John French, 1st Earl of Ypres - World War I - 1914 - Mobilisation and Deployment

Mobilisation and Deployment

The “Precautionary Period” for British mobilisation began on 29 July, the day after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. French was summoned by Sir Charles Douglas (CIGS) and told (30 July) he would command the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). There was no other serious candidate for the position. He was first briefly re-appointed Inspector-General of the Army (1 August). Sir John spent much of 2 August in discussions with French Ambassador Paul Cambon. British mobilisation began on 4pm on 4 August. Until Germany invaded Belgium it was unclear whether Britain would join in the war, but she did so at midnight on 4 August.

French attended the War Council at 10, Downing Street (5 August), and there presented the War Office plans (drawn up by Wilson) to send the BEF to Maubeuge, although he also suggested that as British mobilisation was lagging behind France’s it might be safer to send the BEF to Amiens (also the view of Lord Kitchener and Lt.-General Sir Douglas Haig). French also suggested that the BEF might operate from Antwerp against the German right flank, similar to schemes which had been floated in 1905-6 and reflecting French’s reluctant acceptance of the continental commitment. This suggestion was dropped when Churchill said the Royal Navy could not guarantee safe passage.

Kitchener, believing the war would be long, decided at Cabinet (6 August) that the BEF would consist of only 4 infantry divisions (and 1 cavalry); French believing the war would be short, demanded 5 infantry divisions but was overruled at another War Council that afternoon. Embarkation began on 9 August.

On 12 French, Murray, Wilson and the French liaison officer Victor Huguet met at French’s house at Lancaster Gate (12 August) and agreed to concentrate at Maubeuge, and after another meeting with Kitchener (who had had an argument with Wilson on 9 August - given Wilson's influence over French this served to worsen relations between French and Kitchener), who still preferred to concentrate further back at Amiens, they left to obtain the Prime Minister’s agreement.

French crossed to France on 14 August, and spent the next few days visiting President Poincare, Messimy (French War Minister) and Joffre. Sir John’s orders from Kitchener were to cooperate with the French but not to take orders from them, and given that the tiny BEF (about 100,000 men, half of them regulars and half reservists) was Britain’s only army, to avoid undue losses and being exposed to “forward movements where large numbers of French troops are not engaged” until Kitchener had had a chance to discuss the matter with the Cabinet.

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