The Genesis of the Western Front
How did the Allied Powers become committed to fighting the First World War on the Western Front, so that Germany, until near the end, always held the initative? John Terraine investigates.
Because of its particular horrors, the Western Front of 1914-1918 has come to occupy a special place in the minds of people who read history. There is a general awareness of the vast scale of the Allied effort on that front throughout the First World War, of the immensity of the losses sustained there under frequently hideous conditions, and of the bitter controversy that has raged ever since about the need for either the effort or the loss - a controversy not stilled by the popular demand for the “Second Front,” and its decisive success in the same arena during the Second World War. Yet in 1944 the problem was complicated by the fact that an opposed landing had to be made before a Western Front could even come into existence, while in 1914 the Allied riposte at the Marne established that front without interruption as the permanent major theatre of war. This is a contradiction that seems likely to engage historians for many- more years to come. At the root of all the controversy there may well he, as with so many of the complex and difficult passages in human affairs, a terrible simplicity.
Free will is not often granted to Governments at critical times, and this fact was well illustrated at the outbreak of war in 1914. It may be as well to recall some of the chronology surrounding the event. The Central Powers, Germany and Austria, declared war against Serbia on July 28th, against Russia on August 1st, against France on August 3rd, and Belgium on August 4th. Formal war was not declared upon Great Britain until November 23rd, when actual hostilities had been in progress for nearly four months. The Russians were almost as dilatory with their declaration against the Central Powers - November 3rd. But France had made her gesture on August 3rd, and Belgium on August 4th, in immediate response to the dangers that menaced them. The German invasion of Belgium was simultaneous with the declaration of war, and it was this invasion that decided Great Britain’s action. General mobilization of the Army was ordered, and the final British ultimatum sent to the German Government on August 4th. The ultimatum expired at midnight, and fifteen minutes later the Foreign Office issued the statement that Britain and Germany were at war. The declaration was officially back-dated by one day, but in fact this meant that Britain went to war with Germany on August 5th, two days after France, while her mobilization only began three days after that of her ally.
The cause of these discrepancies and delays was the habitual disadvantage that confronts relatively unwarlike democracies when faced with resolute action by determined military powers. A substantial part of the German Army was maintained permanently on a war footing, but even more important was the fact that the military machine was so built into the organization of the state that its functions could be performed without arousing particular attention. This was not the case in France, and still less so in England. In order not to cause provocation or alarm, as late as July 30th, the French Government was ordering that no special railway movements should be made by the Army, no reservists should be called up, and no requisitions should be made. The French covering forces were instructed that they must not pass beyond a line drawn ten kilometres from the frontier. The British Fleet, fortunately, was able to move straight from its annual manoeuvres to its war stations in comparative secrecy. But this did not apply to the Army, which could scarcely shift a unit without causing disturbance and drawing attention. Thus both Governments held back from the act of mobilization which, once committed, could only progressively weaken their power to control events. By August 1st, however, France could delay no longer. Already, through the relative development of their preparations, the Germans had seized a valuable initiative. The continued hesitation of the British Liberal Government, though perfectly intelligible, and possibly praiseworthy in terms of moral rectitude, nevertheless created extra damage by sowing the seeds of understandable doubt in France. The need to allay French anxiety certainly played a considerable part in shaping the deliberations and decisions that followed.
The nature of those deliberations and decisions was characteristic of the age. At 4.00p.m. on August 5th, the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, summoned a Council of War at No. 10 Downing Street. Not only its proceedings but its constitution were significant. All accounts of it by those who took part convey a strong air of: “Well, gentlemen, we seem to have landed ourselves in this War. Has anyone any views on what ought to be done about it?” And in the civilized traditions of British Government and Liberalism, the gentlemen so addressed were a far-flung cross-section of available expert opinion; astonishingly far-flung, when one considers the agenda before them. The Prime Minister was in the chair, a position to which he was eminently suited. The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, was present - reasonably enough. There was also the Lord Chancellor, Lord Haldane, briefly holding the reins at the War Office, where Mr. Asquith himself had been in charge for the past few months. The following day, Lord Kitchener was appointed Secretary of State; in the meantime, Lord Haldane’s counsel was of special value, in view of his great work in that Office. Lord Kitchener himself was also present - the country’s most eminent serving soldier, snatching a short leave from his Eastern preoccupations. There was Mr. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty. And the two political representatives of the Service Ministries were supported by their chief professional subordinates, the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, and the Chief of Imperial General Staff, Sir Charles Douglas. Also representing the Army was Field-Marshal Sir John French, who had just been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, and whose presence was therefore not unreasonable. But with him was mustered an astonishing array of lesser beings. It seems odd now that, with the C.I.G.S. present, the Commander-in-Chief should have been requested to bring with him his own Chief of Staff and Sub-Chief of Staff, Generals Sir Archibald Murray and Henry Wilson, and his two Army Corps commanders. Sir Douglas Haig and Sir James Grierson. In addition to all these, the Army was also represented by the Adjutant-General of the Forces, Sir John Cowans, the Master-General of Ordnance, Sir Stanley von Donop, and the Inspector-General of the Overseas Forces, Sir Ian Hamilton. Finally, there was the formidable figure of Lord Roberts of Kandahar, eighty-two years old, renowned and eager.
The thought of such a gathering offends against every modern conception of war directon; it is almost impossible to imagine what they could usefully have discussed at this stage, in view of the very different levels of their information and responsibility. What they did discuss was, first, where should the B.E.F. be sent? And secondly, what should it consist of? Since these were both elementary questions that had been under consideration and had received their answers in the very act of creating the Expeditionary Force, years before, the discussion that followed could scarcely fail to be confusing, and it is not to be wondered at that no two accounts of it by participants agree. It is, however, clear that at this meeting there was practically no attempt at any fundamental last-minute revision of strategy; there was no full-scale discussion of the wisdom or probable consequences of committing Britain’s whole military effort to the Continent at the outset of the struggle. Not one person in this strangely- assorted, but unquestionably authoritative, assembly of naval, military and political talent doubted that the proper destination of the B.E.F. was North-western Europe. What did exercise them was; the question whether, in view of the fact that our mobilization was already three days behind the French, and that the Germans were striking at Belgium, some reconsideration of detail might be necessary; whether, in fact, Antwerp might not be a better point for the B.E.F. to make for than Maubeuge.
There was, of course, no possible alternative to France or Flanders. Not only had the whole organization and planning of the Expeditionary Force been based from the beginning on the idea of fighting beside the French Army; the Entente Cordiale itself largely rested, on this concept. The three-day delay that preceded the Council of War had already had serious results in France, which the French Ambassador had not hesitated to emphasize. The War Office planners, who were responsible for the mobilization and assembly of the B.E.F., were equally perturbed at the disruption of careful schedules that had been caused. Ever since the institution of Staff talks between the two countries in 1906, although it had been carefully stated that these talks were not to be binding upon the Governments, there had been an inevitable progress towards this moment, the moment of truth - and impotence - for the Government of Great Britain.
For a short time in 1906, there had existed the possibility of setting a different strategy in train. France, at that time, felt very unsure of herself. Her only ally, Russia, had just suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of Japan. Her own army was still affected by the Dreyfus schism, and was a much less powerful instrument than it became by 1914. Her desire for British support was deep, and expressed with none of the arrogance that later became habitual in joint discussions of military affairs. Faced with German threats Over the Moroccan crisis, the French were naturally eager to know how Britain proposed to act; and this was a difficult question to answer, because the crisis coincided with the General Election that brought the Liberal Party to power. The Liberal Foreign Secretary-designate, Sir Edward Grey, intimated that he had no intention of departing from the Anglo-French agreement signed by his predecessor, Lord Lansdowne. But the terms of this agreement were very general, and said nothing about military action. It was in order to arrive at some kind of clarification of this aspect that Colonel Repington, Military Correspondent of The Timest in consultation with Lord Esher and Sir George Clarke, Secretary of the Defence Committee, took it upon himself, as a responsible but unofficial person, to sound out the French Government on the form of military collaboration between the two powers that they envisaged. The answers would then be put before the appropriate British authorities as a working basis. Oil January 5th, 1906, Colonel Repington addressed eleven questions to the French Government; on January 12th, Major Huguet, the French Military Attaché in London, brought him the answers that had been provided by the French Prime Minister and the Minister of War.
Repington’s first question was: “Have the Conseil Superieur de la Guerre considered British co-operation in case of war with Germany? In what manner do they consider this co-operation can best be carried out: (a) by sea, (b) by land? The French answered this in reverse order: “The question of co-operation with the British Army on land has been studied - it is considered that, to be most useful, its action should: (a) be joined to that of the French Army, that is to say, be placed under the same direction, whether the two armies act in the same theatre of operations, or in different theatres, (b) make itself felt at the opening of hostilities, because of the considerable moral effect that would result from that; ... At sea, England’s special position, the large superiority of her fleet, her ability to take all necessary preparatory measures in advance, enable her to form a plan better than France, which does not enjoy the same freedom of action.”
In this part of their reply to Repington’s first question, and in other replies, the French made it clear that they looked for a lead from the world’s greatest naval power. Question 6 was: “Do the French look to us to propose a plan of joint action by sea? Have they any plan ready to suggest to us?” The answer was simply: “See reply to first question.” In their reply to Question 8, which was about the disposal of naval and colonial captures, the French said: “However, a priority it seems likely that, since England is likely to play the most brilliant part in this matter, France will give way entirely to what England decides.” To the question: “Should we establish it as a principle ... that the English shall command at sea and the French on land?” the reply was: “Yes; unity of direction being absolutely essential, whether on land or at sea.” Even as regards land operations, within the concept of unified direction, the French preserved considerable fluidity in 1906. Repington’s fourth question anticipated the events that actually took place eight years later:
“Assuming that Germany violates Belgian territory, what plan of operations do the French propose for co-operation between the French, English and Belgian forces?” The French did not set much store by the possibility of Belgium vigorously defending her territory; they went on: “In the event of her deciding to defend her soil, immediate common action, under unified direction, would be proposed - action which cannot be defined beforeehand, because it will depend on circumstances.”
The circumstance that no one could have predicted, and which is still a matter for wonder, was that the British Government would refrain from making any counter-proposals; would take no steps to give full strategic effect to the Supreme Command at sea that was conceded so frankly by the French; and would permit a small group of Staff Officers to interpret the joint action on land, which was then so loosely defined by the French, in its narrowest sense.
There were many reasons for all this. The period of the great reform of the British Army, during which both the Expeditionary Force and the General Staff were given their shape, was just about to begin, and the sheer magnitude of the task diverted much energy and talent from the co-ordination of strategic studies. The Navy was even later in tackling its reorganization, and meanwhile operated under a series of autocracies, of which the most notable was that of Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord in 1906. On the day after the French Government’s reply to Repington’s questionnaire was received Sir George Clarke interviewed Fisher on the subject of naval plans and, says Repington, “telephoned to me that his talk had been very unsatisfactory, and that Fisher was not prepared to meet the French half-way … Admiral Fisher, said Sir G. Clarke, would not let the French into any plans of ours ...” Old habits die hard. France had been the British Navy’s traditional enemy for centuries, and Fisher’s reaction was instinctive. On the other side of the Channel the same frame of mind operated. When Major Huguet visited the Operations Bureau of the French General Staff to ask them about co-operation with the British, “he found them deeply engaged upon the elaboration of an academic plan for the invasion of England, and when he told them of the friendly British invasion which some of us contemplated, their jaws dropped, their pens fell from their hands, and they were positively transfixed with surprise.”
It is now clear that the fatal defect of the period was the absence until a late date of a true General Staff in either of the two Services, let alone a joint Staff to co-ordinate their plans. Indeed, the latter had to wait until the Second World War to be fashioned into an effective instrument. During the whole period between 1906 and 1914 there was no lack of strategic studies in Britain, but they were diffuse, and never brought together until their results were presented as a fait accompli at the Council of War on the day after war was declared. The Committee of Imperial Defence had been very active. From 1907 to 1913 it undertook detailed inquiries into a wide range of problems. Indeed, Lord Oxford (Mr. Asquith) has said:
It would not be an unjust claim to say that the Government had by (1909) investigated the whole ground covered by a possible war with Germany - the naval position; the possibilities of a blockade; the invasion problem; the continental problem; the Egyptian problem.” It is a sad comment that, after all that hard work, the strategy of the War became a matter for bitter debate within a few months of its opening, and has remained so ever since. But by August 5th, 1914, the only question left for argument was whether the Expeditionary Force should go to Antwerp or Maubeuge, and even this was an unreal question.
Nevertheless, it is a question worth examiniing, in the terms in which it presented itself to those who took part in the Council of War, because the alternative, minuscule as it was, represented the last opportunity of separating the main effort of the British Army from direct subordination to the French. Sir John French; who had been C.I.G.S. until March 1914, and was therefore familiar with the Operations Branch plan (worked, but mainly by Henry Wilson) to place the British Army on the left wing of the French, concentrating for that purpose at Maubeuge, wrote afterwards in his book 1914 that he was “most anxious to adhere to our original plans.” But both Wilson and Haig, in their diaries written at the time, show that it was French who raised the possibility of going to Antwerp - “dragged in the ridiculous proposal,” as Wilson put it. And Haig wrote: "Personally, I trembled at the reckless way Sir J. French spoke about ‘the advantages’ of the B.E.F. operating from Antwerp against the powerful and still intact Germany Army.” Finally, the Antwerp proposal was overruled, despite some support from Lord Roberts, partly on the grounds that it constituted a dangerous dispersion of effort, risking defeat in detail, but mainly because the Navy could not guarantee communications across that wider section of the North Sea. Since the approaches to Antwerp lay inside neutral territory, the Navy’s attitude is comprehensible. The uneasiness that shortly afterwards grew up about French’s strategic capacity probably had its origins in this proposal.
With Antwerp ruled out, there still remained a small area of disagreement among the soldiers at the Council of War . Lord Kitchener, for one, queried whether Maubeuge was not too far advanced and exposed as a concentration area for an Army whose bases would necessarily be sea-ports. He preferred Amiens, and Sir lan Hamilton supported him in this. The Corps Commanders were consulted. Grierson, who had been among the first to initiate close Anglo-French military co-operation, “spoke up for decisive numbers at the decisive point ―according to Wilson, so this presumably meant Maubeuge. Haig then, alone in this gathering, took the opportunity of putting forward a number of fundamental questions which, says Wilson, “led to our discussing strategy like idiots.” It was Haig’s misfortune that he was never a good or impressive speaker; his questions, and the supplementary points that he put forward, were anything but idiotic. He had little faith in the offensive doctrines that had recently become current in the French Army; it seemed unlikely to him that their headlong attack would succeed, and he feared the effects of the small British Expeditionary Force being drawn into the vortex of a French defeat. On the other hand, as one of his Staff Officers records, he was aware of an even more immediate danger, “that, with an Army and nation of moral so sensitive as the French, the Alliance itself might be endangered by alterations involving delay, and that therefore the Expeditionary Force must move in its greatest possible strength at the earliest possible moment; and conform to the plans of the French Command in the initial stages of the war.” These views, strongly backed by Wilson, with French and Murray in agreement, won the day, and tied the last knot that bound British action to French plans.
At this War Council it was also decided that the Expeditionary Force should, as always envisaged, consist of six infantry divisions and one of cavalry - the whole striking force of Great Britain. But Lord Kitchener’s misgivings steadily increased as he assumed the responsibilities of office, and the next day he modified this decision. Only two Army Corps went to France in the first wave, so that a small fraction of Britain’s Regular Army was preserved from the harassment of the Retreat from Mons - only, unfortunately, to be expended on the Aisne and at Ypres. If there was one question that this oddly-constituted Council of War might profitably have discussed, it was the economic use of the exiguous, but high-quality, Army that Britain possessed. Haig, indeed, urged that “we must organize our resources for a war of several years.” Kitchener rapidly reached the same conclusion, but, when it became a matter of implementing it, lacked the benefit of trained Staff Officers of Haig’s calibre. From this stemmed much of the sheer waste that ultimately brought valid manoeuvres into such disrepute.
And so it came about that the whole of Britain’s available military force became committed, from the outset, to action beside the French. The question remains, whether there was ever any real possibility afterwards of extracting the main strength of the Empire from the French front. Imperial commitments made it plain, also from the outset, that there would have to be other fronts, and it may be useful, at this stage, to note what proportion of the Empire’s man-power they ultimately absorbed. The Official statistical record lists ten major theatres of operations, besides France and Flanders, during the First World War. Unquestionably, the Western Front predominated: it swallowed up 5,399,563 men, compared with 3,576,391 for all the rest together. Yet 3.5 million is no small number, and further inspection reveals more of interest. Five of those ten fronts accounted for just under 250,000 men between them, so that the remaining subsidiary campaigns used over 3.25 million. This means, in effect, that although “subsidiary,” “secondary,” or whatever adjective one may care to use, they were, in fact, pretty big affairs. Egypt and Palestine, for example, from first to last, gave employment to 1,192,511 men; Mesopotamia to 889,702; the Dardanelles to 468,987; Salonika to 404,207; and, surprisingly, East Africa to 372,950. And these were only the British Empire’s contribution; there was a considerable French contingent at the Dardanelles, while at Salonika the French played the larger part. But for an Empire that, at the outbreak of war, had only been able to muster an Expeditionary Force of 100,000 men, these “sideshows ” alone represented an astonishing military expansion and effort.
The key question, then, is whether, in view of this large diversion of strength to other theatres, some further diversion might not have resulted in progress that, apart from its own positive impact on the War, would have saved us from much of the slaughter and misery on the Western Front. This question has been argued endlessly from the point of view of the merits and demerits of particular campaigns. Each one of them had its raison d’etre and its prospects; each contributed something to the final victory. But at this distance it seems more and more clear that underlying them all was the unfolding of a stern reality that had escaped discussion at the Council of War on August 5th, 1914, and in the planning that had preceded it. For, once committed, the demands of the Expeditionary Force in France grew inevitably and inexorably.
As soon as battle was joined, the tragic errors and weaknesses of ''French strategy were revealed. Against the mass and subtlety of the famous Schlieffen Plan, the French offensive doctrine crumbled into ruin. By prodigious personal efforts and inflexible willpower, Joffre was able to frustrate the object of the Schlieffen Plan at the Battle of the Marne. But the initiative that Germany had grasped at the very beginning brought its reward as a by-product. Once the Western Front was stabilized from the sea to Switzerland, enclosing in German hands almost the whole of Belgium and some of the most valuable provinces of France, there was never any question whatever, as long as the French remained the chief partners in land operations, of this front becoming anything but the dominant theatre. Technical military jargon can sound irritating at times; but it contains concepts as real as those of any other science. The reality of 1914 was that, although Germany had failed to achieve the swift decision that she had sought, she was able, by her territorial gains, to retain the initiative, and dictate the course of the war. It is perhaps less difficult to see this, if one supposes the situation in reverse.
Let us suppose that the Allied offensive in 1914 had been partially successful; that the Allies had carried their front into German territory; that they occupied, some valuable part of Germany such as the Saar; but that thereafter they found themselves unable to make further progress. What then would have been their correct strategy? It would surely have been axiomatic that the main force of Germany would be riveted to the front on her national territory, and the search for a decisive “turning ” front elsewhere would have been the obvious next step. Blocked, but still holding the initiative in the West, the Allies could rightly, if they had the strength, have tried to “knock away the props,” as the strategy of sideshows was called. For “knocking away the props 5’ requires two things: the initiative, and strength. But Germany held the initiative, and, indeed, enough strength to knock away certain Allied “props,” namely Serbia and Romania, and ultimately, with the not inconsiderable aid of internal revolution, Russia. But she had not enough strength to knock out Russia until the Revolution assisted her; nor did she ever have the strength to knock out Italy. The Allies, by 1916, when Russia was still able to make a last impressive stroke, and the Kitchener Armies were coming into the field in force, probably had the strength to destroy at least one of Germany’s allies; but they did not have the initiative, and were forced to spend their strength in other ways. The valuable attribute of initiative, lost in 1914, had, indeed, been even further removed by the events of 1915.
All through that year, France danced to the German tune; her armies were launched repeatedly, as it was inevitable that they would be, against the invaders of her territory. It is well-nigh impossible to imagine anything that could have prevented this from happening - except a long-standing agreement with Great Britain to do something else, something based on British sea-power, and backed by a far greater British land contribution than was then available. Even so, the greater probability is that France would have pleaded her special needs, and thrown her strength against the German lines in the West. The British Expeditionary Force, fighting beside the French, was drawn into their actions and their dangers. It grew steadily as the pressure of French demands upon it grew; it absorbed more and more of the man-power and equipment that, with dire struggles, the country was making available. The paradox of that period lay in the fact that when Britain’s expanding man-power was at last beginning to enable her to consider an alternative strategy, her equipment did not permit her to develop one. No one makes this clearer than the late Earl Lloyd George in his Memoirs. In his chapter dealing with the Munitions Crisis of 1915, the crisis that brought about the fall of the Liberal Government, and his own appointment to the newly-created Ministry of Munitions, he sets out a remarkable table. This shows that whereas the Army’s main gun, the 18-pounder, required 50 shells per day per gun to be effective on the Western Front, it was receiving in November 1914 only 9.9 shells per day, and in May 1915 only 11.0. The Army’s chief heavy gun, the 4.7, which required 25 shells per day per gun, was obtaining as many as 10.8 in November 1914, but only 4.3 in May 1915. With almost every other munition of war it was a similar story; there were deficiencies in machine-guns, trench mortars, grenades, heavy guns, even rifles. And yet the Gallipoli Campaign was launched, and the strength of other secondary fronts allowed to grow, despite these shortages and the ever-increasing demands of the Army in France. These were two ends that could not meet, and the result, added to a succession of French defeats, was complete frustration for the Allied cause in 1915. By the time, late in 1916, that the British Army could at last deploy its strength with proper equipment, France was no longer able to play her previous part, and Russia was totally expended. The initiative therefore continued, to rest with Germany, and did so until her own failures in 1918, coupled With the copious flow of munitions and new weapons that the conditions of the Western Front required, transferred it briefly to the Allies. Reinforced by the Americans, spearheaded by the Tanks, this time they made no mistake, and the war ended swiftly when the German Army began to collapse on the front that it had itself made decisive.
In retrospect, it appears that the heat engendered by the long-standing discussions of the merits and opportunities of the several fronts essayed during the First World War, and of others that were never developed, has been largely waste. From the moment, in 1906, when the British Government permitted the British Army to take on the ro1e, if not the status, of a contingent in the French line of battle, it was inevitable that the main strength of the Empire would be deployed in France. From the moment, in 1914, when the Germans relentlessly grasped the initiative, it was inevitable that that strength would have to remain deployed there. Arguments about whether this was the best thing to do, or even a good thing to do, are irrelevant; the enemy was imposing his will, as his first successes permitted him to do. These, in short, were the terrible simplicities.