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.
Like Germany, France had also designed a plan for war far in advance of the outbreak. Their vision was to be clouded by a thirst for revenge. They were still smarting from the loss of their territories in Alsace and Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870’s. And with their recovery in mind, the French committed to the doctrine of the all-out offensive.
In 1911, Plan 16 was adopted. It called for the build up of troops on the Eastern borders of France, quickly followed by a straighforward drive into the lost provinces. This strategy meant the armies would have to cross the Vosges Mountains of Eastern France. The mountains, while not particularly high, are rugged and rough, and at the time, lacked much in the way of communication facilities. It would not be easy country to traverse in the rapid attempt to gain territory.
One man recognized this problem –the new Commander in Chief of the French Army, General Victor Michel. He correctly predicted that a German offensive would come through Belgium, not through the Eastern mountains. He suggested that a new plan be devised that would take the French Army northwest into Belgium to counter the anticipated German move. He was promptly fired.
Michel was replaced by General Joseph Joffre, a large man whose best attributes were patience and a refusal to panic.
His version of a plan for war was a modified version of Plan 16, dubbed Plan 17, and kept two armies in reserve to monitor the southern Belgian border. Despite taking a possible German incursion through Belgium into account, the French offensive would still proceed to march through Alsace-Lorraine.
Joffre had made several mistaken assumptions regarding the course of the war: he thought Russian operations would have greater impact, he thought Britain would offer more help at the outset than they did and most tragically, he assumed the Germans had far fewer troops than they did. In fact, despite the early hints that vast numbers of German troops were massing north of the Ardennes, Joffre stuck to his convictions that the enemy didn’t have the manpower to concentrate that far north.
Thus it was that Plan 17 was put into action. On the Eastern offensive, the brightly uniformed French* –wearing the red trousers and navy overcoats of bygone days, their white-gloved officers with swords unsheathed leading the way– would sweep forward in long lines in perfect order. The German machine guns would open up and slaughter them.
This is a brief overview… there is so much more that happened in those opening days of war. I recommend for anyone interested: The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman and A Short History of World War I, by James L. Stokesbury. Header Image courtesy History Extra.
*The French quickly realized the folly of their hubris. Their traditional uniform had essentially put targets on their backs. The sky blue uniform which had been suggested in the years prior to the outbreak was rapidly adopted.
The outbreak of war in 1914 had been planned in advance for nearly twenty years. In those preceding decades, the maneuvering for power on the Continent among the players who finally declared against each other in the early days of that fateful August, had resulted in their political and military leaders preparing plans for all the potential scenarios that might arise in the case of a general European war.
Of all the plans that had been drafted, the most important of them was that of the Germans because ultimately, its execution turned a regional war into a world war. It was called The Schlieffen Plan after it’s author, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, who served as the Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1906. The bulk of the plan had already been formulated by 1895. Minor modifications and what can only be called tampering, were the only changes that were made to the plan after Shclieffen’s retirement.
The plan went like this:
Shielffen concluded, based on the alliances formed during his tenure, that Germany would have to fight a two front war. France had allied with Russia, therefore any war involving either of those parties would inevitably drag the other into the fray. In those days the objective was to be the fastest to mobilize. The first army to get into position would ultimately be the victor, or so it was thought. Schlieffen calculated correctly that the German army would be the fastest to mobilize, with the French second fastest and the Russian army the slowest.
If Germany could rush into position, Shlieffen believed, the two front war could be avoided. With a massive push against France in the opening weeks of a confrontation, the speedy German forces could overwhelm the French before the Russians had their troops mobilized. After quickly defeating the French, they could now send the full force of the German war machine against the sluggish Russians.
For this plan to work, several assumptions were made. One, that an engaged French army would launch an attack into the region of Allsace-Lorraine– the former French regions lost to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870’s. This would leave the Western borders of France weak and vulnerable. The main wing of the German army would march west, drop down through Belgium (unopposed, or so they thought) and have the French forces surrounded from The English Channel on the west to the defensive forces engaging the French offensive in Alsace-Lorraine on the east. The whole thing would take no more than six weeks. Paris would be captured and the Germans could turn their attention to the Russian army on the extreme eastern front.
Shlieffen said, “Let the right-flank grenadier brush the Channel with his sleeve.”
However, for Germany to launch the massive and speedy offensive into Western France, neutral Belgium had to be invaded. The original Shlieffen plan also called for an intrusion into a small section of the Netherlands. Schlieffen had calculated (wrongly) that, despite a treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality and Britain’s promise to uphold such, the British would stand idly by while ‘little Belgium’ was violated by the massive two million man German offensive. That alone would not prove to be the only downfall of The Schlieffen Plan.
When Schlieffen retired in 1906, he was replaced by Helmuth von Moltke, nephew of the great Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke, director of the Wars of German Unification and military counterpart of Otto von Bismarck, the political might behind the Kaiser of united Germany. The namesake did not live up to his uncle’s reputation, however. He himself acknowledged this. Reportedly confessing to a friend he said, “I lack the capacity for risking all on a single throw.” And that kind of nerve was exactly what the Shlieffen Plan demanded in order to be successful.
Shlieffen had insisted that the strength of the right wing was critical to the success of the plan. Moltke weakened that very wing by reallocating troops (unnecessarily) to strengthen the defensive position in Alsace-Lorraine. He also opted not to violate Holland’s territory as well as Belgium’s, which meant the massive German wing (three armies) was squeezed though a narrow thirty-five mile gap between the Belgian/Holland border and the Ardennes forest. This also meant they had to fight their way past Belgium’s strongest defensive position – the fort at Liege.
Long story short – the Belgian army did not roll over and let the Germans pass. They put up a hell of a fight, slowing them down and totally disrupting the aggressor’s timetables. Additionally, the British did not stand idly by and let Belgium, whom they had sworn to defend, be invaded by the German army. They quickly declared war on Germany and sent the British Expeditionary Force into the fray.
The Germans had thought the Schieffen Plan guaranteed them victory within three or four months. And what it really guaranteed was that if victory was not achieved in that time, it would not be achieved at all. The two front war they hoped to avoid was now the reality. A reality that quickly became a nightmare.