The Magazine

September 1914

Before the trenches

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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The Great War did not begin in the trenches, in rain, mud, and dark futility. At first, the fighting was out in the open under blue skies and late summer sunshine. There were bugles and drums, and sometimes the troops even sang when they charged. French officers leading these attacks wore white gloves.

On the whole, Europe welcomed the war. One of England’s finest young poets, Rupert Brooke, wrote in gratitude

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

At the other end of the spectrum, Austrian malcontent Adolf Hitler listened to a mobilization announcement in the public square of Munich. He was, he later wrote, “not ashamed to acknowledge that I was carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment and .  .  . sank down upon my knees and thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart for the favor of having been permitted to live in such a time.”

Brooke died on a hospital ship, of sepsis from a mosquito bite. Hitler survived the trenches and wept through eyes blinded by gas when he learned of the armistice.

There had been no major land war in Europe for a generation and, in truth, nearly 100 years of peace had been interrupted only by the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870. That war had left France craving vengeance and Germany filled with a sense that it was destined for much greater things. Both nations could be said to have anticipated the war not with dread, but eagerly.

When the armies were mobilized and loaded on trains and carried to the front, the nearly universal belief was that it would be over, as the phrase had it, “before the leaves fall.” The thing would be short, glorious, and conclusive.

There were a few who sensed, with dread, that it might be none of these things. “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time,” British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey said, looking out of his office window on August 3, the eve of Britain’s declaration of war, as street lamps were being lit below.

And there had been at least one lone, scholarly voice predicting the coming catastrophe. I. S. Bloch, a Polish economist, wrote, several years before the war, his sense of things to come:

At first there will be increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue. They will try to, thinking that they are fighting under the old conditions. .  .  . The war, instead of being a hand-to-hand contest in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate. .  .  . The spade will be as indispensable to a soldier as his rifle.

But Bloch was no soldier, and the generals saw the coming war in terms of the last. British general Douglas Haig still believed in the horse and was certain that cavalry charges and flashing sabers would carry the day. He called the machine gun “a much overrated weapon.” In 1915, he assumed overall command of the British troops in France, and, in John Keegan’s chilling words, “On the Somme he .  .  . sent the flower of British youth to death and mutilation; at Paschendale he .  .  . tipped the survivors into the slough of despond.”

The French, who considered themselves Europe’s premier soldiers, drawing their inspiration and ideas from Napoleon, believed in the bayonet and disdained the defense. As their field manual put it, “From the moment of action every soldier must ardently desire the assault by bayonet as the supreme means of imposing his will upon the enemy and gaining victory.”

The nation’s foremost intellectual general, Ferdinand Foch, had no more use for, or understanding of, the effect of new weapons and technology on the battlefield than did Haig. Of the new technology with the most potential, Foch said, “Aviation is fine as a sport. But as an instrument of war, it is worthless.”

Ignoring the generals, the war soon made the case for the machine gun and the airplane. It lived by its own rules and according to its own grim logic.

The glamour began to fade and the certainties to fail when German forces in Belgium rounded up civilians and executed them by firing squad. This was done, according to the German command, in reprisal for acts of resistance to the invasion. The Germans insisted it was all proper and lawful when their armies burned the university town of Louvain and its library, which contained thousands of priceless, irreplaceable manuscripts. The action was defended by eminent German intellectuals in a letter bearing the title “Call to the World of Culture.”

The “Rape of Belgium” became a postdated justification for the war and was, eventually, propagandized to excess. In 1914, the validity of the maxim “Truth is the first casualty of war” was established before the phrase was first used, by Philip Snowden in 1916.

But Belgium was not the point for the Germans. It was merely ground that needed to be crossed on the way to the objective. This was the encirclement and destruction of the French Army and, as collateral, any British forces that might be in the vicinity. An enormous army of 750,000 men had been raised for the accomplishment of this objective. Huge siege guns had been designed and transported, by rail, to the front for the purpose of leveling Belgium’s frontier forts. And there was a plan.

It was the brainchild of Count Alfred von Schlieffen, and he had worked over it from 1905 until his death in 1913. He had honed it and refined it and given it a precise (not to say German) timetable. The encirclement and defeat of the French Army would be accomplished sometime between day 36 and day 40 of the war.

If Haig and Foch were still in thrall to obsolete weapons, Schlieffen worked out his plan under the spell of long-dead generals. Some historians (conspicuously Barbara Tuchman in her masterful Guns of August) consider Hannibal’s monumental victory in the battle of Cannae to be Schlieffen’s model. This is understandable since Schlieffen had written a much-studied treatise on Hannibal’s double envelopment of the Roman Army, which crushed both its flanks and drove its legions into a pocket from which no escape was possible. Cannae was a battle of antiquity (216 b.c.), but the numbers were impressive even by what came to be the standards of the Great War. The Carthaginians killed some 50,000 Roman soldiers according to writings of the time. Some modern scholarship puts the number much lower, in the area of 15,000. Still, this was before gunpowder. All the killing was done with edged weapons, blunt force, and bare hands. Too much, almost, for the mind to comprehend.

Schlieffen was probably not considering slaughter on this magnitude. He would have been content, no doubt, with the surrender of entire French armies.

The Schlieffen plan also did not call for a true double envelopment. The old general’s last words were supposedly, “Only keep the right wing strong.” He planned to come around the French left, encircling the enemy and pinning it against a stationary line that had been established and held on his own left. A single envelopment, in other words. According to military historian J. F. C. Fuller, a more accurate model would be Frederick the Great’s triumph at Leuthen.

All this is of academic interest. In the event, as opposed to the theory, Schlieffen’s plan failed. The failure due, unsurprisingly, to the human element. Hannibal and Frederick the Great were not available for duty in 1914. The German armies were under the command of Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, also known as Moltke the Younger, a nephew of Field Marshal Count Moltke, the victor at Sedan and conqueror of France the last time around. It was up to him to execute Schlieffen’s plan. His nerve failed and he did not keep the right strong.

If the Germans had a strong plan that failed because of weak leadership, the converse applied for the French. Their plan was strategically incoherent but the general who oversaw it never lost his nerve.

Plan XVII, for the defeat of Germany, came down, in the end, to .  .  . attaque. French armies were trained and French leaders indoctrinated in the spirit of the offense that, it was believed, suited the national temperament. There was something Bergsonian about it, this belief in the élan vital that would carry the French infantryman, dressed in conspicuous red trousers, in a bayonet charge over open country against an enemy that might be concealed, dug-in, and equipped with machine guns. French doctrine even disdained heavy artillery since it might tend to slow down the irresistible advance of the infantry.

When the moment came, in early August, the French attacked. The drums pounded, the banners flew, and the soldiers sang the Marseillaise. They were cut down by the thousands in what came to be known as the Battles of the Frontiers. The numbers are appalling—some 250,000 French casualties—and the individual stories tragic. General Foch had a son and a son-in-law, both cavalry lieutenants, killed on the same day. When one of his contemporaries, General Castleneau, was informed that his son had been killed, his staff was silent for a moment. Then, the general said, “Gentlemen, we will continue.”

In the Battles of the Frontiers, the French had attacked the weaker section of the German line, the portion that Schlieffen saw as the anvil against which the hammer of his right wing would fall, crushing the French Army. But the armies on what was the left of the German line were so successful in defense that Moltke, in violation of the Schlieffen plan, put them over into offensive action against their weakened enemy. He may have been seduced by the vision of a true Cannae or, more prosaically, lacked the will to resist the pleas of his subordinates that they be allowed to attack.

For the French, whose attack had been decisively broken, it was now time to learn to fight on the defensive, and for their leaders to find a way of preventing a retreat from turning into a rout. The French Army had lost the battle—several of them, in fact—but not the war. But there had to be a new plan and, above all, there had to be strong leadership. Otherwise, the massive right wing of the German Army would swing around the French left, perhaps sweeping up Paris along the way, and win the war according to the plan and the 40-day timetable. 

The new plan for the French Army was obvious enough and dictated by events. It must break contact and withdraw until it could establish a new, shorter, stabilized line, one that would allow it to reinforce along what military theorists call “internal lines.” And then it would wait for an opportunity to counterattack the enemy, whose lines would be long and much weakened.

As for leadership, the French were under the command of General Joseph Joffre, as unlikely a national savior as it is possible to imagine. Joffre was a large man with an ample belly. “Portly” would have been the charitable description. He was no intellectual or military theorist. He was given to silences, and when he did speak, what came out of his mouth was enigmatic if not inarticulate. There was a famous story told about him which had a colonel of artillery coming to Joffre with some urgent matter. The man spoke passionately and Joffre listened calmly. Then he stood, patted the man on the shoulder, and said, “You always loved your guns. That’s excellent.”

Douglas Haig once wondered, in a letter, if Joffre even knew how to read a map. Most likely he did and knew that his job didn’t require skills of that sort. What it did require was absolute mastery of his command and of himself. Stonewall Jackson once said to a panicky subordinate, “Do not take counsel of your fears.” Joffre, who had more than enough reason, after the Battles of the Frontiers, to give in to his, never did. He was also merciless in dealing with subordinates who, in his estimation, lacked sufficient will. In the first few weeks after the Germans crossed into France, he relieved 2 of 5 army commanders; 10 of 20 corps commanders, and 42 of 74 division commanders.

When he wasn’t visiting his various commands and dealing with this necessary business, he drew up orders for the continuation of the long retreat. He went to bed early and slept long hours. He also ate regularly and well, and absolutely nothing interfered with his meals.

But if Joffre had the authority and the will to deal ruthlessly with his countrymen, he was powerless when it came to the nations upon which France depended for its survival, Russia and Great Britain.

The Russian front was far away and utterly independent. But if the czar’s armies could push the Germans and compel them to shift resources to that front, it could slow down the ponderous German advance into France just enough. And at first, the news was good. The Germans retreated ahead of a Russian offensive, so much that their general in command was relieved. The new team consisted of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenberg, who was mostly a figurehead, and General Erich Ludendorff, who was quite the other thing—able, energetic, and brutal. Within days of assuming their duties, the new leaders secured a victory of colossal proportions in the Battle of Tannenberg. The Germans destroyed Russia’s 2nd Army, inflicting almost 80,000 casualties and taking some 90,000 prisoners in the process. When the magnitude of his defeat became apparent, Russian general Alexander Samsonov went off into the forest and shot himself in the head.

But prior to Tannenberg, the situation on the Eastern front had appeared uncertain enough to trouble Moltke, who may have been excessively concerned by the prospect of Russian boots on Prussian soil. So he ordered reinforcements sent east, with the units to be taken from those that had been committed to the invasion of France. This, by definition, weakened the right, in violation of Schlieffen’s dying order. Ludendorff had told headquarters that he did not need the additional men. But they went anyway, and their absence on the Western front contributed much to the deliverance of France.

Joffre may have been unaware of how much events in Russia would bear on the crisis in France. He had more immediate concerns with that other nation on whom France was depending, and the British were a problem. One that might very well be fatal.

The British Expeditionary Force was a small unit made up, when it landed in France, of four infantry divisions and one cavalry division, organized into two corps. This force was positioned on the French left, which, as it turned out, was perhaps the most critical point on the line. The British faced the German 1st Army, of 14 divisions, commanded by Alexander von Kluck, and the Tommies took some pleasure in singing, while on the march, a little ditty that (cleaned up a bit) went:

Kaiser Bill is feeling ill,
The Crown Prince, he’s gone barmy.
We don’t give a cluck for old von Fluck
And all his bleeding army.

The fight against Kluck’s superior numbers was another, deadly serious, thing. The BEF’s soldiers were professionals, many of them veterans of the colonial wars, and they knew how to shoot and to hold a defensive position. They did this, most conspicuously at Mons, where their disciplined, rapid, and well-aimed rifle fire had the Germans thinking they were facing machine gunners. The fight slowed Kluck down. But not much. And while the battle was a credit to British arms, the commander of the BEF saw it as something else.

Field Marshal John French felt as if he and his men had been hung out on their own, against superior enemy forces, by their ally. France’s 5th Army, positioned to the right of the BEF, had been in some of the heaviest combat during the Battles of the Frontiers. It had taken frightful casualties and its commanding general, Charles Lanrezac, had believed from the beginning of hostilities that he was in danger of being overrun by superior German numbers. He was correct, but his own superiors, including Joffre, did not agree. Lanrezac’s withdrawals were, in Joffre’s estimation, premature at best, and evidence of a lack of offensive spirit at worst. In the eyes of John French, they were a betrayal. He and his men had, he believed, been abandoned.

So while, in the late days of August, he was in retreat like the French units, his intention was not necessarily to stop in a few days, when a new line could be established, and then resume the offensive. Field Marshal French intended for the BEF to withdraw much further and, perhaps, even to leave the continent. He needed time to rest and reorganize, and he had come to distrust Frenchmen in general and to hate Lanrezac in particular.

High-level staff meetings and a face-to-face encounter between the British field marshal and the French general did nothing to repair the breach and, indeed, may have widened it.

It would have been catastrophic for the British to leave the fight, and Lord Herbert Kitchener, the war secretary, at his office back in London understood this when he read a cable from the field marshal suggesting that he might do so. Kitchener took a fast cruiser across the channel and met the next morning, in Paris, with the field marshal. He made it clear that the British government did not believe the BEF, under any circumstances, should quit the fight. The field marshal should continue to conform with the movements of French forces.

But Kitchener gave Field Marshal French an out by adding that “you will be the judge” when it came to where, precisely, the BEF should be in the line. It could not, of course, have been otherwise.

John French was a sulky, prickly, proud man who might well have resented being called in by Kitchener in the first place. He was probably in over his head, and he would soon be relieved by Haig. But for now, as the retreat slowed and developments on the German side began to make Joffre’s planned counterattack appear possible, he continued to insist on the independence of his command and his men’s need to retreat, rest, and resupply. He remained uncooperative, and thus the presence of the BEF in any counterattack was .  .  . uncertain.

While Field Marshal French dithered, other generals moved. In Paris, the military governor Joseph Gallieni had been preparing the city against the arrival of Kluck’s army. This included urging the government to leave for Bordeaux, which it did on September 2. The city had already become a target for some of history’s first air raids. On August 30, a German Taube flew over the city and dropped a bomb that killed two civilians. It returned for the next few days, precisely at six in the evening, the hour of the apéritif, to drop a bomb or two and add to the sense of crisis that loomed over the city.

Gallieni designated bridges for destruction and also the Eiffel Tower, to deny the enemy its use for radio transmissions. He also went about assembling forces of his own, scraping together whatever units he could. Joffre was not willing to give him the three corps that he insisted he needed to mount a proper defense of Paris, but Gallieni knew how to get things done, and he found troops, though not as many as he wanted.

Gallieni had been Joffre’s superior officer at one time in their careers. He had, in fact, been in line for the job that became Joffre’s and was clearly the more dynamic of the two men. But pleading age and ill-health, he had resigned from the army. He had been called back in the crisis and given the assignment of saving Paris. He had no higher ambitions, and he held politicians in contempt. His place in the chain of command and, indeed, in the political structure was ad hoc and unclear. He was shrewd and decisive and a wild card in the battle for France. The closer Kluck came to Paris, the better prepared and more determined Gallieni became to defend the city and, if possible, to strike.

Kluck provided the opportunity. As he continued his march across France, Kluck maneuvered his army so that it would pass to the east of Paris. His objective was not the city but the French 5th Army, which had been Lanrezac’s until he had been relieved by Joffre and replaced by General Louis Franchet d’Espèrey. In Kluck’s mind, the 5th was a beaten foe, and by moving his army around its left, he could accomplish its encirclement and destruction.

There were two weaknesses with this plan. One took the form of intelligence; the other of tactics. Kluck believed he was pursuing a beaten foe, and it was true that the 5th Army had suffered grievously at the battle of Charleroi and been in retreat ever since—more than two weeks—fighting as it withdrew. But the unit had lost neither cohesion nor its will to fight. For this, credit belonged to the toughness of the French soldier and the firmness of the French Army’s top command, especially Joffre. There was no panic. Joffre, Gallieni, and the poilus they commanded were waiting for their moment.

As Kluck wrote after the war, his miscalculation in this regard came down to underestimating the 

extraordinary and peculiar aptitude of the French soldier to recover quickly. That men will let themselves be killed where they stand, that is a well-known thing and counted on in every plan of battle. But that men who have retreated for ten days, sleeping on the ground and half dead with fatigue, should be able to take up their rifles and attack when the bugle sounds, is a thing upon which we never counted. It was a possibility not studied in our war academy.

Kluck erred tactically when he began his move east and across the Marne River. When he did this, he exposed his own right flank to Paris and the forces that Gallieni had been able to accumulate there. This included a hastily assembled army, the 6th, of which Gallieni was in nominal command. But Joffre remained in overall command and so, in theory, could overrule any order from Gallieni. But in this uncertain command structure, the prior senior status Gallieni had held over Joffre and the man’s energy and moral force allowed him to force Joffre’s hand and order the counterattack when Joffre might have wanted to wait another day or more.

From ground contacts and observation from airplanes, the French saw their opportunity, and Gallieni was first to seize it. If the newly formed French 6th Army and the forces he had assembled in Paris could attack from the west against Kluck’s flank, and if the BEF could be counted on to take its place in the line .  .  . but there was the rub.

As late as the afternoon before the counterattack was to begin, Field Marshal French was still determined to keep the British force out of the battle and, in fact, to put more space between it and Joffre’s new line. This might save the BEF, but it would almost certainly doom the counterattack.

At this point, it was up to Joffre to convince Field Marshal French to turn the BEF around, take its place in line between the 5th and 6th Armies of France, and, if things went well, turn back the German offensive—even, if things went very well, defeat the Germans in a major battle, encircling them as they had threatened to encircle the armies of France, and win the war. But the BEF had to be there, and someone had to change its commander’s mind. His own government, in the form of Kitchener, had done what it could, and still the field marshal was not persuaded.

It fell to Joffre, who understood intuitively and completely what had to be done. So he ordered up a car and a driver and set out from his headquarters to those of Field Marshal French over 100 miles away. After the obligatory stop for a good lunch, Joffre reached his destination at about two in the afternoon, on September 5. In the morning, the battle would begin, and the British were far back of the proposed line. Much—not to say everything—depended on how things went in this meeting. In Barbara Tuchman’s telling, it went something like this:

Field Marshal French was expecting Joffre and waited with his staff to hear what he had to say. Which, for once, was quite a lot. And he spoke with passion of how “the supreme moment” had arrived.

At stake in the coming battle were “the lives of all French people, the soil of France, the future of Europe.”

He could not believe, Joffre said, that “the British Army will refuse to do its share in this supreme crisis.”

Pounding a table, he concluded, “Monsieur le Maréchal, the honor of England is at stake!”

At this point, the Field Marshal’s eyes began to fill. He did not speak French and probably had not made out more than a word or two of what Joffre had just said. But he plainly understood. To one of his staff who could translate, he said, “Damn it, I can’t explain. Tell him we will do all we possibly can.”

The officer looked at Joffre and said, simply, “The field marshal says, ‘Yes.’ ”

And so, at the moment of maximum peril, in what was shaping up to be the decisive battle in the greatest war in modern history, the issue was decided in a personal encounter between two inarticulate generals who did not speak each other’s language. 

With the British in the offensive, if not yet in line, all was ready. Joffre returned to his headquarters and announced to his staff: “Gentlemen, we will fight on the Marne.”

The order went out to the armies, including a passage that made things utterly plain: “A unit which finds it impossible to advance must, regardless of cost, hold its ground and be killed on the spot rather than fall back. In the present circumstances no failure will be tolerated.”

On the German side, there appeared an unlikely player whose contribution did much to determine the outcome of the Battle of the Marne and, thus, the war. This was a colonel from Moltke’s staff who had come to Kluck’s headquarters to observe and report back. But in the German system, he also had considerable authority and could issue recommendations that might as well have been orders. Colonel Richard Hentsch wanted Kluck, whose army had crossed the Marne, to begin a withdrawal to protect its exposed right flank and to tighten up the German lines, which had become overextended. Kluck would need to recross the Marne.

The order may have come at precisely the worst possible time for the Germans. And if Kluck, who had been disregarding Moltke’s instructions with some frequency, had refused this one, which came from a mere colonel, after all, and continued his pursuit, the Battle of the Marne might have turned out differently.

But the French Army and the BEF attacked as the Germans were withdrawing. The BEF advanced into a gap between the German 1st and 2nd Armies, threatening to envelop Kluck—even, perhaps, on both flanks, thus accomplishing what Hannibal had at Cannae and what Schlieffen held up as the sine qua non of generalship.

But the Marne was not that tidy. It was, in fact, several battles across miles of front with all of the usual chaos of war in play. It went, almost, the way Foch, who was fighting in the center of the line, put it in an order he never sent but that became, nevertheless, immortal: “My center is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.”

And as he attacked, the Germans retreated, with the French and the British in pursuit, looking for the enemy’s exposed right flank the way it had grappled for their left. This was the “Race to the Sea,” which ended in stalemate and trenches. The war that I. S. Bloch had predicted had come to pass. Moltke, who had run the war as though he were a kind of chairman of the board, suffered an emotional breakdown with the failure of the Schlieffen plan. A better prophet than general, he wrote to his wife: “Things have not gone well. The fighting east of Paris has not gone in our favor, and we shall have to pay for the damage we have done.”

Actually, the world paid, and is still paying, for the damage done. And the world had already paid dearly. As awful as the years in the trenches were, they were not as bloody as those few months when armies fought in the open. No year matched 1914 for ferocity, and when it was over, there cannot have been many who still thanked Providence for the favor of being born into those times.

Hitler, perhaps. But, then, the war made him.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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