Autumn’s Centennial Anniversaries 1914 – 2014

The Fall Back position:

In this September 1914 all is very far from quiet on the Western Front. Indeed there’s yet no Western front to properly speak of. Instead the entire French army has fallen back and the British expeditionary forces regrouping in the face of the slowing German advance. In order not to be caught from behind the French offensive in Alsace Lorraine has ended in ignominious retreat. The giant German sweep through Belgium long planned has carried all before it though the Belgian at Liege and British Expeditionary Force at Mons slowed the speed of the advance.

At Mons century ago my great uncle has played his part and rescued an allied gun under German fire. He was wounded. His war is already over – though he does not know it – he probably still in some field hospital near Mons and shortly will be on his way home to Cashel – a wounded hero.

Panic and a fevered exhilaration grip the streets of Paris as the mood swings down –  with memories of the Franco-Prussian of 1870 humiliation looming large –  and up again as civilian determination to meet the foe outside their city in one almighty show-down takes hold. The French have taken some quarter of a million casualties. They now are regrouping and hope to halt the German advance with a massive counter offensive to be launched somewhere around the Marne. The Germans are already strung along the farthest end of their supply lines. The armies have slowed and on paper they’re many days behind the plans laying on the tables of the general staff in Berlin.

In this centennial of the Great War we are now in the no man’s land between the two great battles of 1914. It’s these that will shape the next four years – and in some ways they will determine much of the rest of Europe’s history in a 20th century that is as yet only a decade old.

Far from being a war of attrition thus far this war has been a war of spectacular movement: millions of men; mountains of munitions and butter and bully-beef. And then the guns – beads of them in long necklaces of railway cars – they have been pushed and pulled and shunted and dragged across a thousand miles – all over Europe – everything is in a state of flux and everything is on the move. Mobilisation has gathered momentum and the war is already commandeering all resources. Even the buses and taxis of Paris have been dragooned into military service. There’s still  whiff of excitement in the air; still the hope it will all be over by Christmas. There’s as yet no clear sense what this war is to mean to all the belligerents..

The Germans have just smashed the Russian army at a battle we call Tanneberg. This name was given to the battle by General Ludendorff. He has chosen it because of its resonance with Teutonic knights of Charlemagne’s (first) Reich. In fact the slaughter took place some way from this mythic field of glory.The russian second army was all but obliterated. The Germans took 92,000 prisoners but left another 78,000 dead or wounded on the battlefield. This rout will be followed by second more decisive victory in the Masurian Lakes later in this week. The German victory was crafted by the combination of Hindenburg (summoned from retirement) and Ludendorff. These two will mastermind the German victory in the East. Tannenberg is won without using any of the extra divisions von Moltke has fatefully transferred from West to East. Rather than report the loss of his army to Tsar Nicholas II Russian General Samsonov has committed suicide – shooting himself in the head on 30th August 1914.

By way of contrast the Austrian army has collapsed and lost Lehmberg and lost control of Galicia. As the Austrians retreat many of its uniformed Slavic soldiers desert –  some even offering to fight with the Russians. 130,000 will have been taken prisoner by the Russians by the time the battle subsides on 11th September. There will have been half a million casualties on the eastern front. The casualty figures are already stratospheric on both sides. The Russians have pushed the front line 100 miles into the Carpathians and have completely surrounded the Austrian fortress of Przemyśl and started a siege which will run for over a hundred days. The battle has destroyed large portion of the Austro Hungarian officer corps. Its old empire is now as crippled as its old politics have long been hobbled. This complete victory gives Russia the dangerous hope it might yet win.

In the West the allied armies are falling back to the Marne where they will make their stand in an attempt to save Paris. However, they are already aware that the German army is running out of fresh men and its supply lines are stretched too thin by lack of manpower. The Schlieffen plan sacrificed Belgium neutrality for the sakes of a quick victory. Too many days have been lost to make this likely. Belgium has given a causus belli to Imperial Britain and her resources will from this stage only grow. Von Moltke’s transfer of men East has destroyed the single chance the German army had of making the risk of wider war worth this throw of the dice. It now is aware it cannot deliver the knock-out blow its carefully laid plans promised. It has the war on two fronts it long feared and long sought to avoid and evade. For this outcome the German high command is unprepared and improvisation is not the strength of their Prussian war machine. They’re stuck with the war they have; it is not one they’re prepared for; its not one they’re suited to fight. Their natural advantages of weaponry, training and overwhelming mobilised manpower are wasting assets. They will have to dig in and rethink the entire strategy – that is if they can stabilise the front.

At the Marne the German army will shudder to a halt and will then fall back in disorganized disarray. There then follows a scrabble to stem the tide of disaster as the opposing armies each try to reach the coast to the north to prevent their respective armies being outflanked. The Germans will just reach the coast of Belgium in time to create the long ragged line that will become in the next year the Western Front. As autumn turns into winter both sides will have dug trenches along the length of the new front line. It will fill them with men. The merciless weather will fill them with mud. The snipers on either side will fill them with death.

There is to be no clear count of losses on either side at this stage of the war. everyone is as yet too unprepared. Everyone believed it would be a series of fast moving encounters of infantry and guns supported by horses. The cavalry on boths sides are already obsolete. The horses drag guns through the fields of France and Belgium from the points where railway tracks end. Both sides have had to fall back and both sides have found they cannot command the advantage when they holds it. They can see their tactical problem but as yet they cannot see the problem is insoluble with their military tactics.

It is but it is now accepted there were approximately a million casualties by the end of 1914. My great uncle has already received his fatal wound. He will die in a few weeks time from his wounds and he will be one of many Irishmen who will die in the Great War only to be forgotten. Republican Ireland has had great difficulty coming to terms with these men and their part in its story. My great uncle is buried in Cashel – at the Rock, near where the queen stood quite recently on her state visit.

The true war is about to begin. It will not be the war to end all wars. As it turns out it will just be the beginning of a carnage that will make the twentieth century the most bloody since the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. It is still a moving war where everything seems possible. As it turns out the objectives of all the combatants will contain so many impossibilities that the end when it comes will be more like the long stalemate of 1915-1917 – it will leave a sense that nothing has been resolved – although the old order that gave birth to the war will itself have been buried under the tangle of dead bodies; themselves buried under the oceans of mud churned up day after day;  a world blasted to nothing by the unceasing barrage of field guns raining down shells on the fertile soil of a bygone Europe.

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