The Guns of August

August has always been a good month to start a war. The reasons are simple: the harvest is ripening; the men are fit and ready; the long days are perfect for campaigning without worrying about the weather; and the summer heat seems to encourage rash decisions. In the Foreign Legion they call it le cafard – the depression or madness brought on by a hot summer.

We don’t have to look far for examples. Hitler decided to unleash his legions against Poland in August 1939; Putin invaded Georgia in August 2008; on 14 August 1974, Turkey launched its ‘Second Peace Operation’, which resulted eventually in the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus; and, most notorious of all, what started out as a European conflict went global in August 1914 when Britain declared war.

Well might Britain’s then Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, muse as he watched the lights going out on 4 August: ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’

If ever there was a war that changed the world it was World War I. Many of our international problems today stem from that disastrous August of 1914 and the conflict it spawned: Communism, Stalin, the USSR, Hitler and his Nazis, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Islamic fundamentalism were all offspring of World War I. Most damaging of all were World War II and the long Cold War that followed. All have their origins in what was nothing more than a ruinous four-year civil war in Europe.

The irony is that it all went wrong from the start and could have been avoided with a little adroit diplomacy. If there is a villain of the story in 1914 it was the German General Staff, who had been planning for years how to deal with a war on two fronts. Under the eye of a workaholic general (he even went to work on Christmas day, according to his family), Generaloberst Alfred von Schlieffen devised a plan. Blackadder would probably have it called it ‘a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel.’

Unfortunately it wasn’t. The great Schlieffen plan was a deadly political and diplomatic trap. Even some Germans realised it at the time.

Late in the afternoon of 1 August 1914, Colonel General Helmuth von Möltke was driving back to the Army HQ in the Königsplatz when his car was stopped and he was commanded to return to the Royal Palace immediately. Back at the Berliner Schloss, a jubilant Kaiser told the head of the German armies that he had received a telegram from London assuring him that Britain would guarantee that, if Germany refrained from going to war with France, then London would ask the French not to attack Germany.

The Kaiser was ecstatic and ordered champagne; ‘Now we need only wage war against Russia! So we simply advance with the whole army in the east.’

Von Möltke was appalled. ‘But it is too late, Highness. All the planning, the stores and the armies are already moving west. The 16th infantry division is even now securing the railway junctions at Trier and in Luxembourg. It has been planned for years… we will just have a disorganised rabble without supplies. It cannot be done.’

A shocked Kaiser responded coldly, ‘Your uncle would have given me a different answer.’ Thrown out by a balked Kaiser, von Möltke went back to his office and wept.

He might have cried some more if he realised that the great Schlieffen plan was not just a rigid diplomatic and political cage: it had some serious flaws. Any decent general staff planner can spot them immediately. First, it relied on invading Belgium to outflank the French from the north. That would almost certainly drag the British into any war, as they were a guarantor of Belgian neutrality. Not a clever political move?

Second, it relied on Russia taking weeks to mobilise, thereby allowing the Germans to knock the French out of the war before Russia could attack in the east.

Unfortunately the German planners had forgotten their own rule: ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’ The Russians were disobliging enough to mobilise quickly and invade East Prussia and Poland, which caused something like panic in Berlin. Stories of sad German refugees streaming west from the marauding Cossack hordes forced the Kaiser to send his priceless reinforcements to the east, not to France.

Third, and most damaging of all, the much vaunted brains of the German General Staff just hadn’t done their sums. To march through Belgium, then south through France to Paris or the Marne is about 240 miles (380 km). But the German troop trains stopped in Belgium. From then on it was ‘Shank’s pony’, as the increasingly hot and exhausted Ländser pursued the retreating French and British Expeditionary Force south.

This is where the general staff got it so badly wrong; like a piece of elastic the German supply line was stretched a little further every day. In those pre-lorry days, every round of ammunition, every bale of hay for the horses, every bit of food for the weary troops, even horseshoes and new boots for the footsore soldiers, had to find its way forward on an ever-lengthening supply chain to the advancing armies, which were getting further and further away from their logistic bases.

After two weeks the supply chain was stretched so far that hay intended for the front-line horses was being consumed by the horses trying to bring it forward. At the front horses were dying from lack of food or falling sick from eating green unripe corn. The great advance faltered and slowed in the sweltering heat. The German generals then took a fateful decision. Realising that they couldn’t surround Paris – it was now too far and would take too long – they ordered the advance to swing south, to the east of Paris. By doing so they presented a flank to the army in Paris, who promptly attacked and stopped the Germans on the river Marne. The German advance was over; they fell back in September to dig trenches and go on the defensive.

That was the moment the Germans found themselves fighting a war on two fronts. That was the moment Germany lost the Great War .

The four bloody years that followed merely reinforced the outcome of that August. But from that war, the world changed out of all recognition. The effect and consequences of World War I were dramatic. In 1914 Europe controlled most of the world, effectively. For five hundred years Europeans had sailed the globe, seizing land and dominating what Kipling called ‘lesser breeds without the law.’ The 15th-century European voyages of Henry the Navigator – resulting in discoveries and maritime expansion into Africa and Asia – set up the Portuguese Empire. A century later Spain dominated the Americas, to be followed on the high seas by the Dutch, the French, the English and the Americans, all projecting their trade and power across the world. By the 19th century, Europe, and European ideas and values, ruled the world in one form or another. The ‘Guns of August’ put a stop to that. By 1922, the Russian, German, Austrian Ottoman empires were no more. France and Britain were bankrupted and enfeebled and new countries after Versailles were hostages to future problems, from the Balkans to the Middle East.

The Great War opened a Pandora’s box of problems that has haunted us ever since.

Once again we are in the danger zone this month for armed conflict somewhere. So, yes, beware the month of August. Statistically speaking, this tends to be the favoured season for wars to start.

Looking around at our troubled world, it is worrying that there are far too many conflicts waiting to explode.

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