Those who suppose the modern media uniquely prone to hyperbole, fantasy and deceit should consider the madness of rumour and invention that overtook the world’s press in 1914. The Daily Mail published a detailed account of an entirely fictional naval victory. ‘If damaging rumours start,’ wrote Dr Eugen Lampe in Ljubljana early in September 1914, ‘they spread at immense speed. If two people meet on the street, they ask each other: Any news? Nobody knows anything. But there are people who always choose to believe and broadcast the worst. For a week, the atmosphere has been extremely tense. Families, whose husbands and sons are in the army, mourn, pray and tremble. They fight to get at newspapers. Then they whisper: there are none of our casualties on the list of wounded. They do not want to tell us! There are so many that they cannot record all of them!’
Few of the journalists called upon to write about the war had any knowledge of military matters, and their ignorance showed. The introduction of trench warfare was at first greeted in the French press as a cowardly innovation by the Germans, who were mocked as ‘moles’. Many papers talked up the enemy’s weakness, flagging morale and food shortages. Austrian cities were said to be pleading with the Italians to save them from looming famine, while Germany was allegedly struggling in vain to recruit Italians to replace mobilised factory workers. Late in September The Times produced a wildly exaggerated calculation, based on the casualty lists, showing that the BEF had lost 40 per cent of its officers in a month of fighting. Ludwig Wittgenstein, aboard a Vistula picket boat, wrote on 25 October: ‘Yesterday evening a silly report came that Paris had fallen. At first I was delighted, until I realised the story could not be true. These fantasy reports are always a bad sign. If there was genuine good news, such nonsenses would not be necessary.’ Five days later, he eagerly scanned a German newspaper, and feared the worst after recognising the vacuity of its content: ‘No good news – which means the same as bad news!’
Meanwhile in France, on 19 August l’Eclaireur of Nice announced a fictitious clash between the Royal Navy and the High Seas Fleet in the North Sea, in which the British had allegedly lost sixteen dreadnoughts including Iron Duke, Lion and Superb. French newspapers were especially enthusiastic about publishing reports concerning the German Crown Prince, an army commander in the field. On 5 August he was the victim of an assassination attempt in Berlin; on the 15th seriously wounded on the French front and removed to hospital; on the 24th subject to another assassination attempt; on 4 September he committed suicide, though he was resurrected on 18 October to be wounded again; on the 20th his wife was watching over his death bed; but on 3 November he was certified insane. None of these stories contained the smallest element of truth.
L’Action française informed the public that the Maggi dairies and Kub shop chains were in reality intelligence centres manned by Prussian officers who had become naturalised Frenchmen in anticipation of war; radio transmitters were concealed in every dairy, and Maggi milk was infused with poison. These reports caused mobs to storm the premises of these perfectly innocent, though foreign-owned, businesses. Among the most preposterous myths to be widely broadcast was that of ‘turpinite’, a new super-explosive supposedly invented by the chemist Eugène Turpin, which would effortlessly extinguish German troops in their trenches. The French satirical magazine Le Canard enchaîné was founded at around this time, as a reaction to the deceits perpetrated in the traditional press.
Some of the shortcomings of newspapers were no fault of their own, but instead the consequence of governments’ refusal to provide facts or allow correspondents to visit the front. In Britain Col. Repington complained that censorship was being abused ‘as a cloak to cover all political, naval and military mistakes’. It was undoubtedly true that the system was exploited to sustain public morale much more than to conceal operational secrets from the enemy. In France, after the Marne the General Staff began to provide a thin dripfeed of information to the press, but the damage was already done: a credibility gap had opened which was never entirely closed. French journalists – and, before long, their readers – became chronically sceptical about all official pronouncements.
French soldiers in the field referred contemptuously to the ‘bourrage de crâne’, literally ‘skull-stuffing’, but properly ‘bullshit’, which made up the content of the newspapers that reached them. Maurice Barrès of l’Echo de Paris became notorious for his enthusiasm for the war, which prompted the impassioned pacifist Romain Rolland to dub him ‘the nightingale of carnage’. Poilus, rejecting the conventional press, turned instead to trench newspapers which soldiers wrote and copied for each other, or to Swiss titles when obtainable. Philosopher Alain Emile-Auguste Chartier, now a soldier, wrote on 25 November: ‘The Journal de Genève is eagerly seized upon here and officers make cuttings from it; the military reports are admirable and everyone agrees that our papers seem ridiculous by comparison.’
07 December 2013
From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 8795-8835:
02 December 2013
From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 10368-10389:
The British took 53,000 horses to France in 1914, and other armies used them in like proportion. The official historians noted: ‘The enormous wastage from animal casualties of a modern war was under-estimated.’ The BEF’s horses and mules suffered an annual mortality rate of 29 per cent, with over 13,000 dead in France and Flanders before New Year 1915 from disease or enemy action. Alexander Johnston reckoned that on the march to the Aisne he passed a dead horse every two hundred yards: ‘poor brutes, they have a terrible time of it’. Many such casualties – shot, crippled or ridden to exhaustion – were drawn from the 165,000 hunters and plough horses purchased for the British Army in the first twelve days of war. In September the retreating Germans threw down spiked metal caltrops, or ‘crows’ feet’, to cripple pursuing cavalry. These frequently achieved their purpose, especially when compounded by French housewives’ practice of tossing stove ashes onto rural tracks without removing nails and other old iron.
Many horses fell victim to incompetent or brutal handling. Vets catalogued examples of mistreatment by ignorant riders and grooms: artillery drivers ‘chucking’ horses in the mouth [yanking back on the reins]; cavalry wantonly neglecting to feed or water their mounts; men galloping horses on paved roads without urgent need; riders ignoring saddlesores. Cavalry remount depots were formed at Ormskirk, Swaythling and Shirehampton, and beside each was a veterinary hospital capable of tending a thousand four-legged patients. Army stables at Pitt Corner camp near Winchester at one time held more than 3,000 sick and injured animals.
Meanwhile heavy plough horses, conscripted against expert advice, proved quite unsuitable for the artillery role for which they were earmarked. The official historians noted: ‘Veterinary officers … foresaw their weakness for military purposes, and anticipated the heavy loss which would ensue if they were indiscriminately employed in war … because of great susceptibility to disease, large food and watering requirements, and inability to stand forced marches.’ Heavy horses perished in thousands in France, partly because of the extreme vulnerability of their feet to wet weather. Both the French and the British made huge foreign purchases of replacements, but the right sort of animal was identified only after harsh experience. Many Canadian remounts died on the Atlantic passage, or soon after arriving in Britain. It was found that the most suitable stock were tough American country beasts from areas like the Dakotas, rather than barn-reared horses. By the war’s end, the British Army’s animal strength rose to 450,000; an estimated total of two million hapless horses and mules served on both sides of the Western Front. The Royal Army Veterinary Corps, which mustered just 360 personnel in 1914, numbered 28,000 four years later.
From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 5654-5669:
The long columns plodding forward into German territory filled observers with wonder at their exotic character and mingling of modern and primitive equipment. Many of the infantry lacked high boots. Supply arrangements were chaotic and inadequate, hampered by poor roads and few railways in their rear. The Russian army rejected howitzers as a ‘cowards’ weapon’, because they could be fired by men beyond sight of their enemies; for artillery support, they relied exclusively upon field guns. Communications were hampered by a shortage of radios, and commanders were obliged to signal in plain language, because each corps used a different cipher. The invaders owned a total of just twenty-five telephones and eighty miles of wire. The cavalry were trained to act chiefly as mounted infantry, filling gaps between corps, and made little attempt to fulfil the vital reconnaissance role. Most of Russia’s few available aircraft had been sent to Galicia, and those in East Prussia were temporarily grounded for lack of fuel.
In 1910 German writer Heino von Basedow described his impressions of the Tsar’s army in terms which reflected widespread foreign opinion: ‘The Russian soldier is impulsive as a child. He is easily excited by rabble-rousers (towards revolt) but equally readily restored to submission.’ Basedow was amazed by the careless culture of the Tsar’s soldiers, symbolised by the rakish angle at which each man wore his cap. An NCO calling ‘ras-dwa’ at the front of a marching column in hopes of maintaining its step and precision could not prevent a man in the rear rank from casually munching an apple. Soldiers supposedly marching at attention would nonetheless raise an unfailing hand to cross themselves when they passed a church or roadside icon. Meanwhile a grenadier might seat himself on a roadside marker and hawk his platoon’s bread to all comers. Such a way of soldiering did not inspire German respect. Alfred Knox noted the same casualness on the battlefield, where he was astonished to see Russian artillerymen sleeping huddled against their gunshields, minutes before they were due to open fire.
27 November 2013
Heather Streets-Salter brings a lot of fascinating historical threads together in The Local Was Global: The Singapore Mutiny of 1915, in Journal of World History 24 (2013): 539-576 (Project MUSE subscription required). Here is her summary of the mutiny:
On the early afternoon of 15 February, about half of the 850 soldiers in the 5th Light Infantry had risen against their British officers while loading ammunition at the Alexandra regimental barracks. After firing shots to signal the start of the mutiny, the rebels split into three groups. The first headed straight for a German POW camp at Tanglin—where the officers and men of the German ship Emden, which had been sunk off the coast of Malaya, were being held—and released the prisoners, in the process killing fourteen British and Indian officers and men. The second headed toward the center of Singapore, killing six soldiers and civilians along the way. The third proceeded to the barracks of the Malay States Guides artillery unit, where they attempted to force the soldiers there to join them. At various points along the way, this third group killed ten British civilians—nine men and one woman.And here are some of the global threads she weaves together:
As news of the mutiny spread in Singapore, panic broke out among the Europeans. They realized with horror that a significant portion of the only regular army regiment garrisoned for the defense of Singapore was now in open rebellion, which of course meant that the colony was almost completely undefended. A year earlier there had been a British regiment—the King’s Own Light Infantry—stationed there, but those troops had been shipped back to Europe at the start of the war in 1914. There was a civilian volunteer force (the Singapore Volunteer Corps, or SVC), which in August 1914 was composed of about 450 Malay and Chinese men but no European corps. In any case, the SVC troops were not well trained. At the outbreak of the war a European infantry corps, called the Singapore Volunteer Rifles, was formed, but since all of the men who joined were professionals with full-time positions, their training had been sporadic. Finally, Singapore maintained a police force of about 1,200 strong, which was comprised of Malay, Chinese, and Indian men who were not trained to routinely carry arms. The only contingent of the police who were trained in the use of arms was a group of about 220 Sikhs. In any case it was Chinese New Year, and thus nearly all of the Chinese volunteers and police were in the midst of celebrating. There were no regular Malay regiments, partly because British authorities disparaged the military potential of Malay men and partly because officials had long been confident that troops from the vast Indian Army would more than suffice for defending Singapore. So when the 5th Light Infantry—ironically called the “Loyal 5th” for their role in suppressing the Indian Revolt of 1857—mutinied on 15 February, the colony appeared to be in real danger.
Prior to being sent back to Malaya, however, a corporal in the [Malay States] Guides persuaded Kasim Mansur, a pro-German Indian nationalist merchant living in Singapore, to write a letter to the Turkish consul at Rangoon indicating that the Guides were ready to turn against the British, and asking the Turkish authorities to send a warship to Singapore to support them. The letter was intercepted by British authorities in Rangoon, and on 23 January 1915 Mansur was arrested in Singapore....
Moreover, statements made by individuals within the Guides clearly demonstrate that they conceived their discontent not only in terms of local, individual problems within the regiment, but also in terms of global events outside the immediate orbit of Singapore. One of the most important of these was the fate of the Japanese ship Komagata Maru. The ship had been chartered in early 1914 by an Indian man, Gurdit Singh, to carry 376 Indian passengers (of whom 340 were Sikhs and 24 Muslim) from Hong Kong to Vancouver, with the purpose of deliberately challenging Canadian laws restricting Indian immigration. However, once the ship arrived in the port of Vancouver it was not allowed to dock, nor were its passengers allowed to disembark. The passengers were forced to wait on board ship for two months in difficult conditions while their fate was decided, only to discover at the end that the entire ship had been ordered back to India. The ship left Vancouver under escort by the Canadian military on 23 July 1914. When it finally reached Calcutta on 26 September, the outraged and weary passengers tousled with British authorities, who were intent on treating them as prisoners. The altercation resulted in gunfire by the authorities, during which nineteen of the Indians on board were killed.
The Komagata Maru incident galvanized anti-British sentiment among many Indians around the world, particularly Sikhs and Punjabis. Soldiers in the Indian army were particularly outraged, since many of the potential settlers aboard the ship had served in the army themselves. News of the Komagata Maru easily reached the Malay States Guides, who informed their officers that the treatment of Sikhs and other Punjabis on the ship indicated that the colonial government did not hold the service of Indians in high regard and that they therefore were not willing to sacrifice their lives abroad....
The likelihood that the events of the Komagata Maru helped sow the seeds of discontent among Indian sepoys in Singapore was greatly enhanced by the actions of individuals associated with a radical Indian nationalist movement known as Ghadar. The movement itself began in 1913 with Indian expatriates in California—many of them Sikhs from the Punjab—who had come to the western coast of North America in the early years of the twentieth century to escape conditions of poverty. In both the United States and Canada, however, these expatriates experienced increasingly hostile discrimination, not only at the state level but also from white communities....
Ghadar activists did not just send literature from North America: they also sent people. The specific purpose of Ghadar agents was no less than to foment revolution in India and to overthrow colonial rule, using whatever means possible. Beginning in September and October 1914—just months before the Singapore Mutiny—Ghadarites left San Francisco for India and the Far East. Specific target areas included Hong Kong, the Malay States, Rangoon, and Singapore—each of which had Indian Army garrisons that Ghadarites were eager to penetrate....
We know that German agents in the United States did offer material support for the Ghadarites, including the transport of Ghadar propaganda from San Francisco to points east. In recognition of their shared program of British destruction, the Ghadar paper explicitly and regularly exhorted Indians to support Germany in any way possible during the war. On 18 August 1914, an article titled “O Hindus, Help the Germans” encouraged Indians to take the opportunity of Britain’s weakness to mutiny....
In addition to appealing to Indian sepoys’ potential sense of exploitation as colonized Indians more generally, both the Germans and the Ghadarites made special efforts to appeal to Indian Muslims—especially after the Ottoman Empire’s entrance into the war on the side of Germany in November 1914. Indeed, Germans, Turks, and Ghadarites worked together in a self-conscious program of encouraging disloyalty among the Allies’ Muslim subjects—of which the largest population in the world was Indian. Upon entering the war, the Ottomans declared the liberation of occupied Muslim lands as a specific war aim. Almost immediately, on 11 November 1914, the Ottoman sultan extracted from the highest religious authority in his empire a declaration of jihad, in which all loyal Muslims were to fight on behalf of their religion against the Allied infidels....
News spread through these propaganda channels that Kaiser Wilhelm had converted to Islam and that large segments of the German population had converted as well. That these or similar efforts had an impact on at least some men of the 5th Light Infantry can be gauged by several letters intercepted by the censor in the days surrounding the mutiny. As Lance Naik Fateh Mohammed wrote to his father in the Punjab: “The Germans have become Mohammedans. Haji Mahmood William Kaiser and his daughter has married the heir to the Turkish throne, who is to succeed after the Sultan. Many of the German subjects and army have embraced Mohammedism. Please God that the religion of the Germans (Mohammedism) may be promoted or raised on high.”
23 November 2013
From Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, by Jason C. Anthony (U. Nebraska Press, 2012), p. 185:
Skua piles, named for the kleptoparasitic gull, are a USAP tradition and the clearest sign that we are a transient community. Simply put, departing people leave behind their excess stuff in a heap near their dorm recycling area, and arriving people grab what they need for their season. If you're in the right place at the right time, you can find anythings: homemade bookshelves, insulated work clothes, flannel sheets, half-filled shampoo bottles or, less usefully, broken pencils, used batteries, and sex toys. Skua piles are so fundamental to the local culture that "skua" is as common a verb as it is a multipurpose noun. Stuff is skuaed, the wise go skuaing, and so on. Much of the food is condiments people are too lazy to return to the galley or odd items that no one really wants to eat but are unwilling to throw away. I saw the same can of fiddlehead ferns from Maine disappear and reappear over several years. Dusty jars of nearly flavorless spices that I twice claimed, never used, and returned years ago may still be snatched excitedly each summer by a desperate home-cooker. But again, anything is possible in the skua piles; I have stumbled upon rafts of cooking supplies and a new electric teakettle that someone didn't feel like mailing home, as well as quick-cook oats, rice, and other staples there for the taking.
19 November 2013
Here's a nice bit of historical revisionism from Robert Shaffer, “A Missionary from the East to Western Pagans”: Kagawa Toyohiko’s 1936 U.S. Tour, in Journal of World History 24 (2013): 579-583 (Project MUSE subscription required):
In order to explain how World War II in the Pacific between the Americans and the Japanese became so infused with racial hatred, John Dower in 1986 characterized their prior interactions as a virtually unrelieved set of hostilities, misunderstandings, and worse. Walter LaFeber’s more narrowly political analysis showed some elements of sympathy at times between the two nations, though very few between 1920 and 1945, and he expressed clearly his thesis about such relations in his book’s title: The Clash. While compelling in many respects, and certainly influential, the perspectives of Dower and LaFeber downplay, especially for the interwar years, the respect that some people in each society had for those in the other. Recent historians have sought to fill in these gaps, bringing to light, for example, the enthusiasm with which Americans greeted the first ambassadors from Japan in 1860 as they toured the United States, and the respect that many American missionaries in Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century had for both Japanese tradition and its embrace of modernity. Although Kagawa’s 1936 visit could not forestall the growth of tensions between the two nations that soon led to World War II, this study demonstrates that a tradition of friendship persisted between elements of both nations within the more dominant atmosphere of mistrust and hatred.
World history as a discipline has been developing in tandem with the “internationalization of U.S. history,” an effort to show, among other things, how events and ideas that developed outside of the United States affected this nation. Daniel Rodgers, for example, has shown that many of the reforms in the United States from the Progressive Era and the New Deal developed first in Europe, and he explains how Americans traveling or working in Europe or meeting with European visitors adapted these ideas for implementation in the United States. Thomas Bender has extended geographically the study of such interconnections in reform movements to Asia and Latin America, but his treatment of the 1930s is merely suggestive. Kagawa’s economic reformism manifested itself by the mid 1930s primarily in building producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives in Japan, and the Protestants who sponsored his 1936 visit to the United States sought to use his knowledge and his prestige to stimulate the development of such co-ops in this nation. Thus, an analysis of his visit deepens our understanding of the interaction between American and foreign reform movements in the case of economic cooperatives, and highlights this oft-neglected effort during the Depression to fashion what its backers conceived of as a Christian economic order distinct from both capitalism and communism.
Kagawa’s visit to the United States also challenges us to look more closely at American involvement in missionary activity. In her recent survey of the historical literature on American overseas missionary activities, Dana Robert pointed to the interpretive sea change that occurred in the 1960s. By the end of that turbulent decade, she notes, “there was scarcely a work written on American Protestant missions that did not focus on their role in promoting imperialism.” However, Robert emphasizes that much of the most recent work, from the 1980s onward, sees “the significance of missions for American history … in international relationships,” in how indigenous peoples and religions shaped American Protestant mission work, and not just the other way around. In a study of the impact that American overseas missionaries had on U.S. society, Daniel Bays and Grant Wacker also reject the 1960s paradigm, suggesting that many missionaries spurred “self-reflection and self-criticism” about American society itself, and helped “their compatriots to see the United States as outsiders saw it.”
An examination of Kagawa’s under-studied U.S. tour corroborates the analyses of Robert, Bays, and Wacker that in some cases the missionary enterprise did not support American empire or the ideology that the United States and the West had the unquestioned right and obligation to inculcate religious truth and civilization on others. Indeed, this investigation reveals an instance in which American Protestants wanted their compatriots to learn from a foreigner—indeed, from someone from a predominantly non-Christian land—and from someone who had previously made well-publicized and highly critical comments about the United States. Those Americans responsible for planning Kagawa’s tour, including many with long experience as missionaries, had become what I have elsewhere called “critical internationalists”—Americans who believed that in order to engage productively with others a critical approach toward the American role in the world had become necessary. Thus, this study provides background for David Hollinger’s recent argument that ecumenical Protestantism in the United States, bolstered by its encounters with predominantly non-Christian peoples, became after 1945 an important proponent of anti-racist and multicultural perspectives in both the domestic and international spheres.
15 November 2013
From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2486-2525:
Would any of the Entente Powers have acted differently had they known of the profound complicity of the Serbian army, though not the government, in the murder of Franz Ferdinand? Almost certainly not, because this was not why the Austrians and Germans acted, or their opponents reacted. The Russians simply considered the extinction of a small Slav state as an excessive and indeed intolerable punishment for the crime of Princip, and for that matter Apis. Unless France had swiftly declared its neutrality and surrendered its frontier fortresses as Germany demanded, its alliance with Russia would have caused Moltke to attack in the West. The British were entirely unmoved by Serbia’s impending fate, and acted only in response to the German violation of Belgian neutrality and the threat to France. The various participants in what would soon become the Great War had very different motives for belligerence, and objectives with little in common. Three conflicts – that in the Balkans over East European issues, the continental struggle to determine whether German dominance should prevail, and the German challenge to British global naval mastery – accomplished a metamorphosis into a single over-arching one. Other issues, mostly involving land grabs, would become overlaid when other nations – notably Japan, Turkey and Italy – joined the struggle.
Many people in Britain have argued through the past century that the price of participation in the war was so appalling that no purpose could conceivably justify it; more than a few blame Sir Edward Grey for willing Britain’s involvement. But, granted Germany’s determination to dominate Europe and the likely consequences of such hegemony for Britain, would the foreign secretary have acted responsibly if he had taken no steps designed to avert such an outcome? Lloyd George in his memoirs advanced a further popular argument against the conflict, laying blame upon the soldiers he hated: ‘Had it not been for the professional zeal and haste with which the military staffs set in motion the plans which had already been agreed between them, the negotiations between the governments, which at that time had hardly begun, might well have continued, and war could, and probably would, have been averted.’ This was nonsense. What happened was not ‘war by accident’, but war by ill-conceived Austrian design, with German support.
Today, as in 1914, any judgement about the necessity for British entry must be influenced by an assessment of the character of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s empire. It seems frivolous to suggest, as do a few modern sensationalists, that a German victory would merely have created, half a century earlier, an entity resembling the European Union. Even if the Kaiser’s regime cannot be equated with that of the Nazis, its policies could scarcely be characterised as enlightened. Dominance was its purpose, achieved by peaceful means if possible, but by war if necessary. The Germans’ paranoia caused them to interpret as a hostile act any attempt to check or question their international assertiveness. Moreover, throughout the July crisis they, like the Austrians, consistently lied about their intentions and actions. By contrast, whatever the shortcomings of British conduct, the Asquith government told the truth as it saw this, to both its allies and its prospective foes.
The Kaiserreich’s record abroad was inhumane even by contemporary standards. It mandated in advance and applauded after the event the 1904–07 genocide of the Herero and Namaqua peoples of German South-West Africa, an enormity far beyond the scope of any British colonial misdeed. German behaviour during the 1914 invasion of Belgium and France, including large-scale massacres of civilians endorsed at the highest level, cannot be compared with what took place in the Second World War, because there was no genocidal intent, but it conveyed a profoundly disturbing image of the character of the regime that aspired to rule Europe.
It seems mistaken to suppose that neutrality in 1914 would have yielded a happy outcome for the British Empire. The authoritarian and acquisitive instincts of Germany’s leadership would scarcely have been moderated by triumph on the battlefield. The Kaiser’s regime did not enter the war with a grand plan for world domination, but its leaders were in no doubt that they required huge booty as a reward for the victory they anticipated. Bethmann Hollweg drafted a personal list of demands on 9 September 1914, when Berlin saw victory within its grasp. ‘The aim of the war,’ he wrote, ‘is to provide us with [security] guarantees, from east to west, for the foreseeable future, through the enfeeblement of our adversaries.’
France was to cede to Germany the Briey iron deposits; Belfort; a coastal strip from Dunkirk to Boulogne; the western slope of the Vosges mountains. Her strategic fortresses were to be demolished. Just as after 1870, cash reparations would be exacted sufficient to ensure that ‘France is incapable of spending considerable sums on armaments for the next eighteen to twenty years’. Elsewhere, Luxembourg would be annexed outright; Belgium and Holland transformed into vassal states; Russia’s borders drastically shrunken; a vast colonial empire created in central Africa; a German economic union extending from Scandinavia to Turkey.
08 November 2013
From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4060-4087:
On that same dreadful 22nd [of August 1914], the French Fourth Army advanced up a forest road through the Ardennes which led through the village of Bellefontaine. One regiment, led by Charles Mangin, headed onwards until, as they approached Tertigny, the Germans opened fire from neighbouring woodland. Bitter fighting followed; Mangin led a bayonet charge, while street fighting developed in Bellefontaine, which came under heavy shellfire. That evening, French survivors retired to the edge of the forest, having lost eight company commanders and more than a third of the regiment. France had always planned to exploit its colonial mercenaries to make good its shortfall of white manpower. Mangin wrote in a deplorable book he published in 1910, La Force noir: ‘In future battles these primitives, for whom life counts so little and whose young blood flows so ardently, as if eager to be shed, will certainly display the old “French fury” and will reinvigorate it if necessary.’ Now that war had come, Moroccans, Senegalese and Algerians were indeed hurled foremost into its flames. By 1918, France’s black soldiers had suffered a death rate three times higher than that of their white comrades, because they were so often selected for suicidal tasks.
One of the first of these fell to the 3rd Colonial Infantry Division. On 22 August its units advanced in column through the village of Rossignol, and thence up a narrow road into the Forêt d’Anlier. The French had made no attempt to reconnoitre: horse, foot and guns merely marched into the midst of the woodland, led by the Chasseurs d’Afrique, nicknamed ‘les marsouins’ – ‘porpoises’, because of an old naval connection. Germans already deployed among the trees waited patiently until the entire division was committed, then unleashed a torment of fire which, within the space of a few minutes, shattered the formation. Trapped on the narrow road, horses, men, carts and guns milled in chaos, until the fortunate contrived to surrender. The division lost 228 officers and 10,272 other ranks, including 3,800 men taken prisoner; two generals were killed, one wounded and captured. Indeed, almost all the French commanders perished: among the divisional artillery, only a single officer survived.
This massacre was achieved solely by rifle and machine-gun fire, for artillery was useless in the dense woodland. After the war, a memorial was erected by the father of one of the dead, Lt. Paul Feunette. The grieving parent never forgave himself, because he had responded to his son’s pre-war sowing of wild oats by insisting that he should join the Chasseurs d’Afrique ‘to sort him out’. After the French retreated, the Germans conducted another orgy of violence against civilians, murdering 122 people in Rossignol on 26 August.
The fighting on this one day, the 22nd, cost the French army 27,000 men killed, in addition to wounded and missing in proportion. This was a much larger loss than the British suffered on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, which is often wrongly cited as the First World War’s high-blood-mark. Other advances upon Longwy and Neufchâteau were shattered in similar fashion to those further south. The casualties in August 1914 were not merely statistically more terrible, but dealt the French army a blow from which it never fully recovered – it is remarkable that it recovered at all. Fourth Army commander Langle de Cary observed laconically to Joffre: ‘On the whole, results hardly satisfactory.’ More than a few senior officers lost offspring: both Foch’s only son and his son-in-law perished. The C-in-C urged a renewal of the assault, but Langle ignored him and withdrew.
From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 3659-3676:
Throughout the first fortnight of August, under brilliant skies the armies of France, Germany, Belgium and Britain marched from their detrainment points towards collisions with the enemy amid golden cornfields and wondering peasant spectators. Millions of men traversed many miles each day, some on foot, others on horses or carts, a few in primitive motor vehicles. ‘The dust clung to our hair, eyebrows and beards,’ wrote Paul Lintier on the 14th, ‘and by the time a column of Paris motor buses had gone by us, we were as white as the road itself,’ for relatively few of France’s highways were metalled. Each German corps, accompanied by 2,400 wagons and 14,000 horses, filled twelve miles of road.
While the German and British armies had adopted uniforms of grey-green and khaki respectively, the French and Belgians retained the brilliant hues of the nineteenth century. Fantastically, the soldiers of France advanced towards the enemy’s fire beneath regimental colours, to the music of drums and trumpets. More than a few French headstones of 1914 bear the succinct inscription after a man’s name, ‘clarion’ – ‘trumpeter’. Many units deployed in action full bands, and some officers affected white gloves. All the belligerents were led into action by commanders armed with swords and mounted on chargers.
From September onwards, the armies burrowed deep into the earth, but the dominant characteristic of the August battles in France and Belgium was that the motions of infantry, cavalry and artillery were alike readily visible. Masses of men advanced against devastatingly powerful modern armaments in the same fashion as warriors since ancient times. The consequences were unsurprising, save to some generals. On 22 August 1914 the French army suffered casualties on a scale never thereafter in the war surpassed by any nation in a single day. Its commander-in-chief, Gen. Joseph Joffre, orchestrated a series of battles which, to a spectator, resembled those of the nineteenth century in all respects save the dearth of military genius. The conviction of French senior soldiers that spirit alone – ‘cran’ – could overcome firepower was responsible for rendering more than a quarter of a million of their young countrymen casualties inside three weeks. The Germans lost almost one-third as many – their own dying time came later.