Battle Begins

Leading the German charge against Liège was Erich Ludendorff, pounding the city and its twelve surrounding forts with ‘Big Bertha’ artillery. (Big Berthas were forty-three-ton howitzers used by the Germans and named after the wife of the designer, Gustav Krupp. They could fire a 2,000-pound shell a distance of 9.3 miles.) The city itself fell within two days but Ludendorff still had to subdue the city’s forts before he could progress. This proved more problematic. Although the forts had been poorly maintained and had become antiquated, they held up the German advance long enough – the last fort falling on 16 August – to give the French and British armies time to mobilize.

By 20 August, the Germans had taken the capital, Brussels. King Albert and his government fled north to the port of Antwerp. The following day, the Germans offered the British nurses working in Brussels safe passage to the Netherlands. For the most part, they declined. They included forty-eight-year-old Edith Cavell, who, in October 1915, would be executed by the Germans for helping Allied troops escape from Belgium. Ludendorff’s next obstacle in Belgium was the city of Namur, which fell within three days on 23 August. Baron von Stumm, of the German legation in Brussels, described Belgians as ‘poor fools’: ‘Why don’t they get out of the way of the steamroller? We don’t want to hurt them, but if they stand in our way they will be ground into the dirt.’

The Allies saw the invasion of Belgium as nothing less than a war crime, the ‘Rape of Belgium’. It was certainly against the rules of engagement as set out in the Hague Convention of 1907, which forbade the invasion of a neutral country.

Traditional conduct demanded that civilians should play no part in attacking an enemy army, and resistance should cease once their own army had been defeated. That Belgian civilians, out of uniform, maintained an active resistance – shooting at soldiers, setting up ambushes and slowing down the German advance into France – angered the Germans who reacted by exacting revenge in a policy they called Schrecklichkeit (‘awfulness’), although the extent of its implementation remains debatable. In the city of Dinant, on 23 August, the Germans summarily executed 674 residents, including women and children. The executions at Dinant were far from being an isolated case. On 25 August, German soldiers killed 248 inhabitants in the city of Leuven, and burnt the University library, destroying over 200,000 medieval books and manuscripts before ousting the entire population of 10,000.

Having subdued Belgium, the German forces marched into France. But then came a problem that Schlieffen, for all his planning, had failed to take into account – supplies: food, ammunition (much of it, more than expected, used up in Belgium), petrol and forage for horses. With the nearest railheads receding the further the armies advanced, none of it could keep pace with the one and a half million German soldiers who entered France and were exhausted by the incessant orders to maintain the momentum. Overworked packhorses died of fatigue and for lack of food. The German horses needed 2,200,000 pounds of feed per day.

On 7 August, the French commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, had poured troops into Alsace Lorraine with the objective of pushing German troops back into the Rhine. It was all part of his ‘Plan XVII’, the French equivalent, although certainly less ambitious, of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan. It was also a matter of national pride – to regain the territory the French felt was rightfully theirs, snatched by the Prussians in 1871. Twice the French captured the town of Mulhouse; twice they were pushed back. Despite getting to within ten miles of the Rhine, Joffre’s forces, sporting bright uniforms with red trousers, were soon rebuffed. Rather than pursuing a lost cause, Joffre transferred his men westwards to defend Paris and had them in place before the anticipated arrival of the Germans. (The red trousers, deemed too visible, were soon replaced.)

The French were to be joined by the small, professional British army, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), under the command of Sir John French. The arrival of British troops was not a foregone conclusion simply because Britain had declared war on Germany. Indeed, foreign secretary Edward Grey had hoped it wouldn’t become necessary. But once it was decided, its purpose, John French was told, was merely to act as an adjunct to the French army and to take orders from Joffre.

Lord Kitchener’s recruitment poster, 1914

Consisting of little more than 90,000 men, only half of whom were regular soldiers, the other half being reservists, the BEF had famously, and allegedly, been dismissed by the Kaiser who, on 19 August, ordered his army to ‘exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army’. Hence British soldiers took pride in calling themselves the ‘Old Contemptibles’. The BEF differed from its continental counterparts by being the only professional army; they were highly trained, perhaps, but also by far the smallest, dwarfed by the size of the huge European armies of conscripts. Even during war, Britain’s Liberal government was still against conscription and only introduced it, reluctantly, in January 1916. Making up the numbers was a matter of urgency, thus the British government embarked on a recruitment campaign. From 5 September 1914, Horatio Kitchener’s poster appeared the length and breadth of Britain. (Kitchener, appointed secretary of state for war on 5 August, warned of a long, protracted conflict, a warning dismissed by his cabinet colleagues.) On what would become an iconic image of the First World War, Lord Kitchener’s stern face and pointing finger urged British men to join the armed forces: ‘Your country needs you.’

Conscientious objectors, pacifists and those who, for whatever reason, refused to volunteer were often labelled as cowards – handed white feathers, abused in the street and refused service in shops.

But, for most, the prospect of gainful employment and adventure overseas was certainly an attractive one, especially for young men stuck in dull jobs or unemployed. Thousands immediately answered the call, forming long queues at recruitment centres throughout the nation. For those who passed the physical examination (the minimum height was five foot, two inches) and were accepted, it was a moment of celebration. But once in uniform they were dismissed by their professional colleagues as amateurs, or ‘Kitcheners’. Such was the surge in volunteers, the country lacked the means to supply them. Men trained wearing their civilian clothes, using walking sticks in place of rifles.

Whole communities, workplaces, towns and villages were encouraged to enlist together with the promise of being allowed to serve side-by-side. From this came the concept of the ‘Pals’ Battalions’. The first to form, in August, was a battalion of workers from the City of London, the Stockbrokers’ Battalion. The first town, a few days later, to form its own battalion, was Liverpool. Within eight weeks, some fifty towns across Britain could claim at least one Pals’ Battalion. From towns and City workers, the concept broadened to include trades, associations, the arts and sports and even football supporters. Very popular to begin with the unforeseen drawback soon became evident when whole groups of neighbours or friends were killed together, causing collective anguish back home. While men signed up, women took their jobs in factories, heavy industry, on the farms, public transport, postal services and businesses. Although only paid half the male rate, the war would arguably advance the cause of women’s liberation far more than the suffragette movement had pre-war.

By the end of 1914, almost 1.2 million men had volunteered. Meanwhile, the BEF, escorted across the English Channel by a number of battleships, landed on the Continent on 7 August. Their first task, as ordered by Joffre, was to advance against the Germans in Belgium.

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