Krivolak | 17 Oct 1915


The Germans and Austro-Hungarians continue making steady progress. The course of the rivers Sava and Danube form a large pocket around Belgrade, and the Serbian Army might have hoped to confine the enemy to that pocket, at least for a while. The Serbians are now trying to dig another defensive line right at the edge of the pocket. They need a rest. They need time.

Meanwhile, off to the south, the Bulgarians stroll cautiously north-west on an end run around the left flank of the French and the Serbians at Strumica, and they manage to occupy Krivolak without much of a fight. Again, Krivolak is on the railway line. The French are now cut off from the main body of the Serbian Army. There’ll be some hard fighting to do if they’re to achieve anything.

And things are far from smooth. Their British allies are still disinclined to leave Salonika. (They have to guard it in case someone tries to steal the port.) They’ve brought cavalry with them, but the rough ground and the general lack of food is going to seriously restrict their reconaissance capabilities. Most of the men are having to move forward by foot, with only so much railway capacity available; but the available roads are extremely poor and in terrible condition. This is playing particular havoc with artillery arrangements. Many units have had their soixante-quinze guns replaced by 65mm mountain guns with only half the range of the soixante-quinze. (Though, in any given situation, the best gun is the one you have with you, not the one that’s stuck in a ditch ten miles away.)

Louis Barthas

Meanwhile, on the Western Front, the priest Galaup continues his quest for a German saw-toothed bayonet; Louis Barthas watches with a distinctly long-suffering air. With the new binoculars, Galaup has spied a dead German hanging on the barbed wire not too far away, and he has the special bayonet on his rifle.

You’d have to be crazy to want to go out, even at night, to look for a weapon like this, risking nine chances out of ten to be killed for a bayonet, even a sawtoothed one. Probably no man in the regiment would have attempted it. Well, this priest tried it. He crept out, succeeded in getting his fascinating bayonet, and came back without arousing the attention of the Germans. But while he was coming back he lost his way and stumbled upon a listening post of a neighboring company, where two sentinels fired on him but missed. At the very moment that he got away from this post, a 105mm shell fell right onto it, killing the two sentinels.

The abbé Galaup offered profound thanks to Providence, which favored him in this rash enterprise and kept him safe from such serious dangers.

Meanwhile, Sublieutenant Malvezy cast envious eyes upon my new binoculars, and brazenly proposed that I exchange them for his own, which weren’t worth forty sous. I refused. He insisted; I refused even more emphatically. He didn’t waste much time exacting petty vengeance on me.

It is a few days away, though.

Bernard Adams

Lieutenant Bernard Adams of the 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers knows what will happen 100 years from today. He is well aware that there will be history books that write today off as a long period of nothing important. He also knows that one day his story will be retold on the internet, and therefore he must pander to the internet’s special interests, which he does when describing a trench headquarters down an old cellar.

I soon learned used to get used to smoke. On one occasion the smoke from our brazier became so thick that Gray, the cook, threatened to resign. All the smoke gathers at the top of a dugout, and seems impossibly suffocating to anyone first entering. Yet it is often practically clear two or three feet from the ground, so that when lying or sitting one does not notice the smoke at all, but a newcomer gets his eyes so stung that it seems impossible how anyone can live there at all! (Gray, by the way, was not allowed to resign.)

That old cellar was really a delightful headquarters. The first time we were in it, we found a cat there. On the second occasion, the same cat appeared with three lusty kittens! These used to keep the place clear of rats, and get sat on every half-hour or so.

If in doubt, throw in a cat. He might have been born yesterday! Anyway, if this carries on, he’s in severe danger of starting to enjoy himself; although nothing of importance has happened.

Sir Ian Hamilton

And, speaking of “nothing of importance”, Sir Ian Hamilton leaves our story for good today.

The adieu was a melancholy affair. There was no make-belief, that’s a sure thing. Whatever the British Officer may be his forte has never lain in his acting. So, by 2.30, I made my last salute to the last of the old lot and boarded the Triad. A baddish wrench parting from de Robeck and Keyes with whom I have been close friends for so long. Keyes himself is following me in a day or two, to implore the Cabinet to let us at least strike one more blow before we haul down our flag, so there will be two of us at the task.

I wrung their hands. The Bo’sun’s whistle sounded. The curtain was falling so I wrung their hands once again and said good-bye. A bitter moment and hard to carry through.

Boarded the and went below to put my cabin straight. The anchor came up, the screws went round. I wondered whether I could stand the strain of seeing Imbros, Kephalos, the camp, fade into the region of dreams,—I was hesitating when a message came from the Captain to say the Admiral begged me to run up on to the quarter deck. So I ran, and found the Chatham steering a corkscrew course—threading in and out amongst the warships at anchor. Each as we passed manned ship and sent us on our way with the cheers of brave men ringing in our ears.

The end.

I shall miss his talismanic optimism and his determined double-think. I shall not miss having to write about the latest disaster under his command. Swings and roundabouts. The war continues.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Third Invasion of Serbia
Morava Offensive
Ovce Pole Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! 1914 is now available! 1915 to follow as long as y’all buy 1914!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

von Mackensen | Belgrade | 7 Oct 1915

Oh, I hope you weren’t expecting good news. There’s precious little good news to go around at the moment. Let’s cut to the chase…

Third Invasion of Serbia

It’s a new year, it’s a new commander, it’s a new force, it’s a new plan. The newly-promoted Field Marshal von Mackensen has thrown out any idea of going the long way round through Bosnia. They’ve spent months flooding heavy artillery towards the border between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and the last two days have seen enormous amounts of ordnance being chucked over the rivers. von Mackensen is determined to kick the front door in, shove his blokes across the Sava and the Danube, and capture Belgrade as soon as possible. The Serbian government has prudently remained at Nis, but that’s not the point. The point is to make a major statement to demoralise the Serbians and to deter the Greeks. (Not that they need much deterring; the King has appointed a new Prime Minister much more to his liking.)

The river-crossings are mostly achieved without much trouble. Unlike in the heady days of 1914, the Serbian Army can’t be concentrated against this assault. Too many of their men have had to be sent to the Bulgarian border. They need help and they need it now, or more than just Belgrade will be at risk. The responsibility for providing that help rests temporarily with General Bailloud, who’s busy getting blokes off the boats at Salonika and waiting for orders. Today, they arrive! And he’s been instructed in no uncertain terms not to take his men into Serbia. Welp.

Second Champagne

General Castelnau contacts General Joffre with a bald statement. Not only has his attack failed to break through, he sees no way to break through without a bombardment on the scale of the first day of the offensive. There’s no arguing with that, so General Joffre issues the order to terminate the battle as soon as a defensible and coherent front line has been established. We’ll look at things like casualties once the autumn offensive finally expires.

Third Artois

After General d’Urbal’s recent delaying action, they now need a new plan. Sir John French is at least now making promising noises that he’ll be ready to renew the Battle of Loos by the 10th. A new plan is duly drawn up, and it looks suspiciously like the old plan but with different men attacking and fewer artillery shells. One thrust over the top of Vimy Ridge towards Farbus, another assault on Hill 70 to support a BEF push in the region of Hulluch. Good luck with that.

Captain Lecluse

It’s still the 6th for Captain Henri de Lecluse, stuck in the now-cancelled attack of yesterday near Souain. Shells whistle and fly towards them, zipping narrowly overhead, plummeting just short.

Each time we heard the ominous whistling we told ourselves “That is the one!” Then after it had missed us, we added “Not yet.” Those are the hours that count for something. They are unforgettable. Hours where you can feel yourself living with great intensity because each minute appears to be your last. And as a poilu talking about them said so well, “Life is just passing through!”

This can’t go on forever. It doesn’t.

At the entrance to [the next trench], a shell hit dead on, right in the middle of my men. Twelve were dead, and some thirty-three others wounded. In a few moments all the stretchers had been put to work. There was nothing more we could do. The bad news was becoming more frequent. A voice called out, “The chaplain for our commandant!” Was it possible? Our dear commander, our friend, a father to all of us, had already been hit!

Let’s cut through the flowery crap a moment; the important point to remember here is that Commandant Delaire deliberately put himself in an exposed position so that more men could get into the trench.

We heard somebody crying out from our left, “Lieutenant de Bejarry is dead!” “Lieutenant Levylier’s leg has been crushed and he is half buried!” Poor Levylier. When I think that only three days ago, I rebuffed him for saying with a touch of snobbism that he found war to be quite “sporting”. What an ironic turn of events!

The shelling goes on. More tomorrow.

Bernard Adams

Time to introduce yet another new correspondent. John Bernard Pye Adams had followed a well-trodden path from a Classics degree at Cambridge to the Civil Service, but lasted only two years before war broke out. In November 1914 he went for an officer, and must have been considered pretty shit-hot for a new boy, as he became a temporary captain in spring. He’s with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a regiment whose battalions over the course of the war will host some of the most well-known writers; Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones, Hedd Wyn, and more. Were it out of copyright I’d probably be leaning heavily on the medic J.C. Dunn’s The War The Infantry Knew.

For my money (and I’m not just saying it because this one is public domain), the best work to come out of the regiment during the war is that of Bernard Adams. We’ll explore why in the next few days. For now, suffice it to say that the 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers, in France since September 1914, have suffered particularly badly (they’ve lost more than half the strength with which they went into the Battle of Loos, and this is not the first time that’s happened) and are in urgent need of reinforcements. Adams has been put back to his substantive rank of lieutenant and packed off to France. He’s now on the way to the front, sitting in the train writing home for the first time. Though he won’t admit it, he’s very concerned about having been sent to the 1st Battalion.

The thought of my arrival among the regulars, with no experience, and not even an acquaintance, far less a friend, was distinctly chilling!

This is a good sign. Science has recently proven that incompetents lack enough knowledge of their jobs to know that they’re incompetent, and so instead are falsely confident. Adams knows enough to know he doesn’t know anything, and so is already better at officering than a lamentably high number of freshly-arrived subalterns. He’s also lost his luggage, which isn’t helping his mood.

I can hardly convey the sense of depression these two facts cast over me the next few days. The interest and novelty of my experiences made me forget for short periods; but always there would return the thought of my arrival alone into a line regiment, and with the humiliating necessity of borrowing everything. Unknown and inexperienced I could not help being; but as a fool who lost all his property the first day, I should not cut a brilliant figure.

He’s eventually put off the train and left to march into Bethune, where he marvels at how they can almost totally ignore the war despite being only six miles from it. More from him soon.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Loos
Battle of Champagne (Second Champagne)
Battle of Artois (Third Artois)
Third invasion of Serbia

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! 1914 is now available! 1915 to follow as long as y’all buy 1914!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

Top Yol | 13 Dec 1914

Today it’s time to return to the Caucasus, and look at the Ottoman plans for a counter-attack in Anatolia.  We’ve also got naval excitement in the Dardanelles.


But first, there’s time to quickly note that today is when the Austro-Hungarians decide that they can no longer hold Belgrade. They will retreat back into Hungary across the Danube and the Sava, and so the humiliation will be complete.


One of the major concerns here is preventing a breakout into the Mediterranean by Goeben and Breslau.  The naval force that’s keeping watch includes some British submarines. Today, B-11 has been given the slightly gung-ho mission of getting past the Ottoman submarine defences, and then looking for trouble. The story seems ripped from a gung-ho patriotic movie. After five hours of tense underwater sailing, battling powerful (and uncharted) underwater currents and dodging minefields all the way, the submarine surfaces in Sari Siglar Bay.

Anchored 800 yards away is the Ottoman pre-dreadnought Mesudiye. Her role is similar to that given to Canopus at the Falklands; she’s more of a floating gun battery than anything else. She’s also an absolute sitting duck, and it only takes one well-aimed torpedo to sink the ship. The Hollywood feel then continues, as B-11 attempts to escape while under heavy fire from Ottoman shore batteries. Her compass isn’t working, and I like to imagine her subsequent movements as being not unlike those of Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo with the turtles. Somehow she stumbles and blunders her way back out again, frequently in water too shallow to entirely conceal the submarine.

In the grand scheme of things it’s not that important, but we can certainly expect wild patriotic ejaculations from the newspapers. The ship’s commander, Lieutenant-Commander Norman Holbrook, won the Victoria Cross.

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Top Yol

Enver Pasha has arrived at Koprukoy, to present his cunning plan to his army commanders. It’s certainly a bold move. As already mentioned, Enver would like to capture Sarikamis, terminus of an important railway. However, the city is heavily defended by the Russians. There’s only one main road from Koprukoy to Sarikamis, and the Russian right is anchored on the forbidding heights of the Cakir Baba.

Enter the Top Yol. The translation is “Cannon Road”. It’s a small mountain pass along the top of Cakir Baba, running from the village of Kose, and then along a forbidding desert plateau about 6,000 feet above sea level. It’s impassable to wheeled traffic, but men and mules can usually traverse it even in the depths of winter. And, in times past, mules have travelled it with mountain artillery pieces on their backs, broken down into manageable individual loads.

A force of three divisions and their mountain artillery batteries will take to the Top Yol, which will bring them straight to Sarikamis and entirely avoid the defensive positions in front of the city. While they do so, another force will head for Sarikamis by a different route, and a third will advance into the Pasin Valley, to pin the Russian forces there in place and prevent them reinforcing Sarikamis.

It’s a daring and highly complicated plan that will require timing and coordination between units hundreds of miles apart and completely out of communication with each other. The reaction to Enver’s plan is overwhelmingly negative, and a spirited argument breaks out between Enver and his generals.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Kolubara
Battle of Limanowa

Further Reading

No Daily Telegraph on Sundays. In its place, yesterday’s “News of the Week” editorial from The Spectator. “In the light of the Russian official despatches, which have never erred on the side of an unwise optimism, the position is perfectly sound.” Jaysus, they don’t half love Russia, do they? Between this and wanting to cede Constantinople to them…

The magazine is also pleased to see that there’s been a clampdown on seditious literature in Ireland, and gets extremely sniffy about the villainous Hun allowing his soldiers to pillage and bombard empty French and Belgian villages. This of course is one of those irregular verbs: “I take what I need from abandoned houses, you have been arrested for looting, they pillage and plunder like barbarians.” And a story about new super-heavy German artillery closes with these words.

Death comes from the air, and from beneath the ground, and from under the sea. The only thing beyond dispute is that human endurance surmounts everything, and that he was a short-sighted prophet who said that war would become too terrible to continue.

The man in the trenches does not perhaps argue it out philosophically with himself, but he knows by an heroic and steadying instinct that the worst that can happen to him is death; and that death, whatever it may be, and however it may come, is no more than death.

There may well be a few blokes in the PBI who are currently living waist deep in water, liberally garlanded with mud and the contents of an overflowing latrine, and in the company of an unhealthy helping of rotting corpses, who might take issue with that last sentence. Still, they’ll be off in search of a nicer hole soon enough.

Vermelles | 04 Dec 1914

The Western Front is beginning to warm up again; the other campaigns are still red hot. Not literally, obviously. It’s still freezing winter weather for most. The French are using some tactics that deserve a closer look.

Battle of Kolubara

The Serbians continue their offensive. The Austro-Hungarians have no time to dig in and must continue retreating. This is another important lesson that all commanders on all sides will bear in mind while planning an offensive. If only an enemy can be dislocated from his prepared defensive positions, and then harassed in force before he has a chance to dig or occupy new ones, an offensive can continue gaining ground as long as the troops driving it have not reached their physical limit and have not outrun their supplies. Meanwhile, the troops in Belgrade are being ordered to defend the city and hold it if at all possible. If their position becomes untenable, they can easily be withdrawn over the Danube back into Hungary.

Battle of Qurna

Having assessed the situation, the British commanders decide to hold their men in position while reinforcements are brought up. These will include one of Indian Expeditionary Force “D”‘s mountain artillery batteries. In the meantime, the blokes already there must try to keep their heads down, and hurry up and wait.

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Kutnow's Powder advert from the Daily Telegraph, 04 Nov 1914

Oh, patent medicine, you do make me laugh.


Vermelles Chateau is in the north of the Artois region, just south of the southern end of the BEF’s part of line. That’s where we find Louis Barthas and his friends, occupying the front line in front of Annequin. Vermelles Chateau had fallen into German hands back in September. They’ve spent the last couple of months fortifying it extensively, and it’s now a major strong-point. The local commanders are well aware that an attack in Artois is being planned, and it would be much easier if Vermelles could be taken.

Barthas is lucky. The next regiment across from him is the one ordered to attack Vermelles. He has an excellent front-row view of what followed.

For several days our sappers had been digging an underground gallery in order to blow up the chateau with a mine. … At the appointed hour, we saw the chateau disappear into a cloud of smoke, and a muffled detonation could be heard. Right away our batteries unleashed a rain of hellish fire onto Vermelles. The spectacle evoked the scene of Sodom and Gomorroah, and the rain of fire, stones and sulphur which destroyed them.

Profitiing from the unpleasant surprise all this must have had on the Germans, our neighboring regiment went on the attack … fuelled with alcohol to excite their warrior spirit. The attack was only partially successful. The chateau and its park fell into our hands. But when they tried to penetrate into the town itself, they ran into solid defenses. Barricades, trenches which cut across streets, crenellated walls, that the Germans … defended fiercely.

This all barely lasted three quarters of an hour. We were called down from alert status, and to see the joy which was so evident on all our faces was proof that each one of us had wished for the operation to fail, so we wouldn’t have to participate in it. We were pretty sorry soldiers, but each one put his own skin first. No matter how little it was worth at the moment, ahead of all the houses and all the coal in Vermelles.

Here at Vermelles, we see early use of two more important tactics. The first is the hurricane bombardment; a brief but overwhelming period of artillery-fire (somewhere between ten and forty minutes) to suppress and disorient the defenders, without offering enough warning of a coming attack for the enemy’s commanders to react and prepare for it. The second is the use of underground warfare, planting mines underground to be detonated against some particular strong-point. Vermelles is a mining town and the area has proved particularly favourable for excavations, despite the foul winter weather. We’ll be saying plenty more about both of these concepts in the months to come.


While all this is going on, the French Operations Bureau is vacillating. Today they issue a detailed paper recommending a strong attack in Champagne only, without the complementary attack in Artois for which Louis Barthas’s mates are preparing. The conclusion (for now!) is that the railway-junction at Mezieres is more important to German logistics than any location in Artois, and an attack there should be prioritised.

General Joffre is eager to begin operations, but he’s also hedging his bets. He tells President Poincare that he is planning a series of small offensives with limited objectives. According to this version of events, his primary goal is to pin German forces on the Western Front and prevent them being used against Russia. He also seems to have told Poincare that he knows he doesn’t yet have enough strength in manpower or equipment to do anything more. In the coming days, he’ll prove not to be shy about telling different things to different people.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Kolubara
Battle of Qurna
Battle of Limanowa

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: Money is very plentiful in the money markets!!! A judge takes a suitably dim view of some idiot suing a golf club (pages 6 and 10) over alleged irregularities during a competition, the Football Association will not suspend all competitions but will not be playing any internationals (page 8), and the casualty list on Page 12 records with some poignancy that Captain A.C. Anderson of the 6th Jats has been “Accidentally Killed”. Sometimes it’s the little things that get you.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult, have a look at this reading guide.)

The Schlieffen Plan? | 10 Aug 1914

The Schlieffen Plan?

Right. Let’s buckle in. Let’s discuss whatever the hell it is the Germans think they’re trying to do. This will take a while. I do want to start by making one thing clear. The old idea of “The Schlieffen Plan” as a Teutonically inflexible and impractical plan for immediate and complete victory, drawn up in arse-numbing detail by a chap called Schlieffen in about 1905 with no reference at all to real-world concerns, and slavishly followed in 1914 by unoriginal thinkers and duffers who were in love with their railway-timetables, is very probably inaccurate, at least to some degree. Let’s try to untangle the threads.

In 1906, Alfred von Schlieffen retired as commander-in-chief of the German army, leaving behind him a number of different documents (even the question of whether or not they should be called “plans”, with all that that word implies, is a Matter of Some Debate – they’re often described instead as think-pieces) which in some way contain some ideas about various scenarios for a European war. If you squint hard enough and tilt your head to the side, you can see at least a few similarities in all of them with what eventually happened in 1914.

Until the last years of the 20th century, no historian had actually seen them and they were assumed lost; IIRC they were found by accident in a completely different set of files by someone who was looking for something entirely unrelated. A notorious rabble-rouser called Terence Zuber then picked up on them and concluded that there was no such thing as “The Schlieffen Plan”. He then proceeded to tell everyone. In a very loud voice. And started a lot of rather amusing (for a given value of “rather amusing”) bunfights in the pages of various learned journals.

So, the first point to note is that of Schlieffen’s various “plans”, the ones that deal with a two-front war against Russia and France acting together (and possibly Britain as well) are fundamentally defensive. Which is interesting in itself; the traditional Schlieffen Plan narrative presents its author as an inflexible single-minded cult-of-the-offensive berk. However, in his two-front documents, the German army deploys primarily to resist an offensive by one or other of France or Russia and evict them from German soil. It then turns about and does the same thing on the other front. Then the war continues, and we go outwith the scope of the document. Neither of them are intended to be war-winning plans, just plans to secure Germany’s borders against invasion.

Then there’s the really interesting “plan”, which is the one dealing with a one-front war against France. This one is offensive, and it assumes a larger army than Germany would have been likely to field (and is also much larger than the one that was fielded in 1914). It’s got the familiar curved arrows/revolving door concept, and it looks something like this.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The concept goes something like this. France mobilises on the border, the French Army kicks the door in and rushes into Alsace and Lorraine, but they get stalled out by a combined German/Austro-Hungarian/Italian watch on the Rhine. As soon as the French Army stops moving forward, the door keeps swinging round, having marched through the Low Countries, and kicks them firmly up the arse, cutting the French supply lines, besieging and capturing Paris, and eventually starting to squeeze the French army down into nothing on about the 40th day of mobilisation.

Right then. So von Schlieffen retires, von Moltke takes over, the years tick on. The Russians begin vastly expanding their army and improving their railway connections towards the German border. The General Staff starts to worry about their existing plans for a two-front war. They’re both essentially defensive deployments that will probably be very good at not losing the war, but don’t seem to offer too many opportunities to win it, at least not quickly. Nobody wants a long war, so something must be done.

The solution is to have their cake and eat it. The staff begins by bolting the revolving door from the France-only plan onto the two-front defend-against-France-first plan. They’re looking for a quick western victory that will allow them to turn full force against Russia as soon as possible. And, what they’ve come up with (we can infer from what actually happened) is naturally very different from Schlieffen’s 1905 documents.

In a two-front war, their allies will be busy dealing with Russia; that weakens the right wing, because now you need more Germans defending on the Rhine. Then the staff gets worried about letting the French so far into Alsace and Lorraine, strengthens the left again, and possibly start making plans to defend further forward. Somewhere in here the far right wheel through the Netherlands disappears entirely, and only Belgian neutrality will be violated.

So now there’s the question of the extent of the right wing’s march into France. Until very recently it was absolutely unchallenged that the original intent was to encircle Paris (as in the 1905 one-front document), which was then changed on the fly to a march east of the city by von Moltke for reasons unknown but heavily speculated about, on about the last day of August.

However, something that struck me when I was writing about the actual advance is how absolutely knackered all the blokes on both sides were by the end of it. Many of them literally had their boots wrecked and falling off their feet. What this implies for the practicality of the 1914 plan is absolutely killer. (By the route they took, the German First Army marched about 250-odd miles in 30 days and fought several actions.) A march around Paris would have left the Germans having to put even more miles on the legs of that strong right wing.

In line with this, it’s recently been suggested that actually by 1914 the General Staff recognised that a march around Paris was beyond the endurance of their blokes or the reach of their supply lines, and never intended to do that at all; it’s just been assumed that way because (among other things) from the French side it’s easy to assume that if your enemy is marching in the general direction of your capital, he intends to attack it. It also allows people an easy explanation for why the war was in fact not won quickly. If only von Moltke had just followed von Schlieffen’s magic stroke of genius without deviation, repetition, or hesitation!

So what we’re left with from looking again at what the Germans actually did without preconceptions, is a modified attack, which you might call the Moltke strategy or the Moltke-Schlieffen plan (or, indeed, whatever you like; I’m going to use “the 1914 plan”). Calling it “the Schlieffen plan” is probably unhelpful because it does give a misleading impression, in the same way that talking about the “Race to the Sea” (of which more soon) is unhelpful.

However, at the very least, the people who drew it up would have been familiar with Schlieffen’s 1905 thinking, even if you’re minded to think that the 1914 plan didn’t actually look much like any of it. It retains the basic 1905 concept of drawing the main body of the French Army onto a strong defensive line inside German territory, then marching right around them, cutting off their supply lines, and then squeezing them down into nothing. And, as we’ve seen, the French Plan XVII is going to play right into their hands. General Joffre is even now planning to attack in force towards Metz.

Happily, there are still plenty of grounds for critique and disagreement with what actually happened that don’t revolve around “von Moltke changed the magic plan” or “von Moltke sent some men to the East too early” (which seems like a smelly red herring to me). We’ll be investigating those as they crop up, but that’s enough about war-plans for now. Conclusion: the Germans’ 1914 plan for the start of the war was strongly based on a plan produced by von Schlieffen in 1905, and retained the same basic concept, but also had several important differences from that 1905 document.

Goeben and Breslau

Admiral Milne is steaming with his battlecruisers from Malta towards the eastern Mediterranean when they start picking up German radio transmissions. They’re still far too far away to do anything; Goeben and Breslau have arrived at Cape Helles at 5pm, the headland at the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. They call for a pilot, and a boat guides them safely through the minefields in the Dardanelles. Their escape will create quite the storm in a teacup at the Admiralty.


Serbian mobilisation is now complete. They do have a problem. There are at least three armies opposite them. One is sitting across the Sava and Danube, near Belgrade. Unbeknownst to them, it’ll soon start leaving from Galicia, but they still have to deploy to protect against it. They can’t simply concentrate on defending the Drina and their eastern border.


Time now to conduct an interesting comparison. Here is (more or less) what the Austro-Hungarian Official History says about the functioning of their railway system immediately after the declaration of war.

Beginning on the 9th the rail lines to the northeast were operating at full capacity. Every day, 140 “100 axle” trains arrived in the deployment area with a total of 7000 cars. Counting empty trains on the return trip, in mid-August there were over 800 trains with 40,000 cars in motion at once; if lined up one after the other they would have formed a line 400 km long.

The almost perfect operation of this gigantic mass of equipment raised the self-confidence of the Army and its leadership, and strengthened the trust in public officials of all those who stood by the Emperor and his realm in this difficult hour.

Now, here’s an extract from what’s still the most comprehensive (or at least it will be until Prit Buttar gets finished with his gargantuan four-volume series) English-language book on the Eastern Front, Norman Stone’s imaginatively-titled The Eastern Front.

In order to preserve ‘a uniform pattern’ in the movement of mobilisation-trains, all of these were told to go at ‘maximum parallel graphic’—meaning the maximum speed of the slowest train on the worst line, with only minor variations. The average speed of Austro-Hungarian mobilisation-trains was therefore less than that of a bicycle.

Moreover, troop-trains were arbitrarily halted for six hours every day for ‘feeding-pauses’, despite their having field-kitchens with them in the trains. Since stations with the necessary equipment did not regularly occur on the lines, this meant that troops would travel for hours without being fed, then to be given two square meals, more or less in succession, in the middle of the night.

Journeys lasted for an astonishing time. III Army command, for instance, left Bratislava at 6 a.m. on 5th August, and arrived in Sambor at the same hour on 10th August—a performance of which a healthy walker would have been capable. IV Army Command took forty hours travelling between Vienna and the San—three times as long as usual.

As we can see, the two accounts are, ahem, somewhat divergent. This is a very useful cautionary tale. Official histories are extremely useful for many purposes, but they should still be handled with great care.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Liege
Battle of Mulhouse

Further Reading

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)