Week 6: September 8th - 14th


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Find below our weekly introductory essay by David Hargreaves and the pick of this week's journalism from 1914.

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8th-14th September 1914

The Search for Strategy

by David Hargreaves

BY THIS SIXTH week of fighting, the architects of the war were in denial. They had unleashed chaos. The corpses of tens of thousands of soldiers testified to the technologies of mass destruction. But to what end? In the wake of the Schlieffen Plan’s collapse, all Europe was mired in a strategic impasse.

You would not have guessed it from the furious (sometimes demonic) pace at which unhappy soldiers were being marched. Early in this week the armies of Joffre enjoyed snapping at the departing heels of the Germans. Paris was saved and victory appeared to have been snatched from the jaws of defeat. Most poilus were sufficiently patriotic to savour the moment, for that was all it lasted. Their pleasure was enhanced by the certainty that many German soldiers, as well as their officers, were nonplussed by the sudden bouleversement of their fortunes. In Germany, people whispered darkly of cabals and of treachery — and, in an ugly foretaste of the future, of a stab in the back. It was nonsense, of course. France (rather than Britain, so far as the Marne was concerned) had won, Germany had lost, and that was that.

Explanations for the victory continue to be debated. French supply lines were shorter than the Germans’, which helped, as no doubt did the fact that France was fighting to defend her own soil. Joffre had also shown an awesome tenacity which, in this instance, suited the national purpose.

By contrast, von Moltke was now the chief object of the odium which, as ever in the Imperial Army, was in generous supply. On 14 September he received orders from the Kaiser to report sick — prelude for a discreet dismissal. Prince Rupprecht was accused of having cashed in on his royal connections in order to launch a futile attack on Nancy. It was a charge which might have been better applied to the Kaiser’s son, the Crown Prince, whose Fifth Army had attacked Vaux-Marie on 10 September — an act of suicidal folly in the face of French artillery, and one in which some units lost 40% of their men.

The rush to apportion blame displaced energies which might have been better expended on a reappraisal of strategy. “It is the beginning of the end for Prussian Imperialism” exulted Edouard Vaillant on 15 September inL’Humanité but he was, to put it mildly, being previous. The German warlords might have abandoned the Schlieffen Plan, but they had not given up on the war. By 13 September Moltke ordered his armies to halt their offensives and to defend their ground.

This was a fateful moment. The Germans dug themselves in, commanding the high ground behind the River Aisne, realising that their heavy guns and mortars stacked beyond the ridge line would make it terrifyingly costly for any enemy which sought to dislodge them. This was bad news for the BEF, which was still marching northwards towards them, and whose commander, Sir John French, was extremely nervous about sacrificing his men to a battle which he still believed did not belong properly to his own people. When they crossed the Aisne to its north bank later that day, the British found themselves overlooked everywhere by the enemy. Mindful of the carnage they had endured in August, they dug in. So did the Germans. The new reality was clear: so long as nobody went on the offensive, the carnage was brought under a measure of control.

That was about the sum of the strategy. It was also an overture to the deadlock which was to characterise the Western Front for more than four years. In Galicia, or on Austria’s southern frontier with its enemy Serbia, armies still fought on open ground, but the strategic incoherence under which they laboured was every bit as great as anything thrown up in Flanders. To the few western observers, the apparent indifference of both Austrian and Russian officers to the comforts of the rank and file was shocking. In additions to the hubris and chronic in-fighting of their commanders, the solidarity of troops was often inhibited by the range of different languages spoken even within a single battalion. As one historian has observed, their soldiers died horribly and with not even a vestige of clear purpose.

The Austrian Commander in Poland, Conrad von Hotzendorf, was determined to make massive gains in Poland, even though it was manifestly clear that the Germans would be lending only meagre assistance until such time as its armies were victorious in the West. On 11 September, the Russians closed on Grodek, in a battle which ended in the Austrians’ total defeat the next day and in the capture of the city. By 15 September, the Habsburg Army had largely been pushed back across the Drina, their second invasion of Serbia having been suspended.

Overseas, the British had a much clearer strategy — to blockade the Germans — and a navy which could bring it about, more or less by sitting tight. The Germans still hoped at this stage of the war to purloin Britain’s colonies but, so far as that was concerned, they were not having a good week. On 12 September, they were defeated at Kisi in East Africa, and the next day Australian troops captured Bougainville in the Solomon Islands.

On 13 September, a British submarine sank a German cruiser, the SMSHela — a first scalp for the British in this new and highly dangerous type of marine warfare. A veteran of the Boxer rebellion and, much more recently, of the Battle of Heligoland Bight, Hela was conducting a training exercise about six miles off the Bight when she was spotted by the British submarine HMS E9 which fired two torpedoes. Within half an hour, she had slipped beneath the waves. The crew of E9 was awarded a bounty of £1,050 as a reward, and most of the Hela crew were rescued.

In Britain itself, an anxious public yearned for the euphoria of victory. Grand strategy was not within its purview. However coyly the British papers had treated the British falling back from Mons three weeks earlier, no such inhibitions applied now to the German retreat from the Marne. On 9 September, the Daily Mirror breathlessly reported “Victorious British Make the Germans Retreat Ten Miles”, generously conceding that “the French armies too, have been equally successful”. Joffre, driven to the edge of despair by what he considered the unconscionably slow progress of the BEF in recent days, might have had something to say on that.

For Britain, insular and self-satisfied, the ongoing problem of how to explain away our need for allies, for friendly neutrals and for colonial reinforcement, continued to exercise editors. “Seventy thousand Indian soldiers to fight for the empire”, proclaimed a Daily Mirror headline on 10 September, with a perceptible edge of uncertainty. The mother country somehow had to retain the initiative. It could be secured by gentle ridicule — a story gained currency that Gurkhas arriving in Calcutta for embarkation had begun sharpening their kukris in the belief that they had arrived at the front. Or by not-so-subtle denigration: The Daily Expressreferred to the outrage of a wounded “Turco” (French North African soldier) whose “trophy” — a severed German head — had been confiscated by the hospital authorities in St Malo where he languished.

The Times on 13 September acknowledged that while there had been an impressive number of volunteers from Belfast, “the response from the South and West of Ireland has so far been disappointing”. Eventually 170,000 nationalists joined up – an extraordinary act of generosity given the dearth of friends in high places across the water. This same month Asquith confided to his diary: “I sometimes wish we could submerge the whole lot of them [the Irish] and their island under the waves of the Atlantic”.

The paper also reflected on factors which contributed to the equivocal regard in which Britain was held by the USA. It speculated that the “Ulster question”, and “our suffragist troubles” were being met with “expressions of prejudice and scorn”. Prejudice, was it? Or frank dismay?

However skewed and self-serving, Britain’s reputation for fair play was not wholly undeserved. The Daily Mirror reported that “Jews offer their lives” on 13 September. “Tremendous enthusiasm for England and liberty pervades the whole Ghetto”, the Rev. J. Stern, a well-known Jewish minister in the East End, told the paper. “Young Jewry here in the East End is rallying to the colours in a proportion far in excess of that of the rest of the population”.

Such inclusivity naturally had its limits, however. The anti-war manifesto published by the Independent Labour Party drew howls of outrage. In an article on 13 September entitled, “The Enemy at the Gates”, the ILP was described as “comic” and “contemptible” by the editor of the Church Times, who opined that “the police would be well-advised to suppress it”.

Expressions of regret for shortened drinking hours filled several column inches during the week. On 13 September, the Daily Mirror ruefully reported on “the doom of the night club”. But while the appetite for honeyed sentimentality which had sustained readers during the first six weeks of the war was beginning to be leavened by a more plausible carnality, the British public was still absorbed by the war in all its awesome drama. “Girl sends dead soldier’s engagement ring to the Queen’s Fund” reported the Daily Mirror on 11 September, with every indication of satisfaction.

And the ageless and inexhaustible appetite of Britons for news of any kind concerning the Royal Family appeared as impervious as ever. The editor of the Times was upbraided in a letter from a reader on 11 September for having referred to “Lord Kitchener’s army”, whereas, he was reminded, “It is The King who calls the men”. That same day, the Daily Express reported that Prince Albert, the future George VI, was recovering from complications after having his appendix out. “His Royal Highness Prince Albert has passed a Quiet Night and is Doing Well” the paper reassured its readers. The nation could breathe once more.

The war, therefore, remained a Great Endeavour in the eyes of most citizens and most soldiers. It was there to be won. Its horrors were something to which people at home were now beginning to own up. The fact that armies were now enmeshed in blood and bullets from which no exit strategy had been conceived was a much darker secret.

From the press of the day

* The Soul Of Servia (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/the-soul-of-servia)  · New Statesman · 14th September 1914
* War And Mr H.G. Wells (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/war-and-mr-h-g-wells)  · The Bookman · 13th September 1914
* Our Association With Russia (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/287)  · The Spectator · 12th September 1914
* Women And War (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/women-and-war)  · Century Magazine · 11th September 1914
* The Silent Man Of France (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/the-silent-man-of-france)  · The Nation (New York) · 10th September 1914
* Fundamental Aspects Of The War (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/fundamental-aspects-of-the-war)  · North American Review · 9th September 1914
* Machinery Of War (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/machinery-of-war)  · Literary Digest (New York) · 8th September 1914

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