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Remembered Today:

Sir John French and First Ypres


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I am sure that most of the users of this forum know that the BEF was sent into an attack at Ypres in mid October 1914, with the intention of a long-range outflanking movement that would, for example, capture Bruges. It ran into the enemy that had similar intentions, but coming the other way and in significantly greater force. French's action certainly put the 7th Division in a most difficult position, from which it only escaped with heavy casualties after a great deal of superb leadership and valiant soldiery, and compounded this by pushing I Corps into the same furnace.

But one thing has always puzzled me. French must, surely, have known that there was a very large German force heading his way. The remnant of the Belgian Army had only just withdrawn from Antwerp and Ghent, covered by 7th Division, for goodness sake. Didn't anyone mention that they were withdrawing from being destroyed by large enemy forces with overwhelming amounts of artillery? French's instructions to Haig, when I Corps were pushed forward on 21st October 1914, said there was only one enemy army corps within range. Surely he knew different?

Was this

- truly dreadful, eyes and ears closed dreadful, intelligence on the part of GHQ?

- communication failure,

- wilful misinformation on the part of French, or

- some combination of these things?

Any insight or views would be valuable.

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I think no one really knew about the new German 4th Army.

Why? About 15th October, the only German troops that were known to be north of the German 6th Army (right flank at Menin on the Lys) were the III. Reserve Corps (Bruges) and some naval troops, coming from Antwerp and some Landwehr and Reserve Ersatz units occupying Gent and Brussels.

The creation of the XXII. - XXVII. Reserve Corps was a secret and was unknown to the allies. There was no reason for them to suspect any more troops north of the river Lys, because all known corps were known to be elsewhere on the front. That four of these corps were in Flanders between Roulers and Menin was a surprise to the allies. In the beginning they did not know what was happening and what these regiments were. It took a few days for the allies to understand what was really happening and which troops were attacking.


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  • 2 years later...


I would recommend Beckett's First Ypres (yes I really liked that book) regarding Ypres in the Fall of 1914. I think what you will find is not that French wasn't aware of the German army so much as the transfer of German troops from the battle of the Frontiers that contributed to his under estimation of true German strength.

I also think that in the early stages there wasn't a clear direction of what the BEF should do. Should they push further in land toward Antwerp, Brussels.. should they protect the channel ports, should they evacuate all together, or should they push onto Mauberge (the orignal staging point) and await orders from there. In retrospect the answers are clear, but at the time of course things were different on the ground.


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I think it should be remembered that GHQ was a very confusing place at this time. Not just due to intelliegence, though i am sure Macdonogh was in charge there and did the best he could. But also due to the fact that Archie Murray was doing a difficult job badly due to not just ability but illness, stress and Henry Wilson!

I have read a few times that both Macdonagh and Spears tried to impart information to French and Murrray and failed to get a recognistion.

GHQ and French command were not on the best of terms or to be more precise Sir John was probably not inclined to trust or believe anything coming out of here.

So to answer some of your question, i would put it down to the first two of your possibles. I dont think it was willful misleading by French but possibly bad Generalship and advice!



PS Chris do you have specific reason for this question? Nosey thats me!

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Haigs private papers entry for Monday October 19th:

Sir John stated that he "estimated the enemy's strength on the front from Ostend and Menin at about one Corps not more"


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I believe Macdonogh became aware of the size of the German forces through wireless intercepts. The Intelligence Section, according to Nikolas Gardner in 'Trial by Fire', had picked up the approach of 3 1/2 German corps. He tried to warn Sir John French but, just as happened at Mons, the enthusiasm of Henry Wilson carried the day. Gardner goes on to write:

'GHQ's orders to attack on 19 October nearly led to disaster for IV Corps. Only the arrival of air reconnaisance reports indicating the presence of at least three German corps prevented Henry Rawlinson's force from stumbling into the enemy unawares.'

The desire to attack was slow to recede. 'In a letter written on the 22nd [October], Wilfred Smith, commander of the 2/Grenadier Guards of 2 Division, provided a more accurate assessment of the situation facing Haig's force, remarking: "it is all rot saying we have nothing in front of us. There are heaps of Germans, and, as an army they are very good, and their gunners are perfect."'

After the war, Macdonogh commented:

'If Harper would tell you what Johnnie Gough said to him on the day II [Corps] appeared at Zandvoorde, an appearance of which I had a day previously warned the C in C & CGS & for so doing I was blackguarded by O [presumably Operations] as it was contrary to their preconcieved views & which they refused to pass on to [Haig], you would get a good idea of the difficulties we suffered under.'

Haig's diary, as transcribed by Sheffield and Bourne, provides no sense that Haig was aware until 31st October. The main comment about the strength of the German forces was added to his original manuscript.

Interestingly, Charteris, who was on Haig's I Corps staff, wrote on 19th October:

'DH saw the C in C and I had interviews with the Intelligence Staff. The C in C told DH that we seemed to be in a position to turn the German flank, and possibly break off one whole German corps and round it up. He said there was only one corps in front of us.

One of the Intelligence men said there were signs of at least two more improvised German corps, as well as the corps to which the C in C referred. But there seems no certainty of this. However, I mentioned it to DH and he seems rather impressed and cross-examined me closely. Our Belgian liaison officer, who has very good information, is emphatic that there are more troops than one corps.'

Arm's mention of Spears is very interesting. It is highly likely that the wireless intercepts were picked up by the French, perhaps via the Eiffel Tower. They had a very sophisticated wireless detection and decoding service, though if memory serves the Germans were not too careful about encoding the messages. Spears mentions this is his book 'Liaison 1914'.


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