Episode 16:

Retreat

         Well, it’s been about two months since the last episode of The Seminal Catastrophe Podcast. At first I wanted to write a detailed explanation of what I’ve been up to and thinking about since the show went on hiatus. But, to be honest, more than anything I’ve been dying to get back into things since pausing the narrative. Suffice it to say that I am both greatly hopeful and nervous about how history will remember the ongoing struggles for justice in my country right now, even with the ongoing pandemic crisis. But I think it’s been enough time for you and me to begin to process things, and return to the story of the First World War. So, without further ado, let’s quickly recap where things stood when we left off, and continue our journey into the Great War.

         At the end of August, 1914, the situation on the Western Front stood as such: the German Army had marched through and occupied most of the eastern half of Belgium, with the small Belgian Army largely scattered and attempting to reorganize in the north of the country around the vital port city of Antwerp. The French had launched two principal offensives at the Germans, first into Alsace-Lorraine on their right wing and then through the Ardennes Forest in the center of the line. However, the first of these offensives was beaten back handily by the aggressive counter-attacks of Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht, while the French offensive through the Ardennes Forest had resulted in utter defeat, at the cost of a stunning 300,000 casualties. The British Expeditionary Force, meanwhile, had put up a spirited defense at the Belgian town of Mons and then, a few days later, at Le Cateau in France, but had ultimately been driven back by numerically superior German forces. In short, along the entirety of the Western Front, the German Armies were steadily advancing into France, with all the Allied Armies opposing them in full retreat after suffering hideous defeats. To many on both the German and Allied side, it appeared that Paris and perhaps all of France would fall in a matter of weeks, if not days. That seems like a pretty good place to start this week.

         To start, let us join the British Expeditionary Force, or BEF, as they retreat from their defeats at Mons and Le Cateau. These men had spent weeks marching from ports in France such as Calais and Dunkirk, and ultimately to the front lines in Belgium. Having finally established themselves before the Germans at Mons in late August, they found that their training, expertise, and in some cases veteran experience, were little match for the German leviathan which bore down upon them. Far outnumbered and having their flanks turned at the cost of thousands of casualties, casualties that they could in no way afford, the British were now marching down the same roads they had just marched up from a week before. Though, perhaps the word “march” does not really capture the spirit of this retreat. Limp would probably be more accurate. One British officer present described their pace as “painfully hobbled.” Not only were these men exhausted, with many badly wounded, but their morale had been deeply shaken by the thrashing dished out to them by the German Army. That same British officer, Captain Beauchamp Tudor St. John of the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, recalled seeing quote, “numbers of fed up and exhausted men sitting [and] looking disconsolate and cross on the bank.”

         It’s hard to capture just how exhausted these British soldiers were, and indeed most of what I am here describing about the British could just as easily be applied to their French allies. Hopefully another quote from Captain St. John about his own experience will capture that feeling of exhaustion. “I had already several times gone to sleep while marching and had found myself in the ditch. I gave up trying to drive men back into the ranks…I knew the agony they must be suffering from their feet, many having raw heels and toes from the hard marching we had done…I don’t suppose we were doing two miles an hour. I myself was suffering from an abscess on my toe which felt like hot knives at every step.”

         It is also worth pointing out, indeed it is perhaps necessary to point out, that though the British and French were worn out from weeks of marching and fighting, their German pursuers were just as exhausted. Though they had emerged from the battles of August, 1914 victorious, the German Army had even fewer opportunities for rest and recuperation than their French and British opponents. Practically every division in the German Armies on the Western Front had marched nearly nonstop, often at a pace of twenty or more miles per day, for over a month, with these grueling marches punctuated with enormous battles. As General von Kluck, the commander of the German First Army, later remembered, quote, “The First Army had now completed two-thirds of the wheel through Brussels on Paris. The requirements of the strategic situation made it impossible to give any rest days in any true sense of the word. Marches and fights, battles and marches, followed one another without interval.” Speaking for myself here, but I don’t think that my body would be able to handle over a month of marching all day, every day, wearing large heavy packs, with the only breaks in these marches coming in the form of pitched battle. And yet that was what was being asked of the soldiers on all sides on the Western Front at the beginning of September, 1914.

         Now, of course, the lands these millions of men were marching through in ever increasing levels of exhaustion were not barren wastelands nor empty stretches of grass. These places in Belgium and Northern France were inhabited by millions of civilians, and they now found their homes the sites of massive battles on a scale not seen in Europe for a century. And so, as the armies marched to and fro across the countryside, they often found their paths blocked by pitiable columns of refugees fleeing their homes. As Captain Hubert Rees of the 2nd Welsh Regiment later remembered about the British retreat from Mons, quote, “One of the saddest sights of that day, was the huge column of refugees on the main road to Guise. Carts heaped with household treasures led by crying women and frightened children. These carts were ruthlessly swept off the road to make a passage for the troops…None of these poor people could have crossed the river at Guise, as we had to blow up the bridge after crossing – and held back the refugees to do it.”

          This account of the pain being inflicted upon the civilian population provides a good opportunity for us to discuss an event which in many ways served as the exclamation point upon the German “Rape of Belgium.” At this point, the end of August and beginning of September, 1914, numerous Belgian villages had been burned to the ground and thousands of Belgian civilians had been executed by German soldiers. Many of these civilians were executed with no prior warning, and this could perhaps be explained away as being the result of the individual cruelty of individual German soldiers. However, this “individual cruelty” was never punished and was in fact was encouraged by the explicit orders and tone of the German high command to impose upon disobedient Belgian civilians with, as German General von Kluck put it, “severe and inexorable reprisals.” Further, as often as not Belgian civilians executed by German soldiers were not haphazardly murdered. As the German armies advanced through Belgium, a policy of taking hostages from towns and cities the Germans passed through was initiated, with those not taken hostage told in no uncertain terms that any hostile acts they committed against the German Army would result in these hostages being executed. When the German Second Army under General von Bülow occupied the Belgian city of Namur, population 32,000, ten hostages from every street in the city were taken by the Germans. Many of these civilians would lose their lives at the hands of their captors, as punishment for the resistance of their fellow Belgian citizens. It also became standard practice to take into custody Belgian civilians, often hundreds at a time, to serve not as hostages but to be sent to Germany in forced labor camps. The German policy towards subduing the Belgian population could be summarized in a single word, used in official memoranda by the Germans themselves: “Schrecklichkeit;” literally “frightfulness” or perhaps more fittingly, “terror.”

Newspapers not just in the Entente countries but around the world had widely reported on these atrocities, condemning this cruelty and eventually exaggerating the stories out of Belgium to portray the Germans as the most vicious horde of barbarians to ever sweep across Europe. Yet perhaps the most infamous episode of the German advance through Belgium had yet to occur.

Going back about a week or so, on August 23 elements of the German First Army under General von Kluck occupied the relatively small Belgian city of Louvain, as a part of their general occupation of the region surrounding the capital of Brussels. The occupation of Louvain was at first tense, but as cordial as could be expected from a foreign army occupying an enemy city. No civilians were killed, and the German presence was tolerated, if hardly embraced. Then, on August 25, the rearguard of von Kluck’s First Army, trailing behind the advance to the French border, was hit with a surprise attack by what remained of the Belgian Army under King Albert I, driving them back in panic. This German rearguard ultimately fled to the relative safety of Louvain, totally disorganized and consumed with a mix of terror, confusion, exhaustion, and rage. As they staggered into the city, the familiar cry of “sniper!” from the German soldiers spread like wildfire through the ranks, and panicked soldiers began firing in all directions. This cocktail of exhausted, confused, and angry young men, all of them heavily armed, proved to be disastrous. As Barbara Tuchman wrote in The Guns of August, “on August 25, the burning of Louvain begun.”

The reason why the coming sack of Louvain, there is really no other way to describe it, has become one of the most if not the most infamous episodes in the whole history of the German occupation of Belgium during the First World War, is not because of the number of people killed nor because of some particularly nasty bestial outrages. Rather, what appalled the rest of the world so much about the sack of Louvain, moreso than any other single incident in the quote-unquote “Rape of Belgium,” was the total disregard the German soldiers had for the history they were destroying.

Louvain is an ancient city, with roots going back perhaps a thousand years or more. It is home to one of the oldest and grandest universities in Europe, founded in 1426 (at a time when, as Barbara Tuchman wryly points out, Berlin was but a small collection of wooden huts), and this university was constructed with some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful Gothic architecture ever built. Among these ancient and beautiful Gothic buildings (which looked more like cathedrals than study halls) was the university’s library, one of the finest in the world, which in 1914 housed dozens of priceless paintings and mosaics, more than a thousand unique hand-written medieval manuscripts (these being the only copies of these texts to exist in the world), and some 230,000 books, many of them centuries old. Much of the rest of Louvain echoed this grandeur, with gorgeous medieval architecture adorning large swaths of the city. All of this had earned Louvain a reputation as being one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, cities in Europe. Yet none of this grandeur and history would concern the German Army of 1914.

The true sack of Louvain began, as noted before, on August 25, as units of the German First Army fled to the city from a Belgian surprise attack on their rear. These soldiers, under the direct policies of their high command, held the Belgians collectively responsible for the suffering they had just endured. They began to loot, burn, rape, and murder with wild abandon, and soon enough the garrison that had just the day before been living in relative peace and harmony with the citizens of Louvain joined in the fun. As more and more soldiers began killing or destroying everything in their sight, both the number of their comrades joining them in this frenzy and the pace and ferocity of the pillaging began to grow exponentially, until the orgy of violence had taken on a life of its own. By the end of that first day, August 25, the entire German garrison of Louvain was completely out of control. Although, “out of control” might not be the best way to describe it. As we shall see in a bit, in all likelihood the officers commanding the garrison of Louvain could have ended the sacking whenever they liked, as they would ultimately halt the frenzy at an order when they decided the point had been made after about a week.

As the citizens of Louvain began to take shelter or, if they could, flee the city in utter terrified panic, perhaps many could take some small comfort in the belief that at least their university and library, home to a priceless treasure trove of art, knowledge, and history would be spared. Not even the Germans would dare to harm this irreplaceable jewel of European culture. And yet, whatever the average German soldier and his high command thought of the inviolability of the University of Louvain, the mixture of wanton destructive violence that had taken ahold of these men, fueled by both the tone and the explicit orders of their commanders to punish any Belgian aggressive with exemplary retribution, would ultimately spell the doom of not only the university, but whatever lingering goodwill Germany had left on the world stage.

At some point during the week-long reign of pillage, arson, rape and murder, a group of German soldiers approached the university, and began smashing up the windows, taking whatever wasn’t nailed down for themselves, and burning to the ground whatever was left. The greatest loss of all occurred when the library itself was set ablaze. In just a few hours nearly a thousand years of European history went up in smoke, and settled among the ash heap that had once been the great city of Louvain.

News of this atrocity, not just against human life but seemingly against history and even beauty itself, spread rapidly to the rest of the world. Richard Harding Davis, the U.S. war correspondent we quoted in the last episode, was on August 27 being forcibly removed by the German Army away from the front lines in a sealed car on a troop train. Though unable to leave the car, as the train passed Louvain Davis could see from his window that the whole city was consumed with flames. Telegrams from Davis and dozens of other correspondents confirmed the unbelievable stories coming from refugees fleeing the city. When the news began to circulate that not only were the Germans killing Belgian civilians with reckless abandon, and that not only was the great city of Louvain being sacked in the fashion of a medieval army rather than a modern, quote-unquote “civilized” state, but that the incomparable storehouse of human history and knowledge that was the University of Louvain had been destroyed as casually as one might knock down a condemned parking lot, any benefit of the doubt the rest of world was willing to give to Germany’s behavior in Belgium evaporated. One of the people who managed to flee the city was the rector of the university, which he saw go up in flames before his own eyes. As he recounted what he saw to an American diplomat with whom he had found asylum, he found himself unable to even speak the word “library,” or “bibliotheque” in French, so great was his sorrow. “La bib-” he began before his voice cracked, he placed his head upon a table, and began to weep uncontrollably.

Perhaps the most galling of all was that not only did neither the German Army nor government apologize the disaster, they showed no remorse whatsoever and indeed went out of their way to brag about the destruction being waged upon Louvain, and threatened to unleash similar reprisals upon any town that resisted the German Army in any way. “We shall wipe it out,” a German officer gloated to an American diplomat while puffing on a cigar, while they watched Louvain burn. “Not one stone will stand upon another, Kein Stein auf einander, not one I tell you. We will teach them to respect Germany. For generations people will come here to see what we have done.” As I have said several times and hopefully made clear to you, the harshness with which Belgium was treated by the German Army was an explicit policy, originating from the highest rungs of the German political and military leadership, that was designed to cow into submission all who might be oppose them. Now the idea behind this was not, as would be seen in the Second World War and in later incidents during this conflict, to wipe out the entire population. The goal was not genocide. The goal was to instill absolute and unquestioning obedience to all German military authorities, so as the German Army would not be hindered in any way and thus be able to win the war that much quicker. But this policy was not only cruel, it was fatally flawed. While the many thousands of Belgian civilians fleeing in terror from the German Army, and perhaps more importantly those who stayed behind and were not killed, might indeed be said to have been cowed by these brutal displays, neither the Belgian government nor especially her allies were in the least bit intimidated. The British and French reaction to all of this, and indeed the reaction in much of the rest of the world, was not fear nor submission, but rage and a thirst for vengeance. The war on the Western Front, especially for the British people, had begun as a defense of international principles and an attempt to ensure the long-term peace and stability of Europe. Now it had evolved into a crusade to smite from the earth a horde of barbarians that threatened all of human civilization. And so we can see the seeds from which will sprout a mutual hatred in Europe that would only be satisfied by millions of corpses.

Yet at this point, the end of August and beginning of September 1914, the Allied Armies on the Western Front were in no position to enact this revenge. Indeed, they were hardly in a position to even resist the German onslaught. Virtually every single unit in every single Allied Army along the entirety of the Western Front was in a general retreat, trying desperately to outpace the German forces hot on their heels. Up until this point, the French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre had largely buried his head in the sand about the deficiencies of French tactical doctrine in general, and his own strategic decisions in particular. Again and again he ordered massive frontal attacks against the Germans in the belief that the élan of the French soldier would overcome all obstacles, and send the German hordes fleeing out of France and Belgium, thus allowing him to claim the glory of avenging the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War, reclaiming the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and putting to rest once and for all the perception of the French Army as weak, cowardly, and ineffective. Well, the French offensives of August 1914 had certainly proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the French Army was not weak, and that its soldiers were not cowards. Quite the contrary, millions of French soldiers had displayed a reckless, almost suicidal bravery by throwing themselves against walls of German soldiers, only to be ripped apart by artillery and machine guns by the thousands, then the tens of thousands, then the hundreds of thousands. As a result, the entire French Army as well as their British allies were in full retreat, and Joffre realized that he would have to fundamentally restructure the French Army’s doctrine, organization, and leadership to have any hope of halting the German advance. And he had to do so very, very quickly.

The first thing Joffre did was relocate his command post from Paris to Vitry-le-Francois, a small town on the river Marne close to the front lines, from which he could more quickly and more effectively send orders to and organize the deployment of his armies. Up until this point, Joffre had not maintained a single command post, and different departments with jurisdiction over different units were both geographically and administratively dispersed, which often caused a great deal of confusion and delay in terms of relaying orders to the front. Now, all of these offices would be consolidated at Vitry-le-Francois, physically under Joffre’s watch and all under his direct supervision. All orders to and reports from the front would be directed by this new command post, vastly simplifying and streamlining the French chain of command. Second, and perhaps most controversially, Joffre reworked the entire tactical outlook and doctrine of the French Army practically overnight. No longer would the offense be the sole strategy of the French Army, and no longer would courage and gallantry trump all other military considerations. Though not quite accepting blame and responsibility for the disasters of the last few weeks, Joffre did admit that the basic outlook of the army was seriously flawed and required significant reform. As he reflected later, “It was apparent that the principles of the offensive which we had tried to inculcate in the army before the war had often been poorly understood and badly applied…The infantry was almost always launched to the assault when at too great a distance from its objective. Conquered ground was never organized before starting off to the attack of a new position…Far and beyond all, the cooperation of the infantry and the artillery was constantly neglected.” Obviously, I am speaking as a non-military professional and with the benefit of a century of hindsight. But even with all that in mind…no duh, man.

Joffre’s new plan was to order a halt of the various armies under his command once they reached suitable defensive positions, be they natural obstacles such as hills and rivers, or fortresses and other man-made defensives. The armies would then hold these positions, entrenching and improving the defensives as much as possible, until Joffre could organize enough of his reserves into a new force that could launch a well-planned and well-coordinated counter-attack on the now hopefully stalled and reeling German armies.

The third of Joffre’s reforms, and the one that arguably had the greatest impact on the way in which the French Army would perform for the rest of the war, was to fire every single general he deemed unfit for command for either incompetence, indecisiveness, or cowardice, and then replace these generals with younger, more active men who could both organize an effective defense and boldly launch his planned counter-attack. The scope of this reorganization of the Army’s leadership is quite stunning: in the course of just a few weeks, Joffre fired two army commanders, ten corps commanders, and fully thirty-eight divisional commanders, fully half the total of divisional commanders in the entire French Army. Many of the generals Joffre sacked were indeed quite incompetent, though others were unfairly blamed for mistakes that were really the fault of Joffre or who were not so much guilty of cowardice but rather prudence. The best example of this latter group was poor old General Lanrezac, the man who had effectively saved the French Fifth Army from being totally destroyed by disobeying orders and retreating from Belgium. However, though many generals were unjustly removed from command, the men who rose to take the places of both the competent and the incompetent were fiery, bold, brilliant, and fearless, and would come to, in time, lead the French Army to victory in the Great War. In time, we shall meet all of these generals in turn as they establish the reputations that have etched their names in the annals of France’s great military leaders. This legacy of Joffre’s would not only last beyond the immediate crisis of August and September 1914, but would outlive Joffre’s tenure as the French commander-in-chief.

Most of these reforms were absolutely necessary, and would come to save France from defeat in the coming days and weeks. However, all of these reforms might come to naught if Joffre was unable to secure the support and cooperation of a man over whom he had no legal authority. Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, was already openly skeptical of the French Army’s prowess and bravery before the war even began, and considered France as a whole to be an unreliable ally at best, and a liability for Britain at worst. Now, after seeing the French get utterly thrashed during the Battle of Lorraine and the Battle of the Frontiers, and seeing his own forces get thrashed at Mons and Le Cateau due to, as he saw it, French unwillingness to support his own actions, Sir John French was seriously considering pulling the BEF out of France altogether, believing that France’s military position was now hopeless. As the BEF covered the far left wing of the Allied Armies on the Western Front, if Sir John French ordered his British forces to withdraw from France or even just refuse to cooperate with Joffre’s plans to hold off the Germans until he could launch a counterattack, what hopes remained that the French might be able to stave off defeat would be all but lost. Joffre absolutely needed to convince Sir John French that France was not yet broken, and that the British must hold the line against the German First Army barreling towards them in order to guarantee victory.

         Alarmingly for Joffre, Sir John French showed no confidence in his plan for a reorganized defense and subsequent counterattack. Indeed, as Joffre sent telegram after telegram to Sir John French imploring him to prepare his British forces to halt the German advance in concert with the French Armies to their east, Joffre only received cold and non-committal replies, if he received replies at all. First Sir John French said that his troops would require a full day’s rest before they could participate in any further action. Soon this requirement expanded to two day’s rest. At one point on August 29, Joffre met personally with Sir John French at the British temporary headquarters in Compiègne, less than 80 kilometers or 50 miles north of Paris. At this meeting, Joffre demanded, implored, begged Sir John French to order the British to turn around, hold off the Germans for as long as possible, and then join in a mass counterattack. Yet Sir John French, who did not speak French and thus had to communicate with Joffre via a translator, refused every time. Joffre left the meeting deeply concerned, a concern which transformed into dread (though not a dread he would allow his men to see) when the next day he received a telegram from the British commander that the BEF would require ten full days of complete rest and recuperation before any further action could be contemplated. The proximity of the German Armies to Paris and the speed with which they were advancing meant that there was no place the British could base themselves for ten days while still holding the Allied lines. In all likelihood, Sir John French would soon be ordering the complete withdrawal of British forces from France, all but dooming the Allied war effort. Before Joffre could contemplate launching his latch ditch counter-attack, he absolutely had to convince Sir John French and the rest of the British leadership that all hope was not yet lost, and that if they worked together, they could still defeat Germany. Joffre will soon enough again meet personally with Sir John French to plead for British support, but we will leave that meeting for next week. For now, Joffre will simply have to stew in his anxiety.

         Yet at this moment of supreme peril, Joffre characteristically did not let this anxiety visibly manifest. At all times and with all people he spoke with, Joffre effected a calm, composed demeanor, assuring his officers, the rank and file soldiers, the government, and by extension the people of France that despite the setbacks and disasters they had endured, victory would soon be theirs. Doubtless, Joffre was only able to maintain this composure due to a supreme self-confidence and an uncanny ability to not allow any unwelcome news to fluster him. However, it is also probable that Joffre’s confidence was bolstered by the fact that, while the fighting on the Western Front had gone uniformly against him, the war was not solely being fought in France and Belgium. France had a steadfast ally in the Russian Empire, and shocking both ally and enemy alike, Russia had managed to assemble a force large enough to threaten Germany’s eastern flank in just a few weeks, less than half the time it was expected they would require to mobilize such a force.

As we know, Germany had sent the vast majority of its army to the Western Front to deal with France first, leaving only a skeleton crew to defend their eastern provinces against the Russians. This deployment was justified by the near universally held belief that Russia would need at least six weeks to assemble enough troops to attack Germany. However, by mid-August Russia had assembled more than half a million soldiers along their border with Germany, dwarfing the 150,000 or so German soldiers opposing them. And with the German capital of Berlin barely 250 kilometers or about 150 miles away from the border with Russia, if this Russian force could defeat the relatively tiny German force opposing them, Russia might be able to occupy the German capital in a matter of weeks. This might be the Allies last best hope to defeat Germany.

         Next week, we will shift our focus away from the Western Front and take a look at the east. In the last month or so developments and events had occurred in eastern Germany and western Russia that would help define the Eastern Front for virtually the remainder of the war. A titanic battle was shaping up in which the outcome of the war would very much hang in the balance. Can the Russians manage to launch their armies against the miniscule German force guarding Berlin? And if so, can that German force even slow down the Russian steamroller barreling towards them? We will begin to unpack the answers to these questions next week as we cover the opening campaigns of the First World War’s Eastern Front.

 

 

 

Sources:

  • 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.

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