Monday, August 04, 2014

August 4th, 1914

- At 4am, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe receives orders from the Admiralty to take command of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet as Commander-in-Chief.  The Grand Fleet is the strongest naval force in the world, consisting of dreadnoughts, battlecruisers, and supporting vessels, and is based at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.  As its commander, Jellicoe's role is the most important in the Royal Navy.  The Grand Fleet is essential to the survival of Great Britain - should its ships be sunk, the Germans would be able to easily blockade the country and, since Britain must import food, force starvation and surrender within weeks.  Thus, as Churchill says of Jellicoe, he is 'the only man on either side who can lose the war in an afternoon.'  Jellicoe is acutely aware of the pressure and responsibilities of his role.  He sees it as his task not to destroy the German navy, but to preserve the Grand Fleet.  The status quo is satisfactory for Britain - merely by existing, the Grand Fleet is able to blockade Germany, as no German ships can possible sail through the Channel or out of the North Sea east of Scapa Flow without interception by the Royal Navy.  Thus Jellicoe does not seek battle with the Germans merely for the sake of battle, as he knows that victory in such a battle will not substantially change the status quo, but defeat can end the war.

- On the Western Front the great armies of France and Germany assemble.  Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, with their equipment and supplies, are brought like clockwork to the designated locations.  The German forces comprise seven armies (8th Army is forming in East Prussia), arranged north (1st Army) to south (7th Army).  It is 1st Army (General Alexander von Kluck) and 2nd Army (General Karl von Bülow) that carries the main burden of executing the Schlieffen Plan.  On the French side five armies assemble, arranged south (1st Army) to north (5th Army).  The first four armies are assigned the primary responsibility for executing Plan XVII, the French war plan, which prescribes an invasion of Germany.  The tiny Belgian army of six divisions assembles just east of Louvain.  For both the Germans and French, it will take several days until the process of mobilization is complete and the armies are ready to begin their advance.  For both countries, the initiation of hostilities will consist of a massive offensive - the Germans through Belgium, and the French through German-held Alsace and Lorraine.  Both also expect the successful execution of their war plans to bring about a rapid end to the war in victory.  Both sides, believing in the superiority of their arms and their cause, believe that none can stand before them, and that their enemies will be swept away.

French and German deployments on the Western Front at the start of the war.

- At 6am, the German ambassador delivers a note to the Belgian government, informing it that due to their rejection of the German proposals, the German army will take all necessary measures, including the use of force.  The Germans remain hopeful that the Belgians will not resist their invasion.  Moltke in Berlin believes that after a token resistance to satisfy honour, the Belgians will stand aside.  This is wishful thinking - nothing would suit the Germans more than for the Belgians not to resist, so that is what they expect will happen.  As with much that occurs in these first days of the war, they are incorrect.

- The first stage of the Schlieffen Plan is the capture and destruction of the large fortifications around the Belgian town of Liège.  Consisting of a dozen forts arranged in a circle around Liège on the Meuse Rivier, they are Belgium's primary defense against invasion from the East, and are widely considered to be near-impregnable.  For the Germans, Liège falls directly in the line of advance of 1st and 2nd Armies.  Due to a decision not to violate the neutrality of the Netherlands, there is no way around Liège, so the forts must be taken.

- The German invasion of Belgium begins just after 8am as German cavalry sweep forward to reconnoiter the Belgian countryside.  Behind them march six brigades under the command of General Otto von Emmich.  This task force has been specially-created to capture Liège as the rest of the German assembles.  Approaching their objective, they realize that the bridges on the Meuse north and south of the town have been blown.  When the Germans attempt to cross, they are surprised to come under heavy and sustained fire from Belgian defenders.  By nightfall a German detachment has succeeded in crossing the Meuse north of the town, but to the south the Germans have been halted, while in the centre the bulk of Emmich's force has closed up to the four easternmost forts.
ThLiège forts and the initial German advance, Aug. 4th, 1914.

- The British government awaits confirmation of the German invasion of Belgium before issuing an ultimatum to Germany.  When the news arrived of German forces crossing the border near Liège, the Cabinet meets at 11am, and decide to issue an ultimatum, expiring at midnight Berlin time, requiring Germany to withdraw from Belgium, or Britain would declare war.  At 2pm Prime Minister Asquith makes his way to the House of Commons to announce the ultimatum.  The streets are thronged with bystanders, cheering every minister (and many they mistake for ministers) they see.

- That afternoon the British ambassador delivers the ultimatum to Chancellor Bethmann-Holweg directly.  The Chancellor is indignant at the British for entering the war over what he sees as the trivial matter of Belgian neutrality.  He berates the ambassador, and that all of the horrors of war to ensue will be the fault of the British, and 'all for just a word - "neutrality" - just for a scrap of paper.'  Little does Bethmann-Hollweg suspect that he has given Entente propagandists a coup - the phrase 'scrap of paper' will become infamous, and tar Germany's name around the world.

- In Berlin the deputies of the Reichstag hear an address by the Kaiser, who again emphasizes national solidarity in wartime - 'From this day on I recognize no parties but only Germans!'  At 3pm the deputies reconvene and after a speech by the Chancellor, assigning blame for the war solely on the Entente powers.  Afterwards the Reichstag unanimously approves the package of war credits to finance the war, including a short-term credit of 5 billion marks, the suspension of convertibility of bank notes to gold (to allow greater control over the amount of notes in circulation, as they no longer have to be tied to gold deposits) and the creation of special loan banks for the private sector, freeing the Reichsbank to focus on the financing of the war effort.  At the conclusion of business, the Reichstag votes itself out of session for four months, by which time it is generally expected that the war will be over.

- At a joint session of the Senate and Chamber in Paris this afternoon, an address by President Raymond Poincarè is read (the President is barred by law from appearing before the Chamber).  He concludes:

In the war which is beginning, France will have Right on her side, the eternal power of which cannot with impunity be disregarded by nations any more than by individuals.  She will be heroically defended by all her sons; nothing will break their sacred union before the enemy; today they are joined together as brothers in a common indignation against the aggressor, and in a common patriotic faith.  She is faithfully helped by Russia, her ally ; she is supported by the loyal friendship of Great Britain.  And already from every part of the civilised world sympathy and good wishes are coming to her. For today once again she stands before the universe for Liberty, Justice, and Reason.  Haut les coeurs et vive la France!

Just as elsewhere, the sacred union is a rallying cry for all Frenchmen to set aside the regular divisions of peacetime and join as one to defeat France's enemies.  It is a potent argument in the frenzied atmosphere of the first days of August - now comes the collision of such idealism with the realities of modern warfare.

- As the hours ticked down to the expiry of the British ultimatum to Germany, Prime Minister Asquith appoints Lord Kitchener to the post of Secretary of State for War.  The post had been vacant since March due to the resignation of the prior Secretary over the 'Curragh Mutiny', when some British officers refused orders they perceived would require them to suppress Ulster Unionists in the ongoing Irish crisis.  For the past several days Asquith has acted as Secretary of State for War, but a permanent appointment is obviously desirable.  The selection of Kitchener is a bold choice - he was the first serving officer to sit in the British Cabinet since 1660.  When the decision was made he was about to return to Egypt where he was serving as Consul-General - the order to return to London reaches him aboard a Channel steamer just as it was about to depart for the Continent.  Kitchener had not wanted the appointment - he was contemptuous of both War Office officials and politicians who thought they knew more about military operations than professionals - and the rest of the Cabinet was not enthusiastic about his presence.  What Kitchener brought to the appointment, however, outweighed the disadvantages.  He was arguably Britain's most famous soldier in 1914 - he had a long history of service throughout the Empire, including wars in the Sudan and South Africa.  His appointment lent instant gravitas to the Liberal government, giving it credibility in the management of military affairs that it would not otherwise have had.  It also sets the stage for epic clashes between civilian and military leadership of the war.
The face of Kitchener, with its distinctive moustache,
would be ubiquitous on recruiting posters throughout
- In a statement to a private meeting of bankers and businessmen Lloyd George reassures them that it will be 'business as usual' regarding the economy - government intervention will be minimized, so there is no need for panic or hasty withdrawal of funds.  The slogan will become famous as a description of the British approach to the wartime economy in the early stages of the conflict, but right from the start some 'unusual' measures were being taken.  This day also sees the British government taking over the management of the nation's railways, to ensure efficient distribution of war material and food.  Railway owners were only the first to see how 'unusual' the economy could become in wartime.

- In the pre-dawn hours, two warships steam westwards from Sicily, lights out to prevent identification.  They are German - the modern battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau.  Assigned to the Mediterranean since 1912, the two warships comprise the entirety of Germany's naval presence in the area.  This morning they are sailing towards the Algerian coast, hoping to intercept French troopships carrying reinforcements from Algeria to metropolitan France.  At 235 am, the German commander, Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, receives a telegram instructing him to sail to Constantinople, to reinforce the secret German-Ottoman treaty of August 2nd.  Almost at the Algerian coast, he continues westward until he reaches Philippeville, which he then subjected to a token bombardment.  Having made his appearance, he turns back eastwards - he intends to coal at Messina before continuing to Constantinople.

The presence of Souchon's warships is well-known to the Entente.  With the French fleet tied down escorting troopships, it is the Royal Navy that takes on the responsibility of tracking down and sinking Goeben and Breslau.  The British Mediterranean Fleet is superior to the German force, consisting of three battlecruisers, four old armoured cruisers, four modern light cruisers, and a flotilla of destroyers.  Two of the battlecruisers - Indefatigable and Indomitable - sailing westward sight Souchon's force approaching them just after 1030am.  Though war between the two countries now appears inevitable, it has formally not yet begun, so the German and British warships pass each other 8000 yards apart, all at battle stations but without training their guns on the other.  After, the two British battlecruisers swing around and follow Goeben and Breslau as they continue eastward.  The British hope to keep the Germans in sight until war is declared, when they can open fire.  Souchon, of course, wants to escape before this can happen, and he pushes his ships as fast as they can go.  Fortunately for Souchon, their fastest is just a bit faster than the British ships.  By 4pm, Goeben was slipping out of sight in the haze of the horizon.  By 730pm, all that could be seen was smoke in the distance, and by nightfall even that sign had disappeared.  The British ships are forced to call off the chase just before 10pm.  Goeben and Breslau have escaped, and none to soon - the British ultimatum to Germany expires in two hours.

- In the last minutes before the expiry of the ultimatum at 11pm London time, the British Cabinet meets at Downing Street, awaiting expiry or a last-minute telephone call.  Outside a massive crowd can be heard singing 'God Save the King'.  Suddenly the chimes of Big Ben sound, signalling 11pm.  When the last 'Boom!' echoes away, Great Britain is at war with Germany.

Crowds outside Buckingham Palace cheer the declaration of war against Germany.

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