From Barbara Tuchman: The Guns of August:
On August 16 OHL, which had remained in Berlin until the end of the concentration period, moved to Coblenz on the Rhine some eighty miles behind the center of the German front. Here Schlieffen had envisaged a Commander in Chief who would be no Napoleon on a white horse watching the battle from a hill but a “modern Alexander” who would direct it “from a house with roomy offices where telegraph, telephone and wireless signalling apparatus are at hand while a fleet of autos and motorcycles ready to depart, wait for orders. Here in a comfortable chair by a large table the modern commander overlooks the whole battlefield on a map. From here he telephones inspiring words and here he receives the reports from army and corps commanders and from balloons and dirigibles which observe the enemy’s movements.”
Reality marred this happy picture. The modern Alexander turned out to be Moltke who by his own admission had never recovered from his harrowing experience with the Kaiser on the first night of war. The “inspiring words” he was supposed to telephone to commanders were never part of his equipment and even if they had been would have been lost in transmission. Nothing caused the Germans more trouble, where they were operating in hostile territory, than communications. Belgians cut telephone and telegraph wires; the powerful Eiffel Tower wireless station jammed the air waves so that messages came through so garbled they had to be repeated three or four times before sense could be made of them. OHL’s single receiving station became so clogged that messages took from eight to twelve hours to get through. This was one of the “frictions” the German General Staff, misled by the ease of communications in war games, had not planned for.
The wickedly unobliging resistance of the Belgians and visions of the Russian “steam roller crashing through East Prussia further harassed OHL. Friction developed in the Staff. The cult of arrogance practiced by Prussian officers affected no one more painfully than themselves and their allies. General von Stein, Deputy Chief of Staff, though admittedly intelligent, conscientious, and hard-working, was described by the Austrian liaison officer at OHL as rude, tactless, disputatious, and given to the sneering, domineering manner known as the “Berlin Guards’ tone.” Colonel Bauer of the Operations Section hated his chief, Colonel Tappen, for his “biting tone” and “odious manner” toward subordinates. Officers complained because Moltke refused to allow champagne at mess and because fare at the Kaiser’s table was so meager it had to be supplemented with private sandwiches after dinner.
From the moment the French attack began in Lorraine, Moltke’s resolve to carry through Schlieffen’s total reliance upon the right wing began to slip. He and his staff expected the French to bring up their main forces on their left to meet the threat of the German right wing. As anxiously as Lanrezac sent out scouts looking for the British, OHL looked for evidence of strong French movements west of the Meuse, and up to August 17 found none. That vexing problem of war presented by the refusal of the enemy to behave as expected in his own best interest beset them. They concluded from the movement in Lorraine and the lack of movement on the west that the French were concentrating their main force for an offensive through Lorraine between Metz and the Vosges. They asked themselves if this did not require a readjustment of German strategy. If this were the main French attack could not the Germans, by a shift of forces to their own left wing, bring about a decisive battle in Lorraine before the right wing could accomplish it by envelopment? Could they not in fact accomplish a true Cannae, the double envelopment that Schlieffen had held in the back of his mind?
Anxious discussions of this alluring prospect and even some preliminary shifting of the weight of gravity toward the left engaged OHL from August 14 to 17. On that date they decided that the French were not massing in Lorraine to the extent believed and reverted to the original Schlieffen plan. But once divinity of doctrine has been questioned there is no return to perfect faith. From then on, OHL was lured by opportunity on the left wing. Mentally, Moltke had opened his mind to an alternative strategy dependent on what the enemy would do. The passionate simplicity of Schlieffen’s design for total effort by one wing and rigid cleaving to plan regardless of enemy movements was broken. The plan that had appeared so faultless on paper cracked under pressure of the uncertainties, above all the emotions, of war.
Having deprived himself of the comfort of a prearranged strategy, Moltke was thereafter tormented by indecisiveness whenever a decision was required. On August 16 Prince Rupprecht required one urgently. He wanted permission to counterattack. His headquarters at Saint-Avold, a dreary, undistinguished town sunk in a hollow on the edge of the dingy mining district of the Saar, offered no princely amenities, no château for his lodging, not even a Grand Hotel. Westward stretched before him a land of easy rolling hills under wide open skies with no obstacles of importance before the Moselle, and, glowing on the horizon, the prize—Nancy, jewel of Lorraine. Rupprecht argued that his given task to engage as many French troops as possible on his front could best be accomplished by attacking, a theory exactly contrary to the strategy of the “sack.”
For three days, from August 16 to 18, discussion raged over the telephone wire, happily all in German territory, between Rupprecht’s headquarters and General Headquarters. Was the present French attack their main effort? They appeared to be doing nothing “serious” in Alsace or west of the Meuse. What did this indicate? Suppose the French refused to come forward and fall into the “sack”? Suppose Rupprecht continued to retire, would not a gap be opened up between him and the Fifth Army, his neighbor to the right, and would not the French attack through there? Might this not bring defeat to the right wing?
Rupprecht and his Chief of Staff, General Krafft von Dellmensingen, contended that it would. They said their troops were impatiently awaiting the order to attack, that it was difficult to restrain them, that it would be shameful to force retreat upon troops “champing to go forward”; moreover, it was unwise to give up territory in Lorraine at the very outset of the war, even temporarily, unless absolutely forced to. Fascinated yet frightened, OHL could not decide....
[French's] next visit was to Lanrezac. The taut temper at Fifth Army Headquarters appeared in Hély d’Oissel’s first greeting to Huguet when he drove up in a car with the long-sought British officers, on the morning of August 17: “At last you’re here. It’s not a moment too soon. If we are beaten, we’ll owe it to you.” General Lanrezac appeared on the steps to greet his visitors whose appearance in the flesh did not dispel lingering suspicions that he was being tricked by officers without divisions. Nothing said in the ensuing half-hour did much to reassure him. Speaking no English and his vis-à-vis no useful French, the two generals retired to confer alone without interpreters, a procedure of such dubious value that to explain it as done out of a mania for secrecy, as suggested by Lieutenant Spears, seems hardly adequate.
They emerged shortly to join their staffs, of whom several were bilingual, in the Operations Room. Sir John French peered at the map, put on his glasses, pointed to a spot on the Meuse, and attempted to ask in French whether General Lanrezac thought the Germans would cross the river at that point which bore the virtually unpronounceable name Huy. As the bridge at Huy was the only one between Liège and Namur and as von Bülow’s troops were crossing it as he spoke, Sir John French’s question was correct if superfluous. He stumbled first over the phrase “cross the river” and had to be prompted by Henry Wilson who supplied “traverser le fleuve,” but when he came to “à Huy,” he faltered again. “What does he say? What does he say?” Lanrezac was asking restively. “… à Hoy,” Sir John French finally managed to bring out, pronouncing it as if he were hailing a ship.
It was explained to Lanrezac that the British Commander in Chief wished to know if he thought the Germans would cross the Meuse at Huy. “Tell the Marshal,” replied Lanrezac, “I think the Germans have come to the Meuse to fish.” His tone, which he might have applied to some particularly dimwitted question at one of his famous lectures, was not one customarily used toward the Field Marshal of a friendly army.
“What does he say? What does he say?” Sir John French, catching the tone if not the meaning, asked in his turn. “He says they are going to cross the river, sir,” Wilson answered smoothly.
In the mood engendered by this exchange, misunderstandings flourished. Billets and lines of communication, an inevitable source of friction between neighboring armies, produced the first one. There was a more serious misunderstanding about the use of cavalry, each commander wanting the use of the other’s for strategic reconnaissance. Sordet’s tired and half-shoeless corps which Joffre had assigned to Lanrezac had just been pulled away again on a mission to make contact with the Belgians north of the Sambre in the hope of persuading them not to retreat to Antwerp. Lanrezac was in dire need—as were the British—of information about the enemy’s units and line of march. He wanted use of the fresh British cavalry division. Sir John French refused it. Having come to France with only four divisions instead of six, he wished to hold the cavalry back temporarily as reserve. Lanrezac understood him to say he intended employing it as mounted infantry in the line, a contemptible form of activity which the hero of Kimberley would as soon have used as a dry-fly fisherman would use live bait...