Preparations For War: The British Expeditionary Force

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, the British were an unknown quantity. Their Liberal government was horrified at the prospect of war. The Germans were counting on that queasiness to overrule the British commitment to uphold Belgian neutrality as promised under the London Treaty of 1839. The German invasion of France, as dictated by The Schlieffen Plan, depended on the armies being able to swing south through Belgium. On August 2, 1914, Germany demanded right of passage for their troops to march through Belgium. The Belgians refused. The Germans came anyway and Belgium found itself at war.

The British responded by delivering an ultimatum. Germany ignored it. They had delivered their own ultimatum to Belgium, in which they promised to leave their territory upon cessation of hostilities and to make reparations for any damage caused by the troops. No one believed that for a minute. Belgian Premier Charles de Broqueville said, “If Germany is victorious, Belgium, whatever her attitude, will be annexed to the German Empire.”

German troops entered Belgium on August 3, 1914 and Britain declared war on August 4th. Britain would enter a war in which she had not been directly affronted. German Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke knew the British would enter the war with or without Belgian violation. He said, “[England] … fears German hegemony and true to her policy of maintaining a balance of power will do all she can to check the increase of German power.”

The B.E.F. – British Expeditionary Force had first been organized in 1907. Behind the scenes, an inner circle of the British government had made greater commitments to France in case of war than was widely known to the public. Nevertheless, the commitment to the cause was to be rather small: four infantry divisions plus cavalry and artillery; no more than 100,000 men. Compared to the 2 million invading Germans, this was a drop in the bucket. However, in the beginning, British involvement was as important for what it symbolized -allegiance with France-  as for what it actually contributed. When asked the minimum number of British troops with which France would be content, the politician Georges Clemenceau famously replied, “One, and we shall take good care to get him killed.” The British plan largely consisted of falling in on the French left flank and following their lead.

By the time the B.E.F. reached position in Mauberge on August 20, the fighting was well under way. France’s offensive in Lorraine was in trouble and Belgium was being destroyed.

21 thoughts on “Preparations For War: The British Expeditionary Force

  1. You do a good job of explaining Meg but WWI is just so goddamn murky, it never really makes any kind of sense whereas at least WWII is quite clear cut. Have you read Junger yet? I am ambiguous but he was an Olympian figure and he really enjoyed the war, I mean really enjoyed it. Thing is he was a lot better writer than Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front though that is a great title).

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      1. Well Junger saw it as an intense extreme experience, like he was finally really living, he was later fond of drugs, mainly cocaine and he tripped with Albert Hoffman the inventor of LSD who was a friend, but he had a lot of friends, Picasso and Cocteau and even Brecht told the German government after WWII to lay off Junger. Hitler worshipped him even after Junger wrote a satirical dystopian fantasy about the Nazis. He never joined the Nazis but was cultural attaché in Paris during the occupation. Bolano really liked Junger… by the way you must read Bolano… 2666 at least. You think my worldview is dense and hermetic I aren’t nothing on Bolano yet 2666 was an Oprah book of the month and was sold in airports.

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      2. You make a good case, and well if Oprah read it… I need to read it on the beach or poolside. Somewhere cheerful. Lots of bad stuff happening, must fill you in.

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      3. No 2666 is not a cheery book at all… the part about the crimes is horrific like the list when De Sade started to run out of paper in 120 days in Sodom… sorry to hear that sorry I am a bit overexcited I have taken way too much cough syrup and my thoughts are rather scattered

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