History Remembrance Day and Myths Part 2
Good day all, I hope this latest missive finds you in good health? Since November is now with us I thought we’d continue our examination of one of the most important days in that month’s calendar and now that the Melbourne Cup, has finished it time to go on to the second part of our series on the Great War. Once more we will be disposing of a number of misconceptions and myths regarding that terrible conflict.
First; The Plans
In the last part of the Industrial Steam Age the manner of warfare had as most historians agree changed dramatically, the first signs of this transformation had appeared in the American Civil War of 1861-1864. I have covered part of this surge of development in my prior article on WMD’s through the ages, in regard to the naval developments with the first modern ironclad warships; the USS Monitor and the CSS Merrimac/Virginia. While these threatened the naval balance of power the greatest leap forward was in communication. It was the first war where the respective commanders in chief could receive real time intelligence and reports via telegraph. So the reports of success or failure could be managed with reinforcements rushed close to the area by the other wonder of the age, the railway.
The steam train and railway had an extremely important impact on all facets of ninetieth century society, it provided an almost unlimited mobility to freight and people. By rail they could be transported to the ever increasing boundaries of the network, distance that previously took weeks by river or rutted dirt track could be covered in days. To the modern military observers of that conflict this new advance in logistics and movement set them theorising on the possibilities. An army need no longer be restricted by poor weather or slow down its campaign to forage for supplies. So long as a rail line was nearby an army was liberated from the previous limitations of manoeuvre that had dogged every commander from Caesar to Napoleon. We will explore the ramifications of this development in the next section, in the meantime there was one more crucial factor of the Civil War that had set the European military a thinking; conscription and mobilisation.
This idea of rapidly creating a national army by conscription was not new, the revolutionary armies of the France proved that they could stand off and defeat the professional armies of Austria, Prussia and Britain. That linked with the growing manufacturing capacity of the early Industrial Age kept up a ready supply of uniforms, weapons and gunpowder. However as stated before the harnessing of the latest technologies had given these instant armies a new speed and greater punch. Now in contrast to the usual image of generals always planning for the last war, the European high commands pondered the opportunities now available and how best to use them. Surprisingly none was more radical and innovative than the Prussian/German army, famous for its rigid traditions and adherence to hierarchy.
AJP Taylor and the German Railway Timetables
When I was in high school decades ago studying modern history, we had to deal with the path to World War One and the Weimar Republic in some detail. A major part of that was an analysis of AJP Taylor’s then recent book War by Timetable (1969). The prominent and in some cases notorious British historian maintained that the need for a speedy mobilisation and transport by all the competing European powers increased the chance of war. He viewed it as an early and failed form of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) that rather than serving as a brake to potential conflict closed diplomatic solutions as competing timetables locked into place. In some respects this was a reasonable view of events when seen from the distance of fifty years. However all historians are limited by two factors, first the social and political flavour of the period they are writing in. Second access to information, in 1961 German historian Fritz Fischer released his decade’s long study of the archives of Imperial Germany in his book Germany’s Aims in the First World War. It came up with the then controversial proof that the Imperial German government had been actively planning for a war to secure colonies and a ‘rightful’ dominance in Europe. Since then his conclusions have not been successfully refuted. It also throws doubt on Taylor’s Timetables argument as a thinly veiled criticism of the Nuclear confrontation of the US and Russia. Other historians maintained that it was the alliance treaties that separated Europe into two polar blocs, each a rival to the other and that created the tensions pushing each into the war. I do not think it was that simple, individual nations and their leaders in each alliance were frequently more influenced by their own distinct political and economic agendas. Those I believe were more crucial in the decision to join the war, than any amorphous external association.
Now having got that complex section of rival theories out of the way we will examine very briefly and simply the concepts of the various participants’ plans.
The French plans shifted and changed depending on which school of military thought had control the French general staff, the GQG. From the crushing defeats of 1870 to the early twentieth century they were purely defensive in nature, with only a few flutters of adventurism. All plans emphasised fortifications and blocking positions by the French army, Verdun as a gateway fortress was in held particular significance. By the early twentieth century this defensive attitude was treated with scorn by a number of French writers, claiming that it admitted to an inherent ‘cringing inferiority’ to the Germans.
With the resurgence of France as a colonial power this apparent subservience was pushed aside as the French military looked to a past before the disaster of 1870 and rediscovered the Furor Gallicae. The spirit of élan vital of the Revolution of 1789 and then translated that into the new military doctrine. According to this theory the French are by disposition a valorous race and always perform best in the attack. Therefore the best defence for France was attack!
This new strategic and tactical idea was given the title of Plan Seventeen and shifted focus to a much more aggressive stance, advocating a full on assault into the contested territory of Alsace–Lorraine. Thus for GQG this new plan married two key aims of French military aspiration and national policy. The first objective was to regain the lost provinces and the second to halt or break up the predicted German offensive that they knew was being planned.
The main aspect of this plan while proclaiming the essential need for offensive al a bayonet! was still in essence a defensive reaction, it would only swing into play if Germany threatened.
If the difficulty was with Britain, as during the brief flurry of the ‘Fashoda’ incident, the plans were vague. Targets such as Gibraltar and Malta were suggested, as was commerce raiding. However the traditional historical dominance of the Royal Navy and speed of British ship construction made any French advantages fleeting. As for military retaliation, that could only occur where colonial territories abutted since the channel was still a barrier. Realistically since the British could at will strangle French trade or severe the links to North Africa, any nationalistic anti-British rancour tended to be limited to blasts in the popular press or brief public protests. On another level the increasing ties of social interaction, culture and trade between London and Paris smoothed over these minor disputes.
It was a common belief in Britain that they could scorn the affairs of Europe since the barrier of the Channel was an effective shield, however that didn’t create a consciousness of isolationist as did the expanse of the Atlantic for the United States. The British government understood that like it or not geography and history made the island kingdom a long term player in the affairs of Europe. The barrier of the surrounding seas was not such a bulwark from foes, it could and had been a frequent highway for invasion. The French historian Braudel would say their foreign policies were shaped by environmental determinism. The key being the dominant weather patterns, first the Gulf Stream carried the Armada from Spain to the south coast of Cornwall then along to the Dover straits. While the currents of the North Sea provided a different peril as it washed from Norway along Denmark then past the Low countries of Nederland and Belgium. N.A.M. Rodger a distinguished naval historian in his amazing three volume history of the Royal Navy repeatedly pointed out the vulnerability of that cross channel stretch from Ostend to Dunkirk. It was the tender spot of British international politics and whom ever held it was a potential enemy.
This simple fact rather than any humanitarian or neighbourly concern is what prompted Britain after the Napoleonic Wars to unconditionally guarantee the independence of first the Nederlands than then Belgium. Every European nation was warned that if they threatened that ‘neutrality’ then the might of Britain would be used against them. That aside the other factor that caused immediate British concern was the development of a fleet that could threaten their naval dominance. Which is exactly the course that Kaiser Wilhelm and his naval advocate Admiral Tirpitz embarked upon.
As for active plans, in case of threat they didn’t actively call upon the army as did most of Europe. The largest part of the British forces where spread throughout the empire, especially in India. Anyway in time of peril it wasn’t the army that Britain traditionally tended to call upon, it was the senior service, the Royal Navy. Before 1910 Britain felt safe and secure behind the steel walls and massive guns of the Royal Navy’s Dreadnoughts and Battle cruisers. So a large standing army or mass mobilisation was not required, thus their home forces were but a fraction of those on the continent. Essentially up to the day war was declared British plans were nebulous, the only certainty was the Admiralty plan. The Royal Navy would immediately mobilise then head for the safe harbour of Scapa Flow which also blocked the northern exit of the North Sea. There was also an iron clad guarantee that the Royal Navy would defend the French section of the Channel. Though, that agreement was probably more motivated by self interest than any real concern for France.
Germany was obsessed with two strategic problems, the first was the resurgence of France and their rising nationalism that proclaimed the ‘regaining of Alsace-Lorraine’ as a ultimate French ideal. The second was the massive Russian empire on its eastern border, and the teaming hordes of savage Cossacks that populated the overly fertile paranoia of the German imagination. Despite the efforts of Bismarck to separate the two potential ‘enemies’ Kaiser Wilhelm’s rash posturing and threats drew them together in an unlikely alliance. Even worse was to come, Wilhelm’s desire to emulate the Royal Navy created the twentieth century’s first arms race as he commanded that Germany equal Britain in the construction of Dreadnought Battleships. Unwillingly and reluctantly Britain was pushed into an alliance with the centuries old enemy, France and as a consequence the despised Tsarist Russia. Germany’s answer to this two front threat was the Schlieffen plan, which commanded an invasion of France via Belgium. In fact in response to a possible threat from Russia the plan was the same, invade France. Britain’s inclusion as a possible foe, rather than cause a pause or rethink of diplomacy and strategy just consolidated the iron hard resolve of Invade France!
Tsarist Russia had undergone a troubled and tumultuous transition to the twentieth century. Its Baltic and Pacific fleets were destroyed by the new and more modern Japanese navy in 1905. While the Russian possessions in China, Port Arthur, had been seized by victorious Japan and the Tsar had avoided mass rebellion by the narrowest of margins. In spite of those military and political disasters the fabled might of Russia with its potential millions of solders was a spectre that haunted both the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. Perhaps it was a folk nightmare from the Napoleonic Wars or even a distant memory of the Mongol onslaught. In sheer numbers it was a real fact to contemporary military planners of all nations. However the Great Russian Empire was struggling to modernise in both industry and armaments and endless hordes of warm bodies didn’t count if they marched without artillery and machine guns. The Russian plan wavered between two extremes the first was to use space like they did in 1812 and wait for the distance and vastness of Russia to wear down the enemy. While the second advocated a steamroller like offensive moving inexorably forward unstoppable until it reached either Berlin or Vienna. That of course was the plan whether the Russian army, its communications or logistics was capable of this feat was another matter.
Ostensibly the wronged party in the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand their plans called for mobilisation in the eastern provinces’ to defend against Russia and an overwhelming assault on Serbia. As it turned out the offensive to smash the Serbs collapsed and was driven back across the border, while the responses to the Russians had mixed results alternating between modest victory and crushing defeat.
At the outbreak of hostilities between Germany, Austria-Hungary and France, Russia and Britain the Ottoman Empire did not immediately seek to honour it prior treaty as a Central Power. It had not recovered from the losses it suffered in the First and Second Balkan War or its war with Italy that lost Libya and the Dodecanese islands. The Turks were desperately trying to modernise and had commissioned two Dreadnought battleships from British shipyards, while their army endeavoured to upgrade training and equipment via the German military mission. The new government of the Young Turks was deeply divided by faction and interest. Half swaying towards the traditional protection of Britain from the peril of Russian ambitions, while the others waivered in the direction of Germany.
In the end it was an accident of lost opportunity, arrogance, imperatives of naval defence and the actions of two German cruisers that forced the Turks to join the Central Powers. To gain the full flavour of the bizarre story all I can suggest is read Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman or Castles of Steel by Massie both are superb in outline the paths to war.
Italy had signed the treaty with the Central Powers or as then called the Triple Alliance. Though, when push came to shove, they used the aggression of Germany in Belgium and the invasion of France to claim exception from the ‘defensive’ pact. According to their plan the combined fleets were to rendezvous at Messina and wrestle control of the Mediterranean from the French. At the outbreak of war the inclusion of the British Royal Navy in that equation brought a sobering dose of reality. A glance at any map shows that Italy, except for its northern border is all coastline and several of its largest cites are coastal ports such as Venice, Genoa Naples and Messina. This geographic fact along with the prospect of losing access to vital wheat imports from Russia and fuel imports from Romania outweighed the dubious attractions of the German Austro-Hungarian alliance.
The Results and the Treaties
As can be seen from a brief review of the various plans some were extremely aggressive others more defensive in intent. However they were in July to August 1914 only plans, concepts outlined on paper and though practiced in military exercises not chiselled in stone as holy writ, except in the guilty imaginations of some military commanders. As transpired in the furnace of battle they did warp and change to fit perceived threats and opportunities. In the decades since a number of historians have stressed the connection between the two treaty blocs (the Entente Cordiale and the Central Powers) and how these two opposing arrangements somehow pushed each group straight down the path to Total War. In this discussion I have not emphasised this stance since as far as I can see the evidence that has emerged since then tends to indicate that this wasn’t the case. The rigid hierarchy of treaties and plans did not march lock step into war.
There was no absolute certainty that France would act militarily against Germany in line with its treaty with Russia. While the Tsarist Empire due to distance and insufficient transport had to mobilise as early as possible. Though that action itself was no guarantee it would invade the Austro Hungarian to defend the Serbs. Across the channel affairs were even more nebulous. Britain had made naval protection agreements with the French as well as a secret agreement to send military forces to France in case of invasion. In the later case the British government waivered on whether they should stick to the secret treaty or hold off. This hesitancy lasted up to the news that Germany had invaded Belgium, then old instincts kicked in, the German High Seas Fleet could not be allowed to gain a foothold on the Dover straits.
As can be seen one single nation had the capacity to halt the course for the war, Germany. Unfortunately as we have seen in part one it had neither the intention nor the leadership. Now in part two it is plain that its aggressive war plan took little account of diplomatic shifts or included even the slightest grasp of political or strategic reality. It embraced the opportunity for war and according to the predictions of The Plan its victory over France was assured, its dominance of Europe guaranteed. Whether war with France, or invasion of Belgium and antagonising of Britain was justified was dismissed as irrelevant.
By all until part 3
As the good doctor says; ‘Take the damned pills!’