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- A Short History of the Great War - 4/63 -


by Bethmann-Hollweg to the British ambassador. There was no time to lose if France was to be defeated before an effective Russian move, and time would be lost by a frontal attack. The best railways and roads from Berlin to Paris ran through Belgium; the Vosges protected more than half of the French frontier south of Luxemburg, Belfort defended the narrow gap between them and Switzerland, and even the wider thirty miles' gap between the northern slopes of the Vosges and Luxemburg was too narrow for the deployment of Germany's strength; the way was also barred by the elaborate fortifications of Verdun, Toul, and Nancy. Strategy pointed conclusively to the Belgian route, and its advantages were clinched by the fact that France was relying on the illusory scrap of paper. Her dispositions assumed an attack in Lorraine, and her northern fortifications round Lille, Maubeuge, and Hirson were feeble compared with those of Belfort, Toul, and Verdun. Given a rapid and easy march through Belgium, the German armies would turn the left flank of the French defence and cut it off from the capital. Hence the resistance of Belgium had a great military importance apart from its moral value. To its lasting honour the Belgian Government had scorned the German proposal for connivance even in the attractive form which would have limited the German use of Belgian territory to the eastern bank of the Meuse.

Haste and contempt for the Belgian Army, whose imperfect organization was due to a natural reliance on the neutrality which Germany had guaranteed, accounted for the first derangement of German plans. The invasion began towards Visé, near the Dutch frontier where the direct road from Aix to Brussels crosses the Meuse, but the main advance-guard followed the trunk railway from Berlin to Paris via Venders and Liège. It was, however, inadequately mobilized and equipped, and was only intended to clear away an opposition which was not expected to be serious. The Belgians fought more stubbornly than was anticipated; and aided by Brialmont's fortification of Liège, although his plans for defence were not properly executed, they held up the Germans for two days in front of the city. It was entered on 7 August, but its fall did not give the Germans the free passage they wanted; for the forts on the heights to the north commanded the railway, and the Germans contented themselves with bringing up their transport and 11 2 in. howitzers. Brialmont had not foreseen the explosive force of modern shells, and two days' bombardment on the 13th-15th reduced the remaining forts, in spite of their construction underground, to a mass of shell-holes with a handful of wounded or unconscious survivors. The last to be reduced was Fort Loncin, whose gallant commander, General Leman, was found poisoned and half-dead from suffocation. He had succeeded in delaying the German advance for a momentous week.

No more could be done with the forces at his disposal, and the German masses of infantry were pouring across the Meuse at Visé, towards Liège by Verviers, up the right bank of the Meuse towards Namur, and farther south through the Ardennes. The German cavalry which spread over the country east and north-east of Brussels and was sometimes repulsed by the Belgians, was merely a screen, which defective air-work failed to penetrate, and the frequent engagements were merely the brushes of outposts. Within a week from the fall of Fort Loncin half of Belgium was overrun and the real menace revealed. Belgium was powerless before the avalanche, and its only hope lay in France. But the French Army was still mobilizing on its northern front, and its incursions into Alsace and Lorraine did nothing to relieve the pressure. The Belgians had to fall back towards Antwerp, uncovering Brussels, which was occupied by the Germans on the 20th and mulcted in a preliminary levy of eight million pounds, and leaving to the fortifications of Namur the task of barring the German advance to the northern frontiers of France. Namur proved a broken reed. The troops which paraded through Brussels with impressive pomp and regularity were only a detail of the extreme right wing of the invading force; the mass was advancing along the north bank of the Meuse and overrunning the whole of Belgium south and east of the river. On the 15th an attempt to seize Dinant and the river crossing above Namur was repulsed by French artillery; but there was apparently no cavalry to follow up this success, and the Germans were allowed to bring up their heavy howitzers for the bombardment of Namur without disturbance. It began on the 20th, and, unsupported by the Allied assistance for which they looked, the Belgians were panic-stricken; on the 23rd the city and most of the forts were in German hands though two resisted until the 26th. The Germans had not, as at Liège, wasted their infantry in premature attacks, and with little loss to them, a fortress reputed impregnable had been captured, the greater part of the southern Belgian Army destroyed, and the provisional plan of French defence frustrated. The fall of Namur was the first resounding success of the Germans in the war.

Its loss was not redeemed by the French offensive in Alsace and Lorraine. On 7 August a weak French force advanced through the Belfort gap and, finding still weaker forces to oppose it, proceeded to occupy Altkirch and Mulhouse, while a proclamation by General Joffre announced the approaching liberation of the provinces torn from France in 1870. It was a feeble and ill-conceived effort to snatch a political advantage out of a forbidding military situation. German reinforcements swept up from Colmar and Neu Breisach, and on the both the French were back within a few miles of the frontier, leaving their sympathizers to the vengeance of their enemies. More legitimate though not more successful was the French thrust in Lorraine. It had other motives than the political: it would, if pushed home, menace the left of the German armies in Belgium and disturb their communications; and a smaller success would avert the danger of a German advance in Lorraine which would threaten the right of the French on the Meuse. Accordingly, Generals Pau and de Castelnau, commanding the armies of Alsace and Lorraine respectively, ordered a general advance on the 10th. At first it met with success: the chief passes of the Vosges from Mt. Donon on the north to the Belfort gap were seized; counter-thrusts by the Germans towards Spincourt and Blamont in the plain of Lorraine were parried; Thann was captured, Mulhouse was re-occupied, and the Germans looked like losing Alsace as far north as Colmar. German Lorraine seemed equally insecure, for on the 18th Castelnau's troops were in Saarburg cutting the rail and roads between Strassburg and Metz. The Germans, however, were not unprepared: their Fifth Army, under the Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, came down from Metz and fell upon the exposed French left, which was routed with great losses in guns and prisoners on the 21st. Not only did the invasion collapse, but the Bavarians pushed across the French frontier nearly as far as Toul and occupied Lunéville, compelling also a French retreat from the passes of the Vosges. General Pau had soon to follow suit and retire again from Mulhouse and all but the south-west corner of Alsace.

The operations in Alsace and Lorraine had dismally failed to discount the advance of the Germans through Belgium or even to impede the march of their centre through Luxemburg and the Ardennes. At the end of three weeks France was still in the throes of mobilization: the original scheme of defence along the Franco-German frontier had been upset by the German attack through Belgium; and second thoughts had fared little better at Namur. The shortest line of defence after the Germans had broken through at Liège was one running from Antwerp to Namur, and the shortest line is imperative for the weaker combatant. But the Germans were well across it when they entered Brussels, and with the fall of Namur the hinge upon which depended the defence of the northern frontier of France was broken. It was to an almost forlorn hope that the British Army was committed when it took its place on the left of the French northern armies at Mons to encounter for the first time since Waterloo the shock of a first-rate European force. But for its valour and the distraction caused by the Russian invasion of East Prussia, Paris and possibly the French armies might not have been saved.

It was a meagre force for so great a responsibility, but far from the "contemptible little army" it was falsely believed to have been called by the Kaiser. The men were all volunteers who had enlisted for seven years' service with the colours as against the three years' service of the Germans and the French; and on an average they had seen far more actual fighting than the Germans, who contemptuously dismissed this experience as colonial warfare. If in the science of tactics and strategy the British was inferior to the German Army, its marksmanship and individual steadiness were unequalled; and under anything like equal conditions British troops proved themselves the better men. But the conditions were never equal during the first two years of the war owing to the German superiority in numbers and in artillery; and there was a third cause of inequality due to the different military systems of the two countries. Universal service enabled Germany to select the ablest men--at least from the middle and upper classes--to officer and command her armies. In England before the war only an infinitesimal fraction of her youthful ability found its way into the army. Independent means and social position rather than brains were the common qualifications for a commission; and what there was to be said for such a system so long as fighting was mainly a matter of physical courage and individual leadership lost its validity when war became a matter of science and mechanical ingenuity. The fact that four of the six British army-commanders (Plumer, Byng, Rawlinson, Cavan) in the West at the end of the war were old Etonians, testifies to more things than their military skill; and it was a characteristic irony that from first to last the British armies should have been commanded by cavalry officers in a war in which cavalry played hardly any part.

The commander-in-chief was Sir John French, who had made his reputation as a cavalry leader in the Boer War and had been chief of the imperial staff since 1911. As inspector-general of the forces from 1907 to 1911 he had a good deal to do with Lord Haldane's reorganization of the British Army, and as chief of the staff he was largely responsible for the equipment of the Expeditionary Force and the agreement with the French Government with regard to its dimensions and the way in which it should be used. He was the obvious general to command it when it came to the test. With similar unanimity the popular voice approved of the appointment of Lord Kitchener as Secretary of State for War on 5 August. The Expeditionary Force consisted of three army corps, each comprising two divisions, and a cavalry division under Allenby. The First Army Corps was commanded by Sir Douglas Haig, the youngest lieutenant-general in the army, and the second by Sir James Grierson, its most accomplished student. Unhappily Grierson died suddenly soon after the landing, and he was succeeded by Sir H. Smith-Dorrien, who, like French, had made his name in South Africa. The Third Corps, under Sir W. Pulteney, came later into the field. The embarkation began on 7 August, less than three days after war had been declared, and the Government showed a sound confidence in our little-understood command of the sea when it risked the whole of our effective fighting force by sending it across the Channel to assist the French and thus abandoning the defence of British shores to the British Navy. By the 16th the transportation had been accomplished without a hitch or loss of any kind. It was an achievement which even domestic faction failed to belittle until time itself had effaced it from popular recollection.

From Boulogne and from other ports the troops were sent up to the wavering line of battle along the Franco-Belgian frontier. They came not to win a victory but to save an army from disaster. The mass of French reserves were in Lorraine or far away to the south, and the safety of the French line on the northern front had depended upon the assumed impregnability of Namur and an equally fallacious underestimate of the number of German troops in Belgium. Three French armies, the Third, the Fourth, and the Fifth, were strung along the frontier from Montmédy across the Meuse and the Sambre to a point north-west of Charleroi, where the British took up their position


A Short History of the Great War - 4/63

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