Episode 15:

Belgium Burning

        Last week we discussed one of the bloodiest and lopsided single battles in not just the First World War, but in all of world history. In the Battle of the Frontiers, a campaign of some nine to ten days wherein the French launched assaults into Alsace-Lorraine and the Ardennes Forest against the German Armies opposing them, France suffered something on the order of 300,000 total casualties, whereas the Germans suffered a mere fraction of that number. In the days after this catastrophe, it very much looked like Germany was about to completely overrun France in a matter of weeks if not days. While this unstoppable force of the German invasion will inevitably run into the immovable object of the Allied Armies opposing them, and will even be turned back (at least for awhile), German successes continued during the next few days. Today, we are going to see how the Germans advanced through Belgium, and towards the British marching in to relieve the Belgian Armies. While the British Expeditionary Force will fight bravely and skillfully, they will nonetheless be unable to overcome the sheer numerical advantage and tactical skill of the German flanking force through Belgium.

         So, to start today, let’s do some catchup. Last week we pushed ahead to the conclusion of the Battle of the Frontiers in the Ardennes Forest, around August 25. But though we kept our focus on the center and right of the French Armies, which were the center and left of the German Armies, the rest of the Western Front had not been quiet. Indeed, massively important developments had occurred throughout the front, particularly in Belgium. The German invasion of Belgium, as we know, was carried out by three of the seven armies deployed on the Western Front: specifically the First, Second, and Third Armies. These armies, made up of a combined force of about three quarters of a million men, were tasked with sweeping through the western half of Belgium before making a left-hand turn and crashing into the left wing of the French and British Armies. The largest and most important of these three German Armies was the First Army, under General Alexander von Kluck, who would hold the very far right of this German flanking move. As General von Schlieffen had said when he first devised this plan to flank the French via Belgium, this German First Army should, quote, “let the last man on the right brush the [English] Channel with his sleeve.”

         Alexander von Kluck was an excellent choice for leading this move. He was a highly aggressive, no-nonsense kind of commander, who believed firmly in the Schlieffen Plan and was committed to cutting through Belgium, sweeping as far around the French and British left wing as possible, and smashing into that left flank in order to destroy them. It was Kluck’s First Army that had borne the brunt of the Belgian fire at Liège before the massive siege howitzers had obliterated the fortresses surrounding the city. By August 18, after smashing through Liège, Kluck’s First Army was advancing on the Belgian capital of Brussels roughly in the center of the country, while the German Second Army under General von Bülow advanced on the fortress city of Namur southwest of Liège, and the Third Army under General von Hausen advanced on yet further south of Namur. Feel free to look at the maps attached to this week’s episode to get a sense of this. Namur, like Liège, was a fortress city and considered by the Belgian high command to be impregnable, despite the fact that the German siege howitzers had easily destroyed the forts around Liège.

         Von Kluck’s path to Brussels required him to first march north and then west after punching through Liège. Just 60 kilometers or about 35 miles from the Belgian capital was the river Gette, which literally translates as “the gate.” A Belgian force based out of the major city of Louvain had deployed there to protect Brussels, and von Kluck hoped to be able to surround and destroy this force. However, realizing the danger this force was in, King Albert I ordered this force to retreat north to the vital port city of Antwerp. This greatly annoyed von Kluck, as it now meant that as he advanced towards the French border there would be a significant Belgian force threatening his rear. Further exasperating von Kluck was the fact that virtually every bridge and tunnel on his path was destroyed by the retreating Belgian Army, slowing his advance still further. At the same time, von Kluck’s force once again had to deal with the problem of Belgian civilians cutting telegraph and telephone lines, blocking roads, and shooting at his soldiers. Von Kluck thus ordered that, quote, “severe and inexorable reprisals” be taken on any hostile Belgian civilians, up to and including quote, “the shooting of individuals and the burning of homes.”

         Up until this point, reprisals against Belgian civilians by German soldiers had been routine but of a relatively small scale. A small village burned here, three or four civilians shot there. But from this point forward the German march through Belgium took on an increasingly brutal tone. At the town of Aerschot 150 Belgian civilians were shot; at Andenne the death toll stood at 211; at Tamine 383; and finally at Dinant the largest single massacre of civilians took place where 664 civilians were gunned down. Nor was it just men of fighting age who were killed by the Germans; men and women, old and young, priests, children, even infants by some accounts died at the hands of the German occupiers. These measures were not simply the result of the brutality of individual German soldiers, rather this was a deliberate policy of collective punishment meant to discourage Belgian civilians from hampering in any way the German advance through Belgium and towards France.

         As word of these German atrocities began to leak to the rest of the world, both from Belgian refugees and from international reporters who witnessed or heard first-hand accounts of what was going on, the German advance through Belgium was labeled by the press and ultimately by history “The Rape of Belgium.” Newspapers were soon publishing reports of these mass killings, many of which were exaggerated, but many of which were all too real. Now, one thing to keep in mind about all of this is that while, yes, it is undeniable that the German Army committed pre-meditated atrocities, killing hundreds and eventually thousands of Belgian civilians, “The Rape of Belgium” was blown out of all proportion by the Entente press as well as press from neutral countries such as the United States. If you were reading newspapers at the time, you would have thought that thousands of civilians were being killed in all matter of gruesome ways every day. Not only were the numbers wildly exaggerated but totally unsubstantiated rumors were circulated of all manner of bestial outrages. Rape, of course, for which we have no numbers but certainly did occur, but also the burning alive of prisoners, crucifixions, even cannibalism, were all reported with zero evidence. No crime was considered too dastardly for these German monsters. This is obviously a delicate subject, and I want to make clear both that the murder of civilians was an explicit policy of the German Army, and that the vast majority of these victims were innocent civilians who had committed no crimes. This was, in every way, a war crime.

However, it’s also worth keeping this undeniable war crime in perspective. When you hear a name like “The Rape of Belgium,” you might be picturing something like the more famous “Rape of Nanking” committed by the Japanese Army in China in 1937. That atrocity saw something like 300,000 civilians killed in just a few months. By contrast, most estimates of Belgian civilian deaths in August and September 1914 stand at between 5,000 and 6,500. Horrible? Yes. Unjustifiable? Absolutely. But genocidal mass murder? Hardly. And while these civilians were almost all gunned down after committing no crimes, I’d also like to remind you all that in decades past the Belgian government had committed vastly more unspeakable atrocities in their colony of the Congo, killing literally millions of people. One of the more darkly ironic crimes the Germans in Belgium were accused of was the cutting off of hands of Belgian civilians. Doubtless, this happened in a few instances, but cutting off of hands was standard procedure of the Belgian Army in the Congo. I don’t know if reporters at the time embellishing these reports were aware of Belgian atrocities in the Congo, and if they were aware of it how much they even cared. But the cold fact of the matter is that while several thousand Belgian civilians were killed by the German Army in 1914, the blood spilled in this outrage was but a drop in the bucket compared to the mass genocides that were soon to erupt during the 20th century, and during even this very war.

         Yet no matter how exaggerated these reports coming out of Belgium were, they did have one very real and very tangible effect. They hardened public opinion, not just in the belligerent countries but around pretty much the rest of the world, against Germany. Up until this point the motivation for war had differed in each of the principal Entente powers with varying degrees of passion. The French, of course, wanted to avenge their defeat in 1870 and reclaim the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine. The Russians were nervous about German power and wanted to maintain their ascendency in the Balkans, which was threatened by Germany and her ally Austria-Hungary. The British were motivated by a desire to protect the channel ports in the low countries, check Germany’s growing power, and protect the independence and neutrality of Belgium, which at first had been more about abstract international principal than really defending the people of Belgium. But with the stories coming out now about “The Rape of Belgium,” the fervor to defeat Germany took on an almost holy fervor. The British people in particular were outraged at the treatment of Belgian civilians, and began to see the war against Germany less as a defense of vague international principles but as a crusade to defend the people of Europe from the German barbarians. And it is around this point that the Germans start being compared to Genghis Khan and then, more permanently, the Huns.

         In any case, as the German Armies, particularly the First Army under General von Kluck, made their brutal way through Belgium, despite being slowed down and harassed their pace quickened. On August 20 von Kluck took the first major German prize of the war when they occupied the Belgian capital, Brussels. The Belgian Army led by King Albert I didn’t even pretend like they could stop the Germans, and those Belgian soldiers who had not been killed, captured, or forced to flee into France, withdrew north to Antwerp, now the largest and most important city they still controlled. Von Kluck was obviously annoyed by the fact that his rear was threatened, but he had enough troops to watch out for the Belgian Army now based out of Antwerp while sending the bulk of his army through Brussels and into France, hopefully to complete his goal of hitting the French left flank and begin rolling up and destroying the French Army.

         The most interesting and most fun first-hand account (that I have found) of the German seizure of Brussels, which encapsulates not just that event but just how efficient, large, and well-drilled the German Army of this period was, comes by way of Richard Harding Davis, a famous American war correspondent of the era. Richard Harding Davis wrote for a number of popular publications, and had followed several campaigns in the Greco-Turkish War, the Spanish-American War, and the Second Boer War. So, naturally, when the First World War broke out in August of 1914 he got himself on a boat to Europe as soon as possible. Interestingly, the ship that took Davis to Europe was none other than the Lusitania, which to those of you reading ahead might ring a bell. Anyway, on August 21, he found himself in Brussels when the German Army marched through the city, and you can tell from his writing that this is a man who knows a thing or two about how armies of the day marched and fought, and yet is nonetheless stunned at the drill and precision of the German Army. As he wrote in a memoir of the war up to that point in December, 1914, recalling his experience in Brussels on August 21:

“At eleven o'clock…down the Boulevard Waterloo came the advance-guard of the German army. It consisted of three men, a captain and two privates on bicycles. Their rifles were slung across their shoulders, they rode unwarily, with as little concern as the members of a touring-club out for a holiday. Behind them, so close upon each other that to cross from one sidewalk to the other was not possible, came the Uhlans, infantry, and the guns. For two hours I watched them, and then, bored with the monotony of it, returned to the hotel. After an hour, from beneath my window, I still could hear them; another hour and another went by. They still were passing.

Boredom gave way to wonder. The thing fascinated you, against your will, dragged you back to the sidewalk and held you there open-eyed. No longer was it regiments of men marching, but something uncanny, inhuman, a force of nature like a landslide, a tidal wave, or lava sweeping down a mountain. It was not of this earth, but mysterious, ghostlike. It carried all the mystery and menace of a fog rolling toward you across the sea. The uniform aided this impression. In it each man moved under a cloak of invisibility. Only after the most numerous and severe tests at all distances, with all materials and combinations of colors that give forth no color, could this gray have been discovered. That it was selected to clothe and disguise the German when he fights is typical of the General Staff, in striving for efficiency, to leave nothing to chance, to neglect no detail…

Major-General von Jarotsky, the German military governor of Brussels, had assured Bürgermeister Max that the German army would not occupy the city but would pass through it. He told the truth. For three days and three nights it passed. In six campaigns I have followed other armies, but, excepting not even our own, the Japanese, or the British, I have not seen one so thoroughly equipped. I am not speaking of the fighting qualities of any army, only of the equipment and organization. The German army moved into Brussels as smoothly and as compactly as an Empire State express. There were no halts, no open places, no stragglers. For the gray automobiles and the gray motorcycles bearing messengers one side of the street always was kept clear; and so compact was the column, so rigid the vigilance of the file-closers, that at the rate of forty miles an hour a car could race the length of the column and need not for a single horse or man once swerve from its course.

All through the night, like the tumult of a river when it races between the cliffs of a canyon, in my sleep I could hear the steady roar of the passing army. And when early in the morning I went to the window the chain of steel was still unbroken. It was like the torrent that swept down the Connemaugh Valley and destroyed Johnstown. As a correspondent I have seen all the great armies and the military processions at the coronations in Russia, England, and Spain, and our own inaugural parades down Pennsylvania Avenue, but those armies and processions were made up of men. This was a machine, endless, tireless, with the delicate organization of a watch and the brute power of a steam roller. And for three days and three nights through Brussels it roared and rumbled, a cataract of molten lead. The infantry marched singing, with their iron-shod boots beating out the time. They sang "Fatherland, My Fatherland." Between each line of song they took three steps. At times two thousand men were singing together in absolute rhythm and beat. It was like the blows from giant pile-drivers. When the melody gave way the silence was broken only by the stamp of iron-shod boots, and then again the song rose. When the singing ceased the bands played marches. They were followed by the rumble of the howitzers, the creaking of wheels and of chains clanking against the cobblestones, and the sharp, bell- like voices of the bugles…

For three days and three nights the column of gray, with hundreds of thousands of bayonets and hundreds of thousands of lances, with gray transport wagons, gray ammunition carts, gray ambulances, gray cannon, like a river of steel, cut Brussels in two.

For three weeks the men had been on the march, and there was not a single straggler, not a strap out of place, not a pennant missing. Along the route, without for a minute halting the machine, the post- office carts fell out of the column, and as the men marched mounted postmen collected post-cards and delivered letters. Also, as they marched, the cooks prepared soup, coffee, and tea, walking beside their stoves on wheels, tending the fires, distributing the smoking food. Seated in the motor-trucks cobblers mended boots and broken harness; farriers on tiny anvils beat out horseshoes. No officer followed a wrong turning, no officer asked his way. He followed the map strapped to his side and on which for his guidance in red ink his route was marked. At night he read this map by the light of an electric torch buckled to his chest.

To perfect this monstrous engine, with its pontoon bridges, its wireless, its hospitals, its aeroplanes that in rigid alignment sailed before it, its field telephones that, as it advanced, strung wires over which for miles the vanguard talked to the rear, all modern inventions had been prostituted. To feed it millions of men had been called from homes, offices, and workshops; to guide it, for years the minds of the high-born, with whom it is a religion and a disease, had been solely concerned.

It is, perhaps, the most efficient organization of modern times; and its purpose only is death. Those who cast it loose upon Europe are military-mad. And they are only a very small part of the German people. But to preserve their class they have in their own image created this terrible engine of destruction. For the present it is their servant. But, ‘though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.’ And, like Frankenstein's monster, this monster, to which they gave life, may turn and rend them.”

So, sorry for droning on with such a long quote, but isn’t this prose just wonderful? Sure, it’s a bit melodramatic, and Davis has a reputation of exaggerating his writing with jingoistic appeals against a dastardly enemy. But I hope this gives you even the smallest sense of just how large, just how well-drilled, and just how efficient and deadly the German Imperial Army of 1914 was. I will never again poke fun at Dan Carlin for using such a long version of a similar quote in his podcast series on the First World War, as I could similarly not resist the temptation to let Davis so eloquently describe this German tidal wave.

Now, the German capture of Brussels did not of course mark the end of the war, nor did it even mark the end of Belgian military participation in the war. But it did mean that the German plan to use Belgium as a means to flank the British and French Armies had nearly come to fruition, and soon enough Von Kluck and his German First Army would be smashing into the left of Lanrezac’s French Fifth Army. Except there was one thing in Von Kluck’s way: the British Expeditionary Force.

Up until this point, August 20 or so, the British Expeditionary Force or BEF had not taken part in any major battles of the war. For the most part, save for some advance forward units (most of which were made up of cavalry), the BEF spent the first three weeks of August assembling in Britain, embarking in France, and then marching towards the front lines in Belgium. By August 22, however, the BEF had finally crossed into Belgium and were marching towards the German Armies in front of them, specifically von Kluck’s First Army. This was to be done in concert with Lanrezac’s Fifth Army slightly to the south and east, who were to advance and hopefully help the Belgian garrison defend the city of Namur on the Meuse River.

The main goal of the BEF at this point was to establish a defensive line in concert with the French and Belgian Armies, with the British zone centered around the Belgian town of Soignies. Before the BEF to get to Soignies, they had to pass over a canal at the town of Mons, just 15 kilometers or about 10 miles on the Belgian side of the border with France. The French and British leadership had calculated that the Germans had about 17 or 18 divisions, roughly 300,000-350,00 soldiers, in Belgium west of the Meuse River. Opposing them would be General Lanrezac’s 13 divisions, 5 British divisions, 1 Belgian divisions, and 2 other French divisions held in reserve, for a total of 21, so this would mean that the Entente forces would comfortably outnumber the Germans on the far left flank. Except the Germans, led by General von Kluck’s First Army and General von Bülow’s Second Army, had more like 30 divisions on this sector of the front with 8 more under General von Hausen not far behind. This meant that, along the northern part of the front in and around Belgium, the Germans would outnumber the Entente forces opposing them by nearly two to one.

On August 21, Joffre had ordered that General Lanrezac push north into Belgium to secure a defensive line on the River Meuse, in order to relieve the Belgian garrison besieged at the fortress city of Namur. This was after Joffre had forced Lanrezac to send one of his four corps east to help in the ill-fated offensive in the Ardennes Forest that was about to result in slaughter for the French. This meant that Lanrezac was understrength and somewhat exposed, as he had not linked up with any Belgian forces and the BEF had yet to link up with him. Lanrezac protested, and was at least able to convince Joffre to allow him to delay a main attack on the Germans in Belgium until British reinforcements arrived. However the Germans would not oblige Lanrezac’s desire to delay battle.

On August 22, General von Bülow, commander of the German Second Army, launched three of his corps (about 100-120,000 men) in an assault on the French at Charleroi, a Belgian city which straddles the river Sambre. The fighting raged back and forth all day until, towards evening, a French counter-attack was completely devastated by German artillery and machine gun fire. This resulted basically in stalemate, but it still unnerved Lanrezac. So he sent word to the French Fourth Army under General de Cary that he needed help in halting the German advance, but at that very moment the French Fourth Army was being absolutely annihilated in the Battle of the Ardennes, and was in far worse shape that Lanrezac’s Fifth Army. So Lanrezac could only sit helplessly as the massive German siege howitzers destroyed the forts around Namur just as they had done at Liège a few weeks earlier. On August 23, Namur fell.

With that news, Lanrezac realized that he and his entire Army was in incredible danger. He was being engaged along his front by Bülow’s Second Army, which had decisively defeated him the day before. On his left there was a ten mile gap between his Fifth Army and the British Expeditionary Force. On his right the French Fourth Army was falling back in general retreat after being nearly wiped out in the Ardennes offensive. And now with Namur, slightly to his north and east, captured by the Germans, the German Third Army on General von Hausen was free to move around and flank Lanrezac on the right. Which meant that if Lanrezac tried to counter-attack or even just stay in a defensive position near Charleroi, he was in very real danger of being completely surrounded on the left and the right. If that happened, the entire Fifth Army could be completely destroyed. That would leave the Germans free to completely encircle France’s entire land army and either force it to surrender or completely destroy it. And it was not lost on Lanrezac that his Army was now stationed less than 100 kilometers or about 60 miles away from the town of Sedan, where that very thing had happened to a French Army resulting in the total defeat of France in 1870. Lanrezac was under orders to stand and fight, and to drive the Germans back. But Lanrezac knew that was impossible, and that there was only one option left. He ordered his Army in a full retreat. Lanrezac knew that this move would likely result in the termination of his command and perhaps his entire military career. But as he wrote at the time, quote, “We have been beaten but the evil is reparable. As long as the Fifth Army lives, France is not lost.”

So around August 24-25, it started to dawn on the French high command that literally all of their offensives had failed, with the Ardennes offensive in particularly not only failing but costing them unimaginably high numbers of casualties. The French Army was in full retreat across basically the entire Western Front, the Belgian Army had mostly retreated to Antwerp far-away from the action, and Belgium itself was almost completely occupied. That left only the British to try to stop the German advance.

As Lanrezac was being pushed back at Charleroi and the offensive in the Ardennes was costing the French literally hundreds of thousands of casualties, the BEF advanced north from Maubeuge towards their first main objective, the aforementioned Belgian town of Soignies. The British column was made up of four infantry divisions in the rear and one cavalry division out in front scouting for the Germans. On August 22, as this British cavalry approached the Belgian town of Mons, they saw in front of them a few men on horseback whom they did not recognize. The two groups of horsemen stared at each other for a few moments before it dawned on both of them that they were looking at the enemy. The German horsemen in front fell back being chased by the British cavalry, who caught up with them and drove them off at a small skirmish in the town of Soignies. This small force of German cavalry scouts were part of von Kluck’s First Army on the far right wing of the German lines, and von Kluck was just as shocked to learn that the BEF was right in front of him as the BEF was to learn that von Kluck had advanced this far west. The British at this point still believed French reports that few if any Germans had pushed into western Belgium, while von Kluck had believed that the British were still way further south at Dunkirk and Calais, leaving him free to turn on Lanrezac’s left flank and crush the French Fifth Army.

Throughout this period, von Kluck had grown more and more annoyed with the German high command. As mentioned before, he was a highly aggressive commander, and wanted to be free to move as far to the north and west as possible so he could pounce on the French left flank and destroy them. But back on August 17 the German high command had put General von Kluck under the orders of General von Bülow. The reasoning behind this was to make sure that Kluck did not advance too far away from Bülow, thus opening up a gap between Kluck’s First Army and Bülow’s Second. Basically, the German high command wanted their three armies in Belgium to advance together to ensure that they always stayed in contact with each other. But that meant that Kluck was unable to sweep as far west as he wanted, which he argued was necessary for him to get the drop on the French and hit them on the left flank, which according to the Schlieffen Plan was the only way to ensure that the French were completely destroyed in time to send the German Armies east to counter the Russians. The result of all this office politics was a lot of sniping and back and forth argument among all the various German generals, with Bülow demanding obedience, Kluck demanding independence, and the German high command caught in the middle trying to keep the two men working together.

So come August 22, von Kluck is still struggling under the command of von Bülow. Von Kluck wants to push further west so he can swing around in a wider flanking move, but von Bülow forbids this over and over again, determined to make sure a gap does not open up between their two armies. When von Kluck learns of the cavalry skirmish around Soignies, he realizes that the entire BEF must be right in front of him. Again he wants to push further west so he can flank these British forces, but again von Bülow forbids this. Having no choice, von Kluck orders his army to push due south. Right towards the town of Mons.

Meanwhile, the BEF has deployed on the southern side of the canal that cuts through Mons, making for a strong defensive position. Now, you may have in your mind’s eye an image of a picturesque rural town, with green fields interspersed with farms and beautiful flower gardens. However, Mons is a coal mining town, with run off from the mines and factories of the town spilling into the canal, turning into more of a black sludge. Barbara Tuchman described the canal and the town which straddled it as, “black with slime and reek[ing] of chemical refuse from furnaces and factories. In among small vegetable plots, pastures, and orchards the gray pointed slag heaps like witches’ hats stuck up everywhere, giving the landscape a bizarre, abnormal look. War seemed less incongruous here.” Again, I just love Tuchman’s prose here.

The British forces at Mons were divided into two corps, I Corps under General Sir Douglas Haig on the right wing(for those of you reading ahead, yes, that Sir Douglas Haig), and II Corps under General Smith-Dorrien on the left, with the BEF’s single cavalry division held back in reserve. These 70-80,000 men had to cover a front about 25-miles wide, which stretched them somewhat thin. However, as they held a good defensive position, the commanders present believed that they were fully capable of halting the advance of the one or two German Army Corps advancing towards them, roughly matching the British man for man. Except that, in reality, von Kluck was sending fully four corps and three cavalry divisions, composed of about 160,000 men with 600 plus artillery pieces, against the 70,000 or so of the BEF and their 300 guns.

The German attack at Mons began at around 9:00am on August 23, with an initial artillery bombardment focused on a salient of the British lines slightly farther forward than the rest of the BEF. This barrage was followed by an infantry attack, which withered and was forced back by rapid and well-ordered British rifle fire. Supposedly, the British riflemen fired so quickly upon the German attackers that they believed they were under machine gun fire. However this is just one of many legends to come out of this Battle of Mons which has fallen under increasing scrutiny by historians.

Whatever the truth of the British resistance on this part of the front at Mons, by three in the afternoon increasing German artillery barrages and better coordinated infantry assaults forced the British back. They were able to destroy a vital bridge across the canal at Nimy, however further German attacks to the west forced the British there to fall back without being able to destroy the bridges on their sector of the front.

Debate has raged for the last century plus about how successful the British defense at Mons was. The traditional story is that superior British rifle fire decimated the Germans attacking them, inflicting far more casualties than they themselves suffered. Stories of German battalions attacking in close order columns only to be ripped apart by well-ordered rifle fire, driving the Germans back at every interval. There were even legends told later that literal angels could be seen on the British lines aiding in the defense. According to this popular British legend, the BEF was only forced back into retreat due to the French falling back and exposing a gap between their lines. Or, as Peter Hart describes, quote, “Finally, the British would be forced to retreat only because the fickle French had given way on their right flank. This view of the battle is a great yarn but, like the ‘Angels of Mons,’ at heart it is the product of wishful thinking.”

Peter Hart goes on to describe how, contrary to popular legend, many green British battalions failed either to deploy properly or fire quickly or accurately enough to halt the German attacks on their positions. Further, rather than foolishly marching in closed ranks, many German units skillfully kept the British troops’ heads down with machine gun fire while they moved on the flanks of exposed parts of the British line.

Casualty figures for the Battle of Mons similarly vary wildly. Official British history records that the BEF suffered about 1,600 casualties while inflicting 10,000 on the Germans, which if true would be quite the tactical feat. Even if the BEF was forced into retreat, a 10-1 casualty ratio would indicate a completely Pyrrhic victory for the Germans. While the 1,600 casualties for the BEF is fairly well substantiated, some historians estimate that the Germans in fact suffered as few as 2,000 casualties rather than the wildly inflated 10,000 recorded by the British at the time. It’s hard to know for certain, but for my money it seems as though the British officers at the time and historians in the coming years intentionally inflated the number of casualties they inflicted on the Germans to make their defeat at Mons reflect better on the BEF. Further complicating matters is the fact that von Kluck, overall commander of the German forces at Mons, was prevented by his nominal superior von Bülow from sweeping as far west as he wanted to. In all likelihood, had von Kluck been able to sweep west of the British at Mons rather than being forced to launch a frontal assault, the BEF would have been forced to immediately retreat, or risk being completely destroyed.

Yet the British defeat at Mons, however well they actually fought and delayed the German advance, was overshadowed by a far more costly defeat a few days later. On August 26, three days after the British were forced to retreat from Mons, General Smith-Dorrien of the British II Corps decided to turn around at the town of Le Cateau, just on the French side of the border, in order to delay the Germans and give the British more breathing space to fall back without being harassed. But the BEF simply did not have enough time to entrench at Le Cateau nor set up what artillery they had in suitable positions. Thus, when the Germans attacked, rather than being forced to fall back and regroup, they decisively defeated the British. Once again keeping the British troops’ heads down with artillery and machine guns, German battalions were able to flank British positions, not only inflicting thousands of casualties but taking thousands prisoner. By the end of the day, it was the British who were forced back in retreat, having lost about 5,000 men killed and wounded and 2,600 hundred taken prisoner. Meanwhile the Germans lost fewer than 3,000 casualties, meaning that despite being on the offensive (which usually results in higher casualties than the defender), the Germans had inflicted more than 2-1 casualties on the British.

Now, compared to the ghastly slaughter the French were suffering around this time at the Ardennes, suffering hundreds of thousands of casualties in a few days, the British losses at Mons at Le Cateau do not seem that severe, relatively speaking. However, we must remember that the French and German armies were millions strong, whereas the BEF was composed of perhaps just 70-80,000 men. In three days, they had suffered nearly 10,000 casualties, or 12-14% of their total strength. These losses were not only unsustainable, but irreplaceable, as many of these men killed, wounded, or captured were veterans of the Boer Wars with decades of experience. These losses could not be replaced with the green recruits soon to join the BEF in France and Belgium. The British commanders were forced to admit defeat. A general retreat was ordered south, while the Germans were able to advance across the entirety of the Western Front.

         Before we end today, I’d like to answer to quick questions from patron Teresa. These questions go back a little bit, but they are nonetheless interesting and relevant to our current discussions. Teresa was wondering about how the process of turning the various German states into a unified German Empire worked in practice, and also wanted to know why King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia rejected the offer of becoming Emperor of Germany in 1849. The answer to the first question is actually pretty complicated, as basically each individual state out of the more than thirty independent German states in the 19th century all had their own individual agreements and arrangements as part of their absorption into the German Empire. But in general, the various monarchs of all the various German states got together in Versailles in 1871, after so thoroughly humbling France, and freely agreed to relinquish their titles as sovereigns of independent countries, and become merely the hereditary leaders of states within the larger German Empire.

         Now, of course, before the unification of Germany in 1871, Prussia had managed to swallow up the smaller German states in northern Germany, creating a creatively named new entity called “The North German Confederation.” Now, officially, this was an economic and diplomatic union of the northern German states, and all of those states were still officially recognized as semi-sovereign units. But, in reality, as I said way back then, this was just Prussia annexing the northern German states and effectively doubling its size. After the Franco-Prussian war resulted in a resounding victory for the German coalition, Prussia applied political pressure on the kings of Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg, the three remaining German states not included in the North German Confederation, to voluntarily join a united German Empire, retaining their thrones but giving up their independence. This may sound like a raw deal for those three once independent countries, but they had just seen during the Franco-Prussian War how much power they could wield and acquire if they submitted to Prussian leadership. And, probably, they recognized that it would be better to join this union voluntarily rather than simply be conquered by Prussia, since France was basically the only country in Europe who could stop that from happening, and France now lay prostrate at Prussia’s feet.

         So, when you read the Constitution of the German Empire, you will see that it contains references to all of those once independent states. Not just Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg, but also Hesse-Darmstadt, and Hanover, and Saxony, and of course Prussia, the largest and most powerful of the states. Each state within the German Empire could send its own delegates to the German Reichstag and Bundesrat (the two houses of the German legislature) without any interference by Prussia, though of course Prussian delegates would dominate both of those assemblies. Further, the kings and princes and dukes of all those states all got to keep their positions, wield some autonomy within their own borders, up to and including budgetary issues and even some military matters. So, this wasn’t so bad, but everyone understood that in this new Germany, the Prussian monarchy and Prussian government would dominate. And in fact, the constitution explicitly stated that the position of “King of Prussia” and “Emperor of Germany” were one and the same. To hold one of those offices meant to hold the other.

         As for the second question, why the King of Prussia during the Revolutions of 1848 refused to become Emperor of a united Germany, in order to understand this guy’s motivations you have to set your political antenna to an earlier era. This King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV (the great uncle of Kaiser Wilhelm II), was a firm believer in divine authority and absolutism. He quite literally believed that he had been personally anointed by god as the King of Prussia. That power came down from the heavens upon his shoulders. And thus when the Frankfurt Parliament, made up of delegates elected by the people, dared to offer him an imperial crown, he was offended. He did not believe that power could legitimately come up from the people, that it could only come down from god. And he further did not believe in the idea of the German people uniting under the principle of nationalism. In his eyes he ruled Prussia, he was a Prussian, not a German. So, yes, it does sound kind of insane that this guy would refuse the offer to become the ruler of a united German Empire, which from our perspective seems like both a much grander and more powerful office than simply being the King of Prussia. But you see, he believed that this whole idea of a German Empire was illegitimate, and more importantly, that if he granted the precedent that sovereign power came up from the people rather than down from god, that his power and influence would be severely curtailed. I hope that makes that all somewhat clearer, I realize this is an insanely complicated topic, and frankly after having read so much about it I barely understand it.

         Anyway, thank you for letting me indulge in that little digression. Next week, we will see the British and French Armies in full retreat as they try to figure out how in the hell they can even slow down the inexorable German advance on Paris.





  • Hart, Peter. The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

  • Meyer, G.J. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006.

  • Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1962.

  • Davis, Richard Harding. With the Allies. Project Gutenberg eBook, 1914. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11730/pg11730-images.html

  • Horne, John N. & Alan Kramer (2001) German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial, Yale University Press, New Haven, Appendix I, German Atrocities in 1914.