Friday, August 01, 2014

August 1st, 1914

- At noon, the German ultimatum to Russia expires without a response.  The response of the German government follows through on the logic of 'mobilization means war', as given in the ultimatum, and instructs its ambassador to call on Foreign Minister Sazonov and deliver a declaration of war.  He does so at 710pm, and after a sharp exchange over honour, the German ambassador breaks down and weeps, his diplomatic efforts at an end.  Sazonov pats the ambassador on the shoulder and helps him on his way.

- Kaiser Wilhelm II signs the order for mobilization of the German army at 5pm, and the decision is made public shortly thereafter.  That afternoon the Kaiser appears at the balcony of the Royal Palace in Berlin, and briefly addresses the assembled crowd:
I thank all of you for the love and loyalty that you have shown me these past days. These were serious days, like seldom before. Should it now come to a battle, then there will be no more political parties. I, too, was attacked by the one or the other party. That was in peace. I forgive you now from the depths of my heart. I no longer recognize any parties or any confessions; today we are all German brothers and only German brothers. If our neighbors want it no other way, if our neighbors do not grant us peace, then I hope to God that our good German sword will see us through to victory in these difficult battles.
It was one of the first expressions of the common sentiment in the first days of the war, that the onset of war had erased all distinctions of class, race, religion, etc.  Each nation, it was believed, was now united by the crucible of war, each singularly devoted to surmounting the great challenge of the age.  How long such unity could last in the face of modern warfare remains to be seen.

Kaiser Wilhelm II speaks from the balcony of the Royal Palace in Berlin, Aug. 1st, 1914.

- At 11am, the German ambassador in Paris arrives at the French Foreign Office, requesting a reply to the German ultimatum of the previous day.  In his anxiety he is two hours early, though he knows the likely outcome of the meeting.  Premier René Viviani replies that 'France will act in accordance with her interests.'  To the ambassador, and indeed to the German government in Berlin, this is a clear statement that France will stand by its Russian ally.

Viviani had left a Cabinet meeting to meet with the German ambassador, and when he returns they decide to approve the formal request from Jospeh Joffre for mobilization of the French army.  At 4pm, mobilization is publicly announced, to begin the following day.

- In London the government remains divided.  In Cabinet Churchill and Grey are the leading advocates for British coming to the aid of the French, but they are faced by a solid phalanx of opponents, while a middle group, among whom was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, wavers.  When Churchill requests permission to mobilize the naval reserves, the Cabinet declines.  When Grey asks to implement the secret naval guarantees made to France in peacetime - namely, that the French fleet will concentrate in the Mediterranean while the Royal Navy protects the Channel - four ministers state they would resign rather than approve such a course.  The issue of Belgium comes to the fore - Britain is pledged by a treaty signed in 1839 to defend it.  A German invasion of Belgium might sway the wavers in the Cabinet - it is easier to justify war if it is seen as being on behalf of the small and defenceless, and the navy does not want to see its ports in German hands.  The conversation devolves into a discussion of what constitutes a 'violation' of Belgium neutrality.  Tracing a line on a map, Lloyd George suggests it would only be 'a little violation' if German forces merely cut through the southeast corner of Belgium, as opposed to invading the entirety.  The Cabinet meeting ends with no resignations, and no decisions.  Despite his own preferences, Grey tells the French ambassador that France must make its decision on war or peace without assuming that British aid will be forthcoming.  The French ambassador is despondent - to the editor of the Times, he remarks whether the word 'honour' has been striken from the English dictionary.

That evening Churchill is at the Admiralty, entertaining friends among the Opposition.  As they play cards, a message arrives that Germany has declared war on Russia.  He immediately leaves the Admiralty and crosses Horse Guards Parade to Downing Street, where he finds Prime Minister Asquith with Grey, the Lord Chancellor, and the Secretary of State for India.  Churchill told them he intended to order mobilization of the naval reserves, despite the Cabinet's decision of that afternoon.  Asquith says nothing, which Churchill takes as silent consent, and he departs to issue the orders.

- A day of dramatic developments conclude in Berlin.  Shortly after 5pm, a telegram arrives in Berlin from the German ambassador in London, reporting a conversation with Sir Edward Grey in which the latter pledged to guarantee the neutrality of France in a Russo-German war if Germany refrained from attacking France.  The statement is as a lifeline to a drowning man for the Kaiser.  He is desperate to avoid a two-front war, and the offer of Grey suggests that the war can be confined to the East, where German strength ought to overwhelm Russian numbers.  Moltke, the signed order for mobilization in hand, has left the palace in Potsdam, driving back to General Staff Headquarters in Berlin.  An aide to the Kaiser is instructed to race after Moltke, insisting on his return.  When Moltke arrives back at the palace, the Kaiser informs him of the offer from Grey, and states: 'Now we can go to war against Russia only.  We simply march the whole of our army to the East.'

Moltke could hardly have been more startled if the Kaiser had sprouted wings and flew out of the palace.  The German army in 1914 has exactly one war plan: the Schlieffen Plan.  Designed to ensure victory against the Franco-Russian alliance, it was created by General Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of Staff of the German Army from 1891 to 1905.  Schlieffen, who died in 1913, had sought a way to avoid a prolonged war of attrition on two fronts, which Germany was likely to lose.  His solution rested on the nature of his enemies.  France was compact, like Germany, and could be expected to mobilize rapidly on the outbreak of war.  Russia was a vast landscape, and with fewer railroads it was expected that it would take them much longer to mobilize.  Schlieffen perceived that this Russian delay created a window of opportunity, in which Germany could attack France before Russia was prepared to invade from the East.  Thus the imperative was to force the surrender of France before Russia could attack.  Schlieffen understand that a frontal assault along the Franco-German border was unlikely to produce a decisive result, given the rough terrain and the numerous French fortifications.  The solution was as simple and elegant as it was profound - go around them.  Instead, of attack France directly, the bulk of the German army would be sent through Belgium, where little resistance was expected, and descend on France from the north.  As most of the French armies would be on the Franco-German frontier, there would be practically nothing stopped the German army from sweeping through France from the north and delivering the knockout blow.  The expectation was that Paris would fall and the decisive battle defeating the French army would occur within forty days of German mobilization.  Indeed, forty days was the time limit, as afterwards the Russians would be sufficiently prepared to invade Germany, and if the bulk of the German army was still in France, there would be little stopping the Russians from sweeping through eastern Germany to the gates of Berlin.  The plan was immensely intricate, with each German corps assigned particular roads for the march through Belgium into France.  A precise timeline required the strictest adherence in order to ensure victory within the forty day limit.  It was an immense gamble, one of the greatest in military history.  Success, and Germany would crush its enemies and ensure its dominance of Europe.  Failure, and Germany faced ruin and defeat.

The planned march of the German armies under the Schlieffen Plan.
These were the stakes when Moltke was confronted with the Kaiser's suggestion to only attack Russia.  Not only was it the German plan for war, it was the only plan for war.  While the General Staff had maintained a plan for a war against Russia only, they had stopped updating it in April 1913 and had discarded it entirely.  Thus for Moltke, the only way Germany can fight a war is to attack France first.  It didn't matter that France had nothing to do with the original dispute - the plan said to attack France, so France would be attacked.  To do anything else is simply impossible - Moltke has visions of the entire strategy for the war collapsing to pieces, units separated from each other, massive confusion on the railways, supplies delivered to the wrong places.  He begs the Kaiser to change his mind.  To change the plan for war at the last minute cannot be done - the schedules are too precise to allow for any deviation.  He argues, 'If Your Majesty insists on leading the whole army to the East it will not be an army ready for battle but a disorganized mob.'

The Kaiser is not used to hearing 'no'.  In reproach he tells Moltke bitterly 'Your uncle would have given me a different answer.'  The criticism shatters Moltke's confidence - he has lived his entire life in his uncle's shadow, and at the supreme moment of his career he is told he does not measure up.  He returns to the General Staff Headquarters and bursts into tears.

The first stage of the Schlieffen Plan is to seize tiny Luxembourg, whose railways would be essential to the invasions.  A detachment of the 16th Division is assigned to cross the border at 7pm.  The Kaiser personally sends the order to halt the move, still hoping to avoid war with France at the last moment.  The result is a farce.  One German column does not receive the order in time, and as per its instructions seizes the town of Ulflingen with its key railway connections at 7pm.  Thirty minutes later, another detachment arrives by automobile, instructing the first column to return to Germany.  Thus the first German invasion of the war ends in an attempt to pretend the whole thing was a mistake and never happened.  The Luxembourgers are not fooled - the Minister of State promptly informs the British and French of the invasion.

Later that evening, another telegram arrives from the German ambassador in London, stating that he had misunderstood the earlier conversation with Grey and that no offer of French neutrality was on the table.  The straw the Kaiser had clutched at disappears from his hand.  At 11pm Moltke is instructed to return to the palace.  The Kaiser greets his Chief of Staff with a military overcoat over his nightshirt, states bitterly, 'Now you can do what you like', and promptly returns to bed.  Moltke returns to General Staff Headquarters, to resume the implementation of the Schlieffen Plan, beginning with an order for the 're-invasion' of Luxembourg at midnight.  Germany thus enters the war with commander of its armed forces, the man tasked to ensure victory by the precise implementation of the only war plan Germany has, having had his self-confidence thoroughly crushed.

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