Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

The German Preparations for War

Berlin to Bagdad Railway

When the Germans had planned an aggressive war against France and Russia with the eventual object of crushing England, they knew at the outset that they must make such complete preparations that they would be sure to win. To fail would be the greatest catastrophe in German history. They simply must not fail. They must therefore calculate upon meeting the worst possible circumstances; they must prepare for every possible contingency; they must be as ready as their enemies were unready. They must begin the war at the moment most advantageous to them and most disadvantageous to their enemies. And they must strike the first blow.

The guarantee of victory was to be the superiority of German organization for war and must be the product of foresight and long years of preparation. All Germans must be made into soldiers, and all soldiers must be equipped with everything that could be thought of. They must be thoroughly trained in all the things that it might become essential for them to do. An army could not be made in a hurry, the Germans claimed, and it would therefore take a generation to get ready. That very fact would make them sure to win, because if their enemies must take as long a time to prepare, they would be crushed before their preparation had been begun.

They trained their men to stand the fatigue of long, forced marches, for they knew that only men who had gone through extreme fatigue many times would ever be able to execute the sort of a movement on Paris with which they intended to begin the war. Artillery and infantry practiced marksmanship without ceasing, and the cost was enormous, but they did not propose to have the army learn how to shoot after the war began. Every pleasure automobile and taxi-cab made in Germany had the holes ready bored in its chassis for the changes necessary to transform it into a military auto; its new equipment had been prepared; and its owner and chauffeur had at all times instructions exactly where to take it the moment a certain order was issued.

There would be no time to waste when this aggressive war was launched. For every gun put into army use, a duplicate was made and put in the reserve; for every rifle were made so many thousands of extra rounds of ammunition; for every soldier so many extra uniforms and pairs of shoes. Germany must be ready to begin the war with a rush, but she must not count on ending it at the outset. She must be as well prepared with the material means of continuing it indefinitely as with those for beginning it instantaneously.

Knowing in advance that they were to fight a war with France and with Russia, the High Command decided in advance which officers should lead the troops and then sent men like Hindenburg to study the geography of Poland and men like Von Kluck to study the geography of France. These men could not of course travel as military officers, but the French noticed great numbers of German tourists walking through the country, large numbers of German artists making sketches of the French country, Germans with cameras taking pictures of hills, trees, and rivers. We know what they were doing. Some of them were generals planning their campaigns. Others were artillery officers making the calculations which should tell them exactly how to hit certain objects with their great guns when the time came. Others were infantry officers who were going to lead their troops across that country.

Quite as important as the complete preparation of the German army would be exhaustive knowledge about the armies of possible enemies. In Berlin they should know more about the French army than was known in Paris, more about the English army than was known in London, more about the Russians than the Tsar's own generals knew. They proposed to learn exactly who the officers of these various armies were, what had been their training, their probable ability. They knew how many more might be enlisted. They not only made lists of the factories making war materials, but also of the factories that might be transformed at the outbreak of the war for that purpose, and the volume of output which they could probably turn out in any given period.

Then skilled workmen would be needed. How many were already skilled in France, England, or Russia in making war materials; how many might become skilled; how long would it take to train them? They must thus find out in advance just how great a force the German army would be likely to meet in the first week of the war, what in the first month, and what in every succeeding month or year. They could then compute the exact size of a German army needed to insure victory. Victory would not be a matter of chance; it would be a mathematical calculation, and, if only the work were well done, it ought to be infallible.

They would then provide at the elbow of every British, French, and Russian general an invisible soldier of the German Empire. In the Councils of the French Premier and of the British Ministry there should be an invisible Councillor of the German nation. These were spies, men who were not known to be in German pay, selected with the utmost care so that they might send on to Berlin regularly the plans of Germany's enemies. Thus the German leaders would always know what was going on elsewhere, whom they must meet, what was being done to offset their plans. If possible, the spies should steal important military and naval secrets. If a great battleship was being built by the British, they must find out just what its construction would be and if possible get the plans. Should the French invent something, some spy must be detailed to steal the secret.

The cleverness of these spies and the elaborate system which they devised was extraordinary. In order to prevent them from betraying each other, each man knew only the man above him and the man below him in the chain. If one man, therefore, was caught, or sold what he knew, he could not tell much. The men at the top were known to so few and the few were so very carefully chosen that betrayal was not possible. There were German spies, therefore, to be found in the greatest houses in France and England, in the confidential councils of the state, in the army, in the navy, and in business houses. Fashionable men and women were paid to pick up conversation in London and Paris drawing rooms.

The methods of reporting were extremely complicated. Most of the German spies operated as business agents and would write a letter to some German firm ordering a certain number of steam engines or so many dozen dishes. A hundred dinner plates might mean that one hundred guns were being made in a certain place. An extremely clever letter was constructed by drawing a straight line from one corner of the paper to the other, making a cross. On each one of the lines was written a word and in the middle was written a fifth word. The five together made the message. Then around those five an innocent letter was written dealing with something else. Invisible ink was also used to write between the lines of letters.

One clever spy, who had stolen a long report about French preparations during the war, was puzzled to know how to get that report back to Germany. She knew she would be searched, that every scrap of paper she had would be taken away from her, tested, and probably destroyed, and every object she had would be examined in the most thorough way. One thing only was safe. She was posing as a Swiss citizen returning home, and the French government had given her a passport to let her through the lines. The passport they would have to leave with her. She therefore copied the document she had stolen in invisible ink between the lines of her own passport. But the French were as clever as she. They put the passport into a bath of chemical to find out whether she had done precisely that trick, and the lady finished the war in prison.

It became indeed so difficult for the German spies to conceal what they were doing that they began to write upon the back of the spy in invisible ink messages too long to be learned. The Allied searchers could then take every scrap of his clothing off, burn all his papers, and the message would still go through. But they soon began to give suspected people baths of chemical, which brought out the invisible ink. So that failed, too.

The Germans thought nothing of going to the trouble of planting a man and his family in a place where they wanted a spy, of creating a business for him and having him live there for ten or fifteen years without spying on any one or reporting anything. This was frequently done in the United States and more commonly in France. By that time they calculated that any possible suspicions the police might have about him would have been thoroughly dispelled by the simple fact that he had done absolutely nothing. Then he would begin his series of reports to Berlin.

They also realized that if he were to have visits from particular individuals at stated intervals, or if he saw certain strangers from time to time it might attract attention, and they therefore provided that the reports should not be sent by mail, and never to any one individual. On a certain day the spy would go down to the railroad station and take a train for some other place, indicated in advance. He would there get off his train. Presently another train would come in from some other place and a man would get off of it, never the same man, never coming from the same place. Sometimes the man who was making the report would drop a newspaper, walk away, and the other man would pick it up. Sometimes he would secretly hand him a letter. Again he would merely shake hands with him and exchange a few words anybody could overhear but which contained the secret message. Thanks to these spies, to the cleverness of this system, the Germans did get an immense amount of information about the nations with which they went to war, which did make it easy for them to prepare, and which did make it difficult for the French, the Belgians, the English, the Russians, yes, and the Americans, too, to resist the German attack. There seems to be no doubt that there were as many German spies in America as there were in France.

The Germans now applied to their own people and to their own resources the same methods they had applied to their enemies and catalogued every man, woman, and child in Germany, found out what they could do to help the war, and taught them how to do it. They listed all the horses, cows, and pigs in Germany; every acre of land and what could be raised upon it; all the mines from which metals could be gotten for making guns. If they knew something was going to be needed when the war broke out, they created a factory to make it, appointed men to work in it, collected the raw materials it would need.

All this was imperative. If they went to war with Great Britain—and they must prepare for that emergency, however much they might hope she might not join in the war—the British fleet would probably blockade Germany and prevent her from getting supplies of all sorts from the outside world. Germany must therefore be ready to produce all the food, all the guns, clothes, shoes, and everything else that the army or the people at home might need during the war. They must be ready to keep up the war indefinitely.

They thought it would not be a long war, but if they planned to fight a short war and made preparations for that only and then something went wrong, and the war lasted a little longer than they had planned, they would lose it simply because of that error in calculation. There must not be any error. There must be food to eat as well as guns to shoot with. There must be enough horses to draw the plow or machinery to do the plowing in their stead, as there must be enough horses to draw the cannon. They must have cattle and chickens because they must have milk and eggs.

To be sure, they did not imagine that the British fleet could blockade Germany effectively. They expected to smuggle in a great deal of material through Holland, Denmark, and Sweden, and for a long time they did. But the British and the French protested to the Dutch and the Danes about this smuggling, and compelled investigation. The steamers, sailing from Holland up the Rhine into Germany, had the space between walls of the state-rooms filled with rubber, copper, and medicines. The cushions on the window seats were filled with raw cotton, and the life preservers had had the cork taken out of them and had been filled up with rubber. The life boats on the ship all had compartments which were meant to make them float even if they upset. The flooring had been taken up and the compartments had been filled up with things valuable to Germany. Down in the hold even what looked to be great piles of coal, were really great piles of copper with a little coal on top, just enough to get the ship to Germany.

The Germans also calculated that much of importance could be done toward winning the war by their spies in England, France, Russia, and the United States. They did corrupt a number of high officials in Russia. The Minister of War himself at one time was in German pay and saw to it that the food was sent where it did not belong, that the guns went to one division and the ammunition to another, that the left shoes went to one place and the right to another, so that it was not possible in some cases to fight the campaign for lack of material. Officers were also bought who directed the Russian artillery so that it killed Russians instead of Germans. Regiments were sent out to attack the German lines, no aid was sent to them, and they were all killed.

In France and in Great Britain considerable attempts were made to blow up factories and to create strikes so that the British and French should not be able to prepare. In America, in particular, where many contracts were made as soon as the war broke out to make munitions for the British and French, German agents created strikes or spoiled the shells and rifles. Ammunition was made just too large to fit the guns or the shell was arranged so as not to explode or so as to explode too soon. Agents in the Red Cross workrooms put poison and powdered glass into bandages, and others in the factories where food was canned put poison into the cans just before they were sealed. All this was planned before the war broke out and made the authorities in Berlin very sure that they were going to win.

This forty years of preparation and the character of the preparations is the best proof that the Germans meant to begin an aggressive war. Their claim that they were really defending themselves breaks down when we see that their own preparations were based upon the idea that the French, the Russians, and the British could not conceivably meet them. That shows very clearly that they did not really believe that the French or the Russians could have attacked them in 1914 with any chance of success. They fully expected in 1914 that they would win the war so soon that neither the British nor the Russians would ever be able to get ready, and that even the French might never be able fully to mobilize their army.

This length of German preparation will again show why the war lasted so long, why the Germans were apparently winning the war for the first three years, why it seemed even in 1918 as if they might still win it. Time was needed for the British, French, and Americans to make up that handicap of forty years of preparation. We could not get ready in a hurry. The Germans were right; modern armies cannot be made in a moment. Only time can create big guns, officers, competent troops.

But the Germans were wrong in one thing. They could not be beaten except by a competent army which was prepared; but the Allies had such an army—the French army. The Germans could be beaten only by excellent artillery; but the Allies had such artillery—the famous French 75's. Generals again, the Germans were quite correct in believing, could not be trained except through long years of effort. But the French realized long ago, as the British and the Americans did not, what the Germans meant to do, and French generals and staff officers were ready to fight when the war began. Otherwise the German calculations would have been infallible. They would have won the war before any of their enemies could have been ready to fight it. But the French army was capable enough, devoted enough, brave enough to hold the Germans in check while the British and the Americans got ready to come to their assistance. The story of the war, therefore, was that of staving off defeat from month to month and from year to year while this tremendous handicap in preparation could be overcome.