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I was reading War by Timetable by A.J.P. Taylor, in which he presents his interpretation of how the elaborate timetables prepared by various governments as "contingency plans" took on a life of their own in the middle of 1914, and how this meant World War I suddenly got up and running after a lengthy period of what had seemed to some observers to be a peaceful and supposedly self-sustaining balance of power that had just "naturally" developed among the Great Powers of Europe.

In the final paragraphs of Chapter 5, Taylor describes a couple of key meetings in London that took place in the days following the British government's decision to go to war because Germany was blatantly violating the neutrality of Belgium; a neutrality which the United Kingdom had long been committed to help preserve.

Every other country had had detailed war plans drawn up before the diplomacy began, and the war plans made the running. But the British resolved on war first and decided on action afterwards. The Cabinet had authorized the mobilisation of the expeditionary force on 3rd August. They had not decided where it should go, if anywhere. On 5th August Asquith, who was acting secretary of state for war, summoned a war council. The civilians present were Grey, Haldane, and Churchill; the soldiers, every distinguished general Asquith could lay his hands on.

There was a rambling and uninformed discussion. Great Britain had gone to war for the sake of Belgian neutrality. How was she to ensure this? Lord Roberts, the senior general present, suggested that the expeditionary force should go to Antwerp. Churchill answered that the navy could not guarantee a safe passage east of the Straits of Dover. Sir John French, who was to command the expeditionary force, thought that the army might cross the Channel to Le Havre and then decide where to go -- perhaps to Antwerp, perhaps to Amiens. Sir Douglas Haig thought that the regular soldiers should stop at home and train the mass armies of the future. Sir Henry Wilson, director of military operations, cut in impatiently. He explained that there was no choice. The expeditionary force could not help the Belgians. It could only take its allotted place on the French left wing. The marshalling yards were prepared, trucks ready, lines cleared. It was Maubeuge or nowhere.

On 6th August the Cabinet resolved that the expeditionary force should go to Amiens. No one took any notice. The time-table said Maubeuge. To Maubeuge it went. In this accidental way Great Britain found herself involved as a continental power in a continental war.

What particularly struck me about this was the insinuation, in the words "No one took any notice" in the final paragraph of that chapter, that things had already reached the point where it simply didn't matter what the British Cabinet thought should be the destination of their own national Army's expeditionary force. That sounded like a serious breakdown in discipline, and I wondered if Taylor was leaving something out.

I consulted another book about the circumstances surrounding the beginning of the war: The Guns of August, by Barbara W. Tuchman.

Tuchman discusses how, in the middle of the events described above, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener was summoned to London to take up the role she calls "War Minister" (meaning the same thing as the more official title of "secretary of state for war"). She says that Kitchener immediately began looking at the existing plan to reinforce the French by sending several divisions of the British Army to Maubeuge, and he did so with a very skeptical eye.

In Chapter 12 of The Guns of August, she describes his reasoning thus:

Whatever the process, Kitchener also foretold the pattern of the coming German offensive west of the Meuse. This too he was afterward considered to have arrived at by “some gift of divination” rather than by “any knowledge of times and distances,” according to one General Staff officer. In fact, like King Albert, Kitchener saw the assault on Liège casting ahead of it the shadow of Schlieffen’s right-wing envelopment. He did not think Germany had violated Belgium and brought England in against her in order to make what Lloyd George had called “just a little violation” through the Ardennes. Having avoided the responsibility of the prewar planning, he could not now propose to withhold the six divisions, but he saw no reason to risk their extinction at a position as far forward as Maubeuge where he expected they would bear the full force of the invading German armies. He proposed that they concentrate instead at Amiens, seventy miles farther back.

Later in the same chapter, Tuchman says (possibly regarding the same meeting which Taylor briefly mentioned at the end of the passage I quoted from War by Timetable):

When the Council adjourned, Kitchener was under the impression, not shared by the generals, that Amiens had been agreed upon as the staging area.

Even later in that chapter, she describes the meeting where Kitchener was definitively overruled by the Prime Minister regarding the perceived necessity to do what the French wanted by sending the British divisions as far east as Maubeuge. Since the French and British General Staffs agreed that this was the right way to do it, and only Kitchener was afraid that the German army would come down behind them (i.e. to the west of them) on its way to Paris by swinging through western Belgium first, the PM (H.H. Asquith) overruled Kitchener in favor of the prevailing consensus among those other generals.

So, as I said in the title, what I'm really curious about right now is the accuracy of A.J.P. Taylor's assertion that on 6th August 1914 the British Cabinet had, in fact, resolved (presumably by majority vote) to only send its expeditionary force to Amiens, instead of all the way to Maubeuge, for the time being. Tuchman makes it sound as if Kitchener had argued vigorously for that change in destination, but that he may have been the only person who walked away from a meeting with the firm belief that it had actually been "decided" that Amiens should be the staging area for those British troops.

So does anyone know, for certain, if there was ever a point in early August of 1914 when the British Cabinet as a whole (not just Kitchener in his own mind) thought it had committed itself to the idea of sending the expeditionary force to Amiens, and then taking another careful look at the latest reports of German troop movements before having it do anything else? I'm wondering if Taylor may have been misled -- perhaps by something Kitchener later said on the subject. (Or Tuchman might have gotten it a bit wrong, as the case may be.)

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    It is not clear what are you asking, Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th. After that it was clear that British army will clash with Germans, and that in order to do so they must cooperate with French. Therefore, they could not just go to Amiens and sit there waiting for Germans to come, or even worse outflank them and encircle them. BEF had to become part of the overall French effort to stop Schlieffen Plan. – rs.29 Jan 4 at 8:11
  • I thought it was clear. Taylor basicallly asserts that at some point the British Cabinet said: "Only take our troops as far as Amiens for the time being." Either that exact decision happened at some point (before being reversed), or it didn't. That's my question. As for the Von Schlieffen Plan, I gather that nobody outside of Germany even knew what it was. For instance, that it hinged on an army swinging through Belgium and thus approaching Paris from the north, instead of the east. So nobody was saying, "We must put troops right here in order to block that plan we know all about!" – Lorendiac Jan 4 at 17:37
  • Both French and British were aware of possibility that Germans could invade Belgium and France trough Belgium (see Plan XVII) . Britain and France even before the war worked out some scenarios of BEF coming to France to help. As for Amiens decision, Kitchner attempted to push for something like that, but it was rejected : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – rs.29 Jan 4 at 23:02

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