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Was Great Britain the leading decision maker in the Entente?


Felix C
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We read English language works so it appears Great Britain was the dominant partner of the Entente. Was it so at the time or did it evolve as the war progressed? I am particularly thinking of the period before the French Army mutinies and Russian October 1917 Revolution. Did the USA surpass France by the Armistice and rival Britain in influence on strategic decision making?

Asking as I am watching the 2014 French multipart docu on WW1 Apocalypse, la Première Guerre Mondiale  and of course it is very French-centric. War is seen differently there. 

Edited by Felix C
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Broad brush,  but the BEF was considered a ‘contemptible little army’ in 1914. 

https://www.westernfrontassociation.com/world-war-i-articles/the-contemptible-little-army-1914-1918/

Yet during the first two years of the conflict this relatively small force relieved the pressure on the French Army.

Haig was appointed C-in-C of the BEF in December 1915, he remained subordinate to the French and subject to political manoeuvring from the U.K. until after the crisis of March 1918 at the Doullens Conference  (26 March 1918) the subordination was formalised and Foch was given command of reserves and increasingly strategy on the Western Front.  This was a crucial point in the execution of the war and the influence of the USA did not surpass that of France.  Later, Haig would contest Foch and act against his decisions, but along with the Anzac an Canadian Corps the British remained a much smaller army than that of the French an other allies combined.

it would be difficult to say the British were the ‘dominant partner of the Entente’ at any time during the war.  That said during the ‘hundred days’ of 1918 it was the British who defeated the main force of the German Army.

 

 

 

 

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10 hours ago, kenf48 said:

Broad brush,  but the BEF was considered a ‘contemptible little army’ in 1914. 

https://www.westernfrontassociation.com/world-war-i-articles/the-contemptible-little-army-1914-1918/

Yet during the first two years of the conflict this relatively small force relieved the pressure on the French Army.

 

 

 

 

 

I have a feeling that this remark about a 'contemptible little army' is a bad translation.

It is just as likely that the Kaiser said (if he said anything), 'This is a contemptibly small army' (small and little being, in German and other languages, the same word).

In other words,it is quite possible that the Kaiser was actually praising the British army not sneering. Of course, in 1914 it suited the British to say that the Kaiser was sneering and then the Germans got their comeuppance.

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I think the British always had to consider whose soil the war was being fought on. Haig clearly didn't have much time for the French as military commanders, but was under pressure from Lloyd George to defer to the French. 

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15 hours ago, Felix C said:

We read English language works so it appears Great Britain was the dominant partner of the Entente. Was it so at the time or did it evolve as the war progressed? I am particularly thinking of the period before the French Army mutinies and Russian October 1917 Revolution. Did the USA surpass France by the Armistice and rival Britain in influence on strategic decision making?

Asking as I am watching the 2014 French multipart docu on WW1 Apocalypse, la Première Guerre Mondiale  and of course it is very French-centric. War is seen differently there. 

I think that the French (with some justification) see WW1 rather like the Russians see WW2, and when one examines the statistical effort (in materiel and casualties, or ‘blood and treasure’) it seems that there’s some truth in that.  It is also arguably a little misleading to say ‘British’ without explicitly emphasising the critical input of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and many other colonies and dependencies in the massive collective effort concerned.  

NB.  Purely as an aside, I always feel that it’s a sobering and salutary exercise to reflect on the proportionate to its population effort of New Zealand when these things are compared and totted up.

Edited by FROGSMILE
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On 15/05/2022 at 09:54, FROGSMILE said:

 It is also arguably a little misleading to say ‘British’ without explicitly emphasising the critical input of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and many other colonies and dependencies in the massive collective effort concerned.  

The input of the Commonwealth countries was significant, but all were under British command one way or the other. There were obvious differences though, such as application of King Regulations etc. 

It's funny that in both wars the Germans always seemed to say they were at war with the 'The English' rather than the British. I'm not sure if that was done to play down the size of the UK/British/Commonwealth contribution. We certainly were not Germany's traditional enemy. France obviously holds that title for both the UK and Germany!

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Just now, Gunner Bailey said:

The input of the Commonwealth countries was significant, but all were under British command one way or the other. There were obvious differences though, such as application of King Regulations etc. 

It's funny that in both wars the Germans always seemed to say they were at war with the 'The English' rather than the British. I'm not sure if that was done to play down the size of the UK/British/Commonwealth contribution. We certainly were not Germany's traditional enemy. France obviously holds that title for both the UK and Germany!

We here in Flanders still talk about "England" and the "English" as well. I guess it has to do with the historical origin of the UK and GB, which was the Kingdom of England. We talk about "Holland" as well when we talk about the Netherlands. Similarly, we talked about "Russia" and the "Russians" as well during the Soviet Union times. It's all down to history and (often ancient) historical names of countries.

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19 minutes ago, Gunner Bailey said:

The input of the Commonwealth countries was significant, but all were under British command one way or the other. There were obvious differences though, such as application of King Regulations etc. 

It's funny that in both wars the Germans always seemed to say they were at war with the 'The English' rather than the British. I'm not sure if that was done to play down the size of the UK/British/Commonwealth contribution. We certainly were not Germany's traditional enemy. France obviously holds that title for both the UK and Germany!

Yes I agree with your comments and fully realise that the Dominions were a part of the collective effort of the British Armies (x5) in France and Flanders.  I suppose I was just making the point that I feel it’s really important that the collective endeavour is emphasised and we avoid using just “the British” as an arguably misleading catch all.  Far better to say the British and Dominion (or Empire) forces.  

Edited by FROGSMILE
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The Battle of the Somme was such a huge watershed.

 

That marked the point when the British Empire shared the burden of the war on the Western Front , and one year after that, it might be fairly said that the BEF actually assumed the main burden of the war in France and Flanders.

 

Before July 1st 1916, French dead on the Western Front outnumbered those of the British Empire by roughly six to one.

 

From the first day of the Somme until the  Armistice, British Empire dead in France and Belgium outnumbered those of the French by about 1.2 to 1.

 

Those are figures that I confess are based on guesswork, and I must check them.

 

A rather crude assessment, but a compelling one.

 

Phil

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1 hour ago, phil andrade said:

The Battle of the Somme was such a huge watershed.

 

That marked the point when the British Empire shared the burden of the war on the Western Front , and one year after that, it might be fairly said that the BEF actually assumed the main burden of the war in France and Flanders.

 

Before July 1st 1916, French dead on the Western Front outnumbered those of the British Empire by roughly six to one.

 

From the first day of the Somme until the  Armistice, British Empire dead in France and Belgium outnumbered those of the French by about 1.2 to 1.

 

Those are figures that I confess are based on guesswork, and I must check them.

 

A rather crude assessment, but a compelling one.

 

Phil

Yes it is compelling and I’ll be interested in your figures worked through Phil.  As I understand it the actual military dead for Britain and the Empire totted together is around “1,114,914”, whereas that for France alone is “1,397,800”.**

**Figures from: Centre européen Robert Schuman.

NB.  There are of course a variety of interpretations of totals but pretty much all show France as suffering the largest number by direct comparison with the British empire.

Edited by FROGSMILE
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A good premise and the French involvement in Verdun from Feb-Dec 1916 may have drained the French  more vs. the British at this point. The French army mutinies occurred in May 1917 after the Nivelle offensive. I guess discontent in the French army may have resulted from virtually every regiment being rotated at Verdun and the nature of the wastage there. I believe nearly half of the French army was affected by the mutinies. 

Edited by Felix C
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7 hours ago, Felix C said:

A good premise and the French involvement in Verdun from Feb-Dec 1916 may have drained the French  more vs. the British at this point. The French army mutinies occurred in May 1917 after the Nivelle offensive. I guess discontent in the French army may have resulted from virtually every regiment being rotated at Verdun and the nature of the wastage there. I believe nearly half of the French army was affected by the mutinies. 

The tables Churchill presented in his history of the Great War are very revealing in this respect, based as they are on the official German sources that were compiled and affording a breakdown of their casualties suffered against the French and British sectors of the Western Front.

 

I’ll refer to them and post a quick summary.

 It’s difficult to assess how far other factors, such as financial and maritime power, industrial and diplomatic capacities etc, can be reckoned with .

 

Dominance is a slippery kind of thing to quantify , isn’t it ?

 

Phil

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Here are the figures from Churchill's tabulation, which was based on research into the reichsarchiv ( Federal Archives) in Potsdam, Dec.31, 1928.

 

The figures are lacking for the final three or four weeks of the war, and the figures for the first six months (August 1914 to January 1915)  were not segregated between those inflicted by the French and the British.  These are for all battle casualties : killed, wounded and missing.

 

August 1914 to June 1916  inflcited by the French :  1,562,483.   

                                               inflicted by the British :   271,518   

 

a ratio of 5.76 to one.

 

From July 1916 to later October 1918. 

 

inflcited by the French :  1,509,973

inflicted by the British :   1,502,336

Virtual parity , with the missing weeks perhaps restoring the balance  very slightly in the British favour.  Losses inflcited by the Belgians are included with those attributable to the French.

 

In view of these statistics, it's surprising that, even before the end of 1915, Falkenhayn was describing the " English" as the "Arch enemy".

 

I'll try and get figures for French and British Empire dead on the Western Front for the respective periods.

 

Here you are, thrown together using CWGC data and some French data, approximate figures for deaths, Western Front

 

French, August 1914 to 30 June 1916 :  770,000.  July 1916 to 11 November 1918 : 530,000

British , August 1914 to 30 June 1916 : 145,000. July 1916 to November 1918 : 580,000

 

These roughly reflect the figures for casualties inflcited on the Germans by the Franco British armies  in the respective periods, but, of course, the additional millions of wounded and prisoners are not allowed for in the Entente death numbers.

 

Phil

Edited by phil andrade
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13 hours ago, Felix C said:

A good premise and the French involvement in Verdun from Feb-Dec 1916 may have drained the French  more vs. the British at this point. The French army mutinies occurred in May 1917 after the Nivelle offensive. I guess discontent in the French army may have resulted from virtually every regiment being rotated at Verdun and the nature of the wastage there. I believe nearly half of the French army was affected by the mutinies. 

I think the French were being 'drained' well before 1916. The German offensive on the Marne was incredibly destructive of the French Army. We are rightly horrified by the British losses on 1/7/1916 but the French lost 27,000 dead and 50,000+ wounded and missing in one day, (22nd August) on the Marne in 1914. Other days in August to September 1914 were nearly as bad.

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September 25th 1915 was very nearly as bad for France as 22nd August the previous year had been.  Incidentally, September 25th 1915 was Britain’s second worst day as well, according to CWGC :  I find that difficult to believe, but there it is.

 

Despite this huge French military preponderance, it still seems that the Germans regarded the British as very much the “engine room” of the Entente, on account of financial clout, maritime supremacy  and global influence.

 

Phil

 

 

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3 hours ago, phil andrade said:

Despite this huge French military preponderance, it still seems that the Germans regarded the British as very much the “engine room” of the Entente, on account of financial clout, maritime supremacy  and global influence.

Phil

I think that you have summed up the real politik of the geopolitical situation perfectly with that description Phil. 

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A couple of observations:-

As General Sir David Fraser observed in his memoir, and as detailed in contemporary newspaper reports, in the immediate post-war period, 'everyone knew that England had defeated Germany". The collapse of the Russian Army, the demise of the Austro- Hungarian Empire and the involvement of a few troops from the Empire were of no consequence.  As for the the contribution of the soldiers of the home nations - well they were "English" were they not.

This is not to diminish the contributions of other nations but merely an observation on the post war mind set.

The original question was:-

On 14/05/2022 at 19:19, Felix C said:

We read English language works so it appears Great Britain was the dominant partner of the Entente. Was it so at the time or did it evolve as the war progressed? I am particularly thinking of the period before the French Army mutinies and Russian October 1917 Revolution.

As it happens counting heads was one of the consequences of the British involvement in the war.  To contrast casualties with influence is a fallacy. 

One of the critical points in the lead up to the war was the Agadir crisis in 1911  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agadir_Crisis

Following this 'crisis' Walter Runciman stated, "The sea is our natural element and the sooner they realise that we are not going to land troops the better will be the chances of preserving Europe's peace". Walter Runciman  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Runciman,_1st_Viscount_Runciman_of_Doxford.

In other words prior to 1914 there was a reluctance in Government to deploy any British troops to the continent and the BEF deployed in 1914 was little more than a token force. Therefore it was unlikely Britain would influence either the conduct ofr strategy of the war in August 1914 and the preceding months.  In fact, peace rallies were still being held p until August 4th.

On the eve of war Britain did not have a large conscript army which could intervene in a continental war.  The Imperial Russian Army was the largest of the contending forces deploying twenty one infantry divisions against thirteen German Divisions and more than fifty against the Austro Hungarians, it was by far the largest army in the field in 1914 in terms of numbers but it was poorly equipped and poorly trained, but initially sheer numbers prevailed.

British foreign policy was governed by a head count of the Russian Army which had two major consequences.  The fundamental weakness of Russia's economy was not recognised and the concern that after the 'inevitable' defeat of Germany Russia would go on to threaten the British Imperial possessions. A British 'professional army' created for policing the Empire might match a conscript army the lack of reserves would soon mean it was depleted.  Meanwhile the navy would blockade Germany (as it turned out very successfully) and the threat of combined operations (less successful) would divert German troops away from the French.  Kitchener's raising of a volunteer army was not foreseen, nor was it intended that the BEF would play a significant part but that it would  make a major contribution to French morale by offering its support against any invasion by Germany.  As for the observation above as to mistranslation whether or not the assertion is accurate the fact is the Bef's contribution in 1914 was not on the scale of the continental conscript armies.

During the winter of 1914 -1915 the entente was still trying to find a war winning strategy and with the Germans on their territory neither the French nor the Russians were disposed to a diplomatic solution.  Politically, strategically and diplomatically Britain, or 'England' was very much a junior partner in these negotiations.

See "British Strategy and War Aims 1914- 1916" Prof. David French  ISBN 0-04-942197-2 for a discussion on these developments.

To attempt to count casualties as an indication of the British  superiority in a multi-national force on the Western Front is no indication of their  'influence' especially in the period originally suggested.  In 1914 Britain was not prepared economically for a long conflict, while it was recognised the war would not be 'over by Christmas' the stalemate on the Western Front for four years was not foreseen.  

 One reason for the initial success of the German Spring Offensive in March 1918 was the inability of the the Allies to develop a coherent strategy amongst themselves.  On the 2nd February 1918 Foch was given command of all reserves on the Western, Italian and Macedonian Fronts. In England the proposal led to an almost complete civil and military breakdown in relations. For example, in 1918 the BEF was still the junior partner when the Germans attacked in 'Operation Blucher' on the 27th May.  The Germans faced sixteen Allied Divisions, four French and three British in the first line and seven French and two British in reserve.  The initial German success led to political panic and a realisation of the need for a coherent strategy.

As previously noted the fact that in 1918 Haig, much to his discomfiture, was made subordinate to Foch is an indication of the British influence on strategy throughout the war until the final few months, or the 'hundred days'. For example:-

Monday 3 June 1918

"Letter arrived from Foch stating that he, with General Pershing's approval proposed to move some of the American Divisions now in the British Area  to relieve French Divisions...My views are that it is a waste of valuable troops to send half trained men to relieve French Divisions."

On the 4th June Haig made a formal protest to Foch against any troops 'leaving my command"

Hardly the comments of the senior partner. (Douglas Haig War Diaries and Letters 1914- 1918 Sheffield and Bourne) ISBN 0-297-84702-3

It was not until August 1918, in the face of political opposition at home, Haig was able to prevail and persuade Foch to deploy a strategy that led to the Armistice. His strategy included a recognition that this 'concentric advance' would lead to higher casualties in the short term, but alleviate the long term social and economic pressure of the war and of course, the number of losses.

 

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From the German point of view, there was , I dare say, a “ Perfidious Albion “ syndrome at work in the Entente, with British finance affording a disproportionate ability to wield leadership without incurring the same scale of casualties as those suffered by the continental belligerents.  There must have been Germans who thought of parallels with the Seven Years War and the ordeal of Frederick the Great.  The figures I cited above show that as of July 1916 that perception became a fallacy.

 

If the Entente did fail to develop a coherent strategy amongst themselves even as late as June 1918, it might be equally arguable that the Central Powers   were also dysfunctional in this respect. German frustration with Austro Hungarian aspirations were to the fore in Falkenhayn’s reign as warlord, and the Austrians themselves had to deal with Hungarian  requirements that might have compromised cohesion.

 

Haig bitched constantly about the French, but I would opine that in his works he was a good coalitionist. Better by far than his Austrian counterpart, Conrad Von Hotzendorff.

 

The British Empire was phenomenally dynamic 1914-18.

So was the French.

 

 

 

Neither complained about being shackled to a corpse.

 

 

Phil

 

Edited by phil andrade
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