The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

Archive for the month “September, 2014”

014 Herbert Hoover and the decorated cotton bags

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover

America bravely comes to the rescue of Belgium

It is Sunday 27 September 1914. It is the 14th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Turks deal the Russian ecomomy a heavy blow by closing the Dardanelles.

In East Prussia Russian general Paul von Rennenkampf pushes back the Eighth Army of the Germans near the wood of Augustovo.

The British make progress in Cameroon.

The Germans have to increase the pressure in Poland in order to be able to spare the Austrians.

  In Qingdao the Japanese force German troops to go on the defensive.

 In Berlin the Kriegsbrot, warbread, is introduced.

 Sir John French and his expeditionary force move northward towards Ypres.

 The Germans conquer Mechelen, between Brussels and Antwerp.

 The Battle of the North French town of Albert ends in a marching off of the Germans.

 Winston Churchill arrives in Antwerp to stand by King Albert and the Belgians.

 And the western world is getting worried about ‘poor little Belgium’, which will get its guardian angel in the person of American Herbert Hoover.

On 1 October 1914 the American diplomat Hugh Gibson raises the alarm. The people of Brussels are starving. Gibson’s cry for help echoes at home in the United States. A humanitarian offensive is started with the Commission for Relief in Belgium as its vehicle. Herbert Hoover will be the energetic chairman of the relief commission. He is forty years old and has already made his pile.

Herbert Hoover became a successful mining engineer, but now a public life tempts him. From London he has made an effort in the first weeks of the war to take away American citizens from the European continent. Now he will take pity on the population of Belgium that threatens to be pulverized by the cruelties of war. People speak of the Rape of Belgium. It is an image that suits the allied pamphleteers fine. The Hun putting his teeth ruthlessly into a defenceless people is a caricature which is good for the fighting spirit.

The facts were clear as far as British viscount James Bryce was concerned. In May 1915 he published a shocking report about German atrocities in occupied Belgium. Bryce lists four conclusions.

1. The Germans systematically and deliberately organized massacres among civilians in various places.

2. Children and women were among the victims.

3. German officers ordered looting, arson and destruction of property.

4. Civilians were used as a human shield, wounded soldiers were murdered and the Red Cross flag and the White Flag were abused.

‘The first victim in a war is the truth’, it is said and quite rightly so. The numerous examples are of all times. The Iraqi soldiers who took Kuwaiti babies from incubators in 1990 and put them on the floor appeared to be fabricated by a PR agency. But it was not all that original. Horrible stories about infanticide had already been effective in the Great War.

Listen to the following testimony, taken down by Bryce: ‘As I looked into the kitchen, I saw how the Germans took the baby out of the arms of the farmer’s wife. There were three Germans, one officer and two privates. The two privates held the baby and the officer took his sword and cut the baby’s head off.’ There is no end of children’s suffering with Bryce. Eight German soldiers impaling a two-year-old child on their bayonets, babies being plunged in boiling water, infants being smashed against the wall… After the war historians searched for evidence of these atrocities, especially photos, but did not find any. Bryce unmistakably sacrificed his academic reputation to the war interest, just as many journalists patriotically trimmed their sails to the wind.

This does not alter the fact that in towns like Dinant and Andenne in the Walloon province in Belgium and Louvain and Aarschot in Flanders horrible massacres took place. What was at the bottom of these orgies of barbaric violence? Explanations invariably produce the myth of the franc-tireur. The Germans were still horrified at the memory of these snipers from the Franco-Prussian War. They shot cowardly at passing soldiers from behind walls or from attic windows. Somebody called: ‘Man hat geschossen!’ And then this spread like wildfire through the German ranks. What followed were retaliatory measures out of all proportion to the modest resistance of Belgian civilians.

Take for instance the small town of Aarschot, not far from Louvain. On 19 August 1914 the Belgian army is still fighting a battle with the Germans. But at seven o’clock at night the German colonel Johannes Stenger is standing on the balcony of the house of the mayor called Jozef Tielemans. Shots ring out. Stenger collapses. He is dead. It has never become clear who pulled the trigger. Most likely it was a ricocheted bullet from a German rifle. But the Germans soon come to a different conclusion. Stenger was shot in the back by the mayor’s son, a franc-tireur.

A hunt for more of these ‘free shooters’ follows in the small town, which also falls prey to looting and pillaging. Men are gathered together in a field. In groups of three 76 of them are killed in cold blood. Another group, among them mayor Tielemans, is detained all night. Tielemans wants to convince the Germans that before their arrival he called on his citizens to give up all violence. To no avail. The mayor, his brother and his son are in the next group to be executed. It is this sort of horror story that spreads across the globe. To many, however, the fire which was set to the university library of Louvain is the clearest proof that Germany should no longer be considered part of the western civilised world.

Belgium groans and moans. As the war progresses, also the economy is subordinated to the German war interest. Farmers do not do too badly, but the industry is really kept on a back burner. In 1913 for example there are 54 active Belgian blast furnaces.  In 1917 only one of them is actually working because of lack of ore. Belgian men are deported to replace in factories German workers  who have left for the front. The Germans have a thin excuse for this measure: to fight staggering unemployment in Belgium. As occupied territory the country is also hit by the allied trade blockade, which is fatal to the food supply. The Germans do not show much interest in this problem anyway. They have other worries than feeding the Belgian people.

In this humanitarian vacuum the Commission for Relief, an organisation of volunteers including Herbert Hoover himself, has to try and relieve the needs of Belgium. Hoover’s commission takes care of fundraising, buying food and transporting it to Europe. Then In Belgium there is a National Relief and Food Committee which controls the distribution of foods, transported to Belgium by boat from Rotterdam. The committee is led by Emile Francqui. The co-operation between Hoover and Francqui, who is ten years older, goes hand in hand with mutual irritation. Already thirteen years before the war the two collided with each other in a mining affair.

Hoover is treading on eggs anyhow. His commission has to enter into agreements with both warring factions and stick to them. The American philanthropist succeeds in persuading the English to allow food to pass through already in October 1914. Of course Germany will have to promise not to requisition these foods for their own rank and file. But it is giving and taking all the time. Hoover crosses the North Sea forty times. Without the spectre of low queues before aid stations in Belgium he would have stopped ages ago.

In October 1914 Hoover does not realize that his humanitarian task is going to take him years. But his mission, making children laugh, keeps him going. At the end of the war King Albert will grant him a special title for this: ‘Citizen of Honour and Friend of the Belgian people’. In America Hoover was the figure head that covered many collections for poor little Belgium. Here and there at fairs and fancy dress balls money was raised.

Help does not only come from America. In the first few months of the war a million pounds goes from Australia to the Belgian refugees. Goods are sent from Argentina, China and Spain but also from France.

Hoover’s commission shipped over 300 million kilos of flour to Belgium. It was transported in cotton bags. Belgian women then made these bags into clothes or pillows, but a large number was also decorated with embroidery and lace. These were then sold in order to buy fresh food for the Belgians. Herbert Hoover also received hundreds of these decorated cotton bags as gifts. A collection of these bags can be seen in the American museum that bears his name.

When America takes sides with the allies in 1917, Hoover’s commission has to mark time. Envoys from the neutral countries Spain and the Netherlands take over the work, but initially Hoover is not confident about this. In a pressing letter he urges both governments certainly not to let down the Belgians.

At home Hoover is put to work by president Wilson for the rest of the war. As manager of the Food Administration he now starts to fight food shortage. He does this using slogans such as ‘food will win the war’ and ‘use all leftovers’. People were encouraged to follow Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays.

Hoover’s reputation could not be any better. He is known as a Napoleon of Mercy. An orphan from Iowa becomes the enemy of starvation. Such a person should be made president of the United States. And this is exactly what happens. But the year of his inauguration is 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash when America sinks away in a Great Depression. Hooverism, aimed at wage increase to stimulate the economy, turns out a disaster. Thus the benefactor goes into history as the president who had no answer to the crisis. There will be no second term in office for him. Franklin D. Roosevelt gloriously beats him after a bitter fight. During Hoover’s campaign his train was pelted with rotten eggs and fruit several times. Oh the irony.

When Germany invades Poland six years later, former president Herbert Hoover gets behind the radio microphone. He predicts a war of attrition and calls on his country to keep far away from this. Despite Hoover’s warning America will also go to battle against Germany in the Second World War. And Herbert Hoover travels to Germany immediately after the war to start the food supply again, a special assignment given to him by president Harry Truman. That is how the Germans get acquainted with Hoover meals, Hoover-speisung.

He had done exactly the same thing in Germany after the First World War. But Hoover had also handed out food in Russia which had just been taken over by the Bolsheviks. His answer to the critical question whether he was not giving the communists a leg up in this way was: ‘Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!’

Herbert Hoover, son of a blacksmith from a family of God-fearing Quakers, died in 1964, half a century after the outbreak of the Great War. He was ninety years old. Statistics do not tell how many children he kept laughing.

Next week: Carol I

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)




013 Otto Weddigen and the live bait squadron

Otto Weddigen

German U-boats wreak death and destruction

It is Sunday 20 September 1914. It is the 13th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The German cruiser Königsberg runs amok in East Africa.

The French succeed in stopping the German advance to Saint-Mihiel.

In the east the Eighth German Army chases general Rennenkampf’s Russian forces across the Memel or Neman River.

The Germans are forming a Ninth Army near Kraków in Poland.

British airplanes bomb the Zeppelin shelters near Cologne and Düsseldorf.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force sails for Great Britain.

British troops help the Japanese at Qingdao.

The Northern French town of Noyon is conquered twice, first by the French and then by the Germans.

Alerted by the landing of British marines at Ostend, the Germans begin the siege of Antwerp.

In Cameroon the French and the British make their joint forces stronger.

After the lost Battle of Sandfontein South Africans abandon all hope of an invasion of German Southwest Africa, present-day Namibia.

And three British cruisers go down, a triumph for the German U-boat commander Otto Weddigen.

In the early morning of 22 September 1914 a lovely day out, an absolute picnic, lies ahead of Otto Weddigen and his men of the U-9. He cannot believe his eyes when he sees in his periscope one, two, three British cruisers looming up on the horizon. In an hour’s time they all become prey to the U-9’s torpedoes. Two Dutch merchant vessels, the Titan and the Flora, manage to get 433 sailors out of the water, but 1,459 men lose their lives. Among them were cadets of fifteen and sixteen years old, but also reservists who left families behind. For weeks on end dead bodies are washed ashore on the Dutch coast.

The Aboukir is the first cruiser to go down. The Hogue approaches fast but takes on water soon. Finally the Cressy gets the full blast when she is dragging up men from the sea. One of Weddigen’s crewmembers described the scenery in the waters near the Hook of Holland with much empathy: ‘We in the conning tower tried to suppress the terrible impression of drowning men fighting fort heir lives in the wreckage, clinging on to capsized lifeboats…’.

They were antiquated cruisers that had to do without escorting torpedo-boat destroyers because of the bad weather. The mission the three were part of had been cynically called the live bait squadron beforehand. Their end was a nasty blow for England. The British had been omnipotent at sea for hundreds of years and this was mercilessly brought up for discussion by the Germans. Winston Churchill, responsible for the navy within the British government, owed an explanation. He had most certainly given the order to get the vulnerable cruisers out of the Channel. But when this found no response, Churchill had started to shift his attention to other matters.

Meanwhile Germany cheers Otto Weddigen, their new war hero. The British are horrified about his acts, but their newspapers are full of praise for one particular fellow captain of Weddigen. This Karl von Müller is even called a ‘jewel of the sea’. On the very same 22 September 1914 he, too, serves the Vaterland at sea, but at the other end of the world. Von Müller is the commanding officer of the cruiser Emden and successfully fires at the Burmah Oil Company from the Indian Ocean. This is not his only feat of arms. The Emden is a true pest to the British, but its captain proves to be a galant knight of the high seas. Whenever Von Müller aims at a ship, he always makes sure that the crew can escape by the skin of their teeth.

In the first months of the war German submarines observe the code of honour of the sea as far as commercial shipping is concerned. On 20 October 1914 a British merchant ship becomes prey to a German submarine for the first time. The U-19 surprises the SS Glitra off the coast of Norway. The crew can bring themselves to safety before the Germans sink the ship. But this sort of courtesy will soon be over. The submarine is about to become the assassin of the seas. The ruthless example which Weddigen has set, is copied on a large scale. The sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in May 1915 by the U-20 is considered the most controversial instance.


Unlike the tank the submarine is no novelty in the First World War. Already in 1776 the Americans brought a submersible into action in their struggle for freedom against the British. That Turtle was not very successful, however. Not until the First World War does the submarine manifest itself as a dreaded weapon. The English have no response to this for a long time. They are equally surprised by the German sea mines. They will develop a hydrophone, an acoustic instrument which picks up the sound of a submarine propeller. Depth charges are produced diligently. From the air they spy for U-boats. Warships are rigged up as merchant vessels, so-called Q-ships that have to draw out submarines. Meanwhile patrols of torpedo-boat destroyers scour the hunting grounds of the U-boats. And later on in the war Flemish submarine bases are attacked. But the scare of the U-boats remains.

Even for sailors who have no claustrophobia it is a most terrifying ordeal to go underwater in an ‘iron coffin’. Life on board is awfully monotonous. The noise of the engines continues around the clock. When the bridge personnel, completely soaked, descends into the belly of the U-boat, it lands in the damp atmosphere of oil fumes and soot. There are hardly any lights. It may be terribly draughty. The common cold, ear and lung diseases are always lurking.

With their submarines the Germans turn the waters around the British Isles into a danger area. The British certainly succeed in eliminating quite a few submarines, but the biggest problem to the Germans is of a diplomatic nature. Germany sets neutral countries against them by attacking the trade with England. American president Woodrow Wilson in particular warns Germany time and again to keep the seas free. Mare Liberum, the age-old principle formulated by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth  century.

In the meantime the British try to deprive the German economy of its import by a blockade at sea. This is a tough job, for the trade is leaking on all sides through neutral countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The British maritime blockade is used by the Germans to justify their unrestricted submarine warfare and vice versa.

When a couple of months after the Lusitania the Germans also send the Arabic to the bottom of the sea, again with American civilians among the victims, that seemed to be the limit for America. Germany gives in and decides to stop their unrestricted submarine warfare. Two years later, however, when the war on land has got hopelessly bogged down, the temptation becomes too big and again the U-boats start hunting at sea in a final attempt to force a decision in the war. Whoever is floating around in the designated Sperrgebieten, should be fearful of German torpedoes. The peak is reached in April 1917, when in two weeks’ time the British lose 400,000 tons of cargo. A ship crossing the ocean from the United Kingdom has a chance of one in four to return safely.

Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff predicts that the German U-boats will bring England to their knees within five months. This proves a miscalculation. The number of U-boats is too small to deal the final blow. In the beginning of 1917 the Germans have 148 of them. The Germans also pay a heavy price for their unrestricted submarine warfare: for America it will be an important reason to plunge into the war after all.

The year 1917 also gives birth to a fierce British offensive which will come to be known as ‘Passchendaele’. Its objective, the destruction of the German submarine bases in Zeebrugge and Ostend, is not achieved. The U-boats continue to take their toll, but the convoy system eventually proves to be an effective antidote. Initially the British admiralty wants nothing to do with it. The chance of being hit by an U-boat appears to be much smaller, when ships do not cross the sea dispersed, but huddle together, protected by a convoy. The result is simply spectacular. Of more than 5,000 merchant ships sailing in a convoy in 1917 only 63 are lost.

It is the UB-123 that is responsible for the sad final chord of the unrestricted submarine warfare. On 10 October 1918 Oberleutnant zur See Robert Ramm’s U-boat torpedoes the mail boat RMS Leinster. More than 500 who sail on her are killed.

Let us give a moment’s thought to six of them. Catherine Gould had boarded with her son Michael and her daughters May, Essie, Alice, Angela and Olive, varying in age between 1 and 20. On the other side of the Irish Sea their father, who worked in an ammunition factory, was waiting. Of his family he only saw Essie again. Besides children and post sorting clerks the Leinster also had hundreds of soldiers on board with the western front as their destination.


Let us return to Otto Eduard Weddigen. He was born in Herford, North Rhine-Westphalia, the youngest of a family of eleven children. The Weddigens were manufacturers of linen that to this day conduct the company Weberei Weddigen.

For the final blow he dealt at the Hook of Holland Weddigen received the Pour le Mérite. This is a high decoration which was in German also famously known as Blaue Max. Weddigen published a book about the three direct hits. The following extract is about the return voyage. ‘I remained under water as long as possible, but succeeded in transmitting a radio message to the German fleet that I was coming home and was being followed. By occasionally showing myself I was hoping to lure the enemy into the area where they would be exposed to  capture or destruction by German war ships.’

This little scheme did not work, but Weddigen had made it at home. Beer mugs, medals, wall tiles, statuettes, the Weddigen cult can best be compared with the one surrounding German war aviator Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, although later in the war Weddigen’s fame would not last so long.

Commander Weddigen, who like many others got married within a few weeks after the outbreak of the war, is not really granted the time to enjoy his hero status. The U-9 will no doubt survive the war. Under Otto Weddigen’s command it also torpedoed the British cruiser Hawke in October 1914. But then Weddigen disappears into the sickbay and once cured he is given command of the much bigger and faster U-29, which is rammed by the battleship Dreadnought in March 1915.

Northeast of Scotland Otto Weddigen rests in his watery grave. He was in the 33th year of his life when Neptune called the commander unto him. It must have done the British a world of good that the very Dreadnought, built in 1906, did the job. ‘Dreadnought’ had become a generic name for the heaviest type of battle cruiser. The arms race between England and Germany preceding the First World War concentrated on building as many dreadnoughts as possible. So much prestige and money went into these excellent ships, that especially the Germans could not bear thinking of losing them in a few hours’ time. The First World War never really knew a true sea battle then. The danger lurked under water, not on the surface.

In Versailles the allied victors will try to expel the German shock of the submarines for good. However, in June 1935 another U-1 is launched at Kiel. The national-socialists aptly name the flotilla of submarines the U-1 is part of: Weddigen.

The British tragedy of the Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy disappeared from our collective memory. The Dutch writer Henk van der Linden not only recorded it, but also gathered all the surviving relatives together in The Live Bait Squadron Society. A memorial service in the presence of the Duke of Kent is expected in Chatham on 22 September 2014, a hundred years after the dreadful event.

Next week: Herbert Hoover

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

012 Helmuth von Moltke and the work of Ahriman

Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke

German high command yields under pressure

It is Sunday 13 September 1914. It is the 12th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Russian general Pawel von Rennenkampf has to withdraw in East Prussia after the Battle of the Masurian Lakes.

German admiral Maximilian von Spee reaches Samoa with his East Asian flotilla.

At the top of the Russian army Yakov Zhilinsky is replaced by Nikolai Ruzsky.

The Belgian army takes cover in Antwerp, while American president Woodrow Wilson welcomes a Belgian delegation.

South African troops prepare for battle in the German territories of South West Africa.

In an estuary near Cameroon the German gunboat Nachtigall makes a vain attempt to sink  the British gunboat Dwarf.

Japanese land at Qingdao in China.

British and French succeed in crossing the river Marne after which their advance gets bogged down.

The British Expeditionary Force, instructed by Sir John French, starts digging trenches near the river Aisne.

And the Battle of the Marne becomes too much for German chief-of-staff Helmuth von Moltke.

When the tragedy of the river Marne has taken place for the Germans, Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke is at his wits’ end. He is at a loss. Gazes at the maps. Physically and mentally a broken man, also filled with self-pity, he has to report to the emperor that he does not expect any good to come of it. Minister of War Erich von Falkenhayn, who is not very tactful, takes Von Moltke’s place at the front. Or rather behind the front, for Von Moltke has not been very close to the fire for the past month. Falkenhayn will position his headquarters a bit closer to his troops first.

Of all the characters presented by the First World War, Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke is one of the most enigmatic. In various publications one can read that he had a tender soul. He played the cello, liked to paint and knew his Goethe. The emperor himself called him der Traurige Julius. But Von Moltke not only had a tender soul. He was also in delicate health. When at the end of July the leaders of Europe were approaching the abyss, 66-year-old Helmuth von Moltke was taking a cure in Carlsbad.

What surprises most is his close relationship with the Austrian anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, who was born in present-day Croatia. Even now Steiner is honoured as a visionary at Waldorf schools and biodynamic agricultural enterprises. Steiner is the man who advocates the merger of the individual and the cosmos. And Von Moltke is the general who buried soldiers in the earth. What in the world did these two have in common? Perhaps Mrs von Moltke. She floated first towards Steiner. After that also her husband, the highest ranking officer of the Empire, had hungrily served the interests of Rudolf Steiner’s elevated thoughts. Ten days before the Battle of the Marne the two met near headquarters at Koblenz. Steiner convinced Moltke with his observation that guided by the Spirit the people ‘bears light out of the battle into the heart of Europe for the healing of mankind’.

Whatever spiritual influence Steiner had on Von Moltke, he has not turned the general into a pacifist. On the contrary. Von Moltke is the man who works on the emperor in the years before 1914: the war, which will come anyhow, had better break out as soon as possible. Russia is a giant about to wake up from his sleep before long. When the evils of the lost war against Japan have disappeared, Russia will stand up. And then the German empire will have a major problem both in the west and the east. Before the siege is final, Germany has to break free. Behold the passionate plea of Helmuth von Moltke, a social Darwinist, for whom a people’s right to exist had to be proved on the  battlefield.

This is how to many he has become the embodiment of German aggression. Von Moltke may have thought that he could keep the war down to a single enemy, but he certainly has not avoided the risk of a blaze. Others again have pictured him as the man who squandered German opportunities by fiddling with the famous Schlieffen Plan. Especially Wilhelm Groener, who was to succeed Paul von Hindenburg after the war as chief of staff of the German Army, pinned botching the Von Schlieffen strategy on Von Moltke. Afterwards the nazis did their best to preserve the myth of the ingenious Schlieffen plan.

The fact is that Von Schlieffen saw fewer dangers than Von Moltke, who may pass for a realist because of this, though this scion of an old Mecklenburg family was most of all a fatalist. With the French walking across the Alsace and the Russians flowing over East Prussia, Von Moltke had every reason to believe the consequences for Germany completely disastrous. He anticipated a long and devastating war that had to be won on several fronts simultaneously. Already in 1905 he had warned the emperor for this: ‘Our people will be completely exhausted, even if we should triumph.’

As far as the war was concerned his pessimism also concerned the financial flexibility of the German nation. ‘Our enemies are arming more vigorously than we, because we are strapped for cash.’ That certainly had an element of truth in it. Historian Niall Ferguson shows that a possible cause of the Great War could be contained in Germany’s financial limitations. Ferguson also quotes Von Moltke on this. The latter argued in March 1913 that ‘war should be worked up to in such a way that it will be considered a release from the big armaments, the financial burdens and the political tensions.’ On close analysis war is a foreign venture for the sake of domestic peace.


He had the appropriate name. Wilhelm II absolutely wanted ‘my own Moltke’. Helmuth’s uncle of the same name had created the great German Empire alongside Bismarck in one or two glorious battles. Particularly arch-enemy France had been no match in 1870 for Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who was to appoint his nephew years after that as his aide. After that Wilhelm II preferred him as his first man in the army as successor of the famous strategist Von Schlieffen.

From the very start this appointment proved to be controversial. And it must have kept Von Moltke himself awake. He had little faith in the emperor. It must have been abhorrent to a Prussian aristocrat like Von Moltke to have a commander-in-chief who blew off military exercises when rain started to fall. What was to become of Germany with such a monarch at the helm? Von Moltke preferably kept Wilhelm out of the military plans that were ready to be executed. Steiner asserted that he had asked Von Moltke why. The general must have answered that the emperor would most certainly have started to chatter about the military plans.

Von Moltke’s despair about the emperor really hits home in the days before the actual outbreak of the war. At the eleventh hour Wilhelm II does not want to mobilize in the west. He thinks and fervently hopes that, thanks to British neutrality, the battle can only be fought in the east, against the Russians. Von Moltke is desperate. He is appalled at the thought that his wonderful mobilisation machine should be put in reverse all of a sudden. He worked on Der Tag for ten years, first as Von Schlieffen’s assistant, after that as his successor.

Eventually the emperor will give Von Moltke the green light, so that the latter can stick to his mobilisation schedule in the west. Von Moltke’s planners have selected the Luxembourg town of Troisvierges – the three virgins of Faith, Hope and Love – for the first border crossing, on the first day of August 1914. Von Moltke’s Der Tag has come. ‘We have certainly advanced through Belgium with brute force’, he writes on 5 August. ‘But we are fighting for our lives, so whoever gets in our way should accept the consequences.’ He tries to direct his armies from a distance for a month. His most controversial decision is moving troops from the west to the east, where the Russians are penetrating East Prussia. That is not what Von Schlieffen had in mind.

On 14 September a new day begins for Von Moltke, the day of his nervous breakdown. Von Moltke succumbs to the heavy responsibility which he has taken in the first month of the war. Helmuth von Moltke was a defeatist type of person. In his own words: ‘I am too melancholy, too cautious, too conscientious, if you please, to be a general in a war.’

At headquarters they make him play second fiddle to keep up appearances. Both the German people and high command of the Austro-Hungarian ally are kept in the dark about the changing of the guard. The lists of losses of the battle of the Marne are not published either. Von Moltke feels his degradation, presented as a period of leave, as a big injustice. ‘Your Majesty, nobody is telling me anything!’, he cried out to the emperor. To which the latter must have answered that the same went for him.


Von Moltke will live another two years to repair the injustice done to him, but he will not be granted a role on the main podium of the First World War any more. On 18 June 1916 he goes to church in Berlin to add lustre to a memorial service for Field Marshal Colmar Freiherr Von der Goltz. Von Moltke holds a speech in which he speaks highly of the deceased. He says that history has repeatedly shown that heroism and tragedy are closely linked. The congregation must feel that the speaker is not only referring to the person who has just ascended into heaven, but is also implying himself. When the Turkish ambassador is in the middle of his eulogy for Von der Goltz, Von Moltke, who has a heart condition, collapses. He dies at the age of 68.

Whatever way you look at it, this was too early for historians, for after the war Von Moltke could have explained one thing and another about the path he took with Germany towards the war. His wife published letters and his memoirs in 1922, but she appears to have made quite a mess of the contents. The diaries Von Moltke kept were burnt by his son Wilhelm in 1945, just before the Russians captured Berlin.

What can have possessed Von Moltke? How could this floating general reconcile his spiritual search for universal love with the careless moving about of cannon fodder across his topographic maps? Rudolf Steiner must have had some idea. After Von Moltke’s death the two kept in touch in the great beyond. Rudolf Steiner Press published an account of this esoteric exchange, entitled Light for the New Millennium.

Helmuth von Moltke sent the following message to the earth in December 1921: ‘The events on the Marne! Everything would have turned out differently, if I had not been accompanied by the mistrust of those around me. I traveled to the front in a cloud of mistrust.’ Eventually it had all been the work of Ahriman, the ‘Prince of Darkness’. As far as Wilhelm II is concerned, Von Moltke left us this explanation from above: ‘The Kaiser was actually quite weak due to the forces working in him from his previous life.’

Next week: Otto Weddigen

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)



011 Joseph Gallieni and the taxi’s that were quite something

Joseph Gallieni

Joseph Gallieni

Paris escapes the Germans

It is Sunday 6 September 1914. It is the eleventh week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Austrian troops cross the river Drina and penetrate Serbia again.

A German cruiser succeeds in cutting the Pacific Cable halfway down the Pacific Ocean.

The British are hunting down the German cruiser Emden in the Indian Ocean.

The Russians in East Prussia have to run from the Germans.

The same Russians bring the Austrian armies of archduke Joseph and  count Viktor Dankl von Krasnik down to their knees in Galicia.

For the first time a British submarine eliminates an enemy ship in the North Sea: the German cruiser Hela.

Australians capture the town of Herbertshohe, part of German New Guinea.

During the first ever air fight Russian pilot Pjotr Nesterov loses his life when crashing into an Austrian reconnaissance plane. 

The Battle of the Marne claims half a million dead and wounded on both sides in barely a week.

And Paris taxi drivers transport soldiers to the front, watched approvingly by general Joseph Gallieni.

When France calls upon him to defend the capital, his wife has just died. He is already 65 years old. Three years earlier he passed up a chance to occupy the highest post in the French army. He is ill. In the two years to come he will have to undergo operations on his prostate gland twice. This will be in vain as he dies halfway through the First World War.

His name is Joseph Gallieni, the man who snatched Paris away from the clutches of the Germans in September 1914. When hearing this story you immediately think of the Paris taxi drivers who were sent out by Gallieni to transport soldiers to the front. It is a story that has assumed mythical proportions. Gallieni is supposed to have stood by the side of the road, mumbling approvingly: ‘Eh bien, voilà au moins qui n’est pas banal!’ ‘Well, well, this is quite something.’

It is not that these taxis made a huge difference in the terrible Battle of the Marne, on which also the fate of Paris depended. The railway was the vital artery of the army. Military successes or defeats could frequently be traced back to the capacity of the railway network. The German Schlieffen Plan was also grafted on the railway timetable. But Gallieni’s taxis of course appealed enormously to the imagination. Obviously the idea must have come from Gallieni himself. When the overworking of the railways was discussed, he suggested: ‘Mmm, why not use taxis?’

One greedy taxi driver is reported to have asked: ‘How much do we charge?’ Lorries, limousines and even racing cars joined the convoy. Many taxi drivers turned back at their destination Nanteuil for a second ride. A taxi could take five soldiers. A total of around 4,000 men were taken to the front by taxi. ‘Eh bien, voilà au moins qui n’est pas banal!’ to quote Gallieni once again.

One of those taxis can still be seen in the army museum of the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. Hundreds of these droll little cars got together on 7 September to load soldiers for the French Sixth Army. It was formed in a hurry to take away the force of general Von Kluck’s sweep which was noticed late.

Gallieni watched the taxis  through his lorgnette hanging over his stately nose and grey drooping moustache. Joseph Simon Gallieni was tall and lean. French president Raymond Poincaré provided the following profile. ‘With his straight stature, his head held high and his penetrating look he came across to us as an impressive example of human strength.’ And his curriculum vitae showed this, too. When he was 21 Gallieni fought at Sedan as a second lieutenant. To France this was the fatal battle in the Franco-Prussian war. Gallieni was carried off to Germany as a prisoner of war. There he had also mastered the German language, in the same way as he would later concentrate on learning Russian. He kept a diary in German, English and Italian with the peculiar multilingual title ‘Erinnerungen of my life di ragazzo’.

All in all Gallieni, son of an Italian immigrant, was a man of the world. His career in the French army took place outside the old country. Gallieni was a colonial soldier. His career went from the island La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, via West Africa, Martinique, the Sudan and French Indo-China finally to Madagascar. There were those in the French army who characterized the colonial service as le tourisme, but Gallieni certainly did not restrict himself to sun-worship. He proved himself to be a master at oil-slick politics, spreading the colonial sphere of influence from the centre by entering into home alliances using common sense.

Gallieni was also ruthless, especially going on a rampage on Madagascar. He did not limit himself to banning British influences on the island, but also brutally suppressed a revolt of the natives. Many people apply the term genocide to this operation. His period on Madagascar gave Gallieni the local nickname jeneraly masiaka, ‘the cruel general’.

In 1911 his reputation as warhorse can bring him promotion to the highest military post of his home country. Commander-in-chief Victor-Constant Michel has been sidetracked. The man is aware of the German danger, reason for him to draw up a defensive plan. But defence is a forbidden word in post-Sedan France. Attaquer à l’outrance, attack to the extreme, is the motto. Michel the defender has to be replaced by an attacker that does not hesitate. Gallieni, however, declines the honour. He feels too old, but is also afraid that the national army will not swallow a colonial like him.

He knows somebody, one of his officers from his days in Madagascar. Yes, let Joseph Joffre do the job. Thus Joffre becomes the man who is entrusted in 1914 with his native country in distress. He will put all his cards on the attack via Alsace-Lorraine. For a long time Joffre is blind to the muscles the German army is flexing on his right in Belgium, and not much later in the north of France. But Gallieni is well aware of the danger.

Gallieni is a confidant of Adolphe Messimy, Minister of War. At the end of August they arrive at a double conclusion. Paris is about to fall and Joffre does not realize that. Messimy asks Gallieni to take the defence of Paris as governor upon himself. A remarkable detail is that this is still the task of Michel who was earlier on sent away as commander-in-chief. Roaring with anger he is sent away a second time, after which old Gallieni positions himself on the city walls of Paris. He demands more troops of his own, which will have to be withdrawn from Joffre’s armies. The latter, however, disregards this command. When Gallieni came to alert Joffre to the danger called Von Kluck some time earlier, Joffre had only allowed Galllieni a two minute appointment. The stubborn commander-in-chief obviously did not like a superior officer from the past breathing down his neck again.

Nevertheless Gallieni will resolutely take up the defence of Paris. The capital is in the right mood for it. During the first few days of September the people of Paris had looked up at the sky in amusement to see a Taube – a small yellow-white German plane – circling overhead. The ‘pigeon’ not only dropped small bombs, but also pieces of paper for the Paris population came fluttering down. The message was that the German army was at the gates of Paris. There was no other option than surrender. One old woman was killed by a bomb from a Taube. After that, however, the small aircraft that regularly came flying over was mainly light entertainment.

The American attaché Eric Fisher Wood described how ‘all Paris’ was waiting for ‘the six o’clock Taube’ on Friday 3 September. But ‘Von Heidssen’  – as Fisher Wood erroneously called him – did not show up. Up in the sky a bullet had gone straight through his heart. The following day it was announced that ‘Von Heidssen’ was found down on the ground, strapped in his undamaged crate. Perhaps this was propaganda, for from other sources it appears that Ferdinand von Hiddessen – which was his real name – is made a prisoner of war in 1915, after being shot down above Verdun. Years later the same name crops up again on an American list of nazi bigwigs.

In the beginning of September the situation in Paris really turns awkward. A true exodus starts. The need to run from the Hun is urgent. Spurred on by Gallieni the government also takes refuge. But on the same day two staff officers in Gallieni’s headquarters are jubilant. Apparently Von Kluck had his army bear off to the east, away from Paris, towards the river Marne. Then Gallieni sees his opportunity. Joffre entrusts him with the command of the Sixth Army. At the river Ourcq Gallieni attacks Von Kluck’s unguarded right flank. It is the opening phase of the unprecedently gruesome Battle of the Marne, when the German advance is halted.

Unlike in 1871 and 1940 Paris does not fall in 1914. Gallieni gets the credit. Historian Basil Liddell Hart even attributes a ‘Napoleonic coup d’oeuil’ to him, but it is commander-in-chief Joffre who can write ‘Miracle of the Marne’ after his name. For the time being the French people believe Papa Joffre can do nothing wrong any more. Gallieni, who does not even get a Croix de Guerre for his share, certainly does not agree with this.

As governor of Paris Gallieni no longer plays a prominent role. After the return of the government he is the odd one out. On the sideline of the western front he recognizes the deadlock. Together with politician Aristide Briand and fellow-general Louis Franchet d’Espèrey he thinks that opening a second front on the Balkan Peninsula is necessary.

In October 1915 a new French government with Aristide Briand as Prime Minister appoints him Minister of War. Energetic as always he starts his work. He sees it especially as his task to raise the matter of the mistakes made by the general staff under the command of Joffre. The neglect of Verdun’s defence becomes a divisive issue. In March 1916, however, it becomes painfully clear to Gallieni that he is going to lose this battle. The government retains the far too popular Joffre.

In the month of his death he presented a memorandum to the French cabinet about the change of high command. Gallieni does not beat about the bush. The military should deal with military matters.The Minister of War has governmental responsibility. Commanding officers who support ‘anachronistic ideas and outdated procedures’ should be sidetracked, according to Gallieni.

But then Gallieni resigns and not much later he is hospitalized. He dies on 27 May 1916. No one of military command is present at the funeral. Five years later, however, Joseph Gallieni is posthumously promoted to field marshal.


Gallieni has not sunk into oblivion. In Paris there is the Gallieni Metro station, an important junction which is connected directly with Gallieni bus station. The small town of Fréjus in the Provence not only has a grammar school and tennis club named after Gallieni. There is also a museum of the maritime troops. Its showpiece is the little 19th century car Gallieni used to drive around Madagascar.

He who saves Paris, will not be labelled ‘Butcher of Madagascar’.

Next week: Helmuth von Moltke

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)
















Post Navigation