Kluck. In 1914 he was promoted to colonel general, and given command of the First Army.
This army made up the extreme right wing of the German army that invaded Belgium in 1914, following the famous Schlieffen plan. The aim of this plan was to trap the bulk of the French armies between the German border and the advancing German armies. They would have to march west through Belgium, then swing south past Paris, then turn east to trap the French. The First Army would have the hardest job and the longest march, potentially having to march west of Paris.
At first all went well. The French advanced east, while the Germans swept through Belgium. Kluck’s First Army was held up by the BEF at Mons (23 August) and Le Cateau (26 August), but in each case only for a day. After these battles Kluck discounted the BEF, thinking that it had been knocked out of the fight, when in fact it had retreated south and was still very much intact.
Kluck now found himself facing the same dilemma that had faced Schlieffen –should he go east or west of Paris. The original plan called for him to pass west of Paris, but it took no real account of the strength of Paris as a fortified city. If Kluck was to go west he would be very badly isolated, and a massive gap would open in the German line, with the fortress and garrison of Paris in the middle, capable of attacking Kluck’s left wing or the right wing of the next army in line. If he went east, that gap need not open. His flank would still be open to attack from Paris, and there was less chance of catching the bulk of the French armies in the German trap. Schlieffen had never solved this problem to his satisfaction – his ideal plan would have seen eight corps besiege Paris, but the roads through Belgium could not carry those corps, even if they had been available, and Schlieffen had been forced to admit that Germany was not strong enough to carry out his plan.
Kluck eventually decided to march east of Paris, staying in touch with von Bülow, to his left, and hopefully defeating what had originally been the most westerly French Army, Lanrezac’s Fifth. It was not this move that doomed the German plan. Kluck’s big mistake was that he allowed a gap to develop between his army and Bülow’s. When the French Sixth Army attacked his right flank (battle of the Ourcq), Kluck turns his army to the right, and attacked towards Paris. While he did come close to victory on the Ourcq, this created the gap in the German line that Joffre needed for his own counterattack (first battle of the Marne).
The French Fifth Army and the BEF marched into the gap between the German First and Second Armies. On 8 September Moltke dispatched one of his staff to investigate the position at the front, and that officer, Colonel Richard Hentsch, found Bülow in a defeatist mood. He wanted to retreat to the Aisne to prevent the collapse of the German position. As the Second Army prepared to pull back, Kluck was forced to cancel his planned attack on Paris and join the retreat back to the Aisne.
Kluck retained command of the First Army until 28 March 1915, when he was badly wounded by shrapnel. At the same time as losing the First Army, he was awarded the Pour le Mérite, but he never received another command, retiring in October 1916. For the rest of his life he was convinced that his move towards Paris would have resulted in a decisive German victory if he had been allowed to proceed, suggesting that he was never entirely in tune with the purpose of the Schlieffen Plan. An aggressive and capable commander, it was his misfortune to have the key command in August 1914 in a plan whose basic flaws had been recognised by Schlieffen, but never solved.