Military history


“A Single British Soldier …”

BRITAIN’S JOINT MILITARY PLANS with France were begotten in 1905 when Russia’s far-off defeats at the hands of the Japanese, revealing her military impotence, unhinged the equilibrium of Europe. Suddenly and simultaneously the government of every nation became aware that if any one of them chose that moment to precipitate a war, France would have to fight without an ally. The German government put the moment to an immediate test. Within three weeks of the Russian defeat at Mukden in 1905, a challenge was flung at France in the form of the Kaiser’s sensational appearance at Tangier on March 31. To Frenchmen it meant that Germany was probing for the moment of “Again” and would find it, if not now, then soon. “Like everyone else I had come to Paris at nine o’clock on that morning,” wrote Charles Péguy, the poet, editor, mystic, Socialist-against-his-party and Catholic-against-his-church, who spoke, as nearly as one person could, for the conscience of France. “Like everyone else I knew at half-past eleven that, in the space of those two hours, a new period had begun in the history of my life, in the history of this country, in the history of the world.”

Of his own life Péguy was not speaking vainly. In August 1914 he was to volunteer at forty-one for military service and be killed in action at the Marne on September 7.

Britain, too, reacted to the challenge of Tangier. Her military establishment was just then being thoroughly overhauled by Lord Esher’s Committee. It included, besides himself, the turbulent First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, who had been reforming the navy by a series of explosions, and an army officer, Sir George Clarke, known for his modern ideas on imperial strategy. The “Esher triumvirate” had created a Committee of Imperial Defence to govern policy pertaining to war, of which Esher was permanent member and Clarke was secretary, and had endowed the army with a pristine General Staff. Just at the time when the Kaiser was nervously riding a too spirited white horse through the streets of Tangier, the Staff was engaged in a theoretical war game based on the assumption that the Germans would come through Belgium in a wide flanking movement north and west of the Meuse. The map exercise proved to the Director of Military Operations, General Grierson, and to his assistant, General Robertson, that there was little chance of stopping the Germans unless British forces “arrived on the scene quickly and in strength.”

At that time independent action in Belgium was what the British contemplated. Mr. Balfour, the Conservative Prime Minister, at once asked for a report on how soon a force of four divisions could be mobilized and landed in Belgium in the event of a German invasion. In the midst of the crisis, while Grierson and Robertson were over on the Continent examining the terrain along the Franco-Belgian frontier, Balfour’s government lost office.

Nerves on all sides were stretched tight in the expectation that Germany might take advantage of Russia’s catastrophe to precipitate war in the coming summer. No plans for common Anglo-French military action had yet been made. With Britain in the throes of a general election and ministers scattered about the country campaigning, the French were forced to make an unofficial approach. Their military attaché in London, Major Huguet, made contact with an active and eager intermediary, Colonel Repington, military correspondent of The Times, who, with a nod from Esher and Clarke, opened negotiations. In a memorandum submitted to the French government, Colonel Repington asked, “May we take it as a principle that France will not violate Belgian territory unless compelled to do so by previous violation by Germany?”

“Definitely, yes,” the French replied.

“Do the French realise,” asked the Colonel, intending to convey a warning as well as a prognosis, “that any violation of Belgian neutrality brings us into the field automatically in defense of our treaty obligations?” No British government in history ever committed itself to take action “automatically” upon an event, but the Colonel, with the bit in his teeth, was galloping far ahead of the field.

“France has always supposed so,” was the somewhat dazed answer, “but has never received an official assurance.”

By further leading questions, the Colonel established that France did not think highly of independent British action in Belgium and believed that unity of command—for France on land and Britain at sea—was “absolutely indispensable.”

Meanwhile the Liberals had been elected. Traditionally opposed to war and foreign adventure, they were confident that good intentions could keep the peace. Their new Foreign Secretary was Sir Edward Grey, who suffered the death of his wife a month after taking office. Their new Secretary for War was a barrister with a passion for German philosophy, Richard Haldane, who, when asked by the soldiers in Council what kind of army he had in mind, replied, “A Hegelian army.” “The conversation then fell off,” he recorded.

Grey, warily approached by the French, indicated he had no intention of “receding” from any assurances his predecessor had given to France. Faced with a major crisis in his first week of office, he asked Haldane if arrangements existed for the British to fight alongside the French in the event of an emergency. Haldane looked in the files and found none. His inquiry disclosed that to put four divisions on the Continent would take two months.

Grey wondered if talks between the General Staffs might not now take place as a “military precaution” without committing Great Britain. Haldane consulted the Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Despite party affiliation, Campbell-Bannerman was personally so fond of things French that he would sometimes take the Channel steamer over and back in one day in order to lunch at Calais. He gave his assent to Staff talks, though with some misgivings about the stress laid on “joint preparations.” He thought that coming, as they did, “very close to an honorable understanding,” they might destroy the lovely looseness of the Entente. To avoid any such unpleasantness Haldane arranged for a letter to be signed by General Grierson and Major Huguet, stating that the talks did not commit Great Britain. With this formula safely established, he authorized the talks to begin. Thereupon he, Grey, and the Prime Minister, without informing the rest of the Cabinet, left further developments in the hands of the military as a “departmental affair.”

From here the General Staffs took over. British officers, including Sir John French, a cavalry general who had made a great name in the Boer War, attended the French maneuvers that summer. Grierson and Robertson revisited the frontier in company with Major Huguet. In consultation with the French General Staff, they selected landing bases and staging areas along a front from Charleroi to Namur and into the Ardennes, predicated on a German invasion through Belgium.

The “Esher triumvirate,” however, fundamentally disapproved of employing the British Army as a mere adjunct of the French and, after the tension of the Moroccan crisis relaxed, the joint planning begun in 1905 was not pushed further. General Grierson was replaced. The dominant view, represented by Lord Esher, favored action, independent of French command, in Belgium where the holding of Antwerp and the adjoining coast was a direct British interest. In the vehement opinion of Sir John Fisher, British action ought to be predominantly naval. He doubted the military capacity of the French, expected the Germans to beat them on land, and saw no purpose in ferrying the British Army over to be included in that defeat. The only land action he favored was an audacious leap onto Germany’s back, and he had chosen the exact spot—a “ten-mile stretch of hard sand” along the Baltic coast of East Prussia. Here, only ninety miles from Berlin, the nearest point to the German capital that could be reached by sea, British troops landed by the navy could seize and entrench a base of operations and “keep a million Germans busy.” Apart from this action the army should be “absolutely restricted to … sudden descents upon the coast, the recovery of Heligoland and the garrisoning of Antwerp.” Its plan to fight in France was, in Fisher’s opinion, “suicidal idiocy,” the War Office was remarkable for its ignorance of war, and the Army should be administered as an “annex to the Navy.” Early in 1910 Fisher, at sixty-nine, was simultaneously raised to the peerage and relieved of the Admiralty, but that was to be far from the end of his usefulness.

After the emergency of 1905–1906 had passed, joint military plans with the French made little progress for the next few years. In the interim two men formed a trans-Channel friendship which was to serve as the first cable for the building of a bridge.

Britain’s Staff College was then commanded by Brigadier General Henry Wilson, a tall, bony, ebullient Anglo-Irishman with a face which he thought rather resembled that of a horse. Quick and impatient, Wilson was in a constant boil of ideas, humor, passion, imagination and, above all, energy. When serving at the War Office in London, he used to trot around Hyde Park for exercise before breakfast, carrying with him the morning paper to read whenever he slowed down to a walk. Brought up by a succession of French governesses, he could speak French fluently. He was less interested in German. In January 1909 Schlieffen published an anonymous article in the Deutsche Revue to protest certain changes made in his plan by his successor, Moltke. The basic outline, if not the details, of the “colossal Cannae” prepared for the envelopment of the French and British armies was revealed and the identity of the author surmised. When a student at Camberley brought the article to the Commandant’s attention, Wilson returned it with the casual comment, “Very interesting.”

In December 1909 General Wilson took it into his head to visit his opposite number, the commandant of the Ecole Supérieure de la Guerre, General Foch. He attended four lectures and a seminar and was politely invited to tea by General Foch who, though impatient with the interruptions of distinguished visitors, felt he owed this much to his British counterpart. General Wilson, enthusiastic at what he had seen and heard, stayed for three hours’ talk. When Foch was finally able to escort his visitor to the door and made what he thought were his final goodbyes, Wilson happily announced that he was returning next day to continue the conversation and see more of the curriculum. Foch could not but admire the Englishman’s cran and be pleased by his interest. Their second talk opened their minds to each other. Within a month Wilson was back in Paris for another session. Foch accepted his invitation to come to London in the spring, and Wilson agreed to return for the French Staff tour in the summer.

In London when Foch came over, Wilson introduced him to Haldane and others at the War Office. Bursting into the room of one of his colleagues, he said: “I’ve got a French general outside—General Foch. Mark my words, this fellow is going to command the Allied armies when the big war comes on.” Here Wilson had already accepted the principle of unity of command and picked the man for it although it was to take four years of war and the brink of defeat before events would bear him out.

During repeated visits after 1909, the two commandants became fast friends even to the extent of Wilson being admitted into the French family circle and invited to the wedding of Foch’s daughter. With his friend “Henri,” Foch spent hours in what an observer called “tremendous gossips.” They used to exchange caps and walk up and down together, the short and the tall, arguing and chaffing. Wilson had been particularly impressed by the rush and dash with which studies were conducted at the War College. Officer-instructors constantly urged on officer-pupils with “Vite, vite!” and “Allez, allez!” Introduced to the classes in the Camberley Staff College, the hurry-up technique was quickly dubbed Wilson’s “allez operations.”

A question that Wilson asked of Foch during his second visit in January 1910, evoked an answer which expressed in one sentence the problem of the alliance with England, as the French saw it.

“What is the smallest British military force that would be of any practical assistance to you?” Wilson asked.

Like a rapier flash came Foch’s reply, “A single British soldier—and we will see to it that he is killed.”

Wilson, too, wanted to see Britain committed. Convinced that war with Germany was imminent and inevitable, he strove to infuse his own sense of urgency into his colleagues and pupils and himself became totally absorbed by it. In August 1910 came his opportunity. He was named Director of Military Operations, the post from which General Grierson had originated the Staff talks with France. When Major Huguet at once came to see the new Director to bewail the lack of progress since 1906 on the important question of Anglo-French military cooperation, Wilson replied, “Important question! But it is vital! There is no other.”

Immediately the joint planning took on new impetus. Wilson could see nothing, go nowhere, but France and Belgium. On his first visit in 1909 he had spent ten days by train and bicycle touring the Franco-Belgian and Franco-German frontier from Valenciennes to Belfort. He had found that Foch’s “appreciation of the German move through Belgium is exactly the same as mine, the important line being between Verdun and Namur,” in other words, east of the Meuse. During the next four years he repeated his visits three and four times a year, each time making bicycle or motor tours of the old battlefields of 1870 and of anticipated future battlefields in Lorraine and the Ardennes. On each visit he conferred with Foch and after Foch’s departure, with Joffre, Castelnau, Dubail, and others of the French General Staff.

Covering the whole wall of Wilson’s room in the War Office was a huge map of Belgium with every road by which he thought the Germans could march marked in heavy black. When he came to the War Office, Wilson found that under the new order wrought by “Schopenhauer among the generals,” as Haldane was called, the regular army had been thoroughly trained, prepared, and organized to become an expeditionary force at a moment’s need, with all arrangements completed to bring it up to war strength upon mobilization day. But of plans to transport it across the Channel, billet it, feed it, move it up to concentration areas in France, align it with the French armies, there were none.

What he felt to be the lethargy of the Staff on this subject sent Wilson into periodic paroxysms of vexation, recorded in his diary: “… very dissatisfied … no rail arrangements … no arrangements for horse supply … a scandalous state of affairs! … no train arrangements to ports, no staff arrangements to port, no naval arrangements … absolutely no medical arrangements … horse difficulty has not been solved … absolutely nothing exists, which is scandalous! … unpreparedness disgraceful … horse question in disgraceful state!” Yet by March 1911 out of all this lack of arrangements—and of horses—he had brought a schedule of mobilization by which “the whole of the infantry of six divisions would embark on the 4th day, cavalry 7th day, artillery 9th day.”

It was just in time. On July 1, 1911 the Panther came to Agadir. Through all the chancelleries of Europe ran the whispered monosyllable, “War.” Wilson hurried over to Paris in the same month that the French War Council, ousting General Michel, turned its back forever on the defensive. Together with General Dubail he drew up a memorandum providing, in the event of British intervention, for an Expeditionary Force of six regular divisions and a cavalry division. Signed by Wilson and Dubail on July 20, it specified a total force of 150,000 men and 67,000 horses which were to land at Havre, Boulogne, and upriver at Rouen between the 4th and 12th days of mobilization, to proceed by rail to a concentration area in the Maubeuge region and to be ready for action on M-13.

In effect, the Dubail-Wilson agreement attached the British Army, in the event that war came and Britain entered it, to the French, placing it where it would prolong the French line and guard the French flank against envelopment. It meant, as Major Huguet gladly recorded, that the French had persuaded Wilson and the British General Staff against a “secondary theatre of operations” and in favor of common action in “the main theatre, that is to say, the French.” In fact the British Navy was as much responsible as the French because its refusal to guarantee disembarkation ports above the line Dover-Calais precluded landings closer to, or within, Belgium.

Upon Wilson’s return to London the question of the hour, he wrote in his diary, was whether Germany would go to war “with France and us.” Consulted by Grey and Haldane over lunch, he presented an emphatic three-point program. “First we must join the French. Second, we mustmobilize the same day as the French. Third, we must send all six divisions.”

He felt “profoundly dissatisfied” with the two civilians’ grasp of the situation, but he was at once given a further opportunity to instruct the government in the facts of war. On August 23 Prime Minister Asquith (Campbell-Bannerman’s successor since 1908) convened a secret and special meeting of the Imperial Defence Committee to clarify British strategy in case of war. It lasted all day, with General Wilson expounding the army view in the morning and Fisher’s successor, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, presenting the navy’s view in the afternoon. Besides Asquith, Grey, and Haldane, three other Cabinet members were present: the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George; the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. McKenna; and the Home Secretary, a young man of thirty-seven, impossible to ignore, who, from his inappropriate post, had pelted the Prime Minister during the crisis with ideas on naval and military strategy, all of them quite sound, had produced an astonishingly accurate prediction of the future course of the fighting, and who had no doubts whatever about what needed to be done. The Home Secretary was Winston Churchill.

Wilson, facing this group of “ignorant men,” as he called them, and accompanied by his fellow officer and future chief, Sir John French, “who knows nothing at all about the subject,” pinned up his great map of Belgium on the wall and lectured for two hours. He swept away many illusions when he explained how Germany, counting on Russia’s slow mobilization, would send the bulk of her forces against the French, achieving superiority of numbers over them. He correctly predicated the German plan of attack upon a right-wing envelopment but, schooled in the French theories, estimated the force that would come down west of the Meuse at no more than four divisions. He stated that, if all six British divisions were sent immediately upon the outbreak of war to the extreme left of the French line, the chances of stopping the Germans would be favorable.

When the Admiral’s turn came in the afternoon, the dazed civilians were astonished to discover that the navy’s plan had nothing in common with the army’s. He proposed to land the expeditionary force not in France, but on that “ten-mile strip of hard sand” upon the northern shores of Prussia where it would “draw off more than its weight of numbers from the German fighting line.” His argument was violently combated by the generals. The absence of Lord Fisher nerved Asquith to reject it, and the Army carried the day. Fisher’s growls of disgust erupted periodically thereafter. “The overwhelming supremacy of the British Navy … is the only thing to keep the German Army out of Paris,” he wrote to a friend some months later. “Our soldiers are grotesque in their absurd ideas of war, but, happily, they are powerless. It is Antwerp we shall seize and not go fooling on the Vosges frontier.” A certain inescapable logic in the Antwerp idea was to keep tugging at British military plans up to the last minute in 1914 and even afterward.

The meeting of August 1911 like that of the French War Council which had disposed of General Michel a few weeks earlier, was decisive upon British strategy and it had a decisive by-product. A shake-up in the policy-making posts of the navy being decreed, the eager Home Secretary was happily translated into First Lord of the Admiralty where, in 1914, he was to prove indispensable.

Echoes of the secret meeting of the C.I.D. angered the Cabinet members who had been left out and who belonged to the sternly pacifist wing of the party. Henry Wilson learned that he was regarded as the villain of the proceedings and that they are “calling for my head.” At this time began the split in the Cabinet which was to be so critical in the ultimate days of decision. The government maintained the disingenuous position that the military “conversations” were, in Haldane’s words, “just the natural and informal outcome of our close friendship with France.” Natural outcome they might be; informal they were not. As Lord Esher with a certain realism said to the Prime Minister, the plans worked out jointly by the General Staffs have “certainly committed us to fight, whether the Cabinet likes it or not.”

There is no record what Asquith replied or what, in his inmost mind, a region difficult to penetrate under the best of circumstances, he thought on this crucial question.

In the following year, 1912, a naval agreement was reached with France as the result of a momentous mission—not to France but to Berlin. In an effort to dissuade the Germans from passing a new Naval Law providing for increases in the fleet, Haldane was sent to talk with the Kaiser, Bethmann-Hollweg, Admiral Tirpitz, and other German leaders. It was the last Anglo-German attempt to find a common ground of understanding, and it failed. As a quid pro quo for keeping their fleet second to Britain’s, the Germans demanded a promise of British neutrality in the event of war between Germany and France. This the British refused to give. Haldane returned convinced that Germany’s drive for hegemony in Europe would have to be resisted sooner or later: “I thought, from my study of the German General Staff, that once the German war party had got into the saddle, it would be war not merely for the overthrow of France or Russia but for the domination of the world.” Coming from Haldane this conclusion had a profound effect upon Liberal thinking and planning. The first result was a naval pact with France by which the British undertook at threat of war to safeguard the Channel and French coasts from enemy attack, leaving the French fleet free to concentrate in the Mediterranean. As this disposed the French fleet where it would not otherwise be, except by virtue of the agreement, it left a distinct obligation upon Britain.

Although the terms of the agreement were not known to the Cabinet as a whole, an uneasy sense prevailed that matters had gone too far. Not satisfied with the “no commitment” formula, the antiwar group insisted that it be put in writing. Sir Edward Grey obliged in the form of a letter to M. Cambon, the French ambassador. Drafted and approved by the Cabinet, it was a masterpiece of ellipsis. The military conversations, it said, left both parties free to decide at any future time “whether or not to assist each other by armed force.” The naval agreement “was not based upon an engagement to cooperate in war.” At threat of war both parties would “take into consideration” the plans of their General Staffs and “then decide what effect should be given them.”

This curious document managed to satisfy everybody: the French because the whole British Cabinet Government had now officially acknowledged the existence of the joint plans, the antiwar group because it said England was not “committed,” and Grey because he had evolved a formula that both saved the plans and quieted their opponents. To have substituted a definite alliance with France, as he was urged in some quarters, would “break up the Cabinet,” he said.

After Agadir, as each year brought its summer crisis and the air grew heavier with approaching storm, the joint work of the General Staff grew more intense. Sir Henry Wilson’s tours abroad grew more frequent. He found the new French chief, General Joffre, “a fine, manly, impeturbable soldier with much character and determination,” and Castelna “very clever and intelligent.” He continued his surveys of the Belgian frontier, cycling back and forth over the various roads and returning always to his favorite battlefield of 1870 at Mars-la-Tour near Metz where, each time he saw the statue “France,” commemorating the battle, he felt a pang. On one visit, he recorded, “I laid at her feet a small bit of map I have been carrying, showing the areas of concentration of the British forces on her territory.”

In 1912 he examined the new German railway constructions, all converging on Aachen and the Belgian frontier. In February of that year Anglo-French plans had reached the point where Joffre could tell the Supreme War Council that he counted on the British for six infantry divisions and one cavalry division and two mounted brigades, totaling 145,000 men. L’Armée “W” as, in tribute to Wilson, the force was designated by the French, would land at Boulogne, Havre, and Rouen, concentrate in the Hirson-Maubeuge region and be ready for action on the fifteenth day of mobilization. Later in 1912 Wilson attended autumn maneuvers with Joffre and Castelnau and the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia and afterward went on to Russia for talks with the Russian General Staff. In 1913 he visited Paris every other month to confer with the French Staff chiefs and to join the maneuvers of Foch’s XXth Corps guarding the frontier.

While Wilson was tightening and perfecting his arrangements with the French, Britain’s new Chief of Imperial General Staff, Sir John French, made an attempt in 1912 to revert to the idea of independent action in Belgium. Discreet inquiries made by the British military attaché in Brussels put an end to this effort. The Belgians were discovered to be adamant in the strict observance of their own neutrality. When the British attaché asked about possible joint arrangements for British landings in Belgium, on the premise of a prior German violation, he was informed that the British would have to wait until their military assistance was requested. The British minister, making his own inquiries, was told that if British troops landed before a German invasion or without a formal Belgian request, the Belgians would open fire.

Belgium’s rigid purity confirmed what the British never tired of repeating to the French—that everything depended upon the Germans violating Belgian neutrality first. “Never, no matter on what pretext,” Lord Esher cautioned Major Huguet in 1911, “let the French commanders be led into being the first to cross the Belgian frontier!” If they did, England could never be on their side; if the Germans did, they would bring England in against them. M. Cambon, the French ambassador in London, expressed the condition the other way around; only if Germany violated Belgium, was the burden of his dispatches, could France be sure of Britain’s support.

By the spring of 1914 the joint work of the French and British General Staffs was complete to the last billet of every battalion, even to the places where they were to drink their coffee. The number of French railroad cars to be allotted, the assignments of interpreters, the preparation of codes and ciphers, the forage of horses was settled or expected to be consummated by July. The fact that Wilson and his staff were in constant communication with the French had to be concealed. All the work on Plan W, as the movement of the expeditionary force was called by both Staffs, was done in utmost secrecy, confined to half a dozen officers alone, who did even the typing, filing, and clerical work. While the military prearranged the lines of battle, England’s political leaders, pulling the blanket of “no commitment” over their heads, resolutely refrained from watching them.

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