The Great War: Mystery or Error?

The Great War: Mystery or Error?

Mini Teaser: While interesting, recent attempts to make sense of World War I ultimately fail to account for the true cause of both the war and its protraction: German militarism.

by Author(s): Michael Howard

So if peace was impossible, the war had to go on, and it was Falkenhayn, now German chief of staff, who first formulated a strategy for its conduct. The experience of 1914-15, especially on the Eastern Front, proved that victories on the battlefield, however spectacular, could not in themselves prove decisive. What mattered now was not the skill of the rival generals or the courage of their armies, but the will and capacity of the enemy governments and peoples to continue the war. Their capitulation could be effected, not by "defeating" their armies, but by bleeding them to death, which could best be done by massive use of artillery. That, hopefully, would inflict heavy losses on enemy forces while being economical with one's own. Unfortunately, the Allies had come to very much the same conclusion. The result was two years of nightmare on the Western Front, when generals calculated advantage not in terms of ground held or gained, but of "body bags" counted in scores of thousands; while the industrial resources of the belligerents were mobilized to produce the millions of shells needed to bring about what was intended to be a decisive result.

Both Keegan and Ferguson wonder how it was that the troops stuck it out for as long as they did. But for that generation hardship and deprivation were commonplace; social deference re-inforced military discipline; and if romantic patriotism did not long survive the first experience of shell fire, it was replaced by the far more enduring bonds of "comradeship" that made the experience of war not only tolerable but, for some, almost rewarding. To understand what kept the British Army fighting we should read Guy Chapman and Robert Graves, rather than such highly strung witnesses as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; for the Germans, Ernst Jünger rather than Erich Maria Remarque. It is more difficult to understand what kept the civilian populations going as, under the combined pressures of military demand and enemy blockade, clothing and household goods disappeared from the shops, health deteriorated, and foodstuffs dwindled to famine proportions. Indeed, the greatest fear among pre-war soldiers and statesmen had been that prolonged war would shatter civilian morale, and sooner or later this would result in revolution. Sooner or later it certainly did; but it took three years even in a Russia barely recovered from one revolution, and over four in Germany and the Habsburg Empire. There is, as Adam Smith grimly remarked, a great deal of ruin in a nation.

But Falkenhayn, unfortunately, was probably right. It is true that by the last year of the war both sides had developed operational strategies that broke the deadlock of trench warfare, employing weapons and techniques that had not been available in 1914, and battlefield skills that could be learned only through the grueling experiences of the mid-war years. But it is doubtful whether those techniques would have been effective against armies that had not already been fatally weakened by the long years of trench warfare, and whose morale had not been eroded by the sufferings of their families at home. The military leadership on both sides squandered countless lives as they felt their way to an operational solution for their problems, but it has yet to be shown that there was any short cut that would have provided that solution any sooner. Even the much reviled British generals, brought up in a tradition that ignored Continental warfare, did little worse than their Continental colleagues in an environment that was equally strange for all of them.

The military cannot be absolved of all responsibility for the often unnecessary sufferings they imposed on their troops, but ultimate responsibility must lie with a political leadership that not only started the war in the first place, but failed to make peace when the full costs of the war had become clear; and the political leaders who both started and prolonged the war were the Germans.

As we have seen, a whole accumulation of circumstances made war likely in 1914. It might have come sooner if any one of a series of crises during the previous decade had been less skillfully managed. Even if the crisis provoked by the Sarajevo assassinations had been successfully surmounted, the chances of Europe remaining at peace for much longer were very slight indeed. But the Germans should have known better than anyone what war would entail. As early as 1890 their great hero, the elder Helmuth von Moltke, had warned the Reichstag that the next European war might well last for thirty years: "Woe to the man who sets Europe ablaze", he declared, "who first throws a match into the powder barrel!" Von Moltke may indeed have realized that the man who would ultimately do so had just succeeded to the throne of the German Empire: Kaiser Wilhelm II.

This does not mean that Wilhelm II, although he personally embodied all of the least attractive characteristics of the German ruling classes, was, as Allied propaganda suggested, personally responsible for the outbreak of the war. But in his role as head of the German state and its highest war lord he bore ultimate responsibility for the decisions of his government. Nor did those decisions necessarily imply, as Fritz Fischer has argued, that the German government had deliberately planned aggressive war. The evidence is equally strong, as Ferguson rightly points out, that their immediate motivation was defensive. The High Command considered war to be inevitable once Russia had completed her massive French-financed mobilization program in three years' time, and they believed that Germany's only hope of survival lay in the kind of pre-emptive blow that Frederick the Great had so successfully struck at the gathering forces of his enemies at the beginning of the Seven Years' War.

What is incontestable is that the German political leadership took a series of gambles involving a high probability of war that did not come off. The first was the "blank check" issued to Austria- Hungary on July 5, 1914 encouraging them to go ahead with their ultimatum to Serbia and so to risk war with Russia. The second was a grand strategy that guaranteed that wherever and whatever the casus belli, the war would begin with a massive invasion of France. The third was an operational plan involving not only an infringement of Belgian neutrality, but a complete occupation of that country that guaranteed war with Britain--and an occupation whose brutality, however exaggerated it may have been by Allied propaganda, was sufficient to destroy such sympathy for the German cause as existed in neutral nations. A fourth, most fatal of all, was the decision for unrestricted submarine warfare two years later, which, predictably, guaranteed war with the United States.

In all these cases there was certainly an outside chance that the gamble would pay off; that Russia would be deterred from intervention, that France would be quickly crushed, that the British would abstain from Continental involvement, that the war would be won before the United States could intervene. One such gamble might be dismissed as injudicious; four look very much like madness.

A regime capable of making such decisions can at best be described as very peculiar indeed; certainly not one whose hegemony over Europe was likely to coexist peacefully for very long with such liberal democracies as Britain and the United States. The Napoleonic hegemony had been bad enough, but the doctrines on which it was based--the destruction of archaic privileges, the creation of legal and political structures based on the values of the Enlightenment--won it genuine support among the middle classes throughout Europe. But a German hegemony offered nothing except a rule based upon military power, exercised by a caste concerned only to preserve and extend its own dominance; and, in Eastern Europe at least, based on an explicit doctrine not only of territorial conquest but of racial superiority. This creed was to be labeled by Allied propagandists "Prussianism", which was in fact a libel on a country whose traditions of hard work and self-denial were in many ways admirable. But it remained a creed that despised the liberal democracy of the West, elevated service to the state as the highest virtue, and glorified military values above all others. Such sentiments could certainly be found elsewhere in Europe, not least in Britain, but nowhere else did they exist in so ferocious a concentration. There can be little doubt that military victory would have strengthened rather than eroded them.

That there were other and finer traditions in Germany than the militarism embraced by the ruling classes is beyond doubt. Indeed, as Ferguson rightly points out, German journalists and politicians were the first to identify "militarism" and were ferociously effective in their attacks on it. If the militarized upper classes and their imitators among the bourgeoisie welcomed the war, with all the opportunities it offered for the expansion of German power, the Social Democrats, the majority party in the Reichstag, only fell in line when Russia was maneuvered into taking the first step by ordering mobilization. The war could then be depicted to the Reichstag as being purely defensive. The September Program certainly embodied the aspirations of all the interest groups who wanted to increase German power, as well as those of the military who wanted permanently to guarantee German security, but a substantial minority in the Reichstag courageously continued to demand peace without annexations or indemnities.

Essay Types: Essay