Liveblogging World War I: August 5, 2014: The German Attack on Liege in Belgium/Britain Decides to Send the Expeditionary Force
From Barbara Tuchman: The Guns of August:
The spirit of resistance, soon to find its voice in the famous clandestine newspaper Le Libre Belge, was barely awake that first morning among the inhabitants of the frontier towns. Their own government, knowing the nature of the enemy, had already distributed notices to be posted in every community ordering civilians to deposit arms with the town authorities and warning that if caught with arms by the Germans they might be subject to the death penalty. The placards instructed the people not to fight or insult the enemy and to remain indoors behind closed windows in order to avoid “any pretext for measures of repression resulting in bloodshed or pillage or massacre of the innocent population.” Thus sternly cautioned and awestruck at the sight of the invaders, the people were hardly prepared to try to halt the armored multitudes with individual rabbit guns.
Nevertheless on the first day of invasion the Germans began the shooting not only of ordinary civilians but of Belgian priests, a more deliberate affair. On August 6, Major-General Karl Ulrich von Bülow, brother of the ex-chancellor and commander of a cavalry division in the attack on Liège, told a brother officer that he disapproved of “the summary executions of Belgian priests which had taken place on the previous day.” The pretext that Belgian priesthood was engaged in a conspiracy to encourage franc-tireur warfare—organized within the first twenty-four hours and in defiance of the civil government—was designed for German consumption. For Belgian consumption the executions were meant as an exercise in frightfulness according to the theory developed by the Emperor Caligula: “Oderint dum metuant” (Let them hate us as long as they fear us).
On the first day too the Germans shot six hostages taken at Warsage and burned the village of Battice as an example. It was “burned out, completely gutted,” wrote a German officer who marched through it a few days later. “One could see through the frameless window openings into the interior of the rooms with their roasted remnants of iron bedsteads and furnishings. Broken bits of household utensils lay scattered about the street. Except for dogs and cats scavenging among the ruins, all signs of life had been extinguished by the fire. In the market square stood the roofless, spireless church.” In another place where, he was told, three German Hussars had been shot, “the wholeR village was in flames, cattle bellowed desperately in barns, half-burned chickens rushed about demented, two men in peasant smocks lay dead against a wall.” “Our advance in Belgium is certainly brutal,” Moltke wrote to Conrad on August 5, “but we are fighting for our lives and all who get in the way must take the consequences.” He did not have in mind the consequences to Germany. But the process which was to make Belgium the nemesis of Germany had begun.
On August 5 Emmich’s brigades opened the attack on the four easternmost forts of Liège with a cannonade by field artillery followed by infantry assault. The light shells made no impression on the forts, and the Belgian guns poured a hail of fire on the German troops, slaughtering their front ranks. Company after company came on, making for the spaces between the forts where the Belgian entrenchments had not been completed. At some points where they broke through, the Germans stormed up the slopes where the guns could not be depressed to reach them and were mowed down by the forts’ machine guns. The dead piled up in ridges a yard high. At Fort Barchon, Belgians, seeing the German lines waver, charged with the bayonet and threw them back. Again and again the Germans returned to the assault, spending lives like bullets in the knowledge of plentiful reserves to make up the losses. “They made no attempt at deploying,” a Belgian officer described it later, “but came on line after line, almost shoulder to shoulder, until as we shot them down, the fallen were heaped on top of each other in an awful barricade of dead and wounded that threatened to mask our guns and cause us trouble. So high did the barricade become that we did not know whether to fire through it or to go out and clear openings with our hands....
The prodigal spending of lives by all the belligerents that was to mount and mount in senseless excess to hundreds of thousands at the Somme, to over a million at Verdun began on that second day of the war at Liège. In their furious frustration at the first check, the Germans threw men recklessly against the forts in whatever numbers would be necessary to take the objective on schedule. During the night of August 5 Emmich’s brigades reassembled on their separate roads for a renewed attack, scheduled to begin at midnight. General Ludendorff, accompanying the 14th Brigade which occupied the center of the German line, found the troops gloomy and “nervous.” Ahead the fortress guns loomed fearfully. Many officers doubted that infantry attack could prevail against them. Rumor reported that an entire cyclist company sent out to reconnoiter earlier in the day had been “annihilated.” A column taking the wrong road in the darkness bumped up against another, tangled, and came to a confused halt. Ludendorff, riding up to find the cause of the trouble, discovered the orderly of General von Wussow, commander of the 14th Brigade, leading the General’s horse with empty saddle. Von Wussow had been killed by machine-gun fire along the road ahead.
Ludendorff with instant boldness seized opportunity by the throat. He took command of the Brigade and gave the signal for attack that was intended to pierce the interval between Fort Fleron and Fort d’Evegnée. As they advanced, men fell under fire and for the first time in his life Ludendorff heard the “peculiar thud of bullets striking human bodies."...
At the War Council of August 5, the former were represented by Asquith, Grey, Churchill, and Haldane, and the army by eleven general officers, including Field Marshal Sir John French, Commander in Chief designate of the Expeditionary Force; its two corps commanders, Sir Douglas Haig and Sir James Grierson; its Chief of Staff, Sir Archibald Murray, all lieutenant generals; and its Deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Henry Wilson, whose easy faculty for making political enemies had flourished during the Curragh crisis and lost him the higher post. In between, representing no one quite knew what, was Lord Kitchener who regarded the purpose of the Expeditionary Force with deep misgivings and its Commander in Chief without admiration. If not quite as volcanic in expressing himself as Admiral Fisher had been, Kitchener now proceeded to pour the same scorn upon the General Staff’s plan to “tack on” the British Army to the tail of French strategy.
Having had no personal share in the military planning for war on the Continent, Kitchener was able to see the Expeditionary Force in its true proportions and did not believe its six divisions likely to affect the outcome in the impending clash between seventy German and seventy French divisions. Though a professional soldier—“The most able I have come across in my time,” said Lord Cromer when Kitchener came out to command the Khartoum campaign—his career had lately been pursued at Olympian levels. He dealt in India, Egypt, Empire, and large concepts only. He was never seen to speak to or notice a private soldier. Like Clausewitz he saw war as an extension of policy, and took it from there. Unlike Henry Wilson and the General Staff, he was not trapped in schedules of debarkation, railroad timetables, horses, and billets. Standing at a distance he was able to view the war as a whole, in terms of the relations of the powers, and to realize the immense effort of national military expansion that would be required for the long contest about to begin.
“We must be prepared,” he announced, “to put armies of millions in the field and maintain them for several years.” His audience was stunned and incredulous, but Kitchener was relentless. To fight and win a European war, Britain must have an army of seventy divisions, equal to the continental armies, and he had calculated that such an army would not reach full strength until the third year of war, implying the staggering corollary that the war would last that long. The Regular Army with its professional officers and especially its NCO’s, he considered to be precious and indispensable as a nucleus for training the larger force he had in mind. To throw it away in immediate battle under what he expected to be unfavorable circumstances and where, from the long view, its presence could not be decisive, he regarded as criminal folly. Once it was gone there were no troops properly trained, in his opinion, to take its place.
Lack of conscription was the most striking of all differences between the British and continental armies. The Regular Army was designed for overseas duty rather than for defense of the homeland which was left to the Territorials. Since the Duke of Wellington had laid down the unalterable dictum that recruits for foreign service “must be volunteers,” Britain’s war effort consequently depended on a volunteer army which left other nations uncertain as to how deeply Britain was, or would be, committed. Although Lord Roberts, the senior Field Marshal, now over seventy, had campaigned strenuously for conscription for years with one lone supporter in the Cabinet, needless to say Winston Churchill, labor was rigorously opposed and no government would have risked office to favor it.
Britain’s military establishment in the home islands consisted of six divisions and one cavalry division of the Regular Army, with four regular divisions totaling 60,000 men overseas, and fourteen divisions of Territorials. A Reserve of about 300,000 was divided into two classes: the Special Reserve which was barely enough to fill up the Regular Army to war strength and maintain it in the field through the first few weeks of fighting and the National Reserve which was to provide replacements for the Territorials. According to Kitchener’s standards the Territorials were untrained, useless “amateurs” whom he regarded with the same unmixed scorn—and with as little justice—as the French did their Reserves, and rated them at zero.
At the age of twenty Kitchener had fought as a volunteer with the French Army in the war of 1870 and spoke French fluently. Whether or not he had, as a result, an extra sympathy for France, he was no extreme partisan of French strategy. At the time of the Agadir crisis he told the Committee of Imperial Defence that he expected the Germans to walk through the French “like partridges,” and when invited he refused to take part in any decision the Committee might think fit to take. He sent them word, as Lord Esher recorded it, “that if they imagined he was going to command the Army in France he would see them damned first.” That England in 1914 gave him the War Office and thereby acquired the only man prepared to insist on organizing for a long war was not because of his opinions but because of his prestige... no talent for the bureaucracy of administrative office and no taste for conforming to the “green baize routine” of Cabinet meetings after being accustomed to a proconsul’s simple “Let it be done”... more conscious of his faults of character than of his virtues of clairvoyance, would have been glad to let him go back to Egypt but they could not do without him. He was named Secretary for War not because he was considered qualified by the holding of opinions which no one else held but because his presence was indispensable “to tranquilize public feeling.”
Ever since Khartoum the country had felt an almost religious faith in Kitchener. There existed between him and the public the same mystic union that was to develop between the people of France and “Papa Joffre” or between the German people and Hindenburg. The initials “K of K” were a magic formula and his broad martial mustache a national symbol that was to England what the pantalon rouge was to France. Wearing its bushy magnificence with an air of power, tall and broad-shouldered, he looked like a Victorian image of Richard the Lionhearted except for something inscrutable behind the solemn blazing eyes. Beginning August 7, the mustache, the eyes and the pointing finger over the legend, “Your Country Needs YOU” were to bore into the soul of every Englishman from a famous recruiting poster. For England to have gone to war without Kitchener would have been as unthinkable as Sunday without church. The War Council, however, put little credence in his prophecy at a moment when everyone was thinking of the immediate problem of sending the six divisions to France.
“It was never disclosed,” wrote Grey long afterward with perhaps needless bewilderment, “how or by what process of reasoning he made this forecast of the length of the war.” Whether because Kitchener was right when everybody else was wrong or because civilians find it hard to credit soldiers with ordinary mental processes or because Kitchener was never able or never deigned to explain his reasons, all his colleagues and contemporaries assumed that he reached his conclusion, as Grey said, “by some flash of instinct rather than by reasoning.” Whatever the process, Kitchener also foretold the pattern of the coming German offensive west of the Meuse. This too he was afterward considered to have arrived at by “some gift of divination” rather than by “any knowledge of times and distances,” according to one General Staff officer.
In fact, like King Albert, Kitchener saw the assault on Liège casting ahead of it the shadow of Schlieffen’s right-wing envelopment. He did not think Germany had violated Belgium and brought England in against her in order to make what Lloyd George had called “just a little violation” through the Ardennes. Having avoided the responsibility of the prewar planning, he could not now propose to withhold the six divisions, but he saw no reason to risk their extinction at a position as far forward as Maubeuge where he expected they would bear the full force of the invading German armies. He proposed that they concentrate instead at Amiens, seventy miles farther back. Exasperated by this drastic change of plan with its appearance of timidity, the generals were confirmed in their worst expectations.
The short, stocky, and florid Sir John French, about to take command in the field, was keyed to a pitch of valor and combativeness. His normally apoplectic expression, combined with the tight cavalryman’s stock which he affected in place of collar and tie, gave him an appearance of being perpetually on the verge of choking, as indeed he often was, emotionally if not physically. When appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1912, he at once informed Henry Wilson that he intended to get the army ready for a war with Germany which he regarded as an “eventual certainty.” Since then he had been nominally responsible for the joint plans with France, although in fact the French plan of campaign was practically unknown to him—as was the German. Like Joffre, he had been named head of the Staff without Staff experience or study at Staff college. The choice, like that of Kitchener for the War Office, was less concerned with innate qualification than with rank and reputation. On the several colonial fields of battle where Britain’s military reputations had been made, Sir John had shown courage and resource and what an authority called “a practical grasp of minor tactics.” In the Boer War his exploits as a cavalry general, culminating in the romantic gallop through the Boer lines to the relief of Kimberley, earned him fame as a bold commander willing to take risks and a popular repute almost equal to that of Roberts and Kitchener. Since Britain’s record against an untrained opponent lacking modern weapons had on the whole not been brilliant, the army was proud of and the government grateful for a hero. French’s prowess, aided by social éclat, carried him far. Like Admiral Milne he moved in the Edwardian swim.
As a cavalry officer he was conscious of belonging to the élite of the army. Friendship with Lord Esher was no handicap, and politically he was allied with the Liberals who came to power in 1906. In 1907 he was made Inspector General; in 1908, representing the army, he accompanied King Edward on the state visit to the Czar at Reval; in 1912 came his appointment as CIGS; in 1913 he was promoted to Field Marshal. At sixty-two he was the army’s second ranking active officer after Kitchener to whom he was junior by two years although he looked older. It was generally understood that he would command the expeditionary force in the event of war. In March 1914 when the Curragh Mutiny, crashing down upon army heads like Samson’s temple, caused him to resign, he seemed to have quixotically brought his career to an abrupt end. Instead he gained added favor with the government which believed the Opposition had engineered the Mutiny. “French is a trump and I love him,” wrote Grey appreciatively. Four months later when the crisis came, he was resurrected and on July 30 designated to be Commander in Chief if Britain should go to war.
Untrained to study and with a mind closed to books, at least after his early successes in action, French was less renowned for mental ability than for irritability. “I don’t think he is particularly clever,” King George V confided in his uncle, “and he has an awful temper.” Like his vis-à-vis across the Channel, French was an unintellectual soldier with the fundamental difference that whereas Joffre’s outstanding quality was solidity, French’s was a peculiar responsiveness to pressures, people, and prejudices. He had, it was said, “the mercurial temperament commonly associated with Irishmen and cavalry soldiers.” Joffre was imperturbable in all weathers; Sir John alternated between extremes of aggressiveness in good times and of depression in bad. Impulsive and easily swayed by gossip, he had, in the opinion of Lord Esher, “the heart of a romantic child.” He once presented to his former Chief of Staff in the Boer War a gold flask inscribed as a memento of “our long and tried friendship proved in sunshine and shadow.” The proved friend was the somewhat less sentimental Douglas Haig who in August 1914 wrote in his diary, “In my own heart I know that French is quite unfit for this great command at a time of crisis in our Nation’s history”...