Tuesday, August 05, 2014

August 5th, 1914

- At dawn, Goeben and Breslau arrive at the Italian post of Messina on Sicily in order to replenish their stock of coal.  The Italian authorities, however, emphasizing the neutrality of Italy in the war, inform Admiral Souchon that his ships may remain in harbour for only 24 hours.  As the German sailors desperately shovel coal as quickly as possible, the British light cruiser Gloucester watches the southern exit of the Messina Strait, while the battlecruisers Inflexible and Indefatigable are to the northwest of Sicily, covering the French troop transports.

- General Radomir Putnik, Chief of Staff of the Serbian Army, arrives at his headquarters today.  He had actually been in Budapest when Austria-Hungary issued its declaration of war, but in an act of chivalry he was not detained and was permitted to return to Serbia.  In another remarkable episode, Putnik had with him the only set of keys to open a safe in his office which contained the only copy of Serbia's mobilization plan.  In his absence, his staff had to dynamite open the safe before they could begin to mobilize.

- Austria-Hungary today declares war on Russia.  The delay speaks to the extent to which the war had already bypassed one of its initiators.

- Representatives of twenty-one London commercial banks meet to discuss the economic fallout from the advent of war.  They calculate that they are owed £60 million by firms in Germany and Austria-Hungary, debts that they will be unable to collect.

- In Austria-Hungary, finance ministers and the central bank agree that the country's gold reserves will be allotted solely for state and military use, and that foreign payments will be halted to prevent a currency drain.

- In France, the central bank advances to the government 2.9 billion francs in new notes to finance the war efforts, raising the value of the notes in circulation by almost a third.  With convertability from notes to gold suspended, the central bank can increase the money supply almost at will.

- In Britain, a meeting of the War Council is held to discuss the deployment of the British Expeditionary Force, consisting of all six regular divisions of the British Army.  The members of the Council include civilian ministers and leading figures in the army - among the former is Asquith, Grey, and Churchill, and the latter includes Field Marshal Sir John French, commander of the BEF, and Kitchener in his new role as Secretary of State for War.  The meeting is a shambles.  The official mobilization plan for the BEF is that it is to be deployed to France as soon as possible, assembling at the French fortress of Maubeuge on the Belgian frontier.  As he had no part of developing the mobilization plan, Kitchener feels no responsibility to ensure its implementation.  He argues that Maubeuge is far too forward, risking their early destruction of the Germans move through Belgium in force.  Instead, the BEF should assemble at Amiens, far to the rear.  Other generals are appalled - General Sir Henry Wilson, author and driving force behind the pre-war mobilization plan, and who would become Deputy Chief of Staff of the BEF, felt Amiens would leave the BEF too far away from the fighting to make any difference.  Sir John French, meanwhile, suggests that instead of France the BEF should go to Antwerp in Belgium - if the war is about aiding Belgium, shouldn't the BEF land in Belgium to help directly?  Moreover, there are suggestions, particular from the civilian ministers, that some of the divisions of the BEF be held back, out of fear of German invasion.  Churchill and the Navy says this is preposterous, but the fear remains.

Kitchener also astonishes the Council when he declares that the war will last three years and require the mobilization of millions of soldiers into seventy divisions.  Everyone else, believing the war will be over in months, not years, is flabbergasted.  Here is Kitchener, on his first day in office, declaring that everyone else's perceptions of how the war will play out are completely out-of-touch.  Many, instead, believe Kitchener is the one out-of-touch.  Kitchener is doubtful of sending the BEF to France at all - better to use the trained regulars of the BEF, especially the non-commissioned officers, as a nucleus of a massively-expanded British Army.

The meeting breaks up without agreement.  It is often said that no plan survives contact with the enemy - in this case, the British plan does not survive contact with Kitchener.

- In Belgium General Emmich's brigades launch the first major attack on the four easternmost forts at Liège.  Repeated assaults are broken up, German soldiers mowed down by the fort's machine guns before they could reach the forts themselves.  The fighting is a preview of what the Western Front will become in the years ahead.  By nightfall the Germans have suffered heavy casualties without seizing any of the forts.  Morale among the Germans has been shaken as Emmich orders another assault for the next morning.

- Moltke writes this day that 'Our advance in Belgium is certainly brutal, but we are fighting for our lives and all who get in the way must take the consequences.'  These ominous words reflect how the German army will deal with civilians, especially in Belgium, who are suspected of resisting the German advance.  As German units move into Belgium, they are constantly on the lookout for francs-tireurs - the name given to civilians and partisans who sniped at Prussian soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1.  Furthermore, the Germans are outraged that the Belgians dare resist - they know they cannot win, so why not step aside and allow the Germans to move as they please?  The combination of these two attitudes is lethal during the German invasion of Belgium.  Official orders come down from the generals in charge of the advance that all resistance by civilians must be dealt with using the harshest means possible, and soldiers came to see such francs-tireurs around every corner.  There was a deliberate policy to 'frighten' the Belgian population into submission.  Any civilian caught with a firearm was liable for summary execution.  Further, if any village or town was suspected of harbouring civilian resisters, innocent civilians, including women and children, would be executed and the village burnt to the ground, in order to 'make an example' of those who resisted.  In reality, there is no evidence of any widespread resistance by the Belgian population - indeed, the Belgian government had told its people to hand in their guns to the nearest authorities before the Germans arrived.  Already, six hostages has been shot at Warsage and the village of Battice burnt to the ground.  These are merely the first steps of what will come to be known around the world as the 'Rape of Belgium'.

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