The Magazine

September 1914

Before the trenches

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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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.

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