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.

Going Home (Here Lies a Soldier part 8) 

By Meg Sorick. Find other parts of the series and a family tree, here.

Meredith passed the plate of bacon across the table. “Did you manage to sleep at all, David?”

“Hardly,” David answered, not looking up from the sheet of paper. The truth was, he’d slept just fine, but he’d been so plagued with dreams –vivid dreams– that it felt like he hadn’t slept at all.

Two scenes kept repeating over and over. The first — a simple vignette of Ada and Will walking down a street, Will was pushing a carriage conveying a little girl, dressed in the clothes of the day, her ringlets topped with a bow, and additional bows adorning her little shoes and the frills of her dress.

The second scene was a horror. The smoke of battle, the shriek of mortar fire, explosions all around him, as if he were a soldier right at the front lines. Mud, barbed wire, the smell of death, from the bodies of horses and his fallen comrades. The wounded screaming in pain and terror. David shook his head to clear it.

“Here, listen to this… In one of Freddie’s letters to his mother from his training camp, he writes… ‘I haven’t heard from Will since I’ve arrived. I trust he’s no closer to resolving things than he was when I left. Please pass on my best wishes and hopes that he might be able to join me soon.’ It sounds like Will was having some sort of trouble preventing him from leaving. Would he really be joining his brother in the same unit, though?”

“Yes, friends and brothers were encouraged to enlist together. It was supposed to be better for morale. It backfired when all the boys from the same town would die fighting in the same battles,” Meredith said.

“Or all the boys in the same family,” David added. “Dreadful.”

“But to answer your first question, yes, that sounds like Will had some sort of trouble.” Meredith sighed. “David, eat something before it gets cold.”

“What? Oh, right,” he said, taking the plate from her hands. David nibbled absently on a strip of bacon while continuing to peruse the pages of photocopied letters. The correspondence ended abruptly in the spring of 1915, when Freddie lost his life on Flanders’ fields. David sat back in his chair and ran his fingers through his hair. “What next, Meri?”

She put down her coffee and dabbed her lips with the napkin. “Fresh air. Let’s go for a walk and think about it. Come up with a plan. I love research, David, but I cannot stand a haphazard approach. We’ll end up running in circles.”

“Alright. Fine.”

They bundled in warm coats, hats and gloves. The weather had once again turned cold, as if it knew it was the longest night – the start of winter.

“What shall we do for Christmas, Cousin?” Meredith asked. “Would you like me to cook you a goose?”

David laughed. “No, don’t be ridiculous! What would you normally do?”

“I’d get takeaway Chinese and spend the day reading,” she answered. “What about you?”

“One of my friends would take pity on me,” he replied. “Which sometimes is even worse than being alone.”

“I know.”

“Anyway,” he said, waving a hand dismissively. “Let’s keep it simple.” He hesitated, then said, “I did, however, buy you a gift…”

Meredith stopped short. Putting a hand on his arm, she smiled. “I bought something for you, too. God, I hope you didn’t fuss!”

He grinned. “No, it’s not much… But I think you’ll like it.”

“Wonderful, Cousin.”

“Now, tell me what should we do next?”

She resumed walking. “I think we need to go home, David. We need to visit Turnby, the village where our family lived.”

Preparations For War: Plan XVII

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.

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Joseph Joffre via wikipedia

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.

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Photo my own – Paris Musee de Armie

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.