The Great War Begins
( Originally Published 1918 )
YEARS before 1914, when Germany declared war against civilization, it was decided by the German General Staff to strike at France through Belgium. The records of the German Foreign Office prove that fact. The reason for this lay in the long line of powerful fortresses along the line that divides France from Germany and the sparsely spaced and comparatively out-of-date forts on the border between Germany and Belgium. True, there was a treaty guaranteeing the inviolability of Belgian territory to which Germany was a signatory party. Some of the clauses of that treaty were:
Article 9. Belgium, within the limits traced in conformity with the principles laid down in the present preliminaries, shall form a perpetually neutral state. The five powers (England, France, Austria, Prussia and Russia), without wishing to intervene in the internal affairs of Belgium, guarantee her that perpetual neutrality as well as the integrity and inviolability of her territory in the limits mentioned in the present article.
Article 10. By just reciprocity Belgium shall be held to observe this same neutrality toward all the other states and to make no attack on their internal or external tranquillity while always preserving the right to defend herself against any foreign aggression.
This agreement was followed on January 23, 1839, by a definitive treaty, accepted by Belgium and by the Netherlands, which treaty regulates Belgium's neutrality as follows :
Article 7. Belgium, within the limits defined in Articles 1, 2 and 4, shall form an independent and perpetually neutral state. She is obligated to preserve this neutrality against all the other states.
To convert this solemn covenant into a "scrap of paper" it was necessary that Germany should find an excuse for tearing it to pieces. There was absolutely no provocation in sight, but that did not deter the German High Command. That august body with no information whatever to afford an excuse, alleged in a formal note to the Belgian Government that the French army intended to invade Germany through Belgian territory. This hypocritical and mendacious note and Belgium's vigorous reply follow :
Note handed in on August 2, 1914, at 7 o'clock p. m., by Herr von Below-Saleske, German Minister, to M. Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs.
BRUSSELS, 2d August, 1914.
IMPERIAL GERMAN LEGATION IN BELGIUM
The German Government has received reliable information according to which the French forces intend to march on the Meuse, by way of Givet and Namur. This information leaves no doubt as to the intention of France of marching on Germany through Belgian territory. The Imperial Government cannot avoid the fear that Belgium, in spite of its best will, will be in no position to repulse such a largely developed French march with-out aid. In this fact there is sufficient certainty of a threat directed against Germany.
It is an imperative duty for the preservation of Germany to forestall this attack of the enemy.
The German Government would feel keen regret if Belgium should regard as an act of hostility against her-self the fact that the measures of the enemies of Germany oblige her on her part to violate Belgian territory.
In order to dissipate any misunderstanding the German Government declares as follows:
1. Germany does not contemplate any act of hostility against Belgium. If Belgium consents in the war about to commence to take up an attitude of friendly neutrality toward Germany, the German Government on its part undertakes, on the declaration of peace, to guarantee the kingdom and its possessions in their whole extent.
2. Germany undertakes under the conditions laid down to evacuate Belgian territory as soon as peace is concluded.
3. If Belgium preserves a friendly attitude, Germany is prepared, in agreement with the authorities of the Belgian Government, to buy against cash all that is required by her troops, and to give indemnity for the damages caused in Belgium.
4. If Belgium behaves in a hostile manner toward the German troops, and in particular raises difficulties against their advance by the opposition of the fortifications of the Meuse, or by destroying roads, railways, tunnels, or other engineering works, Germany will be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.
In this case Germany will take no engagements toward Belgium, but she will leave the later settlement of relations of the two states toward one another to the decision of arms. The German Government has a justified hope that this contingency will not arise and that the Belgian Government will know how to take suitable measures to hinder its taking place. In this case the friendly relations which unite the two neighboring states will become closer and more lasting.
THE REPLY BY BELGIUM
Note handed in by M. Davignon, Minister for Foreign Affairs, to Herr von Below-Saleske, German Minister.
BRUSSELS, 3d August, 1914.
(7 o'clock in the morning.)
By the note of the 2d August, 1914, the German Government has made known that according to certain intelligence the French forces intend to march on the Meuse via Givet and Namur and that Belgium, in spite of her good-will, would not be able without help to beat off an advance of the French troops.
The German Government felt it to be its duty to forestall this attack and to violate Belgian territory. Under these conditions Germany proposes to the King's Government to take up a friendly attitude, and under-takes at the moment of peace to guarantee the integrity of the kingdom and of her possessions in their whole ex-tent. The note adds that if Belgium raises difficulties to the forward march of the German troops Germany will be compelled to consider her as an enemy and to leave the later settlement of the two states toward one another to the decision of arms.
This note caused profound and painful surprise to the King's Government.
The intentions which it attributed to France are in contradiction with the express declarations which were made to us on the 1st of August, in the name of the government of the republic.
Moreover, if, contrary to our expectation, a violation of Belgian neutrality were to be committed by France, Belgium would fulfil all her international duties and her army would offer the most vigorous opposition to the invader.
The treaties of 1889, confirmed by the treaties of 1870, establish the independence and the neutrality of Belgium under the guarantee of the powers, and particularly of the Government of his Majesty the King of Prussia.
Belgium has always been faithful to her international obligations; she has fulfilled her duties in a spirit of loyal impartiality; she has neglected no effort to maintain her neutrality or to make it respected.
The attempt against her independence with which the German Government threatens her would constitute a flagrant violation of international law. No strategic interest justifies the violation of that law.
The Belgian government would, by accepting the propositions which are notified to her, sacrifice the honor of the nation while at the same time betraying her duties toward Europe.
Conscious of the part Belgium has played for more' than eighty years in the civilization of the world, she refuses to believe that the independence of Belgium can be preserved only at the expense of the violation of her neutrality.
If this hope were disappointed the Belgian Government has firmly resolved to repulse by every means in her power any attack upon her rights.
The German attack upon Belgium and France came with terrible force and suddenness. Twenty-four army corps, divided into three armies clad in a specially designed and colored gray-green uniform, swept in three mighty streams over the German borders with their objective the heart of France. The Army of the Meuse was given the route through Liége, Namur and Maubeuge. The Army of the Moselle violated the Duchy of Luxemburg, which, under a treaty guaranteeing its independence and neutrality, was not permitted to maintain an army. Germany was a signatory party to this treaty also. The Army of the Rhine cut through the Vosges Mountains and its route lay between the French cities of Nancy and Toul.
The heroic defense of the Belgian army at Liége against the Army of the Meuse delayed the operation of Germany's plans and in all probability saved Paris. It was the first of many similar disappointments and checks that Germany encountered during the war.
The defense of Liége continued for ten heroic days. Within that interval the first British Expeditionary Forces were landed in France and Belgium, the French army was mobilized to full strength. The little Belgian army falling. back northward on Antwerp, Louvain and Brussels, threatened the German flank and approximately 200,000 German soldiers were compelled to remain in the conquered section of Belgium to garrison it effectively.
Liége fortifications were the design of the celebrated strategist Brialmont. They consisted of twelve isolated fortresses which had been permitted to become out of repair. No field works of any kind connected them and they were without provision for defense against encircling tactics and against modern artillery.
The huge 42-centimeter guns, the first of Germany's terrible surprises, were brought into action against these forts, and their concrete and armored steel turrets were cracked as walnuts are cracked between the jaws of a nut-cracker. The Army of the Meuse then made its way like a gray-green cloud of poison gas through Belgium. A cavalry screen of crack Uhlan regiments preceded it, and it made no halt worthy of note until it confronted the Belgian army on the line running from Louvain to Namur. The Belgians were forced back before Louvain on August 20th, the Belgian Government removed the capital from Brussels to Antwerp, and the German hosts entered evacuated Brussels.
During this advance of the Army of the Meuse, strong French detachments invaded German soil, pouring into Alsace through the Belfort Gap. Brief successes attended the bold stroke. Mulhausen was captured and the Metz-Strassburg Railroad was cut in several places. The French suffered a defeat al-most immediately following this first flush of victory, both in Alsace and in Lorraine, where a French detachment had engaged with the Army of the Moselle. The French army thereupon retreated to the strong line of forts and earthworks defending the border between France and Germany.
England's first expeditionary force landed at Ostend, Calais and Dunkirk on August 7th. It was dubbed England's "contemptible little army" by the German General Staff. That name was seized upon gladly by England as a spur to volunteering. It brought to the surface national pride and a fierce determination to compel Germany to recognize and to reckon with the "contemptible little army."
The contact between the French, Belgian and British forces was speedily established and something like concert resistance to the advance of the enemy was made possible. The German army, however, followed by a huge equipment of motor kitchens, munition trains, and other motor transport evidencing great care in preparation for the movement, swept resistlessly forward until it encountered the French and British on a line running from Mons to Charleroi.
The British army was assigned to a position between two French armies. By some miscalculation, the French army that was to have taken its position on the British left, never appeared. The French army on the right was attacked and defeated at Charleroi, falling back in some confusion. The German Army of the Moselle cooperating with the Army of the Meuse then attacked the British and French, and a great flanking movement by the German joint commands developed.
This was directed mainly at the British under command of Sir John French. There followed a retreat that for sheer heroism and dogged determination has become one of the great battles of all time. The British, out-flanked and outnumbered three to one, fought and marched without cessation for six days and nights. Time after time envelopment and disaster threatened them, but with a determination that would not be beaten they fought off the best that Germany could send against them, maintained contact with the French army on their right, and delayed the German advance so effectively that a complete disarrangement of all the German plans ensued. This was the second great disappointment to Germany. It made possible the victory of the Marne and the victorious peace of 1918. The story of that immortal retreat is best told in the words of Sir John French, transmitting the report of this encounter to the British War Office. It follows:
"The transport of the troops from England both by sea and by rail was effected in the best order and without a check. Each unit arrived at its destination well within the scheduled time.
"The concentration was practically complete on the evening of Friday, the 21st ultimo, and I was able to make dispositions to move the force during Saturday, the 22d, to positions I considered most favorable from which to commence operations which the French commander-in-chief, General Joffre, requested me to undertake in pursuance of his plans in prosecution of the campaign.
"The line taken up extended along the line of the canal from Condé on the west, through Mons and Binche on the east. This line was taken up as follows:
"From Condé to Mons, inclusive, was as-signed to the Second Corps, and to the right of the Second Corps from Mons the First Corps was posted. The Fifth Cavalry Brigade was placed at Binche.
"In the absence of my Third Army Corps I desired to keep the cavalry divisions as much as possible as a reserve to act on my outer flank, or move in support of any threatened part of the line. The forward reconnoissance was intrusted to Brig. Gen. Sir Philip Chetwode, with the Fifth Cavalry Brigade, but I directed General Allenby to send forward a few squadrons to assist in this work.
"During the 22d and 23d these advanced squadrons did some excellent work, some of them penetrating as far as Soignies, and several encounters took place in which our troops showed to great advantage.
"2. At 6 A. M., on August 23d, I assembled the commanders of the First and Second Corps and cavalry division at a point close to the position and explained the general situation of the Allies, and what I understood to be General Joffre's plan. I discussed with them at some length the immediate situation in front of us.
"From information I received from French headquarters I understood that little more than one, or at most two, of the enemy's army corps, with perhaps one cavalry division, were in front of my position; and I was aware of no attempted outflanking movement by the enemy. I was confirmed in this opinion by the fact that my patrols encountered no undue opposition in their reconnoitering operations. The observations of my airplanes seemed to bear out this estimate.
"About 3 P. M. on Sunday, the 23d, reports began coming in to the effect that the enemy was commencing an attack on the Mons line, apparently in some strength, but that the right of the position from Mons and Bray was being particularly threatened.
"The commander of the First Corps had pushed his flank back to some high ground south of Bray, and the Fifth Cavalry Brigade evacuated Binche, moving slightly south; the enemy thereupon occupied Binche.
"The right of the Third Division, under General Hamilton, was at Mons, which formed a somewhat dangerous salient; and I directed the commander of the Second Corps to be careful not to keep the troops on this salient too long, but, if threatened seriously, to draw back the center behind Mons. This was done before dark. In the meantime, about 5 P. M., I received a most unexpected message from General Joffre by telegraph, telling me that at least three German corps, viz., a reserve corps, the Fourth Corps and the Ninth Corps, were moving on my position in front, and that the Second Corps was engaged in a turn-mg movement from the direction of Tournay. He also informed me that the two reserve French divisions and the Fifth French Army on my right were retiring, the Germans having on the previous day gained possession of the passages of the Sambre, between Charleroi and Namur.
"3. In view of the possibility of my being driven from the Mons position, I had previously ordered a position in rear to be reconnoitered. This position rested on the fortress of Maubeuge on the right and extended west to Jenlain, southwest to Valenciennes, on the left. The position was reported difficult to hold, because standing crops and buildings made the placing of trenches very difficult and limited the field of fire in many important localities. It nevertheless afforded a few good artillery positions.
"When the news of the retirement of the French and the heavy German threatening on my front reached me, I endeavored to con-firm it by airplane reconnoissance; and as a result of this I determined to effect a retirement to the Maubeuge position at daybreak on the 24th.
"A certain amount of fighting continued along the whole line throughout the night and at daybreak on the 24th the Second Division from the neighborhood of Harmignies made a powerful demonstration as if to retake Binche. This was supported by the artillery of both the First and Second Divisions, while the First Division took up a supporting position in the neighborhood of Peissant. Under cover of this demonstration the Second Corps retired on the line Dour-Quaroule-Frameries. The Third Division on the right of the corps suffered considerable loss in this operation from the enemy, who had retaken Mons.
"The Second Corps halted on this line, where they partially intrenched themselves, enabling Sir Douglas Haig with the First Corps gradually to withdraw to the new position; and he effected this without much further loss, reaching the line Bavai-Maubeuge about 7 P. M. Toward midday the enemy appeared to be directing his principal effort against our left.
"I had previously ordered General Allenby with the cavalry to act vigorously in advance of my left front and endeavor to take the pressure off.
"About 7.30 A. m. General Allenby received a message from Sir Charles Ferguson, commanaing the Fifth Division, saying that he was very hard pressed and in urgent need of sup-port. On receipt of this message General Allenby drew in the cavalry and endeavored to bring direct support to the Fifth Division.
"During the course of this operation General De Lisle, of the Second Cavalry Brigade, thought he saw a good opportunity to paralyze the further advance of the enemy's infantry by making a mounted attack on his flank. He formed up and advanced for this purpose, but was held up by wire about five hundred yards from his objective, and the Ninth Lancers and the Eighteenth Hussars suffered severely in the retirement of the brigade.
"The Nineteenth Infantry Brigade, which had been guarding the line of communications, was brought up by rail to Valenciennes on the 22d and 23d. On the morning of the 24th they were moved out to a position south of Qua-rouble to support the left flank of the Second Corps.
"With the assistance of the cavalry Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was enabled to effect his retreat to a new position; although, having two corps of the enemy on his front and one threatening his flank, he suffered great losses in doing so.
"At nightfall the position was occupied by the Second Corps to the west of Bavai, the First Corps to the right. The right was protected by the Fortress of Maubeuge, the left by the Nineteenth Brigade in position between Jenlain and Bry, and the cavalry on the outer flank.
"4. The French were still retiring, and I had no support except such as was afforded by the Fortress of Maubeuge; and the deter-mined attempts of the enemy to get round my left flank assured me that it was his intention to hem me against that place and surround me. I felt that not a moment must be lost in retiring to another position.
"I had every reason to believe that the enemy's forces were somewhat exhausted and I knew that they had suffered heavy losses. I hoped, therefore, that his pursuit would not be too vigorous to prevent me effecting my object.
"The operation, however, was full of danger and difficulty, not only owing to the very superior force in my front, but also to the exhaustion of the troops.
"The retirement was recommenced in the early morning of the 25th to a position in the neighborhood of Le Cateau, and rearguards were ordered to be clear of the Maubeuge-Bavai-Eih Road by 5.30 A.M.
"Two cavalry brigades, with the divisional cavalry of the Second Corps, covered the movement of the Second Corps. The remainder of the cavalry division, with the Nineteenth Brigade, the whole under the command of General Allenby, covered the west flank.
"The Fourth Division commenced its detrainment at Le Cateau on Sunday, the 23d, and by the morning of the 25th eleven battalions and a brigade of artillery with divisional staff were available for service.
"I ordered General Snow to move out to take up a position with his right south of Solesmes, his left resting on the Cambrai-Le Cateau Road south of La Chaprie. In this position the division rendered great help to the effective retirement of the Second and First Corps to the new position.
"Although the troops had been ordered to occupy the Cambrai-Le Cateau-Landrecies position, and the ground had, during the 25th, been partially prepared and intrenched, I had grave doubts, owing to the information I had received as to the accumulating strength of the enemy against me—as to the wisdom of standing there to fight.
"Having regard to the continued retirement of the French on my right, my exposed left flank, the tendency of the enemy's western corps (II) to envelope me, and, more than all, the exhausted condition of the troops, I deter-mined to make a great effort to continue the retreat until I could put some substantial obstacle, such as the Somme or the Oise, between my troops and the enemy, and afford the former some opportunity of rest and reorganization. Orders were, therefore, sent to the corps commanders to continue their retreat as soon as they possibly could toward the general line Vermand-St. Quentin-Ribemont.
"The cavalry under General Allenby, were ordered to cover the retirement.
"Throughout the 25th and far into the evening, the First Corps continued its march on Landrecies, following the road along the east-ern border of the Foret de Mormal, and arrived at Landrecies about 10 o'clock. I had intended that the corps should come further west so as to fill up the gap between Le Cateau and Landrecies, but the men were exhausted and could not get further in without rest.
"The enemy, however, would not allow them this rest, and about 9.30 P. m. a report was received that the Fourth Guards Brigade in Landrecies was heavily attacked by troops of the Ninth German Army Corps, who were coming through the forest on the north of the town. This brigade fought most gallantly, and caused the enemy to suffer tremendous loss in issuing from the forest into the narrow streets of the town. This loss has been estimated from reliable sources at from 700 to 1,000. At the same time information reached me from Sir Douglas Haig that his First Di-vision was also heavily engaged south and east of Maroilles. I sent urgent messages to the commander of the two French reserve divisions on my right to come up to the assistance of the First Corps, which they eventually did. Partly owing to this assistance, but mainly to the skillful manner in which Sir Douglas Haig extricated his corps from an exceptionally difficult position in the darkness of the night, they were able at dawn to resume their march south toward Wassigny on Guise.
"By about 6 P. M. the Second Corps had got into position with their right on Le Cateau, their left in the neighborhood of Caudry, and the line of defense was continued thence by the Fourth Division toward Seranvillers, the left being thrown back.
"During the fighting on the 24th and 25th the cavalry became a good deal scattered, but by the early morning of the 26th, General Allenby had succeeded in concentrating two brigades to the south of Cambrai.
"The Fourth Division was placed under the orders of the general officer commanding the Second Army Corps.
"On the 24th the French cavalry corps, consisting of three divisions under General Sordet, had been in billets north of Avesnes. On my way back from Bavai, which was my `Poste de Commandement' during the fighting of the 23d and 24th, I visited General Sordêt, and earnestly requested his co-operation and support. He promised to obtain sanction from his army commander to act on my left flank, but said that his horses were too tired to move before the next day. Although he rendered me valuable assistance later on in the course of the retirement, he was unable, for the reasons given, to afford me any support on the most critical day of all, viz., the 26th.
At daybreak it became apparent that the enemy was throwing the bulk of his strength against the left of the position occupied by the Second Corps and the Fourth Division.
"At this time the guns of four German army corps were in position against them, and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien reported to me that be judged it impossible to continue his retirement at daybreak (as ordered) in face of such an attack.
"I sent him orders to use his utmost endeavors to break off the action and retire at the earliest possible moment, as it was impossible for me to send him any support, the First Corps being at the moment incapable of movement.
"The French Cavalry Corps, under General Sort, was coming up on our left rear early in the morning, and I sent an urgent message to him to do his utmost to come up and sup-port the retirement of my left flank; but owing to the fatigue of his horses he found himself unable to intervene in any way.
"There had been no time to intrench the position properly, but the troops showed a magnificent front to the terrible fire which con-fronted them.
"The artillery, although outmatched by at least four to one, made a splendid fight, and inflicted heavy losses on their opponents.
"At length it became apparent that, if complete annihilation was to be avoided, a retirement must be attempted; and the order was given to commence it about 3.30 P. x. The movement was covered with the most devoted intrepidity and determination by the artillery, which had itself suffered heavily, and the fine work done by the cavalry in the further retreat from the position assisted materially in the final completion of this most difficult and dangerous operation.
"Fortunately the enemy had himself suffered too heavily to engage in an energetic pursuit.
"I cannot close the brief account of this glorious stand of the British troops without putting on record my deep appreciation of the valuable services rendered by Gen. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien.
"I say without hesitation that the saving of the left wing of the army under my command on the morning of the 26th of August, could never have been accomplished unless a commander of rare and unusual coolness, intrepidity, and determination had been present to personally conduct the operation.
"The retreat was continued far into the night of the 26th and through the 27th and 28th, on which date the troops halted on the line Noyon-Chauny-La Fere, having then thrown off the weight of the enemy's pursuit.
"On the 27th and 28th I was much indebted to General Sordêt and the French cavalry division which lie commands for materially assisting my retirement and successfully driving back some of the enemy on Cambrai.
"General D'Amade also, with the Sixty-first and Sixty-second French Reserve Divisions, moved down from the neighborhood of Arras on the enemy's right flank and took much pressure off the rear of the British forces.
"This closes the period covering the heavy fighting which commenced at Mons on Sunday afternoon, 23d August, and which really constituted a four days' battle.
"At this point, therefore, I propose to close the present dispatch.
"I deeply deplore the very serious losses which the British forces have suffered in this great battle; but they were inevitable in view of the fact that the British army—only two days after a concentration by rail—was called upon to withstand a vigorous attack of five Germany army corps.
"It is impossible for me to speak too highly of the skill evinced by the two general officers commanding army corps; the self-sacrificing and devoted exertions of their staffs; the direction of the troops by divisional, brigade, and regimental leaders; the command of the smaller units by their ofîîcers ; and the magnificent fighting spirit displayed by non-commissioned officers and men.
"I wish particularly to bring to your Lordship's notice the admirable work done by the Royal Flying Corps under Sir David Henderson. Their skill, energy, and perseverance have been beyond all praise. They have furnished me with the most complete and ac-curate information, which has been of incalculable value in the conduct of the operations. Fired at constantly both by friend and foe, and not hesitating to fly in every kind of weather, they have remained undaunted throughout.
"Further, by actually fighting in the air, they have succeeded in destroying five of the enemy's machines."
The combined French and British armies, including the forces that had retreated from Alsace and Lorraine, gave way with increasing stubbornness before von Kluck. That German general disregarding the fortresses surrounding Paris, swung southward to make a junction with the Army of the Crown Prince of Germany advancing through the Vosges Mountains. General Manoury's army op-posed the German advance on the entrenched line of Paris. General Gallieni commanding the garrison of Paris, was ready with a novel mobile transport consisting of taxicabs and fast trucks. The total number of soldiers in the French and British armies now outnumbered those in the German armies opposed to them.
General Joffre, in supreme command of the French, had chosen the battleground. He had set the trap with consummate skill. The word was given; the trap was sprung; and the first battle of the Marne came as a crashing surprise to Germany.