[Jon Singer Sargent. 'Gassed.' 1919. @ The IWM.]
The First World War began in 1914. It officially concluded on 11 November 1918. The war brought Europe to a new awareness of the consequences of modernity: the expendability of men, the ruthlessness of technology, and humanity's terrible ability to undertake warfare. Some of this, of course, was merely a reminder of age old problems. But some genuinely new horrors appeared during the First World War. Poison gas, submarine warfare, complex trench systems, and the widespread use of the machine gun all left an indelible mark on human thought.
Many nations were involved (though hardly the whole world) and the political actions surrounding the conflict can easily overwhelm the specialist and non-specialist alike. Therefore A.J.P. Taylor, one of the great popular historians of the last century, worked with Penguin Books to create The First World War: An Illustrated History, a book that aims at popularizing knowledge about the 'war to end all wars.'
To understand the causes and motions of the First World War, Taylor must paint a complex picture. Complexity is sometimes inhumane--we cannot process all the relevant facts. In the face of complexity (regardless of its honesty) the mind simplifies reality into a handful of abstract components; the human mind then easily creates, distributes, manipulates, misinterprets, and discharges these poor components. Taylor therefore inserts photographs into his narrative, for it is harder to forget a fact when it's tied to a face. The process amplifies themes otherwise forgot. The photographs bring home the disparities between the soldier's life in the trenches and the general's life in the tent. But they also effortlessly track the development of technology, the comforts of union work, the thrill of enlistment, and the uncertain motions of mass populations. [In a written summary, I cannot do justice to the effect of mixing photographs with serious history; suffice to say, 'It works.' It is not enough to look at the photographs; to understand their content and full meaning, one must closely read the book.]
Why did the war begin? The first gunshots flew into the body of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to Habsburg Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, and his wife. The shots symbolized a threat to the increasingly moribund Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and its prestige as a Great Power of Europe. In pursuit of imaginary conspirators in the Serb government, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia with the backing of Germany. These countries did not intend for the invasion to start the First World War. Against the views of other historians, Taylor argues that tension in international relations was relatively low at the outbreak of European-wide war, especially compared with previous years. So again, why did it happen? Was Germany war-mongering? Were France and Russia? Can we blame capitalism, or the generals?
"Men are reluctant to believe that great events have small causes," Taylor notes. "Therefore, once the Great War started, they were convinced that it must be the outcome of profound forces. It is hard to discover these [profound forces] when we examine the details. Nowhere was there conscious determination to provoke a war. Statesmen miscalculated. They used the instruments of bluff and threat which had proved effective on previous occasions. This time things went wrong."
After Austria-Hungary's violent (and supposedly face-saving) diplomatic maneuver, it was Russia's turn to act. Russia thought of itself as the defender of the Balkans, but also worried about Central Power dominance over Constantinople; in pursuit of secure access to the Mediterranean, Russia declared war.
"Now intervened a vital factor of high strategy... The plans for mobilizing [millions of conscripts] rested on railways; and railway timetables cannot be improvised. Once started, the wagons and carriages must roll remorselessly and inevitably forward to their predestined goal."
General mobilization could, conceivably, lead to defensive build ups along the border rather than outright war. But at the time, everyone believed in the value of offense over defense. They could have learnt otherwise from the Russo-Japanese war, or the Balkan Wars, or the American Civil War. Tragically, they did not. The most important country to partake in this error was Germany, for Germany believed it could not win a war on two fronts against Russia and its ally, France. The late General Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff from 1892 to 1906, had generated a plan to mitigate the problem of a war on two fronts. The Germans would put nearly "all their armed weight into the west to knock out France before the slow machine of Russian mobilization could lumber into action." So once Russia mobilized to threaten Austria-Hungary, the Germans looked at their timetables and determined that they must declare war on France and knock it out of the war before Russia could complete its muster.
Taken to caricature, the Schlieffen Plan calls for arguing with one fellow, and then immediately turning and slugging his silent little brother. Perhaps the French were not quite as innocent as a little brother. Anyhow, innocent or not, France got slugged.
The First World War, then, seems to have been imposed upon statesmen by railway timetables and grand strategies drawn up by dead men. Que será, será. Germany declared war on France; Germany's invasion of France required passing through Belgium; the Belgians refused; Germany invaded Belgium; Britain declared war on Germany; Germany invaded France; Britain sent over an expeditionary force; France mobilized; Russia mobilized; Austria-Hungary (eventually) mobilized; the Ottoman Empire entered the war; Italy entered the war; others entered the war; 37 million people died. ¿Que será, será?
The generals never intended to engage in trench warfare, and the men were completely unprepared. The railroads allowed generals to move men up to the front with unprecedented swiftness, but once there the soldiers could only slog through the mud to reach their objectives. Thus, the railroads could help the generals rapidly reinforce their defensive positions, but the railroads did not help nearly as much when going on the offensive. Stalemate ensued. By stalemate, I mean the inability to knock one's opponent out--sort of like a stalemate in chess, only with poison gas, mass bloodshed, and even more massive bombardments.
"The machine gun completed the contrast between the speed with which men could arrive at the battlefield by rail, and the slowness with which they moved once they were there. Indeed they did not move at all. The opposing lines congealed, grew solid. The generals on both sides stared at these lines impotently and without understanding. They went on staring for nearly four years."
Few generals, nevertheless, saw an alternative to offensive warfare; despite its near universal futility, the generals justified their offensives in various ways. Joffre wanted to keep the British under his wing, Haig wanted to prove his loyalty to the French, Nivelle 'formed a picture' of victory, and Ludendorff felt Germany was running out of time (though the Germans had, to their limited credit, rediscovered the lost art of surprise and tactical initiative).
The politicians and civilian ministers could not counter the generals; the generals could not influence the politicians. Thus, hare brained schemes were beaten back and forth like a tired pony rather than like a tennis ball; there was no play and much cruelty.
Incessant warfare required incessant support from home. Politicians rallied the masses to uncertain causes; later in the war, the masses would rally politicians to uncertain causes. Decisive victory, a useful promise for ensnaring support, also ensnared the promisee.
The Americans, meanwhile, preached peace and idealism from the other side of the world, and yet profited tremendously from the war effort. The Germans ineptly stumbled into war with the Americans, first by yielding to the German admiralty and allowing unrestricted submarine warfare, and second with the idiotic Zimmermann telegram that suggested (weirdly) that Mexico's revolution-weakened government declare war on the United States. The Americans eventually lost 88,000 men. Their excellent timing ensured they partook in Allied victory. Wilson, before the American congress turned on him, helped end the war with the idealistic tone with which it had begun. Clemenceau, the French Prime Minster, noted that while God only needed Ten Commandments, Wilson ambitiously suggested Fourteen Points.
Wartime turbulence led to social revolution in Russia and political revolution in Germany; it facilitated the Easter 1916 uprising in Ireland; Austria-Hungary tumbled into pieces; the Ottoman Empire collapsed into Turkey; Britain and France carved up the Middle East to protect their interests in the Far East and Africa. While Britain and France seemed to gain, it must be kept in mind that political revolution could and did happen in Europe in the early twentieth century. The idea of overturning the capitalist-democratic political order was much more alive at that time then it is today, and this influenced the actions of statesmen. Taylor does not play much with counterfactual, but he strongly suggests the contingent nature of history. France and Britain could not assume survival, much less complete victory, even as late 1918. Perhaps the most significant political event was the sudden emergence of Soviet Russia; many of the allies sent soldiers into Russia to prevent the communists from winning the civil war in Russia--they failed to stop Lenin, but they did create lasting animosity and distrust between Soviet Russia and the rest of the world.
Taylor writes history with characters, not just faceless social forces. And to that effect, Taylor constructs pen-portraits of the various leaders. He sketches the sad eyes of a helpless Kitchener, the highest ranking officer to die during the conflict. He tracks, in images and words, the clever political wheeling of Lloyd George on his way to becoming Prime Minister of Britain. He crosses the channel to present Joffre, Neville, and Petain, as well as Moltke and Hindenburg. It would be helpful to have a more thorough presentation of the leaders and the political forces in Russia and Austria-Hungary. But then again, a book intended as a quick read already stretches to 295 pages.
Taylor's sympathies lie with the "Everyman," especially the Everyman that served in the trenches; he holds less regard for the Everyman that worked in the factories, and perhaps even less for the countless bureaucrats that put together efficient timetables for troop deployments, but no timetables for withdraw (and certainly no realistic timetables for victory).
"In all countries, the majority served and suffered for unselfish causes which they did not fully understand. The war was beyond the capacity of generals and statesmen alike." Donkeys led lions.
With the war over, the Allies rejected Wilson's pleas for conciliation and demanded justice through retribution. In hindsight, the terms of justice left such a scar on Germany as to help bring Hitler to power. But no one saw this at the time. With the war over, Lloyd George needed votes, and so he led Britain in joining the call for retribution.
Taylor writes: "In the age of mass warfare, nations had to be told that they were fighting for some noble cause. Perhaps they were. At any rate, the peoples could not be told to forget their crusading beliefs merely because the war was over. The statesmen who had won the war had to make peace with the same emotions and the same weapons."
And so the cry rang out: 'Hang the Kaiser! Make Germany pay!' The Kaiser abdicated his power in the throes of revolution. Germany never proved able to pay very much at all. But the emotion of injustice never need stem from truth. Lloyd George did, however, persuade both allies and constituents to wait for quieter days to determine reparations; the interwar wrangling over reparations created much ill-feeling.
Paradoxically, even as the First World War "cut deep into the consciousness of modern man," it failed to dramatically alter the European way of life. States toppled, but not as many as one might expect for the unprecedented cost in flesh and blood. No nations were enslaved, and no capital cities erased from the map. The battles were largely confined to small geographic spaces, especially when compared with the Second World War, a massive conflict with truly global influence that broke out only twenty years later.