World War 1 History: Churchill Described the 1914 German Invasion of France... in 1911

World War One: Winston Spencer Churchill in 1911, a few months after he wrote "Military Aspects of the Continental Problem" and had become First Lord of the Admiralty.
World War One: Winston Spencer Churchill in 1911, a few months after he wrote "Military Aspects of the Continental Problem" and had become First Lord of the Admiralty. | Source

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.

World War I: August 1914 German plan of attack in red; French plan of attack in blue.
World War I: August 1914 German plan of attack in red; French plan of attack in blue. | Source

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.

WW1: General Henry Wilson, who, along with the rest of the British general staff, thought Churchill's memorandum "fanciful".
WW1: General Henry Wilson, who, along with the rest of the British general staff, thought Churchill's memorandum "fanciful". | Source

Politely Received

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.

Secretly Ridiculed

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”.

WW1: German soldiers of the First Army sweeping through Belgium in August 1914. They would march 300 miles through Belgium and into France.
WW1: German soldiers of the First Army sweeping through Belgium in August 1914. They would march 300 miles through Belgium and into France. | Source

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.

WW1: British troops during the Great Retreat-- the 200-mile fighting retreat against the invading German armies.
WW1: British troops during the Great Retreat-- the 200-mile fighting retreat against the invading German armies. | Source

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.

WWI: Turning the Tide at the First Battle of the Marne. French soldiers on the attack.
WWI: Turning the Tide at the First Battle of the Marne. French soldiers on the attack. | Source

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.

Aftermath

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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Comments 32 comments

Adityapullagurla profile image

Adityapullagurla 2 years ago from Sydney

What a classic piece of history ... extra ordinary Hub


panpan1972 profile image

panpan1972 2 years ago from Greece

Astonishing hub! never heard of this! Perhaps he was corresponding secretly with von Schlieffen! Certainly a man of great talent and intuition.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks for reading and commenting, Adityapullagurla. Glad you liked it.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi, panpan1972. Churchill was extraordinarily active all through his life. With his connections (family and military) he had actually been a guest of the Kaiser at German army maneuvers, so he wasn't just an interfering politician.


old albion profile image

old albion 2 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Hi David. Masterful as usual. I am a Churchill admirer and found the research and presentation first class.

voted up and all.

Graham.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, as always Graham, for your kind comments. I had to do some digging when I heard of this memo. Found a complte copy at the national archives. I wanted to break it up into images (it would be too much copied text for my liking) but that wasn't practical. Anyway, thanks again!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

A good grasp of military history here, UH.

He had a fair old grasp of military matters, did our Mr C. Shame his reputation as a mine owner blackened his reputation as a statesman (the miners had long memories and nearly scuppered him in WWII).

Of course the top brass poo-poohed him, he had a reputation as a maverick, a risk-taker. He took the blame for their mis-handling of Gallipoli, a plan that if carried out successfully (and imaginatively), could have brought the war to an earlier close. When the Americans landed at Anzio in WWII they were no better, a 'beached whale'.

The French general staff - who were in overall command in WWI and early WWII - lacked imagination, and could have sent divisions across the Rhine and around the Germans' rear. Daring went out with Napoleon in France. So it ended in a slogging war, with Douglas Haig de-populating the country (no better than John French, both cavalry officers whose training at Sandhurst was completed in the days of Lord Roberts in the Sudan)


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Winston did take the blame for Gallipoi-- he owned up to his participation, but ended up swallowing the whole thing. If the navy had pressed forward up the Dardenalles (sp) instead of turning around when several ships hit mines (laid by a single Turkish minelayer, whose skipper died after his daring act), they would have cleared the straits and the way to Constantinople would have been clear-- the Turks had no more mines and were practically out of artillery shells. The Ottoman government was preparing to flee the capital. It was a sound (in my opinion) strategic effort. And then the poor bloody infantry were sent in. Thanks for the great comment, Alan.


MG Singh profile image

MG Singh 2 years ago from Singapore

Great post. Churchil was a master Of many fIelds. ThIs hub made my day


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

MG Singh, thank you for your very kind comment. Churchill had supreme confidence in himself, picking himself up over and over again when others would have given up-- after Gallipoli, after finding himself in the political wilderness between the wars, after being turned out by the electorate after WW2, etc. After all he accomplished (and failed at), he was particularly proud of his 1911 memorandum and it was mentioned in his official obituary.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

A great hub once again Harald. Full of goo information and good analysis. However, I think you stopped my heart with that first picture of Churchill. He was so so young! I have always seen pictures of him as an old man or a really old man. :) Theresa


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM

Fascinating article! It is wonderful that Churchill had the vision to realize what would happen three years before the Germans invaded Belgium etc. It is too bad the British government and politicians and the rest of the world could not see and accept this visionary and intelligent man. Thank goodness they started listening to him during the war. And thank goodness he was the British prime minister during WWII. It is great men and visionaries we so desperately need today in the this upside down world. Great article!


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 2 years ago from Deep South, USA

How marvelous it was to discover this superb hub (thanks for sharing, Theresa) and learn something new about Winston Churchill, with whom I've long been fascinated.

It would be interesting to know how many of the naysayers present at that 1911 meeting recalled Churchill's predictions when they came true three years later and felt rueful about their shortsightedness.

Voted Up++ and shared

Jaye


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Theresa, I really appreciate your feedback-- especially regarding the picture of Winston. I've come to appreciate the value of images in hubs and don't consider them just as hub "filler", but contributing to the hub in their own right. If Churchill had faded from history after WW1 (as it looked like he might) he would still have lead a full and interesting life. The fact that his greatest moment in history lay ahead of him astounded everyone who would consider him "washed up" in the thirties. Thanks again!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks much, Suzette. Churchill had so many interests besides politics: writing, painting, bricklaying, landscaping, flying, etc. When he served in the trenches in 1916, he would take every opportunity to borrow a plane and fly himself across the channel to England-- as if Clemmie, his wife, didn't have enough to worry about with him at the front, she then had to worry about him crashing his plane.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM

Wow! I didn't realize he had so many interests and hands in so many different pots. Quite an interesting man and true leader!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks for voting and sharing, Jaye. Churchill was capable of working with people who disagreed with him-- even insulted him-- because he had supreme confidence in himself and anyone who's read up on Winston knows he could insult with the best. It seemed that he would rather try to fail, rather than not try and so not fail.


JPB0756 profile image

JPB0756 2 years ago

Sir Winston, whom England can thank for its very existence in present day anything. However, his glory was to be WWII; he exhibited no such "foresight" concerning the Dardanelles..... Still, superb work on a favorite subject; much needed and enjoyed!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks JPB-- glad you liked it. I appreciate the comment. Yep, Gallipoli was a real disaster. Yet, had the navy forced the straits it likely would have been a strategic blow to the Central Powers and the British, French, Australian and New Zealand troops would not have been sacrificed in their narrow beachheads throughout 1915.


JPB0756 profile image

JPB0756 2 years ago

I agree heartily; Sir Winston was ahead of that time and capacity, but shone regardless. Thanks for a fine read and response.


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

Winston had it right. Brilliant man, and it makes me wonder how World War II might have turned out differently if we had followed his European strategy. I think he supported opening up a second front against the Germans in the Balkans, didn't he? Might have been a good plan, and it might have stopped the postwar occupation of Eastern Europe by the Russians. Winston was looking ahead, as always. Great hub!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, Mel. You're right about Churchill wanting to open a front in the Balkans, but by then the Americans were basically calling the shots and Britain, after standing alone for so many years, were nearly bankrupt and in a weaker position. Plus, the Russians weren't all that thrilled with a British/American front on their doorstep.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

Here's one for Mel:

The story about opening a second front in the Balkans was part of 'Operation Mincemeat', in in which the dead body of a tramp was used to hoodwink the Germans into moving their men and armour to Greece to repel a landing on German-held territory.

The tramp had died from drinking rat poison (suicide, read the full story in the book or see the film) in a disused London railway warehouse. His corpse was dressed in the uniform of a Royal Marine major with paperwork, letters and 'wallet-litter' to convince the Germans an invasion was planned on Greece from North Africa.

The ruse was swallowed, tanks and troops were re-assigned from Italy and the Allies (UK, Indian, Australian, New Zealand and Free French as well as French African colonials) landed... On Sicily.

[Just shows, there is a use in watching old programmes on the 'box'].


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Very interesting, Alan. This sounds like something the Special Operations Executive might have cooked up.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

Nothing to do with SOE (that was ferrying agents into occupied territory), another one of Churchill's 'babies' . This was Lt Cmdr Ewen Montagu, RN and Flt Lt Charles Cholmondeley (pron. Chumley), RAF, in a little basement office in Central London as part of 'Operation Barclay' in the Double-Cross system and the target was the Abwehr (indirectly Adolf Hitler, dubbed by Allied generals as 'our byest general', that's why they didn't want him killed).


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Had to laugh at "Cholmondeley" (pronounced "Chumley"). The English language is a marvel in the hands of the natives.


Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

You have quite the knack for finding obscure and fascinating historical accounts. This article gives some real insight into Churchill's brilliance. Great read.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks much for your comment and sharing, Larry. Churchill was a fascinating person and a man of contradictions. He had traits I admire and loathe, but he was always interesting. Had he disappeared after WW1, he would have led a life full of accomplishments (and setbacks) enough for any person. But, of course, he would go on to his biggest role as British war leader in WW2.


peachpurple profile image

peachpurple 22 months ago from Home Sweet Home

We never learn about the american history, such a shame, glad that i had read this hub, voted up


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 22 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks for your kind comment, peachpurple. I tend to write about things I hadn't heard of before that strike my interest and this was definitely one of them.


Gary Malmberg profile image

Gary Malmberg 17 months ago from Concon, Chile

Churchill is on my very short list of "if I could share a dinner with anyone" options. I assume that I've read about the memorandum before, but your Hub managed to finally make my hard head grasp its incredible foresight. My thanks, and two thumbs yup!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 17 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks again, Gary. I've read a lot about Churchill over the year and am somewhat familiar with his brilliant grasp of strategies (as well as his failures), but his 1911 memorandum borders on the uncanny.

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