Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1914/Preface

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Since the original edition was compiled in 1920-21, the battlefields of 1914 have been visited by many parties of British officers, and much interesting information has been elicited on the ground. The volumes of the French and German official histories dealing with the period, besides numerous regimental histories, French, German and British, have been issued.[1] It was therefore thought desirable to carry out a thorough revision of the text, particularly as the portions of the original dealing with the French and German forces had been pieced together from various unofficial books, and were by no means complete. The maps and sketches have been revised accordingly, and some new ones added, notably a layered map of the Marne battlefield. No such revision of the other published volumes of the history will be necessary.

The opportunity has been taken to give in greater detail the information obtained during open warfare by the Royal Flying Corps ; for in the first volume of the official history "The War in the Air," the late Sir Walter Raleigh did not include sufficient for the purposes of military study. Further particulars also have been given of the destruction of bridges during the retreat: the work of collecting information from survivors was undertaken by Major-General Sir Reginald Buckland, Chief Engineer of the Fourth Army of the B.E.F., and occupied him two years — which gives some idea of the labour involved in this kind of work. A summary of his investigations was published in the Journal of the Royal Engineers.

J. E. E.


This history has been compiled with the purpose of providing within reasonable compass an authoritative account, suitable for general readers and for students at military schools, of the operations of the British Army in the Western theatre of war in 1914-1918. It is based on the British official records.

The present volume covers events from mobilization up to the middle of October 1914 only, a period of two and a half months, and is on a scale which to a large extent treats the battalion, squadron and battery records as the basis of the story. In succeeding volumes it will not be possible or desirable to adhere to this, and successively the brigade, division and even corps may become the unit of narrative. For this volume the scale adopted seems appropriate, in view of the importance of small units in the early operations, of the lessons to be derived from the study of the work of these units in open warfare, and of the desirability of leaving a picture of what war was like in 1914, when trained soldiers were still of greater importance than material, and gas, tanks, long-range guns, creeping barrages and the participation of aircraft in ground fighting were unknown.

The mass of documents to be dealt with was very great, and the difficulty has been not in obtaining information, but in compressing and cutting what was available. The British records comprise not only the war diaries of every staff and unit engaged, with their voluminous appendices containing all orders, intelligence, etc., received and issued, and detailed reports of actions, but they include also the General Headquarters files, the Commander-in-Chief's diary, and practically every telegram and message despatched and received. These official documents have been supplemented by private diaries and papers which have been kindly lent, by regimental records, and by interviews with officers who took part in the operations.

On a modern battlefield, however, knowledge of events is extraordinarily local, and the transmission of information difficult ; in addition important witnesses only too often become casualties. Though written orders and messages are absolutely reliable evidence of the matters with which they deal, war diaries and reports of actions, written up immediately after events, are liable to contain mistakes. Commanders and staffs are naturally more concerned in finding out and reporting the exact situation and condition of their troops and of the enemy, in sending up reinforcements, ammunition and supplies, and recording experience for future use than in the collection of historical matter. In fact, even officers well known to be specially interested in military history have confessed that during the war the idea of collecting or keeping material for its future historian never occurred to them. Many incidents deserving of record may therefore have escaped notice.

It will greatly assist in the compilation of monographs or of a fuller official history in years to come, if readers who can supply further information or corrections will communicate with the Secretary of the Historical Section, Committee of Imperial Defence, 2 Whitehall Gardens, London, S.W.I.

The text and maps now presented are the result of the co-operative labours of the staff, past and present, of the Historical Section, Military Branch,[2] which, in collaboration with the Disposal of Records Department, War Office, is also charged with the sorting and arrangement of the records dealing with operations overseas. This latter part of its work absorbed most of its energy and time until well on into 1921. The Branch did not obtain a permanent home until October 1919; thus a large amount of important material did not become available until it was unpacked and sorted after this date, and it was then found necessary to re-write an account of the initial operations already partly drafted.

The British Expeditionary Force in France in 1914 was not acting independently, and formed only a small part of the Allied Armies engaged; it has therefore been necessary to include an account of the action of the French and Belgian forces sufficient to provide a proper framework for the British operations. As regards the Belgian Army, ample material for this purpose has been published by the Belgian General Staff. The French General Staff has not yet issued any history, but much information with regard to the French plans and operations has already been made public: officially in the reports of Parliamentary Enquiries, semi-officially by historians like M. Hanotaux, M. Engerand, M. Madelin and General Palat {Pierre Lehautcourt), and in the form of reminiscences and memoirs by actual participants, such as Generals Lanrezac, Gallieni, Dubail and Mangin. It was not, therefore, thought necessary to trouble the French General Staff except as regards the incident of the assistance rendered by General Sordet's Cavalry Corps at the battle of Le Cateau, when a copy of the war diary of the troops concerned was very courteously furnished. With this exception, it must be understood that for the French operations the only absolutely authoritative statements quoted are the orders, instructions, intelligence reports, etc., received officially by G.H.Q. from the French Grand Quartier General.

The published German accounts of the early part of the war are very numerous, and they deal both with the decisions and orders of the higher commanders and the operations of many corps and even smaller fighting units. The most notable are the books of the three Army commanders, von Kluck, von Bülow and von Hansen, the General Staff monographs "Lüttich-Namur" and "Mons," the official list of battles and engagements, with the names of the formations, etc., present, entitled "Schlachten und Gefechte," and the stories of participants like General von Zwehl, General von Kuhl, Hauptmann Bloem (the novelist) and Hofprediger Vogel. It was originally intended to give the accounts derived from German sources in the form of notes at the end of each Chapter; but, after consideration, it was decided that such an arrangement might prove inconvenient, and that it was better as a general rule to include them in the body of the Chapters, as close as possible to the events in the British narrative to which they refer. This arrangement, in view of the difference of the character of the material, has naturally caused breaks in the style and scope of the story, but it makes the comparison of the two accounts easier.

General Freiherr Mertz von Quirheim, the Director of the German Reichsarchiv, Berlin, which has custody of the war records, has been good enough to furnish material in order to clear up a few points on which there seemed insufficient information.

As separate histories of the Royal Air Force and the Medical Services are being compiled, a detailed account of their work has not been included in the narrative.

Two sets of maps have been prepared. The one, distinguished by the word " Sketches,"sufficient for the general reader, is bound in the volume; the other, intended for the use of students of war, is issued separately. Except the situation maps for the battle of the Aisne, which are taken from the originals, the maps have been compiled from data and sketches in the war diaries or furnished by officers, or from French and German publications.

The typescript or proof sheets have been read by a number of commanders and staff and regimental officers who took part in the events narrated, and the compiler has been greatly assisted by their advice and criticism, for which he tenders them his most sincere thanks. He is specially grateful to Mr. C. T. Atkinson, his predecessor in charge of the Branch, for advice and help at all times, which his intimate knowledge of the records made most valuable; and both to him and to Mr. W. B. Wood, the partner in the compilation of a book on an earlier war, for the reading and correction of the proof sheets.

J. E. E. April 1922.

  1. The German Marne volume in 1926, the French Marne volume in 1933.
  2. Special assistance in compiling this volume has been rendered by Major A. F. Becke, Major F. W. Tomlinson, Captain G. C. Wynne and Mr. E. A. Dixon.