Tommy, p.5Richard Holmes
But despite a properly thought-through system of conscription which filled new barracks with fresh-faced youths, France was destined to remain weaker than Germany: neither her demography nor her industry could keep pace. Part of the solution was to offset French weakness with foreign strength. In 1892 she concluded a military accord with the Russians, and the conditions of French loans to help Russian industry placed particular emphasis on the construction of railways which would help the Russian army, huge but still only part-reformed, move westwards more quickly. In 1901 the Russians agreed to launch their first attack on Germany eighteen days after the declaration of war, and to follow it with up to 800,000 men by the twenty-eighth day.
Colonial rivalry made an agreement with Britain more difficult. However, in January 1906 Colonel Victor Huguet, the French military attaché in London, called on the chief of the general staff to ask what Britain’s attitude would be if the Morocco crisis, then fizzing away briskly, led to war between France and Germany. ‘Semi-official’ discussions between the respective staffs were authorised shortly afterwards, on the understanding that their conclusions were not binding. French overtures came at a time when the British armed services were in the process of implementing reforms following the Boer War of 1899–1902, which had gone on far longer than expected and revealed some serious flaws in the military establishment. We shall see the results of some of these reforms in the next chapter, but the essential point in 1905–6 was that the newly created general staff (soon to be imperial general staff) was testing its weight in the almost equally new Committee of Imperial Defence, which had broader responsibility for national defence.
The Royal Navy had previously enjoyed pride of place in defence planning, just as its warship-building programme gave it a stranglehold on the defence budget. But in 1906 a mixture of reticence and poor preparation lost it a succession of arguments in the Committee of Imperial Defence, and the general staff’s plan for sending around 100,000 men to France in the event of war with Germany was approved. It was not to be automatic, and would still require political approval: but it formed the basis for British military planning and a series of staff talks with the French. Another war crisis in 1911 saw Major General Henry Wilson lay the army’s war plan before the Committee of Imperial Defence with what Captain Maurice Hankey, its secretary, called ‘remarkable brilliancy’. Nothing had been neglected. The Francophile Wilson had even included ‘dix minutes pour une tasse de café’ as the troops moved up through Amiens station. The navy’s opposing plan was hopeless.36
The improvement of their army and the construction of foreign alliances encouraged the French to forsake the defensive plans which had followed the years immediately after the Franco-Prussian War in favour of offensive schemes. The one to be implemented in 1914, ‘Plan 17’, called for an all-out attack into the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. It embodied some characteristics which were distinctively French: ‘The French Army,’ declared the 1913 regulations, ‘returning to its traditions, henceforth knows no law but the offensive.’ The popular philosopher Henri Bergson lectured at the Sorbonne on l’élan vital, and Ernest Psichari wrote of ‘a proud and violent army’.37
But it also represented a tendency which was by now marked in the tactical doctrine of European armies in general. The fighting in South Africa and in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 (the latter well attended by foreign observers) had not simply reminded men that fire killed. It had warned them of the danger that fire would paralyse movement, and that war would become costly and purposeless. Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German general staff from 1891 to 1906, feared that:
All along the line the corps will try, as in siege warfare, to come to grips with the enemy from position to position, day and night, advancing, digging in, advancing again, digging in again, etc, using every means of modern science to dislodge the enemy behind his cover.38
Armies believed that they had to shrug off what a French colonel termed ‘abnormal dread of losses on the battlefield’. All were to enter the war convinced that the tactical offensive was the best way to avert strategic stalemate.
While the French planned a direct assault, the Germans were more subtle. Their situation was complicated by the Franco-Russian alliance, which meant that they faced the prospect of war on two fronts. Schlieffen eventually concluded that he could win only ‘ordinary victories’ over the Russians, who would simply withdraw into the fastnesses of their vast empire. Instead, he proposed to leave only a blocking force in the east and to throw the bulk of his armies against France. A direct assault across the heavily-fortified Franco-German border offered poor prospects, so he would instead send the majority of his striking force through Belgium, whence it would wheel down into France, its right wing passing west of Paris, to catch the French in a battle of encirclement somewhere in Champagne. The term ‘Schlieffen Plan’ is historical shorthand for a series of drafts revised by Schlieffen and his successor, Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke, chief of the general staff when the war broke out, and there has been a recent suggestion that it was a post-facto invention to account for German failure in 1914. But its essential elements were clear enough. The battle’s western flank, where the German 1st, 2nd and 3rd Armies were to march through Belgium, was to be the decisive one, and it was the area of the Franco-Belgian border that would be denuded of troops by French emphasis on Plan 17. But because the Anglo-French staff talks were not binding, the arrival of a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) could not be taken for granted, and so it was precisely to this flank that the BEF would be sent.
The course of the swiftly-burning powder train that blew the old world apart in the summer of 1914 is too well documented to need description here. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, in the Bosnian town of Sarajevo on 28 June, encouraged the Austrians to put pressure on the Serbs, who they regarded as responsible for the outrage. The Serbs appealed to their Slav brothers in Russia, and although the Russians hoped to avoid large-scale war, their supposedly deterrent mobilisation on 30 July was followed by a German mobilisation on 1 August and an immediate French response. Early on the morning of 4 August the leading troopers of General von der Marwitz’s cavalry corps, spearheading the German attack, clattered across the border into Belgium.
The British Cabinet held its first Council of War on the afternoon of Wednesday 5 August, and on the following afternoon it authorised the dispatch of four infantry divisions and a cavalry division to France: more troops would follow once it was clear that home defence, the function of the untried Territorial Force, was assured. It is clear that, whatever propaganda was milked from German violation of Belgian neutrality, British intervention was motivated by clear raison d’état. Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary in H. H. Asquith’s Liberal government, recognised that German victory would result in its dominance in Europe, a circumstance ‘wholly inimical to British interests’.
The commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir John French, was given formal instructions by Lord Kitchener, the newly-appointed Secretary of State for War. ‘The special motive of the force under your control,’ wrote Kitchener,
is to support and co-operate with the French army against our common enemies …
… during the assembly of your troops you will have the opportunity of discussing with the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army the military position in general and the special part which your force is able and adapted to play. It must be recognised from the outset that the numerical strength of the British Force and its contingent reinforcement is strictly limited …
Therefore, while every effort must be made to coincide most sympathetically with the plans and wishes of our Ally, the gravest consideration will devolve upon you as to participation in forward movements where large bodies of French troops are not engaged …
… I wish you distinctly to understand that your command is an entirely independent one and you will in no case come under t
When French was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig in December 1915 these instructions were replaced by a more forceful insistence that: ‘The defeat of the enemy by the combined Allied Armies must always be regarded as the primary object for which British troops were sent to France, and to achieve that end, the closest co-operation of French and British as a united army must be the governing policy …’.40 Both sets of instructions were statements of Cabinet policy, underlining the government’s commitment to coalition strategy.
It is worth quoting these instructions at length because they make a crucial point about the Western Front. Start to finish, it would be the major theatre in a coalition war. Its importance was given unique weight by the fact that, from after the autumn of 1914, the Germans were in occupation of a wide swathe of French territory, which included not simply the great city of Lille, but the surrounding area of mining belt along the Franco-Belgian border. It was the land of les galibots, lads who went down the mine at the ages of eleven or twelve, dreadful mining accidents (1,101 miners were killed at Sallaumines in March 1906), and an area which rivalled the ‘red belt’ round Paris as the heartland of French socialism. Until German withdrawal to the Hindenburg line in early 1917, the angle where the front turned to run eastwards was near the little town of Noyon, which is as close to Paris as Canterbury is to London. It is easy for British or American readers to forget this now, though it was impossible for soldiers then to be unaware of the shocking damage that the war was inflicting on France or the front’s proximity to the French capital.
For most of the war the BEF was not under French command. Haig was temporarily so placed for the ill-starred Nivelle offensive of April 1917, and after the German offensive of March 1918 General Ferdinand Foch became Allied supreme commander, although his role was more one of effective co-ordination than tactical command. Yet both French and Haig knew that they had to fight a coalition war, difficult, frustrating and costly though it so often was. The timing and location of the British offensives at Loos in 1915 and the Somme in 1916 were the direct result of French pressure, and the state of the mutiny-struck French army in 1917 was an element in the decision-making process which led Haig to attack at Ypres that summer.
The bulk of the British Expeditionary Force disembarked at Le Havre and moved by train to its concentration area on the triangle Maubeuge-Hirson-Le Cateau. With its commander confident in the success of the French armies executing Plan 17 it set off northwards on 21 August, and the following night halted with its advance guard on the line of the Mons-Condé Canal, just across the Belgian border. By now Sir John French was beginning to hear that the French attack had met with bloody repulse, although he had no inkling that it was in fact to cost France almost a quarter of her mobilised strength and nearly half her regular officers. On 23 August 1914 the BEF fought its first battle on the canal just north of Mons.
Although Mons was a small battle by later standards, it had a resonance all its own as the Old Army of Catterick and Quetta did what it was paid to do. Corporal John Lucy of the Royal Irish Rifles was in a shallow trench under German shellfire when German infantry came forward.
In answer to the German bugles or trumpets came the cheerful sound of our officers’ whistles, and the riflemen, casting aside the amazement of their strange trial, sprang to action. A great roar of musketry rent the air, varying slightly in intensity from minute to minute as whole companies ceased fire and opened again … Our rapid fire was appalling, even to us, and the worst marksman could not miss, as he had only to fire into the ‘brown’ of the masses of the unfortunate enemy who on the front of our two companies were continuously and uselessly reinforced at the short range of three hundred yards. Such tactics amazed us, and after the first shock of seeing men slowly and helplessly falling down as they were hit, gave us a great sense of power and pleasure. It was all so easy.41
But both the BEF’s flanks were turned, and French was reluctantly persuaded that continuing an apparently successful defensive battle would be disastrous. So that night the BEF began a retreat which took it to Le Cateau on 26 August, scene of a much bigger battle than Mons, and then on to the River Marne. The retreat from Mons tried even the Old Army to the limit, as John Lucy remembered.
I rate Tymble for lurching out of his section of fours, and he tells me to go to bloody hell. I say: ‘Shut up, cover over, and get the step.’ He tells me that bastards like me ought to be shot for annoying the troops and it would not take him long to do it. I get annoyed, and moving close to him ask him what he would suppose I would be doing while he was loading up to shoot me. His comrade nudges him. He titters like a drunkard, wipes his mouth wearily with his sleeve, and says he is sorry. A bad business. Too much on the men when they begin to talk like that.42
By 30 August, Sir John French, his mercurial personality influenced by the losses he had sustained, the apparent collapse of French plans, and Kitchener’s warning about running risks, proposed to fall back on his lines of communication to regroup, and told General Joseph Joffre, the French commander in chief, that he would not be able to fight on the Marne. An alarmed Kitchener travelled to France to meet him in the British embassy in Paris on the afternoon of 1 September. The two men did not get on, and French was especially affronted by the fact that Kitchener arrived in field marshal’s uniform – not surprisingly, for he wore it every day. Although accounts of the meeting vary, it ended with a note from Kitchener which emphasised that the BEF would ‘conform … to the movements of the French army …’.43 Although the BEF played an unimportant role in the battle of the Marne, the climactic struggle of the summer’s campaign, it took part in the general advance which followed the Allied victory. ‘[It was] the happiest day of my life,’ declared Jack Seely, Liberal politician turned cavalry colonel, ‘we marched towards the rising sun.’44
Despite optimistic chatter that the war would now follow the traditional pattern of advance, decisive battle, retreat and peace, it soon became clear that this was not to be the case. In mid-September the Germans dug in on the northern bank of the River Aisne and, although the BEF crossed the river, it made little impression on German defences. Sir John French, no military genius, but no fool either, quickly saw what had happened, and told King George V that:
I think the battle of the Aisne is very typical of what battles in the future are most likely to resemble. Siege operations will enter largely into the tactical problems – the spade will be as great a necessity as the rifle, and the heaviest calibres and types of artillery will be brought up in support on either side.45
In late September French formally asked Joffre for permission to disengage from the Aisne and to move onto the Allied left flank, which would make it easier for him to maintain communications with this home base and give his cavalry the opportunity of operating against the German right flank. What followed, known to historians as ‘The Race to the Sea’, saw both sides shift troops northwards, feeling for an open flank. It established that, just as the southern end of the front already stretched to the Swiss border, the northern end of the front would reach the North Sea. In the process the movement northwards took the BEF to the little Belgian town of Ypres, first attacking on the axis of the Menin Road in the expectation that it was turning the German flank, and then desperately defending against strong thrusts aimed at the Channel ports.
The first battle of Ypres ended in mid-November 1914. By then the fluid pattern of the summer’s fighting had set in earth, and the Western Front had taken up the line it was to retain, give or take local changes, until the Germans pulled back from the nose of the Noyon salient in early 1917. By the year’s end the BEF had grown from around 100,000 men, organised in the four infantry divisions and one cavalry division that had gone to France in early August, to two armies and a cavalry corps, a total of more than 270,000 men, already more than half as many as had served in the Boer War during the whole of its duration. In the process it had lost 16,200 officers and men killed, 47,707 wounded and a
Early in 1915 French initiated planning for an attack on the La Bassée–Aubers Ridge, on the southern end of the British sector. It was held by General Sir Douglas Haig’s 1st Army, and he had altogether more confidence in Haig than in Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien of 2nd Army. In part this reflected the fact that Haig had served under him in the past, and the two apparently got on well: he would have been horrified to discover that Haig regarded him ‘as quite unfit for this great command at a time of crisis in our Nation’s history’.46 French found Smith-Dorrien far less sympathetic, resented the fact that he had been sent out without consultation to replace the commander of II Corps when he died of a heart attack on his way to the concentration area the previous August, and likewise felt that his decision to fight at Le Cateau had been unwise. The attack was intended to be part of a wider Allied venture, but Sir John was unable to guarantee sufficient high-quality reinforcements to take over a section of the French front, upon which Joffre withdrew his support.
The British attacked anyhow, at Neuve Chapelle on 10 March. Their initial assault went well, largely because they had one gun for every 6 yards of front, and, because they were short of ammunition, they fired what they had in a rapid bombardment just before the attack. The Germans managed to prevent a breakthrough, though the British gained a maximum of 1,000 yards on a front of some 4,000. French hoped to repeat the process as soon as he could, but lacked sufficient artillery ammunition to do so. On the 18th he told Kitchener that:
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