It is now just six years to the centenary of the start of the “Great War” as World War One (1914-1919) was known until World War Two (1939-1945) came around.
This year marks the 90th anniversary of the St Michael battles, some of the most cataclysmic of war and rating with the Somme and Verdun battles of 1916, the Loos battles of 1915 and the Passendal (Paschendaele in French), Cambrai and Aisne battles of 1917, which have tended to overshadow the events of 1914.
For the British, the Loos battles saw the destruction of Kitchener`s “New Army” and the “Pal`s battalions.” The 1916 battles bled the Commonwealth and the 1917 campaigns arguably broke the British Empire. The 1st SA Brigade, part of the 9th Scottish Division was destroyed in the St Michael battle after being rebuilt from its decimation at Delville Wood on the Somme. The Anglo-French Entente only survived the German St Michael offensives because of German exhaustion and American intervention.
But what of the first battles? Those fought between September and October 1914 when the future of the Anglo-French Empires (and “little” Belgium) was in some doubt? Anthony Farrar-Hockley concentrates on this period and the front occupied by the British Regular Army in Artois and Flanders; the battles, which saw the British Expeditionary Force and elements of the French and Belgian armies, defeat the German push via Ieper (the Flemish for Ypres) to Calais.
Farrar-Hockley goes to some trouble to describe the events from both the Anglo-French and German sides. He also gives insight into how the “push on Calais” came about and how – and why – the German invasion of France failed.
The German failure may have been the result of that rare military vice – over-planning. Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (The Elder) started the planning process after the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. “He considered carefully and prophetically what he should do if Russia and France developed an alliance for the overthrow of the new German Empire.”
In time the possibility became a probability and then, by 1891, a fact. Colonel General Count von Schlieffen was now Chief of the General Staff and he spent the rest of his life (until 1913) considering the plan. “He knew that Moltke had considered and discarded an immediate offensive begun at the outset against both nations or against first one and then the other. Even with Austria-Hungary`s active participation in the field, Russia was too spacious, too populous to be conquered: while France, though smaller, had prepared by 1878 a strong fortress system against Germany.” (In intent and in effect a Maginot line?)
Thus Moltke planned to let the French attack and waste themselves against Germany`s defences in Alsace and Lorraine – territory France was sure to seek to recapture at the outbreak of war. When the moment was right, Germany would counter attack. A similar scheme was developed for the East. “Almost immediately taking office ass chief, Schlieffen began to tinker with this plan. He did not at all like the notion of the campaign against Russia and saw no point in hanging back from the fight against France.”
Farrar-Hockley explains that like Moltke, Schlieffen had a low opinion of Austria-Hungarian soldiering and blamed them for having dragged Germany into enmity with Russia. France, not the Tsar, was Germany`s enemy, and she was waiting for the right time to attack… “…in consequence German arms must be ready to attack and destroy France at the outset and march to Paris to dictate new and more effective terms for peace. … What follows is a tale of wilfulness.”
By 1899, Schlieffen had reverted to the theory – long discarded by Moltke – that Germany could safely defeat France first and then deal with Russia at her leisure.
This would require a demonstration in Alsace-Loraine to occupy French attention while hurling the bulk of the Imperial corps through Belgium to outflank the fortress line. (Was Erich von Manstein`s plan in 1940 to do the same really so original as often described?)
“Thus the Schlieffen Plan grew. By the winter of 1905 it had become a most complete prescription for victory over France; not alone a deployment plan on which to base mobilisation arrangements; not alone a plan for the first clash of arms. It embraced all of these and, looking beyond to their fulfilment, ordered the gigantic wheel of the right wing armies through Belgium to envelop Paris and, at last, more than a month after starting, to take the French front and rear to their destruction.”
Schlieffen had two fears: would the Army be strong enough when war came (in 1905 it had 60 divisions, the plan required 94 for France, alone) and would the High Command have sufficient nerve to carry through the right wheel – particularly with its flanks hanging open?
As it turned out, the fears were justified, when war came, his successor Helmuth von Moltke (The Younger), nephew of the Elder, lost his nerve on the Marne, partly because of French counterattacks on his weakly guarded flanks, partly because he lacked reserves, partly because Schlieffen had not provided him a functional headquarters or communications and intelligence system from and through which to command or control his forces and because Schlieffen had ignored the development of French railways after 1871 and had forgotten, as the Americans say, that in battle, the enemy also has a vote.
Von Schlieffen had no “Plan B”, it was left to the unfortunate Von Moltke`s successor, Lieutenant General Erich von Falkenhayn, to find one. It would have been scant consolation to him that the French Plan XVII, the invasion of Germany and liberation of Alsace and Loraine had met with scant success.
“Plan B” was an attack on the German right (the Anglo-French left) with the aim of breaking through to the sea and cutting the Allied armies in two (an aim Manstein would achieve). As luck would have it, the French under Marshal Joffre, planned an offensive into Belgium on his left… For this the BEF was moved into the La Bassée-Ypres sector and French forces drawn from other fronts. Falkenhayn also drew forces from other fronts, including two army headquarters.
From Germany were arriving the first four Replacement (Ersatz) Corps, formed from August 16 from previously untrained “schoolboys”. A Bavarian corps formed on the same basis at the same time would follow. These raw, eager, young and barely trained soldiers would lead the German attack; there were no veterans available for the task. And as the Americans would show in 1918, such troops can best the task.
What followed was the First Battle of Ypres (there would be three), known as “Wipers” to the British regulars and as the Kindermord (kindermoord, massacre of the innocents), to the Germans. Facing odds of up to seven to one, the BEF stood and died, while the Kinder advanced and fell. “At bitter cost the BEF for ever ruined German hopes of outright victory in World War One.” By November 1, the BEF`s 84 battalions reported the following strengths:
· 18 at cadre strength (below 100 all ranks – against a war establishment table of 977 other ranks and 30 officers),
· 31 very weak (100-200),
· 26 weak (200-300),
· nine “middling” (300-450),
and yet the battle was not yet over. When it was, the German lost, killed and wounded numbered 135,000, including 41,000 of the Kinder.
Ypres 1914: Death of an Army