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Posted on Nov 25, 2007 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Agadir and Churchill’s Prediction

By Carlo D'Este

At the time, however, the Committee ignored Churchill’s thoughtful memorandum. Among his detractors was the Director of Military Operations, General Sir Henry Wilson (later a Field Marshal and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1918-1922), who has been described “as perhaps the most ‘political’ soldier ever to have held high office in the British Army,” and “an inveterate intriguer,” all of which was to come later. (8)

In 1911, Wilson’s focus was the coming war with Germany. In his diary, written before the Committee meeting on August 23, Wilson disparaged both the paper and the amateur strategist who wrote it. “Winston has put in a ridiculous and fantastic paper on a war on the French and German frontier, which I was able to demolish. I believe he is in close touch with Kitchener and French, neither of whom knows anything at all about the subject.” (9)

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As it would turn out, Wilson and Churchill were not all that far apart in their ideas; they only differed in the means. Henry Hughes Wilson was a diligent student of war and an indefatigable practitioner of the concept that was practiced by a young American army officer, George S. Patton, Jr.: to understand war one must inspect the ground upon which it will be fought. In 1912, and again the following year, Patton toured Normandy, convinced he would one day command troops in a battle there. In 1909, Wilson spent ten days, partly on a bicycle, touring the French and Belgian frontiers to gain a perspective on how and where the Germans might invade the West. “During the next four years,” notes Barbara Tuchman, “he repeated his visits three or four times a year, each time making bicycle or motor tours of the old battlefields of 1870 and of anticipated future battlefields in Lorraine and the Ardennes.” Wilson also conferred with Gen. Ferdinand Foch, then the director of the French War College, and France’s leading military thinker. When he assumed the post of Director of Military Operations in 1910, Wilson was troubled to discover that there were no plans in existence either for mobilization of the British Army or for sending an expeditionary force to assist France. Wilson’s London office was covered with an enormous map of Belgium “with every road by which he thought the Germans could march in heavy black.” (10)

In 1911, no one in Britain, not even Churchill, was a greater student of war or a proponent of planning how to fight a war on the European continent than Wilson. Churchill would later credit Wilson as “the man from whom I learned most” about a potential war with Germany. (11)

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The “amateur” strategist who wrote the scenario for war in France proved to be a prophet when World War I engulfed Europe in the summer of 1914. When the Germans invaded France three years later, Churchill’s brilliant predictions came true virtually to the day. By late August 1914, victory seemed within German grasp as French and British units fell back almost to Paris. The Germans broke the line of the Meuse on D+21 days and the French Army held at the Marne on D+33 days, prompting Arthur Balfour to praise it as “a triumph of prophecy.” (12)

After this valiant stand by both French and British forces, the German high command, instead of continuing their offensive, elected to pull back from the Marne to positions along the River Aisne, thereby losing the initiative, and, ultimately turning what might have been victory into a bloody four-year stalemate. Although it was not the only reason why Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith appointed Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty later that year, his boldness and foresight were certainly contributing factors why at the young age of thirty-seven he ascended to one of the most important posts in the British government.

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