1914: Europe Mobilises
By the first week in August the political back and forths between Europe’s great powers were coming to an end, as their armies began to mobilise. By the end of 1914, over 70 million men from 20 countries would be mobilised in the largest conflict had ever seen.
Germany had begun a general mobilisation on 1st August with just under 2 million regulars and reservists called up and moving to staging and transit posts. The following day 2,150 trains, some of them up to 54 carriages long were moving troops west. The German Grosser-Generalstab (general staff) had organised the requisition of 30,000 locomotives and over 900,000 goods wagons and carriages for the Westfaumarsch - the great wheeling manoeuvre of the Schlieffen Plan’s invasion of France through Belgium. While the men knew who their country’s enemies were many of them didn’t know if they would be heading east or west. As it turned out four fifths of them headed west across the Rhine towards the Belgian and Luxembourg borders.
The peacetime strength of the Imperial German Army or Deutsches Heer was 612,000 men, with the ranks filled by conscripts who served for three years followed by six years as a reservist. When reserves and the third line Landwehr numbering 27 brigades were mobilised Germany could place approximately 1,900,000 men in the field.
The dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire made for a complex makeup of the Empire’s military with their being eleven national languages. It was made up of a number of elements, the first of these was the Gemeinsame Armee or Common Army which recruited from every region of the Empire. All of the armed forces of Austria-Hungary were filled by conscripts with men liable for conscription between the ages of 21 and 32, they would serve three years before spending a further seven in the reserves. In 1914, the Common Army’s standing strength equaled about 450,000 men. This was made up of 16 army corps consisting of 49 infantry divisions and 8 cavalry divisions as well as artillery and supporting troops.
In addition to this there were the Landwehr corps (territorial armies) responsible for defence of the Empire’s two crowns; Austria and Hungary. The Austrian territorial army, the Imperial-Royal Landwehr, made up of regular units numbering 40 infantry regiments and 6 cavalry regiments with 16 artillery battalions. And the Royal Hungarian Honvéd which mustered six infantry divisions with a further dozen independent brigades and six cavalry divisions. In addition to these regular forces there was also the Austro-Hungarian Landsturm, a third line force made up of men aged over 34, forming over 70 regiments of infantry. The Austrian General Staff put Plans B & R into action moving a holding force to the Russian border while the main force invaded Serbia. By early 1915 Austria-Hungary had mobilised 3.35 million men.
France began her mobilisation on the 2nd, with five field armies made up of 595,000 men forming 172 infantry regiments and 89 cavalry regiments moving north west along France’s extensive rail network. France’s reserve forces on paper were larger than Germany’s due to the fact that France relied on conscripts serving two years. On paper the French Army Reserve numbered 201 Regiments with a further 145 Territorial Regiments. French troops began their military service at 20 serving with the regular army for up to three years before transitioning through the reserve of the regular army between the ages of 24 and 34, joining the Territorial Army lists at 35 before being transferred to the Reserve of the Territorial Army at 42 until they reached 50. In August 1914, this gave France 1,290,000 men available for service. By late 1914, France had mobilised 2.9 million men.
The French like the German Army had a grand overarching war plan, Plan XVII directed that five French field armies would advance through Alsace-Lorraine and into western Germany. This saw four of the five French armies concentrated along the Franco-German border with the Fifth Army operating in Ardennes and south east of Belgium.
On the same day as France began to mobilise so to did Belgium. Calling up reserves and mobilising some 130,000 men including the regular army forming approximately 120 battalions into 7 divisions as well as the less well equipped Garde Civique (militia). Albert, King of the Belgians declared "I rule a nation, not a road" and barred German access through Belgium on the 3rd August. The following day German forces began to invade Belgium.
The Belgian strategy was to rely on the country’s extensive fortifications defending Liege, Namur and the National Redoubt - a belt of dense fortifications 95 miles in length ringing Antwerp. While the Belgian field army massed in the centre of the country behind the Gete River. You can read more about the Belgian Army and its defence of Belgium here. By the end of 1914, despite valiant efforts and holding the German army back for several weeks the Belgian Army was forced to retreat to the eastern tip of the country where with allied help it held out for the next four years.
Meanwhile in Britain mobilisation began in earnest on a much smaller scale with 200,000 reservists being called up. The British Army, unlike its European counterparts who relied upon conscription, was a professional force made up entirely of volunteers. The result was a extremely professional, well trained and disciplined force. In addition to the regular army the Territorial Force and the Special Reserve maintained a force of part time troops who could be called upon. The Special Reserve was made up of 101 infantry battalions, 33 artillery regiments and two engineer regiments, which were coupled with Regular Army units to whom in time of war they would supply drafts of replacements. You can read more about the British Army’s mobilisation here.
This surprisingly well organised system saw the first troops arriving on the 7th August, the third day of Britain’s mobilisation. These were the support troops who would prepare the way, readying lines of communication and camps. The British Expeditionary Forece’s main body began crossing the Channel on the 12th although they would not be ready for action until the 21st. As the war continued into the autumn and winter of 1914 the regular divisions which had been held back in Britain were deployed and so too were the Territorial Force battalions, by early 1915 Britain was mobilising civilian volunteers and forming a ‘New Army’ of service battalions.
On the Eastern front Russia began a partial mobilisation on the 29th July, concentrating forces on the Austro-Hungarian border. Two days later with the diplomatic situation steadily deteriorating the Tsar authorised full mobilisation of Russia’s huge standing army. In response Germany declared war on the 1st August. Russia mobilised 1,400,000 men forming 102 divisions. However, the Imperial Russian Army was undergoing a massive modernisation program partly funded by the French. There were widespread shortages of rifles, uniform and equipment modern artillery.
Despite the shortcomings of the Russian railway network the Stavka (Russian General Staff) were able to mobilise far quicker than the German Grosser-Generalstab had anticipated and mounted Plan 19, the invasion of East Prussia on the 17th August drawing vital troops from the Western Front. Further Russian forces made gains in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia which forced the Grosser-Generalstab to form the 9th Army, a new scratch force to alleviate pressure on the Austro-Hungarians. The Russian advance into Eastern Prussia however was smashed at the end of August at the Battle of Tannenberg where Paul von Hindenburg’s 8th Army encircled the Russian Army causing 80,000 casualties and capturing nearly 100,000 prisoners.
Serbia, had been the focus of initial aggression when Austro-Hungary declared war on the 28th July. In comparison to the major European army’s Serbia had a minute standing army of just 190,000 men. With a population of just 5 million they would eventually manage to mobilise 658,000 men suffering huge casualties throughout the war, losing 27% of its overall population. In 1914, the Serbian Army was poorly equipped suffering from a shortage of rifles and equipment however, they managed to keep Austro-Hungarian advanced at bay winning the first allied victory of the war at the Battle of Cer and launching a limited offensive. By December 1914, the small Serbian Army recaptured Belgrade and pushed overstretched Austro-Hungarian forces back across the border.
Naturally the mobilisation of each country’s army was covered heavily by the national presses and many contemporary newsreels also recorded the mobilisation. Some filmed by British Pathe featuring British, Canadian, Serbian, French and Russian forces can be found here.
While for most European nations mobilisation did not necessarily mean certain war. Countries such as France, Russia and Austria could mobilise and hold their forces in readiness. However, the great danger of the successive mobilisations of the European powers was that for Germany, unlike her neighbours, to mobilise was to go to war. The German general staff following the Schlieffen Plan had organised the mobilisation such that once formations formed and began to move they were tasked with directly engaging the enemy, in this case the invasion of Belgium.
Image One Source - Belgian reservists exit Gare de l’Ouest train station to report for duty. August 1, 1914
Image Two Source - Near the Front, enthusiastic French troops exit their trains prior to marching off to thwart the German invaders.
Image Three Source - Reservists being called up in St. Petersburg as Russia’s first world war army was assembled.
Image Four Source - German reservists going home to say goodbye to their families, before leaving to go to the front. The children with them are wearing their father’s helmets.
Image Five Source - French Cavalry resting on the march
Image Six Source - 1st Battalion, Irish Guards prepare to leave Wellington Barracks, Westminster, London on 6th August 1914. The Battalion arrived in France as part of the BEF on 13th August 1914.
Image Seven Source - Austrian troops mobilising by train in 1914
Image Eight Source - Reservists of the Grenadier Guards re-enlisting on the 5th August 1914. queue for a medical inspection at Wellington Barracks, London. (IWM)
Image Nine Source - Russian troops mobilising by Railway, August 1914
Image Ten Source - 10th Battalion (Territorial Force) King’s Liverpool Regiment ‘Liverpool Scottish’, October, 1914 awaiting deployment to France. Armed with older charger-loading Lee-Enfield MkI* rifles.