“On the afternoon of this day in 1914, two days after declaring war on Russia, Germany declares war on France, moving ahead with a long-held strategy, conceived by the former chief of staff of the German army, Alfred von Schlieffen, for a two-front war against France and Russia. Hours later, France makes its own declaration of war against Germany, readying its troops to move into the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which it had forfeited to Germany in the settlement that ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.
In August 1914, as the great powers of Europe readied their armies and navies for a fight, no one was preparing for a long struggle—both sides were counting on a short, decisive conflict that would end in their favor. “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” Kaiser Wilhelm assured troops leaving for the front in the first week of August 1914. Even though some military leaders, including German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke and his French counterpart, Joseph Joffre, foresaw a longer conflict, they did not modify their war strategy to prepare for that eventuality. One man, the controversial new war secretary in Britain, Lord Horatio Kitchener, did act on his conviction that the war would be a lasting one, insisting from the beginning of the war—against considerable opposition—on the need to build up Britain’s armed forces. “A nation like Germany,” Kitchener argued, “after having forced the issue, will only give in after it is beaten to the ground. This will take a very long time. No one living knows how long.”