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.”