On 19 August 1914 Kaiser Wilhelm II issued the following instructions to the German First Army and its Commander, Alexander von Kluck.
‘It is my Royal and Imperial command that you concentrate your energies – for the immediate present – upon one single purpose and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate, first, the treacherous English… walk over General French’s contemptible little Army…’
Apparently, a copy of the order fell into British hands during the Battle of the Marne (6 – 12 September 1914.) The British Army became aware of the message when a translation of the document was included in the routine Orders of the Day on 24 September.
When it was read out to the assembled ranks the officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) reacted with typical Army humour and began to call themselves the ‘Old Contemptibles’. The nickname stuck and created a legend that endures in the public mind.
However, there is an intriguing element of mystery to the story as no original copy of the order has ever been found. In the 1920s the Historical Branch invested much time and effort searching for the original version of the document. Correspondence with the German military failed to produce a copy. The Kaiser denied ever issuing the order – although given his erratic personality he cannot be counted as a reliable witness. Ultimately, the Historical Branch was forced to abandon the search.
The lack of an original document prompted Major General Sir Frederick Maurice to claim in an article in the Daily News (6 November, 1925) that the telegram was a complete fabrication and nothing more than a clever British propaganda ploy.
Arthur Ponsonby agreed with this assessment in his 1928 book Falsehood in Wartime. However, neither author was able to produce any evidence to support their claim that the document was a forgery and therefore their argument is speculative and ultimately unconvincing.
Nevertheless, although the precise source of the Kaiser’s order remains elusive there is no doubt that it accurately reflected Wilhelm II’s vicious Anglophobia and the German military’s contempt for the British Army. Confident that the Schlieffen Plan would win the war in a matter of weeks, the General Staff arrogantly assumed that any British force that opposed the German advance would be swiftly crushed.
But the BEF of 1914 confounded these expectations. With a full establishment of six infantry divisions and a single cavalry division it was small – perhaps contemptibly so – when compared to the enormous armies of France and Germany. However, its size belied its fighting prowess. The volunteer composition of the BEF meant that man for man it was the best trained Army in Europe. Pre-war training had emphasised marksmanship; individual initiative and fire and movement tactics. As a result the BEF was a formidable fighting force that proved its mettle in the fierce combat of August to November 1914.
Although the battles of 1914 were primarily Franco-German affairs, the BEF played an important role. The BEF proved to be the grit in the engine of the German war machine. Its repeated clashes with von Kluck’s First Army during the retreat from Mons delayed the German advance and disrupted the strict timetable of the Schlieffen Plan. After a tenacious performance during the Great Retreat in late August the BEF was in position to counterattack alongside French forces at the Battle of the Marne in early September. The decisive Allied victory that followed shattered the Schlieffen Plan and saved Paris. The ‘contemptible little Army’ had played a key part in this famous campaign.
The final word should rest with the Old Contemptibles themselves. Attached to the bottom of the translation of the Kaiser’s order is an understated sentence that conveys a great deal. It reads: ‘The answer of the British Army on the subject of extermination has already been given’.
 The National Archives, WO 123/199, BEF Routine Orders, 24 September 1914.
To read more about the ‘Old Contemptibles’ and the battles of 1914, purchase ‘Stemming the Tide: Officers and Leadership in the British Expedtionary Force 1914‘ by Spencer Jones.