Japan officially declares war on the German Empire, and immediately the Royal Navy prepares to allow the Japanese to take over operations at Tsingtao, with some British support. Meanwhile, Admiral von Spee orders a move from Brown Atoll to Majuro in order to evade Australian ships who might be in the area.
Battle of the Ardennes
In awful weather, with heavy rain and fog, the French army advances again. The Germans have carefully selected their defensive positions, placing them at the front of wooded areas. This allows their close reserves to have cover from French artillery, while obliging the French infantry to advance towards them over open ground. In their traditional dark blue coats and bright red trousers. And with little useful artillery support.
Firing mostly shrapnel from their guns, the Germans stop the French attacks dead, quite literally. The casualty figures today, across all the Battles of the Frontiers, are comparable with those from the first day at the Battle of the Somme, and most of them are from the doomed attacks in the Ardennes. Some of the worst-hit are from the French Colonial Corps, tirailleurs and zouaves from French colonies in North Africa.
Right, that’s enough semi-detached stuff about generals and armies and casualty figures. Let’s go down to ground level and hear what it was like. First, Major Alphonse Grasset from the 3rd Army.
My company was sustaining heavy losses. Evidently its action was hampering the enemy who concentrated the combined fire of his infantry, artillery and machine guns on us. We were surrounded by a heavy cloud which at times completely veiled the battlefield from our eyes. Little Bergeyre sprang up, shouted, ‘Vive la France!’ at the top of his voice and fell dead.
One man was trying to replace his bloody dangling hand to his shattered wrist. Another ran from the line holding the bowels falling out of his belly and through his tattered clothes. Before long a bullet struck him down. We had no support from our artillery! And yet there were guns in our division and in the army corps, besides those destroyed on the road. Where were they? Why didn’t they arrive? We were alone!
Private Desiree Renault was wounded while serving with 4th Army.
I was hit by a bullet in the left side, I felt a terrible pain as if I’d broken a bone. The bullet passed through the whole of my body, through the pelvis and lodged above the knee. Immediately I was suffering greatly with a burning fever. The bullets continue to rain down all around me, I may be hit again, so I do my best to drag myself into a hole, I find it hard to gain any comfort.
The fight is over: all my comrades have retreated, and we wounded, are left without care, dying of thirst. What an awful night! Nothing but more shooting, every sound made by the wounded, triggered a resumption of fire. Machine gun swept the ground, bullets flying over my head, but they can no longer touch me in my hole. Thirst tortures me more. As I suffer, I think about my parents, especially my mother, remembering when I was sick and very young. It wasn’t only me thinking of their mothers, for I could hear the wounded and dying calling out for their ‘Maman’.
The lucky ones survive long enough to be captured and given medical attention by the Germans.
Battle of Lorraine
After a day of respite, the Germans renew their attack against the French 2nd Army, and they’re pushed back again. Now they’re going back past their starting positions, back into France. The army’s cohesion is breaking down fast. An anonymous poilu (a “hairy one”, the equivalent of the British Tommy, after the extensive beards and moustaches most of them wore) comments.
The ground was strewn with red trousers. Machine-gun bullets fell on a rabble which no longer bore any resemblance to an army. … Villages completely destroyed, burned, ransacked, deserted. Animals wandered everywhere. Dead horses gave off a foul smell by the side of the road. We had a lot of wounded, many of them officers and sergeants. The men were left rudderless. At the least sign of danger they ran every which way. It was all extremely demoralising.
Battle of Charleroi
Things are equally bad at the Battle of Charleroi.
Suddenly the enemy’s fire became precise and concentrated. Second by second the hail of bullets and the thunder of the shells grew stronger. Those who survived lay flat on the ground, amid the screaming wounded and the humble corpses. With affected calm, the officers let themselves be killed standing upright, some obstinate platoons stuck their bayonets in their rifles, bugles sounded the charge, isolated heroes made fantastic leaps, but all to no purpose. In an instant it had become clear that not all the courage in the world could withstand this fire.
These comments are from one Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle, of whom more later. However, at Ham-sur-Sambre, Private Yves-Marie Conan has a more promising story.
The Germans started to crawl across this meadow, unaware that our machine-gun section had taken up position behind us. When the Boche arrived, our machine guns opened fire … the German battalion was out in the open, with no cover. Swept by bursts of shellfire, mown down by machine-guns, picked off by the rest of us. After half an hour there was nothing left but the dead or the dying.
Frontal attacks with poor artillery support and the men advancing in close order don’t work any better when it’s the German army trying it. It’s not frontal attacks that won the Battle of Charleroi; it’s sheer weight of numbers and the ability to easily threaten to flank and surround 5th Army.
Battle of Mons
The BEF is taking up its agreed position along the Mons-Conde Canal, in preparation for the Battle of Mons. They’re happily ignorant of the slaughter facing the French Army elsewhere. They still expect to stand on the line of the canal for 24 hours, and then advance alongside 5th Army. They have no idea that the mostly-fresh German First Army is heading right for them.
Well, that’s true of the blokes. The generals do have access to intelligence. The Royal Flying Corps has been up, and they’ve spotted First Army, which doesn’t see the possible presence of two British corps as a reason to conceal their movements.
Additionally, Lieutenant-Colonel George Barrow of the intelligence department has had an excellent idea. He goes to the railway station and begins telephoning every small town for miles around, asking them what’s going on. From many towns he has conversations with helpful Belgians. From more he gets no response, or a voice in German, and this tells him that the enemy has already arrived.
The information is forwarded by General Allenby to GHQ at Le Cateau, who proceed to blithely ignore it. “The information which you have acquired appears to be somewhat exaggerated.” The RFC’s aerial intelligence is meeting with a similar response.
Meanwhile, certain officers are having trouble adapting to the realities of war, after years of exercises in England. One battalion issued an urgent request for clarification on whether they were allowed to knock loopholes in the walls of some farm buildings that they’d been ordered to garrison. Another pair of subalterns received a lengthy public bollocking from their colonel after carefully laying out defensive positions that entirely ignored the most obvious route of attack. When questioned, their reply was “But they’ll hardly attack from over there, sir! It’s private property!”
Late at night, fresh reports arrive, this one concerning the fate of the 5th Army. The plan for a 24-hour stand followed by an advance is replaced by an almost identical one. Now the Battle of Mons will be a 24-hour stand to cover the French retreat.
The other side of the hill
Meanwhile, General Alexander von Kluck, in charge of the German First Army, is equally ignorant. He’s had reports of cavalry clashes and British aircraft seen overhead, but somehow his own aircraft have almost entirely missed the two corps’ worth of British infantry. He knows that there’s a force of some sort ahead of him, but where it is and what strength it has…
The Austro-Hungarians are yet to arrange any significant opposition to the Russian invasion of Galicia. 8th Army under General Brusilov has given a thorough kicking to widely-spread opponents outside Tarnopol. General Russki’s 3rd Army has taken Brody, on the railway into Lviv. At the moment, it’s one-way traffic.
Meanwhile, the Germans are slowly falling back in the face of the Russian advance into East Prussia, buying time while their staff tries to work out a new plan. Numerous towns and villages are falling into Russian hands, with a growing train of refugees fleeing their homes ahead of them.
Battle of Cer
The Austro-Hungarian division occupying Sabac is still stubbornly holding onto the town, driven by its general’s sense of honour rather than any military sense. They’re virtually the only invaders remaining east of the Drina after another excellent day for the Serbian Army.
Lake Tanganyika is one of the biggest lakes of the world, and it forms a considerable part of the border between German East Africa and the worst European colony of them all, the Belgian Congo. Yes, that’s the Belgian Congo.
In an attempt to secure the lake, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck has had a steamer, the Hedwig von Wissmann, armed with four small guns. Today it sails off to Lukaga, the chief Belgian port on the lake, to destroy the only Belgian steamer, which it achieves over the next couple of days after some trouble trying to shoot its new guns straight.
Actions in Progress
Battle of Mulhouse
Battle of Lorraine
Battle of Cer
Battle of the Ardennes
Battle of Charleroi
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.)