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100 Years Ago Today: World War I

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British casualties at Le Cateau British casualties at Le Cateau

August 4, 1914. The day the world changed forever.

“The ship of state was being taken by the current, engines turning but without steerageway.”

In this naval metaphor author Allan Mallinson encapsulates the way the Great War began exactly 100 years ago.

The author is at his best when he relates the movements and battles of 1914 with the battles of the past, notably Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, and the battle of Crecy. For this he goes all the way back to 1346, but it shows that great English battles have often been fought in nearly the same place on the Continent.

Mallinson notes the World War One battle at Le Cateau was “the British army’s biggest battle since Waterloo. Crecy, one of the great combats of the Hundred Years War, had been a victory against the odds for the English longbowmen, who were now metamorphosed into English riflemen 75 miles east of that momentous medieval battlefield.”

In this age of satellite communications it is taken for granted that a field headquarters knows where its troops are, but that was not the case a century ago. As the battle of Le Cateau was raging, HQ did not know the location of Haig’s I Corps. The solution? Send up an aircraft to find them! The pilots “managed to make contact by landing close to a cavalry patrol, which was able to take a message to Haig,” but the plane lost contact with them and “circled for an hour drawing fire” from the Germans. They returned to the airfield near HQ but found it was about to be overrun by the enemy! “It became a race to start the engine and get away. GHQ would remain in the dark for many hours more about the I Corps.”

Aside for the derring-do that must have inspired many a young lad to take up arms as the war progressed through four more horrible years, this incident serves to highlight the dichotomy of eras inherent in what became known as the Great War. Imagine having to land an airplane near soldiers on horses to find out the location of thousands of your own troops! It was the last time the cavalry was ever used in warfare. Tanks replaced them to deadly effect on the battlefield, and motorized transport took care of the rest.

To make matters worse at the battle, HQ “was playing more a loose coordinating role than one of command, not least because the chief of staff was by now in a state of nervous collapse. Indeed, he got through the day only with the help of an injection given him by the medical officer.” On such things the lives of thousands depended! At the end of the day a colonel sent this wire to the French General Joffre: “Battle lost by British Army, which seems to have lost all cohesion.”

The British troops were, in the author’s words, “standing in the path of the greatest military juggernaut the world has ever seen.” Thus was the stage set for four more years of warfare that killed millions (703,000 British troops dead with 1.5 million wounded), the largest and most tragic conflict in human history up to that time.

Mallinson looks at what might have been if matters were handled differently, and shows that of the British cabinet, Churchill was the only one who could “think strategically about war in Europe.” Sadly he was not the one making the biggest decisions. That would have to wait until World War Two.

1914: Fight the Good Fight (503 pages) is 25 pounds (about $35) from www.randomhouse.co.uk.

 

In late July 2014 a note was revealed to the public for the first time about the involvement of King George V just before the outbreak of war on August 4. Thus, it does not appear in Mallinson's book.

The note which has remained in private hands for a century details a previously undocumented meeting between George V and his Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, on Aug. 2, the eve of the First World War.

In the meeting, the King informed Sir Edward it was "absolutely essential" Britain go to war in order to prevent Germany from achieving “complete domination of this country”.

When Sir Edward said the Cabinet had yet to find a justifiable reason to enter the conflict, the King replied: “You have got to find a reason, Grey.”

This was revealed in a letter written by Sir Cecil Graves, Sir Edward’s nephew, who met with the King a month after his uncle’s death in 1933.

George V had summoned Sir Cecil – a future director-general of the BBC - to the Palace, where he offered his condolences before recalling the events of 1914.

The King “told me of the interview he had with Uncle Edward two days before the outbreak of war. It lasted for one and a half hours,” Sir Cecil wrote.

 

 

 

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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