The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 139th installment in the series.
August 14 - 19, 1914: “The War to End All Wars”
“We have not sought this reckoning, we have done our utmost to avoid it; but now that it has been forced upon us it is imperative that it should be a thorough reckoning,” the British futurist writer H.G. Wells wrote in an article titled “The War That Will End War,” published in The Daily News on August 14, 1914. Commonly cited as “the war to end all wars” or a similar variant, the phrase was quickly adopted as a slogan to explain British and later American participation in the war, as set forth by Wells in his essay:
This is already the vastest war in history. It is a war not of nations, but of mankind. It is a war to exorcise a world-madness and end an age… For this is now a war for peace. It aims straight at disarmament. It aims at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever. Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war—it is the last war!
In fact, pundits welcomed the war for a whole variety of reasons, coincidentally reflecting their own agendas. Some predicted it would lead to a “rebirth” of society in a “purified” form, which could mean anything from the end of class distinctions, to a return of chivalrous ideals, to the purging of “foreign” racial elements. Others, like Wells, hoped it would result in the overthrow of tyranny and triumph of democracy. Colonial subjects believed the war might force white Europeans to grant them more rights, or even independence.
But for many ordinary young men who volunteered to fight in the early days of the conflict, it simply seemed to offer an opportunity for adventure and (ironically) freedom. Jack O’Brien, a Canadian volunteer, recalled telling his friend, “I can't get it out of my head. There is going to be the devil of a scrap over there—and say, boy! I've got to get into it!” The German novelist Carl Zuckmayer later recalled that for young middle class men volunteering meant
Liberation from middle-class narrowness and fussiness… from the doubts about choosing a profession and from all the things that we perceived—consciously or unconsciously—as the saturation, closeness, and rigidity of our world… It had become serious… and at the same time a huge exhilarating adventure... We shouted out “freedom” while we were jumping into the strait-jacket of the Prussian uniform. It sounds absurd. But we had become men with a single blow.
In Britain, 299,000 men enlisted in August (the scene in Whitehall, above), followed by another 463,000 in September, while 350,000 Frenchmen volunteered in the first week of August alone, and comparable numbers flooded recruiting centers in Germany. Everything around them seemed to confirm they were making the right decision. Across Europe, young men enlisted and went off to war in a festive atmosphere, amid cheering throngs who smothered them with candy, flowers, alcohol, cigarettes and—in a memorable departure from propriety for some young women—kisses.
French and British troops in Belgium and British troops in France received similarly delirious welcomes. Hugh Gibson, the secretary at the American embassy in Brussels, described the arrival of French scouts in Brussels:
The people in the crowd had bought out the near-by shops of cigars and cigarettes and chocolate and small flasks of brandy, and as each man rode by he was loaded up with as much as he could carry… All the cafes around the Porte Louise sent out waiters and waitresses with trays of beer to meet the troops… Each man would snatch a glass of beer, swallow it as he rode along, and hand it back to others… The French and British troops can have anything they want in this country.
Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, recalled: “In every market square where the regiments halted for a rest there was free wine for any thirsty throat, and soldier boys from Scotland or England had their brown hands kissed by girls who were eager for hero worship and had fallen in love with these clean-shaven lads and their smiling grey eyes.”
But these public scenes didn’t tell the whole truth, as many people kept their fears private— especially women who, finding themselves suddenly alone, still tried their best to put on a brave face. Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat who was living in Berlin, wrote in mid-August:
… a lady has just been in to see me who came straight from parting from her only son, a boy of 21. She described how heartrending were his excitement and delight at going off with the rest, and how she could hardly hide her grief when beaming with pride he showed her the little metal disc with his name on it, which every soldier wears for identification in case of being killed… In fact this seemingly unfeeling heroism often puzzles me. There is hardly any thought of life and love and relations in the young men going away, but a sort of reckless joy in the certainty of the near death awaiting them… One can do nothing as a woman but remain passive and look on, although on a perfect rack of torment.
Everywhere, the public displays of enthusiasm coexisted with anxiety about the future. Many people hoped the war would be “over by Christmas,” but Lord Kitchener, the hero of Sudan who was hastily appointed Secretary of State for War on August 6, shocked the British public with his prediction that the war would last at least three years and require millions of men. Equally sobering were the first contacts with refugees. On August 14, Piete Kuhr, a 12-year-old girl living in eastern Germany, wrote: “You suddenly get the feeling that the enemy is quite near. People are becoming uneasy. Fresh refugees have arrived from East Prussia… One woman with noisy children kept crying out, ‘Where can we go? Where can we go?’ She said, ‘A girl like you can have no idea what it’s like, can you?’ and tears ran down her chubby red cheeks.”
The Enigma of War
This widespread anxiety was heightened by a general sense of helpless ignorance; indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Great War was how little most people, civilians and soldiers alike, actually knew about what was going on. This was the inevitable (and probably intended) result of wartime censorship, instituted by emergency decrees and legislation like Britain’s Defense of the Realm Act, which left an information vacuum to be filled by rumor and official propaganda.
Soldiers were often stunningly misinformed. On August 9, Hugh Gibson, the secretary at the American embassy in Brussels, heard about German prisoners of war who “did not know what they were attacking and thought they were in France.” Around the same time Gladys Lloyd, an Englishwoman traveling in Belgium, had a friendly encounter with German Uhlans (cavalry) who occupied the village she was staying in: “Many honestly believe, and have probably been told so by their officers, that Belgium wantonly declared war on Germany.”
On the other side many people believed that the United States was joining the war on one side or the other. Gibson, the secretary at the U.S. embassy in Brussels, recalled: “They were pathetic in their confidence that the United States was coming to save them… Nearly every group we talked to asked hopefully when our troops were coming…” Irvin Cobb, a writer for the Saturday Evening Post, was asked by a Belgian innkeeper: “Messieurs… do you think it can be true, as my neighbors tell me, that the United States President has ordered the Germans to get out of our country?” A few days later, Cobb met a German private who asked him if the U.S. was going to join the war on Germany’s side.
Even people supposed to be “in the know” were anything but. On August 9, the French General Joseph Gallieni, sitting in a Paris café in civilian attire, overhead a newspaper editor at a neighboring table assuring his friend that he, Gallieni, had just entered Colmar, 230 miles to the east of Paris, at the head of a victorious French army. Amused, Gallieni whispered to his friend, “That is how history is written.”
Foreigners were sometimes better informed than natives, if they had access to outside information. On August 23 Eric Fisher Wood, the U.S. military attaché in Paris, wrote:
Here in Paris, extraordinary as it may seem, we have had no real news of the progress of the war. The Official Communiques carry to a fine point the art of saying nothing of any importance. The newspapers are so strictly censored that they are permitted to publish little except these communiques or editorials based upon them. Letters and papers from America really give us the first accounts of events which are happening at our very gates.
Americans Caught In the War Zone
Wood’s colleagues at the U.S. embassy had their work cut out for them. Among the Great War’s more marginal victims were thousands of Americans who’d been enjoying a lovely summer on the continent only to find themselves suddenly caught in a war zone. They were a cross section of American society, from wealthy tourists to middle class college students, bohemian artists, professional musicians, and everyone in between, but they all had one thing in common: they wanted out—now.
This was a challenge, as railroads were taken over by each nation’s military, berths on ships leaving Europe quickly sold out, and the international banking system froze up, making checks drawn on American banks useless. The latter was an especially trying circumstance for American millionaires who now found themselves literally penniless and adrift in a foreign country. Meanwhile anyone with the misfortune to be caught in Germany had an extra layer of logistics to deal with, since the only way out was through the neutral Netherlands, Switzerland, or Scandinavian countries.
Charles Inman Barnard described meeting some American tourists recently arrived in Paris from Germany via Zurich, including one
family… lucky enough to catch the last train conveying [German] troops westward. They traveled for two days without food or water, one of the ladies fainting from exhaustion, and after the train reached its destination they had to walk several miles across the frontier, where they were taken on board a French troop train. They lost all their baggage. Eight other Americans reported a similar experience. They had a tramp of ten miles into France, and one of their number, a lady partly paralyzed, had to be carried. They could procure no food until they reached France.
The U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, Henry van Dyke, recalled:
I never had any idea, before the war broke out, how many of our countrymen and countrywomen there are roaming about Europe every summer, and with what a cheerful trust in Providence and utter disregard of needful papers and precautions some of them roam! There were old men so feeble that one’s first thought on seeing them was: “How did you get away from your nurse?”… There were college boys who had worked their way over and couldn't find a chance to work it back. There were art-students and music-students whose resources had given out. There was a very rich woman, plastered with diamonds, who demanded the free use of my garage for the storage of her automobile. When I explained that, to my profound regret, it was impossible… she flounced out of the room in high dudgeon.
Now, not for the first or last time, the U.S. government set about the task of extricating its hapless citizens from a very complex and unpleasant situation overseas. Congress allocated $1.5 million in gold to provide credit (or grants) to stranded Americans and on August 6 the battleship U.S.S. Tennessee departed for from New York for Europe carrying this money, as well as $3 million in private bankers’ gold, and Assistant Secretary of War Henry Breckinridge to oversee the relief and evacuation efforts.
After the Tennessee arrived in Britain on August 16, the United States Relief Commission set up its headquarters London, where thousands of Americans from across the continent had already washed up. Meanwhile Breckinridge proceeded to tour U.S. embassies and consulates across the continent, stopping in the Hague, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Geneva, and Paris, with funds to help indigent Americans get as far as London, where the relief commission would take over.
Ambient feelings of ignorance and insecurity helped fuel a wave of paranoia that swept Europe in the first weeks of the Great War, fixating on spies. Although both sides doubtless employed spies to keep tabs on enemy troops movements and public opinion, it’s also very likely that thousands of innocent people were accused—and in some cases executed without trial—for totally imagined offenses.
In Germany there were rumors of Russian agents driving cars full of French gold back to Russia, leading peasants to stop anyone in a car at gunpoint—and on occasion shoot first and ask questions later. In Berlin Princess Blücher lamented the “extraordinary spy-fever prevailing here as everywhere. People are being arrested all over the country, and the most harmless individuals are accused of being spies if they look the least different from their neighbours. Continual mistakes are being made, which often lead to fatal results for the victims.”
Belgium, treacherously invaded by a much larger neighbor, suffered some of the worst spy mania. According to Wilson McNair, Belgian boy scouts led the persecution:
One newspaper… had an article telling how a boy scout tracked a German spy and caught him while in the act of setting up a wireless installation on a housetop. From that hour every boy scout in Brussels became a spy-hunter… The thing became a plague within twenty-four hours… They followed the most innocent people and spread terror wherever they went… Spies were everywhere, and every man began to feel himself unsafe.
Suspicion soon crossed into the realm of the absurd, according to Paul Hamelius, who fled Liège before invading German forces, along with some other unfortunates: “A pathetic site was a group of three Chinese students from the University of Liège, youths of the Mandarin caste, with small hands and polite manners. They told us, in their harsh accent, and with the humble Oriental smile, how they, of all men, had been taken for German spies.”
Germans March Through Belgium
Hamelius and his new friends left Liège in the nick of time, as one fort after another fell under the methodical, merciless bombardment of the German Army’s huge 42-centimeter siege guns. Fort Pontisse, the first victim of the “Big Berthas,” fell on August 12; on August 13, it was the turn of Embourg and Chaudfontaine; and by August 14 all the forts east of Liège had fallen, with the surrender of Boncelles, Liers, and Fléron. Finally, on August 16, the last holdout, Fort Loncin, was completely destroyed when a lucky shot hit the magazine (below). A German officer related the heroic, last-ditch resistance of Belgian troops led by General Gerard Leman:
By this time our heaviest guns were in position, and a well-placed shell tore through the cracked and battered masonry and exploded in the main magazine. With a thunderous crash the mighty walls of the fort fell. Pieces of stone and concrete twenty-five cubic meters in size were hurled into the air… All the men in the fort were wounded, and most were unconscious. A corporal with one arm shattered valiantly tried to drive us back by firing his rifle. Buried in the debris and pinned beneath a massive beam was General Leman… We thought him dead, but he recovered consciousness, and, looking around, said, “It is as it is. The men fought valiantly,” and then, turning to us, added: “Put in your dispatches that I was unconscious.”
The fall of Liège cleared the way for the German First and Second Armies to advance into northern and central Belgium in force (top, German troops advance in Flanders) while the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Armies advanced through Luxembourg into the Ardennes Forest region of southeastern Belgium. On the other side, in the first half of August chief of the French general staff Joseph Joffre sent the Third Army under Pierre Ruffey and the Fourth Army under General Fernand de Langle de Cary to the eastern Belgian frontier to await the Germans, while the Fifth Army under General Charles Lanrezac advanced to a position near Mézières and Sedan.
Joffre’s Plan XVII anticipated an advance by the German right wing through the Ardennes—but as Lanrezac predicted several months before, the German right wing, consisting of the First and Second Armies, was actually advancing through central Belgium some 50 miles further north, suggesting a sweeping envelopment of the French armies from the rear, which was indeed the essence of the Schlieffen Plan (see map below).
In an age before spy satellites, it was difficult to gather reliable intelligence about the enemy’s position, as analysts tried to piece together disparate, sometimes contradictory information from spies, scouts on horseback, and pilots who attempted to estimate troop concentrations and movements with the naked eye. Nonetheless, in the first half of August a stream of alarming reports seemed to confirm Lanrezac’s suspicions: on August 7 German cavalry reached the River Meuse at Huy, just ten miles east of the key fortress city of Namur, and seemed to be preparing to cross west of the river into central Belgium. But on August 10 Joffre, busy with First Army’s short-lived invasion of Alsace, dismissed Lanrezac’s warning. Then on August 12, as German Uhlans skirmished with Belgian forces at Halen, Joffre again refused to allow Lanrezac to move Fifth Army north to Namur—although he grudgingly agreed to move a single corps (out of five in Fifth Army) to Dinant, barely across the Belgian border. He repeated the refusal on August 14.
Meanwhile Lanrezac wasn’t the only one getting nervous. On August 11, Field Marshal Sir John French, the field commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), was briefed with intelligence revealing a large number of reserve divisions in the German front line – a surprising development, suggesting that the Germans were staking everything on a huge blow through Belgium. The following day Lord Kitchener, the new Secretary of War, predicted a German invasion west of the River Meuse and argued that the BEF should form further back, at Amiens, but was overruled by the French and British general staffs: The British divisions would concentrate near Maubeuge, close to the Belgian border, as originally planned.
French Advance Into Lorraine
Joffre, the architect of the Allied strategy, remained convinced that the main German thrust would come across the Franco-German frontier to the south, and acted accordingly. Following the embarrassing withdrawal of the First Army’s VII Corps from Mulhouse on August 10, on August 14 he ordered a new attack by the French First and Second Armies into the “lost province” of Lorraine, while the reinforced VII Corps, now acting as the independent Army of Alsace, mounted another attack into Alsace. In short, it was to be an all-out attack across the length of the frontier.
Once again, the French offensive seemed to begin easily, as the First and Second Armies attacked towards Sarrebourg and into the Vosges Mountains, as well as northeast towards Morhange, and forward elements of the German Sixth and Seventh Armies withdrew before them. However, German resistance stiffened in the evening of August 14, with machine guns and heavy artillery inflicting heavy casualties, and the following day Second Army’s advance slowed as French troops encountered massed rifle fire. The French brought up artillery support and continued advancing doggedly, suffering more casualties as the Germans used long-range artillery to blunt the French offensive.
Despite heavy opposition, on August 18 the First Army under Auguste Dubail occupied Sarrebourg in Lorraine, while the Second Army under Édouard de Castelnau was closing in on Morhange, about 20 miles to the northwest, and to the south the Army of Alsace under Paul Pau captured Mulhouse (for the second time) on August 19. However the tide was about to turn against the French. As they pursued Joffre’s ambitious goals a gap had opened between the French First and Second Armies, leaving the flank of the Second Army vulnerable. On August 16 the commander of the German Sixth and Seventh Armies, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, asked for permission to mount a counteroffensive, and (after several days of waffling by chief of the general staff Moltke) received tentative approval on August 18.
Of course this was a major departure from the strategy outlined in the Schlieffen Plan, which called for the German Sixth and Seventh Armies to mount a fighting withdrawal intended to lure French forces into Alsace-Lorraine, leaving the job of envelopment to the German right wing, swinging down through Belgium and northern France to attack the French forces from the rear. Instead Moltke now began to consider attempting a “double envelopment,” with the German left wing attacking at the same time as the right wing to speedily encircle French forces and achieve a decisive victory early on. As early as August 14, in fact, Moltke had begun shifting forces from the right wing to the left wing—a move that fatally weakened the all-important northern offensive, critics later alleged.
Joffre Begins to Move Fifth Army
While French forces seemed to be making progress in Alsace-Lorraine, the French high command was finally beginning to see signs of serious trouble to the north. On August 15 Lanrezac’s sole army corps at Dinant came under attack by German advance forces trying to cross the River Meuse, which the French managed to repel in heavy fighting, and news also arrived that the Germans were approaching the fortress city of Namur.
Thus, on the evening of August 15, Joffre ordered Lanrezac to send reinforcements from Fifth Army north towards Dinant—but he still refused to move the French Fourth Army under Langle de Cary further west at the same time, meaning Lanrezac’s Fifth Army was stuck guarding a larger area with the same number of troops.
Joffre wanted the Fourth Army to stay where it was for his planned invasion of the Ardennes, set to begin August 21. Towards that end he also split the French Third Army, creating a new Army of Lorraine to guard the right flank while the remainder of the Third Army attacked northeast towards Luxembourg.
By August 19, the stage was set for two major clashes—one in Lorraine and another in the Ardennes region of southeast Belgium. Joffre’s Plan XVII was about to meet reality.
Belgians Withdraw to Antwerp
Belgium’s King Albert was already staring some unpleasant facts in the face. After the fall of Liège, the vastly outnumbered Belgian Army had no hope of holding off the advancing Germans by itself. Disappointed by the failure of the French and British to send sizeable forces to Belgium’s aid, and alarmed by the approach of Von Kluck’s First Army to the River Gete just 20 miles east of Brussels, on Tuesday, August 18, Albert ordered the government and Belgian Army to withdraw from the defenseless capital and head north to the fortified city of Antwerp, now dubbed the “National Redoubt.” Here they would be able to hold out for at least a few more months, and hopefully receive Allied reinforcements via Britain’s Royal Navy.
A Stunning Serbian Victory
While everyone expected Austria-Hungary to crush Serbia quickly at the beginning of the war, against all odds the Serbs delivered a humiliating defeat to Hapsburg forces in August 1914, foreshadowing a whole series of military disasters in store for the Dual Monarchy.
At the beginning of the war the Serbian commander, Marshal Putnik, mobilized his three small armies in central Serbia, leaving the capital Belgrade undefended, in order to gain time and space to organize his forces and assess Austrian intentions. At first Hapsburg advance forces under Bosnia’s military governor Oskar Potiorek struggled to establish bridgeheads across the river Sava, which marked the northwestern border of Serbia, but by August 12 they had crossed the river and occupied the town of Šabac on the south shore. This cleared the way for the Austro-Hungarian Second, Fifth, and Sixth Armies to invade Serbia in force.
The main battle began on August 15, when Austro-Hungarian forces met Serbian forces on the slopes of Cer Mountain, about 15 miles southwest of Šabac. After heavy losses on both sides, the Hapsburg forces began to fall back on August 16, and the following day the Serbs mounted an unsuccessful attack on Austro-Hungarian forces in Šabac. The Austrians in turn attempted to push the Serbs back on August 18, but this also failed as the Serbs brought up artillery and cavalry reinforcements. A series of skirmishes through the night culminated in a major victory on August 19, as the morale of the Hapsburg forces collapsed and they began to retreat in total disorder. By August 24, they had withdrawn from Serbia completely.
Meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, was alarmed by the rapid advance of Russian forces invading the empire’s northeastern province of Galicia (see map, below); he was also facing urgent requests from the German chief of the general staff, Moltke, to transfer more troops to the Russian front in order to take pressure off the German Eighth Army, guarding East Prussia against the advancing Russian First and Second Armies. Thus Conrad reluctantly put his plan to “punish” Serbia on hold and began transferring the Second Army from the Balkan front to Galicia.
Russians Invade East Prussia
Like the Austrians, the Germans were surprised by the speed with which the Russians were able to take the offensive: instead of six weeks, as expected, the first Russian forces crossed the border into East Prussia just two weeks after the beginning of mobilization. The Russians had rushed their forces into action before mobilization was complete, thus fulfilling their promise to France to attack within 15 days of mobilization, in the hopes of forcing the Germans to withdraw forces from the Western Front.
Two Russian armies, the First Army under Paul Rennenkampf and the Second Army under Alexander Samsonov, were supposed to converge on the German Eighth Army under Maximilian von Prittwitz, guarding the old Prussian capital of Königsberg as well as the bridges across the River Vistula. However Russian communications and logistics were extremely poor, and the armies were separated by East Prussia’s patchwork of lakes, which presented an additional obstacle to a coordinated attack; it probably didn’t help that Rennenkampf and Samsonov apparently despised each other.
On August 17, Rennenkampf’s First Army was held up briefly by a minor German victory at the Battle of Stallupönen, but this border skirmish had little effect beyond inflating the ego of the German corps commander, Hermann von François, who flagrantly disobeyed Prittwitz’s order to retreat (this would be a recurring theme wherever François was involved). The First Army continued to advance, and two days later the Samsonov’s Second Army crossed the German border to the south. The arms of the Russian pincer were closing, and the German Eighth Army was surrounded – or so it seemed.