Kluck was born in Münster, Westphalia. He saw service during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War. He advanced steadily through the ranks of the German Army and in 1913 was appointed Inspector General of the Seventh Army District.
With the outbreak of World War I, Kluck was placed in command of the German First Army. According to the Moltke revisions of the Schlieffen Plan, the First Army was part of the strong right wing and positioned on the outer western edge of the German advance through Belgium and France. This western flank was to advance alongside Karl von Bülow's Second Army to Paris. Upon reaching Paris in concert, the First and Second armies were to threaten Paris from both the west and east.
After fighting the British at Mons and Le Cateau, the First Army pursued Lanrezac's French Fifth Army during the great retreat. However, thirty miles from Paris and anticipating an encounter with the French Fifth Army (commanded by Lanrezac), the cautious von Bulow halted his Second Army's advance and demanded von Kluck's direct support. By this time, the aggressive Kluck had advanced his First Army well south of von Bulow's position to 13 miles north of Paris. Although frustrated by Bülow's caution, on 31 August Kluck turned his army southeast to support the Second Army.
In so doing, Kluck exposed his own right flank in the direction of Paris and also created a 30 mile gap in the German line extending toward Bülow's stalled Second Army.
As a result of passing to the east of Paris, on 5 September General Maunoury's Sixth Army was able to launch an attack against Kluck's flank from Paris, thereby marking the opening of the First Battle of the Marne. A surprise attack on 8 September by Franchet D'Esperey's (who had replaced Lanrezac) Fifth Army against Bülow's Second widened the gap which the British Expeditionary Force marched to exploit. At September 9 a representative of the German Headquarters, Hentsch, considered the situation of Bülow's Army as very dangerous and ordered a retreat of all the armies, even though by that time von Kluck had overcome most of his own problems. The Germans retreated in good order to positions forty miles behind the River Aisne. There, the front would remain for years in the form of entrenched positions as World War I continued.
Kluck and Bülow's lack of coordination and the ensuing failure to maintain an effective offensive live was a primary contribution to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan which was intended to deliver a decisive blow against France. Instead, the long stalemate of trench warfare was ready to begin. Because of Kluck's presumed failure, the phrase "dumb Kluck" (or more commonly "dumb cluck") has become a well-known insult. The British at the time called him "old one o'clock". Many German experts, however, hold Kluck and especially his Chief of Staff, Kuhl, in the highest esteem. Germany could have won the Battle of the Marne, they think, if only Bülow had matched the courageous initiatives of Kluck's Army.
Kluck was seriously injured in the leg in March 1915 and retired from active service in October 1916. General von Kluck wrote of his participation in the War in the volume entitled Führung und Taten der Erste (1920). New International Encyclopedia His post war memoirs, The March on Paris and the Battle of the Marne, were published in 1920. Kluck died in Berlin.