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Archive for the month “August, 2014”

010 Alexander von Kluck and the revolution in the castle

Alexander von Kluck

Alexander von Kluck

The war gets bogged down on the river Marne

It is Sunday 30 August 1914. It is the tenth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Outrage about the cultural barbarism of the Germans in the Flemish town of Louvain is snowballing worldwide.

The Germans move their headquarters from Koblenz to Luxembourg.

A small German Taube aircraft drops bombs on Paris and the French government leaves the capital.

The Germans in Cameroon chase a British column into the bush.

The Austrians in Galicia suffer heavy losses.

The British government decides to send Lord Kitchener to the continent.

As it sounded too German the Russians rename Saint Petersburg Petrograd.

Japanese troops land on the Shantung peninsula.

The French general Charles Lanrezac is blamed for all adversity and has to step aside for Louis Franchet d’Espérey.

Crown prince Rupprecht of Bavaria goes onto the attack of Nancy.

The Germans in East Prussia advance towards the Masurian lakes.

The French, the British and the Russians promise each other not individually to strive for peace.

And Paris sees the First Army of the Germans approach under the command of Alexander von Kluck.

‘Macht mir nur den Rechten stark.’  This must have been the final plea of count Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of the German plan of attack, who died a year before the war. In August 1914 the man on the right wing of the German army, the strong side, was called Alexander von Kluck. He was a general, born in Münster, who had sufficient Sturm und Drang to please Von Schlieffen posthumously. He had experienced the baptism of fire some 48 years earlier in the war that brought Prussia victory over Austria, gaining German dominance as a trophy. This Von Kluck fellow was rather a field soldier than a member of the staff.

Von Kluck’s First Army, the biggest of the seven German armies on the western front, had to make a big sweep through Belgium, ‘scouring the sleeves along The Channel’. After that he should go below Paris and then get the French army by the short hairs, together with the German troops that had first been waiting in the east to see which way the wind would blow. Von Kluck was the German hammer.

From the moment he was appointed chief of staff in 1891 Von Schlieffen had been polishing his plan, often until midnight. To relax he would like to read stories from military history to his daughters. Initially he had put his cards on the destruction of the French fortifications along the border. However, he changed his tack, when he feared that the German artillery was going to waste his energy on this. In order to gain a quick victory it was necessary to move across Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. Soldier Von Schlieffen did not ponder too long on the political consequences of all this. He had a greater fear of a concentrated attack on the Central Powers by France, Russia, Great Britain and perhaps even Italy. When Russia was involved in a war with Japan in 1905, Von Schlieffen insisted in vain on attacking France as a precaution.

The war should be quick as lightning, Von Schlieffen determined. He was referring to economic interests. ‘The war with its thousands of wheels, providing a living for thousands of people, cannot stand still for a long time. It is impossible to move from one position to the other for one or two years in twelve-day battles until the warring parties are both completely exhausted, beg for peace and are willing to accept the status quo.’

The Schlieffen plan, included in his famous Grosse Denkschrift, was worked out in great detail. It was rocket science, especially when troop movements following the railway timetable were concerned. On the eve of the war The Military Itinerary made it possible to transport 2 million men and 600,000 horses by train in 312 hours’ time.

In case they had to continue on foot the infantry marched twenty kilometers a day according to Von Schlieffen’s calculations. This average would be just about right in Auguts 1914. Von Kluck would even manage 22 kilometers a day. It would take six weeks, again according to Von Schlieffen, to complete the Vernichtung of the French army on the western front. After that the German army could focus on the Russians, assuming that the latter had not succeeded in getting ready for battle on the eastern front within six weeks.

Von Schlieffen was anything but free from doubt. He expected to need an additional 200,000 men for the decisive battle in the heart of France. Two hundred thousand men for whom there was simply not enough room on the roads of Belgium and France. In any case, the expansion of the German armed forces in peacetime was lagging behind the ambitions of the Schlieffen plan. That was the fault of the conservative element within German militarism. In order to maintain the aristocratic proportion of the land army on as high as possible a level, successive war ministers had accepted that the budgets were spent on admiral Von Tirpitz’s navy.

Military historians have extensively discussed the question whether a precise carrying out of the Schlieffen plan would have led to a German victory. That was at least the general drift in German military circles immediately after the war, but later an increasing number of historians started to see the Schlieffen plan as a big gamble. Von Schlieffen had drawn up a great plan to start the war with. He had, however, neglected to provide a happy ending.

Opinions on Alexander von Kluck are equally divided. One considers Von Kluck the most devoted pupil of Von Schlieffen. Another blames the German foundering on von Kluck’s personal blunder. The English language is left with a fine insult, dumb Kluck, as a result of the failed campaign. It more or less means something like ‘silly goose’. Old Von Kluck was also called Old one o’clock by the Tommies.

It was especially chief of staff Helmut von Moltke who had been fiddling considerably at the plan of his predecessor Von Schlieffen. Already before the war Von Moltke had decided to ignore the Netherlands. Trade motives were at the bottom of this, but also the fear of an English attack in the back. Also in the beginning of the war Von Moltke quickly had to adjust his plan in East Prussia. In order to stop the Russians there many tens of thousands of soldiers were taken away from ‘Von Schlieffen’ in the west. The generals in Lorraine and the Ardennes put pressure on Von Moltke to start the attack quickly there, which Von Schlieffen had strongly advised against. Then there was the fierce resistance of the Belgians and of the small British Expeditionary Force at Mons and Le Cateau that threw a spanner in the works. The result was that Von Kluck’s right arm did not sweep through France as powerfully as Von Schlieffen had thought necessary on his deathbed.

Yet an imperturbable Von Kluck, seconded by his competent chief of staff Hermann von Kuhl, managed to approach Paris by a couple of dozens of kilometers. On his Great Trek he had succeeded in seizing the capital of Belgium, Brussels. After three days Von Kluck approached Compiègne in the north of France. Here German high command was to be presented with an armistice four long war years later. Would the Germans have been spared this humiliating experience, if Von Kluck had pushed on west of Paris in accordance with Von Schlieffen? Instead he sought to join Karl von Bülow’s Second Army in the east, who had met with more French and British opposition.


The reversal takes place in Louis XV’s castle at Compiègne, where Von Kluck has put up his headquarters on 3 September. By radio Von Moltke orders him to bear southeast. Aggressive and arrogant by nature, Von Kluck takes the liberty of going after the French general Charles Lanrezac. The renowned Great War military historian John Keegan thinks that French chief of staff Joseph Joffre has pulled Von Kluck’s leg.

Von Kluck leaves a gap, which is spotted by a French aviator. The French cleverly fill the gap. Joffre moves up men from Lorraine to assault Von Kluck’s rear guard. Provisioning his troops is already quite a problem to the German general. Things are so bad that Von Kluck has all the German dead and wounded searched for cartridges.

The troops are tired, dead tired. Listen to what happened to the 4th Reserve Corps on 5 September. ‘In big clouds of dust, raised by men and horses, now and then limping soldiers stand still and collapse in the trenches, at the end of their tether. Fuseliers, grenadiers, riflemen and artillerymen, they have all been marching from sunrise. Worse still, they have been marching for almost three weeks without a day’s rest. They have covered the whole distance from the Rhine valley to the Île de France, from Düsseldorf to Nanteuil-le-Haudoin via the Campine, Brussels, Hainaut, Artois and Picardy.’

The Battle of Ourcq River, a small stream that flows into the Marne, introduces the big clash. That First Battle of the Marne –the second was in 1918 equally important – lasts until 12 September. The mission on which Von Moltke has sent a certain lieutenant colonel Richard Hentsch from his headquarters in Luxembourg is crucial for the course of the battle. On the site Hentsch recognizes the danger of the gap between the First and Second Army. With Von Bülow he agrees upon a tactical retreat, which as subordinate officer he can also proclaim for Von Kluck’s First Army by the mandate of Von Moltke. The resentment about this and the bickering between Von Kluck and Von Bülow, who is held in higher regard by the Oberste Heeresleitung, can be read again in ‘The March on Paris and the Battle of the Marne’, which Von Kluck published in 1920.

On the day Hentsch drove to First Army Headquarters, Von Kluck already expressed his growing pessimism in a letter to his wife: ‘It goes badly. The battles east of Paris will not end in our favour. And we certainly will be made to pay for all thas has been destroyed.’

The Germans have lost the initiative at the end of the First Battle of the Marne. And since the French and the British are not in a position to take over, the First World War changes from a Blitzkrieg into a Grabenkrieg, a trench war without end. Halfway through the First Battle of the Marne a young officer named Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox of the Second World War, writes in his diary: ‘Our recent experiences make clear that the deep trench is the only way to limit the number of losses.’


For Alexander von Kluck the war has lasted too long. When in March 1915 he is inspecting advanced posts, Old one o’clock is hit by shrapnel near Vailly-sur-Aisne. The injuries on his leg are so serious that the general, who is then already 68 years old, will not appear on the front any more. In October 1916 he is given a send–off with the Pour le Mérite medal pinned on him. He dies at the age of 88 in Hitler’s Germany. The year is 1934.

His granddaughter Mulino von Kluck adds an insignificant footnote to Von Kluck’s story. At the end of the twenties she appears to become a filmstar. It does not really turn out that way, although TIME Magazine writes the following about her in April 1929: ‘Mulino von Kluck, 17, tall, blue eyes, blonde – has entered the world of the movies. Her first role is in ‘1813’, a film about the liberation of Germany from the hands of Napoleon. She says she will never visit Paris’. In the article TIME Magazine omits to say why. Maybe she did not get grandfather Von Kluck’s permission. Granddaughter to Paris, but no Paris for von Kluck. Now that would be quite something.

Next week: Joseph Gallieni

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

009 Arthur Machen and the arrows of Agincourt

Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen

Legends intoxicate the home front

It is Sunday 23 August 1914. It is the ninth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Battle of the Frontiers in the Ardennes and Lorraine rages on.

Japan declares war on Germany.

In the Wallonic town of Dinant 621 citizens, some of whom children, are executed to revenge the alleged firing at German soldiers.

Numerous incunables and historic books go up in flames when the Germans set fire to the university library of the Flemish town of Leuven.

French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre has to admit with gnashing teeth to his Minister of War that defence rather than attack should be the motto now.

The Germans capture Sedan, the French town where emperor Napoleon III found his Waterloo in 1870.

The Russians suffer their first major defeat at Tannenberg.

The old general Joseph Gallieni takes on the defence of Paris.

The Austrians are driven back across the Serbian border, but succeed in advancing in Poland.

At sea the British win a victory on the Germans in the Battle of Heligoland, the first naval battle of the war.

The British expeditionary army recovers after the Battle of Mons, where they were divinely helped, at least according to Arthur Machen.

It has rained all night. The battlefield, an open passage between two stretches of wood, is a mud plain. The two armies are waiting. Then the English, who are a considerable minority, take the lead. They loose off a volley of arrows. The provoked French knights storm ahead on their horses. Weighed down by their heavy suits of armour they are defeated by the lightfooted English whose arrows are fired relentlessly. The French are massacred.

No, this is not the First World War. This is the Hundred Years’ War, 25 October 1415, the Battle of Agincourt. The English long bows triumphed over the French who had gone to battle so bravely or foolhardily. Five centuries later in a much greater war this unbridled desire to attack appeared to be in the genes of the French soldier.

In 1914 we also meet the heroic English bowmen again. This time it is not the French but the Germans who are showered by their arrows. Agincourt is now Mons, Bergen in Flemish. Saint George, patron saint of England, has sent the bowmen of Agincourt. ‘Saint George! Saint George!’, the English soldiers called out, while dug in behind the Mons canal. And then they saw them clearly, a long row of figures surrounded by light. Men drawing their bows. Arrows, singing and stinging, accompanied by cries from the throats of the bowmen, flying in clouds to the German hordes.

That is how it must have happened according to the newspapers. Well over a month after the Battle of Mons, Arthur Machen publishes a ‘truthful’ account of the first battle the English have had to fight in the Great War. Machen has a preference for the supernatural and the obscure. He has grown up in Wales, where Celts and Romans created a haze of myths across the scenery. Already in 1890 he published the short story The Great God Pan, which bestseller writer Stephen King years later called ‘perhaps the best horror story in the English language’.

He manages to make his miraculous report of the British-German confrontation at Mons as plausible as possible. Military censorship permitted him to tell the story, Machen states. It is the story of a small English troop of soldiers that has succeeded in resisting a German superior power of heavy artillery. They had abandoned all hope. Machen writes: ‘There comes a moment in a storm at sea people say to one another, “It is at its worst; it can blow no harder,” and then there is a blast ten times more fierce than any before it. So it was in these British trenches.’

And then came a blessing from above in the form of archers, Machen continues. The Germans did not expect this. They suspected that the English had grenades containing an unknown poisongas, as no injuries were found on the bodies of the tens of thousands of Germans that were killed.

Machen published his history of the bowmen in The Evening News, one of Alfred Harmsworth’s newspapers. As Lord Northcliffe Harmsworth was to be a pioneer of British propaganda during the war. Machen, who was the son of an Anglican preacher, also dipped his pen for victory in inflammatory ink.

As The Angels of Mons Machen’s story has lodged in British heritage. The author himself was greatly surprised by this. Already in 1915 he observed that war proved to be a ‘fruitful mother of legends’. When his short story, together with five equally fantastic tales was turned into a book, he apologized in the preface for his little story that had filled a 43-centimeter-column on page three of the paper.

After reading the catastrophic newpaper articles about the retreat of the British, Machen had dreamed up the story of the bowmen, primarily to put his mind at rest.

After that he could not get the genie of the bowmen back into the bottle. Not only in occult circles, but also in churches the story had started to lead a life of its own. The bowmen had sublimated into angels without Machen’s doing. A Lancashire Fusillier had confirmed it to a nurse: ‘It’s true, sister. We all saw it.’

The fact is that the readers were yearning for news from the boys overseas, but the War Office under the command of Lord Kitchener stemmed the tide of this. According to Philip Gibbs, one of the few official war correspondents at the front, the liars experienced golden days under those circumstances. He had to pay the price of heavy censorship.

Where the facts are blurred an intense need arises for metaphysical comfort in the extensive no man’s land between truth and lies. Émile Fayolle, French general, was not exactly free of this either. ‘I am convinced that God will save France again,’ he said, adding his doubts in one subclause: ‘But He will have to take immediate action.’


The British expeditionary army consisted of men with experience at the front. Professional soldiers. Especially in the Boer War fifteen years earlier they had learned how to resist an attack of the infantry. When they were ordered to defend the canal at Mons, they immediately started to take cover. The terrain offered every opportunity. Each building, wall and heap of cinders was used by the English.

In 1964 the BBC produced the 26-part documentary The Great War. In part four an English Mons veteran said: ‘Quite suddenly, out of the blue, we saw cavalry coming towards us. They came out on our right flank. I said: good gracious, it’s Germans.’ The British had Lee-Enfield repeating rifles which could fire fifteen rounds a minute. The German Mauser rifle produced less. At the end of the day 1,600 British were killed against possibly 5,000 Germans. The surviving German novelist Walter Bloem expressed the tragedy as follows: ‘Our first battle is a heavy, an unheard-of heavy defeat, and against the English, the English we laughed at.’

That sounded too fatalistic. The British had delayed the German advance to Paris by one day. Their retreat became a humiliating experience. Sir John French felt cheated by the French general Charles Lanrezac who was forced to beat a hasty retreat, also to the annoyance of his superior Joseph Joffre.

Eleven days earlier the BEF, short for British Expeditionary Force, had landed near Le Havre, Boulogne and Rouen. It was clear to the minister of War, colonial war hero Lord Kitchener, that this professional army should form the centre of a much bigger military force, composed of volunteers. On a poster he pointed his piercing look and forefinger to the nation. The message was ‘Lord Kitchener wants you’.

However, for the time being The Old Contemptibles will have to manage on their own. This nickname is said to have been given to the men of the expeditionary force by no less a person than Wilhelm II himself. In the first month of the war the German emperor, so the story goes, had given his men the order to make short work of the ‘contemptible little’ army of the English.

Sir John French was in supreme command of the BEF. He did not have any idea what was expected of his army, but soon realized that an offensive was out of the question. The French Fifth Army, the one on the far left, was under high pressure on the banks of the river Sambre. General Lanrezac badly needed French’s men on his own left side.

It was corporal Edward Thomas who fired the first British shot on the Western front when on reconnaissance. He did so on behalf of the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards near the town of Soignies, Zinnik to the Flemish, on 22 August 1914. Thomas, himself a drummer in his regiment, was not sure if this had been fatal for a German cuirassier on horseback. Later during the war Thomas distinguished himself by removing the shoes of a number of dead German soldiers in a trench and crawling back to his own ranks with these. Thomas was to survive the war, which was certainly not the case with all members of the BEF. Before Thomas had fired the first British shot, one of his comrades had been killed when on patrol. That first British casualty was John Parr.

The Battle of Mons of August 1914 was a relatively small confrontation within the Battle of the Frontiers. To the British it was the opening performance of their war. But in 1918 Mons would also mark the end of the war to the British. On 11 November 1918, Armistice Day, George Ellison was killed there as the last British soldier. He lies buried in Mons opposite John Parr.

A column with a plaque saying First Shot Memorial at Mons is a reminder of the starting shot of corporal Thomas. The restaurant across the street bears a commemorative plaque in honour of the Canadian 117th Battalion which stopped here on the last day of the war. So Mons, which was controlled by the Germans from 1914 till 1918, can be considered as the alpha and omega of the Great War.


Unlike many other writers and journalists Arthur Machen did not fight in the Great War himself. He was past fifty when the First World War broke out. He also lived to see the Second World War from beginning to end. Arthur Machen died in 1947 at the age of 84. His bowmen, that became angels, were of enormous propagandist value to the British. It gave the homefront the feeling that they were not on their own. In this way Machen intentionally or unintentionally contributed to the war effort, with a story which was too good not to be true.

Next week: Alexander von Kluck

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

008 Alexander Samsonov and the silence of the pine wood

Alexander Samsonov

Alexander Samsonov

Germans push back Russians in East Prussia

It is Sunday 16 August 1914. It is the eighth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans give battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau to the Turkish fleet, two warships that escaped the British in the Mediterranean.

The Turks certainly appreciate this present.

Austria-Hungary is defeated by the Serbs in the Battle of the Jadar near Belgrade.

The Germans move their Oberste Heeresleitung, their headquarters, from Berlin to Koblenz, which is closer to the western front.

The Belgians are forced to surrender their capital Brussels and withdraw to Antwerp.

War crimes are committed by the Germans in the small town of Aarschot, 168 civilians are rounded up and executed.

In Lorraine the First Army of the French receives blows, but also the Fifth Army has to retreat near the river Sambre.

John Parr, the first of a long row of British soldiers, is killed near the Belgian town of Mons.

 The Russian government prohibits the sale of alcohol during the war by imperial decree.

And two Russian armies try to liaise in East Prussia, one of them under the command of Alexander Samsonov.

In times of war it will be very useful when commanders get on well together on the battlefield. Well, during the first weeks of the Great War the Russians have a serious problem of incompatible characters at the top.

Two of their armies, consisting of five corpses, aim their arrows at East Prussia along different routes. It is their intention to join forces later. The first army is commanded by Paul von Rennenkampf,  the Russian general with the German name. Commander of the second army is Alexander Samsonov, veteran of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in China and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Samsonov is an old hoodlum who considers the Slavic race superior to the Teutonic Germans.

Rennenkampf and Samsonov share a history. Both fought in the Russo-Japanese war in which the czar was so disgracefully defeated. The white race getting licked by the yellow race was quite a surprise in the western world at the beginning of the century.

After the decisive Battle of Mukden in Manchuria Samsonov had seriously blamed Rennenkampf. He felt let down. At Mukden railway station Samsonov is said to have hit Rennenkampf to the ground. At least that is what a military observer who was on the scene maintained. This German officer we will meet again on the batlefields of East Prussia in 1914.

It is certain that Samsonov and Rennenkampf have not settled their dispute when the czar orders them to advance together in East Prussia. They leave separately. Once past the Masurian lakes they are supposed to join forces near Allenstein. Then it is onwards towards Berlin.

There are plenty of opportunities for the Russians on the Eastern Front, because the Germans put almost all their cards on a surprise attack in the west. This is laid down in the Schlieffen Plan. Count Alfred von Schlieffen himself has gone to meet his maker, but his strategy has been kept in store with the Germans for years. Von Schlieffen has worked it out in great detail. First roll up France in the west in a mighty sweep through Belgium and then go for the slowly mobilizing Russians in the east.

When the war starts, the Eighth army, commanded by 65-year-old Maximilian von Prittwitz und Gaffron, is the only army the Germans have on the east side. Von Prittwitz also has to deal with one or two difficult comrades in arms. General Hermann von François for example likes to back out of Von Prittwitz’s orders. To the despair of his superior officer he follows his own plans of attack.

Immediately after the Russian attack the situation does not look too good for the Germans. They seem forced to give up East Prussia. This prospect is starting to frighten the Oberste Heeresleitung in far away Koblenz. East Prussia is of historic importance to the empire. In the 21st century it is divided between Poland, Russia and Lithuania, but its past belongs to Old Prussia and the Teutonic knights of the German Order. When the cradle of the empire crumbles, Berlin might easily be next. Here and there panic breaks out. ‘The Cossacks are coming!’

Von Prittwitz does not seem to be up to his job. After the lost Battle of Gumbinnen, Ausgust 20 1914, he wants to withdraw behind the river Vistula (Weichsel in German). In Koblenz the decision is then made to fortify the eastern front. Men will be moved by train from the west to the east. This means a weakening of the Von Schlieffen plan which according to some military historians would eventually lead to the Germans losing the war.

Von Prittwitz and his chief of staff are discharged. Three years later he is to die of the results of a heart attack. In August 1914 Paul von Hindenburg, Von Prittwitz’s senior by one year, takes over command at the eastern front. This is remarkable as Hindenburg, a pupil of Von Schlieffen, had already taken early retirement in 1911. Hindenburg is assisted by Erich Ludendorff, ‘the hero of Liège’. On the train on their way to the east it clicked immediately between the two. It will be like this for the rest of the war.

Now is the moment to mention the name Max Hoffmann, the German military observer at Mukden nine years earlier. This shrewd and equally cynical officer comes up with the plan which both Ludendorff and Hindenburg gratefully accept after they have arrived. Hoffmann realizes that it will be disastrous for the Germans if the two Russian armies manage to make the connection. If, however, they can deal with Samsonov first and then with Rennenkampf, there may be chances for Germany. This could easily be considered a small scale Von Schlieffen plan.

In an enormous frontal sweep, enabled by their excellent railway network, the Germans aim their entire battle force at Samsonov in the south. Ludendorff must have been scared out of his wits the day before. He realizes that now Rennenkampf has an open battlefield in front of him. But Hindenburg, calm as ever, decides that this risk is all part of the game.

It turns out perfectly for the Germans. With permission from above Rennenkampf focuses his attention on conquering Köningsberg, which is now Kaliningrad. In this way Samsonov will not get any backing. Communication between the two Russian armies is extremely lousy anyway. The Germans effortlessly intercept and decipher messages (if at all coded). Besides, Rennenkampf’s army is far ahead of Samsonov’s schedule. Samsonov has had to cope with far worse battleground conditions. Provisioning the troops of the advance guard has proved a logistic nightmare.

Poor Samsonov. Stubborn Von François also disregards Ludendorff’s instructions by choosing his own route of attack. So Samsonov in all his optimism seizes the opportunity to have his troops advance in the middle towards the Vistula. In doing so he enlarges the distance to both flanks. He has to pay dearly for Von François’  stubbornness. Slowly it is beginning to dawn on Samsonov that he is not chasing a retreating army, but actually about to face a concentration of troops.

Samsonov now hesitates, which is considered cowardice by Yakov Zhilinski, commander of the front in East Prussia. Zhilinski himself is not exactly a model of decisiveness. Samsonov is ordered to continue his offensive in East Prussia with unflagging zeal. After all Russia is committed to its ally France, however bad the supply lines and production of ammunition are in the country of the czar. Plenty of men, but especially their artillery loses out to the Germans. The optimism of the Russian army command in East Prussia is reflected in that of the Austrians in the south of Poland. They, too, assume to be on the heels of a defeated enemy, but they are in for a rude awakening.

Just as Hannibal had the Romans by the short hairs at Cannae, Samsonov’s army will share an equal fate in the Kesselschlacht at Tannenberg. A clash of hundreds of thousands takes place in the last days of August. Samsonov also gets involved in the battle. He witnesses how on both sides his army is rendered powerless. He is insufficiently familiar with the battlefield in order to bring about a change for the better. Samsonov is trapped. Rennenkampf will make an attempt to help his cursed colleague out, but he does not get any closer than 72 kilometers to the latter’s surrounded army.

Forced by the deadly artillery fire of the Germans, Samsonov gives the order to a full retreat on 28 August. He then gets on his horse, apparently to try to escape the trap he is in. The total number of casualties on the side of the Russians is over thirty thousand. Another ninety thousand are made prisoners of war. Samsonov is defeated. With the help of 400 seized guns the Germans have their hands free to engage in battle with Rennenkampf near the Masurian lakes from 9 September onwards. There, too, the Russians will have to bow their heads in a disorderly exodus from East Prussia, though this fiasco is not as catastrophic as that of Tannenberg. This absolutely spectacular victory has assumed mythical proportions in Germany. Hindenburg and Ludendorff owe their status of tactical genii to it. Max Hoffmann knew better. ‘Here general-field marshal Hindenburg slept before the Battle of Tannenberg, after the battle of Tannenberg, and between you and me, also during the battle of Tannenberg’, he said to a couple of friends he was showing around his  headquarters.

Samsonov’s tragedy was described by Aleksandre Solzhenitsyn in his novel August 1914. Barbara Tuchman also tells of Samsonov’s fate in The Guns of August, after he reached the small town of Willenberg near the Russian border. ‘The general and his group waited in the forest until nightfall and then, as it was impossible to proceed over the swampy ground in the dark on horseback, continued on foot. Matches gave out and they could no longer read their compass. Moving hand in hand to avoid losing each other in the dark, they stumbled on. Samsonov, who suffered from asthma, was visibly weakening. He kept repeating to Potovsky, his Chief of Staff: ‘The Czar trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?’ After covering six miles, they stopped for a rest. It was then 1:00 a.m.. Samsonov moved apart into the thicker darkness under the pines. A shot cracked the stillness of the night. Potovsky knew instantly what it meant. Earlier Samsonov had confided his intention of committing suicide but Potovsky thought he had argued him out of it. He was now sure the General was dead.’

Tuchman also writes that the Germans buried Samsonov’s body. His widow got permission to have the body transported to Russia in 1916 with the help of the Red Cross.

Paul von Rennenkampf led his First Army in the undecided Battle of Lodz, November 1914, but afterwards the general with the most luxuriant moustache of the entire eastern front was sent packing. When after the February Revolution a Provisional Government takes office, Rennenkampf is yet put in prison because of his inferior leadership in the beginning of the war. Under the Bolsheviks he is set free. He goes into hiding on the Azov Sea coast, where he passes off as a Greek. The Bolsheviks, however, manage to find him. They want him to join the Red Army as a commanding officer and fight in the Civil War. Rennenkampf refuses. He gets shot on 1 April 1918. Unlike Samsonov, he could not choose the bullet himself.

Next week: Arthur Machen

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

007 Bertha Krupp and birds falling to the earth

Bertha Krupp

Bertha Krupp

German guns bombard  Belgian fortresses

It is Sunday 9 August 1914. It is the seventh week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The British Expeditionary Force arrives in France.

The French launch their plan XVII in Alsace-Lorraine, but soon have to give up the town of Mulhouse to the Germans.

War is declared to Austria-Hungary, first by France and later by Great Britain.

In Africa the British focus on the German colonies of Cameroon and Togo.

The Germans, however, conquer the town of Taveta in British East Africa.

The Russians go onto the attack in East Prussia.

Japan sides with the allies France, Great Britain and Russia.

The first German pilot, Oberleutnant Reinhold Jahnow, crashes near Malmedy and dies on the same day, followed two days later by his deputy, Oberleutnant Heinrich Koch.

During the Battle of Haelen it appears that the days of the cavalry are over: a German charge on horseback with drawn sabre would not stand a chance against Belgian machineguns.

But the fortifications around Liège crumble under the sledgehammer blows of Big Bertha, the howitser named after Bertha Krupp.

‘This is no artillery, these are no ordinary armaments. This is a giant, enormous and terrible, hunting across the plain in fury, crushing everything with his iron footsteps’. It is a German soldier who wrote this review of Big Bertha, the most famous monster of the Great War, that made her entrance near Liège. ‘A devastating and unknown hurricane rages roaring, hissing and shrieking through the air. The terrible blast tears roofs of houses, uproots hundred-year-old trees and makes birds fall to the earth.’

How would Bertha Krupp herself have felt that her name would not only be so disrespectfully associated with the terrible howitzer from the first days of the war? When in 1918 an even more awful gun began to blast the French capital, the frightened Parisians spoke of la grosse Bertha.

Pictures of her do not show a corpulent lady, so the ‘big’ did not really apply to her anyway. Funny in peculiar way to give pet names to the most formidable armaments.

Schlanke Emma (Skinny Emma) was the name of a 305 millimeter howitzer from the Czech Skoda factory of the Austrians. Little sister Skinny Emma came to assist Big Bertha in battering the fortresses of Namur. The gun with which the Germans bombarded Dunkerque in  France was called Langer Max (Long Max). And years later at the end of World War II the Americans baptized their first atom bomb – cynically – Little Boy.

The Germans had to dig out their Big Bertha pretty soon. Their hero Erich Ludendorff, who was a true hoodlum, had invaded the citadel of Liège just like that. However, this did not cause the fortifications of the town on the Meuse to fall yet. They were reputed to be the strongest of Europe. It had indeed been the Germans themselves who had urged Belgium to build them in the eighties of the 19th century. Berlin had anticipated that in case the French ever came to revenge the defeat of 1871, their route to Germany might well lead through the lowland around Liège.

There were twelve of them, built in a circle around Liège. Every two forts, constructed of concrete and iron and largely built underground, were about four kilometers apart. This circle of forts accommodated four hundred guns and three thousand soldiers. Ludendorff knew that field artillery could not destroy them. So he called in the help of Big Bertha, a 420 millimeter howitzer, twice as big as the heaviest gun of the Liège fortresses.

Big Bertha hurled its missile towards the enemy in a big bow. An 820 kilogram shell could easily land twelve kilometers away. Two Berthas had left the Krupp works in Essen on 10 August. It took twenty hours to get them off the train at Herbesthal station and put them together again. This was followed by a hellish journey by road when Daimler-Benz tractors pulled the two colossal mortars up to the forts.

From hot air balloons and church towers artillery observers passed on the co-ordinates to the men behind Big Bertha. The Fort de Pontisse, that had resisted the light artillery of the Germans for a few days, soon surrendered. Then in order to demolish the Fort de Loncin, 36 horses were needed to pull a Big Bertha straight across Liège.

General Gérard Leman, 63 years old, was in the Fort de Loncin. He knew that the hours of the system of fortifications were numbered, but he refused to capitulate. Big Bertha’s revenge was merciless. A chance hit landed exactly in the ammunition room of Loncin, which accordingly exploded from within. The cast iron gun turrets flew up to a hundred meters high in the air like fleas. They still lie where they landed upside down, macabre show-pieces of the impressive museum that the Fort de Loncin has turned into.

Hundreds of defenders disappeared under the rubble of Loncin. Also Leman was feared to have died. However, he managed to struggle out of the debris and lost consciousness in the moat around the fort. After he had come round, Leman told the Germans to put in writing that he had not surrendered as commanding officer of the forts. Out of respect a German officer gave Leman his sabre back.

Because of the display of power the commanding officers of the Fort de Hollogne and Fort de Flémalle were inclined to lower the flag. From his hospital bed Leman gave the order not to surrender any fort without being shelled. Belgians and Germans thereupon agreed to fire a couple of symbolic shells. On 16 August at half past nine in the morning Liège did not have a single fort left. With a four-day-delay an open road to Brussels finally lay ahead of the First Army of General Alexander von Kluck.

Liège had a first that was not to be envied, but later also Namur, Antwerp, Maubeuge, Verdun, Ypres and Oudenaarde got to know the incredible Big Bertha fire power. Nevertheless, in the course of the war they strategically did not make a difference to the Germans, however much they were dreaded by the enemy. Trenches were the true fortifications of the First World War. Big Bertha could deal with concrete and iron. Mud and barbed wire were a different story. The French would benefit a lot more from their much lighter field artillery, the 75 millimeter gun, or soixante-quinze. This is an example of gunnery whereby missiles are fired almost horizontally, whereas a howitzer like Big Bertha stood between a gun and a mortar. The word howitzer by the way is derived from Czech houfnice, meaning ‘sling’.


In 1811 the family business Krupp started with four workers. A century later 79,000 workers earned a living at Krupp Werke in Essen. Alfred Krupp, nicknamed Alfred the Great, or The Cannon King, had turned the company into a steel empire in the 19th century. Whoever worked for Krupp, was Alfred’s subject. The company’s constitution was called General-Regulativ. Duties of the employer were not included, neither were the rights of the employee. Penalties for arriving late for work, immoral behaviour or lack of work discipline, however, were meticulously described. Thus Krupp Werke could throw up shells, cannons and rails regular as clockwork.

In 1902 the empire falls to a sixteen-year-old girl, Bertha Krupp. Her father Friedrich, son of Alfred the Great, has got entangled in a sex scandal. The Italian press writes that he has assaulted small boys on the island of Capri. Some time later Friedrich Krupp dies. The official story says brain haemorrhage, but there are rumours that Friedrich Krupp has taken his own life.

It is important to start looking, without delay, for a good chap for Bertha, the eldest of two daughters. Kaiser Wilhelm II is personally going to look around. It will be the Prussian diplomat Gustav von Bohlen und Halbach, who is born in The Hague sixteen years before Bertha Krupp saw the light of day. By decree of the emperor he can place the name Krupp before his. Kaiser Wilhelm himself is also present at the wedding.

Krupp is Germany’s pride. On the eve of the First World War it is Germany’s biggest company, even though the turnover of the American enterprise US Steel is five times bigger. With an estimated value of 283 million marks Bertha is known by the bank as the wealthiest resident of the empire, the emperor himself occupying a fifth place.

In Germany Krupp practically has the monopoly as far as the production of heavy guns is concerned. Before the war it also conducts business beyond the borders. It is a bizarre detail that after the armistice Krupp is to receive a substantial sum of money from the rival British firm of Vickers. In 1902 the latter entered into a rental agreement  with Krupp for an ignition mechanism. After the war Vickers settles the account on the basis of the number of German losses as a result of allied artillery. In this way Krupp also made a lot of money on dead Germans.

With Vickers’ money and government support from the Weimar republic Gustav can soon start working on the rearmament of Germany again. In the Netherlands Krupp secretly builds bunkers for the production of submarines and in Sweden they work on perfecting new artillery. This is how Adolf Hitler is led to outline the rolemodel for Germany’s youth when he brags them to be ‘flink wie Windhunde, zäh wie Leder und hart wie Kruppstahl’: swift as greyhounds, tough as leather and hard as Krupps steel.


Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, contrary to family tradition a happily married woman, got eight children. One son passed away shortly after he was born. Two others died in the Second World War and a fourth was kept prisoner for ten years by the Soviet Union. Her husband Gustav, the actual pilot of Krupp during the interbellum period, was accused of war crimes in 1945, but he proved to be too senile to stand trial. His eldest son Alfried could not escape that very fate. He was specifically accused of using prisoners from concentration camps as slaves. Not far from Auschwitz Krupp had a factory called Berthawerk. Alfried was convicted by the Nuremberg tribunal. He was released from prison in 1951. The company he had taken over from his father was expropriated after the Second World War.

Not only a monstrous mortar type of gun and a factory near an extermination camp were named after Bertha Krupp, but also a hospital carried her name. At the end of her life she must have moved many with visits to needy Krupp workers. She donated the ground on which a church was to be erected. Up to this day there are children in Essen who go to the Bertha-Krupp-Realschule at the Kerckhofstrasse. Bertha Krupp died in 1957 at the age of seventy-one.

In 2011 her granddaughter Diana Maria Friz wrote a biography presenting Bertha Krupp as a forceful personality. This granddaughter is convinced that Grossmutter remained in control, though her husband was the one who propagated the Krupp company to the outside world. ‘She stayed the central figure of her large family until her dying day. We grandchildren will remember her as a great lady, who linked composure and savoir vivre to motherhood and affection. She was closer to us than our parents, for the war, the collapse of the family business in 1945, widowhood and also old age had made her a gentler person, so that she could show us feelings she had never permitted herself to show her own children.’

Next week: Alexander Samsonov

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

006 Albert I and the ties of friendship and kinship

Albert I

Albert I

Transgressed Belgium determines its own course

It is Sunday 2 August 1914. It is the sixth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans try to make Belgium believe that France is about to invade the country.

The Belgians do not fall for this and say ‘no’ to the free passage demanded by the Germans, who in their turn transgress the borders with both Luxemburg and Belgium.

British parliament cheers its foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey who makes a firm stand for Belgium’s neutrality.

It is raining declarations of war.

American president Woodrow Wilson offers to mediate in the European conflict.

Battle also commences at sea here and there, while the British Expeditionary Force lands in France.

Supreme command of the Russian forces is put into the hands of grand duke Nicholas Nicolaevich. 

The Germans have to defend their colonial territories in Africa against French and English troops.

And the Belgian defenders of Liège decide to hold their position to the last man, encouraged by their king Albert I.

Wilhelm II, the German emperor with the huge ego, sends a message to Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on the night of 2 August 1914. It is not a reassuring note but an ominous ulthimatum. Within twelve hours Belgium should open its borders to the Germans on their way to France. If the country fails to comply, Germany will consider this a hostile act with all the entailing consequences. The Belgians should know that France is the true aggressor. And it goes without saying that Germany has the right to be ahead of the French on Belgian soil.

Albert, third king of the Belgians, now knows that it has been of no avail. The night before he made one final attempt – among princes- to ward off the disaster for his people. His wife, queen Elisabeth, helped him compose a letter to kaiser Wilhelm. Elisabeth is the daughter of a Bavarian duke from the house of Wittelsbach. She translated the words which Albert most carefully chose verbatim into German.

He can see that Germany is not in a position to comply openly with the pressing demand of the British to guarantee Belgium’s neutrality. At the same time he trusts the kaiser to promise him personally to leave Belgium in peace. After all there are ‘ties of friendship and kinship’, aren’t there? In the letter Wilhelm is addressed with ‘Du’. Albert ends wih ‘Your faithful and devoted cousin’, though the two are not full cousins. Albert’s mother is a Hohenzollern just like Wilhelm, but from the Sigmaringen side.

Though timid by nature, Albert is certainly not naive. For a long time he has feared the Teutonic fury, a characteristic ‘true’ Germans are so proud of. A year earlier Albert was in Berlin. There the kaiser took him aside. Albert saw him rant and rave. The French should stop their provocations! It would lead to war! No doubt about it! German chief of general staff Helmuth von Moltke had also been fishing during a talk with the Belgian military attaché and wondered how Belgium would act if a certain country invaded one day.

Back in Brussels Albert had immediately looked into the mobilization plans. Things did not look good for the Belgian army. All attention in previous years had been focused on domestic problems. Catholics and liberals had not recognized the importance of the defence of the country for decades. After all the neutrality of Belgium had been guaranteed, according to the Treaty of London of 1839, by the powers behind the Concert of Europe: the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria, France and Prussia. In the centuries before the Belgian provinces had regularly been transgressed by troups of Burgundy, France, Spain, Austria and finally Holland.  But during the past three quarters of a century the young country had only known peace. The French-Prussian war of 1870 had passed the Belgians by nicely. However, Albert knew better. Like his uncle Leopold II before him, he had had to fight with the political elite in order to straighten out the defence system. It had been the heart of his ‘active kingship’.

After the assassination at Sarajevo Albert, too, had been on holiday, climbing mountains in Switzerland. When the situation became critical at the end of July, the Belgian government still had no idea how to put up a defence against an invading enemy. Should they defend the borders behind the river Meuse, or should it be a central defence on more suitable terrain, behind small rivers and streams such as the Gete, the Nete or the Velpe. Albert tried to make a case for a defence of the borders and the maintenance of the fortresses near Liège and Namur. Forced by circumstances he now had to accept a compromise.

On the night of 2 August 1914 the king summons his cabinet to study the German ultimatum. He cannot withstand the temptation to throw the inadequate military preparation in the face of his ministers. For the rest the king and his office holders are in complete agreement. They loudly and clearly say ‘no’ to the German ultimatum and the suggestion that French troops would already have crossed the borders. Belgium is a free country, not a marching route. Let the king’s generals cross swords again about the strategic plan.

When German troops cross the border at Gemmenich on 4 August, poor little Belgium’s martyrdom is a fact and Albert is ready to face history as a cavalier king. Enthusiastically cheered in the Brussels streets, he hurries to parliament in his boots with spurs. He asks for a ‘résistance opiniâtre’, a persistent resistance. The members of parliament repeatedly interrupt his speech with ‘vive le roi’ and ‘vive la Belgique’. After a standing ovation the king leaves parliament and heads for the front. At Louvain headquarters the following day he addresses the ‘army of the Nation’: ‘Caesar said of your ancestors: of all the people of Gaul the Belgians are the bravest. (..) Remember, Flemings, the Battle of the Golden Spurs and you, Wallons of Liège, who are at this moment at the place of honour, remember the 600 Franchimontois.’

But the dominance of the enemy will prove too big. The king has to withdraw with his army to the Antwerp stronghold. The situation there becomes untenable and it becomes clear that the king has got himself in an awkward position. Prime minister Charles de Broqueville urges Albert to make the best of a bad job and to join the allied forces. The king, however, refuses to let the people of Antwerp down. Eventually Albert has to take refuge behind the river Yser.

Although he most certainly was no trueborn soldier and openly and frankly admitted his lack of strategic qualities, he commanded the Belgian army in person for four years, taking ministerial responsibility for granted. For Albert it was not simply  a matter of responsibility, being obedient to the royal oath ‘to maintain the independence of the country and to keep its soil intact’. Moreover Albert was distrustful of his general staff. Even autocratic colleagues such as Wilhelm II and Nicholas II left warfare to their generals. Albert did not and he also refused to hand over supreme command to the allied forces. He wished to remain in control in his own country, however little of it was left in freedom.

Certainly, it was not easy for his allied friends. Already on 6 August 1914 the French general Joseph Joffre has to accept with gnashing teeth that the Belgians stubbornly refuse to make the counter-attack which he had planned. Albert is horrified by the ease with which English and French alike sacrifices tens of thousands of their soldiers for a little territorial gain. According to his war diary he carefully keeps the statistics of the fallen. The Belgian king expresses his horror about the jusqu’au boutisme of the allied generals with ‘They will have to justify themselves before the Almighty’. Together with his confidant commanding captain Emile Galet he supports the doctrine of a realistic balance of power.

Although the Germans had violated the integrity of the country, Albert holds on to the principle of neutrality during the whole war. Negotiated peace is his aim. Without informing his ministers, he has his envoy Emile Waxweiler hold exploratory talks with the German envoy Hans Veit Graf zu Törring-Jettenbach, who is married to the sister of Albert’s wife. Albert’s plan will not be successful, however. The Belgian monarch cannot bring the superpowers that are trampling his country to their senses.

When gradually his Belgian ministers start daydreaming about a peace that will make Belgium bigger, with large tracts of land from the neutral Netherlands and Luxembourg, which was also transgressed, Albert calls them to order.The king of the Belgians keeps his head rather cool in a war where emotions come before common sense. He will lose four foreign secretaries in the process.

His cabinet is in France, near Le Havre, but Albert remains right behind the front during the entire war. Until 1917 the royal family lives in a villa near the seaside town of De Panne, without running water, electricity  or central heating. When in 1917 De Panne is designated to the English zone, the king moves towards Veurne.

He regularly visits his soldiers in their trenches. On his way to Houtem headquarters on horseback he frequently chats with a farm worker. And now and then he gets on an airplane to scout the front line. This is how the king and the Belgians are on guard at the Yser front, behind the water plain that had come into being after one Karel Cogge had opened an old sluice called Kattesas near Nieuwpoort.

Eleven days after the armistice of 11 November 1918 Albert makes his joyful comeback in the capital, Brussels. It is an unprecedented celebration. Leaning on gates and swinging from branches the Belgians cheer their grave monarch. His people, divided by language, are impressed by Albert. He uses the opportunity to regulate the universal right to vote. Conservative powers grumble. But Albert does not want to accept that the front line soldiers who defended the country from the mud have no vote in peacetime. Already before the war he has a reputation as a monarch who recognises the social issue. When he became king in 1909 he had also made a name by addressing his people both in French and Dutch, which was something new. His biographer, Jan Velaers, calls Albert I ‘an inspiring force in Belgian society’.

During the decades after the armistice he continued to be kindly disposed towards the cause of the Flemish emancipation. As a constitutional monarch, however, he slowly vanished from the centre of power, where vehement crises of a financial, political and linguistic nature raged.


Albert must have felt happiest when high in the mountains, lonely and alone. He was an experienced mountaineer, a fact which makes it hard to believe that an accident had ended the life of the 59-year-old monarch. On a wooded slope near the rocks of Marche-les-Dames, not far from Namur, the royal body was found. His spectacles were discovered a bit further in a crack. The king was familiar with the area. Could it have been murder? Or suicide? Apparently unfounded speculations.

His son Leopold III has to take the helm. He lacks his father’s character. When the Germans invade Belgium again in 1940, Leopold takes command of the Belgian army, just as his father had done. But this time there is no cure against the German Blitzkrieg. Leopold is forced to capitulate and decides to make the most of it. He accepts an invitation for coffee by Hitler and by doing so makes himself impossible after the war. Not every king is an Albert.

Next week: Bertha Krupp

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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