World War one outbreak: behaving like sheep (Начало Первой мировой войны: подобно стаду овец)


Статья посвящена анализу событий начала Первой мировой войны. Автор анализирует общественное мнение в воюющих странах, а также поведение власти и общества. В центре внимания статьи – военные действия первого года войны, события на Западном и Восточном фронтах. Автор показывает, насколько несвоевременными и несостоятельными были действия воюющих сторон, а также непонимание ситуации правящими верхами. В конце статьи делается вывод о том, что Первая мировая война стала своеобразным прологом ко Второй мировой войне.

Аннотация, ключевые слова и фразы: Первая мировая война, Вторая мировая война, Восточный фронт, стратегия и тактика, власть и общество, Россия.


The article is devoted to analysis of the events of the World War One. The author analyzes public opinion in war-torn countries, as well as the behavior of the authorities and society.

Annotation, key words and phrases: World War One, World War Two, Eastern front, strategy and tactics, power and society, Russia.

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World War one outbreak: behaving like sheep

(Начало Первой мировой войны: подобно стаду овец)

My grandfather, my father and I were lucky. I was born 9 years after the end of World War Two (WWII). My father was born 9 years after World War One (WWI) and was too young for service in WWII. My grandfather, born towards the end of 19th century in Transylvania under Habsburg rule, was drafted into the Imperial army and sent to the Italian front. He was captured and became a prisoner soon after reaching the front line, thus surviving the war. When WW2 broke out, he was judged too old for active service.

Now, three generations removed from WWI and 100 years after it started, I found some new books and remembered the stories in books I read long ago. I still have difficulties to follow the narrative of this war, although the facts of the Western and Eastern front, of the naval confrontations are explained in great detail in many publications. A clear narrative requires that you understand how the story starts but the origins remains misty for WWI; much more difficult to follow than the events leading to WWII with its easily identified villains. WWI, in spite of the Versailles «guilty» verdict imposed on the Central Powers, appears more like the Agatha Christie’s Orient Express murder where all actors held the knife.

WWI is called «la Grande Guerre» in France. Driving through the rural French landscape, you will notice in every village, every sleepy provincial town, a monument in the central square. These monuments dedicated «a nos morts», are WWI memorials and taken together (there are 175 000 of them) they remind us of the staggering number of human losses that were inflicted on the French during this conflagration. These are not triumphal stones. The pyrrhic victory was hardly a great outcome for France. It is after all difficult to justify the recapturing of the lost «departments», Alsace and Lorraine when the cost was the death of 4,3% of the French population. It is called “the Great War” in Britain although the islands were spared from the devastation which consumed the northern French plains. The trauma of a lost generation of youth and casualties with toxic gas poisoning remain shocking for the British public opinion.

The Germans do not call it the great war; probably a difficult proposition to call any war great in Germany. Driving over the border from France and looking for the same kind of monuments in the central squares the contrast is obvious. There are clearly fewer of them and often the WWI and WWII casualties are acknowledged together, as if Germany (and probably Japan) has reached a “no more wars” stage of civilization.

The great war for the Russians is definitively the great patriotic war 1941-45. WWI is simply a terribly sad story of high expectations, staggering defeats and the humiliation of Brest-Litovsk. There are barely any WWI memorials in Russia.

WWI also meant the demise of the Habsburg dual monarchy, the death of their truly multinational empire and the triumph of nationalism. 77 years later nationalism, in a more extreme form, ignited the Balkans again involving former Habsburg possessions leading to the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Looking from a comfortable chair in my family home in a peaceful Swiss town in Anno Domini 2014, a story which began 100 years ago with a double murder and ended up 4 years later with over 15 million dead looks like a study in perfect madness, something so remote from our (we hope) enlightened times, something we should not spend much time to remember or bother to teach our kids about. The school book narrative and many internet entries, present Sarajevo as the trigger activating the European alliance systems and inexorably leading to war. As the Central Powers lost the war and the Versailles peace imposed the guilt upon the losers, the idea of Germany and Austro Hungary as the main culprits remains influential. A more informed opinion presents the Central Powers, and in particular the German empire, as contributors rather than prime movers and digging even deeper into the available literature, the role of Germany appears much more reactive than is generally believed. The more the available evidence is considered, the less this war appears as a «historical necessity» (Marxist perspective) or the outcome of nefarious plans (conspiracy theories abound) and the more it appears as the result of multiple bad decisions, based on wrong assumptions, faulty intelligence and wishful thinking.

To be sure, there were many elements usually found in a recipe for disaster. To begin with, Serbian irredentism, was a deeply destabilizing factor in the Balkans and a threat to both the Habsburg and Ottoman empires and, in light of the almost unconditional support from Russia, a destabilizing factor for Europe. However, the toxic escalation of the hostilities with Austria, culminating in the organization of the Sarajevo killings by the Serbian military intelligence, could have triggered a local rather than European war. Even after the Russian mobilization there were German and British attempts towards containing and localizing the conflict. The alliance system pitching the Central Powers against the Triple Entente was by design a conflict amplifier, but these were by
no means monolithic blocs. Within the Triple Entente, the Russians and the British had a long history of mutual suspicion and divergent interests in Central Asia and the Straits. The British were not unconditionally bound to support the French in a continental conflict. The hard core of the Triple Entente was the Franco-Russian alliance. This was probably one of the most dangerous elements in the pre-war mix as the Russian obsession with the Straits could be aligned with a revanchist French agenda. However, the lost French departments were insignificant and a military Russian fleet in the Mediterranean a worrying prospect for the British. The Central Powers were not a happy family either. The Habsburgs’ Balkan agenda was viewed with suspicion in Berlin. All the main actors hosted pro-war groups and encouraged a jingoistic press but also engaged cautious politicians in the top echelons who by no means could be called warmongers.

What about the top decision makers? Of the five major powers involved, four were monarchies with real executive powers ranging from the very limited (United Kingdom) to rather significant (Russia). These monarchs (and the French president) acted in environments with multiple centers of power and this applied even to the autocratic Russia. Prime ministers, ministers of foreign affairs and even ambassadors were important power brokers often taking daring initiatives, as demonstrated by the negotiations between Izvolsky and Aehrenthal leading to the Bosnia annexation crisis in 1908.

There was no prime mover for the war among the ruling monarchs. Kaizer Wilhelm, with all his noisy rhetoric and out of place comments when confronted with the prospect of going to war, he usually stepped back and urge for caution. Tsar Nicholas, a man of limited ability, had large regional ambitions, but was known to abhor war and did not have the energy and the inclination to push Russia into conflict. Following the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, Tsar Nicholas advocated a limited not a general mobilization. Emperor Franz Josef was at that time an old and very cautious man. He was taken aback by the harsh tone of the ultimatum to the Serbians but did not deeply involve himself in dealing with the July crisis following Sarajevo. King George V sought to represent his subjects rather than formulating policies. The French president, Poincare appears as the only militant among the five state heads. Convinced that an agreement with the Germans was not possible, he invested a lot of energy in strengthening the Franco-Russian alliance and improving the French military capability. However, his power base was shaky and he had to placate the British and formulate a policy with strict defensive aims.

What about the military planners? First of all they made the assumption of a short war, similar to the Franco-Prussian match from 1870 making the prospect of war more tolerable for the decision makers and public opinion. Since the technical elements of the defensive warfare including extensive trench systems, barbed wire and machine guns, were well known and widely used by all belligerents, it is quite remarkable that there was no predictions of the stalemate on the Western front. Probably the critical miscalculations were the overestimates of the Russian military power. Germany, France and Britain were here in full agreement that the Russian military capacity was growing very rapidly and was already far away from the poor prowess in the Russo-Japanese war 10 years earlier. A booming economy, a wealth of equipment and most of all the in- 106 creased quality of military training for the troops were the arguments and it was assumed that the high command would be up to the task as if the strategic blunders of Port Arthur and Tsushima had been forgotten. Was this faulty intelligence or wishful thinking? Was this something similar to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction? The gross overestimation of the Russian military capability encouraged Moltke and the German high command to formulate the “strike now before too late’ doctrine. For the British, the growth of the Russian power was an argument to adhere to the Triple Entente in spite of their divergent interests in Central Asia and the Straits. For the French, the Russian strength was both reassuring for the possibility of a rapid victory if Germany was engaged on two fronts but also a source of worry: the Russians might have become so powerful that they would not need the French to deal with the Germans thus undermining the Franco-Russian alliance. Both perspectives were arguments for “strike now”. The French feedback loop certainly increased the Russian’s confidence and made them prone to push the button of no return, the mobilization, transforming the regional conflict between Austro-Hungary and Serbia in a European war. Was the mobilization the only possible answer — certainly not, but the sense of the «right strategic moment» prevailed. The Russians mobilized, the Germans declared war followed by the French and in the end, the Great Power leaders following the path to war behaved like sheep; the macabre dance began.

Yes, my grandfather, my father and I were lucky and as I am 60 years old, I am no longer eligible for active military service, but what about my children? Reading Fukuyama I should feel safe. The problem is that his “the end of history” is at least as foolish as Chamberlain’s “peace in our time”. The unipolar world is a delusion and combined with a militant free market fundamentalism, a dangerous delusion. Regional powers exist and, naturally, have medium range ambitions which sooner or later will collide with the long range ambitions of the only global power. The Balkanization of the Middle East is inexorably proceeding. Recent conflicts show that policy makers are prone to wishful thinking and wrong assumptions. Even with all the available technical sophistication, faulty intelligence is still delivered to decision makers. To date, the history of the conflicts after 1945 shows that devastating conventional wars can be fought without the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. Wars are by no means unlikely events these days. The outbreak of WWI shows that there is no need of a Hitler to trigger a big war. It is sufficient to mix a majority of ambivalent politicians with a minority of militants, add a 107 weak opposition and a number of nervous generals. It is not unlikely that they might behave like sheep.

Список литературы / Spisok literatury

  1. Clark С.M. The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war 1914. NY., 2012.
  2. Ferguson N. The Pity of War: explaining WWI. N.Y., 2000.
  3. MacMillan M. The War that ended Peace – the road to 1914. N.Y., 2013.
  4. Tuchman B. The Guns of August. N.Y., 1963.

The French and Germans fought for control of the Hartmannswillerkopf mountain peak throughout 1915. 30,000 died here. After the war, this area became a French national monument. The known fallen soldiers have individual graves with their names inscribed on the cross and the words “mort pour la France” (died for France) (photo 1). Many could not be identified following the terrible destruction of the artillery fire and are buried in the grave of the “unknown soldier” at the center of the memorial site (photo 2). Their names are however known in their home towns and villages they did not return to and inscribed in the local memorials (photo 3).

Photos of the author.

"Mort pour la France", Hartmannswillerkopf memorial
Фото 1.
The grave of the "Unknown soldier", Hartmannswillerkopf memorial
Фото 2.