Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

The Campaign on Paris

The key to the German plan of campaign was the decision to begin an aggressive war, directed by a nation fully prepared against enemies not prepared to fight at all. It was again an aggressive war begun by a power located between France on one side and Russia on the other, without natural boundaries, like mountains or deep rivers, to assist her in defense. But the Germans had a tremendous advantage in strategic position. On the west they held Alsace-Lorraine, which contained the military defenses of France: they were already at the outbreak of the war inside the French defenses. To the north of Alsace-Lorraine lay Luxembourg and Belgium. In Belgium was Liege, another vital portion of the military frontier between France and Germany. If it was not in German possession, neither did France own it. Both had been rendered neutral by the Treaty of 1839 and France was precluded from using either to attack Germany. In any case the Germans were certain to reach them first. They could therefore begin an aggressive war against France with absolute confidence that the advantage was in their favor.

On the east, in Poland, the situation was extremely favorable to Germany. Poland is flanked on both sides by Prussia and Galicia. It is as if the Russian army stuck its head into the lion's mouth. If the lion can close his jaws, he will bite off the Russian's head. The lion, on the other hand, has to beware. If the Russian can force his jaws further apart, he will break them. If he can get his head in far enough between them, he will crawl down the lion's throat and strangle him. But on the whole the advantage lay with Germany. The Russians must attack in Prussia on the north and in Galicia on the south, before they could move in force from Warsaw on Berlin. This meant that the German position was extremely strong on the defensive.

Invasion of France


The Germans also planned the war on the assumption that the inside position was one of great strength for an army beginning an aggressive war, just as they had concluded for centuries that it was a position of weakness for an army fighting on the defensive. They and the Austrians were ringed around by their enemies, but they might strike at them from any part of the circle they wished without giving their enemies as good a chance to strike back. The Germans could campaign on either front at will; they could shift the same army rapidly from France to Poland and back again. The French and Russians could not help each other. Tremendous preparations were made so that the German railroads should be adequate to ship any number of thousands of men back and forth across Germany at maximum speed. The combined French and Russian armies were immense; far greater than the German and Austrian armies; but the Germans felt that if they took the initiative at the beginning of the war they would control the situation, could fight on one frontier at a time only, and on either frontier they chose.

They determined to attack France, and the reason was simple. The French army would be ready long before the Russian and was of admirable quality, which the Germans never underrated. They supposed it would take the French at least ten days to put their full strength into the field. They knew that the utmost speed of Russian mobilization could not make possible a campaign for six weeks. The distances in Russia which the troops must travel to the frontier were great, the distances supplies must be sent were greater, and the railroads were few. Obviously the Germans had six weeks in which to attack France without danger of real interference from the Russians. They could therefore afford to throw the great bulk of their army upon the French and would thus so outnumber them that they fully expected to destroy the French before the Russians were able to move. They would then return victorious and end the Russian menace for all time.

But how should they get at France? There were three roads on Paris. Two led through Alsace-Lorraine, and had been fortified with great care and skill by the French. While the Germans knew that their great guns would destroy any fort then existing in Europe, they also knew that such a campaign meant time, and time was the essential element in the assault. Speed was the important thing; if they could only get at France quickly enough they might be able to disperse the French army before it had assembled.

The third road crossed the Rhine at Cologne, passed into Belgium at Liege, joined the road coming north from Alsace-Lorraine and passed on through Belgium into France by a great, broad, natural gateway without mountains or rivers to obstruct an army's march. It was admirably equipped with railroads for the army's use, and, because of the treaty of neutrality, was entirely unfortified by France. If the German army was to move in a hurry, it must march, and must march where the marching was good, where the roads were easiest, and the best time could be made. Belgium was too small to resist effectively, and, once through Belgium, all roads to Paris were open. The invasion of Belgium was the only plan to consider from a military point of view.

The Germans worked on a time schedule, determined by the average speed of men actually detailed in time of peace to walk from the German frontier to Paris. In four days the army should be through Belgium; in six more it should reach Paris. That was not more rapid marching than the Germans had repeatedly done. If they could carry out such a schedule, they would infallibly be upon Paris before the French army could mobilize. It was also to be remembered—a very important and striking fact—that by some misadventure they might not destroy the French army in the first fortnight and might be compelled to fight longer. It was important to compel the French to continue the war at a maximum disadvantage.

German Scene during war


The Germans knew the French were not ready to fight and that the continuation of the war would require an immense volume of supplies which would have to be manufactured. Moreover, this very area, which the Germans would overrun at the outset, was the industrial section of France. Here were the most important factories. Here were great coal and iron mines upon which French industry relied and upon which the French army would have to depend. Assuming the invasion's failure the Germans would still force the French to conduct the war in a way so difficult for them that, without very prompt and considerable assistance, they might not be able to continue it at all.

All this determined the diplomatic arrangements at the beginning of the war as well as the first military movements. The war must be sprung as a surprise and time must not be wasted in negotiations. Once the intentions of Germany and Austria became clear to their enemies, not an hour should be lost. The whole campaign would fail if they allowed the diplomats to write and talk about causes and purposes. Both Germany and Austria therefore fairly tumbled over each other at the end of July, 1914, to get the war actually begun. They seem to have been terrified lest in some way it should be averted, lest the favorable moment should pass without the beginning of the campaign. All attempts to postpone it, to explain the issues, or to compromise them, were therefore rejected as fast as they were made. Austria declared war on Serbia four days after the first note. Three days later the German ultimatum was delivered to France and Russia, and four days after that the German armies were in Belgium. Twelve days sufficed for all the preliminary moves of the greatest war in history.

Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28; Russia began mobilization on the Hungarian frontier on the following day; on July 30 Austria began the bombardment of Belgrade and general mobilization was ordered in Russia. Germany accordingly presented ultimatums both to Russia and to France on the last day of July and declared war on Russia on August 1, Italy promptly declaring her neutrality. August 2 saw German armies in Luxembourg and the German demand to march unopposed through Belgium. August 3 brought the Belgian refusal and the German declaration of war on France. The next morning, August 4, found the German armies in Belgium and that night at midnight Great Britain declared war on Germany.

How now should the attack be met? What could the Allies do, unprepared as they were, to meet the thrust which the Germans had calculated would be irresistible? They saw that the German campaign was based on two factors: first—on time; second—on crushing the French army. When the Germans asked the Belgians to allow them to march unimpeded through their territory, the latter knew that if they agreed to that request, Paris would be lost and the independence of Belgium would become a thing of the past. Only France and England could in the end save Belgium from annexation; but neither France nor England could possibly save Belgium from invasion at that moment.

Yet only Belgium could save Paris from capture, protect the French army from immediate defeat, thus eventually save the cause of the Allies, and by this first blow win in the end its own independence. Unless the Belgians wished to become the slaves of the Germans, they must resist. It would be the struggle of a small boy against a large and desperate man. The Belgians must fight for time, they must delay the Germans as long as possible. They would in the process be defeated, slaughtered, crushed, maimed; that much they knew. The real extent of what the Germans would do to Belgium was little suspected.

If the Belgians succeeded in delaying the Germans long enough for the French to mobilize, the latter must then keep out of the Germans' way. There is still some confusion of opinion as to the original French plan of campaign, and there is reason to believe that they hoped to strike successfully from their prepared positions in Lorraine at the German left and thus compel the evacuation of France and Belgium. However that may be, the defeat of the first preliminary assaults in Alsace, the steady rush of the Germans through Belgium, showed the futility of such strategy, and caused Joffre to adopt the plan which eventually won the first and greatest Allied victory. He must at all costs not be beaten. That, he saw, must be the key to his defensive campaign.

He must draw the Germans further and further into France and further and further away from Germany. He must compel them to march as far as possible, as fast as possible, to transport their supplies as long distances as possible, and thus maneuver them into an unfavorable position. On no account must he stand still to be crushed; that alone could give the German campaign a chance of success without giving France the same chance to defeat it. Joffre therefore ordered the armies to retreat and to continue retreating. Meanwhile, the Allied plans provided that the British were to rush over such troops as they had ready, however few they might be. Every man, every rifle, every horse might be enough to check the Germans and prevent an immediate German victory. Meanwhile something might happen.

Last and not least, inasmuch as the German calculations assumed that the bulk of the army could be sent to France because the Russians could not move, the latter should invade Prussia at once. Even if the troops walked barefoot with nothing but clubs in their hands, the army must move. It would not be prepared to attack with success but the Allies knew that the Germans would not be prepared to meet an assault in Poland. They would have to send troops from France to stop it and in that way the Russians would save Paris.

And so at Liege, the Belgians held the forts desperately against wave after wave of German attacks and resisted the great advance step by step until resistance was no longer possible. For three days the Germans were checked entirely,—three precious days! Then the Belgian army was stamped flat on the ground and over its body tramped the great columns of troops marching to Brussels and Paris. But the Germans were not four days but sixteen days going through Belgium. Sixteen days and Paris was saved! The British and French armies had had time to get to the Belgian frontier, not in full strength, but in enough force to show the astonished Germans an amount of resistance they thought absolutely improbable.

Then began one of the marvelous retreats of history. The Allied troops, French, Belgian, and British, fought gallantly and retreated superbly, but, without reinforcements, they grew more and more weary and footsore, less and less able to fight. No army was harder pressed than General French's gallant little British force around Mons.

They fought in the morning, they fought at noon, they fought at night. The officers kicked the men awake, fell asleep themselves, and were kicked awake in turn. There were men dragging and carrying their officers, horses falling dead in their tracks, and men harnessing themselves to the guns in order to save them. Motor transports moved toward the rear driven often by men sound asleep. "For forty-eight hours no food, no drink, under a hot sun, choking with dust, and marching, marching, marching, until even the pursuing Germans gave it up, and at Vitry-le-Francois the Allies fell in their tracks and slept for three hours, men, horses, and guns—while the exhausted pursuers slept behind them." Thus the British retreated from Mons after one of the most gallant and obstinate actions in history. It played almost as important a part in delaying the German advance as the resistance of the Belgians at Liege.

Behind the armies the roads were full of French fugitives fleeing from the war. Pitiful and terrible sight! Here a whole family trudging along on foot, carrying in their hands a few little articles from their homes, and driving the cow before them. There a woman had piled what little she could save on a wheelbarrow and had perched the baby on top. Here two little children were tugging at their mother's skirts while she directed a little cart drawn by the dogs used in Belgium and northern France for drawing light burdens. There children who had lost their fathers and mothers sat crying by the wayside until some of the fugitives noticed them and carried them on. Other more fortunate families with horses and carts or with automobiles were pushing on to Paris more rapidly. The roads and villages in all directions were full to bursting with a people compelled at a few hours' notice to flee for their lives. It was such a spectacle as men had thought would never again be seen in history.

Nuns in War time France


In those first days it was difficult not to believe that all was lost, that the Germans had calculated too well to be beaten. How could nations, however powerful, but without time to prepare, resist such a foe? Something like despair spread throughout France and England. Then suddenly there came a change. The British and French troops were no longer afraid. They retreated still, but their hearts were light, for they had come to feel that God and His angels in the truest sense were fighting with them. Men told wonderful stories of what they had seen. At one time there was a great gap in the Allied line. There were no troops to fill it and meet the advancing Germans. Suddenly in that gap there stood English archers with bows and arrows, knights in armor, figures which seemed to the Germans absolutely real, but which the Allied soldiers believed to be the ghosts of the bold warriors of Agincourt, the men of the Hundred Years' War come back to save France and England.

Others at other points of the line told of seeing Germans and more Germans, in solid columns, pouring over the top of the hills. Suddenly between them and the advancing foe came a flash of brilliant light and then right before them rode "a tall man with yellow hair and golden armor on a white horse." It was St. George, the patron saint of England, come to rally the troops, come to show them that the powers of peace were with them and that the Germans were the powers of evil! The French troops also declared they saw at the moment when all seemed most desperate that same blinding flash of light. When it disappeared, there before them in the field, clad in full armor, riding a white horse was Joan of Arc, brandishing her sword high in air and shouting, "Forward!" The troops answered with a rallying shout, and, dashing forward behind her, threw back the Germans. Did St. George, Joan of Arc, and the dead of the Middle Ages actually appear? No one can say, but thousands believe that they saw them.

And so, day after day, the British and the French retreated and retreated and finally in the first week of September, the people of Paris heard one after the other the distant boom of the explosions blowing up the bridges on the Marne. Still another Allied division had crossed the river. The Germans were just behind. By September 5, the Germans had also passed the Marne and were within a few miles of Paris. Indeed orders had been issued to many German divisions to wear full dress instead of their field uniforms, so as to be ready for the formal entry into the French capital. Many of the officers had already in their pockets the orders directing them in what houses their troops were to be quartered the first night in Paris. But the Germans were never to enter Paris except as prisoners. They had been not ten days but a full month getting within sight of the city. The great scheme had failed. The French army was not crushed. The French army had mobilized. The French were ready to fight, and the British had joined them. The war, far from being won by the Germans, was indeed at that moment on the point of being lost.