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Britain goes to war—but where?


WHOEVER CONTROLLED THE ENGLISH CHANNEL and whoever controlled the Channel threatened the maritime perimeter of the British Isles. That was the center of gravity in the United Kingdom’s national security strategy during the era when capital warships were the world’s ultimate global-weapons system. Yet ships of the line, and later the Dreadnought-class battleships, were not invulnerable. They depended on secure ports, reliable fueling and provisioning stations, and secure coastlines in narrow waterways. If a friendly or neutral power controlled the Belgian coast—and in 1914 Belgium was neutral—the Channel was relatively secure. But if a hostile power threatened to occupy Belgium, the United Kingdom’s only recourse, in the opinion of generations of British policymakers, was war.

That threat materialized on August 3, 1914, when Germany declared war on France. The next day German troops, following the Schlieffen Plan, moved into Belgium, intending to sweep through northwestern France and envelop Paris. Since Belgian neutrality had been guaranteed by the 1839 Treaty of London, to which Germany and almost all other European countries were parties, Britain declared war that same day. But although the Royal Navy was the greatest fleet in the world, Britain’s small army of one cavalry and six infantry divisions was little more than a colonial police force. Eventually, the British Expeditionary Force would grow to some 60 divisions, but that was several years in the future. The immediate problem was where on the Continent—or even whether—to deploy the few ground forces Britain had available.


FRANCE AND BRITAIN HAD BEEN BITTER ENEMIES for centuries, an enmity that reached its climax at Waterloo in 1815. Following the consequent Congress of Vienna, the United Kingdom adopted a strategic policy of acting as the fulcrum for the European balance of power. Thus, the Crimean War of 1853–1856 found Britain and France for the first time in many years fighting on the same side, in this case supporting the Ottoman Empire against the Russian Empire. Yet the British and the French continued to keep each other at arm’s length for most of the next half century. The 1904 Entente Cordiale between Britain and France marked the major turning point after nearly 1,000 years of smoldering animosity between the two countries. They were nudged even closer together the following year by the First Moroccan Crisis, when Kaiser Wilhelm II tried to encroach on French influence in North Africa. In 1907 Russia joined with France and Britain to form the Triple Entente, an alliance designed as a counterweight to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. The Triple Entente, however, was not a solidly defined military alliance; it was an ambiguous document of friendship, understanding, and agreement. Many British military and political leaders believed that in the case of war, Britain’s support of France would be primarily maritime.

General Sir John Grierson, Britain’s director of military operations, concluded as early as 1905 that the Germans would attack France through Belgium. He therefore argued for deploying a British expeditionary force to Belgium on the outbreak of any war. A base in neutral Antwerp, he reasoned, would provide a secure and direct maritime link to Britain. A small British force positioned to threaten the German right flank would exert an influence disproportionate to its size. Of equal importance, a deployment in Belgium would leave the British command independent of the French.

Grierson’s plan, however, failed to take into consideration several crucial strategic facts. For one thing, an Antwerp base would not necessarily be a secure maritime link. The port lay at the end of the long Scheldt estuary, and an enemy force on either bank could effectively choke it off. (The Allies would learn that lesson the hard way in early September 1944.) The fact that the mouth of the Scheldt was completely in Dutch territory also compounded the problem, because the Netherlands remained neutral. It was German policy to keep Holland that way, so it could serve as Germany’s “windpipe” to world trade in the event of a British embargo. The final problem was that deploying on the Belgian right rather than the French left would leave a significant gap in the Allied main line of resistance.

Over the next several years, the British General Staff began to lean toward deploying instead on the French left. Major General Sir Henry Wilson, who became director of military operations in 1910, was a staunch advocate of the continental strategy over the maritime strategy, and he also supported deploying with the French. A devoted Francophile, Wilson had no objections to subordinating a small British Expeditionary Force to the operational control of the French army. When he had been commandant of the British Army Staff College at Camberly between 1907 and 1910, Wilson had established a close relationship with General Ferdinand Foch, then the commandant of the École Supérieure de la Guerre.

Wilson decided that France, rather than Belgium, would be the foundation for general staff planning, but that commitment was far from unanimous among the British senior military and political leadership. In the wake of the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911, the Committee of Imperial Defence met all day on August 23 to deliberate the military strategy of the empire. Wilson argued forcefully for the continental strategy, with the BEF deploying on the French left wing in the vicinity of Le Cateau, Hirson, and Maubeuge. Perhaps the decisive factor in favor of the French option was the position of the Belgian government itself, which insisted on maintaining its neutrality. Thus, if the BEF tried to go in through Antwerp without the specific invitation of the government, Britain would be as guilty of violating the Treaty of London as the Germans had been. Wilson’s arguments carried the day for the continental strategy. Though the British government remained reluctant to commit to any detailed deployment planning, the British General Staff worked up tentative plans. Based on continuing informal staff talks, the French centered their own planning on the assumption that the British would deploy on their left.

By the time the war broke out, almost everyone had accepted the continental strategy, but not necessarily the French option. Field Marshal Sir John French, the commander-designate of the BEF, resurrected the Belgian option. An old-school cavalry officer who had never been through the British Army Staff College, French harbored a deep distrust of trained general staff officers, especially of Wilson. And despite his last name, French was something of a Francophobe. So on August 5, two days after the declaration of war, when an ad hoc war council met to decide what to do, French continued to push the Belgian option. That made little sense, because no plans existed for an Antwerp deployment, while there were at least tentative plans and agreements for a deployment into northern France. The issue was decided when the foreign secretary, Lord Edward Grey, said that both Belgian and Dutch neutrality ruled out the Antwerp option, and the new first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill, pointed out the operational difficulty of penetrating the Scheldt.

On August 6, three days into the war, the newly appointed secretary of state for war, Lord Herbert Kitchener, complicated the decisions, when he announced that only four of the six existing infantry divisions of the British Army, plus its single cavalry division, would deploy initially, with the fifth division to follow shortly and the sixth division to remain in Britain for homeland defense. With Kitchener’s support, BEF commander French now pushed for concentrating his force in the vicinity of Amiens, arguing that Maubeuge was too far forward and would leave the BEF too exposed. Wilson continued to lobby for Maubeuge, since any last-minute changes would seriously disrupt French war plans, based on Maubeuge. Although the BEF started deployment on August 9, the question of where to deploy was not settled finally until August 12, when Kitchener bowed to French pressure. The rapid German advance also made it imperative to stick with the original plan, and the BEF finally finished landing at Boulogne on August 14.


IN THE 1930s FORMER PRIME MINISTER DAVID LLOYD GEORGE dredged up the strategic debate in those early days of war when he published his multivolume War Memoirs. As chancellor of the exchequer in 1911, he had been a strong supporter of the Antwerp option. He later served as minister of munitions from 1915 to 1916, and even his severest critics credit him with a brilliant performance in rationalizing Britain’s industrial output during the war. But he was a dilettante regarding military strategy and steadfastly believed that his own intuition was far more reliable than the professional judgment of any British general officer. Lloyd George continued to believe that Germany could have been defeated had Britain attacked it in some peripheral theater, rather than going head-to-head on the Western Front. Virtually no British general supported his strategic concept, nor did any French general.

Lloyd George had endured a great deal of criticism during the war and even more after it, when he was accused of trading knighthoods and peerages for hefty political contributions. It was as a means of self-vindication that he started publishing his War Memoirs, which were a major factor in establishing the popular conception that the generals of World War I—especially the British generals—were butchers and incompetent bunglers who caused the unnecessary deaths of so many young men. The August 1914 decision to deploy the BEF to northern France rather than Antwerp was the opening salvo in Lloyd George’s war after the war.

But if the BEF had not been on the French left in September 1914 and had not been thrust into the gap between the German First and Second Armies, the Germans probably would have enveloped the French flank at the Marne, and 1914 might have turned into a rerun of 1870. Writing in 1936 German general Georg Wetzell, who had served as General Erich Ludendorff’s chief operations officer in 1917 and 1918, observed about the Battle of the Marne, “Without any doubt, if the British Army had not been there, it would have been terrible for the French.” If the British had gone with the Antwerp option, they would not have been. MHQ


DAVID T. ZABECKI is HistoryNet’s chief military historian.

PHOTO: Following Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium in August 1914, British troops are dispatched to assist Belgian forces in the defense of Antwerp. Sueddeutsche Zeitung/Alamy Stock Photo


This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue (Vol. 29, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Antwerp, 1914.

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