Testimony of the Witnesses: Comments and Commentary on War - "Where Are Our Prisoners?"
As German troops began to drive deeper and deeper into France and Belgium during their stunning series of victories in the “Battle of the Frontiers” (August 2-26, 1914), an enormous feeling of optimism began to infect the entire army, from the lowest Soldat to the Supreme War Lord himself, Kaiser Wilhelm II. But Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, Chief-of- the-Great-General Staff, did not share that optimism. Following a train ride from Koblenz to Luxembourg on August 20th in the company of the Kaiser, who kept speaking in the most blood-thirsty terms about the imminent defeat of the French and their allies, Moltke told their traveling companion, Admiral George Alexander von Muller, Chief of the Naval Staff, “Contrary to the Kaiser’s fantasies, we have pushed the French back, but they are not yet beaten. That still has to happen”
Less than a week later, on September 4th, as the German armies were but 50 miles northeast and east of Paris, and the infectious euphoria had risen to enormous heights, Moltke confided to Karl Hellfeich, a prominent German banker and conservative politician, “We must not deceive ourselves. We have had success, but not victory. Victory means annihilation of the enemy’s power of resistance. When armies of millions of men oppose each other in battle, the victor has prisoners. Where are our prisoners? There are some 20,000 taken in the Lorraine fighting, another 10,000 here and another 10,000 there. Besides, the relatively small number of captured guns shows that the French are conducting a planned and orderly retreat. The hardest work is still to be done.”
Moltke was right, of course.
The Germans had entered the war with a "Perfect Plan," commit everything in a sweep on the right, a plan in which Moltke himself had little confidence, despite his efforts to strengthen it. The plan seemed premised on the idea that the French would not notice the movement, that the Belgians offer at best no more than token resistance, that the British not honor their promise to defend Belgian neutrality (or, if they did, that their “contemptible little army” would be swept aside), and that German troops would manage heroic feats of marching, averaging over 30 kilometers a day for 39 days under a summer sun, to encircle Paris from the west. In fact, of course, none of these assumptions held. The Belgians did fight, inflicting a series of small delays on the advancing Germans, as did the British as well, with great effect, and the French dropped their initial, and costly, offensives into Alsace-Lorraine and began juggling troops by rail to bolster their left, while the Kaiser’s men found themselves at the end of an increasingly tenuous line of supply, staggering ever onwards, fighting fatigue, hunger, and heat as much as the enemy, and unable to encircle Paris.
On September 6th, two days after Moltke’s comment to Hellfeich, the supposedly beaten French and British took the offensive in what has come to be known as the First Battle of the Marne, forcing the Germans to fall back or suffer devastating losses, and setting the stage for the long horror of the Western Front.
There are several morals to this story, one is embodied in an adage by Napoleon, “The moment of victory is the moment of greatest danger.” Another is a comment by the Great Moltke – uncle to the one of 1914 -- that "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy", which his hapless nephew should have known. And then, of course there’s the homelier, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”