Communications And Unintended Consequences

When WWI began in August of 1914 the Germans had an elaborate plan to when the war against France.  The plan had been developed years before by a general named Schlieffen.  He had worked on it and refined it for most of his career.  The Germans had defeated the French during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.  The Plan covered everything starting with how long it would take to call up and mobilize the army to the number and location of trains necessary to transport them to the kick off location for hostilities.  The Plan had been “war gamed” several times before 1914.   Schlieffen was not there when the war began but his plan was. 

As with many conflicts it came as a surprise to most of the politicians and military leaders of the respective sides.  After all none of the major participants were planning on “conquering” their foe and occupying it and making it a part of their domain.  There had been bluster and blustery words for a couple of decades before as the respective sides jostled for control over remote areas of the planet and spheres of influence within the European community.  But major events often come from the smallest matters and places not in the center of attention.   Because of the back and forth of the Alsace – Lorraine area of France/Germany, one would have thought that would have been the powder keg to ignite conflict.  But it came from the Balkans an area that was not of vital interests to anyone except Austria-Hungary.  An early day hippie assassinated the Crown Prince in Serbia and the rhetoric grew out of all proportion to the actual event.   France didn’t have anything to do with it and would not have condoned the action of any anarchist in any event.  France didn’t care about the Balkans except as a way to prick the senses of the Germans.  Russian was only interested because it was a way to take the Germans down a notch or two.   The politicians didn’t lead their people to war as much as they stumbled into it.

When the bullets began to fly the Schlieffen Plan was implemented by the Germans.  It involved essentially holding the French in place on the eastern and southeastern border of France and then using the right wing of the German army to sweep west through Belgium and into northern France and the hooking south toward Paris.   Even though there was trucks, trains and cars by this time, the movement of the army was dependent upon the pace of a marching and fighting soldier and horse.   Each side had hundreds of thousands of horse to pull the wagons loaded with their supplies.   There was a great deal of back and forth those first few weeks of the war but basically the German plan was  working.  Their left wing held eastern French armies static and the right wing moved, it moved miles.   It was hot.  The roads were mostly unpaved and dusty and the fighting was intense on occasion followed by more marching.   During that first month alone but French and German losses were in the hundreds of thousands of men.   By the first week of September the Germans were within 25 to 30 miles of Paris to the north and east.  The German troops on the right wing had marched and fought their way for about 400 miles since the fighting had begun.  Their ranks were seriously diminished by the killed and wounded.  Both officers and men were exhausted but close to their intended goal–Paris and cutting it off from southern France.   The French were likewise weakened by the constant fighting but they did have the advantage of interior lines of communications and moved hundreds of thousands of troops in early September from the east to the area around Paris.  The  British even joined the fray at this point but their numbers were small compared to the French.  The British only had one army in the field compared to 8 for the French.

At this critical juncture, Moltke, the German Chief of Staff blundered even worse than before.  He had followed the Schlieffen plan very closely to date.  He was getting reports of the French reinforcements and the exhaustion of his 3 armies that constituted his right wing.   From the outset he had used primitive means of communication with his army commanders.  He never got closer than about 30 miles to the front lines and relied entirely on second-hand reports.  The telegraph, telephone, motorcycle riders, and messages by horseback or car were available to him to proceed with his strategy.   He believed that he should guide the German armies and the commanders under him with general directions as to his desires.  Not an altogether bad idea for an overall commander.  But the communications between the individual armies in the field was not much better.  The First Army didn’t talk that much with the Second army, etc.  When they did it was usually just to tell the other of their intentions for the next day’s action or a call for support. 

Moltke sent at the stressful time a lt. colonel to reconnoitre for him and to issue instructions for a withdrawal if necessary.   He was a staff officer who was not on the front lines regularly.  It was an enormous authority granted to such a relatively low ranking officer.  Staff officers have been trusted completely many times by the supreme commander.  Such as the regard Washington had for Hamilton during the Revolutionary War.   This was the last stages of what came to be known as the Battle of the Marne.  The staff officer visited the three armies on the right wing.  He concluded that they should withdraw.  It as not a ridiculous idea but it was not a bold one.  As exhausted as the Germans were and as depleted as their supplies were at that moment, the French were also drained and tired.   It is far from certain that the French counter attack would have crushed the Germans.  A strong argument can be made that it would have faltered on the German steel.  The Germans weren’t defeated, just tired.  The local commanders followed the “suggestion” of the lt. colonel that was supposed to reflect the wishes of Moltke and withdrew.  They never confirmed the intentions with Moltke.

The Germans withdrew about 30 to 40 miles and dug in.  Trench warfare began and endured for 4 more bloody years.   If the communications available had been utilized the Battle of the Marne might have been different and the war greatly reduced in slaughter and treasure.    The politicians would  have argued for a couple of years about the terms of the new peace treaty.  Believe me the British, Italians, Turks and Russians would have been glad to work out a deal rather than suffer what they did.

A word of wisdom for the guy in the White House—“On the most exalted throne in the world, nothing but our arse.”  Montaigne


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Filed under history, military history, Politics, War

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