First battles on the Western Front

IT WAS IN the third week of the war when the fighting began in the West – not yet fighting in trenches, but the rationale for their evolution was becoming daily more apparent. The Germans were marching through Belgium in a blaze of steel, khaki and horseback – a journeying dubbed by one historian as “the Schlieffen Plan made flesh”. It was certainly a startlingly cynical ploy by Germany to neutralise her western borders and thereby allow her the opportunity to annihilate Russia unencumbered.

By 20th August it seemed to be working. That day the Belgian Army evacuated Brussels and the French were at the receiving end of a devastating assault in Lorraine. On 21st August at Ardennes, their bayonets met German entrenched machine-gun posts and the casualties which resulted adumbrated the grim shape of things to come. The British reached Mons the next morning to find the French Fifth Army, located on their right, heavily engaged with the German at the Battle of Chareloi. They now attempted to hold the line of the Mons-Condé Canal, and in the battle which followed the BEF sustained perhaps 1,600 casualties against that of about 5,000 German.

For one German at least, it felt as though hubris was being punished. The novelist and infantry Captain Walter Bloem described the engagement as “a bad defeat, there can be no gainsaying it… We had been badly beaten, and by the English – by the English we had so laughed at a few hours before.”  And he was right, in a way: the BEF had been outnumbered by about 3:1 but had managed to withstand the German First Army for forty-eight hours. It had also achieved its main strategic objective, which was to prevent the French Fifth Army from being outflanked.

But it could not last. On 24th August the French began to retreat from the line of the Sambre and the Meuse, exposing the right flank of the British, who were already at their limits. The decision to retreat was taken — an orderly affair carried out with commendably Anglo-Saxon phlegm, and destined to last a fortnight until troops converged on the outskirts of Paris.

This was probably the first moment when the awful truth – that the war would not be simply won – began to impress itself upon an over-stimulated public. The Daily Mirror led that day with the bold headline “British Troops Hold Their Ground Against Germans At Mons”, while the Daily Express, perhaps using better or at least different sources, suggested instead: “Allies Driven Back – Heavy Losses”. The retreat spawned a famous legend of British soldiers being guarded by angels. In fact, it was the invention of a colourful Welsh author Arthur Machen in a short story he had written for the Evening News and he admitted to being bemused by its popularity. Its only historical significance is the greed with which an anxious public latched on to it.

Rumours of German atrocities were also rife. On 21st August the Daily Express referred to “Butchery by the German army” visited upon women and children in Belgium. Letters from dead German soldiers, it claimed, proved that ordinary soldiers were acting on orders from above, but also insisted that they delighted in their gruesome sport. Some stories were too vague and too obviously sensational to be taken seriously – the hussar whose throat was cut in front of villagers, for instance, or the blind bishop led to a firing squad for having allied plans in his possession. On the other hand, there is ample evidence to authenticate the German army’s destruction of Leuven on 25th August, its burning of the university’s library and the killing of 248 residents. Over 2,000 buildings were destroyed in the Province of Brabant, where it was alleged that nuns were ordered by Germans to strip naked under the pretext that they were spies.

The internationalisation of the conflict contained hints, even now, of geopolitical dramas, some of which were to dominate and disfigure the rest of the twentieth century. On 23rd August, Japan declared war on Germany –  it must have sounded of peripheral importance to most European ears  – but it was to set in train a chain of events whereby Japan became in 1919 the pre-eminent maritime power in the Far East, and culminated in the tragedy of the War in the Pacific a quarter of a century later.  By contrast, Germany’s attempts to use the war to assert herself in Africa were rapidly exposed as shambolic. Although there was spirited resistance by German troops in East Africa, and although Taveta was occupied successfully on 20th August, the decision to begin an invasion of South Africa on the following day was to prove futile. Four days later, Tepe in the Cameroons was easily taken by the Allies.

The war on the Eastern Front at this stage was highly mobile. On 24th August, the Russians advanced into East Prussia, while Austrian troops penetrated into Poland beyond Kyeltsi. Given what we now know about the fate of both empires, it has become a slack habit to patronise the efforts of both armies, and indeed the Austrians had already suffered a sharp defeat the hands of the Serbs on 22nd August, who took grim satisfaction at recovering both Shabatas and Loznitsa.

Still, both Russia and Austria-Hungary had vast armies and both, at this stage, were on the offensive – the Russians, especially, having mobilised far more rapidly than the Chiefs of Staff in Berlin had considered possible. On 23rd August, the Germans had found themselves forced to evacuate Insterburg at the Battle of Frankenau, and the Russians had taken Brody and Tarnopol. That same day saw the appointment of General Paul von Hindenburg as commander of German forces in East Prussia. Here was another of history’s rich lessons in the law of unintended consequences: his successes there would pave the way for his future importance on the Western Front and, much later, for the doleful importance he would assume in post-war German politics.

War news, or the dearth of it, was a matter of concern to the media. On 24th August, the Daily Mirror complained that the British government was feeding too little hard information to the media, in contrast to the fully informed French press. “Let us remember,” it sententiously told readers, “that the worst sort of news is to hear no news.” That was an assessment which, as the weeks unfolded and the casualty lists grew longer, it allowed to slip quietly from memory.

The tenor of the press remained, nonetheless, exuberantly enthusiastic about the war. Odium was heaped upon the enemy, of course, but one senses a search for softer targets, especially those nearer to home. On 22nd August, the Daily Express complained bitterly that its newspaper rivals had started ugly rumours. “The Daily Express is not and never has been German-owned,” it protested. “There is not one German on the staff.”  The truthfulness of the claim is impossible to verify, but since this was the same paper which on the same day insisted that all of the 100,000 men in Britain who had so far enrolled for active service were “of exceptionally good physique” one takes leave to be sceptical.

Business, however, was business. When, three days later, the same paper carried an advertisement for the suspiciously teutonic-sounding Kruschen Salts, it felt moved to justify itself, assuring readers that “not one person of German or Austrian nationality is connected or interested in any shape or form with Kruschen Salts”. Redoubling its efforts to identity itself with the good guys, the paper also inveighed against slothful young men failing to Do Their Bit. On 22nd August it inaugurated a campaign against those whom it dubbed “The Legion of Cornermen” – able-bodied young men who sat quietly in corners, hoping not to be noticed. Why should there not, it demanded, be a press gang for loafers? It returned to the theme two days later, suggesting that another remedy lay with young women, each of whom “should ask all her young men friends ‘why have you not offered yourself?'” It was a very short journey from here to the distribution of white feathers.

In the absence of any overwhelming territorial victory, the dash for the moral high ground was what counted most. On 22nd August, the government announced that it was gifting 2oz of tobacco to each British soldier in Europe – an act of philanthropy which serves to remind a later audience that close links between politicians and the tobacco lobby go back a long way. Also capturing the zeitgeist were London’s Boy Scouts, who now offered their labour free to help with the harvest on any farm within thirty miles of Westminster. Given the sudden disappearance of many men and the proximity of the hop fields of Kent, this offer was widely welcomed, though not by education services who had recently decided that, in view of the national emergency, all London schoolchildren should have their holidays curtailed. In the event, as the Church Times commented, attendance was poor (50%) and the paper deplored the curtailment of “teachers’ well-deserved rest”.

But it was the Daily Express, as ever in the vanguard of mawkish moralising, which articulated the national mood most sure-footedly when, on 25th August, it commended publicly Messrs J&E Hall of Dartford, a firm of engineers, for having announced: “No man between the age of nineteen and thirty, unmarried, and eligible to serve under the enlistment scheme, need seek employment in these works”. That was the day in which it also overreached itself, naming three soldiers who had been injured with the BEF in France on the front page — an editorial policy which would soon be unsustainable.