Exactly one hundred years ago, Europe’s fast rising prosperity was brutally stopped after a century of relative peace. The technological, political and economical changes experienced throughout the 19th century led to an increasing rivalry between the Great Powers (UK, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia) who gradually came into building 2 large alliances. The rivalry turned into confrontation and the different states, all for their own reasons, drifted apart because of their won fears. When a Serbian sponsored terrorist act killed throne-in-waiting Archduke Franz Ferdinand, several decades of mistrust triggered a vicious circle leading to open conflict.
During the summer of 1914, the Great Powers mobilized their armies and called soldiers throughout their countries and empires, following war plans drawn, re-drawn and modified numerous time over the previous decades. The rapid development of new technologies such as the railway and the telegraph meant that modern warfare depended upon speedy mobilization and deployment of troops: within a couple of weeks, massive battles broke out and countless lives were lost.
The centenary of the war is reviving renewed interest in this conflict, which is mostly perceived as a bloody, muddy stalemate, where lives were wasted on industrial scale for gains measured in meters. But behind this bleak picture is a vivid conflict during which industrial nations first started to understand the power of new technologies, had to find new ways to organize their societies to sustain a costly war effort, and gradually tended toward total war in a desperate attempt to win.
In his book 1914-1918, David Stevenson offers a powerful, detailed, insightful yet concise history of the Great War. He divides the war into 3 parts: the outbreak in early 1914, with rapid troop movement; the escalation from 1915 until late 1917, during which the opponents desperately sought to break through the stalemate; and the outcome in 1918, with Germany’s last push and its following collapse.
David Stevenson first describes how an uneasy stalemate established due to the stabilization of forces on the Western front: the destructive power of artillery and the machine guns on open fields had inflicted tremendous casualties on both sides. Once the momentum of the war of movement petered out, the opposing armies found themselves equal in manpower and unable to gather sufficient forces to break through enemy lines. After only a couple of months of bloody fighting and winter coming, armies dug in to protect themselves and rest. While previously they would return home through the winter, the Industrial Revolution, canned food and complex logistics operations meant that they could now be sustained throughout the winter: the war of the trenches began and soldiers would not experience maneuver warfare until 4 years later.
The Germans, sitting on occupied territories, dug deep and well protected trenches, hoping to use it as a starting or fall-back point, or at worst as a bargaining chip. The Allied, however, preferred to avoid putting too much effort into complex works out of fear of losing the offensive spirit, especially when Germans were occupying parts of France and most of Belgium. In any case, trenches were refuges from the hell of fire-power that armies exchanged. Indeed, the opening and closing movement battles had higher death ratios than the long, frustrating but (relatively speaking) safer 4 years in between.
The creation of these strong points cutting France from the Channel to the Swiss borders coupled with machine guns, coordinated artillery fire and barb wire draw the advantage strongly toward defense. However, the ‘offensive spirit’ in which officers were trained before (and during) the war as a moral and operational method was in fact leading masses of men to meet a deluge of fire, with little results. From 1915 to 1918, both armies thus sought technical and managerial ways to break through the stalemate.
The Germans, learning quickly and ruthlessly, introduced new weapons that would become emblematic of the war: gas, submarine warfare, or flamethrowers. The Allied, on their part, introduced the tanks, naval blockade and aerial bombing. On both sides, research & development of lethal weapons with the potential for breakthrough created fearful and terrible armaments.
However, their actual efficiency was overemphasized in light of more subtle development: strategic coordination between various Allied commands, fire coordination, battery counter-fire, silent registration (the ability to coordinate accurate artillery fire without having to ‘register’ the targets beforehand by test firing on the target), commandos, or aerial reconnaissance. In addition, now ‘common’ technologies such as the railway, automobiles or the telephone were leveraged to their maximum abilities and played a major role on concentration of forces as well as to answer quickly to emergencies.
This new type of war gradually shifted the emphasis on materials and technologies, with infantry becoming only a part of the (non-yet integrated) armies. It also meant that immense logistics operations had to be undertaken, taking months to prepare and hard work to cover, which left commanders reluctant to stop attacks, even when these were running into strong defenses.
As the war grew increasingly complex in Europe, the rest of the world was gradually brought into the conflict. Both sides sought to draw away enemy forces and weaken their positions in Europe by opening hostilities elsewhere. The Allied, sourcing raw materials and manpower from their colonies, sustained their population and war effort better than Germany. However, the vastness of the Allied international colonies also meant that a great number of resources had to be devoted to their protection. A small Germans troops and boats eluded the Allied and created overblown fears and worries. Most were sunk or killed, but a few managed to resist throughout the war, and even came back ‘victorious’ (German East Africa’s general and commander Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck springs to mind).
In addition to international concerns, all governments were worried about their internal disorders, from the destabilizing effect of bringing unskilled women and workers into an organized workforce, to the financing of a war, to the dwindling food supplies due to the absence of men in the fields. Most incredibly, all countries held out for several years thanks to a mix of censure and patriotism, which legacy was most felt after the war, when population sough to cope with their loss and try to make some sense of this great conflict.
Eventually, mismanagement brought down Imperial Russia and a tightening naval blockade eventually choked the Central Powers’ civilians will to fight. Starting from their low point in late 1914’s, the Allied gradually regained advantage over the Central Powers, bleeding it from its precious manpower and raw materials. However, the pre-war illusion of a ‘short war’ didn’t disappear until spring 1918. Each year, new tactics, deadly weapons or geographic extension of the war kept the hope for quick resolution alive.
The revolutions in Russia (a liberal one in March followed by a Bolshevik one in November) through 1917 decreased confidence in the Allied prospects while boosting the Central Powers’ ones. At that time, the late and slow entry of the United States into the war wasn’t enough to provide reinsurance. Germany, pressured at home and increasingly pressed by time due to the US entry into the war, set out to combine all its lessons learned throughout the war, concentrating on a weak point of the Allied lines and eventually breaking through in Spring of 1918.
Germany ‘s prowess of breaking in open fields in 1918 transformed the illusion of the ‘short war’ into the illusion of the ‘long war’: Allied military planners and politicians were now expecting the war to continue through the early 1920’s. Yet Germany’s last success achieved little, if any, operational goals: even though the Allied armies were falling back in disarray, German troops didn’t secured any strategic goals and effectively pushed into the void.
When their commanders finally decided to capture valuable objectives, they ran into strong prepared defenses. Before they could exploit their gains, the Allied had regain their footing and started to push them back. Disorders, low morale and exhaustion finally led to the crumble of the most fearful army in Europe. Within months, the Allied were faced with a surprising suing for peace of Germany.
Another challenge was now for the Allied to establish the first ‘modern’ peace, one based on higher ideals, promoting peace for decades to come. Wilson’s 14 points, drafted during the war, were taken as a reference point, but eventually a mix of old rivalries, divergent expectations and an unstable Europe produced a series of treaties which would be points of contention for the following decades leading up to the Second World War.
As soon as Germany was beaten, the Allied started to drift apart. The common enemy being neutralized, older and more immediate concerns began to surface again, especially between France and Great Britain in regard to the future of Germany, new countries in Eastern Europe or the division of the Middle East. Other countries invited to the conference could only lobby the 4 winning powers (the USA, UK, France and Italy). Unable to conciliate the high hopes of a multitude of new nations, their own populations and their strategic interests, the Allied negotiated a peace which seemed either too harsh or not enough.
Most of the German population had not experienced war and it’s industry was largely left intact (the war had been waged in France and Belgium, Germany largely used the local resources including coal and iron, and destroyed or took away the industries when its armies collapsed). The peace treaties thus seemed rather harsh, condemning Germany as the sole country responsible for the war. Shaken up by leftists and rightists tendencies, a devastated economy due to inflation and an unstable government, Germans started to blame the treaties for their ills.
The Allied continued to drift apart: UK and France resumed their competition and the US withdrew itself. No country was then able to stop the renewed German rise. David Stevenson however explains that the Second World War could have been avoided, pending coordinated actions and more attention given to Germany’s concerns. The German economy went from bad to worse in the years following the war and the Allied didn’t provide adequate relief. When the Great Depression hit, further resentment built up and governments were increasingly drawn into domestic issues, ditching international coordination altogether.
When WWII finally broke out, the Allied found themselves in the same situation as the pre-1914 one: uncoordinated and unable to stop the German onslaught. The French, still at a demographic disadvantage compared to Germany, built the Maginot Line, a network of fortifications throughout their border with Germany to be able to protect their soldiers and defend their land. The United Kingdom, under heavy financial pressure and with no intention of involving itself again in a costly war, was reluctant to stop Germany.
The latter dully set out to avoid the mistakes of the First World War: they fought on a single front, allowing massive concentration of forces, and integrated their various arms to allow sustained momentum, seizing Channel ports and pushing Britain out of France before it could unload more soldiers. The Allied had to wait for the end of the war and a thoroughly defeated Germany to apply their own lessons (that of peace): physical occupation, de-nazification and full economic support.
Finally, David Stevenson analyses the perception of the war until today, from its rather glorious esteem of the 1920’s, its moral questioning in the 1930’s and its shadowed legacy following WWII, a war that could be more easily understood in Manichean terms. But WWI is infinitely more fascinating: the powerful elements that shaped it are still relevant today and its international legacy only started to change in recent years (with the implosion of the Soviet Union and the instability unrest in the Middle East).
Rising nationalities, an uneasy globalization, rapid technological change, economic crisis and socio-economical models that are questioned are some common (if different) features their times and ours. If anything, the lessons ought to be learned: a long period of peace is not necessarily a good predictor of the absence of future conflict; countries can slide into war even if all sides are reluctant and unwilling; wars are difficult, bloody, long, and costly. This seems obvious, but recent smaller conflicts may suggest the opposite and thus lower the threshold for war in the future.
To conclude, a good understanding of the First World War may serve well to understand both our past and our future. And David Stevenson’s 1914-1918 does a great job in terms of coverage and insights.
Here is the Amazon page.
Here is David Stevenson’s Wikipedia.
Here is a book review from 2004.
Written by Carlito with additional help from Steve
About Carlito Riego
"Great perfection may appear imperfect, but its usefulness is inexhaustible. Great abundance may appear empty, but its usefulness cannot be exhausted. Great correctness may appear twisted, great skills appear crude, great eloquence appear awkward. Activity conquers cold; inactivity conquers heat. Clear serenity governs the world." - Lao Zi