20 November 1914 – Command Review

Today, the fourth of Field Marshall Sir John French‘s letters to King George V describing the course of the war is published in newspapers across the world. There are many notable passages for students of the Great War, including his praise of the Indian Expeditionary Force, just one of the troop formations recently arrived in France from all over the empire.

Since their arrival in this country, and their occupation of the line allotted to them, I have been much impressed by the initiative and resource displayed by the Indian troops. Some of the ruses they have employed to deceive the enemy have been attended with the best results, and have doubtless kept superior forces in front of them at bay. The Corps of Indian Sappers and Miners have long enjoyed a high reputation for skill and resource. Without going into detail, I can confidently assert that throughout their work in this campaign they have fully justified that reputation. The General Officer Commanding the Indian Army Corps describes the conduct and bearing of these troops in strange and new surroundings to have been highly satisfactory, and I am enabled, from my own observation, to fully corroborate his statement.

Although French serves during an era when official doctrine discourages generals from spending time at the front, he has personally inspected the situation at units cracking under the stress of constant trench warfare — and been forced to juggle organizational charts as formations bleed away into the mud of Ypres.

On the 27th October I went to the headquarters of the First Corps at Hooge to personally investigate the condition of the 7th Division. Owing to constant marching and fighting, ever since its hasty disembarkation, in aid of the Antwerp Garrison, this division had suffered great losses, and were becoming very weak. I therefore decided temporarily to break up the Fourth Corps and place the 7th Division with the First Corps under the command of Sir Douglas Haig. The 3rd Cavalry Division was similarly detailed for service with the First Corps. I directed the Fourth Corps Commander to proceed, with his Staff, to England, to watch and supervise the mobilization of his 8th Division, which was then proceeding.

With the First Battle of Ypres winding down, intelligence has revealed the importance that the German General Staff has placed on Erich von Falkenhayn’s first experiment in attrition doctrine:

An order taken from a prisoner who had been captured on this day purported to emanate from the German General, Von Beimling, and said that the Fifteenth German Corps, together with the 2nd Bavarian and Thirteenth Corps, were entrusted with the task of breaking through the line to Ypres; and that the Emperor himself considered the success of this attack to be one of vital importance to the successful issue of the war.

French takes special note of the rapidly-expanding battlefield role played by aircraft. This month, Russia, France, Britain, and Belgium adopted distinctive wing markings just like their counterparts in the Central Powers, and it has been seven weeks since French aviators scored the first confirmed air-to-air combat victory.

The work performed by the Royal Flying Corps has continued to prove of the utmost value to the success of the operations. I do not consider it advisable in this despatch to go into any detail as regards the duties assigned to the Corps and the nature of their work, but almost every day new methods for employing them, both strategically and tactically, are discovered and put into practice. The development of their use and employment has indeed been quite extraordinary, and I feel sure that no effort should be spared to increase their numbers and perfect their equipment and efficiency.

British bicycle troops of 1914. With the war of movement at an end, they became most useful for replacing horses to carry messages

British bicycle troops of 1914. With the war of movement at an end, they freed up horses to pull guns, limbers and wagons

Radio technology is still too limited for widespread tactical use; telegraph and telephone lines are not easily buried during battle. Communication between his headquarters and the front lines has therefore been a primary problem for French, who offers conspicuous praise of the bicycle messengers pedaling back and forth every day on the war-torn highways of northern France.

I am anxious in this despatch to bring to Your Lordship’s special notice the splendid work which has been done throughout the campaign by the Cyclists of the Signal Corps. Carrying despatches and messages at all hours of the day and night in every kind of weather, and often traversing bad roads blocked with transport, they have been conspicuously successful in maintaining an extraordinary degree of efficiency in the service of communications. Many casualties have occurred in their ranks, but no amount of difficulty or danger has ever checked the energy and ardour which has distinguished their Corps throughout the operations.

Indeed, the bicycle is one of the most under-appreciated technologies of the Great War. We still look at the images of bicycle-borne fighting troops as a curiosity, even an aberration from the normative image of men fighting on horseback, or on foot, or inside of armored machines, but the bicycle had enormous tactical utility in 1914 — to say nothing of its social impact. Bicycles have already boosted the social independence of women, allowing them a mobility they have not enjoyed before. In 1914, the automobile has an image problem with the masses: Henry Ford and mass production have not made cars cheap enough yet for the average worker to own, and the bicycle has become a symbol of personal freedom whereas the car is often considered a dangerous monster.

Now that the war of maneuver has ended, each two-wheeled ‘safety bicycle’ used for delivering messages frees up a horse or engine to pull the mountains of food, ammunition, reinforcements, and material that are necessary for victory in the trenches. It is clearly going to be a long war, and these sorts of procurement decisions will only become more vital with time. French seems to recognize this when he describes the role of the British Expeditionary Force in the two-front war of attrition that has emerged.

For several days past the enemy’s artillery fire has considerably slackened, and infantry attack has practically ceased. […] The role which our armies in the West have consequently been called upon to fulfill has been to occupy strong defensive positions, holding the ground gained and inviting the enemy’s attack; to throw these attacks back, causing the enemy heavy losses in his retreat and following him up with powerful and successful counterattacks to complete his discomfiture. The value and significance of the role fulfilled since the commencement of hostilities by the Allied Forces in the West lies in the fact that at the moment when the Eastern Provinces of Germany are in imminent danger of being overrun by the numerous and powerful armies of Russia, nearly the whole of the active army of Germany is tied down to a line of trenches extending from the Fortress of Verdun on the Alsatian Frontier round to the sea at Nieuport, east of Dunkirk (a distance of 260 miles), where they are held, much reduced in numbers and morale by the successful action of our troops in the West.

The British Army began the war even smaller than Belgium’s, and although imperial divisions and wartime recruits are arriving all the time, the BEF can only hold a 30-mile stretch of the Western Front. It will take a long time to build up to the troop levels necessary for offensive action against the Imperial German Army; until then, the allies of the Triple Entente must hope for victory on the Eastern Front.

But this strategy has its own dangers: the Tsar’s regime is too hollow and fragile to sustain total war, and as George Bernard Shaw pointed out this week in his essay Common Sense About The War, an ascendant Russia could be almost as bad for the British empire as a German victory. While his letter adds to the growing public confidence that the greatest crisis is behind them, French is admitting that he cannot retake the initiative anytime soon. The best he can do is hold the line and bleed the Germans.