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Remembered Today:

August 1914


RodB

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Just finished this. Raised following questions for me, anybody have views ?

1. She mentions the Germans describing their "encirclement" as a reason necessitating a war against France and Russia. This is also mentioned by Clive Ponting. I don't feel that the Germans were into imagining things. Any evidence for their belief ? Specifically the French aim to reoccupy Alsace & Lorraine - had the German takeover in 1870 (apparently presented as necessary for security) ended up decreasing security ? Is there any evidence that the French actually encouraged the Russians to start the war (what is known about Poincarre & Viviani's talks in Petersburg just before the outbreak ?).

2. She mentions that the occupation gave Germany access to iron, coal and agricultural land (while denying them to her enemies, hence doubling their value). Was this in fact a war aim, even an unspoken one ? Was this in fact an economic war ?

3. She blaims the Kaiser's grandiose dreams as the main cause of world war and presents Bethman Hollweg as although opposing the need for war, being too weak to stand up to him. Clive Ponting discounts the Kaiser's influence and in fact talks a lot of his "halt at Belgrade" plan. I realise this was for many years a propoganda issue as the Kaiser was an easy and desirable target postwar. What's the current thinking on "who dunnit" ? I'm interested in historical political decisionmaking rather than insulting the memory of people btw.

4. Tuchman presents Sir John French in such bad terms that they surely can't be all true - common sense indicates that you don't become a Field Marshall by being a loser and a wimp. Was he in fact perhaps "guilty" of too strictly carrying out his perceived orders to keep his army in being ? Britain's war aim (afaik) was to keep Germany away from the Channel, and defending Belgium's neutrality was a useful pretext. France's war aim was to reoccupy Alsace-Lorraine. Very different. Britain and France started August on common ground (i.e. Belgium) but after Mons their interests diverged - Britain couldn't care less who owned Alsace-Lorraine and I can understand SJF not wanting a bar of Plan 17 - he would have ceased to have an army. I can imagine SJF thinking "right you lot, you gave us no help in Belgium while you invaded Germany, why should I lose an army for you now you're losing because of it ?". The French could survive the ruining of entire armies, Britain could not. To me it seems by September Kitchener had already planned his New Armies, and it was more important to carry on the illusion of support for France if only to use it as a base for the eventually ejection of Germany from the Channel region. This would explain Britain's "sort of" participation at the Marne and would explain SJF's tears - he expected his army to be destroyed, while Kitchener saw it as just the start of a 3 year war with his New Armies. Tuchmnan doesn't go into the political purposes of armies, which apparently Haig understood only too well, and which to me SJF was a victim of.

State of play on SJF ?

5. Smith-Dorrien. His sacking is presented as evidence for SJF's insanity, and he is presented by Tuchman as having "The Right Stuff". Was his stand at Le Cateau (in fact an act of insubordination ?) seen as evidence by SJF that in fact he was likely to lose the army by such actions ? Is there any evidence that Mons and Le Cateau slowed the German advance in any way ?

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1. She mentions the Germans describing their "encirclement"... Any evidence for their belief ?

I think this goes back a long way in history. Certainly well before Napoleonic times but the excursions of Napoleon and the potential threat of the Russians were very real at this time for example.

Specifically the French aim to reoccupy Alsace & Lorraine - had the German takeover in 1870 (apparently presented as necessary for security) ended up decreasing security ?

Yes, I would say so. In two respects. One was the belligerence of the local Francophile inhabitants of this region. The other was the overt desire of France to recover the land and restore national dignity. The Germans were well aware of Plan XVII and its forebears.

Is there any evidence that the French actually encouraged the Russians to start the war (what is known about Poincarre & Viviani's talks in Petersburg just before the outbreak ?).

I can't speak to this. My guess is that the French would have wanted to make absolutely sure that if it came to war, that Russia knew exactly what to do in France's best interests. Whether this included starting the war, I don't know.

2. She mentions that the occupation gave Germany access to iron, coal and agricultural land (while denying them to her enemies, hence doubling their value).  Was this in fact a war aim, even an unspoken one ?  Was this in fact an economic war ?

In my opinion, this was definitely not the primary aim. The Germans wanted to knock France out of the war completely. They could have kept the northern industrial and farming regions of France in the 1870's but didn't. Once things went wrong with the Schlieffen Plan, then the official focus may have shifted somewhat.

3. She blaims the Kaiser's grandiose dreams as the main cause of world war and presents Bethman Hollweg as although opposing the need for war, being too weak to stand up to him.

I can't speak for an official view but I think this was not your usual Agatha Christie. Everyone involved 'dunnit'. The Kaiser's ambitions did not help but the blame cannot be laid solely at his door.

4. Tuchman presents Sir John French in such bad terms that they surely can't be all true

Time to get ready for work (sigh) so I might come back to 4 and 5.

Robert

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On question 5 about Smith Dorrien.

The sacking could easily be portrayed as evidence of a certain incapacity on French's behalf. The reason given for his sacking was a proposed withdrawal, which made much sense. The first action of Plumer when he took over Smith Dorrien's command was the self same withdrawal. Therefore it does suggest that the personal animosity between French and SD had got to French and clouded his judgement.

SD's stand at Le Cateau is an interesting case. French had issued orders for the withdrawal to continue, and SD had forwarded these orders from II Corps HQ on the evening of 25th August. SD changed his mind in the early hours of 26th when it became clear from the information from his subordinates (in particular Allenby) that continued withdrawal would be extremely perilous, because certain units would not be able to get away under cover of darkness. SD made sure he had the support of those commanders (Allenby and Snow of 4th Div) who were at his HQ when he made the decision to go against French's orders and stand. So he was well aware that he was disobeying the orders of his senior, and that might mean deep trouble. However there is something in Field Service Regulations, and I forget the reference so somebody else might have to help me out here, that says something along the lines of if you know something that is going to make your orders impossible to carry out and there is a better plan, then it is your duty to be insubordinate and use your initiative. Typically muddy British waters!

Definitely the battles of Mons and Le Cateau slowed the advance - possibly more so Le Cateau. British casualties at Le Cateau were close to 8000, German unknown but suspected to be the same/slightly more. At Mons BEF casualties were about 1600 but German casualties much higher, as they had not been able to bring their artillery into play very successfully. Not so at Le Cateau where the ground was much more open, and the Germans managed to get their guns onto high ground enfilading the British infantry, 'dug in' to whatever depth they could with entrenching tools. The BEF was never again in quite the same danger of being caught and destroyed after Le Cateau as it was before.

French's official despatch in September 1914 praised SD's stand at Le Cateau as the key event in preventing the destruction of the BEF, and that it had taken a commander of rare insight and resolution to make that stand. Much more gracious than what he later published in 1914, and I think, much more accurate!

Cheers

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4. Tuchman presents Sir John French in such bad terms that they surely can't be all true - common sense indicates that you don't become a Field Marshall by being a loser and a wimp. Was he in fact perhaps "guilty" of too strictly carrying out his perceived orders to keep his army in being ?

Sir John appeared not to be able to exercise adequate control over his executive team. It was riven with factions. Most significantly, the overall strategic view was very clouded at best. Thus, in the beginning there was some enthusiasm for the hunt. Despite the warnings of Macdonogh, French believed that the BEF was marching towards the open German right flank. In reality the Germans were threatening to get round his left flank. Anyhow, at this point there was no thought of retreating separately from the French to keep the BEF intact and unscathed.

With the seeming collapse of the French Fifth Army on the BEF's right, and with the threat of the Germans on the left, a degree of single-minded retreat and to hell with the chap next door ensued. It took Kitchener's intervention to stop things. Sir John spent a lot of (too much) time trying to maintain the morale of the retreating British. His presence at various points on the retreat was said to be calming. However, this meant he was absent from GHQ.

Britain's war aim (afaik) was to keep Germany away from the Channel, and defending Belgium's neutrality was a useful pretext.

This was an aim but I am not sure it was the main or only one. Certainly the navy was deeply worried about loss of the Channel ports to the Germans.

France's war aim was to reoccupy Alsace-Lorraine. Very different. Britain and France started August on common ground (i.e. Belgium) but after Mons their interests diverged - Britain couldn't care less who owned Alsace-Lorraine and I can understand SJF not wanting a bar of Plan 17 - he would have ceased to have an army. I can imagine SJF thinking "right you lot, you gave us no help in Belgium while you invaded Germany, why should I lose an army for you now you're losing because of it ?".

As I mentioned above, SJF was into Plan XVII in the beginning. Sir Henry Wilson was a great believer, having contributed the British view to the Plan ie the BEF would land and then support the French left flank. He appeared to hold sway in the beginning. Mons was a massive jolt. Macdonogh's warnings had clearly indicated a significant German right wing. Having rejected this, the psychological realisation of the truth had an even greater effect than it might otherwise. Now there was a real prospect of the BEF being destroyed. SJF's concern was magnified by Lanrezac's actions but this did not stop him responding to Joffre's requests later on after Lanrezac was Limoged (sacked).

The French could survive the ruining of entire armies, Britain could not. To me it seems by September Kitchener had already planned his New Armies, and it was more important to carry on the illusion of support for France if only to use it as a base for the eventually ejection of Germany from the Channel region. This would explain Britain's    "sort of" participation at the Marne and would explain SJF's tears - he expected his army to be destroyed, while Kitchener saw it as just the start of a 3 year war with his New Armies. Tuchmnan doesn't go into the political purposes of armies, which apparently Haig understood only too well, and which to me SJF was a victim of.

State of play on SJF ?

Wrong man for the job because he was incapable of maintaining overall command. The requirements of the job were simply too much for him, given his management style and the needs of a two corps army. However, he commanded a superb fighting unit that could survive and do well despite him.

5. Smith-Dorrien. His sacking is presented as evidence for SJF's insanity, and he is presented by Tuchman as having "The Right Stuff". Was his stand at Le Cateau (in fact an act of insubordination ?) seen as evidence by SJF that in fact he was likely to lose the army by such actions ? Is there any evidence that Mons and Le Cateau slowed the German advance in any way ?

I would concur with DNH's comments here. SJF did not like SD - just one of many dysfunctional relationships in the BEF High Command. SF would not have appointed him at all, if it had been his choice. For some while, it seemed to all that SD and II Corps had been lost at Le Cateau. When word got out about this magnificent stand, SJF had to publicly acknowledge it in the way that DNH described. But behind the scenes he would have been livid. But not insane.

Robert

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  • 2 weeks later...
1. She mentions the Germans describing their "encirclement"... Any evidence for their belief ?

I think this goes back a long way in history. Certainly well before Napoleonic times but the excursions of Napoleon and the potential threat of the Russians were very real at this time for example.

It's starting to look to me that the German sense of danger from Russia and France was not imagined. I've been reading up on the Kaiser's disfunctional relationship with Bismarck.. who had apparently constructed a reasonably secure set of foreign relations, especially the Reinsurance pact with Russia, and which the Kaiser dismantled.. leading to France allying with Russia against Germany... while at the same time Britain was building an allegedly nonbinding military relationship with France.. and which Grey lied to everybody about.

It seems to me Bismarck was playing a very sophisticated Realpolitik which for some reason got wrecked. Any pointers as to how or why, or couldn't his system have been continued ?

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and which Grey lied to everybody about.

This is an over-statement and one must understand the English Gov't point of view at the time. Grey and, to a lesser extent, Haldane and The Navy had for a long time held "talks" which became planning sessions about "what if" scenarios both among themselves and the French. The famous Entente Cordialle (sp) is basically at this level - "High Level talks." There was no lying at all - except maybe to Asquith and this was probably not a "lie" but an overstatement about England's "freedom" of action.

There was nothing binding nor on paper committing GB to war - however that said - even in the document crazy 19th C state of mind there were "private assurances" given at the highest levels of Naval, Military and governmental officials that GB would not let Germany have the Channel ports nor allow their fleet access to the Atlantic through either entrance. Asquith knew of these and approved to the extent that he did not stop them. Grey, Haldane and the rest were loyal gov't members with no private agendas of which I am aware.

What we find in the days before GB's declaration of war is the group being caught up in their previous actions, desperately looking for a reason which would carry "popular appeal" to justify the actions they "wanted" to take. I put wanted in quotes because I truly believe the entire Asquith gov't and the professional military and naval establishment did not want war - at least not in the sense the Germans wanted it. But, they didn't want France conquored nor a triumphant Germany ready to use their fleet with bases on the coast either.

If Belgium had been respected and the German fleet sailed ... there would have been war without a doubt.

Remember Tuchman is a product of the Spanish Civl War generation and the vacillation of the "democracies" is a big deal to her. Grey, Haldane and Asquith were trying to deal with many masters - the Realpolotik reality of Dreadnaught era, tradtional British aloofness to the European mess and the British democracy so it is no wonder that they got caught in all their delicate web when the events cascaded down during August.

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and which Grey lied to everybody about.

This is an over-statement and one must understand the English Gov't point of view at the time. Grey and, to a lesser extent, Haldane and The Navy had for a long time held "talks" which became planning sessions about "what if" scenarios both among themselves and the French. The famous Entente Cordialle (sp) is basically at this level - "High Level talks." There was no lying at all - except maybe to Asquith and this was probably not a "lie" but an overstatement about England's "freedom" of action.

I base my allegation on the evidence of France's behaviour - it reflected full confidence that it would have the full support of Britain (both the RN in the Channel, necessary to free its own fleet for the Mediterranean to protect its troop movements from Africa, and of the BEF) and that of Russia.

I can't see them being so gung-ho in encouraging Russia to stand up to Austria, which they knew would lead to war with Germany, if they weren't sure of the numbers. In effect I believe they had a "blank cheque" from Britain, just like Austria had from Germany. Without it they would have been mad to allow war to break out... they couldn't have won. Nobody bets the house on "high level talks" but "private assurances" are something else... my reading leads me to a view of Grey assuring the French that he would carry his government, that he quitly allowed the foundations to be laid for a war he believed was inevitable, which a Liberal government did not want to think or know about.

In effect I'm getting a nasty suspicion that France and Britain had a lot to answer for, and Russia didn't put any effort into avoiding war - it was Sazanov who kicked it off by ordering full mobilization.

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I can imagine that non-government 'British' actions may have fostered an over-optimism. Sir Henry Wilson played a prominent role in drawing up the British contribution to Plan XVII. He was an enthusiastic Francophile, whose optimism may have been infectious, as it was in the advance to Mons.

Robert

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I disagree with judging British actions and words based on French actions. Grey, Haldane and Wilson were all honorable men ... Wilson was truely supportive of the French - but scenarios and planning efforts don't make a treaty.

The British gov't couldn't have the German Fleet in the Atlantic nor in the Channel ports - France couldn't see how they'd be attacked without that happening ... thus the French assumed at in the event of war, Britain would come in. Far-seeing British gov't officials probably thought so as well.

When the reality hit ... the British trigger hadn't been pulled so there was "no deal" ... there is a famous scene of the French Amb sitting in Grey's office screaming and being in tears over Grey's simple denial of going to war automatically ... Asquith simply did as he should - is there a formal agreement? No, well, our hands are free ...

But, in the long run Germany pulled the trigger by going into Belgium and the rest is history.

As for France not starting a war they couldn't win without British help ... there was too much pressure on Russia, France and Germany to stop anything and put it to the cold light of reason. I am sure that throughout the pre-war crisis the French counted on British aid but what they heard or wanted to hear is not what the Liberal Gov't said ... Grey played his prewar hand well as did Haldane and Asquith - the war guilt lies just where it should - Berlin.

The best little book on this is Berghahn's Germany and the Approach of War in 1914/ MacMillian 1973

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but scenarios and planning efforts don't make a treaty.

Andy

I agree. Then neither does a treaty necessarily make treaty.

My point about scenarios and planning would be that they promote a sense of entente, when conducted by enthusiasts. Just part of a complex web of historical perceptions, political intrigues, etc, etc.

Robert

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