If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Monday, 29 September 2014

First Light of Dawn

Today, If Ye Break Faith presents the concluding essay in the four part series on the formation of the Western Front.  This particular series has proved quite popular, and if you're just catching it now, it is suggested you read the preceding posts "Last Light""Sun Down" and "Always Darkest".  I'm looking forward to more feedback, and perhaps suggestions for a future explorative series.  As always, comments, questions as well as suggestions are most welcome.  Feel free to follow If Ye Break Faith through Twitter and Facebook.

The war had been raging for two months.  Not only was it hoped that it would be over by Christmas, it had be over by then.  Strictly by the pace the massed armies, east and west were destroying each other, victory had to come quickly before wastage was total.  There were less and less likely conditions which would avoid a long campaign of attrition, and the diminishment of these conditions would ironically be set in play by decisions made to avoid such circumstances.

Falkenhayn, upon taking over from Moltke as German Chief of Staff had two objectives in the west- to protect his exposed right flank and to take Antwerp.[1] Antwerp’s capitulation would not only deliver a deep water port into German hands, but create an unimpeded axis of advance through Flanders and free up the units there to bolster the numbers that would attempt an exploitation of the open ground of Flemish Belgium and Northeastern France.  His first objective had largely been achieved by having stopped the Allies at strong defensive positions along the Aisne and by holding firm a line which was extending southward far beyond the French fortress of Verdun.

The Allies sought to prevent this and had their own design to use the same ground to turn the German flank.  Costly losses at the Aisne had driven home the lesson of there being no going through, so had best to be going around.  The threat against Antwerp was a real concern, particularly to the British.  Their continued existence on the Continent was solely dependent on having access to the sea.  King Albert I of Belgium, in direct command of his country’s army held as long as he could at Antwerp, but wisely ordered a withdrawal on the 10th of October when his rate of casualties caused by the siege proved critical.  Now with Antwerp abandoned, “control of the Channel coast was deemed a strategic priority.”[2] Field Marshall Sir John French, commanding the BEF began to disposition his forces around the low ridges of high ground to the east of the town of Ypres.  Ypres was “strategically located along the roads leading to the Channel ports in Belgian Flanders.”[3] With the French on the right and Albert’s much reduced force on the left, between the 8-19 of October the BEF occupied thirty-five miles of front in the centre of this line which due to topography took the shape of a fat finger pointing towards the Germans.

Flanders is not an ideal place to conduct military operations.  Its ground is mostly low-lying, prone to flooding and interspersed with ridgelines, hills and isolated woods.  In his next forward move, Falkenhayn would try to avoid this territory by initially pressing against the Belgians.  Their defeat at Antwerp had substantially weakened them not only in manpower, but in crucial supplies of ammunition and much of their artillery had been left behind.  On the 20th, the Germans attacked.  King Albert was in a trying position.  His forces were in great peril of being overwhelmed, the Germans having the right numerical advantage to break a defensive line so thinly held.  If his army couldn’t hold out, not only would the ports of Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne be taken and thus possibly force Britain from the war, but he would loose what little sliver of his country he had left- and very possibly his crown as a result.  A desperate measure was called for.  With the knowledge he was saving his country by doing it harm, Albert ordered sluices on the sea dykes to be opened on the 27th of October, flooding twenty miles of land between Dixmude and Nieuport to a depth of more than five feet.  Now impassible, Falkenhayn would have to find another way around.

Albert’s actions may have saved his army, but it caused the Germans to shift their attention to the British who
were not much better off.  They had, much reduced, seven divisions of infantry and three of cavalry who were mostly fighting dismounted.  Reinforcements would be a long time coming, provided the Channel ports could be kept open.  While the I Indian Corps (comprised of the Lahore and Meerut Divisions) had arrived in late September, other colonial forces were still en route, or like the volunteer armies raised at the onset in Britain, still in training and not ready to take the field.[4]
Doctrine demanded the BEF assume a defensive stance.  The British army had always entrenched when necessary.  Historian Maj. G Corrigan describes the opposing defensive philosophies well.  The French had assigned so much importance to their offensive ideology that any entrenchment was viewed as temporary shelter for use prior to jumping off in an advance.  Little care or effort was assigned to their construction or maintenance.  It was believed to do so would indicate to the men that a long halt was being affected and would therefore drain the offensive spirit.  Germans “on the other hand...were on someone else’s territory and, once the Schlieffen plane failed, were content to stay on the defensive while the Allies tried again and again to evict them.”[5] The British appraisal, Corrigan notes, was a compromise of the two.  They would have to win the war by advancing against the enemy, but could not do that until they had the strength of numbers required.  Until such time, the men would be protected within well built trenches.

The conditions for the British at Ypres were far from ideal from a defensive perspective, “the BEF’s trenches, at best hasty scratching three feet deep...frequently knee-deep in rain or groundwater (and) were as yet unprotected by barbed wire.”[6] Repositioning his men from the flooded uplands and overstretched rail transit bringing up reserves caused serious delays for Falkenhayn.  Thus the British were allowed crucial days in which to fortify their positions; occupying the best high ground available, setting up artillery observation in village towers and constructing strong-points in woods and stone cottages.

From the 31st of October a protracted and bitter struggle of what became known as the First Battle of Ypres began.  Now the war would begin to witness battles which had been measured in the span of hours and days become events counted in weeks and months.  It was set up, more or less by an accident of circumstance.  “Until hours before their armies crashed into each other, neither was expecting to encounter an enemy in force.”[7] The fighting was confused and close, often devolving to hand to hand combat as either the Germans or the British sought to gain some sort of advantage during large skirmishes at one point of the line or another.  With copious reserves, the Germans held a numerical advantage which was greatly offset by the inexperience of fresh and very young soldiers.  Often they failed to properly exploit gains, or would be brought to a standstill if the attrition of officers left them leaderless; worse was that these reserve units lacked competent leadership at all.  This resulted in such poor tactical choices leading to high casualties that the battle became known as the “Kindermord von Ypren”, the Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres.[8] The British were in not much better shape as they may have had the tactical edge of experienced professionals and a strong, deep defensive line but suffered from a complete exhaustion of reserves.

With such close and continued contact, headquarters normally removed from fighting were well within range.  At a crucial point in the opening of battle, a single shell killed or wounded the commanders and staff of two British divisions who had gathered in a chateau for a situational conference. [9]  Command; and the battle itself would devolve to smaller units as time wore on as brigades, battalions and companies became isolated from supporting units.  Ypres became a grinding battle of willpower more than anything else.  Through heavy rains along ground already wet and miserable and days growing colder, villages, woods and shallow trenches were taken and retaken.  For almost four weeks of assaults and counter attacks, wearied men on both sides continued to hammer away at each other in a dogged and brutal fashion.

As lines broke, the gaps were plugged with whatever men were to hand- even cooks and clerks were desperately put into the line.  “What ultimately saved (the British) at Ypres as earlier at Mons and Le Cateau was the accuracy and speed of the ordinary British rifleman.” [10] Able to fire at a terrific rate of fifteen rounds a minute and obliged by a naive enemy advancing in close order meant that the Tommies inflicted many more casualties than they themselves suffered.

Nevertheless, the BEF was shattered.  “In each of the battalions which fought on the Marne and at Ypres there remained, on average, only one officer and thirty men who had landed in August.”[11] With a total loss of 7,960 killed and 29,562 wounded[12] the British were on the edge of annihilation.  But the Germans had been dealt a severe blow as well.  Indecisiveness at the highest level of command as to whether priority be placed in the east or the west contributed to a lack of German momentum on either front.  As winter began to settle in, offensive action started to taper off.  In the following months Allies and Germans both would dig deeper and more heavily fortified works to the dual purpose of preventing the enemy from breaking through and to provide protection for the massive armies now gathering to make a breakthrough of their own.  The Western Front was made.

[1] Keegan, John “The First World War” Vintage Canada Edition, 2000, pg 122

[2] www.firstworldwar.com  Entry: First Battle of Ypres
[4] www.wikipedia.org Entry: First Battle of Ypres
[5] Corrigan, Gordon “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” Cassel Military Paperbacks, 2004, pg 79
[6] Keegan, John “The First World War” Vintage Canada Edition, 2000, pg 132
[7] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone”: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, Delta Books, 2006, pg 226
[9] Liddell Hart, Basil “History of the First World War” Pan Books, 1972, pg 124
[10] Meyer, G.J., ibid. pg 229
[11] Holmes, Richard “The Western Front” BBC Books, 1999, pg 54
[12] www.totallyhistory.com Entry: First Battle of Ypres

Monday, 22 September 2014

Always Darkest

Today, the series on the development of the Western Front continues.  If you haven't already, I suggest you read the preceding parts, "Last Light" and "Sun Down".  I'd like to extend my gratitude for all who have read, liked, retweeted and upvoted the series thus far; I feel a great deal of satisfaction and success that they have been so well received.  As always, comments, questions and suggestions are most welcome, and this blog can be followed through Twitter and Facebook.

The knockout blow the Germans had aimed at Paris had been thwarted by a combination of Allied cooperation and a loss of unit cohesion in between the German Armies.  Moltke, the German Chief-of-Staff, was now in the unenviable position of having the situation dictate his actions instead of the reverse.  So it was that “along a front of nearly 250 miles, the German infantry faced about and began to retrace their steps over the ground won in bitter combat during the last two weeks.”[1]  

Now it fell to the French and British to come out swinging, rapidly close with and destroy the enemy before it could reorganise.  Only, they couldn't; they were “badly battered, worn out and running low on essential
equipment.”[2]  For the BEF alone, it had, over the past seventeen days moved- in advance and retreat- nearly five hundred kilometers, an average of more than twenty each day, every day while being in close contact with the enemy through most of that time.  The Force’s two corps had been reinforced by a third fresh from England, but there were no individual drafts to bring the existing corps back to strength.  It’s worth noting here that the BEF was overwhelmingly professional and therefore expected to perform at this level of hardship.  It can only be imagined how this strain, depleting the effectiveness of a regular army was borne by the French and German reservists who had been in civil life just five weeks prior.  Nevertheless, professional or not, all belligerents in the West, including the tiny Belgian army holding at Antwerp, were being fought to death.

That was only part of the problem.  It was quickly becoming apparent that modern war on such a vast scale was creating material demand which far outstripped supply.  One estimate was that the French daily production of artillery shells was perhaps 20% of requirement.[3] There had been stockpiles made before the war, but with a continued deficit a zero sum would quickly be reached.  The British had no such reserve, even less industrial capacity and the added problem of a long supply line, part of which was across the channel.

Such factors were now giving credence to the belief that a swift victory, though looking less likely as the situation deteriorated, was entirely critical.  No one had any confidence that popular, material and financial support could be counted on to continue and make a protracted war possible.

The “cult of the offensive” Sir Richard Holmes mentioned had been found wanting, where on the eve of war “Offensive war plans ruled.  Russia planned to advance into East Prussia.  France proposed to launch Plan XVII, an all out attack into the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.  And Germany sought to execute a plan named after a previous Chief of the General Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen.”[4] Yet each of these grand strategies had been insufficient.

In the East, a stronger than expected Russian showing had crippled the Austrians.  Even though the Tsar’s armies had been badly defeated by the Kaiser’s at Tannenberg, the Central Powers’ eastern campaign was in jeopardy.  Given ample time, Russia’s vast manpower would dominate.  The pressure was on Moltke to perform in the west.  The French fortress of Verdun had held and now became the lynch pin on which Allied and German lines would hinge.  Extending east-southeast from Verdun the opposing armies of Plan XVII’s main effort and the Schlieffen blocking force had fought to a standstill.  That left the terrain north from Verdun to the coast as the only viable ground to allow for a desperately hoped coup de gras.  The stagnation in the south meant that men could be transferred up the line to support an expected counterattack, and shore up the worrying gaps between 1st 2nd and 3rd Armies.  By affecting his withdrawal from the Marne to the Aisne, Moltke had “shaken out” his line.  While this meant ceding vital ground, such as the rail hubs at Reims, Amiens and Arras, the concentration had shortened the length of front to be defended, and even more manpower could be shifted to the still active area.

Before the offensive could resume, the Allied advance had to be checked and repulsed.  The unfortunately languorous Allied pursuit had given the Germans the time to select and prepare a defensive position to ensure such a reverse.  Just beyond the river Aisne, the land rises to high cliffs, some 300-400 feet, levelling to a
plateau.  The river itself was wide and deep, only crossable at bridge points which had mostly been demolished.  Approaching the heights would be difficult for “low crops in the unfenced countryside offered no natural concealment to the Allies.  Deep narrow paths cut into the escarpment at right angles, exposing any infiltrators to extreme hazard.  The forces on the northern plateau commanded a wide field of fire.”[5] Moltke’s orders, of 13 September, would prove to be prophetic: at the line of the Aisne positions would be “fortified and defended.”[6] They would also prove to be his last.  Having failed to gain victory within the forty day margin the Schlieffen Plan dictated and not ever in favour with Kaiser Wilhelm II, he was replaced as Chief of Staff by Erich von Falkenhayn on the 14th

On the night of the 13th, the British and French forced a crossing of the Aisne using what bridges were still serviceable and pontoons put together by engineers.  Then “the divisions made a rather cautious and leisurely advance.”[7] The caution was warranted, as the location of the Germans wasn’t fully known.  Despite this, and without waiting for a complete crossing, forward units under cover of fog and dark of night attempted to gain the heights.  Again, offensive spirit was the prevailing thought; that sufficient dash and élan can overcome a defensive position.  This can only be true if both superior numbers and firepower are present, and the British had neither.  Some of the harsh realities that would define the First World War were about to be seen.

A fortified position such as the one the Germans had dug into the ridge is of a type the Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu called “strategic ground”.  “When ground offers advantage to either side that is strategic ground.”[8] Master Sun advises that those who occupy this type of ground not be enticed to attack from it, but defend it and keep the advantage.  If the enemy has taken strong positions on strategic ground, he should not be directly attacked, but circumvented.  His centuries’ old warning on this topic was “on strategic ground, do not attack.”[9]

With daylight, the British lost the concealment darkness offered.  Those on the approaches were caught in the open and ripped apart by artillery.  The river crossings came under indirect fire as well, hampering the forward movement of reserves.  Leading units mounting the slope through the defiles were raked by enfilading fire of well sited machine guns.  Despite terrible losses, the heights were taken.  Without the units which had been pinned down at the river, there was no way to properly consolidate the position.  A concerted counterattack on the 14th pushed the British back again.

For a further 13,500 [10] casualties, no gain was made.  Facing critical losses, Field Marshall French ordered his Corps to entrench.  A German officer at Aisne said “We are all hoping that a decisive battle will end the war.”[11] With frontal assaults now of little use, something else must be tried.  Falkenhayn, on taking over from Moltke really only had one option-he would try to move around the Allies while simultaneously protecting his right flank.  He was not the only one to make this assessment; “both commanders had grasped that opportunity in the campaign in the west now lay north of the active battle front, in the hundred mile sweep of territory...between the Aisne and the Sea.” [12]

Over the next three weeks, both armies would make to exploit this open ground, like two strangers meeting on the street attempting to step around the other by moving in the same direction simultaneously.  This mad dash, known as the “race to the Sea” would define the shape of the Western Front.  The fighting along this line about to take place would create the conditions which would dominate the rest of the war.

[1] Keegan, John “The First World War” Vintage Canada Edition, 2000, pg 122
[2] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone”: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, Delta Books, 2006, pg 220
[3] Meyer, G.J., ibid.
[4] Holmes, Richard “The Western Front” BBC Books, 1999, pg 35
[5] Wikipedia.org; entry: Battle of the Aisne
[6] Keegan, John, ibid.
[7] Liddell Hart, Basil “History of the First World War” Pan Books, 1972, pg 95
[8] Sun Tzu “The Art of War” (tans. John Minford), Penguin Books, 2003, pg 268
[9] Sun Tzu, ibid. pg 275
[10] Wikipedia.org; entry: Battle of the Aisne
[11] Meyer, G.J., ibid. pg 221
[12] Keegan, John, ibid. pg 127

Monday, 15 September 2014

Sun Down

Last week's update has been incredibly well received.  Today, the series on the opening of the war and how the Western Front developed continues, with a look at the actions that occurred between the rivers Marne and Aisne in mid September 1914.  As these essays are meant to be educational in tone, I certainly appreciate any feedback the reader may have in either comments, questions or suggestions.  You can follow "If Ye Break Faith" on social feeds, including Twitter and Facebook.

 A strong advance had pushed the French and British back, putting Paris in danger and the Germans tantalisingly close to completing their campaign.  Needing to take a stand somewhere before all was lost, the French Commander in Chief, Joffre, announced to his officers, “We will fight on the Marne.”[1]  So desperate was he to prevent a complete collapse, of the calculated withdrawal becoming a rout, he added “Under present conditions, no weakness will be tolerated.”[2]

The reversal at the Battle of the Marne “was not decided by a single brilliant master-stroke or decisive breakthrough: ultimately the will of the commanders was no less important than that of the exhausted young men who actually did the fighting”[3]  

There is a sport, very little known, which sees competitors alternate between playing a game of chess and rounds of boxing.  Both on their own are analogous to warfare; together they sum up the combination of intellectual and physical components of war quite well.  For, if a competitor gets trounced in the ring, he may not fare too well in making sound movements on the board.  Likewise, if he’s concentrating too much on his piece moves when on the canvas, he’s likely to have a loose guard.  Such is what faced the Germans and the allies in the West in early September 1914.  Both armies were showing the strain that modern war would place upon body and mind.  Several things of both natures were to contribute to events unfolding as they did, and all taken together show how the war, begun with grand schemes of movement and manoeuvre would grind down to a nearly unbreakable halt and years of static warfare.

First, “it is necessary, however, to take account of the situation on other parts of the battlefront for unless the Germans intentions elsewhere had been frustrated, Joffre’s victory would have been impossible and defeat probable.”[4] In the south, the French army’s major effort into Alsace Lorraine as dictated by the stratagem known as Plan XVII had met their opposition, the blocking force covering the sweeping flank of the Schlieffen Plan.  Fairly evenly matched, both forces made gains and losses at terrible cost, but no advantage to either side.  For the Germans, this was less critical as their battle was meant to be won by the Armies further north falling upon Paris.  Ideally they were to have reduced the French, but at minimum they merely needed to hold them in place.  Conversely, the French could not yield too much, in fact to win the war on their terms; the Germans along the frontier must be eliminated.  Concurrently, with the failure to check the German right and the retreat towards the capitol, French units in this centre would have to stand fast in order to prevent the whole front from collapsing.  The terrain and border fortifications, such as those at Verdun proved sufficient to slow German progress here, where the south-eastern apex of Germany’s advance of the entire war was reached.[5]

Even though the German strategy had been hugely successful, things were beginning to go wrong.  The strong right wing of the Schlieffen Plan consisted of four Armies, notwithstanding having been reduced at the outset to reinforce the centre made up of the remaining three Armies.  All these Armies totalled nearly three million men and were controlled centrally by the Chief of the General Staff, Helmut von Moltke, whose headquarters was in Luxembourg, one hundred seventy miles away from the front line.[6] Despite the vaunted expertise the German Imperial Staff was noted for, it was not foreseen that such numbers required a level of command and control (Army Group) in between that of Army and General Headquarters.  An Army Group would have bound two or more Armies together and have an operational headquarters much closer to the front.  Without this, the four Armies outside Paris began to develop gaps between each other as their commanders fought their battles, with no ability to coordinate between flanking units.  Worse, Generalobersst Alexander von Kluck, commanding 1st Army ignored an order from Moltke to halt as an effort to maintain cohesion.  He was too eager for the notoriety of capturing Paris.

Kluck’s indolence would cost dearly.  The hastily reinforced French 6th Army collided with Kluck’s, effectively stopping his victorious advance.  The French organisation was missing the same penultimate level of command as the Germans, but their good fortune in being pushed back so far was that the 5th, 9th and 4th Armies opposite the Germans near Paris were more consolidated, and were within reasonable distance of Joffre’s headquarters (Grand Quartier Général-GQG), which had been at Vitry-le-François on the River Marne and had moved back as the Armies had withdrawn.

In deciding to face west to meet the French 6th Army, Kluck’s forces became further estranged from von Bülow’s 2nd Army, creating a thirty mile gap[7] that Joffre chose to exploit.  If he could move quickly, the entire tactical situation may be reversed.  Joffre would need every asset he could spare.  His problem was that most of his Armies were engaged elsewhere along the line and he couldn’t rely on the British Expeditionary Force to help.  Field Marshall Sir John French was operating within the mandate given to him by his superiors, which read in part “It must be recognised from the outset that the numerical strength of the British force and its contingent reinforcement is strictly limited.”[8] After holding actions at Mons and Le Cateau, he had adduced his losses as critical and brought the BEF out of the line.

Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener had come to Paris to meet with the BEF’s commander.  It is not known what transpired in that encounter, but a subsequent appeal to French’s honour as a British gentleman by Joffre secured the Field Marshall’s cooperation.

French’s prevarications had caused a delay in the proposed counter attack, usually a flaw in offensive operations.  In this case, it proved an advantage.  In the interim, Kluck had shifted his lines to meet 6th Army, where he supposed the real threat to be, in turn widening the gap he had created a further five miles.[9] The BEF and the French 5th Army were able to push successful attacks on the exposed German flanks at the edge of this empty space, driving a wedge between the two German Armies.

The clock had run out for Moltke.  A plan anticipated to have Paris in hand within forty days had failed.  With his armies spaced too thin and out of touch with each other, pursuing the advance was dangerous.  The longer they remained forward, the more disparate these units might become.  Supply and reinforcement along extended lines would become difficult.  If the BEF and the French fully exploited the gap between 1st and 2nd Armies, these lines of communication might be cut altogether.  Moltke found he had little choice but to collapse his line and consolidate all his armies.  On the 10th of September, contradicting his former orders to maintain the offensive and despite some successful counter attacks near Verdun, Moltke ordered a general retreat.

As had the French, just days before, the Germans now gave ground in an attempt to gain strength and buy time.  The Germans still had a particular advantage.  While morale might suffer through the act of withdrawing across recently captured land so dearly paid for, the choice was theirs to pick the ground on which they would make their stand.  Along the banks of the Aisne river, with low hills and great fields of observation German units began to dig in and wait for the allies pursuing them to come within range.  The first spades-full of earth of the fortification of the Western Front were being turned.

In the first forty days of the war, for a cost of more than 660 000 casualties[10] the war in the west had failed to be won or lost with the decisive plans of either side, and was slowly descending into stalemate.  

[3] Holmes, Richard “The Western Front” BBC Books, 1999, pg 51
[4] Liddell Hart, Basil “History of the First World War” Pan Books, 1972, pg 88
[5] Liddell Hart, Basil, ibid. pg 89
[6] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone”: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, Delta Books, 2006, pg 208
[7] Liddell Hart, Basil, ibid. pg 89
[8] Holmes, Richard, ibid. pg 46
[9] Keegan, John “The First World War” Vintage Canada Edition, 2000, pg 117
[10] http://eng.wikipedia.org, entry “Battle of the Frontiers”

Monday, 8 September 2014

Last Light

It's with great thanks that I extend my gratitude for the positive reception of the essays posted throughout the last month.  Serialising my posts is not something I had seriously considered, but as it allowed me to examine a topic in greater depth while keeping individual components short and therefore more digestible, I found I didn't have to make too many compromises on quantity and quality.  With the success of the five posts comprising the examination of Canada's national identity and the war, it has been decided to present another short series looking into a very key component of the war, which is nearing its hundredth anniversary: The formation of the Western Front.
I welcome your feedback in comments, questions and suggestions and can be followed via Twitter and Facebook.

Very little else defines the popular imagination of the First World War than the nature of trench warfare.  It
invokes the idea of futility, deadlock and terrible waste of lives through attrition.  From a remove of one hundred years, it may not be readily apparent the logic behind fighting a war of this kind, or how circumstances developed to permit such a state of affairs.  It begins with the notion that a large continental war was not predicted to last long, based on the size of armies and the cost of keeping them in the field.  Victory, therefore, would have to be swift and decisive; an all or nothing affair.  It was sound reasoning, but for one fatal flaw-everybody planned to do exactly that at the same time as everyone else.

The most recent European conflict, the Franco-Prussian war, had inspired military thinkers in the intervening years that only such bold offensive strategies could win.  This military philosophy evolved into what British historian Richard Holmes called “the cult of the offensive.”[1] The effect of offensive doctrine being assumed by both sides is not unlike two prize fighters determined to throw nothing but haymakers, landing a few hefty blows pushing from centre to corner and back again until both are reduced to clenching and exhausted jabs before the end of the first round.

Having had a humiliating defeat against Prussia in 1871, in which a reliance on a mostly defensive strategy was bested by the Prussian’s more dynamic tactics, France had seriously re-adjusted her military thinking prior to the outbreak of the First World War.  The prevailing doctrine, which became known as “offensive à l’outrance” or “unrestrained aggressiveness” became a key component of French war planning.[2] The idea was that adopting a defensive stance was linked to a defeatist attitude.  Only bold, continuous attacks could bring victory in war and the territory lost in 1871 could not be retaken without such an offensive spirit.  In case of war with Germany, the French had developed Plan XVII.  This ready-made strategy would see the army deploy into the frontier, retaking lost ground and meeting the expected German advance head-on and hopefully unprepared.  As far as strategic thinking goes, Plan XVII wasn’t that imaginative.  In fact, it was more or less what German military planners had expected France to do.  To avoid colliding with a strong French vanguard in the difficult terrain of wooded hills and narrow passes of the frontier, the German plan at the outset would largely bypass the most obvious route into France.

 At the outbreak of war in Europe, Germany was in a very delicate position.  The entente between France and Russia meant that to attack one would mean war with both.  While militarily powerful, Germany lacked the strength to commit offensively against the two allies simultaneously. The man who was responsible for German strategy, Field Marshall Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff 1890-1905,[3] had developed plans surrounding this very probable scenario.  Simply put, Germany would move aggressively against France, the weaker of the two, in a grand flanking movement which would avoid the frontier by way of neutral Belgium.  If enacted swiftly, the German army in the West could surround Paris and force a surrender.  France thus eliminated, the entire mass of the German army could then be thrown against Russia.
There were huge deficiencies in Schlieffen’s masterwork.  He had spent a long time and great effort in the coordination of troop movements; calculated railway capacity and developed timetables.  The precision is admirable, but its exacting nature made the plan inflexible. [4] An upset at any point of the process would have no contingency.  The assumption was that everything would work out because it had to.  Noticeably missing from the stratagem was where and how the decisive battle which would finally capitulate France would take place.  Above all, little consideration had been made that the Generals who would be commanding the offensive had never taken to the field with such large formations in any practical sense.  Neither had the French or the British, for that matter, but advancing so far and so quickly into enemy territory would stretch the limits of logistics and command and control. 

Generaloberst Helmut von Moltke, the German Chief of Staff had been convinced to move troop dispositions at the outset, bleeding strength from the right echelon to reinforce the centre.  This was contradictory to Schlieffen’s desires (so much so that the old man is reported to have said “keep the right wing strong” as his last words[5]).  While it can be argued whether the move proved necessary to prevent a French breakthrough in Alsace and Lorraine, tinkering with the plan, combined with stronger Belgian resistance than expected and the presence of an 80 000 strong British Expeditionary Force could well have skunked Germany in the West.  Nevertheless, the initial phases of the Schlieffen plan went remarkably well, not least because France had been caught wrong footed with Plan XVII, the bulk of her armies being drawn away from the main German advance. 

The French were forced to adjust their own strategy by making deployment decisions on the fly.  By following Plan XVII, the French Commander in Chief, Joseph Joffre, kept pressing attacks along the frontier and wasn’t fully aware of the strength or intent of the German forces moving through Belgium.  As the situation developed, to provide a sufficient blocking force, Joffre shifted his 5th Army north to meet the German right and requested the BEF form a defensive line in support of 5th Army’s movements. 

Victory in war often goes to the side that can be most responsive to the changing situation.  In the case of these battles of encounter in Western Belgium and North-eastern France, the allies made a correct, but often misinterpreted tactical choice: They fell back.  Retreat should be understood to not always be synonymous with defeat.  Ceding territory to an enemy which will have to be retaken is regrettable, but a well-executed, organised rearward movement shortens lines of supply and communication while extending those of the enemy in pursuit-hopefully to a point of unbearable strain.  Attempts to check the German advance having been unsuccessful, the BEF and French 5th, 9th and 4th Armies began a series of retreats over twelve days.[6]

The anticipated encirclement and fall of the French capital was set to take place within the first forty days of the war.  With Russia expected to take six weeks to effect mobilisation in the East, “Between the thirty-fifth and fortieth day, therefore, the outcome of the war was to be decided.”[7] Paris was temptingly close, and some advanced German units were breaking out in cheers as they passed “Paris 30 Miles” signposts.  Despite delays besieging Belgian fortresses and last minute changes to a plan that demanded no change, the Schlieffen plan was adhering to schedule. 

Joffre was coming under immense pressure.  The fighting retreat had preserved his armies and slowed the Germans, but they would have to make a stand somewhere.  Paris must not be allowed to fall.  The government had evacuated and reservists were entrenching in the suburbs in expectation of the German assault.  Even worse was the state of affairs between him and Field Marshall Sir John French, commanding the BEF.  French, prior to deploying to France had received a very broad mandate from the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener: “It will be obvious that the greatest care must be exercised towards a minimum of loss and wastage.  I wish you to distinctly understand that your force is an entirely independent one and you will in no case come under the orders of any Allied general.”[8] With costly engagements at Mons and Le Cateau, French desired to pull the BEF from line of battle to refit over a period of ten days, even contemplating evacuation across the Channel, and Joffre could not compel him to do otherwise.

Likewise, Moltke was under tremendous strain.  German forces had covered a lot of ground in these crucial first five weeks.  Though, the further they advanced the more spread out and beyond easy reach from his influence they became; the men were reaching their physical limit.  The Germans were running out of time and the allies were running out of space.  Moltke’s armies would have to move on Paris, and Joffre would have to counter-attack before that happened.   

[1] Holmes, Richard “The Western Front” BBC Books, 1999, pg 35
[2] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone”: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, Delta Books, 2006, pg 196
[3] Liddell Hart, Basil “History of the First World War” Pan Books, 1972, pg 41
[4] Holmes, Richard, ibid
[5] Meyer, G.J. pg 111
[6] http://www.firstworldwar.com
[7] Keegan, John “The First World War” Vintage Canada Edition, 2000, pg 112
[8] Meyer, G.J. pp 155-6