Thursday, 27 November 2014

Haig takes flight

The image of the British stiff upper lip is frequently associated with the military leaders of WW1. Since they are almost always hidden beneath bushy moustaches in posed photos, it would be difficult to argue. However, the BEF had walked into an overwhelming hammer of teutonic force in the early actions in Belgium, and  from most accounts I have read there was certainly some wobble in the upper lips of  both John French, Commander in Chief, 
and Douglas Haig, Commander of 1 Corps - half of the BEF. Some of French's actions during the long retreat caused great consternation, and led to his later replacement by Haig. As for Haig himself, we can see below that the official military historian of the war took a very dim view of Haig's actions after Mons.

In the light of these actions (at Mons), French resolved that the BEF had to put distance between itself and its powerful opponent until a favourable opportunity arose to counterattack. But the retreat was complicated by the terrain that lay ahead – mainly the Forest of Mormal.

Further west, Kluck had further success, taking Tournai, Valenciennes and finally Lille. With this position, Kluck had almost sandwiched the BEF from West and East, and he hoped that Colonel French would take the BEF into the fortress town of Maubeuge for shelter, where he could lay siege. However, French had a much more ambitions retreat in mind. He wanted, initially at least, to put the forest of Mormal between his men and the pursuing Germans. The forest was a dense tract of woodland some 35 miles square, sitting directly astride the BEF’s route. This is when French he took his (in)famous decision to send I Corps to the east of the forest, to Maroilles and Landrecies,  and II Corps to the West in the direction of Le Cateau. 

Tuesday 25th was a summer’s day of intense and glaring heat, and the British army found the long march in the dust a trying business. At the end of the day, on the east, the rearguard of the Grenadiers finally halted just south of the Sambre in the town of Landrecies, where in the dark they encountered a forward group of German cavalry, who were pushing through the centre of the forest, and therefore caught up unexpectedly quickly. The most important consequence of the brush at Landrecies was that it caused Haig, the corps commander, temporarily to succumb to panic. During the night’s exchange of fire and confusion in the streets he persuaded himself – and Sir John French – that his force was threatened with disaster. Col. James Edmonds, a divisional chief of staff who later became British official historian of the war, wrote brutally of this episode in a 1930 private letter to an old comrade: ‘D.H. had … been thoroughly shaken by the business at Landrecies, had drawn his revolver and spoken of “selling our lives dearly”. Undoubtedly he also thought Smith-D[orrien] was in a bad way. In any case, he played a selfish game, marched off leaving Smith-D in the lurch, although the firing at
German graves with a line of British headstones at the
Le Cateau cemetery.
Beyond, the open fields where Smith Dorrien took the
decision to stand and fight
Le Cateau and march of the Germans across the front of his rearguard was reported [to Haig].’

However, a brave stand by the Munster’s battalion had delayed the German advance, albeit with terrible losses. James Edmonds concluded after the war: ‘Beyond question, they had arrested the enemy’s pursuit in this quarter for fully six hours, so that their sacrifice was not in vain.’ The stand ensured that the main body of I Corps would not be troubled by German pursuit for several days.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Mons - and the strategic retreat begins

Adam and I visited Mons on the centenary of the battle. The Saint Symphorien Military Cemetery is a profoundly moving place. It was created by the Germans after the battle, and is unusual in that German and British fatalities are there together. 
Headstones, German with British beyond at St. Symphorien 

We explored the Mons Conde canal, and the areas on the west side and in the town where some of the most heroic and stubborn rearguards were fought by the 2 Corps soldiers.

It seems that the Germans were not expecting to encounter the British at Mons, and the BEF certainly had no inkling of the size of the German right wing, that would threaten to engulf them over the next three weeks.

The German First (von Kluck) and Second (von Bulow) armies were ploughing  their way through Belgium and into France, as per Schlieffen, with around half a million men plodding doggedly southwards towards the French frontier.
The BEF’s Commander in Chief, Sir John French, had agreed to halt his force at the Mons–Condé canal just inside Belgium, where it would protect Lanrezac’s left, with French cavalry filling any intervening gap (a very large gap as it turned out).
Kluck joined battle at Mons, ill informed as to his enemy’s position, and not very happy with his communications with Bulow. He was surprised by the appearance of the British at the Conde canal on the 23rd believing the whole country to be clear for fifty miles ahead.
The BEF’s 1 Corps commanded by Haig was on the BEF’s right, and 2 Corps commanded by Smith-Dorrien was on the left. The first British shots of the war were fired by an exploratory patrol on the morning of the 22nd, about three miles north of the Mons–Condé canal.
Mons-Conde canal on 23/8/14
Just before dawn on  Augst 23rd, French conferred briefly with his two corps commanders at Smith-Dorrien’s headquarters in the Château de Sars, and promptly left the front to travel south to his HQ, a strange decision considering this was the first serious action for his army.
The full rage of the Battle for Mons continued throughout that day. North-east of Mons the canal bent back into a half-loop, creating a dangerous salient for the companies of Royal Fusiliers and Middlesex holding that sector, and they saw some of the hardest fighting.
Late in the days Smith-Dorrien’s 2 corps plus Cavalry fell back from the canal five miles to the South, and held a line from Frameries to the cornfields west of Audregnies, and beat off the advances of the Germans from there.
Early on the following morning, 24th, the Germans were advancing again, although cautiously, given the severity of their losses the day before.
When news came that the BEF right was under pressure of being turned, the cavalry was sent across to support them, leaving S-D outnumbered by 4 to 1, and within a short time he had to fall back further. By this time Haig had already pulled the I Corps back much further. By early in the afternoon the whole British force had linked up on the Maubeuge position. 

But whilst attention was focused on the fighting to the north a far greater danger was approaching from the west. German forces had discovered the BEF’s exposed left flank and tried to exploit the gap to get behind 5th Division and cut its line of retreat. 
The losses of the Cheshires
Aware of this looming threat, 5th Division’s commander,  General Sir Charles Fergusson, detached the 1st Cheshires and 1st Norfolks to cover the vulnerable flank. The infantry were supported by the horsemen of 2nd Cavalry Brigade. It was vital that this rearguard held long enough for 5th Division to get away. The seeds of the coming tragedy were sown in the rearguard’s orders. Its commander, Lieutenant Colonel C.R. Ballard of the Norfolks, had initially been told to hold on at all costs. But this was later amended by written orders that gave him permission to withdraw when necessary. Ballard assumed that his co-commander, Lieutenant Colonel D.C. Boger of the Cheshires, had also received these instructions. But Boger had not been informed of the change and still believed that the rearguard was to fight to the last man. The small force made its stand near the village of Audregnies at midday.
The Cheshires had mustered 959 officers and men at the beginning of the day; 788 were killed or captured at Audregnies.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Bibliography and Sources

These are some of the books and sources I've used, enjoyed, borrowed from, been inspired by in trying to get a better understanding of the pre-war years and the war itself. I will update regularly

Origins of the war (up to  the July 1914 Crisis)

AJ Grant and H Temperley Europe in the Nineteenth Century 1789-1914
Emil Ludwig July 1914
Max Hastings Catastrophe - Europe goes to war 1914
Christopher Clark The Sleepwalkers
AJP Taylor War by timetable
Paul Ham 1913 - The Eve of War
Jonathan Steinberg Bismarck - a life
Tom Buk-Swienty 1864
Barbara Tuchmann The Proud Tower
Tim Butcher The Trigger - the hunt for Gavrilo Princip: the assassin who brought the world to war

Historical Accounts of the whole Conflict

Liddell Hart History of the First World War
Martin Gilbert First World War
John Buchan A History of the Great War
Winston S Churchill The Great War Vols I-IV
Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson The First World War
Norman Stone The First World War
Alexander Watson Ring of Steel - Germany and Austria-Hungary at war 1914-18
Kevin McNamara Dreams of a great small nation
Richard Holmes The Western Front

Specific Aspects, Campaigns and Battles

Holger Herwig The Marne 1914
Arthur Conan Doyle The British Campaign in France and Flanders 1914
Spencer Jones The Great Retreat of 1914
Geoff Bridger The Battle of Neuve Chapelle
Giles Milton Paradise Lost
Ian Ousby The Road to Verdun
Edward Spears Liaison 1914
Peter Hart Gallipoli
Tim Travers Gallipoli 1915
Gordon Corrigan Loos 1915 - the unwanted battle
Richard Hough The Great War at Sea 1914-18
Robert K Massie Castles of Steel
Reginald Bacon The Jutland Scandal
John Harper The Truth About Jutland
Martin Middlebrook The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916
Barbara Tuchman The Zimmerman Telegram
Martin Middlebroook The Kaiser's Battle
TE Lawrence Seven Pillars of Wisdom
David Murphy Breaking point of the French Army: the Nivelle Offensive of 1917
Sean McMeakin The Ottoman Endgame
Kevin J McNamara Dreams of a great small nation
SA Smith The Russian Revolution. A very short introduction
John Reid Ten Days that shook the world
Orlando Figes A People's Tragedy. The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
John MacDonald Caporetto and the Isonzo Campaign: the Italian Front 1915-18
Lyn Macdonald Passchendaele: the story of the third battle of Ypres 1917
Nick Lloyd Passchendaele
Hanway R Cumming A Brigadier in france 1917-1918
Walter Shaw Sparrow The Fifth Army in France 1918
Nick Lloyd Hundred Days: the End of the Great War
Chris Baker The Battle for Flanders
Major CH Dudley Ward The Fifty Sixth Division 1914-1918

Western Front Guides

Malcolm Brown Imperial War Museum Book of the Western Front
Richard Holmes War Walks
Victor Neuberg A Guide to the Western Front
Tony Spagnoli & Ted Smith Salient Points One - Cameos of the Western Front Ypres 1914-18
Nigel Cave Passchendaele - the fight for the village
Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battle-Fields (1914-1918) Verdun and the battles for its possession
Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battle-Fields (1914-1918) Battle Fields of the Marne 1914
Thomas Scotland & Steven Heys Understanding the Somme 1916:An Illuminating Battlefield Guide
Martin and Mary Middlebrook The Middlebrook Guide to the Somme Battlefields 
CWG Commission Somme 1916
Jolyon Fenwick Zero Hour. Somme 1916
Bradt Travel Guides World War One Battlefields


Sebastian Faulks Birdsong
Lyn McDonald 1914 (but also a brilliant and painstaking account driven by eye witness experiences)
Erich Maria Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front
Alexander Solzhenytsin August 1914
Ernest Hemingway A farewell to arms
Barbara Tuchman The guns of August
Sebastian Barry A long long way
Pat Barker The Regeneration Trilogy
Lyn McDonald Somme (as per 1914)
John Buchan Greenmantle
Robert Graves Goodbye to all that

Pictorial records and Maps

Max Arthur The Faces of World War I
Peter Chasseaud (IWM) Mapping the First World War
Richard Holmes  Shots from the Front
John Garfield The Fallen

Social and cultural aspects 
Paul Moorehouse and Sebastian Faulks The Great War in Portraits
John Stallworthy Anthem for Doomed Youth
David Crane Empires of the Dead - how one man's vision led to the creation of WW1's War Graves
Jeremy Paxman Great Britain's Great War
Imperial War Museum Art from the First World War
Gavin Stamp The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme
Robert Skidelsky John Maynard Keynes
John Maynard Keynes The economic consequences of the Great War

Eye witness accounts

Peter Englund The Beauty and the Sorrow
James Hyndson From Mons to the first battle of Ypres - the war diary of a young British officer
Vera Brittain Testament of Youth
Ernst Junger Storm of Steel
Edward Spears Liaison 1914

AJP Taylor The Origins of the Second World War
Carl J Clausewitz On war
Sun Tzu/Cleary The Art of War
Robert K Massie Peter the Great Chris Baker's brilliant siteon the British Army in WW1

Battle of the Frontiers (3) - Overwhelmed in the North West.

The prevailing image of war on the Western Front as one of entrenched stalemate, set piece artillery barrages and periodic massacres of troops as at Somme, Ypres, Verdun does not apply to the first three months (apart from huge casualties). Even the role of cavalry - made overall redundant by WW1 - was crucial at many points of these early phases. Another look at the Schlieffen plan shows the large distances the German army was expected to cover in just a few weeks.  
Schlieffen Plan (Red) and Plan XVII (Blue)
This applied particularly to the German right wing, comprising 1st Army (Gen. von Kluck) and 2nd Army (Gen. von Bulow). Their steamroller advance through Belgium and northern France was responsible for most of the vandalism and atrocities towards Belgium that so enraged the world. The map also shows Joffre's more direct approach of Plan XVII. His confidence that the decisive actions would take place through these central thrusts, meant the the allied left flanks were relatively weak, whereas the invading German right wing was strong - a dangerous mismatch. Hence Mons, Le Cateau and the Great Retreat to the Marne

The French Left in the North and the link with BEF
The most critical part of the build up to the Battle of the Marne occurred on this French left. Its 5th Army, commanded by Lanrezac, was entrusted with holding its ground, and to make the difficult and incomplete link up with the BEF, gradually arriving from the Channel ports, and required to extend and strengthen its left wing.

It is an enduring British conceit that the First World War began in earnest only on 23 August, when the ‘Old Contemptibles’ of the BEF drubbed the Kaiser’s hosts at Mons, thus saving England by their exertions and Europe by their example. In truth, of course, the French army had been engaged in murderous strife for almost three weeks before the first of the King-Emperor’s soldiers fired a shot in anger; Serbia, Poland and East Prussia were already steeped in blood.” (Hastings)

During this time the repeated tactical retreats from the Sambre, which Lanrezac ordered on his own initiative enraged Joffre (and from the British viewpoint made the link up of forces more difficult). However, they saved the Fifth Army from even greater losses, and alllowed them to recover for decisive action at the Marne, which would be under a different commander. More immediately, Lanrezac’s handling of his forces denied the Germans the decisive clash in the north they were impatient to bring about.
General Charles Lanrezac
They nearly achieved it on 21 August, when von Bülow’s formations trapped 5th Army near Charleroi, routed it, and prompted further retreat. Between 20 - 23 August, 40,000 French soldiers died in this action alone.

On 25 August Joffre’s forces brought some relief to Lanrezac by launching a counter-attack further south between Tour and Epinal, a difficult country of steep hills and rivers. In what became known as the Battle of the Mortagne, some 225,000 French soldiers clashed with 300,000 of Prince Rupprecht’s Bavarian army. Fighting exhausted itself to a draw on 28 August, but the Bavarians had been hit hard for small advantage – one historian estimates that they suffered 66,000 casualties in Alsace-Lorraine.

Overall, by 29 August, total French casualties since the war began reached 260,000, including 75,000 dead. The Third and Fourth Armies in the Ardennes had suffered worst – of the Third’s 80,000 infantrymen, 13,000 had fallen.

By the evening of 23 August, the ‘Battles of the Frontiers’ were effectively over. They would remain the entire war’s bloodiest daily clashes of arms, and signalled the first full involvement of the BEF at Mons, followed by the Great Retreat.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Battle of the Frontiers (2) - Joffre's Folly

Joffre's determination to fight the war the French way cost his country dearly.
Joseph Césaire Joffre, was made commander-in-chief of France in 1911.  For a period he was near-dictator of France, given free rein by President Poincare, pro military and anti German successor to Caillaux. Joffre directed France's military destinies from GQG, his Grand-Quartier-Générale, located in the little Marneside town of Vitry-le-François. He “remembered too well the events of 1870, and was resolved to resist more stoutly the lure of fortified places, and keep his armies together as a force of manoeuvre” (Buchan). His early belief in an offensive into Alsace Lorraine to redress their seizure in 1870 was the consequence.

Events on the centre and right of the French Dispositions
Joffre held strongly to his views and required a stand at all costs in the east by Generals  Dubai and Castelnau, holding Nancy if at all possible. In the centre he would need to hold the line Toul-Epinal-Belfort, and allow a short retreat by the Third and Fourth armies, pivoting on Verdun. The French 5th and BEF armies should be allowed a short retreat until such time as they could be reinforced, and enable an ‘ultimate reaction’ to the German advances.

General  Auguste Dubail
 On 14th August the French 1st Army under Dubail and 2nd Army under Castelnau advanced across the frontier towards Sarrebourg, Lorraine. German 6th and 7th Armies under Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and General Josias von Heeringen fell backFurther south the right flank of the French forces pushed into Germany and pushed towards Kingersheim and Mulhouse, also meeting initial success

Castelnau himself had opposed the offensive into Lorraine: he argued, with notable prudence, that his forces should merely hold their strong positions on the hills around Nancy, and let the enemy do the attacking. Joffre, however, was insistent that the offensive should go ahead, and progress in the first few days convinced him of its success. Further south, 1st Army overran Sarrebourg. On the evening of the 19th, Castelnau again urged caution on his local corps commander, Ferdinand Foch.
The French threw forward 320 battalions and a thousand guns, which the Germans (who as it happened had chosen the same day to deliver their own massive blow) met with 328 battalions and over 1,600 guns. In the midst of Alsace-Lorraine, the rival attacks collided with shocking force and heavy losses on both sides. Morhange was the site of huge carnage and losses.
French aviators had warned their commanders of the strength – indeed, near-impregnability – of the German position, but they were ignored. The attackers pressed forward in two vast columns, between the Forêt de Cremecy and the Forêt de Bride. Here was a battle that is today little known, yet was awesome in its scale and character.
General Noel de Castelnau

Behind this killing ground lay the hamlet of Fontaine Saint-Barbe. This became a casualty-clearing station for the French, though the medical facilities were overwhelmed.
On the night of the 20th, Castelnau, who was furious with his subordinates, ordered a full retreat, fifteen miles back inside France to the Meurthe river and the heights known as the Grand Couronné of Nancy, which protected that city.

Joffre had repeatedly told the commanders of his right flanks that their job was to tie down the maximum German forces, rather than to win the war, which would be contrived by his centre, and further north toward the Ardennes. If this was so, it is extraordinary that he accepted such huge losses in pursuit of secondary objectives. Yet during those early days, the French disaster at Morhange was matched elsewhere. The slaughter in Alsace-Lorraine represented only one part of Joffre’s disastrous achievement. Even as it unfolded, elsewhere along the front other French armies were suffering still bloodier fates in piecemeal encounters with the Germans. The most northerly, Gen. Charles Lanrezac’s Fifth, was a quarter of a million men strong. They advanced into Belgium, up the Meuse past Sedan and Mezières as far as Dinant, before meeting the Germans. One of the regiments collapsing into exhausted sleep on the streets of Dinant on the night of 14 August, contained a certain Lt. Charles de Gaulle.  

A stream of reports were reaching Joffre - from French airmen and from intelligence officers - that large forces of Germans were crossing the front northwards, towards his left flank. The Belgians also described enemy masses crossing their country in long, grey-green columns. This merely led Joffre to the conclusion that since Moltke’s forces – whose overall numbers he much underestimated – were so strong on both flanks, they must be weak in the centre. Instead of focusing on the northern threat, the commander-in-chief pressed France’s own, supposedly decisive, thrust into Luxembourg and southern Belgium through the Ardennes. On 21 August he gave the order – among the most fateful in French history – for nine corps of Third and Fourth Armies to attack between Charleroi and Verdun, while the Fifth did likewise on the Sambre.

Thus, they unleashed a series of murderous – and, on the French side, disastrously ill-coordinated – encounter battles across a sixty-mile front. The fighting on this one day, the 22nd, cost the French army 27,000 men killed, in addition to wounded and prisoners in proportion. This was a much larger loss than the British suffered on 1 July 1916, first day of the battle of Somme, which is often wrongly cited as the First World War’s high blood mark.

Ruffey’s third army pulled back across the Meuse on 26th August and began slowly to retreat on the entrenched camp of Verdun. After the French retreated, the Germans conducted another orgy of violence against civilians, murdering 122 people in Rossignol on 26 August.

Langle’s fourth army had a more troubled retreat, as it had further to trouble and was continuously engaged with Wurtenburg’s Fourth Army. On the 25th, after the failure of its Ardennes offensive it was still east of the Meuse, between Mezieres and Montmady.  Langle was gradually able to pull back towards Paris, so that by 29th August he was on a line Buzancy-Rethel, and next day he was crossing the Aisne. By early September, the French 4th Army was astride the upper Marne, among the Champagne wolds, just south of Joffre’s old HQ at Vitry-le Francois.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Battle of the Frontiers (1) - Plan and Counter Plan

The frontier between France and a recently unified Germany was redrawn after the 1870 Franco Prussian war. German acquisition of Alsace and Lorraine gave a more linear frontier stretching south to north from Belfort by the Swiss border to Longwy at the junction of Luxembourg and Belgian borders, and into the Ardennes. To the south, the Vosges mountains formed a natural barrier, and the remainder of the border through to Longwy was strongly fortified. 
French military thinking was still dominated by Napoleon's doctrine of attack, and it was unacceptable to them, in particular Joffre their commander, to employ a defensive strategy to resist German invasion. It was dogma that led to hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Moltke the Younger
The German belief was that only by a swift envelopment could they secure a speedy decision in France and then turn to the East. Moltke had preached and practised this doctrine, as worked out in detail by Schlieffen. But Moltke did not throw as much strength to his right as Schlieffen required. He did allocate 35 corps to the Western front, whereas the French predicted only 22. These great numbers would enable an army deluge through Belgium utterly beyond the French calculation, while still leaving sufficent forces to press hard on the French right wing to the south and east, so as to bring about a complete encirclement.
The total German strength was underestimated by the French Staff, who accordingly did not allow for the magnitude of the wheel of the German right wing. For the violation of Belgium they were prepared, but they looked for the attack by the Ardennes and the Meuse valley. They had never dreamed that Germany could muster sufficient forces for a wide sweep through the Belgian plain.

Plan XVII to counter Schlieffen.
Faced with so many unknown quantities Joffre chose, instead of a strategic defence combined with tactical offensives, the hopeless course of a general offensive in widely separated fields. The mind of Joffre (and France) had been trained to see, in the catastrophe of 1870 as well as the Napoleonic legacy, a warning against passive defence, and to believe that resounding attack at all times would lead to victory.
 The French believed that their plan to place 4 French armies in a north easterly direction either side of Metz, with one reserve army centrally behind, would thwart the Germans. They thought that they could not be turned by a major German move either side of the River Meuse. They proved to be totally wrong (as had been predicted by British military) with major German advances one both the Right (Northern) and Left (Southern) wings, with relatively little in the centre. It turned out to be a disaster for the French left, with relatively less action on their right.
General Joffre

By the time of retreat along Meuse and Sambre to Charleroi the French found themselves outnumbered by 3 to 1. There were 300, 000 French casualties. “Although the Germans invaded, it was more often the French who attacked” (Churchill). The wheeling German right was overwhelming, and the French left, led by Lanrezac, and the newly arriving British Expeditionary Force walked straight into it. This led to the defeat at Mons, and the start of the great retreat to the Marne (to be covered later)
On 25th August Moltke withdrew two Divisions and one cavalry Division to reinforce the Eastern Front. This was shortly followed by the stunning victory at Tannenberg, which, added to the general allied retreat in the West seemed to justify his decision. However, Moltke remained concerned by the strong resistance slowing the German advance through Belgium and France, since speed was of the essence in the Schlieffen plan.

For the allies Joffre came under major political pressure at this stage on account of the huge losses incurred, and was almost replaced by Gallieni, soon to play a crucial role at the Marne..