Military history


BEF to the Continent

DELAY IN COVERING THE EXPOSED FLANK on General Lanrezac’s left was caused by dispute and disagreement among the British who were to have held that end of the line. On August 5, their first day of war, the General Staff’s plan, worked out to the last detail by Henry Wilson, instead of going into action automatically like the continental war plans, had to be approved first by the Committee of Imperial Defence. When the Committee convened as a War Council at four o’clock that afternoon, it included the usual civilian as well as military leaders and one splendid colossus, taking his seat among them for the first time, who was both.

Field Marshal Lord Kitchener was no more happy to be the new Secretary of State for War than his colleagues were to have him. The government was nervous at having in their midst the first active soldier to enter the Cabinet since General Monk served under Charles II. The generals were worried that he would use his position, or be used by the government, to interfere with the sending of an Expeditionary Force to France. No one’s apprehensions were disappointed. Kitchener promptly expressed his profound contempt for the strategy, policy, and role assigned to the British Army by the Anglo-French plan.

What exactly was to be his authority, given his position straddling two stools, was not entirely clear. England entered the war with a vague understanding that supreme authority resided in the Prime Minister but with no precise arrangement as to whose advice he was to act on or whose advice was to be definitive. Within the army, field officers despised Staff officers as “having the brains of canaries and the manners of Potsdam,” but both groups were as one in their distaste for interference by civilian ministers who were known as “the frocks.” The civil arm in its turn referred to the military as “the boneheads.” At the War Council of August 5, the former were represented by Asquith, Grey, Churchill, and Haldane, and the army by eleven general officers, including Field Marshal Sir John French, Commander in Chief designate of the Expeditionary Force; its two corps commanders, Sir Douglas Haig and Sir James Grierson; its Chief of Staff, Sir Archibald Murray, all lieutenant generals; and its Deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Henry Wilson, whose easy faculty for making political enemies had flourished during the Curragh crisis and lost him the higher post. In between, representing no one quite knew what, was Lord Kitchener who regarded the purpose of the Expeditionary Force with deep misgivings and its Commander in Chief without admiration. If not quite as volcanic in expressing himself as Admiral Fisher had been, Kitchener now proceeded to pour the same scorn upon the General Staff’s plan to “tack on” the British Army to the tail of French strategy.

Having had no personal share in the military planning for war on the Continent, Kitchener was able to see the Expeditionary Force in its true proportions and did not believe its six divisions likely to affect the outcome in the impending clash between seventy German and seventy French divisions. Though a professional soldier—“The most able I have come across in my time,” said Lord Cromer when Kitchener came out to command the Khartoum campaign—his career had lately been pursued at Olympian levels. He dealt in India, Egypt, Empire, and large concepts only. He was never seen to speak to or notice a private soldier. Like Clausewitz he saw war as an extension of policy, and took it from there. Unlike Henry Wilson and the General Staff, he was not trapped in schedules of debarkation, railroad timetables, horses, and billets. Standing at a distance he was able to view the war as a whole, in terms of the relations of the powers, and to realize the immense effort of national military expansion that would be required for the long contest about to begin.

“We must be prepared,” he announced, “to put armies of millions in the field and maintain them for several years.” His audience was stunned and incredulous, but Kitchener was relentless. To fight and win a European war, Britain must have an army of seventy divisions, equal to the continental armies, and he had calculated that such an army would not reach full strength until the third year of war, implying the staggering corollary that the war would last that long. The Regular Army with its professional officers and especially its NCO’s, he considered to be precious and indispensable as a nucleus for training the larger force he had in mind. To throw it away in immediate battle under what he expected to be unfavorable circumstances and where, from the long view, its presence could not be decisive, he regarded as criminal folly. Once it was gone there were no troops properly trained, in his opinion, to take its place.

Lack of conscription was the most striking of all differences between the British and continental armies. The Regular Army was designed for overseas duty rather than for defense of the homeland which was left to the Territorials. Since the Duke of Wellington had laid down the unalterable dictum that recruits for foreign service “must be volunteers,” Britain’s war effort consequently depended on a volunteer army which left other nations uncertain as to how deeply Britain was, or would be, committed. Although Lord Roberts, the senior Field Marshal, now over seventy, had campaigned strenuously for conscription for years with one lone supporter in the Cabinet, needless to say Winston Churchill, labor was rigorously opposed and no government would have risked office to favor it. Britain’s military establishment in the home islands consisted of six divisions and one cavalry division of the Regular Army, with four regular divisions totaling 60,000 men overseas, and fourteen divisions of Territorials. A Reserve of about 300,000 was divided into two classes: the Special Reserve which was barely enough to fill up the Regular Army to war strength and maintain it in the field through the first few weeks of fighting and the National Reserve which was to provide replacements for the Territorials. According to Kitchener’s standards the Territorials were untrained, useless “amateurs” whom he regarded with the same unmixed scorn—and with as little justice—as the French did their Reserves, and rated them at zero.

At the age of twenty Kitchener had fought as a volunteer with the French Army in the war of 1870 and spoke French fluently. Whether or not he had, as a result, an extra sympathy for France, he was no extreme partisan of French strategy. At the time of the Agadir crisis he told the Committee of Imperial Defence that he expected the Germans to walk through the French “like partridges,” and when invited he refused to take part in any decision the Committee might think fit to take. He sent them word, as Lord Esher recorded it, “that if they imagined he was going to command the Army in France he would see them damned first.”

That England in 1914 gave him the War Office and thereby acquired the only man prepared to insist on organizing for a long war was not because of his opinions but because of his prestige. With no talent for the bureaucracy of administrative office and no taste for conforming to the “green baize routine” of Cabinet meetings after being accustomed to a proconsul’s simple “Let it be done,” Kitchener did his best to escape his fate. The government and generals, more conscious of his faults of character than of his virtues of clairvoyance, would have been glad to let him go back to Egypt but they could not do without him. He was named Secretary for War not because he was considered qualified by the holding of opinions which no one else held but because his presence was indispensable “to tranquilize public feeling.”

Ever since Khartoum the country had felt an almost religious faith in Kitchener. There existed between him and the public the same mystic union that was to develop between the people of France and “Papa Joffre” or between the German people and Hindenburg. The initials “K of K” were a magic formula and his broad martial mustache a national symbol that was to England what the pantalon rouge was to France. Wearing its bushy magnificence with an air of power, tall and broad-shouldered, he looked like a Victorian image of Richard the Lionhearted except for something inscrutable behind the solemn blazing eyes. Beginning August 7, the mustache, the eyes and the pointing finger over the legend, “Your Country Needs YOU” were to bore into the soul of every Englishman from a famous recruiting poster. For England to have gone to war without Kitchener would have been as unthinkable as Sunday without church.

The War Council, however, put little credence in his prophecy at a moment when everyone was thinking of the immediate problem of sending the six divisions to France. “It was never disclosed,” wrote Grey long afterward with perhaps needless bewilderment, “how or by what process of reasoning he made this forecast of the length of the war.” Whether because Kitchener was right when everybody else was wrong or because civilians find it hard to credit soldiers with ordinary mental processes or because Kitchener was never able or never deigned to explain his reasons, all his colleagues and contemporaries assumed that he reached his conclusion, as Grey said, “by some flash of instinct rather than by reasoning.”

Whatever the process, Kitchener also foretold the pattern of the coming German offensive west of the Meuse. This too he was afterward considered to have arrived at by “some gift of divination” rather than by “any knowledge of times and distances,” according to one General Staff officer. In fact, like King Albert, Kitchener saw the assault on Liège casting ahead of it the shadow of Schlieffen’s right-wing envelopment. He did not think Germany had violated Belgium and brought England in against her in order to make what Lloyd George had called “just a little violation” through the Ardennes. Having avoided the responsibility of the prewar planning, he could not now propose to withhold the six divisions, but he saw no reason to risk their extinction at a position as far forward as Maubeuge where he expected they would bear the full force of the invading German armies. He proposed that they concentrate instead at Amiens, seventy miles farther back.

Exasperated by this drastic change of plan with its appearance of timidity, the generals were confirmed in their worst expectations. The short, stocky, and florid Sir John French, about to take command in the field, was keyed to a pitch of valor and combativeness. His normally apoplectic expression, combined with the tight cavalryman’s stock which he affected in place of collar and tie, gave him an appearance of being perpetually on the verge of choking, as indeed he often was, emotionally if not physically. When appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1912, he at once informed Henry Wilson that he intended to get the army ready for a war with Germany which he regarded as an “eventual certainty.” Since then he had been nominally responsible for the joint plans with France, although in fact the French plan of campaign was practically unknown to him—as was the German. Like Joffre, he had been named head of the Staff without Staff experience or study at Staff college.

The choice, like that of Kitchener for the War Office, was less concerned with innate qualification than with rank and reputation. On the several colonial fields of battle where Britain’s military reputations had been made, Sir John had shown courage and resource and what an authority called “a practical grasp of minor tactics.” In the Boer War his exploits as a cavalry general, culminating in the romantic gallop through the Boer lines to the relief of Kimberley, earned him fame as a bold commander willing to take risks and a popular repute almost equal to that of Roberts and Kitchener. Since Britain’s record against an untrained opponent lacking modern weapons had on the whole not been brilliant, the army was proud of and the government grateful for a hero. French’s prowess, aided by social éclat, carried him far. Like Admiral Milne he moved in the Edwardian swim, As a cavalry officer he was conscious of belonging to the élite of the army. Friendship with Lord Esher was no handicap, and politically he was allied with the Liberals who came to power in 1906. In 1907 he was made Inspector General; in 1908, representing the army, he accompanied King Edward on the state visit to the Czar at Reval; in 1912 came his appointment as CIGS; in 1913 he was promoted to Field Marshal. At sixty-two he was the army’s second ranking active officer after Kitchener to whom he was junior by two years although he looked older. It was generally understood that he would command the expeditionary force in the event of war.

In March 1914 when the Curragh Mutiny, crashing down upon army heads like Samson’s temple, caused him to resign, he seemed to have quixotically brought his career to an abrupt end. Instead he gained added favor with the government which believed the Opposition had engineered the Mutiny. “French is a trump and I love him,” wrote Grey appreciatively. Four months later when the crisis came, he was resurrected and on July 30 designated to be Commander in Chief if Britain should go to war.

Untrained to study and with a mind closed to books, at least after his early successes in action, French was less renowned for mental ability than for irritability. “I don’t think he is particularly clever,” King George V confided in his uncle, “and he has an awful temper.” Like his vis-à-vis across the Channel, French was an unintellectual soldier with the fundamental difference that whereas Joffre’s outstanding quality was solidity, French’s was a peculiar responsiveness to pressures, people, and prejudices. He had, it was said, “the mercurial temperament commonly associated with Irishmen and cavalry soldiers.” Joffre was imperturbable in all weathers; Sir John alternated between extremes of aggressiveness in good times and of depression in bad. Impulsive and easily swayed by gossip, he had, in the opinion of Lord Esher, “the heart of a romantic child.” He once presented to his former Chief of Staff in the Boer War a gold flask inscribed as a memento of “our long and tried friendship proved in sunshine and shadow.” The proved friend was the somewhat less sentimental Douglas Haig who in August 1914 wrote in his diary, “In my own heart I know that French is quite unfit for this great command at a time of crisis in our Nation’s history.” The knowledge in Haig’s heart was not unconnected with a sense that the person best fitted for the command was himself, nor was he to rest until he obtained it.

The destination—and consequently the purpose—of the BEF having been reopened by Kitchener, the Council, who were in Henry Wilson’s opinion “mostly entirely ignorant of their subjects … fell to discussing strategy like idiots.” Sir John French suddenly “dragged in the ridiculous proposal of going to Antwerp,” saying that as British mobilization was behind schedule anyway the possibility of cooperating with the Belgian Army should be considered. Haig, who like Wilson kept a diary, “trembled at the reckless way” his chief undertook to change plans. Equally upset, the new CIGS, Sir Charles Douglas, said that as everything had been arranged for landings in France and French rolling stock was set aside to transport the troops forward, any shift at the last moment would have “serious consequences.”

No problem so harassed the General Staff as the unfortunate difference in capacity between French and British railroad cars. The mathematical permutations involved in transferring troops from one to the other were such as to make transport officers tremble at any threatened change of arrangements.

Happily for their peace of mind the shift to Antwerp was vetoed by Churchill who two months later was to go there himself and to conceive the bold and desperate landing of two marine brigades and a territorial division in a last-minute, vain effort to save the vital Belgian port. On August 5, however, he said the navy could not protect the troop ships over the longer route across the North Sea to the Scheldt, whereas the passage across the Strait of Dover could be guaranteed absolutely. The navy having had time to prepare for the Channel crossing, he argued that the moment was favorable and urged that all six divisions be sent at once. Haldane supported him, as did Lord Roberts. Dispute now arose over how many divisions should be sent, whether one or more should be retained until the Territorials had further time for training or until replacements could be brought home from India.

Kitchener returned to his idea of staging at Amiens, and received support from his friend and future commander of the Gallipoli campaign, Sir Ian Hamilton who, however, felt it was urgent for the BEF to reach there as soon as possible. Grierson spoke up for “decisive numbers at the decisive point.” Sir John French, most forward of the forward, suggested that “we should go over at once and decide destination later.” It was agreed to order transports for all six divisions immediately while leaving destination to be settled until a representative of the French General Staff, sent for hurriedly at Kitchener’s insistence, could arrive for further consultation on French strategy.

Within twenty-four hours, as the result of an invasion scare that brewed up overnight, the Council changed its mind and reduced the six divisions to four. News of the discussion about the strength of the BEF had leaked out. The influential Westminster Gazette, organ of the Liberals, denounced the “reckless” denuding of the country. From the opposite camp Lord Northcliffe came roaring in to protest the departure of a single soldier. Although the Admiralty confirmed the conclusion of the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1909 that no serious invasion was possible, visions of hostile landings on the east coast would not vanish. To the intense disgust of Henry Wilson, Kitchener, who was now responsible for England’s safety, brought home to England one division that had been scheduled to embark for France directly from Ireland and detached two brigades from other divisions which he sent to guard the east coast, thus “hopelessly messing up our plans.” It was decided to send four divisions and the cavalry at once—embarkation to begin August 9—to send the 4th Division later and to keep the 6th Division in England. When the Council adjourned, Kitchener was under the impression, not shared by the generals, that Amiens had been agreed upon as the staging area.

When Colonel Huguet arrived, hastily sent over by the French General Staff, Wilson informed him of the embarkation times. Although it was hardly a matter to be kept secret from the BEF’s French hosts, he incurred Kitchener’s wrath and a rebuke for breach of secrecy. Wilson “answered back,” having, as he wrote, “no intention of being bullied” by Kitchener, “especially when he talks such nonsense as he did today.” So began, or was aggravated, a mutually cherished antipathy that was not to aid the fortunes of the BEF. Wilson, who of all the British officers had the most intimate relation with the French and the ear of Sir John French, was considered bumptious and presumptuous, and was consequently ignored by Kitchener, while in his turn Wilson professed to consider Kitchener “mad” and as “much an enemy of England as Moltke,” and instilled his iniquities into the mind of the temperamentally suspicious and excitable Commander in Chief.

From August 6 to 10, while the Germans at Liège were waiting for the siege guns and the French were liberating and losing Mulhouse, 80,000 troops of the BEF with 30,000 horses, 315 field guns, and 125 machine guns were assembling at Southampton and Portsmouth. Officers’ swords had been freshly sharpened in obedience to an order that prescribed sending them to the armorer’s shop on the third day of mobilization, although they were never used for anything but saluting on parade. But apart from such occasional nostalgic gestures the force, in the words of its official historian, was “the best-trained, best-organized and best-equipped British Army that ever went forth to war.”

On August 9 embarkation began, the transports departing at intervals of ten minutes. As each left its dock every other ship in the harbor blew whistles and horns and every man on deck cheered. So deafening was the noise that it seemed to one officer that General von Kluck could not fail to hear it behind Liège. However, with the navy confident that they had sealed off the Channel from attack, there was little fear for the safety of the crossing. The transports crossed at night without escort. Waking at 4:30 in the morning, a soldier was astonished to see the whole fleet of transports with engines stopped, floating on an absolutely glassy sea without a destroyer in sight; they were waiting for transports from other embarkation ports to complete a rendezvous in mid-Channel.

When the first arrivals landed at Rouen they were received with as much rapture, said a French witness, as if they had come to conduct a service of expiation for Joan of Arc. At Boulogne others debarked at the foot of a towering column erected in honor of Napoleon on the spot from which he had planned to launch the invasion of England. Other transports came into Havre where the French garrison climbed on the roofs of their barracks and cheered wildly as their allies came down the gangplanks in the blazing heat. That evening, to the sound of far-off summer thunder, the sun went down in a blood-red glow.

In Brussels next day the British ally was at last glimpsed—though narrowly. Hugh Gibson, secretary of the American Legation, on an errand to the British military attaché, walked into his room unannounced and saw a British officer in field uniform, dirty and unshaven, writing at a desk. Hustled out by the attaché, Gibson asked irreverently if the rest of the British Army was hidden in the building. In fact the location of the British landings was so well kept from the Germans that they were not to know where or when the BEF had arrived until they ran into it at Mons.

In England antipathies among its commanders were coming to the surface. The King on a visit of inspection asked Haig, who was an intimate at court, his opinion of Sir John French as Commander in Chief. Haig felt it his duty to reply that “I had grave doubts whether either his temper was sufficiently even or his military knowledge sufficiently thorough to enable him to be an effective commander.” After the King had left, Haig wrote in his diary that Sir John’s military ideas during the Boer War had “often shocked me,” and added his “poor opinion” of Sir Archibald Murray, an “old woman” who “weakly acquiesces” in orders which his better judgment tells him are unsound in order to avoid scenes with Sir John’s temper. Neither, thought Haig, “are at all fitted for the appointments which they now hold.” Sir John, he told a fellow officer, would not listen to Murray but “will rely on Wilson which is far worse.” Wilson was not a soldier but “a politician,” a word which, Haig explained, was “synonymous with crooked dealing and wrong values.”

Unburdening himself of these sentiments, the smooth, polished, immaculate, and impeccable Haig, who had friends in all the right quarters and at fifty-three a career of unbroken success behind him, was preparing his way to further success ahead. As an officer who during the campaign in the Sudan had included “a camel laden with claret” in the personal pack train that followed him across the desert, he was accustomed to doing himself well.

On August 11, within three days of departing for France, Sir John French learned for the first time some interesting facts about the German Army. He and General Callwell, Deputy Director of Operations, visited Intelligence, whose chief began telling them about the German system of using reserves. “He kept on producing fresh batches of Reserve Divisions and Extra-Reserve Divisions,” wrote Callwell, “like a conjuror producing glassfuls of goldfish out of his pocket. He seemed to be doing it on purpose—one felt quite angry with the man.” These were the same facts that the Deuxième Bureau, French Intelligence, had learned in the spring of 1914, too late to impress the General Staff or change its estimate of the German right wing. They also came too late to change the British mind. For a new idea to penetrate and effect a fundamental change in strategy, as well as in all the infinite physical details of deployment, would have required time, far more time than was left.

Next day the struggle over strategy between Kitchener and the generals was fought out at a final meeting of the Council. Besides Kitchener, Sir John French, Murray, Wilson, Huguet, and two other French officers were present. Although Kitchener could not hear, unless with the mind’s ear, the exploding shells of the 420s opening the roads through Liège, he asserted that the Germans would be coming through on the far side of the Meuse “in great force.” With a sweep of his arm he indicated the German enveloping movement on a huge wall map. If the BEF concentrated at Maubeuge, he argued, it would be swamped before it was ready for battle and be forced into a retreat which would be disastrous for its morale in its first encounter with a European enemy since the Crimea. He insisted on a base further back at Amiens to allow freedom of action.

His six opponents, the three English and three French officers, were equally adamant on keeping to the original plan. Sir John French, coached by Wilson since his own suggestion of a shift to Antwerp, now protested that any change would “upset” the French plan of campaign, and remained determined to go forward to Maubeuge. The French officers emphasized the necessity of filling in the left end of their line. Wilson inwardly raged at the “cowardice” of concentrating at Amiens. Kitchener said the French plan of campaign was dangerous; that instead of taking the offensive, to which he was “entirely opposed,” they should wait to counter a German attack. For three hours the wrangle continued until Kitchener, unconvinced, was gradually forced to give way. The plan had been in existence and he had known and fundamentally disapproved of it for five years. Now, with the troops already on the water, it had to be accepted because there was no time to make another.

In a last futile gesture—or a calculated gesture to absolve himself of responsibility—Kitchener, bringing Sir John French along with him, took the issue to the Prime Minister. “Knowing nothing at all about it,” as Wilson confided to his diary, Asquith did what might be expected. Presented with Kitchener’s views as against the expert and united opinion of the combined General Staffs, he accepted the latter. Reduced to four instead of six divisions, the BEF went forward as arranged. The momentum of predetermined plans had scored another victory.

Kitchener, nevertheless, unlike the French and German ministers of war, retained direction of his country’s military effort, and the instructions he now issued to Sir John French for the conduct of the BEF in France reflected his desire to limit its liability in the early stages of the war. Like Churchill who, looking ahead to the vast task of the British Navy, had ordered the Mediterranean fleet both to engage the Goeben and avoid engaging “superior forces,” Kitchener, looking ahead to the army of millions he had to build, assigned a policy and a mission to the BEF irreconcilable with each other.

“The special motive of the Force under your control,” he wrote, “is to support and cooperate with the French Army … and to assist the French in preventing or repelling the invasion by Germany of French or Belgian territory.” With a certain optimism, he added, “and eventually to restore the neutrality of Belgium”—a project comparable to restoring virginity. As the “numerical strength of the British force and its contingent reinforcement is strictly limited,” and keeping this consideration “steadily in view,” it will be necessary to exercise “the greatest care towards a minimum of loss and wastage.” Reflecting Kitchener’s disapproval of French offensive strategy, his order stated that if asked to participate in any “forward movements” in which the French were not engaged in large numbers and in which the British might be “unduly exposed to attack,” Sir John was to consult his government first and must “distinctly understand that your command is an entirely independent one and that you will in no case come in any sense under the orders of any Allied general.”

Nothing could be more unequivocal. At one stroke Kitchener had canceled the principle of unity of command. His motive was to preserve the British Army as a nucleus for the future; the effect, given a captain of Sir John’s temperament, was practically to nullify the order to “support” and “cooperate” with the French. It was to haunt the Allied war effort long after Sir John was replaced and Kitchener himself was dead.

On August 14 Sir John French, Murray, Wilson, and a staff officer, encouragingly named Major Sir Hereward Wake, arrived at Amiens, where the British troops detrained for further advance to the concentration area around Le Cateau and Maubeuge. On that day as they began moving up, Kluck’s Army began moving down from Liège. The BEF, marching cheerfully up the roads to Le Cateau and Mons, were greeted enthusiastically along the way with cries of “Vivent les Anglais!” The happiness of the welcome gave point to Lord Kitchener’s dampening notice to his troops that they might expect to “find temptations, both in wine and women,” which they must “entirely resist.” The farther north the British marched, the greater was the enthusiasm. They were kissed and decked with flowers. Tables of food and drink were set out and all British offers of pay refused. A red tablecloth with bands of white sewn on it to form the St. Andrew’s cross of the Union Jack was flung over a balustrade. The soldiers tossed their regimental badges, caps, and belts to smiling girls and other admirers who begged for souvenirs. Soon the British Army was marching with peasants’ tweed caps on their heads and their trousers held up by string. All along the way, wrote a cavalry officer afterward, “we were feted and cheered by the people who were soon to see our backs.” Looking back on it, he remembered the advance of the BEF to Mons as “roses all the way.”

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