Military history



When you mobilize the army and form strategic plans, you must be unfathomable.


NO WAR PLAN BROUGHT ABOUT WHAT THE DIPLOMAT GEORGE F. Kennan called “the great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century.1 No war plan had been formally adopted by any government, and no war plans (except for France and Russia) had been coordinated. No government in reaching its decision to “let slip the dogs of war” in 1914 referred even in passing to an inexorable timetable drafted by military leaders that demanded a decision for war. Instead, as argued in the previous chapter, civilian leaders weighed their options, assessed their chances, considered the alternatives, and then opted for war. Only thereafter did deployment plans take center stage. In short, no “military doomsday machine,” as Henry Kissinger once put it, drove Europe’s leaders “into the vortex” in 1914.2

And yet, the German deployment plan of 1914—named after Alfred Count von Schlieffen, chief of the General Staff from 1891 to 1905—remains the one plan most people are likely to recall when asked about military planning. For the “Schlieffen Plan” has become synonymous with militarism run amok, with operational considerations trumping statecraft, and with the rote mechanics of war replacing the art of war. Since Germany went to war in 1914 with the (revised) Schlieffen Plan, and since much of the debate about the Battle of the Marne revolves around whether the plan, if properly carried out, could have brought Germany victory as prescribed by Schlieffen, both the man and his plan deserve attention.

ALFRED VON SCHLIEFFEN WAS born at Berlin on 28 February 1833 into the junior branch of a family that had settled at Kolberg, in Pomerania, in the fourteenth century. His father’s side had a long tradition of military service. His mother’s side was devoutly Hutterian Pietist, believing in the Godhead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; in trine baptism (hence their popular name, Dunkers); and in the infallibility of the New Testament. Thus, the boy’s upbringing was a mixture of traditional Prussian virtues such as austerity, discipline, duty, and order, and Hutterian values including dignity, modesty, respect, and a firm belief in the presence of God in history.3 After a brief stint studying law, Alfred opted for a career with the cavalry. He attended the War Academy from 1858 to 1861, and then along with his three brothers saw action during the decisive Battle of Königgrätz in the Austro-Prussian War (1866), followed by combat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) at Toul and Soissons as well as during the winter campaign along the Loire River. After the Wars of German Unification, Schlieffen served as commander of the prestigious 1st Guard Ulan Regiment at Potsdam from 1876 until 1884, when he was appointed to the institution he would serve until retirement—the Great General Staff in Berlin.

Schlieffen arrived at the General Staff at a time of uncertainty. The Elder Helmuth von Moltke, architect of Prussia’s wars with Austria and France, increasingly became alarmed about the newfound Reich’s geographical position, wedged in between two “wing powers,” France and Russia. The prospect of a two-front war in Central Europe caused Moltke to reassess the utility of using military power to resolve great-power tensions. “Germany dare not hope to free itself in a short time from the one enemy by a quick and successful offensive in the west,” he ominously concluded, “in order thereafter to turn against another [enemy in the east].”4 Put differently, Moltke came to believe that war was no longer an option for the Reich. He best expressed this view in his last speech in Parliament in May 1890: “The age of cabinet wars is behind us—now we have only peoples’ wars.” Industrial Europe, armed as never before, was capable of conducting wars “whose duration and ending cannot be gauged.” He predicted future “Seven Years’ Wars, even Thirty Years’ Wars.” He ended his farewell address with a dire warning. “Woe to him who sets Europe on fire, who throws the match into the powder box!”5

Under Moltke, Schlieffen headed the crucial French Department within the Third Section of the General Staff. France remained the “hereditary enemy.” From the perspective of Berlin, French statesmen and soldiers from Cardinal Richelieu to Louis XIV, from Napoleon I to Napoleon III, had used Central Europe as venue for the sport of kings—war. Louis XIV had “raped” the Rhenish Palatinate and annexed Alsace and Lorraine. Napoleon I had defeated and then occupied the 365 German states and forced many of them to join his war with Russia in 1812. Napoleon III had been determined in the 1860s to establish the Rhine as France’s eastern border. After 1871, France repaid its reparations (imposed on a per-capita basis for what Napoleon I had extracted from Prussia after 1806) much faster than anticipated, and cries of “revenge” for 1870–71 reverberated in right-wing military, political, and public circles. From the perspective of Paris, German unification had destroyed the European “concert” established at Vienna in 1815, and had eroded France’s preeminent great-power status. The Reich’s rapidly expanding industrial output (double that of France) and its bourgeoning population base (twenty million more than France) threatened to create a continental hegemony.

Little love was lost between France and Germany. Each created what historian Michael E. Nolan has called an “inverted mirror” of the other, and in the process mythologized the “hereditary enemy.” Each saw the other side not as individuals but rather as members of the opposite and hostile nation, “imbued with an elaborate baggage of history and heredity in the form of preconceived character traits representing a strange inversion of the observer’s own perceived qualities.”6 This “inverted” mirror imaging did not escape the literati. Jules Verne caught the Franco-German antagonism already in 1877 in his popular novel The 500 Millions of the Bégum. Therein, the fictitious French Dr. François Sarrasin and the German professor Schultze agreed to use a massive fortune bequeathed by a deceased Bégum of India, each to plan a new city. Sarrasin decided to build a model community, France-Ville, on the Oregon coast near Coos Bay. It was based on “freedom from inequality, peace with its neighbors, good administration, wisdom among its inhabitants, and bountiful prosperity”—in short, on the French ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Schultze, on the other hand, opted to establish a counterutopia: a formidable factory, Steel City (Stahlstadt), an “industrial and technological nightmare” with a Krupp-like leader directing his laborers from a “base tower.” While we have to assume that the residents of France-Ville dined on pâté, grilled meats, and fresh fish, washed down with grand cru wines, those of Stahlstadt had to make do with the German fare of “withered vegetables, mounds of plain cheese, quarters of smoked sausage meat, and canned foods,” all consumed amid “sacks of iron.”7 Verne’s novel, while obviously grossly exaggerated, nevertheless captured the public image of the two countries and showed that popular culture was not out of step with military thinking.

More specifically, Schlieffen had carefully monitored the construction under General Raymond Séré de Rivière of a massive French belt of 166 forts in two major lines running from Verdun to Toul and from Épinal to Belfort between 1874 and 1885, and the expansion of Paris’s old ring of 14 inner forts (that had withstood the German siege of 1870–71) with an outer ring of 25 forts by 1890. When Kaiser Wilhelm II as one of his first acts after the dismissal of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1890 allowed the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, wherein both parties agreed to remain neutral in a war waged by the other, to lapse, and when Paris at once leaped at the chance in August 1891 to begin negotiations of a military agreement with St. Petersburg (formalized in 1892), the time had come to reevaluate the Reich’s tenuous strategic situation in the center of the Continent.

In fact, Bismarck’s dismissal, Wilhelm II’s cancellation of the tie to Russia, and the kaiser’s desire to be his “own General Staff chief” brought about a radical shift toward a “New Course” of global expansion and fleet building as well as a reorientation of the Reich’s land strategy. In August 1888, Alfred von Waldersee succeeded Moltke as chief of the General Staff. Schlieffen briefly served as head of the Third Section (foreign armies) and in 1889 became Waldersee’s deputy chief of staff. Waldersee transformed Moltke’s cautionary military strategy into simultaneous offensive operations against France and Russia. During good weather, he would mount an offensive into Russian Poland with five to seven corps, while thirteen to fifteen corps would first hold the line of the Rhine River, then counterattack, envelop, and annihilate the French army before it could retreat to its fortress line Belfort-Verdun. In inclement weather, he would hold in the east and launch seventeen corps as well as all of his horse-drawn artillery against the French forts. An increasingly dense and sophisticated German railroad system as well as the assumed superiority of the German army, corps for corps, encouraged this offensive design. But Waldersee was too impetuous and undisciplined, much like his Supreme War Lord, and indulged in frequent political intrigues. On 7 February 1891, Wilhelm II appointed Schlieffen to head the General Staff. Sarcastic, prone to ridicule, nearly unapproachable, and an inveterate workaholic, Schlieffen for the next fourteen years put his personal stamp on the General Staff—and on German war planning. Since the Reich never developed a national coordinating body akin to the French Conseil supérieur de la défense nationale or the British Committee of Imperial Defence, it fell on Schlief fen to draft plans for national defense.

Schlieffen set about his task with several deep-rooted assumptions.8 First, France remained the primary adversary. Second, given France’s military alliance with Russia, he had to prepare for a future two-front war. Third, well aware that France had by far the better railway network and that it could ill afford to trade space for time, he decided as early as August 1892 to concentrate the greater part of his forces in the west before wheeling them around to face the more slowly developing Russian steamroller in the east. After his staff convinced him that the massive French fortifications in Lorraine could not simply be stormed by infantry, Schlieffen in August 1897 considered bypassing them by way of a grand march through neutral Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. That Westaufmarsch was painstakingly detailed from the first day of mobilization (M+1) on, thereby ignoring the Elder Moltke’s sage counsel that no operations plan survived the initial engagement with enemy forces. Fourth, since France and Russia could bring greater initial forces as well as subsequent reserves into the field, Schlieffen argued that Germany had to avoid a protracted war. A strategy that cost “billions” in Reichsmark and “millions” in soldiers’ lives, he warned, would serve only the enemy. Thus, fifth, speed was of the essence. “The French army,” he stressed time and again, “must be annihilated.” The attack could never be allowed “to come to a standstill;” it was to be driven forward at all cost.9 “Normal victories” would not do. “A series of rapidly fought brilliant victories would not suffice,” General Bernhard Rothe, Schlieffen’s deputy (1896–99), wrote: “instead we must deal the enemy such a defeat early on that it will be impossible for him to continue the war.”10

Schlieffen used selective military history to buttress his radical concept. Napoleon I’s dramatic march through neutral Prussian Franconia en route to destroying an Austrian army at Ulm in 1805 served as a model for his planned violation of Belgian neutrality. Around 1900, he read an account of the famous Battle of Cannae (216 BC). There Hannibal’s Carthaginian army, outnumbered almost two to one, had destroyed an entire Roman army under Consuls Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus by offering a weak infantry center while cavalry and light infantry moved around the flanks and into the Romans’ rear.11 This was the key for Schlieffen. Hannibal’s double-envelopment tactic with six thousand African cavalry at each of the flanks had guaranteed not just victory, but rather annihilation of the Roman legions. An estimated sixty thousand bloody and mutilated Roman corpses attested to the brilliance of Hannibal’s tactical feat. The idea of a gigantic battle of encirclement and annihilation (Kesselschlacht) against French forces now became an idée fixe with Schlieffen. Over time, it became less a historical event and more a philosophical construct. In the process, he raised tactics to the level of operations, and subordinated considerations of statecraft to purely operational concepts. As well, Schlieffen chose to ignore the fact that Rome, rather than Carthage, eventually won the Punic Wars, and that it did so largely on the basis of an element absent in Schlieffen’s grand design—sea power. General Hans von Seeckt, architect of the Reichswehr in the 1920s, in retrospect lamented Schlieffen’s obsession with it. “Cannae: no slogan became so destructive for us as this one.”12

On 28 December 1905, after fourteen years of tinkering on his strategic blueprint, Schlieffen committed his final thoughts on a future war with France and Russia to the famous memorandum that bears his name.13 The keys to victory lay in rapid mobilization and numerical superiority at the decisive point. In its final form, the Schlieffen Plan ordered roughly 15 percent of German forces (two weak armies of five corps) along with Italian Third Army (three corps), transported to the Rhine through Austria-Hungary, to anchor the front on the Upper Rhine. The bulk of the German armies would quick-march west through the Low Countries; drive around the French left (or northern) flank; and, sweeping the English Channel with their “sleeves,” wheel into the Seine basin southwest of Fortress Paris, where they would destroy the main French armies. This “hammer” would then pound any remaining enemy units against the German “anvil” in Lorraine, or against the Swiss border. Depending on the pace of the fighting in the south, Schlieffen was even prepared to detach two army corps from Lorraine and rush them north to reinforce the right wing (which would then constitute 91 percent of his forces). Six Ersatz divisions (surplus trained reserves) would follow up the initial assault and mop up or besiege Belgian and French forces and fortresses. In the meantime, a single army, using the lake-and swamp-studded terrain of East Prussia to advantage, would hold off the Russians.

Schlieffen meticulously crafted his grand design. The first twenty days of mobilization were laid out down to the minute for 20,800 trains of fifty cars each that were to transport 2.07 million men, 118,000 horses, and 400,000 tons of war materials to the fronts.14Each active army corps was assigned 140 trains, each reserve corps 85, and each cavalry division 31. Thirteen major rail lines were secured for the Westaufmarsch alone, and 660 trains per day were to run along each line. Major operations, Schlieffen lectured the General Staff, needed to be calculated down to the last detail. “It must be the same as it is at battalion-level exercises.”15 The campaign against France was to be over in forty days, after which the armies would race across Germany to deal with the slowly mobilizing Russian armies. Schlieffen had decided on a high-risk offensive between Thionville (Diedenhofen) and the Dutch border with all available forces (five armies of seventeen active corps) for political reasons: Russia’s poor performance in its war against Japan that year convinced him that the French would stand on the defensive for years to come.16

In his last “General Staff Tour West 1905,” Schlieffen twice had his operations staff game three scenarios (Steuben, Kuhl, Freytag) for a campaign against France. In each case, he led the German (blue) side, which defeated his adversary (red). The most interesting for our purposes is Case Freytag II, in which Schlieffen pursued the retreating French armies across the Marne, cut them off from Paris by turning south before he reached the capital, “pursued the French east of Paris,” drove southeast, and finally broke them against the Swiss border by the fifty-sixth day of mobilization.17

It was an all-or-nothing throw of the dice, a high-risk operation born of hubris and bordering on recklessness. It was coordinated with neither the Chancellery, the Navy Office, the Foreign Office, the Finance Ministry, the War Ministry, nor the Austro-Hungarian ally. It disregarded Carl von Clausewitz’s concepts of interaction, friction, escalation, reassessment, the “genius of war,” and the “fog of uncertainty.” It violated the neutrality of Belgium and the Netherlands, thus making Britain’s entry into the war more probable. It was crafted without regard for existing German troop strengths. The final memorandum failed to mention that Germany was eight corps shy of Schlief -fen’s original prescription. And while it envisaged first the siege and then the battering of Fortress Paris by seven or eight corps, none of these as yet existed even on paper.18

Moreover, the Schlieffen Plan was based on a number of fragile assumptions: that the Russians would take at least forty days to mobilize; that the Dutch and Belgian railroad systems would assure his speed of advance; that the element of surprise would throw the French (and British) off their guard; and that the German railroad system would be able expeditiously to transfer the bulk of the armies from west to east in time to stall the Russian steamroller. And Schlieffen’s 1905 blueprint was riddled with hedge words such as if, when, perhaps, and hopefully. It was a classic best-case scenario, an “audacious, yes, overly audacious gamble, whose success depended on many strokes of luck.”19

Schlieffen was not without his critics.20 Senior commanders questioned his “miraculous” strategy. Karl von Einem-Rothmaler pointed out that whereas the Elder Moltke in 1870–71 had led a Prussian army of 462,000 soldiers, Schlieffen proposed directing one of 2 million. Colmar von der Goltz questioned the concept of a forty-day Blitz through Belgium and France. Gottlieb von Haeseler argued that one could not expect to capture a great power such as France “like a cat in a sack.” Martin Köpke, Rothe’s predecessor as deputy chief of staff, as early as August 1895 had warned his chief against such an all-or-nothing strategy. France’s numerical superiority in troop strength and its vast network of fortresses along its eastern border with Germany precluded another quick victory such as that scored by the Prussians against Napoleon III at Sedan in 1870. “We cannot expect quick, decisive victories,” he cautioned, as even “the most offensive spirit” could achieve little more than “a tough, patient and stout-hearted crawling forward step-by-step.” Foreshadowing what was to come twenty years later, Köpke argued that Schlieffen’s plan, if enacted, would degenerate into “siege-style” warfare.21 The “storm of steel” that dominated the modern battlefield by 1905 was lethal: Prussian troops suffered 68 percent casualties at Mars-la-Tour in 1870, whereas the Japanese Nambu Brigade incurred 90 percent losses during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05. What nation would accept that loss rate for an army of two million young men?


Schlieffen apparently accepted Köpke’s critique—and continued with his operational planning. For his critics offered no viable alternative. Germany could not fight a protracted war against a superior hostile coalition either in terms of men and money, or without endangering domestic stability (the “red specter,” as Schlieffen put it). It could not divide its armies equally between the west and the east and hope to stay on the defensive indefinitely. Above all, the General Staff could not simply admit that war was no longer a viable option for Germany without calling into question its very existence. It was a Hobbesian choice.

ALTHOUGH SOME REVISIONISTS HAVE argued, “There never was a ‘Schlieffen plan,’”22 Germany’s senior military leaders had no doubt as to its existence well before 1914. As early as 1907, Moltke had Karl von Fasbender, chief of the Bavarian General Staff, game various aspects of it. In 1912, Wilhelm II asked his senior military planners whether they were prepared to execute the Schlieffen Plan. Two years later, Moltke confirmed that he had inherited a copy of Germany’s “one” operations plan from Schlieffen. Throughout the march to the Marne (“the basic idea of the Schlieffen operation”), Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm Groener of the Prussian army’s railroad section wrote his wife praising “the late Schlieffen” as “the man who thought up all the ideas we are carrying out.”23 Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, commander of Sixth Army, throughout August and September 1914 compared every operation mounted by Moltke to “the Old Schlieffen” or to “the Schlieffen Plan.”24 Moltke’s successor, Erich von Falkenhayn, cryptically noted on taking command of the General Staff in mid-September 1914: “Schlieffen’s notes are at an end and therewith also Moltke’s wits.”25 Colonel Wilhelm Müller-Loebnitz of the General Staff (and later official army historian) knew of the existence of the plan well before 1914 and participated in many of the maneuvers designed to test it. Moreover, Schlieffen had frequently and “thoroughly discussed” the plan with Müller-Loebnitz as far back as 1905.26 And the editors who produced the fourteen-volume official history of the war (Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918) had no problem identifying that operations plan to have been Schlieffen’s.

In fact, there existed no formal German war plan. Only Wilhelm II in his function as Supreme War Lord could exercise “the power to command.”27 As is well known, the kaiser was utterly unable to carry out such a demanding role. Thus, war planning fell by default to the chief of the General Staff, Moltke, even though he commanded not a single soldier, battalion, regiment, division, or corps. He could issue no formal orders, purchase no equipment, and authorize no war plan. His position was not embedded in the Constitution of 1871. And until a state of war was decreed by the kaiser and his chancellor (with the approval of the Bundesrath, or Upper House) and the various federal armies united into one German army in August 1914, the chief of the General Staff remained a purely Prussian official, one without formal command over the other federal armies.

THE YOUNGER MOLTKE LITERALLY inherited the Schlieffen Plan in January 1906, for Schlieffen upon retirement had “purposefully” left the memorandum of 28 December 1905 in the General Staff’s iron safe.28 Who was this man, who later would march 2.147 million men into battle?29 Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke was all things to all people. To his friends, he was decent, honest, earnest, and cultured. To his detractors, he was dour, pessimistic, insecure, and an “occultist.” For he had learned what one German prince called “wretched faith-healing”30 from his wife, Eliza, and her spiritual mentor, the Austrian theosophist Rudolf Steiner.* Friends and foes alike agreed that Moltke was a complex figure, and one without the sharp Napoleonic eye for the main prize (coup d’oeil) or the necessary ambition and drive (feu sacré).

Born on 25 May 1848, Moltke saw action during the Franco-Prussian War in the Vosges, at Sedan, and during the siege of Paris. He rose quickly in rank to become Wilhelm II’s personal adjutant. He dabbled in music and painting. He was a tall, corpulent man. He aspired to command an army corps, but his famous name eventually placed him at the head of the General Staff. He neither sought nor desired the position, fearing not only the kaiser’s well-known penchant for meddling in military affairs but also the “difficult inheritance” of becoming Schlieffen’s successor.31 He was appointed to the post on 1 January 1906, just before turning fifty-eight. While senior army commanders were shocked by the appointment, Wilhelm II crowed that Moltke was just the right man because he, the kaiser, did “not require a General Staff.”32

Moltke quickly adopted Schlieffen’s blueprint. He shared it with only a few members of his planning staff and cut off all communications with Schlieffen, obviously intent on establishing his own credentials independent of the “master.” He maintained most of Schlieffen’s blueprint, but eventually changed some of its bolder force concentration. As a result, Germany went to war on 4 August with a “modified Schlieffen Plan with similar goals.”33

The basic similarities are glaring.34 Both men believed that Germany was “encircled” by hostile powers, and that only military action could “break” the iron ring. Both accepted that Germany would be numerically inferior in a future war; hence, it had to dictate the timing and pace of that conflict. This led to a third common constant, namely, that the main thrust of the offensive had to fall on France. In 1909, as the annexation crisis over Bosnia-Herzegovina evoked a possible Austro-Russian war, Wilhelm II revealed that he knew the Schlieffen Plan. “In order to be able to march against Moscow,” he noted, “Paris must be taken first.”35 That same year, Moltke reminded his Austro-Hungarian counterpart, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, that in case of a two-front war, he would advise the kaiser “to deploy the main mass of German forces initially against France,” leaving only a minimum number of troops “to guard our eastern provinces” against Russia. He gamely promised Conrad that the German army would redeploy in the east “3–4 weeks + 9–10 days transport” after the start of hostilities in the west.36

In December 1912, Moltke went out of his way to make certain that both the chancellor and the Prussian war minister were aware of the German plan in the event of war. He informed Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and Josias von Heeringen in writing that “given its central location,” Germany needed a thin screen against one enemy in order to hurl its main forces against the other. “That side always can only be France.” More, “in order to take the offensive against France, it will be necessary to violate Belgian neutrality.”37 Therewith, all pretense at innocence by the Reich’s political elite regarding the Schlieffen Plan was destroyed. After the war, Wilhelm von Dommes of the General Staff recalled that Moltke had confided in him that he had discussed the basic contours of the Schlieffen Plan already with Bethmann Hollweg’s predecessor, Bernhard von Bülow.38 During the critical first week of August 1914, Moltke assured the Bavarians that he remained true to Schlieffen’s concept: Germany’s strategy was to “advance upon Paris with all our might via Belgium in order to settle accounts quickly with France.”39

The basic differences are also important.40 First, Moltke feared the impact of a British naval blockade on the German food and raw materials supply. Hence, he canceled Schlieffen’s march through the Maastricht Appendix in southern Holland, for that country would have to remain “the last windpipe, through which we can breathe.”41 Put differently, Germany planned to import strategic materials “under cover of the [neutral] American flag” through neutral Holland in time of war. Moltke’s decision, while politically advantageous, brought to the surface new “technical problems.” To wit, the six hundred thousand men of First and Second armies as well as their horses and trains would now have to break into Belgium (and then France) through a twenty-kilometer defile between the Ardennes Forest and the Maastricht Appendix. In the way stood one of Europe’s most formidable fortresses—Liège (Lüttich),* guarded by a belt of twelve massive steel and concrete forts with four hundred guns and a garrison of perhaps thirty thousand men. Schlieffen had planned to bypass it by marching through southern Holland. Moltke in his “Deployment Plan 1909/10” decided to take Liège by way of a bold strike (Handstreich) with five infantry brigades by the fourth or fifth day of mobilization.42 But if this failed, he, like Schlieffen, was more than ready to advance through the Netherlands.43 The assault on Liège was one of the General Staff’s “best-guarded secrets,” hidden especially from the gossipy kaiser.

Second, Moltke developed doubts concerning Russia’s predicted slow mobilization. In retirement, Schlieffen assured staff officers that the Russian armies marching against Germany would not reach even Galicia in Russian Poland “before the dice were cast in the west.” Austria-Hungary’s “fate,” he stated, would be decided “not along the Bug but rather the Seine” River.44 Moltke was not so sure. With a massive infusion of capital from France, Russia had expanded and modernized the railway system leading to its western border with Germany. In 1912, Moltke noted his concerns about the expected pace of Russian mobilization in the margins of Schlieffen’s draft, concluding that his predecessor had underestimated the strength of the Franco-Russian military alliance.45Still, Moltke could not bring himself to abandon Schlieffen’s blueprint. He expanded the Prussian army by 9,000 men in March 1911 and by 117,000 in March 1913; in February 1913 he canceled the General Staff’s only operations plan in the east.

Third, Moltke grew increasingly nervous about concentrating seven-eighths of his forces on the right wing, which would form the eventual hammer to swing around Paris. It seemed too great a gamble. It “made no sense,” he lectured his future deputy chief of staff,* Hermann von Stein, to advance with the bulk of the army into a region (Belgium) where the enemy likely would not concentrate its forces.46 Already in 1905, Moltke noted on Schlieffen’s great memorandum that the French would not oblige Germany and simply stand on the defensive. The “inherent offensive spirit” of the French and their desire to regain the “lost provinces” of Alsace and Lorraine pointed toward a French offensive the day war was declared.47 Thus, whereas Schlieffen had hoped for a major French drive across the Vosges Mountains to make his sweep through Belgium and northern France that much swifter and more effective, Moltke began to worry about the under-strength of the German left flank facing France in the south, with its vital industries in the Saar. In his “Deployment Plan 1908/09,” Moltke for the first time assigned an entire army corps to defend Upper Alsace; thereafter, in “Deployment Plan 1913/14,” he increased the southern flank to include Seventh Army (two active and one reserve corps) to defend Alsace and the Rhine, and Sixth Army (four active corps) to hold southern Lorraine. In the process, he reduced the relative strength of the right wing from Schlieffen’s 7:1 to a mere 3:1.48

Perhaps Moltke was emboldened to undertake this critical shift of forces by what has been called “one of the greatest [coups] in the history of espionage.” Berlin’s man in Paris, officially designated “Agent 17,” was in fact an Austrian national, August Baron Schluga von Rastenfeld. Working in a shroud of mystery—Schluga refused to inform Berlin of any of his sources, which were mainly open-source materials and conversations at cocktail parties—Agent 17 shortly before the outbreak of war in 1914 had provided the General Staff with a document showing that the French would deploy their forces in the center of their main line of advance on the fifth day of mobilization.49 The German sweep through the Low Countries would thus evade the French offensive through the Ardennes.

In talks with his Italian counterpart, Alberto Pollio, in 1912, 1913, and 1914 as well as with the newly appointed commander of Italian Third Army, Luigi Zuccari, in April 1914, Moltke received assurances that Rome would dispatch Third Army to the Upper Rhine by M+17 “as soon as the casus foederis was established.”50 But there was widespread doubt in Berlin whether the Italian promise would eventuate, and thus by 1914 Moltke committed no fewer than eight German corps to his left flank, both to tie down French forces opposing them and to deny their being shunted north to face the great wheel through Belgium and northern France.51 His critics never forgave him for this “dilution” of the critical right wing.

Still puzzling to scholars is the fact that in light of his concerns with the Schlieffen Plan, Moltke in the first six years of his tenure at the General Staff failed to create the forces required to execute the grand design, or to acquire desperately needed modern war materials (such as aircraft and communications systems), instead channeling funding to the three main branches: artillery, infantry, and cavalry.52 Nor did he manage sufficiently to expand the reserves—while lamenting as late as May 1914 that thirty-eight thousand qualified young men annually evaded the draft owing to a shortage of funds. This is especially puzzling given Moltke’s growing fears that the British might undertake amphibious assaults on Danish Jutland or on Schleswig-Holstein at the onset of a continental war. Whereas Schlieffen in 1905 had cavalierly decreed that the British were of no concern to him since the decision in the war would come in France,53 Moltke recognized correctly the British threat and decided to base IX Reserve Corps (roughly twenty thousand men) in Schleswig-Holstein for what he feared could be a three-front war.

In August 1914, Moltke had a formidable force at his disposal: 880,000 active soldiers, including the regular army of 794,310 men, the Imperial Navy of 79,000, and the colonial forces of 7,000. With the addition of the Landwehr I (reserves aged twenty-eight to thirty-three) and the Landwehr II (aged thirty-three to thirty-nine), the total ballooned to 2.147 million men organized into eighty-seven and a half infantry divisions and fifty-five cavalry brigades. Almost one million Ersatz reserves—men who had escaped the draft and at age twenty committed to twelve years of service—stood as a last manpower reservoir.54 Seventy infantry divisions were to march west at the outbreak of war; facing them would likely be ninety-two enemy divisions.

German forces in the west in 1914 were organized into seven field armies, each consisting of about four army corps. There were as yet no “army groups.” A corps resembled a small village armed and on the move. Each peacetime corps, consisting of roughly twenty thousand men, upon mobilization was brought up to a wartime cohort of fifteen hundred officers and forty thousand noncommissioned officers and men, fourteen thousand horses and twenty-four hundred ammunition and supply wagons for its twenty-five battalions; fully mobilized, it covered fifty kilometers of road. A corps consumed about 130 tons of food and fodder per day. Its artillery consisted of twenty-four field batteries, each of six 135mm guns, and of four heavy artillery batteries, each of four guns. Of special note was a battalion of sixteen superb 150mm howitzers. Each corps had eight regiments of cavalry. Each had a squadron of six mainly Gotha and Albatros biplanes for reconnaissance, as did each corps headquarters. The aircraft had a flight endurance of two to three hours, mounted two 25cm cameras for surveillance, and carried a single Mauser pistol as “armament.” Bomb capacity was restricted to several five-and ten-kilogram missiles that the pilot could “freely throw” over the side of the craft.55

In terms of organization, the army was arranged by twos: two divisions to a corps, two brigades to a division, and two regiments to a brigade. The heart of the German army was its combat division.56 It consisted of four regiments, each of 3,000 soldiers; each regiment contained three battalions of 1,000; and each battalion, four companies of 250. The divisional commander had at his disposal an artillery brigade of seventy-two guns, fifty-four of which were flat-trajectory 77mm pieces. Moltke had added to each infantry division an additional company with six 1908 Maxim water-cooled machine guns as well as a battalion of eighteen 105mm howitzers.

Infantry remained the “queen of battle.” The German Field Regulations of May 1906 identified it as “the primary weapon … its fire will batter the enemy. It alone breaks his last resistance. It carries the brunt of combat and makes the greatest sacrifices.” Above all, “infantry must nurture its intrinsic drive to attack aggressively. Its actions must be dominated by one thought: Forward against the enemy, cost what it may!”57 Each soldier was provided with a sturdy 7.9mm bolt-action Mauser Rifle 98, a bayonet, a knapsack of twenty-three kilograms, an entrenching tool, a haversack, a mess kit, six ammunition pouches, and a small metal disk with his name on it. While infantry still wore the leather spiked helmet (Pickelhaube), its colorful tunics had yielded to standard field gray, a color that blended well with smoke, mud, and autumn foliage. Each soldier carried a leather greatcoat looped outside his backpack; each marched in stiff, nailed boots (Blücher). While the Field Regulations of 1909 raised the possibility that infantry advance in columns of thin lines and that it adopt “swarming” skirmish tactics, infantry, in fact, continued to be drilled to advance in thick marching columns. Charles Repington, military correspondent for The Times of London, in October 1911 concluded from German maneuvers: “No other modern army displays such profound contempt for the effect of modern fire.”58

Cavalry had been greatly reduced since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Whereas the Elder Moltke’s army of 462,000 soldiers had included 56,800 “sabers,” his nephew’s army of 2 million in 1914 had but 90,000 cavalry. The Younger Moltke had done much to upgrade the firepower of the cavalry, with the result that every brigade of 680 riders had with it three batteries each of four guns as well as a company of six machine guns. Still, what one German scholar called a “true chivalrous mounted mentality” reigned among the cavalry: “lance against lance, saber against saber.”59 Its role remained reconnaissance and shock. In early August 1914, the slick stone pavements of Belgian towns and villages caused many a cavalry charge to come to grief, with riders at times skewering one another on their steel-tube lances.60

There was one glaring area of neglect: electronic communications. Year after year, Schlieffen and Moltke had been content to conduct annual maneuvers and staff rides by each night handing out detailed plans and directives for the next day’s assignments. But would this suffice for the modern, lethal battlefield?61 By 1914, plans had been finalized to provide each army corps with a company and its headquarters with a battalion of telephone specialists as well as a company of wireless operators. Thus, the number of telephone companies had increased from twenty in 1912 to forty by the following year. The outbreak of war in August 1914, however, found these units still being created. The army’s stock of twenty-one thousand carrier pigeons was to offset this deficit.

To Moltke’s credit, he brilliantly supervised the mobilization of Germany’s armed forces in 1914. For two decades, the General Staff’s best and brightest had labored day and night to shave minutes off the Military Travel Plan, the critical stage five of mobilization. They sprang into action after noon on 31 July, when Wilhelm II declared a “threatening state of danger of war”—which effectively amounted to a declaration of war—to exist.62 Gerhard Tappen, chief of operations, unlocked the great steel safe and took out the most recent “Deployment Plan 1914/15.” “It was a peculiar feeling,” he noted in his diary.63 Thereupon, the Military Telegraph Section instructed two hundred thousand telegraph employees and one hundred thousand telephone operators at Berlin’s major post offices to send out news of the state of Kriegsgefahr to the 106 infantry brigades scattered throughout the Reich. The Railroad Section and its twenty-three directorates outside the capital began to requisition thirty thousand locomotives as well as sixty-five thousand passenger and eight hundred thousand freight cars needed to assemble twenty-five active corps. Mobilization formally began on 2 August.

Germany’s declaration of war (under Article 68 of the Constitution of 1871) against Russia on 1 August and against France two days later put the mobilization process into high gear. In 312 hours, roughly eleven thousand trains shuttled 119,754 officers, 2.1 million men, and six hundred thousand horses to the various marshaling areas under stage seven (“attack march”) of the Military Travel Plan. The 1.6 million soldiers of the west army—950 infantry battalions and 498 cavalry squadrons—rolled across the Rhine River bridges at the rate of 560 trains, each of fifty-four cars, per day at an average speed of thirty kilometers per hour. The Hohenzollern Bridge at Cologne alone witnessed 2,150 trains thundering over it in ten-minute intervals between 2 and 8 August.64 The Germans, Evelyn Princess Blücher noted in Berlin, “take to war as a duck takes to water.”65 There was no disorder and no opposition to mobilization, with the result that Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg shelved prewar plans to arrest “unpatriotic” Socialists. In fact, on 3 August, the Social Democratic Party caucus voted 78 to 14 to grant war credits; the next day, it closed ranks and unanimously approved 2.27 billion Reichsmark for the first thirty days of mobilization, followed by an immediate supplementary grant of 5 billion.66

Mobilization was executed equally flawlessly in Germany’s second largest federal state, the Kingdom of Bavaria. News of the “threatening state of danger of war” arrived by telegram from Berlin at 2 PM on 31 July, and by next morning Munich’s post offices sent out forty-seven thousand telegrams to district commands, barracks, and depots. In the Bavarian lands east of the Rhine River the General Staff mobilized three thousand trains; in the Bavarian Palatinate, twenty-five hundred. In eight to twelve days, the active army (Feldheer) of 6,699 officers, 269,000 noncommissioned officers and ranks, 222 heavy artillery pieces, and 76,000 thousand horses, as well as the reserve army (Besatzungsheer) of 2,671 officers, 136,834 noncommissioned officers and ranks, 104 heavy artillery guns, and 9,000 horses, were mobilized and pointed for the front in Lorraine.67

Similarly smooth mobilizations also took place in the other federal states. Archduke Friedrich II of Baden’s forces were close to the French border, and hence there was no need for extensive railway transport.68 Baden XIV Army Corps under Ernst von Hoiningen-Huene consisted of thirty battalions of infantry, eight squadrons of cavalry, and twenty-four batteries of field artillery. Its task was to guard the east bank of the Rhine between Breisach and Lörrach, and then to march toward Thann, at the base of the Vosges Mountains.69 Richard von Schubert’s XIV Reserve Corps, a hodgepodge of twelve infantry battalions and Prussian as well as Württemberg Landwehr units, assembled farther north between Lahr and Breisach with orders to proceed to Neuenburg and Mulhouse. All units were issued the new field-gray uniforms. Grateful villagers, noted Sergeant Otto Breinlinger, 10th Company, 111th Reserve Infantry Regiment, stood in awe and showered the men with “bread, coffee, wine, lemonade, apples, raspberry juice, pears & cigars.”70 On 1 August, Hoiningen-Huene had rallied his men with a bristling Order of the Day: “Our enemies have forced the sword into our hands—forced to use it, we will, even should the waves of the Rhine turn red.”71 Around midnight on 7–8 August, Baden’s soldiers marched off to war in rain and storm. They came under the command of Prussian general Josias von Heeringen, whose Seventh Army was responsible for securing the extreme left wing of the German line.

King Friedrich August III of Saxony entrusted Third Army to Max von Hausen, at age sixty-eight war minister and peacetime commander of XII Army Corps in Dresden. Mobilization orders arrived from Berlin in the afternoon of 1 August. Hausen spent the next week assembling Third Army: 101 active and reserve infantry battalions, 30 squadrons of cavalry, and 99 artillery batteries. Third Army entrained at Dresden-Neustadt late in the evening of 7 August, en route to the Eiffel Mountains near the French border.72 It was assigned to the central front, its right wing attached to Second Army and its left wing to Fourth Army. Hausen’s orders were to advance against the line of the Meuse (Maas) River between Namur and Givet.

Finally, the childless King Wilhelm II of Württemberg turned XIII Army Corps over to Max von Fabeck as part of Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia’s Fifth Army at Thionville. Then, to assuage royal sensibilities, Kaiser Wilhelm II gave Duke Albrecht, head of the Catholic branch of the House of Württemberg, command of Fourth Army. Its 123 infantry battalions—an amalgam of German federal units—were the heart of the central front, facing the formidable Ardennes Forest as far down as Luxembourg.73 In historian Sewell Tyng’s apt description, Fourth Army was the “hub of the wheel,” of which Hausen’s Third Army and Karl von Bülow’s Second Army were the “spoke,” and Alexander von Kluck’s First Army the “outer rim.”74 Albrecht’s corps were in position by 12 August, reserve corps two days later, and Ersatz draft divisions by 18 August.

Moltke assembled his forces according to the Revised Deployment Plan.75 In the south, Heeringen’s Seventh Army (125,000 men) took up position east of the Rhine from Strasbourg (Straßburg) down to the Swiss border; just north of him, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria’s Sixth Army (220,000) advanced between Saargemünd and Saarburg. The two armies were to “fix” French forces in the Reichsland and to “prevent their transportation to the French left wing.” The giant Schwenkungsflügel (pivot wing) of First to Fifth Armies was to be anchored on Thionville-Metz. The German center consisted of three armies: Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia’s Fifth Army (200,000) was to drive west between Thionville, Metz, and Saarbrücken in the direction of Florinville and Verdun; north of him, Duke Albrecht’s Fourth Army (200,000) was to march through Trier, Luxembourg, and the Ardennes Forest toward Sedan and Semois; and north of Albrecht, Hausen’s Third Army (180,000) was to head through the Ardennes Forest toward Dinant, Fumay, and Givet.

The hammer of the German advance, of course, consisted of Kluck’s First Army (320,000 men) and Bülow’s Second Army (260,000). In the early-morning hours of 3 August, Georg von der Marwitz’s II Cavalry Corps stormed the Belgian border near Gemmenich; Kluck’s and Bülow’s six hundred thousand gray-clad formations crossed the Meuse River the next day. First Army headed for Brussels and Antwerp, Second Army for Namur. Directly ahead of them lay Liège. Moltke had detailed Otto von Emmich’s X Army Corps to storm the fortress with six infantry brigades and three cavalry divisions. On its success rested Kluck’s and Bülow’s rapid advance through a twenty-kilometer-wide funnel into the heart of Belgium—and beyond.

Moltke in the spring of 1914 had undertaken a cursory evaluation of his likely counterpart. The word from the German military attaché in Paris was that Chief of the General Staff Joseph Joffre was “renowned” for “his sense of responsibility, his work ethic and his common sense.” But he was also suspected to be phlegmatic, “incapable of making hard and fast decisions.” How would he hold up under the pressure of war? The final verdict, italicized for emphasis, was: “In any case, one can not assess him as a ruthless, energetic leader capable of doing whatever the situation demands.”76

FRANCE’S NATIONAL POLICY AND its military strategy were clear in 1914: to “push” its allies “into the fight” and to assure St. Petersburg of “unequivocal” support in case of war. As stated previously, Paris’s goal in 1914 “was to avoid making decisions.”77 With President Raymond Poincaré and Prime Minister René Viviani en route to St. Petersburg after 16 July and with the Senate as well as the Chamber of Deputies (which had to approve a declaration of war) in summer recess from 15 July through 4 August, it proved no great task to “avoid making decisions.”

Of course, the military stood on alert after the assassinations at Sarajevo on 28 June. How would the Russian ally react to any Austro-Hungarian action against Serbia? This was a pivotal question, for in 1914 France and Russia had the only firm military alliance in Europe. Under its terms, in the case of a German attack, France would field 1.3 million men and Russia 800,000.78 Formal staff talks held every year after 1900 reaffirmed the original pledge to wage war against Germany from the first day of its mobilization. At the last peacetime meeting in August 1913, Russia promised to mount an offensive into the “heart” of Germany by the fourteenth day of mobilization; France, to concentrate “nearly all its forces” along its northeastern frontier by the fifteenth day.79 Both General Staffs expected the brunt of a German offensive to fall in the west, with only light forces defending East Prussia.

After Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia one month after the double murders at Sarajevo France entrusted mobilizing her armies to Joseph Césaire Joffre, chief of the General Staff since July 1911. Joffre had not been the obvious choice for the post. War Minister Adolphe Messimy’s top candidate, General Joseph Galliéni, had turned down the post in part because he was close to retirement age. Galliéni had then recommended two men: Paul-Marie Pau and Joseph Joffre. But Pau was a devout Catholic and demanded upon appointment the right (reserved for the war minister) to select commanding generals. Thus, Joffre got the post by default.

Joffre was born on 12 January 1852 at Riversaltes, in the eastern Pyrenees. He came from “modest blood,” an artisan family of coopers. He graduated not from the Military College at Saint-Cyr, but rather from the École Polytechnique, and with a mediocre school record at that. He commanded an artillery battery during the siege of Paris in 1870–71 and then, as an engineer, served in Indo-China, West Africa, and Madagascar. Upon returning to France, he commanded an artillery group and then became director of Engineers and director of Support Services at the War Ministry, where he acquired an intimate appreciation for logistics and railway transportation. In 1907, he took command of 6th Infantry Division and the following year of II Army Corps at Amiens. Unlike his European counterparts, he had not made a name for himself either by publishing treatises on strategy or by distinguishing himself at army maneuvers. His main claim to fame in 1911 rested on the fact that he was a competent fortifications engineer and a decorated colonial soldier.

In terms of character, to his detractors, Joffre was unimaginative and feckless, lacking grand gestures, almost featureless. He was known to be stubborn, almost to the point of stolidity and obstinacy. His baggy clothes—black tunic and red breeches—hardly inspired dash and daring. To his supporters, Joffre was known for his forthrightness, honesty, consideration for subordinates—he retained throughout his life his boyhood nickname le père Joffre, Papa Joffre—and imperturbable calm under stress. To politicians in Paris, he offered what they valued most—an utter lack of ambition and deviousness. His physical appearance—stout, white hair, with a full round face accentuated by pale blue eyes and a long white mustache—tended to efface any impression of distinction or drive. His strict daily regimen of work, rest, sleep, and meals—usually ending with a heaping serving of his favorite leg of lamb (gigot à la Bretonne)—further seemed to indicate a placid (and even dull) personality.

His career as chief of the General Staff would prove otherwise. Although he later claimed that he detested staff work, Joffre was a master of details and a bureaucratic micromanager. He carefully read every major study and, if it supported his policies and decisions, initialed it to show approval. If it did not, he pondered his choices carefully and then edited the study to bring it into line with his own position. During the war, he flooded his field commanders—from army to division level—with telegrams, telephone calls, and a host of staff officers to make certain that they adhered to his strategy. He took to the roads by day and night to maintain a short leash on those commanders. He was not above visiting army headquarters and sitting there for hours to see that his will was being carried out. He had no patience for incompetent or failed commanders. He fired and promoted at will, the former often accompanied by fits of towering rage. But there were limits to his power, and he was careful for the most part to keep the war ministers whom he served informed of his actions and designs. And he showed the patience of Job in dealing with the testy British, fully recognizing that a breach in the Anglo-French relationship could jeopardize the war effort, and even the Entente.

Soon after his appointment to the army’s highest post, Joffre revealed his iron hand as he reshaped the French army. Along with his aristocratic and devout Catholic deputy, Édouard de Castelnau, Joffre was the architect of the French deployment plan in 1914. The so-called Plan XVII, historian Robert Doughty has argued, was “Joffre’s own.”*

In 1911, Joffre inherited a wealth of information from his intelligence branch, the Deuxième Bureau, pointing to a likely German thrust through southeastern Belgium and the Ardennes. This assumption had stemmed from British, French, and Russian observers at German maneuvers; from seemingly reliable espionage reports; and from recent German railway construction to its western border. Most spectacularly, in 1903 and 1904 French intelligence agents had received the so-called Vengeur documents—presumably purchased from a disgruntled German staff officer—that provided them with a rough outline of what less than two years later would be the Schlieffen Plan. Close examination especially in 1907 and 1913 of German railway building in and around Aachen led the Deuxième Bureau to the conclusion that the Germans likely would invade north of Liège in the direction of Brussels.80 Joffre’s operations branch, the Troisième Bureau, for its part argued that from the days of Frederick the Great to Helmuth von Moltke, German doctrine had favored massive envelopments. Still, there was always room for misinterpretation—but none for error.

Joffre had also inherited an operations plan and a political-strategic nightmare. Plan XVI, crafted by Henri de Lacroix and approved by the Superior Council of War in March 1909, addressed the expected German envelopment strategy.81 Believing that the enemy would seek to turn the French line of fortifications in Lorraine by sending one army through the Ardennes at Verdun and another through Sedan, and knowing the political objections to marshaling forces along the Belgian frontier, Lacroix created a flexible defensive-offensive strategy. He proposed placing a new Sixth Army at Châlons-sur-Marne, west of Verdun, ready to deploy toward Toul-Épinal on the right, Verdun on the left, or Sedan-Mézières on the far left of the French line. The nature of the German invasion would determine the eventual choice.

The political-strategic nightmare had been brought about by Lacroix’s successor, Victor Michel. Much concerned about a German thrust through “the very heart of Belgium,” Michel in July 1911 proposed defending on the right from Belfort to Mézières while simultaneously launching a “vigorous offensive” on the left toward Antwerp, Brussels, and Namur.82 Since France lacked the regular forces for such a massive deployment, Michel suggested that it revive the “demi-brigade” of the French Revolution, one that featured three combined-arms battalions, including reservists. The Superior Council unanimously rejected his reorganization—and with it his strategy. Generals close to Minister of War Messimy referred to Michel as a “loony”83 and to his plan as “une insanité.” Michel resigned within two days of this rebuff.

Whom to choose as successor? Messimy, as previously stated, decided on youth: Joseph Joffre was a mere fifty-nine years of age, a moderate republican, and an experienced administrator. As well, Messimy reformed the army’s splintered system of High Command, Superior Council, and General Staff by placing the High Command “completely and without reserve” under Joffre.

Six weeks into the job, Joffre began work on what was to become France’s deployment plan in 1914. He rejected Michel’s notion of defending along the frontier with Belgium and shifted the center of gravity for the mass of French armies to the line Paris-Metz, assigning only reserve units to the Belgian border. His staff was convinced that the Germans would hold in Alsace-Lorraine and advance through Belgium, but in January 1912 the Superior Council of National Defense again made it clear that the French army was not to advance into Belgium until the Germans did so.84

Joffre kept the Belgian option to himself. He informed neither the politicians at Paris nor his corps commanders that he preferred to attack into southern Belgium against what he believed would be the “weak” German center. He later confided in his memoirs: “I preferred to say nothing [about the Belgian option] in an operations plan.”85 At most, he spoke of an advance “in the general direction of the northeast as soon as all French forces were assembled.” Clear as mud.

On 18 April 1913, Joffre shared with the Superior Council of War the basic contours of his Plan de renseignements. It was accepted on 2 May. His staff put the final touches on it in February 1914, and the ponderous annexes to the plan were completed on 1 May.86 France would concentrate five armies in the northeast. On the right of the French line, First Army was to drive toward Sarrebourg and Second Army against Saarbrücken; at the center, Third Army was to attack Metz-Thionville; and on the left, Fifth Army was to advance into Luxembourg toward Belgium. If the Germans came through Belgium, Joffre was given the green light to “penetrate the territory of Belgium at the first news of the violation of that territory by the German army.”87 In a secret annex, Joffre would have the British deploy on the left of Fifth Army west of Mézières. But in no case would he allow their action (or inaction) to affect his overall deployment.

Joffre’s army closely paralleled that of Moltke’s in terms of organization.88 The typical army corps consisted of about forty thousand men organized into two divisions. Each corps had as well a brigade of reserves, divided into two regiments of two battalions each, and a cavalry regiment of four squadrons. Its artillery consisted of 120 superb flat-trajectory 75mm (soixante-quinze) guns—nine four-gun batteries for each of its infantry divisions as well as twelve four-gun batteries as special corps artillery. Industrial output was set at about 13,600 rounds per day. Since the French army expected and prepared for a series of highly mobile battles, it saw little need to burden the corps with slow and ponderous heavy artillery. The concept of preliminary bombardment to “soften” the enemy line was rejected by most staff planners. Moreover, the army’s technical services objected to introducing additional calibers that would only multiply supply problems. And although the War Ministry had ordered 220 105mm howitzers (range twelve kilometers) on the eve of the war, similar objections from the technical services prompted it to reduce the order to 36. As a result, France entered the war in 1914 with a plethora of heavy artillery pieces—mostly 105mm and 120mm as well as elderly Rimailho 155mm guns.

Each French infantry division had two brigades of two regiments each; each regiment, in turn, had three battalions, including a machine-gun section of two guns. The divisional commander had at his disposal three groups of 75mm mobile field artillery pieces. Cavalry divisions (ten in 1914) were made up of three brigades each of two regiments (four squadrons), a total of about forty-five hundred “sabers.” Two four-gun, horse-drawn batteries of 75mm guns and a bicycle detachment of 324 men accompanied a cavalry division into battle. Each brigade had a machine-gun section with Model 1907 Saint-Étienne guns. The proverbial arme blanche carried lances, sabers, and antiquated single-action 1890 Lebel carbines (without bayonet). Cuirassiers and dragoons were resplendent in their steel breastplates, heavy cavalry in their brass helmets streaming long horsehair plumes. Cavalry’s major role was to scout enemy positions and to assist the infantry during attack.

Aviation was still in its infancy. The French Armée de l’air of some 140 operational aircraft organized into squadrons of 5 or 6 planes in 1914 was designed to track enemy movements and to fight its opposite numbers for control of the air. Range and bomb loads were limited. There were as yet no separate fighter and bomber squadrons. On 14 August, several French Voisin pusher biplanes bombed German Zeppelin hangars at Metz-Frescaty, thereby showing the way toward the future of military aviation.

Joffre was an ardent admirer of the all-out offensive, l’offensive à outrance. He vowed never again to allow a French army to be encircled as at Sedan on 1 September or to surrender under siege as at Metz on 27 October 1870. “The French Army, returning to its traditions,” he wrote in regulations in 1913, “accepts no law in the conduct of operations other than the offensive.”89 His forces, the proverbial furia françese, would advance en masse with drums and bugles sounding the attack. Cran (guts) and élan vital (spirit) would carry the day. “Battles are above all moral contests. Defeat is inevitable when hope for victory ceases.” Victory would come “to the one whose will is the steadiest and whose morale is the most highly tempered.” Defeat of the German armies, Joffre trumpeted, “remains, no matter what the circumstances, the first and principle [sic]objective.”90 He offered no further details on his intentions, other than to drive into the “heart” of Germany. There was no overall strategic goal. After all, by the time the French armies arrived in central Germany, the Russians would surely be in Berlin! And even if “beaten,” the French army would have “opened the way for the Russian offensive” and thus assured “final success.”91

The “will to win” also shaped French artillery doctrine. Whereas the 1895 regulations had stressed that the artillery was decisive in battle from start to finish, those of December 1913 rejected this postulate: “The artillery does not prepare attacks; it supports them.”92 Artillery was not to pulverize enemy positions before an attack was launched, but to limit its role to supporting the attack, once under way. In a war of maneuver, the legendary French 75mm rapid-firing field gun—deadly accurate and firing twice as fast (twenty to thirty rounds per minute) as the German 77mm or the British 13-pounder guns—alone could keep up with the advancing infantry; less mobile heavy artillery would only slow the advance.


Infantrymen in their heavy wool blue coats, red trousers, blue cap with red top (képi), nailed boots (brodequins), and carrying twenty-five kilograms of kit (poncho, entrenching tool, ammunition, mess gear, water bottle, as well as a pack with spare socks, shirt, and field dressing) would storm entrenched positions, led by their officers and drum-and-bugle corps. The combination of a withering hail of bullets from mainly single-shot 1886 Lebel 8mm rifles and 75mm cannon shells would turn the tide. Once among the enemy, the poilus would fix bayonets—la Rosalie, the thin, triangular “supreme weapon” according to the Infantry Regulations of April 1914—and finish off remaining defenders.93 “À la baionette! En avant!”* rang lustily through the woods of Alsace-Lorraine, the Ardennes, and the Argonne in August 1914. Few staff officers appreciated that the French corps with 120 75mm guns might be outmatched if a slugfest ensued against German corps with 108 77mm, 36 105mm, and 16 150mm guns.

Also not fully resolved by summer 1914 was the role that the reserves would play in a future war. In October 1913, British or Russian intelligence sources passed on to the French army a report on the state of the German army, in which one conclusion stood out: Moltke planned to use his first-line reserve formations “at the same time as the active army.”94 But what precisely did this mean? French military intelligence did not place a high value on Germany’s reserves and hence were convinced that the Landwehr would not be integrated with active units. Most likely, this precluded a drive across Belgium, as German regular forces would be insufficient to storm Belgium and France as well as Russian Poland.

With regard to his own reserves, Joffre was adamant that France, with a stagnant population of twenty million less than Germany, not only would have to draft all eligible males (in fact, 84 percent as opposed to 53 percent in Germany), but also to deploy its reserves from the outset of a war. His guiding planning principle, he later wrote, was “to wage war with all my forces.”95 Thus, he stood in the forefront (with President Poincaré) of those who in 1913 called for the extension of the term of conscripts’ service from two to three years. While this has generally been interpreted as preparation for a prolonged industrial war, it was in fact nothing more than Joffre’s conviction that the republic needed to have as many well-trained men under arms as Germany and to deploy them in an opening campaign. Under the terms of the loi troisième of August 1913, France increased the size of its “come-as-you-are” army to 884,000 men (against Germany’s 880,000 after its army increases of 1912 and 1913).96 Given that Germany would have to deploy one army to delay the anticipated Russian onslaught in the east, that Charles Mangin’s force noirewould arrive from Africa, and that the British might deploy on the French left, the Allied armies would outnumber the Germans.

Last but not least, Joffre’s fixation with the “cult of the offensive” ruled out a prolonged war. While he warned the Superior Council of National Defense in February 1912 that a struggle with Germany might last for an “indefinite period”—at least six months just to reach the Rhine River after victorious opening battles—he did little to prepare either army or nation for that eventuality. That the war had to be short became an article of faith not to be assailed. The Field Regulations of October 1913 squared the circle: “The nature of war, the size of forces involved, the difficulties of resupplying them, the interruption of social and economic life of the country, all encourage the search for a decision in the shortest possible time in order to terminate the fighting quickly.”97 Alfred von Schlieffen could not have put it better.

On 31 July 1914, Joffre warned the cabinet that time was of the essence. Every twenty-four-hour delay in mobilization translated into a fifteen-to twenty-kilometer loss of territory.98 The Council of Ministers authorized mobilization on 1 August, when Germany declared war on Russia; 2 August was the first day of mobilization. Unlike 1870, mobilization proceeded smoothly. Between 2 and 18 August, fourteen major railway lines shuttled 4,278 trains, on average 56 per day, to garrisons and depots near the front at Sedan, Montmédy, Toul, Nancy, and Belfort. Only 20 were late. The peacetime home army of 884,000 absorbed 621,000 reservists into its forty-five infantry divisions; a further 655,000 men formed the twenty-five reserve divisions; and another 184,000 were organized into twelve territorial divisions. Last but not least, about one million men remained at their depots, awaiting deployment.99 The French navy escorted Louis Comby’s Constantine 37th and Paul Muteau’s Alger 38th colonial divisions as well as fourteen hundred men and horses of African 3d and 4th chasseurs from Algeria and Tunisia to France. Slowly, a vast force of 1.6 million infantrymen moved to the front at twenty-five to thirty kilometers per day.

There were far fewer deserters than the anticipated 10 to 13 percent: A mere 1.2 percent of the 1914 cohort of conscripts failed to report for duty, and many of these were classified as mentally handicapped, itinerants, or Bretons (who could not read French). Roughly 350,000 volunteers flooded recruiting depots and 3,000 peacetime deserters returned to serve.100 In fact, the response was so patriotic that Minister of the Interior Louis Malvy on 1 August shelved the infamous Carnet B, the government’s secret list of roughly twenty-five hundred known agitators, anarchists, pacifists, and spies to be arrested in case of mobilization as they posed a “national threat.”101 Not even the assassination of the supposed “pro-German Socialist traitor” Jean Jaurès by a radical nationalist on the day before mobilization sparked an outcry against the war.

Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux of the Railway Transport Service on 4 August recorded the intense enthusiasm of the slogans painted on the transports as the poilus departed for the front: DEATH TO THE KAISER. STRING THE KAISER UP. DEATH TO THE BOCHES.* And everywhere he noted the same caricatures: “pigs’ heads in pointed helmets.” The civilian population was equally stirred. “Bouquets, garlands, flags.”102

The pressing question for the General Staff was where the main German blow would fall. Joffre spent the first week of August poring over intelligence reports, hoping that they would confirm the calculus behind his concentration plan. It was still “too early,” he later put it, “to announce formally my intention to operate in [central] Belgium.”103 Germany’s declaration of war on France on 3 August and on Belgium one day later relieved him of that quandary. On 8 August, Joffre issued his General Instruction No. 1, finally revealing his strategy.104 The goal remained nothing less than the “destruction” of the entire German army. To that effect, he ordered a double blow: In the south, Yvon Dubail’s First Army and Édouard de Castelnau’s Second Army were to attack in Lorraine, south of the German fortifications at Metz-Thionville; in the center, Pierre Ruffey’s Third Army and Fernand de Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army were to drive into eastern Belgium, north of the enemy line at Metz-Thionville. Joffre held Charles Lanrezac’s Fifth Army back at Rethel-Mézières as a reserve to repel what he took to be the main German drive through central Belgium.

Joffre believed that he had the right men in the right places. Castelnau, a devout Catholic in a largely anticlerical army, was known as the “fighting friar.” He was broad and short, and sported imperial-period whiskers. He had worked with Joffre on “all studies for Plan XVII” and was one of its “principal authors,” just the man to storm the Vosges and take Metz. Dubail, tall, slender, and solemn, was a “faithful, solid soldier, great disciplinarian, and conscientious.” Lanrezac, the “swarthy” native of Guadeloupe, was France’s most feared teacher of strategy at Saint-Cyr, the veritable “lion of the French army.” Ruffey had a stellar reputation as an artillery expert with a “brilliant and imaginative mind.” Langle de Cary was “a disciplinarian, full of authority, and animated to a very high degree by a sense of his responsibility.”105 It was Joffre’s plan, and these were his handpicked commanders. The offensives would start on 14 August. It was up to the Germans to deploy as Joffre expected.

“WHAT WOULD YOU SAY was the smallest British military force that would be of any practical assistance to you?” Sir Henry Wilson, the tall, bony, energetic Ulsterman who, after three times failing to gain admission to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, headed the Camberley Staff College, asked his French counterpart, Ferdinand Foch. The head of the École supérieure de la guerre, a proud and erect man with a bushy handlebar mustache and a boxer’s nose, did not blink for a moment. “One single private soldier—and we would take good care that he was killed.”106

Foch’s bon mot captured the essence of the Anglo-French military-strategic relationship before 1914. France was the driver, Britain the passenger. France decided on the nature of the British involvement in World War I and the deployment of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Foch and Wilson exchanged sensitive operational intelligence. They studied maps of Belgium on which Wilson in heavy black ink marked every major road. They agreed that Britain would send the BEF to France the minute that Germany crossed the Belgian or French border. They concurred that the onus for provoking a conflict in Europe had to rest with Germany. They concealed the intimate nature of their discussions from politicians, both in Paris and in London.

For those politicians did not share the concepts concocted by the two military academy heads. French leaders such as Caillaux and Poincaré had steadfastly rejected plans that called for an early French deployment into Belgium, before clear evidence of a “positive menace of German invasion.”107 British leaders remained wedded to imperial defense—read, India—and were reluctant about what historian Michael Howard has called a “continental commitment.”108 Most preferred a maritime strategy: The Royal Navy would serve as a barrier to invasion and guarantor of British command of the sea. The army, in the cheeky words of First Sea Lord John A. Fisher, was but a “missile” to be “fired” by the navy. And even some army commanders feared that Henry Wilson, who would soon become widely known throughout the army as “the Intriguer,” was “more French than the French!!”109

Britain in 1914 did not possess a war plan. Rather, its admirals and generals individually had drafted a series of contingency plans to address a plethora of possible conflicts that London might face around the globe. To be sure, one of these concerned the possibility of German expansion on the Continent. After its less-than-stellar performance against the Boers in South Africa (1899–1902), the British army in 1906 had created a General Staff to further the professionalization of its officers. John Grierson, the first director of military operations in the General Staff, had served as military attaché in Berlin. Convinced of the bellicose nature of the Berlin regime, Grierson drafted plans for sending an expeditionary force to the Continent to assist France. Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Sir Edward Grey gave Grierson the green light—provided that talks with the French proceeded “unofficially and in a non-committal way.”110

This they did—in 1906, 1907, and 1908. Under Grierson’s successor, Wilson, the plans matured into the dispatch of a BEF consisting of four infantry divisions and one cavalry division—to be augmented by an additional two infantry divisions once the Territorial Forces were deemed fit to stand up an effective home defense. The BEF was to deploy on the left wing of the French army near Le Cateau-Maubeuge-Hirson. While Wilson viewed its five divisions as “fifty too few,”111 he nevertheless set the wheels in motion for a formal British “continental commitment.” And he upset the Admiralty, where Their Lordships favored amphibious operations in the North and Baltic seas.

The army-navy antagonism over strategy came to a head on 23 August 1911 at a critical meeting of a subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID)—created in 1902 as a forum where Foreign Office, Admiralty, War Office, and Treasury could discuss national security policy. Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith was in the chair that day. The meeting has taken on almost mythical proportions in the debate over British war planning prior to 1914, with historian Niall Ferguson going so far as to argue that it “set the course for a military confrontation between Britain and Germany.”112

Asquith’s purpose in calling the meeting was to tackle a broad question: How could Britain, if asked, provide “armed support” to France in the event of a German attack? Wilson and Sir William Nicholson, chief of the Imperial General Staff, presented the army’s case first. Six infantry divisions and one cavalry division would be sent to the Continent at once, to be deployed on the left wing of the French army. The two officers viewed this as critical, since otherwise the Germans might well overrun France and leave Britain with a naval struggle “that could be measured in years.”113 Wilson, having bought into French intelligence estimates, expected the enemy advance to come between Verdun and Maubeuge. Since there were but thirteen major roads in this corridor, he projected no more than forty German infantry divisions in the area, which would be defended by a similar number of French infantry divisions. Hence, the BEF could prove to be the decisive “tipping point” in the campaign.

Asquith next called on Britain’s admirals to state their case.114 Sir Arthur Wilson, the new first sea lord, called for a close blockade of the German North Sea coast, augmented by tip-and-run operations against enemy ports, at first in the North Sea and later also in the nearly landlocked Baltic Sea. Had he left it at that, Wilson might well have escaped unscathed. But as head of the Senior Service, he could not resist taking jabs at the army’s presentation. The dispatch of almost all British forces to France would cause a collapse in public morale, he argued, and it would leave no regular troops at home to defend the island. Worse yet, it left no troops for the Royal Navy to “launch” onto German soil. Almost as an afterthought, Wilson opined that the Royal Navy was not prepared even to cover the transport of the BEF across the English Channel.

It was a disastrous misstep. Home Secretary Winston S. Churchill and Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George at once pounced on the fact that Wilson had, in fact, stated in writing in 1908–09 that the fleet could escort the BEF across the Channel, and that it could protect the island against German invasion. Churchill viciously queried Wilson as to how under his scheme a German invasion fleet could get past the entire Royal Navy blockading Germany’s North Sea ports! The cabinet concluded that the Royal Navy had no war plan worthy of the name. Admiral Wilson was removed from his post within two months of the meeting. “Continental intervention,” in the words of historian Samuel R. Williamson Jr., “had become the accepted dogma.”115

But how to transform this “dogma” into reality? Where were the troops to be landed? How would they be deployed? Who would command? Above all, how was the cabinet to be brought onside? Prime Minister Asquith let it be known within three months of that CID meeting that “all questions of policy have been & must be reserved for the decision of the Cabinet, & that it is quite outside the function of military or naval officers to prejudge such questions.”116 This was clear political language, even for Henry Wilson.

The real test came only after Britain had declared war on Germany on 4 August—without ever having debated its “war plan.” Over the next two days, Asquith convened meetings of his top military and naval advisers at 10 Downing Street. The most important of these took place in late afternoon of 5 August.117 Chaired by Prime Minister Asquith, it included, among others, cabinet ministers Churchill and Lloyd George, First Sea Lord Prince Louis of Battenberg, Field Marshals Sir John French and Horatio Herbert Lord Kitchener, and Generals Henry Wilson and Douglas Haig. Kitchener confounded the group by stating that the war would last three years, and that Britain would have to raise million-man armies to fight it. Haig likewise raised hackles by suggesting that the BEF ought to be held back in Britain for a while (perhaps “2 or 3 months”), while the full resources of the empire were marshaled. “Johnnie” French, the newly appointed commander in chief, a paunchy, bulldog-like, white-haired cavalry officer who, in the words of historian Hew Strachan, had “made one reputation in South Africa and another in ladies’ bedrooms,”118 crossed Wilson by stating that since Britain’s mobilization was already three days behind that of France, the BEF ought to be disembarked at Antwerp rather than at a French Channel port. Wilson thought that a “ridiculous proposal.” Foreign Secretary Grey chimed in that this would violate Dutch (!) territory. French, along with Churchill and Lloyd George, argued that the Germans likely would debouch north of Maubeuge and the Meuse River, and thus called for further landings at Zeebrugge and Ostend (Oostende).

On the contentious issue of the BEF’s deployment on the Continent, Kitchener, who would be appointed the secretary of state for war the next day, opted for Amiens, well behind the French front. Sir John French then suggested that after landing at Antwerp, the BEF operate on the German right flank—and thus along both banks of the Scheldt River, which were in neutral Holland. After what Wilson derisively called “desultory strategy” and “idiocy,”119 the cabinet on 6 August decided to dispatch four infantry divisions and one cavalry division to the Continent; 4th Infantry Division was kept on the coast to defend against possible German landings, while 6th Infantry Division remained in Ireland to guard against unrest. They would be sent to France as soon as conditions warranted. The octogenarian field marshal Frederick Lord Roberts carried the day by suggesting that British deployment be left for the French to decide. And decide they did—for Maubeuge, where, in Foch’s words, it was certain that “a single British soldier” would in fact be quickly “killed.”

The British Expeditionary Force of 1914, in the words of the official history of the war, “was incomparably the best trained, best organized, and best equipped British Army which ever went forth to war.”120 This certainly was true with regard to the ranks and to materials. The regular army, or First Line, consisted of six mixed-arms divisions and one cavalry division. Each infantry division of eighteen thousand soldiers comprised three brigades (each of four battalions) with artillery, engineers, mounted troops, signal service, and supply and transport train. Service dress included a thick woolen tunic dyed khaki green, a stiffened peak cap, hobnailed boots, puttees around the ankles, and webbing as well as a small haversack that held thirty-two kilograms of ammunition, entrenching tool, personal items, knife, washing and shaving kit, water bottle, daily rations, and a knife, fork, and spoon set. The British soldier in 1914 carried a superb rifle, the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield .303-inch caliber weapon, capable of firing fifteen aimed rounds per minute and mounting a seventeen-inch Wilkinson Sword bayonet. It was every bit as good as, and perhaps even better than, the German Mauser.

In terms of firepower,121 each division of four thousand artificers commanded fifty-four 18-pounder guns, eighteen 4.5-inch (114mm) light howitzers, and four 60-pounder (127mm) guns. The 18-pounder (which later became the American 75mm Model 1917) was the Royal Field Artillery’s mainstay. It could fire as many as thirty 8.6kg shells per minute, with maximum range of 5,960 meters. Its only drawback was the meager allotment of one thousand to thirteen hundred shells per gun, which translated into only four to five hours of sustained fire support. The 4.5-inch howitzer was a simple and robust weapon with a rate of fire of four rounds per minute and maximum range of 6,680 meters. The British failure to produce modern heavy field howitzers—like the 152mm and 203mm pieces of the latter part of the war—limited offensive operations in 1914. The 60-pounder was the main heavy artillery gun of the BEF. It could fire two 27kg shells per minute to a maximum range of 11,250 meters—roughly 4,000 meters shorter than the German 135mm piece. It required a crew of ten to operate the weapon and a team of eight horses to tow its 4.4 tons. Only the howitzers and the 60-pounders had high-explosive shells. Finally, each division was given twenty-four Vickers Model 1912 water-cooled machine guns that could fire at a rate of 450 bullets per minute.

The BEF’s reinforced cavalry division comprised five brigades each of three regiments, in all some nine thousand sabers as well as about four thousand supporting artillery and auxiliary troops. The division had thirty Vickers machine guns and two brigades of horse-drawn artillery, or a total of twenty-four 13-pounders. The latter were designed as rapid-fire field guns for the Royal Horse Artillery in maneuver warfare, and had a range of 5,390 meters. Unfortunately, they were much too light against entrenched enemy positions. Fourteen divisions (three hundred thousand men) of the Territorial Forces, raised by county lieutenancies, were the last reserve. They had but thirty-five guns per division and were not expected to be combat-ready in less than six months after mobilization.122

Finally, the recently organized Royal Flying Corps consisted of sixty operational airplanes of various types and makes.123 Four self-contained squadrons went to France in 1914. Each squadron consisted of three flights, each with four airplanes. Their primary mission was operational reconnaissance. By October 1914, however, the mission had been extended to include air-to-air combat and some aerial bombardment.

British military doctrine on the eve of World War I was in transition, an amalgam of lessons learned from the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War as well as observation of what mainly the French practiced.124 Its tactics of fire and maneuver to close with the enemy, followed by the decisive final shock assault, were the key to solving the problem of infantry attack in an age of modern rifles, smokeless powder, rapid-fire artillery, and the machine gun. They were tailored to its long-service regulars. The 1911 manual Infantry Training stressed attack, defense, and security. Fire, maneuver, and interarms cooperation were critical to success. The days of swarming lines of infantry, solid massed columns advancing, and inspired bayonet charges with trumpets blaring and colors flying seemingly belonged to the past. Direct artillery fire remained the primary mode of supporting infantry in the assault. Indirect fire still lacked the technology to relay information quickly and accurately while on the move. There was little liaison between artillery and infantry. Cavalry doctrine emphasized the rifle as the primary weapon for dismounted riders, but Sir John French insisted that the arme blanche was not obsolete in modern war; hence he retained the sword and reintroduced the lance for the hallowed cavalry charge.

The verdict on the British High Command remains mixed. The General Staff, established only in 1906, still lacked the experience and professional expertise of the French or German staffs. It was hardly prepared to conduct a war on the continental scale. Neither the 1913 maneuvers nor the winter 1913–14 General Staff war game, both resulting in “total confusion” and inept command and control, had installed confidence in the British staff system. While most scholars have long rejected the simplistic notion of the army as “lions led by donkeys,” historian Tim Travers maintains that its upper echelons were dominated by men who were openly “class conscious” and “anti-intellectual,” who rejected theory and doctrine as “bookish,” and who preferred “traditional Victorian” values such as experience, common sense, good breeding, and classical education.125They stressed character: human qualities such as bravery and self-control. While aware of the impact of modern technology and firepower on the battlefield and the need to prepare the nation to accept high casualties (“wastage”), they still defined battle as a structured and ordered phenomenon based on preparation, assault, and exploitation. War remained essentially the triumph of will. Although it might be too strong to state that the British were as animated by the cult of the offensive as the major continental armies, the concept nevertheless remained strong, especially with leaders such as French and Haig.

British mobilization—down to collecting 120,000 horses in twelve days—proceeded much more efficiently than it had fifteen years earlier for the war in South Africa. Southampton was the major port of troop embarkation; Le Havre, the major port of disembarkation. The Royal Navy closed both ends of the English Channel against enemy raids.126 There were to be neither convoys nor escorts. The security of the BEF’s transport to France was left to Fifth, Seventh, and Eighth battle squadrons of the Channel Fleet under Vice Admiral Sir Cecil Burney. French destroyers and submarines of the Boulogne Squadron would guard the Straits of Dover. The Grand Fleet was kept at sea to intercept any attempt by the German High Seas Fleet to attack the transports.

Over the five most intensive days of transport, eighteen hundred trains were mobilized in Britain and Ireland.127 On the busiest day of the enterprise, eighty trains arrived at Southampton Docks. From there, the troops proceeded to France, in single ships or in pairs, by day and by night. At the peak in shipping, more than 137 simultaneous passages ferried 130,000 soldiers across the Channel. On 14 August, Field Marshal French and his staff arrived at Amiens. They deployed the BEF in a pear-shaped area measuring forty by sixteen kilometers between Maubeuge and Le Cateau, and ordered it to advance northeast on the left of French Fifth Army in the direction of Nivelle. Sir Douglas Haig took command of I Corps and “Jimmy” Grierson of II Corps; upon Grierson’s sudden and unexpected death due to a heart attack, Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was given II Corps. Kluck’s First Army and Bülow’s Second Army lurked on Belgium’s eastern border.

OF ALL THE EUROPEAN states, Belgium was in the most unenviable position. For centuries, it had been the playground of the great captains: Julius Caesar, Charles the Bold, Philip II, Louis XI, Louis XIV, the Duke of Marlborough, Napoleon I, and the Duke of Wellington. In 1830, after an uprising against the Dutch ruler Willem I, the European powers had declared it to be an “Independent and perpetually Neutral State.” In international accords signed in 1831 and 1839, they had recognized Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as King of the Belgians.128 For seven decades, Belgium hung in a precarious state of scrupulous neutrality, aware that its continued existence depended on the goodwill of the great powers.

To give the new kingdom a chance to defend itself (at least initially) in case of hostile incursion by any of its neighbors, the great powers had insisted that Belgium “uphold” its territorial integrity. Thus, between 1878 and 1906 Brussels set about creating a system of ten fortresses—the major ones being at Antwerp, Namur, and Liège. By 1914, la position fortifée de Liège had received an additional eleven forts and twelve field works, equally divided along both banks of the Maas, making it one of Europe’s most formidable fortresses. The regular army consisted of 117,000 men, divided into six light infantry divisions and one cavalry division.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Charles de Brocqueville, Brussels in May 1913 introduced universal male conscription and increased the annual intake of recruits from 13,300 to 33,000.129 The grand design was to stand up an army of roughly 340,000 soldiers by 1918. The regular field army was to consist of 180,000 men, organized into six army corps, each of three or four light infantry divisions. The new king, Albert, the last of the European warrior-kings, was prepared to use these assets against any and all potential invaders; he regarded no power as a potential ally. Thus, in historian Strachan’s words, Brussels boxed itself into a policy of “international political purity” but “strategic and military absurdity.”130

Belgium’s precarious position of “perpetual” neutrality suffered a rude shock in 1913. In his last peacetime “Deployment Plan 1913/14,” Moltke demanded that on the first day of mobilization, the Belgian government be handed an “ultimatum of short duration” in which it openly declared itself “to be Germany’s ally or adversary,” and that it “open” the fortresses of Liège, Namur, and Huy to a German advance across its territory.131 During a state visit to Berlin in November, Wilhelm II and Moltke warned Albert that “small countries, such as Belgium, would be well advised to rally to the side of the strong if they wished to retain their independence.”132 It was at best an insensitive comment; at worst a direct threat to a king who stemmed from an ancient and noble German house, whose mother was a Hohenzollern princess, and who had married a Bavarian duchess, Elisabeth of Wittelsbach. Above all, both Wilhelm II and Moltke badly misjudged Albert’s temperament.

How to deploy Belgium’s army? King Albert and his military reached general agreement that, depending on the nature of an external threat, the army would concentrate along a west-east axis running from Aat to Namur to Liège, ready to face either France or Germany. But in May 1913, Chief of the General Staff Antonin Selliers de Moranville ordered a refinement of these plans as it became evident that Germany would be the likely adversary. Since Germany could mobilize and deploy its forces faster than Belgium, Deputy Chief of Staff Colonel Louis de Rijckel (Ryckel), with King Albert’s approval, decided to deploy his entire force along the line of the Maas. The plan made sense. The army could thus be anchored on Fortress Liège and its four hundred guns, with its front protected by the “formidable wet ditch” of the Maas; its left wing rested against the Dutch border, and its right wing sheltered behind the Maas and Fortress Namur.133 Of course, such a massive overhaul of the Belgian war plan required the one thing that Brussels did not have in 1913—time.

How well prepared was Liège for war? When General Gérard Leman took command of 3d Infantry Division at Liège at the beginning of 1913, he was shocked by its “deplorable state.”134 The “lamentable slackness” of the troops “greatly distressed” him: By and large, they were “dirty and untidy,” avoided officers so as not to have to salute, carried no arms, and in public “slouched, hand across stomachs or behind backs, humped up, chins on chests and feet dragging.” A forced refresher course at Beverloo in May did little to address the sad state of the forces. Fully one-third of the division’s officers, Leman lamented, “knew nothing of fire control or maneuver.” The infantry “were very poor marksmen.” The artillery “had not the equipment to communicate with its own infantry.” The only bright spot was that by the end of their training, at least the young recruits “showed willingness and endurance in marching” and generally “gave the impression of having personal courage.”

On 3 August, King Albert rejected Berlin’s ultimatum of the previous evening calling on Brussels to grant German armies free passage with the terse comment, “It is war.”135 The theoretical planning of the last years was now hard reality. Under Article 68 of the Constitution, King Albert became commander in chief of the Belgian army. And since no plans existed as yet for Rijckel’s redeployment of the bulk of his forces on the line of the Maas, Albert had no alternative but to marshal 3d Infantry Division at Liège, 4th Infantry Division at Namur, and the remainder of his troops at Tirlemont, Perwez, and Leuven (Louvain), between the Gette (Gete) and Dyle (Dijle) rivers. Leuven was to serve as army headquarters.

The Belgian army called up 200,000 men, followed by 18,500 volunteers and 18,000 conscripts. In fact, the field army, excluding fortress troops, amounted to but 117,000 regulars and 37,600 horses. Each of the six corps comprised between twenty-five thousand and thirty thousand men; the cavalry division, forty-five hundred sabers. Each infantry division was subdivided into three or four brigades of two regiments each, with one artillery regiment of a dozen 75mm guns and a second with a plethora of 36mm, 75mm, and 150mm guns. There existed no heavy artillery and a mere 102 machine guns, with the result that Brussels in August hastily purchased twelve heavy howitzers and one hundred machine guns from France.136 About two hundred thousand soldiers manned the country’s ten major fortresses. Behind them stood a last reserve, the Garde civique, weekend warriors garbed in semimilitary uniforms. Still caught up in the midst of Brocqueville’s expansion plans, much of Belgium’s army in 1914 consisted of what Émile Galet of its École militaire called “phantom battalions and skeleton companies.”137 The full force of the German assault would soon fall on this army at Liège.

* Theosophy (the name comes from a Greek word meaning “wisdom of the divine”) professed to achieve knowledge of God by “spiritual ecstasy, direct intuition, or special individual revelation.” Steiner is best known for the pedagogic theories taught in his worldwide Waldorf (or Steiner) schools.

* Sites in Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine are given their more customary French names, with their 1914 German names in parentheses. Spelling of French city names was taken from

* I have used this familiar Anglo-Saxon term rather than the German quartermaster-general.

* Neither the French government nor Joffre had a formal name for the Plan de renseignements, popularly referred to as Plan XVII.

 In 1998, the city reverted to its prerevolutionary name, Châlons-en-Champagne.

* “Plant bayonets! Forward!”

* Boche is a disparaging term for a German, likely from the French dialectical caboche (cabbage, blockhead).

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!