Research Notes – The Great War (7) The British Expeditionary Force

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. I hope you find these bits of information as interesting as I do. ~ Meg

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.

Research Notes – The Great War (6) The Dread Zeppelin

World War One saw both the introduction of, or the unprecedented use of a host of new deadly weapons. The submarine, for example, had been first used during the American Civil War. However, the First World War would see it become the great predator of the sea. Chemical weapons like chlorine and phosgene gas were deployed on a mass scale. The armored tank replaced the horse in the armies’ cavalries. And air warfare became a threat for the first time in history, bringing death and destruction to the doorsteps of the civilian population. No one was exempt from the ‘total war.’

German zeppelins were capable of traveling at speeds of 85 miles per hour and carrying up to 2 tons of payload. From the early days of the war, these new weapons of mass destruction were deployed in bombing raids on Liege, Antwerp and Paris. In January of 1915, the massive hydrogen filled war machines brought their deadly cargo to the shores of Great Britain, striking the coastal towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn.

German Zeppelin corps commander, Peter Strasser was quoted as saying, “Nowadays, there is no such thing as a noncombatant. Modern warfare is total warfare.” The German aim in targeting civilian populations was to frighten the British into leaving the war. They upped their game in May, 1915.

As if it were straight out of an H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, a massive airship darkened the starlit night over London on May 31, 1915. The 650-foot-long zeppelin, the largest ever constructed to date, glided toward the British capital, using the light reflecting off the Thames River as its guide. From the trap doors beneath the gondola of the craft, German troops dropped 90 incendiary bombs and 30 grenades onto the homes of the sleeping citizens below. The break of dawn brought with it the reports of seven deaths and the injury of thirty-five. But more than that, fear gripped the city.

Early on, the zeppelin was nearly unstoppable. It flew higher than artillery could fire, even higher than the airplanes of the day could fly. The planes couldn’t even get close enough to use their machine guns to bring them down. And not wanting to panic the citizenry with robust air raid warnings, the civil authorities’ only action in the face of imminent attack, was to send policemen with whistles out into the streets on bicycles with the cry of “take cover.”

The worst air attack came on September 8, 1915 when a zeppelin targeted London’s financial center. The three ton bomb –the largest deployed so far– caused heavy damage and killed 22 people, including 6 children. Public outcry was enormous, the zeppelins were now referred to as “baby killers” and the people demanded that their government do more to protect them from the menace in the air.

In response to the uproar, anti-aircraft defenses were recalled from the front lines in France, massive searchlights were installed, blackouts were instituted and the water from the lake in St. James’ park was drained so as not to direct the airships to the gates of Buckingham Palace. Additionally, British scientists were put to work developing ways to target the zeppelins’ vulnerable areas, namely the highly flammable hydrogen cells that made the ships lighter than air.

By mid-1916, the game had finally changed. British planes were able to reach higher altitudes and explosive bullets were employed to rip through the outer fabric of the death ships to ignite the hydrogen cells within. And though the Germans tried to press on with their air raids, sailing the zeppelins at higher altitudes, the crews began to suffer from the frigid temperatures and oxygen deprivation.

When the airships were brought down they were brought down in spectacular fashion. For example on September 2, 1916, the largest fleet of zeppelins ever to target London droned toward the city. One of the silver ships was caught in the searchlights and Royal Flying Corps pilot William Leefe Robinson was sent to deal with it. Robinson took his plane over 11,000 feet and drew close enough to fire his guns with the explosive bullets, ripping open the skin and igniting the hydrogen within. The massive fireball plummeted from the sky and could be seen from over 100 miles away.

With Britain’s now superior technology, the dread zeppelin was no longer the threat it once was. By the end of the war, German airships had staged more than 50 attacks on Britain, but at a heavy price with 77 of their 115 craft either shot down or disabled. And although raids on London killed nearly 700 and seriously injured almost 2,000, Germany’s goal of breaking the will of the British people was not achieved.

Research Notes – The Great War (5) The Suicide Pact That Changed History

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. I hope you find these bits of information as interesting as I do. ~ Meg

Nearly 120 years after his death, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, son of Franz Josef and Elisabeth (of Bavaria), heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is a mere asterisk in the history of the Great War. Nevertheless, his short but eventful life changed the face of the ruling Habsburg Dynasty and altered the path which led to the dreadful conflict 15 years after his tragic demise.

Rudolf Franz Karl Josef was born on August 21, 1858 and with his early education, began his grooming to lead the empire. Unlike his conservative father, Rudolf developed more liberal views and was intensely interested in the natural sciences, especially mineralogy. His marriage to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium was initially a happy match, but the royal couple grew distant after the birth of their only child, Elisabeth. Rudolf, a passionate man, began drinking and embarking on a number of love affairs. At one point, he considered trying to have his marriage to Stéphanie annulled, but was prevented by his father, the emperor.

In 1888, the 30 year old Crown Prince met the 17 year old Baroness Marie Vetsera and began a doomed affair. Although, by all accounts, Marie was devoted to her married lover, Rudolf carried on liaisons with other women during the 3 months he and Marie were involved. At Rudolf’s hunting lodge in Mayerling, on January 30, 1889, the lovers committed murder suicide –the act confirmed by letters of Marie’s which recorded that she was preparing to take her own life for the sake of ‘love’. Prior to the events at Mayerling, however, the ‘unbalanced’ Crown Prince had proposed a similar suicide pact to another of his mistresses, the actress, Mizzi Kaspar, who regarded the suggestion as a joke. Alas, in Vetsera he found a gullible and willing partner.

Rudolf’s death left Emperor Franz Josef without a direct heir. Franz Josef’s younger brother, Karl Ludwig became first in line to the throne, until his death of typhus in 1896. Karl Ludwig’s son Franz Ferdinand, the nephew of Emperor Franz Josef, now became the heir presumptive. That is until he was assassinated in June 1914 in Sarajevo –the spark that lit the fire of The Great War.

Header image credit: Fototeca Storica Nazionale; Crown Prince Rudolf image and Mary Vetsera image credits: WikiCommons.