What If World War I Was Just a Tragic Accident?


Within the century because the finish of World Conflict I historians have pointed to many causes—however is it attainable not one of the combatant nations needed battle?

Folks nonetheless regard World Conflict I with horrified disbelief. That four-year “ecstasy of fumbling” killed some 10 million troopers and maybe as many civilians, numbers that defy comprehension. Shell-shocked governments had little to indicate for the fields of white crosses popping up on their pockmarked landscapes. Grieving households the world over needed to know who was in charge for having despatched their sons, fathers and husbands to die ghastly and ineffective deaths in what American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan termed “the nice seminal disaster,” or Urkatasrophe (“authentic disaster”) to Germans.

Who certainly? And why? Over the many years because the weapons of the—apologies to H.G. Wells—“Conflict That Didn’t Finish Conflict” fell silent, the writers of some 30,000 books, technical studies and scholarly papers have debated the chain of occasions prompting unprecedented historic, social, financial and technological penalties that left Eurasian politics radioactive by way of century’s finish. New analysis regularly provides to this library, usually bringing extra controversy than readability.

That there have been knights and knaves in all camps is a given. Nevertheless, in the event that they appeared to have acted like fools, scoundrels or madmen, decide them “within the context of their instances, not ours,” urge historians, which sounds suspiciously like having to simply accept “it appeared like a good suggestion on the time” as an evidence.

Whether or not the battle was inevitable or avoidable will depend on which books one reads. Many stand by the notion that within the many years main as much as 1914 all Europe was captivated with going to battle, that its nations have been armed camps, and that by amassing million-man armies it solely fed what Australian historian Sir Christopher Clark has known as “the phantasm of a steadily constructing causal strain.” On this model of the story imperial Germany was an emergent dynamo infused with visions of discovering its well-deserved “place within the solar” and obtained right into a race for colonies and naval superiority that dangerously upset the steadiness of energy.


Nationwide leaders each civil and royal, corresponding to Tsar Nicholas II, boosted army morale with speeches and visits to the troops. / Roger Viollet, API, Getty Photographs

In what is called the “Scramble for Africa,” from the mid-Eighties up until the eve of World Conflict I almost 90 p.c of the continent was colonized by Western European powers, primarily Britain and France. Although Germany fired the beginning gun, its ambitions went unfulfilled. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had convened the 1884–85 Berlin Convention for the specific function of partitioning Africa in a fashion designed to keep away from stumbling right into a battle. The scramble itself was marked by quite a few “worldwide incidents” involving some mixture of Germany, Britain or France, however these have been resolved peacefully.

The concurrent naval arms race between Britain and Germany is the showpiece of the pro-war argument. By the point Germany successfully conceded that race in 1912, Britain had 61 top-of-the-line warships to Germany’s 31 of middling high quality. A single temporary sortie at Jutland in 1916—although a tactical victory for the Imperial German Navy—was sufficient to maintain it docked at some stage in the battle. An offended Vice Admiral Curt von Maltzahn was heard to fume, “Even when giant elements of our battle fleet have been mendacity on the backside of the ocean, it could accomplish greater than it does mendacity effectively preserved in our ports.”

France is commonly portrayed as thirsting for revenge after its humiliating 1870 defeat by Prussia, in addition to being eager to get better Alsace-Lorraine. “Even a cursory data of occasions reveals there’s no fact to this declare,” counters Michael Neiberg, chair of Conflict Research on the U.S. Military Conflict School in Carlisle, Pa. In his ebook Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World Conflict I Neiberg drives a stake by way of the center of this argument, revealing it was a lurid homicide trial, not Alsace-Lorraine, that preoccupied the French public through the July Disaster of 1914. He cites polling displaying that scarcely 4 p.c of French residents thought-about the area value going to battle over.

Scholarship by Notre Dame political scientist Sebastian Rosato confirms that neither Germany nor France noticeably elevated the dimensions of its military within the decade main as much as the battle. So unprepared was France that some 95 p.c of the artillery shells it fired in 1914 have been made in Germany, whereas its textile mills might solely produce blue uniforms. “There was no broad public assist for battle among the many working courses of Europe,” Rosato notes. “Voters in prewar France and Germany voted constantly for anti-military events.”

Nor did the households of the final 4 sovereign empires of Europe need battle. The Hohenzollerns of Germany; the Habsburgs of Austria-Hungary, whose emperor Franz Joseph had paradoxically declared, “It’s the first responsibility of kings to maintain peace”; the Romanovs of Russia, infamous for capturing crowds of demonstrators; and the Three Pashas, whose faltering Ottoman empire was on life assist when the battle broke out. This group refused to go gently into the nice night time of constitutional monarchism, clinging to wealth and energy by suppressing pent-up actions for political independence, social reform, spiritual freedom and democratization that had roiled their empires by way of the nineteenth century. Their populations have been desperate to get on with making what Oxford College historian Margaret McMillan phrases “the transition from topic to citizen.” The thought a battle may give these unruly lots the means and alternative to just do that stored these households up nights—and rightly so. By 1918 a royal diaspora had solid all of them to the wind.

In his ebook 1913: In Search of the World Earlier than the Nice Conflict British-Australian historian Charles Emmerson describes a Europe celebrating a gilded age of peace, progress and prosperity. “It might be very, very exhausting to think about this excellent, shiny, rich, globalized, affluent, civilized assemble which had been constructed during the last hundred years…may very well be shattered by battle in a second of insanity,” Emmerson notes. Certainly, as late as Could 1914 British Undersecretary for Overseas Affairs Sir Arthur Nicolson was moved to declare, “Since I’ve been on the international workplace I’ve not seen such calm waters.”

But when “battle fever” was absent within the years main as much as 1914, what explains the army parades mobbed by cheering onlookers, overflowing recruiting stations and trains crowded with smiling males waving goodbye to wives and moms as captured in grainy movies of the day?

Contrary to fears among European governments that the outbreak of war would cause widespread civil unrest among their peoples, the news about military mobilization was initially greeted with almost hysterical public enthusiasm. Crowds across the continent cheered on the troops. / Roger Viollet, API, Getty Images
Opposite to fears amongst European governments that the outbreak of battle would trigger widespread civil unrest amongst their peoples, the information about army mobilization was initially greeted with nearly hysterical public enthusiasm. Crowds throughout the continent cheered on the troops. / Roger Viollet, API, Getty Photographs

“It’s important to understanding World Conflict I to know how deeply the boys who enlisted on all sides really purchased into the ‘quick battle’ fantasy,” Neiberg says. For the reason that thought of battle was to this point faraway from the general public consciousness when it all of a sudden broke out, each combatant authorities discovered itself dashing to guarantee its anxious populace it was appearing purely of their protection—an argument made with various levels of credibility. Belgium might rightly make that declare. France made it a degree of nationwide delight to not strike the primary blow. Certainly, it had withdrawn its military a number of miles from the German border at Alsace-Lorraine to keep away from any incidents which may set off gunfire.

Germany, in the meantime, loaded its males onto trains, claiming to be responding in variety to Russian mobilization. “We draw the sword with a clear conscience and with clear palms,” Kaiser Wilhelm II swore solemnly, though his army junta had hassle explaining why trains carrying a “defensive” military have been heading towards Belgium, which hadn’t fired a shot in anger, quite than Serbia, the place murderer Gavrilo Princip had killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and spouse Sophie in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

Generals in each the Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies had ample purpose to concern that patriotic loyalty to a monarch who’d mistreated his populace in instances previous won’t encourage males to reply call-up orders. They have been improper. Conscripts confirmed up by the thousands and thousands. Standing shoulder to shoulder have been capitalists, socialists, royalists, nationalists, peasants and princes, most of whom believed passionately they have been preventing to defend their homeland from an unprovoked assault that threatened their nation’s survival. Who wouldn’t be keen?

Males have been additionally fast to enlist as a result of they believed simply as fervently they might be dwelling by Christmas, carrying medals and regaling the women with battle tales. Such patriotic flimflam grew to become an article of religion among the many males who’d answered their respective nation’s name and would hang-out all who touted it. The kaiser promised his boys they’d be dwelling “earlier than the leaves fall” as a result of religion in brief, decisive wars was the bedrock of German army planning in 1914. Had Prussia not overwhelmed Austria in seven weeks in 1866 and France in six months in 1870?

The commanders of all European armies had realized the improper lesson from the comparatively temporary regional wars of the nineteenth century. Their observers had witnessed firsthand how technological innovation—the regular improve in vary and charges of rifle hearth, and the appearance of early machine weapons and artillery shells 10 instances extra highly effective than Napoléon’s cannon balls—was making the battlefield more and more deadly for troopers. These have been omens of a daunting pattern that army institutions of each uniform misinterpret wildly.

On Oct. 25, 1854, amid the Crimean Conflict, the notorious cost of a British brigade of sunshine cavalry into the muzzles of Russian cannons left 110 of the 600 horsemen lifeless and one other 161 wounded. The survivors have been immortalized for his or her gallantry. On the Aug. 16, 1870, Battle of Mars-La-Tour one other “dying trip” noticed 800 hot-blooded Prussian cavalrymen cost headlong into the tooth of withering French hearth. Half their quantity have been shot from their horses. Such suicidal bravado aroused admiration. The 1904–05 Russo-Japanese Conflict witnessed the biggest land battle so far at Mukden however stays famend for tiny Japan’s masterful defeat of large Russia’s imperial fleet within the decisive encounter at Tsushima Bay (see “Japan’s Trafalgar,” by Alan George, within the January 2022 Navy Historical past).

Extremely, the message apparently gleaned by army observers was that troops infused with patriotic élan might overwhelm even the stoutest enemy defenses. This naive, if not callous, calculation meant the one factor inevitable about World Conflict I used to be its horrendous dying toll.

On the shut of the nineteenth century Polish entrepreneur and army theorist Jan Gotlib Bloch sought to methodically quantify fashionable warfare. His conclusions got here because the mom of all inconvenient truths to army planners of the day. In essence he declared battle had turn into simply too massive, too damaging, too lethal, too costly and too unpredictable to be an efficient instrument of “politics by different means.” Bloch was ignored. In 1914 machine weapons turned the valiant expenses of troops throughout open nation into obscene massacres at as much as 600 rounds per minute. Much more have been blown to items by massed rapid-fire artillery. Germany alone sustained greater than a 3rd of all its casualties within the first three months of the battle. Thus the trenches have turn into the icon of World Conflict I.

No dialogue of how the battle obtained began omits the Schlieffen Plan. That German army scheme to rapidly knock France out of a future battle proved greater than they might deal with. The Allies’ 1914 “Miracle of the Marne” stopped the kaiser’s gray-clad divisions inside 50 miles of Paris. Failure of the plan is taken into account Germany’s first misstep on the street to catastrophe. But, Rosato argues, Discipline Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen’s proposal, written a decade earlier, was by no means greater than a “theoretical paper train” to justify growth of the German military. The plan, such because it was, was designed solely to carry France in verify whereas Germany took on its actual enemy, Russia; there was by no means alleged to be a left hook round Paris. In 1914 the Germans had deliberate solely a sequence of small defensive firefights, however given the fast French retreat, their troops have been compelled to comply with. Thus the operation was a traditional case of mission creep that solely regarded just like the Schlieffen Plan.

By the tip of 1914, with thousands and thousands lifeless and no finish in sight to the killing, the “quick battle” promise lay uncovered for the murderous fantasy it was. So why didn’t the opposing forces cease the madness and search a negotiated settlement? As a result of by then every combatant nation believed it was preventing a defensive battle it needed to win if it have been to outlive. As in all wars, the dying of comrades solely made these nonetheless alive extra decided to kill the enemy in revenge. “The depth of the hatred already engendered on all sides made peace unattainable,” Neiberg says.

So the battle floor its bloody grist for 3 extra years. Historians earnestly focus on the varied alternatives that arose for one facet or the opposite—particularly Germany—to have struck a decisive blow that will have “received” the battle. But it’s unrealistic to consider Germany had the aptitude to win the battle as its leaders envisioned successful. Their counterparts in London, Moscow and Washington would have had zero tolerance for the German tricolor flying atop the Eiffel Tower.

In the meantime, anchored throughout the English Channel was a navy with a three-century custom of scoring war-winning victories over rival navies. The most important maritime power on earth, Britain’s Royal Navy, projected and guarded the ability of the then largest empire on earth. Had Germany triumphed on the Continent, Berlin would have had no technique of impeding Britain from utilizing its huge human, monetary, pure and industrial assets to wage battle. Royal Navy ships seized or sank 1 / 4 of the kaiser’s service provider transport in simply three months, whereas Germany’s submarines did little greater than make severe enemies.

Whether or not czarist or communist, Russia has at all times been huge. No nation then or now has ever possessed the army scope to overcome it. That’s why Germany enabled an unknown and unemployed malcontent named Vladimir Lenin to do its soiled work, permitting the army mind belief in Berlin to conveniently keep away from the insurmountable drawback of placing German boots on the bottom in Moscow.

America, for its half, was just too wealthy for Germany to tackle. By the outbreak of the battle its factories have been already producing 1 / 4 of the manufactured items utilized by Europeans with out breaking a sweat. An isolationist Congress stored it out of the fray so long as attainable regardless of rising public unease with promoting battle materiel to Germany. When the Zimmerman Telegram made headlines, nonetheless, public opinion shifted overwhelmingly in favor of taking the battle to the villains they have been sure had began all of it—the Huns.

Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and wife Sophie descend the steps of Sarajevo’s city hall on June 28, 1914. Their assassination minutes later has long been considered the spark that ignited World War I. / Ullstein Bild, Getty Images
Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and spouse Sophie descend the steps of Sarajevo’s metropolis corridor on June 28, 1914. Their assassination minutes later has lengthy been thought-about the spark that ignited World Conflict I. / Ullstein Bild, Getty Photographs

With the good thing about hindsight, we all know what would have occurred had the Schlieffen Plan labored in 1914, because it did in the summertime of 1940 when the Wehrmacht employed an up to date model to roll over France in a matter of weeks. Adolf Hitler and his generals then proceeded to slavishly repeat all of Erich Ludendorff’s biggest errors, in the end lowering Germany to a smoldering destroy in preventing the identical well-armed enemies and the identical daunting geopolitical realities with the identical predictable consequence. The dimensions was vastly better, and it took longer, however the final result solely appeared uncertain on the time.

Much more phrases have been written about how the battle ended than the way it started. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles initially positioned all of the battle guilt on Germany’s shoulders. Later revisions downgraded it to an unlucky accident, with nobody nation in charge—name it the “Oops Conflict.” Then, in 1961, German historian Fritz Fischer revealed a damning 900-page indictment of his nation’s position in beginning Europe’s “March of Folly,” reviving the talk with a vengeance. Exhibit A was the kaiser’s notorious “clean verify” of assist that egged Austria-Hungary into punishing Serbia for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

However American historian Samuel R. Williamson Jr. is amongst those that reject what he calls the “German Paradigm.” As an alternative, he makes a compelling case that Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I and his international minister, Leopold Berchtold, performed the kaiser like a fiddle, cravenly manipulating the clean verify to launch not a punitive raid however an all-out assault on Serbia. It’s value noting that regardless of shedding almost a 3rd of its inhabitants through the battle, the very best share of any nation, Serbia emerged a winner on the peace talks. The postwar borders in the end expanded it into the Slavic superstate of Yugoslavia. Seen from that perspective, Williamson manufacturers the Sarajevo assassination “essentially the most profitable terrorist act of all time.”

Any implied villainy was shared, historian Clark contends. “Whereas every nation had a restricted understanding of the complexity of what was unfolding,” he says, all of them got here to see Balkan volatility as providing helpful strategic circumstances for advancing their respective political agendas. German diplomat Kurt Riezler summed up the perspective in a letter to his fiancé: “The battle was not needed, however nonetheless calculated, and it broke out on the most opportune second.”

Is it due to our lingering contempt for World Conflict I that we have a good time World Conflict II, the deadliest six years in human historical past, because the “Good Conflict”? It killed at the very least 3 times as many individuals, largely civilians, with fire-bombing, focus camps and nuclear weapons, amongst different horrific means. That its finish was celebrated with Victory Days (as in, “We’re glad we received”) versus the tip of World Conflict I, which was dubbed Armistice Day (as in, “We’re simply glad it’s over”) speaks volumes. Talking of volumes, there’ll undoubtedly be extra of these too, and the talk will proceed. MH

Retired company wordsmith Dan McEwen writes totally on historical past subjects. For additional studying he recommends Dance of the Furies, by Michael S. Neiberg; The Japanese Entrance, 1914–1917, by Norman Stone; and The Three Emperors, by Miranda Carter.

This text appeared within the March 2022 challenge of Navy Historical past journal. For extra tales, subscribe and go to us on Fb.

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