Military history


August 1: Berlin

AT NOON ON SATURDAY, August 1, the German ultimatum to Russia expired without a Russian reply. Within an hour a telegram went out to the German ambassador in St. Petersburg instructing him to declare war by five o’clock that afternoon. At five o’clock the Kaiser decreed general mobilization, some preliminaries having already got off to a head start under the declaration of Kriegesgefahr (Danger of War) the day before. At five-thirty Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, absorbed in a document he was holding in his hand and accompanied by little Jagow, the Foreign Minister, hurried down the steps of the Foreign Office, hailed an ordinary taxi, and sped off to the palace. Shortly afterward General von Moltke, the gloomy Chief of General Staff, was pulled up short as he was driving back to his office with the mobilization order signed by the Kaiser in his pocket. A messenger in another car overtook him with an urgent summons from the palace. He returned to hear a last-minute, desperate proposal from the Kaiser that reduced Moltke to tears and could have changed the history of the twentieth century.

Now that the moment had come, the Kaiser suffered at the necessary risk to East Prussia, in spite of the six weeks’ leeway his Staff promised before the Russians could fully mobilize. “I hate the Slavs,” he confessed to an Austrian officer. “I know it is a sin to do so. We ought not to hate anyone. But I can’t help hating them.” He had taken comfort, however, in the news, reminiscent of 1905, of strikes and riots in St. Petersburg, of mobs smashing windows, and “violent street fights between revolutionaries and police.” Count Pourtalès, his aged ambassador, who had been seven years in Russia, concluded, and repeatedly assured his government, that Russia would not fight for fear of revolution. Captain von Eggeling, the German military attaché, kept repeating the credo about 1916, and when Russia nevertheless mobilized, he reported she planned “no tenacious offensive but a slow retreat as in 1812.” In the affinity for error of German diplomats, these judgments established a record. They gave heart to the Kaiser, who as late as July 31 composed a missive for the “guidance” of his Staff, rejoicing in the “mood of a sick Tom-cat” that, on the evidence of his envoys, he said prevailed in the Russian court and army.

In Berlin on August 1, the crowds milling in the streets and massed in thousands in front of the palace were tense and heavy with anxiety. Socialism, which most of Berlin’s workers professed, did not run so deep as their instinctive fear and hatred of the Slavic hordes. Although they had been told by the Kaiser, in his speech from the balcony announcing Kriegesgefahr the evening before, that the “sword has been forced into our hand,” they still waited in the ultimate dim hope of a Russian reply. The hour of the ultimatum passed. A journalist in the crowd felt the air “electric with rumor. People told each other Russia had asked for an extension of time. The Bourse writhed in panic. The afternoon passed in almost insufferable anxiety.” Bethmann-Hollweg issued a statement ending, “If the iron dice roll, may God help us.” At five o’clock a policeman appeared at the palace gate and announced mobilization to the crowd, which obediently struck up the national hymn, “Now thank we all our God.” Cars raced down Unter den Linden with officers standing up in them, waving handkerchiefs and shouting, “Mobilization!” Instantly converted from Marx to Mars, people cheered wildly and rushed off to vent their feelings on suspected Russian spies, several of whom were pummeled or trampled to death in the course of the next few days.

Once the mobilization button was pushed, the whole vast machinery for calling up, equipping, and transporting two million men began turning automatically. Reservists went to their designated depots, were issued uniforms, equipment, and arms, formed into companies and companies into battalions, were joined by cavalry, cyclists, artillery, medical units, cook wagons, blacksmith wagons, even postal wagons, moved according to prepared railway timetables to concentration points near the frontier where they would be formed into divisions, divisions into corps, and corps into armies ready to advance and fight. One army corps alone—out of the total of 40 in the German forces—required 170 railway cars for officers, 965 for infantry, 2,960 for cavalry, 1,915 for artillery and supply wagons, 6,010 in all, grouped in 140 trains and an equal number again for their supplies. From the moment the order was given, everything was to move at fixed times according to a schedule precise down to the number of train axles that would pass over a given bridge within a given time.

Confident in his magnificent system, Deputy Chief of Staff General Waldersee had not even returned to Berlin at the beginning of the crisis but had written to Jagow: “I shall remain here ready to jump; we are all prepared at the General Staff; in the meantime there is nothing for us to do.” It was a proud tradition inherited from the elder, or “great,” Moltke who on mobilization day in 1870 was found lying on a sofa reading Lady Audley’s Secret.

His enviable calm was not present today in the palace. Face to face no longer with the specter but the reality of a two-front war, the Kaiser was as close to the “sick Tom-cat” mood as he thought the Russians were. More cosmopolitan and more timid than the archetype Prussian, he had never actually wanted a general war. He wanted greater power, greater prestige, above all more authority in the world’s affairs for Germany but he preferred to obtain them by frightening rather than by fighting other nations. He wanted the gladiator’s rewards without the battle, and whenever the prospect of battle came too close, as at Algeciras and Agadir, he shrank.

As the final crisis boiled, his marginalia on telegrams grew more and more agitated: “Aha! the common cheat,” “Rot!” “He lies!” “Mr. Grey is a false dog,” “Twaddle!” “The rascal is crazy or an idiot!” When Russia mobilized he burst into a tirade of passionate foreboding, not against the Slav traitors but against the unforgettable figure of the wicked uncle: “The world will be engulfed in the most terrible of wars, the ultimate aim of which is the ruin of Germany. England, France and Russia have conspired for our annihilation … that is the naked truth of the situation which was slowly but surely created by Edward VII .… The encirclement of Germany is at last an accomplished fact. We have run our heads into the noose .… The dead Edward is stronger than the living I!”

Conscious of the shadow of the dead Edward, the Kaiser would have welcomed any way out of the commitment to fight both Russia and France and, behind France, the looming figure of still-undeclared England.

At the last moment one was offered. A colleague of Bethmann’s came to beg him to do anything he could to save Germany from a two-front war and suggested a means. For years a possible solution for Alsace had been discussed in terms of autonomy as a Federal State within the German Empire. If offered and accepted by the Alsatians, this solution would have deprived France of any reason to liberate the lost provinces. As recently as July 16, the French Socialist Congress had gone on record in favor of it. But the German military had always insisted that the provinces must remain garrisoned and their political rights subordinated to “military necessity.” Until 1911 no constitution had ever been granted and autonomy never. Bethmann’s colleague now urged him to make an immediate, public, and official offer for a conference on autonomy for Alsace. This could be allowed to drag on without result, while its moral effect would force France to refrain from attack while at least considering the offer. Time would be gained for Germany to turn her forces against Russia while remaining stationary in the West, thus keeping England out.

The author of this proposal remains anonymous, and it may be apocryphal. It does not matter. The opportunity was there, and the Chancellor could have thought of it for himself. But to seize it required boldness, and Bethmann, behind his distinguished façade of great height, somber eyes, and well-trimmed imperial, was a man, as Theodore Roosevelt said of Taft, “who means well feebly.” Instead of offering France an inducement to stay neutral, the German government sent her an ultimatum at the same time as the ultimatum to Russia. They asked France to reply within eighteen hours whether she would stay neutral in a Russo-German war, and added that if she did Germany would “demand as guarantee of neutrality the handing over to us of the fortresses of Toul and Verdun which we shall occupy and restore after the war is over”—in other words, the handing over of the key to the French door.

Baron von Schoen, German ambassador in Paris, could not bring himself to pass on this “brutal” demand at a moment when, it seemed to him, French neutrality would have been such a supreme advantage to Germany that his government might well have offered to pay a price for it rather than exact a penalty. He presented the request for a statement of neutrality without the demand for the fortresses, but the French, who had intercepted and decoded his instructions, knew of it anyway. When Schoen, at 11:00 A.M. on August 1, asked for France’s reply he was answered that France “would act in accordance with her interests.”

In Berlin just after five o’clock a telephone rang in the Foreign Office. Under-Secretary Zimmermann, who answered it, turned to the editor of the Berliner Tageblatt sitting by his desk and said, “Moltke wants to know whether things can start.” At that moment a telegram from London, just decoded, broke in upon the planned proceedings. It offered hope that if the movement against France could be instantly stopped Germany might safely fight a one-front war after all. Carrying it with them, Bethmann and Jagow dashed off on their taxi trip to the palace.

The telegram, from Prince Lichnowsky, ambassador in London, reported an English offer, as Lichnowsky understood it, “that in case we did not attack France, England would remain neutral and would guarantee France’s neutrality.”

The ambassador belonged to that class of Germans who spoke English and copied English manners, sports, and dress, in a strenuous endeavor to become the very pattern of an English gentleman. His fellow noblemen, the Prince of Pless, Prince Blücher, and Prince Münster were all married to English wives. At a dinner in Berlin in 1911, in honor of a British general, the guest of honor was astonished to find that all forty German guests, including Bethmann-Hollweg and Admiral Tirpitz, spoke English fluently. Lichnowsky differed from his class in that he was not only in manner but in heart an earnest Anglophile. He had come to London determined to make himself and his country liked. English society had been lavish with country weekends. To the ambassador no tragedy could be greater than war between the country of his birth and the country of his heart, and he was grasping at any handle to avert it.

When the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, telephoned him that morning, in the interval of a Cabinet meeting, Lichnowsky, out of his own anxiety, interpreted what Grey said to him as an offer by England to stay neutral and to keep France neutral in a Russo-German war, if, in return, Germany would promise not to attack France.

Actually, Grey had not said quite that. What, in his elliptical way, he offered was a promise to keep France neutral if Germany would promise to stay neutral as against France and Russia, in other words, not go to war against either, pending the result of efforts to settle the Serbian affair. After eight years as Foreign Secretary in a period of chronic “Bosnias,” as Bülow called them, Grey had perfected a manner of speaking designed to convey as little meaning as possible; his avoidance of the point-blank, said a colleague, almost amounted to method. Over the telephone, Lichnowsky, himself dazed by the coming tragedy, would have had no difficulty misunderstanding him.

The Kaiser clutched at Lichnowsky’s passport to a one-front war. Minutes counted. Already mobilization was rolling inexorably toward the French frontier. The first hostile act, seizure of a railway junction in Luxembourg, whose neutrality the five Great Powers, including Germany, had guaranteed, was scheduled within an hour. It must be stopped, stopped at once. But how? Where was Moltke? Moltke had left the palace. An aide was sent off, with siren screaming, to intercept him. He was brought back.

The Kaiser was himself again, the All-Highest, the War Lord, blazing with a new idea, planning, proposing, disposing. He read Moltke the telegram and said in triumph: “Now we can go to war against Russia only. We simply march the whole of our Army to the East!”

Aghast at the thought of his marvelous machinery of mobilization wrenched into reverse, Moltke refused point-blank. For the past ten years, first as assistant to Schlieffen, then as his successor, Moltke’s job had been planning for this day, The Day, Der Tag, for which all Germany’s energies were gathered, on which the march to final mastery of Europe would begin. It weighed upon him with an oppressive, almost unbearable responsibility.

Tall, heavy, bald, and sixty-six years old, Moltke habitually wore an expression of profound distress which led the Kaiser to call him der traurige Julius (or what might be rendered “Gloomy Gus”; in fact, his name was Helmuth). Poor health, for which he took an annual cure at Carlsbad, and the shadow of a great uncle were perhaps cause for gloom. From his window in the red brick General Staff building on the Königplatz where he lived as well as worked, he looked out every day on the equestrian statue of his namesake, the hero of 1870 and, together with Bismarck, the architect of the German Empire. The nephew was a poor horseman with a habit of falling off on staff rides and, worse, a follower of Christian Science with a side interest in anthroposophism and other cults. For this unbecoming weakness in a Prussian officer he was considered “soft”; what is more, he painted, played the cello, carried Goethe’s Faust in his pocket, and had begun a translation of Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Introspective and a doubter by nature, he had said to the Kaiser upon his appointment in 1906: “I do not know how I shall get on in the event of a campaign. I am very critical of myself.” Yet he was neither personally nor politically timid. In 1911, disgusted by Germany’s retreat in the Agadir crisis, he wrote to Conrad von Hotzendorff that if things got worse he would resign, propose to disband the army and “place ourselves under the protection of Japan; then we can make money undisturbed and turn into imbeciles.” He did not hesitate to talk back to the Kaiser, but told him “quite brutally” in 1900 that his Peking expedition was a “crazy adventure,” and when offered the appointment as Chief of Staff, asked the Kaiser if he expected “to win the big prize twice in the same lottery”—a thought that had certainly influenced William’s choice. He refused to take the post unless the Kaiser stopped his habit of winning all the war games which was making nonsense of maneuvers. Surprisingly, the Kaiser meekly obeyed.

Now, on the climactic night of August 1, Moltke was in no mood for any more of the Kaiser’s meddling with serious military matters, or with meddling of any kind with the fixed arrangements. To turn around the deployment of a million men from west to east at the very moment of departure would have taken a more iron nerve than Moltke disposed of. He saw a vision of the deployment crumbling apart in confusion, supplies here, soldiers there, ammunition lost in the middle, companies without officers, divisions without staffs, and those 11,000 trains, each exquisitely scheduled to click over specified tracks at specified intervals of ten minutes, tangled in a grotesque ruin of the most perfectly planned military movement in history.

“Your Majesty,” Moltke said to him now, “it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised. If Your Majesty insists on leading the whole army to the East it will not be an army ready for battle but a disorganized mob of armed men with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labor to complete”—and Moltke closed upon that rigid phrase, the basis for every major German mistake, the phrase that launched the invasion of Belgium and the submarine war against the United States, the inevitable phrase when military plans dictate policy—“and once settled, it cannot be altered.”

In fact it could have been altered. The German General Staff, though committed since 1905 to a plan of attack upon France first, had in their files, revised each year until 1913, an alternative plan against Russia with all the trains running eastward.

“Build no more fortresses, build railways,” ordered the elder Moltke who had laid out his strategy on a railway map and bequeathed the dogma that railways are the key to war. In Germany the railway system was under military control with a staff officer assigned to every line; no track could be laid or changed without permission of the General Staff. Annual mobilization war games kept railway officials in constant practice and tested their ability to improvise and divert traffic by telegrams reporting lines cut and bridges destroyed. The best brains produced by the War College, it was said, went into the railway section and ended up in lunatic asylums.

When Moltke’s “It cannot be done” was revealed after the war in his memoirs, General von Staab, Chief of the Railway Division, was so incensed by what he considered a reproach upon his bureau that he wrote a book to prove it could have been done. In pages of charts and graphs he demonstrated how, given notice on August 1, he could have deployed four out of the seven armies to the Eastern Front by August 15, leaving three to defend the West. Matthias Erzberger, the Reichstag deputy and leader of the Catholic Centrist Party, has left another testimony. He says that Moltke himself, within six months of the event, admitted to him that the assault on France at the beginning was a mistake and instead, “the larger part of our army ought first to have been sent East to smash the Russian steam roller, limiting operations in the West to beating off the enemy’s attack on our frontier.”

On the night of August 1, Moltke, clinging to the fixed plan, lacked the necessary nerve. “Your uncle would have given me a different answer,” the Kaiser said to him bitterly. The reproach “wounded me deeply” Moltke wrote afterward; “I never pretended to be the equal of the old Field Marshal.” Nevertheless he continued to refuse. “My protest that it would be impossible to maintain peace between France and Germany while both countries were mobilized made no impression. Everybody got more and more excited and I was alone in my opinion.”

Finally, when Moltke convinced the Kaiser that the mobilization plan could not be changed, the group which included Bethmann and Jagow drafted a telegram to England regretting that Germany’s advance movements toward the French border “can no longer be altered,” but offering a guarantee not to cross the border before August 3 at 7:00 P.M., which cost them nothing as no crossing was scheduled before that time. Jagow rushed off a telegram to his ambassador in Paris, where mobilization had already been decreed at four o’clock, instructing him helpfully to “please keep France quiet for the time being.” The Kaiser added a personal telegram to King George, telling him that for “technical reasons” mobilization could not be countermanded at this late hour, but “If France offers me neutrality which must be guaranteed by the British fleet and army, I shall of course refrain from attacking France and employ my troops elsewhere. I hope France will not become nervous.”

It was now minutes before seven o’clock, the hour when the 16th Division was scheduled to move into Luxembourg. Bethmann excitedly insisted that Luxembourg must not be entered under any circumstances while waiting for the British answer. Instantly the Kaiser, without asking Moltke, ordered his aide-de-camp to telephone and telegraph 16th Division Headquarters at Trier to cancel the movement. Moltke saw ruin again. Luxembourg’s railways were essential for the offensive through Belgium against France. “At that moment,” his memoirs say, “I thought my heart would break.”

Despite all his pleading, the Kaiser refused to budge. Instead, he added a closing sentence to his telegram to King George, “The troops on my frontier are in the act of being stopped by telephone and telegraph from crossing into France,” a slight if vital twist of the truth, for the Kaiser could not acknowledge to England that what he had intended and what was being stopped was the violation of a neutral country. It would have implied his intention also to violate Belgium, which would have been casus belli in England, and England’s mind was not yet made up.

“Crushed,” Moltke says of himself, on what should have been the culminating day of his career, he returned to the General Staff and “burst into bitter tears of abject despair.” When his aide brought him for his signature the written order canceling the Luxembourg movement, “I threw my pen down on the table and refused to sign.” To have signed as the first order after mobilization one that would have annulled all the careful preparations would have been taken, he knew, as evidence of “hesitancy and irresolution.” “Do what you want with this telegram,” he said to his aide; “I will not sign it.”

He was still brooding at eleven o’clock when another summons came from the palace. Moltke found the Kaiser in his bedroom, characteristically dressed for the occasion, with a military overcoat over his nightshirt. A telegram had come from Lichnowsky, who, in a further talk with Grey, had discovered his error and now wired sadly, “A positive proposal by England is, on the whole, not in prospect.”

“Now you can do what you like,” said the Kaiser, and went back to bed. Moltke, the Commander in Chief who had now to direct a campaign that would decide the fate of Germany, was left permanently shaken. “That was my first experience of the war,” he wrote afterward. “I never recovered from the shock of this incident. Something in me broke and I was never the same thereafter.”

Neither was the world, he might have added. The Kaiser’s telephone order to Trier had not arrived in time. At seven o’clock, as scheduled, the first frontier of the war was crossed, the distinction going to an infantry company of the 69th Regiment under command of a certain Lieutenant Feldmann. Just inside the Luxembourg border, on the slopes of the Ardennes about twelve miles from Bastogne in Belgium, stood a little town known to the Germans as Ulflingen. Around it cows grazed on the hillside pastures; on its steep, cobblestone streets not a stray wisp of hay, even in August harvest time, was allowed to offend the strict laws governing municipal cleanliness in the Grand Duchy. At the foot of the town was a railroad station and telegraph office where the lines from Germany and Belgium crossed. This was the German objective which Lieutenant Feldmann’s company, arriving in automobiles, duly seized.

With their relentless talent for the tactless, the Germans chose to violate Luxembourg at a place whose native and official name was Trois Vierges. The three virgins in fact represented faith, hope, and charity, but History with her apposite touch arranged for the occasion that they should stand in the public mind for Luxembourg, Belgium, and France.

At 7:30 a second detachment in automobiles arrived (presumably in response to the Kaiser’s message) and ordered off the first group, saying “a mistake had been made.” In the interval Luxembourg’s Minister of State Eyschen had already telegraphed the news to London, Paris, and Brussels and a protest to Berlin. The three virgins had made their point. By midnight Moltke had rectified the reversal, and by the end of the next day, August 2, M–1 on the German schedule, the entire Grand Duchy was occupied.

A question has haunted the annals of history ever since: What Ifs might have followed if the Germans had gone east in 1914 while remaining on the defensive against France? General von Staab showed that to have turned against Russia was technically possible. But whether it would have been temperamentally possible for the Germans to have refrained from attacking France when Der Tag came is another matter.

At seven o’clock in St. Petersburg, at the same hour when the Germans entered Luxembourg, Ambassador Pourtalès, his watery blue eyes red-rimmed, his white goatee quivering, presented Germany’s declaration of war with shaking hand to Sazonov, the Russian Foreign Minister.

“The curses of the nations will be upon you!” Sazonov exclaimed.

“We are defending our honor,” the German ambassador replied.

“Your honor was not involved. But there is a divine justice.”

“That’s true,” and muttering, “a divine justice, a divine justice ,” Pourtalès staggered to the window, leaned against it, and burst into tears. “So this is the end of my mission,” he said when he could speak. Sazonov patted him on the shoulder, they embraced, and Pourtalès stumbled to the door, which he could hardly open with a trembling hand, and went out, murmuring, “Goodbye, goodbye.”

This affecting scene comes down to us as recorded by Sazonov with artistic additions by the French ambassador Paléologue, presumably from what Sazonov told him. Pourtalès reported only that he asked three times for a reply to the ultimatum and after Sazonov answered negatively three times, “I handed over the note as instructed.”

Why did it have to be handed over at all? Admiral von Tirpitz, the Naval Minister, had plaintively asked the night before when the declaration of war was being drafted. Speaking, he says, “more from instinct than from reason,” he wanted to know why, if Germany did not plan to invade Russia, was it necessary to declare war and assume the odium of the attacking party? His question was particularly pertinent because Germany’s object was to saddle Russia with war guilt in order to convince the German people that they were fighting in self-defense and especially in order to keep Italy tied to her engagements under the Triple Alliance.

Italy was obliged to join her allies only in a defensive war and, already shaky in her allegiance, was widely expected to sidle out through any loophole that opened up. Bethmann was harassed by this problem. If Austria persisted in refusing any or all Serbian concessions, he warned, “it will scarcely be possible to place the guilt of a European conflagration on Russia” and would “place us in the eyes of our own people, in an untenable position.” He was hardly heard. When mobilization day came, German protocol required that war be properly declared. Jurists of the Foreign Office, according to Tirpitz, insisted it was legally the correct thing to do. “Outside Germany,” he says pathetically, “there is no appreciation of such ideas.”

In France appreciation was keener than he knew.

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