World War 1 History: Churchill Described the 1914 German Invasion of France... in 1911
Winston Looks Into the Future
Three years before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, before the Allies were blind-sided by four German armies pouring through Belgium and Luxembourg and well before the generals and their leaders caught a glimpse of the scope and nature of the monster that would be modern war, Winston Churchill wrote a memorandum with the understated title "Military Aspects of the Continental Problem".
In 1911, the 36-year-old future British Prime Minister was the Home Secretary, responsible for the internal affairs of the United Kingdom. Always casting a wider net and looking beyond the constraints of his position, he took it upon himself to analyze a hypothetical European war and put down his conclusions in a three-page memorandum on August 13, 1911.
40 Days and 40 Nights
He assumed that, should war break out in Europe, an alliance of Great Britain, France and Russia would be attacked by Germany and Austria-Hungary and that the decisive struggle would occur on the Western Front. He reckoned the Germans could mobilize 2,200,000 soldiers against the French's 1,700,000 and would not attack unless they had superior forces. Therefore, the French would have no option but to fight a defensive war on French soil until the Germans over-extended themselves, which Churchill estimated to be about 40 days after the start of hostilities. If the French launched their own offensive against the German invaders, they would not only be out-numbered, but immediately feel the effects of advancing beyond their supply and communication lines.
But First, Disaster
Furthermore, wrote Churchill, the main attack would not occur along the French-German border, where the majority of French divisions would be arrayed. The Germans would smash through Belgium with a preponderance of force to out-flank the main French forces. He estimated that, after twenty days, the French would be pushed south and falling back on Paris.
If the French Can Hang On...
To blunt this advance, bolster the French and increase the difficulties encountered by the Germans even as they succeeded in pushing the French armies back, Churchill suggested that four to six British divisions (most of the small, but professional, British Army in the United Kingdom) should be sent to help the French divisions guarding the French-Belgian border. In his estimation, if the French could manage to hold on, if the British could threaten the German right flank and the Russians could mount growing pressure in the east, the German army would be “extended at full strain” by the fortieth day. Barring a decisive victory over the French-- or if the French army “has not been squandered by precipitate or desperate action”, the situation in France should equalize and “opportunities for the decisive trial of strength may then occur”.
The Secret Meeting
On August 23, 1911, a very secret meeting of the CID (Committee of Imperial Defence) was held at Number 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's residence. Among those who attended were General Henry Wilson, Director of Military Operations, representing the army and Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson, representing the Royal Navy. Winston had been invited by Prime Minister Asquith because, as Home Secretary, he was responsible for the defense of the home islands and was expected to play a very minor role. Before the meeting, he duly submitted his memorandum to the Prime Minister.
During the meeting, Winston's points were politely listened to and discussed and, where they departed from the “professionals'” view, just as politely refuted. The main point of contention was that the Germans didn't have enough divisions to mount the sort of offense described in Winston's memorandum. With facing the French on the French-German Border and the Russians in the east, the numbers just didn't add up. It was agreed that the Germans would come through Belgium, but the Meuse River would be the furthest north they could stretch themselves. General Wilson was in full agreement with the French plan to launch an offensive along the French-German border and smash their way into Germany. French divisions would be deployed along the Belgian border, but not further north than the Meuse. As a matter of fact, the French said, the more troops the Germans sent through Belgium, the better. It would weaken the forces facing the French onslaught.
It must have been a trying experience for the military professionals, as it usually is when dealing with politicians. A large German attack north of the Meuse was considered “fanciful” by the general staff. General Wilson recorded in his diary: “Winston had put in a ridiculous and fantastic paper on a war on the French and German frontier, which I was able to demolish”.
Where Did All These Armies Come From?
Three years later, on August 4, 1914, Germany attacked Belgium which led to what was called the Battle of the Frontiers. And so it came to pass that the French battered themselves against the German border while those further north were pressed backwards by three German armies advancing through Belgium and Luxembourg-- two of them north of the Meuse where they shouldn't have been. The French Fifth Army fought for its life against the German Second and Third Armies. On the northern-most flank, 80,000 British soldiers faced the German First Army's 160,000 soldiers.
Retreat, Retreat, Retreat
By August 26, almost twenty days later, as Winston had predicted, the British and French armies were in a fighting retreat as the Germans pushed them further and further south. Despite every setback, every disaster, the horrendous losses, French Commander-in-Chief Joffre managed to do one thing right-- he kept the French forces from disintegrating. The French Army continued to function as a fighting force-- the one condition Winston had specified as necessary if the Germans were to be stopped.
The Germans Fell Right Into Winston's Trap
By September 6, the Germans had advanced as far south as the Marne River and were on the outskirts of Paris. They were exhausted-- the soldiers of the German First Army with the furthest to travel, had fought their way through 300 miles of Belgian and French territory. Supply lines were stretched to breaking with the rear-most troops trying to catch up to the fighting as far as 80 miles back. Additionally, a 30-mile rift in the German line between the First and Second armies had developed, which Allied aerial observation planes had discovered-- the first major contribution of air power ever in war. It was at this point that General Joffre ordered an all-out offensive, which would be known as the First Battle of the Marne. It was a decisive point in the war. By September 12, the Germans had retreated 40 miles to positions north of the Aisne River. The German attack had been stopped and the forces equalized, almost exactly 40 days after the the start of the war, as Winston had laid out three years before.
After the fluidity of the opening battles stalled, the combatants began a race to the sea, each trying to outflank the other. Both sides dug in and four years of bloody trench warfare became the defining characteristic of the fighting on the Western Front. With the Russians advancing in the east, the Germans now had a two-front war on their hands.
In October 1911, two months after presenting his memorandum, Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. During the war, in 1915 when the Gallipoli Campaign he supported turned into a complete disaster, he was removed as First Lord. He then returned to active duty with the Royal Scots Fusiliers and actually spent some time in the trenches on the Western Front. He would assume many other duties during his lifetime, but, of course, his greatest role would be as Britain's wartime Prime Minister during World War 2.
© 2014 David Hunt
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