General Karl von Bülow (1846-1921) was the German general who ordered the first retreat during the First Battle of the Marne, moving his 2nd Army back to the Aisne and ending any chance that the Germans might win the war in the west in 1914.
Bülow was born in Berlin on 24 March 1846, the son of a Prussian army officer. He soon joined the army, and fought in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Despite not have attended the Kriegsakademie he was posted to the General Staff in 1876, where he was promoted to captain in 1877.
In 1894 he was made colonel of the 4th Foot Guard Regiment, but he soon returned to a staff role, become head of the central department of the Prussian War Ministry in 1897, with the rank of major general, then deputy chief of the General Staff in 1902. In the following year he was given command of III Corps, then in 1904 was promoted to general infantry, and in 1912 to colonel-general. In the same year he became head of 3rd Army Inspection. He was also honoured with the colonelcy-in-chief of the 12th Grenadier Regiment and with a commission in his old regiment, the 4th Foot Guards.
On 2 August 1914 von Bülow was given command of the 2nd Army, which contained the prestigious Guard Corps. At the start of the war he had Ludendorff as a senior staff officer, and it would be Ludendorff who was responsible for the 2nd Army's first major success, the capture of Liege on 16 August. Soon after this success Ludendorff was moved to the Eastern Front, denying Bülow his services during some of the most important battles of the entire war.
The 2nd Army had one of the most important roles in the German plan, which was for a massive right hook that would pass through Belgium, and swing around to pin the entire French army up against the Franco-German border (the Schlieffen Plan). The biggest problem with this plan, as its author had acknowledged, was Paris. The French capitol was surrounded by modern fortifications, and would be impossible to capture quickly.
The Germans had two choices - they could either pass around the west of Paris, which would give them the widest possible right hook but would create a massive gap in their armies and would require a superhuman effort on the part of the marching infantry, or to the east of the city, a move that would leave the German right wing exposed to an attack from the city. In 1914 the original plan was for von Kluck's 1st Army to pass to the west of the city, and for Bülow's 2nd Army to pass to the east. The pressure of events soon forced von Kluck to abandon this plan, and turn in to march east of Paris, but at the same time a gap remained between the two German armies.
At first everything went well for Bülow. His troops captured Liege and Namur, and advanced towards the Sambre, where they ran into General Lanrezac's French Fifth Army, at the northern end of the French line. Some of Bülow's men found a number of unguarded bridges over the Sambre on 21 August, and by 23 August Lanrezac had been forced to order a retreat. To his left the tiny BEF was also forced to retreat, despite its defensive success at Mons. The battle of the Sambre was perhaps the most important part of the series of battles known as the Battle of the Frontiers of France. The entire Allied line in France was threatened with envelopment as three German armies advanced south and south-west behind the left flank of the original French line.
Problems soon began to develop on the German right. The German plan had underestimated the French army's ability to respond to events. After clashing with the BEF at Mons and Le Cateau Kluck advanced south-west for a short time, heading towards Amiens where he believed he would find the British. In fact the British had retreated south, so Kluck found nothing. He was also unaware that a new French Sixth Army was being formed north of Paris under General Maunoury, and begin to consider turns south, to march east of Paris.
On 29 August Bülow's right flank was attacked at St. Quentin by General Lanrezac's 5th Army. Bülow asked Kluck, who had only regained operational independence from Bülow of 27 August, to swing right to support him. Although the Guards Corps suffered a check at Guise on 29 August, the 1st and 2nd Armies continued to advance south, crossing the Marne.
The French were now ready to launch their great counterattack. It began with an attack from the direction of Paris, the battle of the Ourcq River (5-9 September 1914). This attack was led by Maunoury's Sixth Army, with support from General Gallieni and the garrison of Paris, and was the battle that saw the famous incident where troops were rushed to the front in taxi cabs. The battle of the Ourcq actually ended as a German victory, and if the Germans had continued to attack then Paris may have been threatened, but events further east meant that would not happen.
When Kluck turned west to deal with the new French threat a gap developed between his army and Bülow's Second Army. The BEF and the French Fifth Army under Franchet d'Esperey advanced into this gap, threatening Bülow's right flank (First battle of the Marne, 5-10 September 1914).
By 8 September von Moltke was becoming increasingly concerned about the situation on the German right. He sent Lt. Colonel Richard Hentsch, one of his staff officers, to investigate the situation. When Hentsch met with Bülow he found him in a very pessimistic mood, and considering a retreat to the Aisne. On 9 September, having detected a number of Allied columns in the gap on his right, Bülow ordered that retreat, forcing Kluck to pull back to avoid being cut off.
The period of Allied success was short-lived. Kluck and Bülow took up defensive positions on the high ground north of the River Aisne, where they held off a series of Allied attacks (first battle of the Aisne, 13-28 September 1914). Trench warfare was about to seize control of the Western Front.
There would be one more period of rapid movement - the Race to the Sea - although here most of the movement came as both sides attempted to rush fresh troops around the others northern flank, and stopped once the armies were in contact. Bülow played a minor part in this campaign. On 10 October, after the fighting had passed away to the north, he was moved from the Aisne to St. Quentin, taking command of a new 2nd Army.
Bülow remained in the field into 1915. He was promoted to field-marshal in January 1915, but then suffered a heart attack, and on 4 April 1915 was forced to relinquish his command. On the same day he was awarded the Pour le Mérite. He was eager to return to active service, but was not recalled, and retired from the army on 22 June 1916. His reputation, which had suffered after the defeat on the Marne, was not restored by his own account of the battle, published in 1919 at a time when a defeated Germany was looking for scapegoats. He died in Berlin on 31 August 1921. Bülow was described as a cold, arrogant and self-confident man, but in 1914 he was in good health, and the stresses of the long march across Belgium and into France left him tired and indecisive, and the removal of Ludendorff early in the campaign left him without his most able staff officer, but in reality the German failure had more to do with the limits of the Schlieffen Plan and the problem of Paris.