Britain and France in retreat

THE PARAMETERS OF the war – geographical, strategic and moral – rolled back alarmingly in its fourth week. Blessed with hindsight, we easily forget that this was the week in which the British and French Armies were in full retreat. The British had lost the Battle for Le Cateau, and Louvain had been destroyed by the Germans. On 26th August the French abandoned their attempt to recover Alsace-Lorraine, which had been the emblem of national hurt for the previous forty-four years. By 28th August the British had retired to their line at Compiègne-Soissons but the momentum of the German advance was not spent. Schlieffen’s Plan stipulated that Paris was to be encircled and, in an innovation which left many of its civilians sickened with fear, German airmen bombed the city on 30th August.

Two days later, the British 4th (Guards) Brigade checked the German advance. It was only an interruption, but it gave weight to the hope of commanders that the enemy was stretched to his uttermost. The Allies now fell back on the Marne, and the stage was set for the battle of Paris. This would decide the fate the West — and the Allies knew it.

The battle which was unfolding in the East was even more bloody — and, ultimately, more momentous. The Germans had been seriously alarmed by the rapid mobilisation of the Tsar’s armies in the East. They had reason to be, since these totalled 485,000 men against the 173,000 the Kaiser could provide, and this imbalance could not be redressed until such time as the war in the West was concluded. On 26th August, the Germans retook Soldau, fatally cutting in two the two Russian advancing armies by the Masurian Lakes. In the battle of Tannenberg which followed over the next two days, over 100,000 Russian soldiers were captured. On 31st August, the Russian Commander, General Samsonov – overcome with grief and shame – shot himself. The remnants of his Second Army withdrew towards the River Bug.

Victory at Tannenberg filled German commanders with a hubris whose toxicity, it has been argued, seeped right through the body politic of the nation for decades to come. More immediately, Ludendorff and Hindenburg were catapulted into command in the West. The Kaiser, upon whose elephantine lapses of judgement and taste the world could always rely, suggested the newly captured Russian POWs should be starved to death. The Vossische Zeitung recorded on 1st September that the victory “represents a divine judgment, as it were, branding our antagonists as the criminal originators of this fearful war”.

The Russians, in fact, were down but not out. They continued to occupy parts of Eastern Prussia and defeated the Austrians in Galicia at the Battle of Lutzow on 28th August. These were not rich pickings, but the Russian public lapped it up for lack of anything else – that, and the renaming of St Petersburg (henceforth to be called Petrograd) announced on 1st September. For now, these would have to do.

The dramas of the week extended to the British and German navies. The British had already established an extremely determined blockade of the Channel and parts of the North Sea, but neither power was willing to risk too extravagant a démarche by their surface fleets. Sometimes, however, a lone cruiser or destroyer could be in the wrong place at the wrong time. On 27th August, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was sunk by HMS Highflyer and the German cruiser Magdeburg was destroyed in the Gulf of Finland. The next day, in one of the few substantial naval engagements of the year, the German cruisers Mainz, Köln, and Ariadne were also sunk during the Battle of Heligoland Bight. Seven hundred and twelve German sailors were killed compared to thirty-five British. The battle was the occasion for national rejoicing in Britain, and returning ships were met by a delirious public.

At home, the popular papers responded to the intense emergency of the week with an emphatic restatement of a well worn tune – appealing to national pride and unity. The Daily Mirror sought to tap that, writing on 29th August of the “ruthless barbarity of German Troops” and, with an underbelly of relish, listing “more cases of outrages against the old, children, the dying… burning a man, misuse of the white flag…” Lord Kitchener, in his maiden speech to the Lords on 26th August, also tried to rise above the fray. “As a soldier,” he insisted, “I have no politics.”

This was a line which a nervous government wished earnestly to peddle – Britain must be a nation in which there were no moral ambiguities to perplex a population, for it was upon the exertions of its people that any prospects of a British victory rested. Enthusiasm was in. No reasons were required. The Daily Express now began a series of “Letters from the Front”. Under the heading “High Spirits”, one private soldier, Charlie, wrote on 26th August that he was “longing for the fighting to take place” so that “I may have a hand in annihilating this accursed Teutonic race”. The Daily Mirror reported the very next day that police had been called to Chelsea Barracks to restore order when Irish Guardsmen got out of hand after finding they were being moved to another depot and not to the Front. “The men,” purred the paper, “were abjured to have patience.” Journalists too, perhaps: poor Percival Phillips of the Daily Express lamented the absence of hard news, and was reduced to reporting that a trainload of British troops approaching the Front were singing “Give us a chance! Give us a chance! Give us a chance!”

They would have their chance all too soon. A subtext of unease crept into some items of news that week, as snippets from the Western Front raised alarm about casualties and alerted the public to the need to replenish troops. These were subjects which could be raised, however, only obliquely. On 26th August, the Daily Express extolled the sacrifice of M. Thomas Ferrand of Brest, who had seven sons and a son-in-law fighting in the line. The next day the Daily Mirror thundered that “the time has come when every girl with a lover must not just let him go, but must make him do so”.

The British public were not yet demanding answers, but they needed a more sustaining diet than that of unleavened Germanophobia. Casualties were much on their minds. The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, made a speech to the House of Commons that day in which he suggested that it was impossible to make an accurate list of casualties for publication. The only alternative was an incomplete list and that, he insisted, would be too cruel to contemplate.

Such fastidiousness did not stand in the way of the Daily Mirror, which reported on 31st August on “Peer’s Son Wounded at Mons”. Some hard news did get through, it appeared, especially when it concerned the rich and powerful. In a very British way, people also seem to have sought relief through grousing. The Daily Express reported on 26th August that women were complaining at having to pay to receive letters and postcards from the Front. Could the government, it asked, please provide free postage?

Press and public also united in the ancient pleasure of unmasking the enemy within. That same day, the same paper quivered with indignation over the perfidy of the 12th Viscount Taaffe — “an Irish peer is fighting for the Austrians”. Here was a scalp indeed: the baiting of toffs was permissible under exceptional circumstances, and the fact that he was Irish chimed in with other lively national prejudices. As ever, the detail did not quite stack up. Lord Taaffe’s family had moved to Austria after the Battle of the Boyne, owned no land in Ireland and much in Bohemia. He himself was born in Innsbruck, and had married an Austrian. Still, a story was a story, and in 1919, his title was rescinded. By then, of course, he would not have been the only “Irishman” to have taken up arms against the British Empire.

The British also found themselves constrained to find a new language in which to acknowledge the help they and their allies were receiving from imperial troops. As the French fell back on the Marne, the Daily Mirror reported on 26th August that some French troops had blackened their arms and faces before attacking a German position because they believed the enemy to be especially frightened of French-African recruits. The ruse apparently worked, the paper crowed, and the boot polish even served as an antiseptic. Three days later, the Daily Express announced that the Gurkhas were to join the BEF in France. “The little brown men,” it informed readers, “seem to have captured the public imagination.”

The offence went far deeper than the language. The cynical use of colonial forces was to be a running moral sore among virtually all the European protagonists – and one with immense political and social implications. In Africa and the Far East, a number of imperial territories changed hands. By 31st August, the German Kamerun was in the hands of the French, Togoland was under the British and Samoa had been captured by New Zealanders. In scale, they were footnotes. In fact, they were deadly. The fact that they were fought mainly by impressed and bewildered native troops adds to a guilty cultural legacy.

Still, in this fourth week of the war, the British press was chiefly preoccupied by the Western Front. On 28th August, the Daily Express reported, with greater verve than veracity, that “immense masses of the population are in flight before the Russians, and a state of panic is said to exist in Berlin”. That same day, the Daily Mirror reported that “young men in Britain have such faith in the Russian army that they are reluctant to join up, believing the Russians will be in Berlin before they are deployed”. Two or three days later, however, rumours of massive casualties at Tannenberg began to penetrate. The Daily Mirror would have none of it, of course, and on 31st August it lambasted those sceptics it dubbed “calamity howlers”. The BEF, it insisted, “is now ready to take part in the next great encounter with undiminished strength and undaunted spirit”. Casting around, a little desperately perhaps, for an easy laugh, it carried a cartoon mocking the Kaiser who had allegedly returned the assorted honours bestowed upon him by his royal cousin, uncle and grandmother.