4 August 1914 was no ordinary day. In the early morning, the German cavalry, their 12 foot lances aloft, crossed into Belgium and began an assault on the frontier villages which presage the invasion on a much grander scale, exactly as expected. The British military leaders, the War Office, the insiders in the Foreign Office, Churchill, Haldane, Grey, the inner core of the Secret Elite and the commanders of the French army were fully aware that the invasion of Belgium was an integral part of the old Schlieffen Plan. They were counting on it. The very declaration of war against Germany had been predicated upon the German invasion of ‘neutral’ Belgium. In his memoires, General Huguet confessed that the French Commanders had been warned in advance by Lord Esher that they must not be the first to cross the Belgian border, no-matter the pretext. Whereas, when Germany took such a step, ‘that act alone will lead us into declaring war against them’. [1] The myth of Belgian ‘neutrality’ is so deeply ingrained into British history, that one hundred years on, it is still held to be the reason why Britain declared war on Germany. [2]

Map of Schlieffen Plan - German invasion 1914

The Schlieffen Plan, devised in 1905 by the German general Count Alfred von Schlieffen, was a bold defensive strategy against war on two fronts. In anticipating that the day might come when she would have to defend herself on two opposite frontiers against France and Russia, the plan revolved around a quick and decisive strike against France before turning back eastwards to confront Russia. Timing was everything [3] and success depended on Germany’s capacity to move colossal armies by rail within a complex logistical timetable that required five hundred trains, each with fifty wagons, to transport four army corps of around 180,000 troops to Belgium and then France [4] in conjunction with the major offensive against the French through Alsace and Lorraine. The main thrust of the plan in the north was aimed at outflanking the French defences by sweeping through Belgium, around the northern reaches of France and thence south to Paris. Schlieffen had estimated that his plan would neutralise France within six weeks, giving the German army sufficient time to regroup and drive eastward on the same railway system to meet the Russian invaders head-on. Outright victory depended on Germany’s modern transport systems, precision-planning and speed.

British Expeditionary Force 1914 marching through France

It also hinged on Belgium. On the one hand, the German timetable had not included a lengthy stop in Belgium. Schlieffen had assumed that the Belgians would either allow free passage to the German army or offer a token resistance. Whichever, Paris had to fall by the 39th day of the war. On the other, he could not have imagined that successive British governments would have secretly given a commitment to France that placed a small but well prepared British Expeditionary Force in northern France, directly in front of the advancing German army. Nor could he have known that far from the declared position of neutrality, Belgium would be an active participant in these plans which had been officially endorsed by the secretive Committee of Imperial Defence in London. [5] Belgium became the cause celebre in August 1914. Portrayed as a neutral innocent by Sir Edward Grey in Parliament and the Northcliffe press in the country, the German invasion of Belgium was the given cause for Britain’s declaration of war. And Belgium was brave.

Though their army was vastly outnumbered, the Belgians had built a series of twelve forts and underground defensive systems around the city of Liege, where from 5-16 August, the first land battle of the war slowed down the German onslaught. Over-confident in their ability to brush aside the Belgian defenders, a series of direct infantry assaults cost the German Second Army severe losses. Advancing line by line, shoulder to shoulder, the Germans were cut down ‘in an awful barricade of dead and wounded’. [6] Faced with this unexpectedly effective resistance, the Germans employed massive artillery to destroy the Belgian defences. Even after Liege had fallen, many of the forts held out until 16 August.German heavy artillery used against the forts at Liege, nicknamed Big Bertha

What the Germans feared most was the type of guerrilla warfare that had caused so much damage in the Franco-German war of 1870, including snipers, sabotage and civil obstruction. Such resistance had to be ruthlessly stamped out so that they could keep to their time-table. [7] The German commander Helmut von Moltke knew that Germany was literally fighting for its life and that those who stood in his way ‘must take the consequences’ [8] The invading forces were ruthless. Villages were burned to the ground, civilians suspected of resistance were summarily shot and the historic medieval town of Louvain was bombarded mercilessly and its priceless university library with its ancient manuscripts was destroyed by fire. Moltke lost valuable time hampered by Belgian resistance, but Germany surrendered a greater hostage to fortune through the graphic images of the gallant little Belgium that would fuel British propaganda

On 4 August 1914, at 11 pm, King George V in Privy Counsel, signed the declaration of war against Germany on behalf of Great Britain and the Empire. The world was at war.

World War 1 newspaper headline ... Britain At War

But from the 4th August onwards, that first weeks of that war brought darker preparations to the fore which prioritised the basic prerequisites that the Secret Elite had determined in order to successfully cushion their personal liability from loss, and maximise their profits. Such actions, including immediate control over the nation, the abandonment of basic freedoms, special protection for the banks, finance houses and key industries, and secret international arrangements that had to be kept outwith the public domain, provided a template for future wars. Asquith’s government was as well prepared for war as it could have been, thanks in great part to the meticulous departmental preparations organised by the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) through its prodigiously capable administrator, Maurice Hankey. [9] But immensely far-reaching legislation was agreed and rushed through a partly bewildered, partly jingoistic parliament, punch drunk by the elation of war, a war declared by Britain, for which their approval had never been sought. Given that the Cabinet Papers for that period are missing, presumed destroyed, we must look to the occasional Committee of Imperial Defence Report that slipped the censor’s notice, [10] autobiographies, memoirs and the official records of Parliament to piece together what transpired inside the corridors of Westminster during those brief, extended-Bank-holiday days in 1914.

[1] General Huguet, Britain and the War, p. 18.
[2] Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, p. 348.
[3] Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, 1914-1918, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, p. 59.
[4] Martin van Creveld, Supplying War, pp 112- 24.
[5] Minutes of the Committee of Imperial Defence, CAB 38/9/1905, no. 65.
[6] Barbara Tuchman, Guns of August, p. 200.
[7] Winter and Baggett, 1914-1918, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, p. 64.
[8] Ibid., p.65.
[9] Stephen Roskill, Hankey, 1877-1918, p. 137.
[10] see the special Sub-committee set up in 1911 to consider the implications of Trading with the Enemy, PRO CAB 16/18A.