by Dr Jack Binns
One of the many ironies of Britain’s involvement in the Great War concerns its vital military contribution to the defeat of the German army on the Western Front. This victory came about almost accidentally: a decisive British military role was not part of the country’s initial strategical plan.
In 1914 the United Kingdom was universally acknowledged as the world’s greatest naval and imperial power, but by continental standards its military power was minuscule. Of the six million European soldiers mobilised in July and August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force numbered fewer than 100,000, “a rapier among scythes”.
Ever since January 1906, as a result of secret Anglo-French army staff discussions, it had been agreed broadly that in the event of war a British force of only six infantry and one cavalry division would take up position on the left flank of a French army of 72 divisions. Though the Liberal government, with its traditional anti-militarist members, sanctioned these discussions, none of its members seem to have appreciated the momentous possibilities of their consequences. From 1910, when Sir Henry Wilson became Director of Military Operations at the War Office, these war plans were meticulously timetabled and finalised.
So when Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, cross-Channel ferries and French railway rolling stock were all ready and available for the BEF. Of all of this Asquith’s cabinet was ignorant. When the Council of War met for the first time in the afternoon of August 5, it was told firmly and bluntly by Wilson that the BEF’s destination was Maubeuge on the border of France with Belgium and he then had to show them on the map where it was!
There was no question of assisting the Belgians, though the British ultimatum had been sent to Berlin on their behalf. As long since arranged, though never admitted even in the secrecy of the cabinet room, the British would fight for France at the northern end of its frontier defences. When Lord Kitchener, the newly-appointed Secretary for War, tried to alter Wilson’s strategy, he had to give way to French staff officers. Like it or not, the BEF would be no more than an auxiliary to the French army and not an independent arm.
So the die was cast. The Royal Navy had no say in the matter: plans that it might have entertained to land troops on Germany’s Baltic shore were not even considered. All that the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, could do was to alert and mobilise the Grand Fleet for a decisive sea battle in the North Sea with the Kaiser’s battleships. For centuries, Britain’s war strategy had been determined by the use of naval superiority, but from now on independent decision-making had been conceded to its French allies. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, asked Churchill in January 1915, “Are we really bound to hand over the ordering of our troops to France as if we were her vassal?”
Though the British army on the Western Front was to grow massively in numbers and strength, it never matched that of the French. Even at its maximum size in 1918, Haig’s soldiers held little more than 100 miles of the 475 front line, whereas at no time were the French responsible for less than twice that length.
Secondly, the Schlieffen Plan might have failed, but it had come perilously near to success. Even after their repulse on the Marne and retreat to the Aisne, at its furthest the German front line was still within 50 miles of Paris. Despite repeated, desperate and very expensive assaults, the French had recovered none of their lost patrimony of Alsace and Lorraine and to the north the German army occupied extensive parts of Champagne, Picardy and Artois. In the intolerable circumstances, no Frenchman could even consider a strategy other than the liberation of the nation’s entire homeland.
So, not withstanding the strength of the Germans in their chosen defensive positions, the French could not merely sit and watch them: they had to take the offensive; and, however ill-prepared, the British were obliged to aid them. Yet the initiative was always with the Germans. They had fallen back to the higher ground. They had the means, the time and the motive to dig in deeply. Apart from their 75mm field guns, the French were inferior in every way to their enemies. Their cavalry might have charged at Waterloo. With their red kepis (peaked caps) and red trousers, their infantry were no better equipped and trained than their grandfathers who had besieged Sevastopol in the Crimea 60 years earlier. On the battlefield of 1914, the only French tactic was to advance en masse directly at the Germans without thought for cover or deployment and they were massacred by machine guns and shrapnel artillery.
Whereas neither the British nor the French military had made any preparations to fight defensively, implicit in the Schlieffen Plan, their German counterparts assumed that on the frontiers of Alsace and Lorraine they would have to withstand a major, massed offensive. Accordingly, by 1914, the Germans had stockpiled supplies for siege warfare – spades, barbed wire, timber, searchlights, trench mortars, flares and periscopes – which the French and British troops entirely lacked. In October, 1914, allied cavalrymen had dismounted and were digging shallow trenches with their swords and lances!
So at the beginning of 1915 this was the predicament facing the London government. Now there seemed no honourable or practical choice: whatever the price the French had to be supported; the alternative was to risk French defeat and collapse. Kitchener’s appeal to swell the army’s ranks had been astonishingly effective: in five months nearly a million young men had volunteered. But it would take many months, perhaps years, to assemble, train, clothe, arm and convey them to the battlefront. And in the meantime, what was to be done? The Russians and the Serbs had already sustained heavy losses. Would they be able to carry on without help? Contrary to the optimistic forecasts of the Admiralty and the British public, the Kaiser had not risked his battleships in open warfare, yet his U-boats, mines and lightning coastal raids had been demoralising and damaging.
In the event, it was the Turks who gave Britain both opportunity and reason for an alternative strategy. Early in August 1914, two German warships, the Goeben and the Breslau, hotly pursued by the Royal Navy across the Mediterranean, were given sanctuary at Constantinople. In October, without warning, they shelled Russia’s Black Sea ports. On November 5, the British government declared war on the Ottoman empire, thereby opening a new, extensive Middle Eastern theatre and providing the Royal Navy, at last, with active employment.