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Liz in Eastbourne

French's Contemptible Little Army - again

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Liz in Eastbourne

The old discussion about whether the Kaiser actually issued an order in 1914 referring to French’s contemptible little army seems never to have been settled, if you look at websites referring to it, and even discussions on this forum, though Mike (Skipman) posted several very illuminating newspaper and book extracts on this thread years ago. (I'd have posted on the old thread but the title spelling put me off!)

 

Many writers settle for variations on ‘believed to have been said though others think it was government propaganda’ , to be on the safe side. I know that it doesn’t matter, since the way in which it was proudly taken up by the troops still resonates regardless of its origin, but in trying to write a sentence in passing about the Old Contemptibles that would be accurate as to the phrase’s origins, I found I wanted to sort out the evidence, and perhaps others can help. It will take a few posts to lay it out.

 

Liz

Edited by Liz in Eastbourne

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Liz in Eastbourne

Some current views to start with.

Firstworldwar.com 
( http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/kaisercontemptible.htm )
boldly declares the text of the ‘Orders issued by the German Emperor’ as circulated by the BEF to be a primary source, saying that its existence is demonstrated by controversy over what exactly the Kaiser meant. The absence of a German source document does not warrant a mention.

 

Epitaphs of the Great War has it right, in my view
http://www.epitaphsofthegreatwar.com/contemptible/
taking its evidence from the research of 1925 by Arthur Ponsonby MP and citing Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice as another who sought to reveal the truth.  

 

A more recent strand of opinion claims that Maurice was actually the perpetrator.  Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) says (p 116):
‘It is now known that the phrase emanated not from the German side but from the closets of British propagandists, who needed something memorable and incisive to inspirit the troops. The phrase was actually devised at the War Office by Sir Frederick Maurice and fathered upon the Kaiser.’  He gives no references, but the first sentence can clearly be traced to Maurice’s own newspaper article on December 1925, which I will post.  The second part I can’t find any reference for.  A letter from Henry Williamson in the Times of 13 August 1971 claims Maurice invented the phrase, and the alleged German army order, himself and that he described how he did it ‘in his autobiography’.

 

What autobiography?  I have looked through the booklets that seemed the most likely candidates for revelations concerning the war, '40 Days in 1914’ (published 1919) and ‘Intrigues of the War: Startling Revelations Hidden Until 1922. Important Military Secrets Now Disclosed’ (published 1922) – both digitised -
 but there is nothing there and they are too early for it to be expected, really.

However, a number of more recent authors claim that this is now accepted truth.  Nigel Rees -not a war historian of course- says in his 2011 book ‘It is now accepted that the phrase was devised at the War Office by Sir Frederick Maurice.’  I do wonder if all these writers are just using Fussell as a source.

 

I am going to post what I’ve found in The Times, Trove and the British Newspaper Archive that seems to be useful, starting with these claims from 1925 and later and then going back to the way the story appeared in 1914 – plus the interesting history of the term ‘contemptible little army’ before 1914. 

 

Liz
 

Edited by Liz in Eastbourne
Wrong century corrected

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Liz in Eastbourne

DAILY HERALD 31 Oct 1925 (sourced via British Newspaper Archive)

ONE MORE WAR MYTH DEAD
Our “contemptible little army”
WAS ORDER FORGED?
Mr Ponsonby on a “pure fabrication”

Following the disclosures by General Charteris concerning the  ”German corpse factory” story, the truth about wartime “propaganda” is driven home with still greater force by Mr Arthur Ponsonby’s exposure of another myth.  This time it is the phrase “the contemptible little army” – a reference which, it is widely believed, was made by the ex-Kaiser to the British Expeditionary Force in 1914.  Mr Ponsonby, who was Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Labour Government, has taken up a challenge which arose out of correspondence in The Nation last August regarding the phrase.  He says:


“I invited the assistance of a German ex-General and writer to have a special search made for this phrase, which was said in this country to be an extract from one of the ex- Kaiser’s speeches during the war.  There would be little difficulty in looking up all the Imperial utterances and discovering the sentence of which this was supposed to be a translation.  


“All endeavours, however, to find any passage in the speeches remotely resembling the passage in question failed.


“Not content with having had the archives and the Press files ransacked, my friend succeeded in getting a request for information into the precincts of Doorn.  The ex-Kaiser has written the following marginal note on the paper referring to the point in question:- 
“Ich habe eine solche Rede niemals gehalten, sondern stets in Gegenteil den hohen Werth der Brit. Armee betont und vor ihrer Unterschätzung im Frieden gewarnt.”- W
(Translation:  I have never delivered such a speech, but on the contrary continually emphasised the high value of the British Army, and often, indeed, in peacetime, gave warning against underestimating it.)


“ I was wrong, therefore,” Mr Ponsonby adds, “in believing the phrase was a mistranslation.  It was a pure fabrication.”
Major-General Neill Malcolm, in a letter to The Times, says that it is certain that in 1914 the Expeditionary Force accepted the document as genuine, and he quotes a BEF Routine Order of September 24 of that year, purporting to be a copy of an order issued by the German Emperor.  The alleged order, which Mr Ponsonby has now exposed, commanded the German troops to exterminate the “ treacherous English” and “walk over General French’s contemptible little army”.   END

 

Ponsonby's reference to his having previously thought the German order existed, but was mistranslated, suggests that there had been discussion of this, which I suspect is what gave rise to later beliefs that there had been a German original, when it was just an invented text postulated by German speakers to explain the phrase.

 

Liz

 


 

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Liz in Eastbourne

Versions of the previous article  were published in newspapers all over the country, following the controversy in The Nation in August (I haven't seen that, and it may have included the mistranslation idea mentioned in my previous post.)   Major-General Neill Malcolm responded  to the controversy with this letter to The Times of 30 October 1925: 

CLA 3.jpg

Edited by Liz in Eastbourne

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Liz in Eastbourne

I haven't found the London Daily News original, but this appears to be a faithful reproduction of it.

 

ADELAIDE CHRONICLE  26 December 1925 (sourced via TROVE)
“THE CONTEMPTIBLE LITTLE ARMY”
A WAR FICTION

While we are waiting to clear up the Corpse factory story, which cannot be left where it is, another well-established war story has been challenged (writes Major-General Sir F. Maurice in the London Daily News).  Mr Ponsonby has been making a careful investigation into the truth of the statement that the Kaiser directed his generals to concentrate their energies upon the single purpose of walking over ‘General French’s contemptible little army’.  He has got a German general to make a search of the files of the newspapers of his country, and he says that he has nowhere been able to find a report of a speech by the Kaiser referring to our army in such terms, and to clinch the matter he has obtained a statement from Doorn by the Kaiser that he never said anything of the kind.

 

General Sir Neill Malcolm has just reminded us that as far as the British army is concerned the statement was not represented as being a part of one of the Kaiser’s speeches, but as an order to the German army.  In the army orders of the British Expeditionary Force of 24 September 1914 it was stated:-

 

The following is a copy of orders issued by the German Emperor on 19 August, 1914:-
It is my Royal and Imperial Command that you concentrate your energies, for the immediate present, upon one single purpose, and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little Army.”
Headquarters.
Aix-la-Chapelle,
Aug 19th

 

Inspiriting the troops
Now it happened that our little army in the fourth week of September 1914 was having a very hard time on the Aisne, and GHQ hit upon the idea of using routine orders to issue statements which it was believed would encourage and inspirit the troops.  Most of these took the form of casting ridicule upon the German army.  I remember in particular a facetious little poem which made fun of the German Landwehr.  These efforts were seen to be absurd by the men in the trenches, and they were soon dropped.

It would appear that the report about the German Emperor’s reference to our contemptible little army first appeared in England towards the end of August, and reached GHQ some time in September, to be converted by an ingenious propagandist, who was searching for material of an inspiriting kind, into a German army order. At the time no one was disposed to examine the alleged order with critical eyes, and it served its purpose, but it will not stand looking into today.

 

In the first place, German headquarters on August 19 were not at Aix-la-Chapelle, but at Coblence, and they were moved a few days later to Luxembourg. Aix-la-Chapelle was doubtless chosen with the idea that an order issuing from a place on the frontier of Belgium would confirm the impression that the Germans were giving especial attention to the left wing of the armies of their enemies, on which stood the British Expeditionary Force.  Unfortunately, the Kaiser was never there in August, 1914.

 

A Telegram
But there is yet another reason which stamps the order as a fabrication. On August 19 the Germans were quite uncertain whether the British had landed, and they had no information whatsoever as to where it was.  On August 20, the day on which Sir John French issued an order for the advance of his army from behind Maubeuge to Mons to begin early the following morning von Moltke, the German chief of the general staff, telegraphed from Coblence to von Kluck, who commanded the 1st Army on the German right, ”Disembarkation of the English at Boulogne and their employment from direction of Lille must be reckoned with. The opinion here, however, is that large-scale disembarkations have not yet taken place.”

 

Now anyone who knows the rudiments of German military organisation is aware that the Kaiser did not issue orders for the operation of his armies of his own volition.  The constitutional practice was for all such orders to be prepared by the chief of the general staff, and that general staff was certainly not so ignorant of its business as to tell the German generals to concentrate their energies upon exterminating an army when they could not tell them where that army was.

 

I have no knowledge of how the original announcement appeared in the English press, but I have not the smallest doubt that the Kaiser’s military order which was published in our army orders was nothing more than the invention of a propagandist.  It would seem, therefore, to be reasonably certain that the title of which our first five divisions are prouder than any other was not given to them by the German Emperor.  The “Contemptible Little Army” has outlived the Russian armies only to join at last that interesting fable in the realms of fiction. 

END

Edited by Liz in Eastbourne
Typo correction

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Liz in Eastbourne

Perhaps when General Malcolm wrote to The Times he wasn't really vouching for the authenticity of the annexe to the BEF Routine Orders of September 24, and the key sentence is the last: 'Perhaps some officer in the Headquarters Staff could throw further light upon it.' ' Sir Frederick Maurice duly did so but was coy about the identity of the 'propagandist'. It doesn't look like a confession - did he make one later?

 

Just looking quickly through the papers it doesn't seem as though people were shocked and horrified by these revelations - they were quite worldly about them, and the press had used the word 'alleged' about the text's authenticity long before.  The only reply I noticed in the Times was about a robust English antecedent of the phrase, echoing as it did Cromwell's words:

CLA 4.jpg

Edited by Liz in Eastbourne

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Liz in Eastbourne

As I mentioned before, Mike (Skipman) already posted some interesting material on an earlier thread about the antecedents of the phrase.  In 1899 both the Hereford and the Leominster newspapers reported on a ploughing match dinner in Pembridge , attended by solid countrymen and not literary types in London, at which the speaker said the regular army was swelled by the Militia, Volunteers, Yeomanry, Indian Army etc, so Continental neighbours 'would find that it 'was not such a contemptible little army after all (hear hear, and applause).'

 

On 13 April 1875 the Irish Times reported on a meeting of the Kaiser (previous one of course)and the King (I forget whose King!) in Venice:

'And as the Kaiser and the King are on the ground before the not contemptible little army drawn up before them...'.

 

It probably was not an awkwardly high-flown phrase for ordinary solders at all, just a resonant one.  That doesn't prove anything except that whether inventing or translating the producer of the text picked a good phrase.

 

Liz

Edited by Liz in Eastbourne

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Liz in Eastbourne

This is the letter sent to The Times in 1971 by Henry Williamson, fingering Maurice as the War Office propagandist himself.  So far I haven't found his source.  Can anyone help?

 

CLA 2.jpg

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Liz in Eastbourne

Whether he was correct or not on the details, Williamson did remind people that  Sir Frederick Maurice, who was in the War Office in 1914, had  stated categorically that the Kaiser's supposed Army Order was a propaganda creation.  People seemed to have forgotten about that since 1928, when Ponsonby published his book 'Falsehood in War-Time' from which Skipman quoted on the other thread.

Btw I know  Ponsonby was a Labour MP and a pacifist, and Maurice had a major and public falling out with Lloyd George, but neither of these things seems to me to bear on their trustworthiness on this issue.

 

Here's Lieutenant-Colonel Garwood apologising for his mistake in 1936: 

 

CLA 1.jpg

Edited by Liz in Eastbourne

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Liz in Eastbourne

Later, however, correspondents reverted to discussing a putative German original which had been mistranslated.  They claim that the comment could have been an annotation on a report, subsequently used by the British 'propaganda service'.

CLA 5.jpg

Edited by Liz in Eastbourne

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Liz in Eastbourne

Just to finish up this long opening roundup of evidence, I'm adding some details on how this phrase and its alleged context first surfaced.  Newspapers carried accounts at the end of August along the lines of this, from the Yorkshire Evening Post  of 29 August:

 

'At a conference, held last Wednesday week, at the Imperial Headquarters at Aix-la-Chapelle, of the general officers commanding divisions and brigades of the German Northern Army. it is said that the Kaiser issued this grim order: It is my Royal and Imperial Command that  you concentrate your energies, for the immediate present, upon one single purpose, and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little Army.”

Headquarters.

Aix-la-Chapelle,

Aug 19th  

This did not appear in The Times until 1 October:

 

CCI13022018_00014.jpg

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Liz in Eastbourne

 

The Times had reported earlier however,  on 12 September 1914,  the speech of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, at the National Liberal Club, which contained the paragraph below. If you've got this far you'll be pleased to know this is the  last bit of evidence from me (for now); I'm hoping others can add to it.

Liz

5a8326ec9f6ba_CLA6.jpg.98ae667169ae4ebb431ee1bb1da12ed0.jpg

 

Edited by Liz in Eastbourne

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Liz in Eastbourne

One more addition I forgot to put in yesterday: the German denial of this Army Order, which was published in the regular column 'Through German Eyes' in The Times of 26 October 1914. It's in the penultimate paragraph.5a840007710d9_CLA8.jpg.fa779a164612c0dae77eba75db654c0b.jpg

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michaeldr

Liz,

 

I regret that I cannot usefully add to your thread

but would like to say however, how much I have enjoyed following your research here for the last couple of days

Thanks

 

best regards

Michael

Edited by michaeldr

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Pat Atkins

I'd like to echo Michael's comments - I can't add anything either, but have really enjoyed your work on this. Thanks for making it available here, it's fascinating. I hope it elicits responses from others who do have something to contribute!

 

Cheers, Pat.

 

 

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healdav
20 hours ago, Liz in Eastbourne said:

Later, however, correspondents reverted to discussing a putative German original which had been mistranslated.  They claim that the comment could have been an annotation on a report, subsequently used by the British 'propaganda service'.

CLA 5.jpg

I have long thought that this was correct, and is a typical translation by people who translate using a dictionary only.

My only gripe with the Peskett letter is that it can also be "A contemptibly SMALL army". There are not many languages that distinguish between small and little.

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Liz in Eastbourne
3 hours ago, michaeldr said:

Liz,

 

I regret that I cannot usefully add to your thread

but would like to say however, how much I have enjoyed following your research here for the last couple of days

Thanks

 

best regards

Michael

 

 

Thank you, Michael - glad it's been of interest so far! 

Liz

2 hours ago, Pat Atkins said:

I'd like to echo Michael's comments - I can't add anything either, but have really enjoyed your work on this. Thanks for making it available here, it's fascinating. I hope it elicits responses from others who do have something to contribute!

 

Cheers, Pat.

 

 

 

Thanks, Pat. It seemed worth putting it all together, as far as I could.

Liz

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Liz in Eastbourne
1 hour ago, healdav said:

I have long thought that this was correct, and is a typical translation by people who translate using a dictionary only.

My only gripe with the Peskett letter is that it can also be "A contemptibly SMALL army". There are not many languages that distinguish between small and little.

 

I agree with you that it makes  some sense, but I no longer think it's what happened. I don't think Sir Frederick Maurice's account in 1925 can be disregarded, do you? 

Suppose there was such a phrase somewhere in the Kaiser's output, and this was opportunistic adaptation rather than creation on the part of the propagandists - why  go on to suppose that this was an innocent/ignorant mistranslation when there was so much to be gained by deliberately mistranslating it into a rabble-rousing insult?  I was very struck by that ploughing match dinner in Pembridge in 1899, when 'their Continental neighbours... would find... it was not such a contemptible little army after all' provoked 'hear, hear and applause'. I think the War Office had a good idea of what would work, and a test run referring to a speech in the newspapers in August 1914 confirmed their view so they expanded it with the BEF annexe to Routine Army Orders on 24 September.

But if someone finds a German original, of course, that will change everything!

 

Liz

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healdav
46 minutes ago, Liz in Eastbourne said:

 

I agree with you that it makes  some sense, but I no longer think it's what happened. I don't think Sir Frederick Maurice's account in 1925 can be disregarded, do you? 

Suppose there was such a phrase somewhere in the Kaiser's output, and this was opportunistic adaptation rather than creation on the part of the propagandists - why  go on to suppose that this was an innocent/ignorant mistranslation when there was so much to be gained by deliberately mistranslating it into a rabble-rousing insult?  I was very struck by that ploughing match dinner in Pembridge in 1899, when 'their Continental neighbours... would find... it was not such a contemptible little army after all' provoked 'hear, hear and applause'. I think the War Office had a good idea of what would work, and a test run referring to a speech in the newspapers in August 1914 confirmed their view so they expanded it with the BEF annexe to Routine Army Orders on 24 September.

But if someone finds a German original, of course, that will change everything!

 

Liz

I haven't a clue whether it is something said by the Kaiser or made up in Britain. I was just commentating on the letter and the translation there.

 

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Liz in Eastbourne
1 minute ago, healdav said:

I haven't a clue whether it is something said by the Kaiser or made up in Britain. I was just commentating on the letter and the translation there.

 

You don't have to be so brusque.  You appeared to be saying you had always thought his interpretation was correct and my reply related to that. 

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David Ridgus

Liz

 

Like Michael and Pat I can add nothing of value, but it has been fascinating to see the evidence trail laid out so clearly.

 

I've always thought it highly unlikely that Wilhelm would have said something so crass about a service he had been attached to for decades and I'd always assumed it was pure propaganda and invention. However both the mistranslation and the 1899 dinner theories seem strong runners.

 

I fear in the end the final sentence you arrive at may need to be a masterpiece of bet hedging!

 

David

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Liz in Eastbourne

Thank you, David.

 

Well, I think it was pure propaganda and invention, myself, after laying out the evidence so far.  The translation theory seems to me to be a red herring, and the 1899 dinner  report isn't so much a theory as a support for the idea that this was a phrase easily made to resonate with British people, not peculiar at all.

 

 Maurice's article in my #5, which I have transcribed from Trove after laboriously correcting the transliteration of the newspaper column for them on the site, seems to me to be an absolute clincher. The only query is whether those authors who claim he was responsible for the invention have a basis for that, as Williamson suggested.  I think  his definite statement in this article that it was the work of a propagandist, and the fact that he was in the War Office at the time, mean that he knew about it, even if he wasn't directly responsible for it.

 

So I won't be doing any bet hedging unless some evidence comes up to push me onto the other side of the fence - to mix my metaphors.

 

Liz

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David Filsell

Time to add a little confusion and I admit to working from memory here, however I once found a reference to the quote with a qualified correction that the actual words used by the Kaiser were in describing the BEF as not a contemptible army  but as  contemptibly little army. If this is so, and I cannot  now give the reference he was absolutely correct. Two Corps does an army make  - then or now.

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Liz in Eastbourne

Hi David

That confusion has already been mentioned in #3 and #10.

In the absence of any German text or witness, I think it comes from Ponsonby's suggestions in The Nation in August 1925, mentioned in #3, which he then said he had abandoned on realising there was no German text.  The other threads on this subject have quite a bit of confusion from people working from memory, and I was hoping we could stick to actual evidence.  I may have to consult The Nation in the British Library if no one can produce it.

Liz

Edited by Liz in Eastbourne

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Sepoy

Here is a "Recruitment" leaflet dated October, 1914.

Sepoy

IMG_0038.jpg

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