World War I Centennial: Councils of War

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the second installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

January 1912: Councils of War

After the turmoil caused by the Second Moroccan Crisis, ending with a humiliating diplomatic defeat for Germany with the Treaty of Berlin in November 1911, Europe’s leaders were suddenly realizing that a general, continent-wide war was now a distinct possibility. While most of them still hoped to avoid this calamity, they felt compelled to start making serious preparations for the worst-case scenario.

In France, the top general, Joseph Joffre, was increasingly uneasy about the German threat—specifically the German plan of attack. In the event of war, Germany’s numerical advantage (68 million people versus 41 million for France) and superior industrial base would allow it to field a larger army. For their part, the French hoped to be able to neutralize these advantages with a string of forts behind their border with Germany.

But as Joffre suspected, the Germans had no intention of sending all their troops against heavy French fortifications in this area. Instead, they would form an uneven pincer, with the weaker arm attacking the French fortifications, and the stronger arm smashing through tiny, neutral Belgium for a surprise attack targeting Paris from the north. The Germans didn’t particularly care that this violation of Belgian sovereignty would elicit international outrage, as they were playing for all the marbles—and the victor writes the history books.

One hundred years ago today, on January 12, 1912, Joffre attended a meeting of the Superior Council of National Defense, France’s top civilian-military committee, where he asked for permission for French troops to advance into Belgium as soon as German troops attacked France -- a preemptive move that would put France in the position of violating Belgian neutrality first, before Germany. But Premier Joseph Caillaux rejected the idea, arguing that France had to maintain the moral high ground, while noting that a French invasion of Belgium would give Germany a propaganda victory before the first shot was even fired. Joffre would meet with the same dogged resistance from Caillaux’s successor, Raymond Poincare, effectively frustrating the French military’s plans to blunt a German offensive through Belgium. In 1914, the result would be disastrous.

The British Response

Meanwhile, the French weren’t the only ones busily freaking out about the suddenly-less-hypothetical possibility of a general war in Europe. Following the Second Moroccan Crisis, it became clear to Britain’s leaders that the two main branches of the British military, the Regular Army and the Royal Navy, did not see eye to eye when it came to emergency war planning.

Specifically, the Regular Army expected the Royal Navy to give top priority to transporting army units across the English Channel to France, where they were needed to help shore up French defenses against the expected German invasion. However at the Imperial War Council held on August 23, 1911, the navy leadership on the Board of Admiralty proposed that the British strategy should consist of amphibious assaults against Germany. If the Second Moroccan Crisis had actually resulted in war, this confusion and conflict could have crippled the British war effort, dooming their French allies.

In January 1912, the British government hurried to iron out the conflict between the Army and Navy by creating a new Naval War Staff responsible for managing the Navy in wartime—taking over many of the duties formerly assigned to the Board of Admiralty. Explaining this bureaucratic coup, the navy’s top civilian commander, First Lord Winston Churchill, emphasized: “It is necessary that there should be a close and whole-hearted cooperation between the War Staff at the Admiralty and the General Staff of the Army.”

Although Churchill would go on to have a baleful influence on wartime strategy with his support for the disastrous offensive at Gallipoli, the Naval War Staff he created would play a key role in coordinating overall British strategy in 1914.

For the next few years, Erik Sass will be serializing the lead-up to World War I, covering events 100 years after they happened. See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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January 12, 2012 - 5:32pm
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