Countdown to the Guns of August
New books examine the beginning of World War I
There was no reason for Europe to commit suicide. As diplomatic historian Gordon Martel points out in The Month That Changed the World: July 1914, there was no compelling reason for the great powers of Europe to go to war in the summer of 1914.
The traditional reasons that nations go to war, like claims over disputed territory or resources, were absent. Trade and cultural exchanges were brisk, most people didn’t want war and in any event the major European states had not fought a war against one another in more than 40 years.
What madman would have predicted that just four years later, Europe would lie devastated and bankrupt?
The answer still eludes us after reading Martel’s book. But The Month That Changed the World sheds light on a troubling question. Was the cataclysm the handiwork of power-mad rulers bent on war, or the result of human stupidity?
In Martel’s account, both are true—and neither. Europe’s leaders were not seeking a world war. Nor did they expect their decisions would necessarily lead to such a war. But they were well aware that their actions could lead to a devastating conflict between the great powers.
Martel examines the political decisions and diplomatic interactions in the crucial five weeks between the June 28, 1914 assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists and Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on Aug. 4.
In particular, he focuses on the eight-day period between July 28, just after Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, and July 31 when Germany issued ultimatums to Russia and France.
What emerges is almost farcical were the outcome not so hideous. Austria-Hungary was determined to preserve its decaying empire by by presenting Serbia with demands so extreme that Belgrade would have to reject them, thus furnishing a pretext to effectively dismember the Balkan nation.
Even when Serbia agreed to most of the Austrian demands, Vienna insisted that all of them must be fulfilled or there would be war. War with Serbia is what Austria-Hungary wanted, despite attempts by the other great powers to work out a peaceful settlement.
Unfortunately, what Austria-Hungary got was war with Serbia’s big Slavic cousin Russia—a war that Vienna had no chance to win without German support.
Great Britain and France naively tried to enlist Kaiser Wilhelm II to convince Austria to soften its demands, without realizing that the eccentric German ruler was playing a double game. While ostensibly wanting peace, he was egging on his Austrian ally not to back down.
If this happened a few decades before or later than 1914, the continent perhaps could have avoided war. But Europe was struggling with the implications of railroads and huge citizen-armies made up of reservists. Should war break out, these reservists were supposed to mobilize and travel to the front via an exquisitely calibrated railroad timetable.
Like the Cold War powers who feared a surprise enemy nuclear strike, early 20th-century Europe worried that whoever mobilized their armies first would have a decisive numerical advantage in the initial days of war.
When Austria declared war on Serbia and Russia mobilized its troops to attack Austria, Germany felt compelled to call up its reserves. Because Russia was allied to France and Germany was desperate to avoid invasion from the east and west, Berlin opted to attack France before it supported Russia.
The German invasion went through neutral Belgium, which drew Britain into the war.
The tragedy was that until the last moment when the ultimatums criss-crossed Europe like machine-gun bullets, some kind of negotiated settlement seemed so very close, if only a emperor here or a prime minister there had made a different decision.
In the end, Europe’s leaders were like children playing with matches who knew a fire could start but never thought the house would burn down.
The Great War Dawning: Germany and Its Army at the Start of World War I focuses on the Imperial Germany army as it went to war in 1914. Sprawling and slightly disorganized, it contains much detail about the German army and the national factors that spawned it.
The authors contend that Germany wasn’t quite as awesome as everyone assumed. There were deficiencies in training, planning and leadership. The Imperial German army was not a monolithic formation, but a combination of forces from multiple states within the empire, such as the Bavarian contingent that had its own commanders.
Control of the military fell to multiple military and governmental bodies.
However, what will interest a modern audience is the book’s indictment of Auftragstaktik, or mission command tactics. Rather than commanders issuing detailed battle plans to their subordinates, Auftragstaktik requires commanders to merely state the overall goal of the battle and let their juniors implement the plan as they see fit.
Today’s U.S. military makes a fetish of the concept, even if American commanders in reality frequently micromanage their troops. Yet The Great War Dawning argues that Auftragstaktik actually hurt Germany’s Schlieffen Plan to first defeat France and then concentrate on Russia.
Because of Auftragstaktik and weak control by the German high command, the commanders of the two German armies advancing through Belgium and on Paris did as they pleased rather than adhering to the spirit of the Schlieffen Plan. The result was confusion, a lack of cooperation between the two armies and ultimate doom on the Western Front.
At top, a 1912 German cavalry charge. Photo via Wikipedia.