OK then, how to deal with the enormity of the two 20th century World Wars? Not by blogs to be sure. Just to keep the pot boiling (or least simmering), I will outline what I consider were the key issues and events which defined the progress of each war year by year and make it open for discussion. About 44% of my book, There was a Time, is devoted to these two mighty conflicts, together with the inter-war years as an integrated whole. This will not, of course, have any effect upon the book which is already out there but the exercise could nevertheless be stimulating and hopefully informative.
‘The Great War’ 1914 – 1918
The title quote by Helmuth von Moltke (The Elder) was singularly prophetic, in view of the assessment of the war’s likely duration by both sides of the conflict. From quite different perspectives both had calculated that it would be ‘over by Christmas’; those who listened might well have asked ‘which Christmas?’.
German forces crossed the Belgian border in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan on August 4th, ignoring Britain’s ultimatum and subsequent declaration of war. A British Expeditionary force was sent across The Channel on the same day and engaged the lead elements of von Kluck’s right arm of the offensive at the mining town of Mons. Von Kluck’s force was the one selected to encircle Paris but the British army had become much better trained since the lessons of the Boer War and the rifle fire had been of such intensity and accuracy that the Germans believed them to be well equipped with machine guns. The British though were heavily outnumbered and made a fighting retreat, especially at Le Cateau. The commander of the Paris garrison sent his force out to confront von Kluck and the combined effects of the resistance to the German right flank forced von Kluck to abandon the Paris encirclement, rather than become isolated from von Bülow’s central force and instead, join the other two armies on the north bank of the River Marne.
British and French forces then counter-attacked from the southern bank and drove the Germans back to the River Aisne. The Schlieffen Plan had failed and the overall German commander, Helmuth von Moltke, nephew of the victor in the previous century, was dismissed and replaced by Erich von Falkenhayn.
Britain’s other major land deployment was at the city of Ypres, centre of the Flanders weaving industry and in a natural salient in the path of German forces hoping to capture channel ports, from which the British and allied forces could be supplied. The stand-off at Ypres lasted throughout the war and was the site of three major battles but although almost destroyed by German artillery fire, the city never fell to the invaders.
More than half of all British fatalities in the war fell at the Ypres salient.
When the German onslaught began, France called upon Russia to engage Germany in a major confrontation to relieve pressure on the Western Front. Russia sent two armies under the respective commands of Generals Samsonov and Rennenkampf who, in that order, engaged Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff at the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes to disastrous effect for the Russians. Samsonov’s army was wiped out and he committed suicide. Rennenkampf’s army also lost badly but was at least able to escape partially intact
Most Russian fighting from then onwards was to be against Austria-Hungary, although German reinforcements were often sent to support their flagging ally.
At sea the Royal Navy began well by surprising and destroying a German force at the Battle of Heligoland Bight. Soon after this, a powerful German cruiser squadron came into accidental contact with a small, lightly armed British detachment off the coast of Chile from which only an old British cruiser managed to escape around Cape Horn. The Admiralty sent a force to intercept the German squadron returning to its base. The modern British battle cruisers engaged their enemy at the Battle of the Falklands where four of the German ships were sunk and the fifth pursued and sunk later.
Christmas had been and gone and the war had barely started!