Is it defeat? Yes, Mr. President
Special to The Great War Project
(24 August) On the Western Front, the British and the French are in retreat.
The British are pulling back from Mons in Belgium in the face of superior German force.
Elsewhere on the frontline in the West at the last Belgian fortress still in allied hands, the French army is retreating in the face of enormous losses.
One British historian calls it “the great retreat.”
There is near panic in London and Paris that this might mean a quick victory for Germany and the end of the war. Writes historian Martin Gilbert: “Not only might the war be over well before Christmas, it seemed, but it might be over with a German victory.”
On this day, France’s President Raymond Poincare asks his military liaison officer, “Is it defeat?” the officer answers, “Yes Mr. President.” On the Eastern Front the action is intensifying. The Austrian front with Russian Poland is 175 miles long. Yesterday, the Austrians cross that border. Hundreds of miles to the south, Russian and Austrian troops clash. And in East Prussia – a province of Germany that borders Russia – a battle between Russian and German forces is shaping up.
This is not the plan. Not the war Germany planned for.
The lion’s share of German forces are engaged with the French in the West. And the bulk of Austrian forces are facing unexpected resistance in Serbia.
Germany does not want to take on Russia in the East before it knocks France out of the war in the West. The French are struggling, but Russia is already in the fight with the Germans and the Austrians in the East.
Accurate information for a confused and fearful public in all the states at war is difficult to come by. Writes historian Max Hastings: “Every society experienced successive waves of jubilation and dejection amid news from the front which was scanty and often wildly mistaken.”
The British and the French are kept especially in the dark “about what was taking place, the slaughters and retreat.” While in Germany, Hastings writes, there is much “rash rejoicing.”
Yet on the battlefield, British and French commanders panic, fear their forces are facing disaster.
And on this day, a century ago and halfway around the world, Germany is now at war with Japan. Tokyo declared war on Germany yesterday. Britain gives the nod to Japan to take the Pacific Islands that Germany holds, as well as German concessions in east China.