9 AUGUST, 2014: Sniping

This is bound to happen from time to time.  Every now and then a heritage story’s going to get plain daft, and I’ll feel the need for a flag on the play.  This morning, Saturday August 9, Radio 4’s Today programme came up with a classic example of media inventing history for editorial purposes.  The First World War, Mishal Hussein suggested in her best Oxbridge trill, turned British women into drug abusers.

The death of a showgirl from a drug overdose in 1918 was quoted as evidence of the claim, and the authors of two books, one about wartime mental health issues, the other about the birth of the British drug underground, were wheeled in to discuss it.  Both authors began by pointing out that female drug abuse in wartime Britain was extremely localised, meaning it was essentially restricted to women involved with various entertainment industries in the West End of London.  After that, both struggled bravely but in vain to find anything that supported the story’s main thrust.  It was desperate stuff, with the woman responsible for Shell Shocked Britain, the stress book, reduced to suggesting that civilian women took drugs because the noise of Zeppelins was freaking them out.

Ridiculous.  According to witnesses I’ve interviewed (years back, obviously) the scariest thing about a Zeppelin attack was the machines’ eerie silence, but that’s what happens when editorial imagination forces specialists to go off piste.  The real point here is that the whole story is fiction, cobbled together by some bright BBC spark in possession of three facts and no history.  The First World War did not turn British women into drug abusers.  Women in and around the show business enclaves of Soho and theatre land had been abusing various substances for centuries; working class women all over industrial and urban Britain had been doing the same for at least as long, in gin palaces, through opiates and stimulants in patent medicines, any way they could find.  The War may have increased the need for escapism felt by some civilian women (and men), but I’m not sure the idea that raised stress levels encourage people to get off their face is particularly newsworthy.  No, the BBC wanted a war angle so it made one up.  After a series of embarrassing attempts to justify the story had failed, Mishal Hussein should have ended the piece by declaring the case unproven and unlikely.  Instead the show’s silly premise, a small piece of misleading, false history, was allowed to stand.

Invented angles on the First World War will be turning up all over the media for the next few years.  I’ll keep an eye open for them, because they’re poppycock.

 

7 AUGUST, 1914: France Invades Germany

We are generally quite well informed about Germany’s attack on Luxembourg, Belgium and France in early August.  For the purposes of British heritage commemorations it serves as the act that triggered Europe’s plunge into war, and its adherence to the Schlieffen Plan – a precisely timetabled blueprint for a swift, knockout punch against France that dated back to the 1890s – is seen as evidence of Germany’s prime responsibility for the catastrophe.  The story has less to say about French aggression.  France had been preparing an attack on Germany since ceding territory to a victorious Prussia in 1871.  It possessed its own plan to deliver a knockout blow, and it could hardly wait to get an invasion started.

Plan 17, the French strategic blueprint for war, was the brainchild of Ferdinand Foch, the general destined to end the war as commander-in-chief of allied forces on the Western Front.  Adopted in 1913 by the then c-in-c of French forces, Joffre, it was more flexible (and a lot less precise) than the Schlieffen Plan, and reflected the French Army’s dogmatic commitment to offensive warfare as the key to military success.  A radical departure from previous plans, which had been focused on defence of the Belgian frontier in response to a German attack, it called for French forces to retake Alsace and Lorraine, the eastern provinces lost in 1871, and then to push further east into Germany through the Ardennes forests.

With hindsight, the greatest weakness of Plan 17 was that it was based on a giant miscalculation.  French leaders had spent a decade trying and failing to get a British commitment to defending France if Germany attacked.  Joffre and most of his senior commanders refused to believe that Germany would force Britain off the fence by invading Belgium, and steadfastly ignored the possibility that Berlin might interpret Britain’s deeply opaque diplomatic fudging as licence to get away with just that.

Plan 17 did allow for a turn north to protect Belgium and Luxembourg, but this was an afterthought and treated as such, so that even an ominous build-up of German forces around the Belgian frontier in the summer of 1914 was interpreted as good news because it weakened defences in Alsace and Lorraine.  With or without hindsight, the fact that well-trained German reserve forces could be brought up to plug any gaps in Alsace and Lorraine might have worried French commanders, but they weren’t the first or last powerful men to see the world as they wanted it to be.

After a delay to be sure the British saw France as victim rather than aggressor, Plan 17 swept into action with a preliminary attack into Alsace on 7 August, its planners confident that an invasion carried out with sufficient élan (by which they meant attack-minded verve and flair) would carry all before it.

It didn’t.  German forces withdrew from Alsace to await reinforcements, and although France erupted with joy as the major town of Mulhouse was ‘liberated’ without a fight (and with most of its German-speaking citizens notably absent), a German counter-attack arrived two days later and drove the French slowly back.  A change of commander and belated reinforcement did enable the French to regain Mulhouse later in the month, but by that time part two of Plan 17, a full-scale attack into Lorraine, had run into serious trouble.

It was the kind of trouble soon to become familiar on the Western Front.  Two French armies advanced into Lorraine from the north on 14 August and attacked the towns of Sarrebourg and Morhange, coming up against the German Sixth Army, a largely Bavarian force deployed along a line protecting the towns.  French infantry charges were easy meat for entrenched troops armed with machine guns and artillery, and attack-minded French forces had no trenches of their own in place when German commander Crown Prince Rupprecht (the heir to the Bavarian throne) launched a counterattack on 20 August.

Within two days French forces had been driven back to a line of fortified bases on high ground east of Nancy.  Two days after that, on 24 August, the invasion of Germany was officially called off, by which time French, British and Belgian forces were manifestly on the defensive all along the northwestern frontiers of France.  On the same day Rupprecht, having persuaded his High Command to divert strength from the drive on Paris further north, launched a major offensive against the French line, only for roles to be reversed as three days of German assaults failed against well-prepared trenches.  The sector then subsided into armed stalemate for most of the next four years.

Heritage has pretty much forgotten about the French invasion of 1914, and that means its inadvertent contribution to the defeat of Germany’s invasion is also left out of the story.  If the French attack on Lorraine hadn’t failed badly enough to give Prince Rupprecht visions of glory and massive reinforcement to carry them out, the German thrust further north towards Paris would have been considerably, perhaps decisively stronger.  That’s history for you – everything connected up in ways heritage, with its perceived need for simple straight lines, finds inconvenient.

 

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR