Four years before war engulfed the continent, virtually all of Europe’s royalty gathered in London for the state funeral of the British monarch, Edward VII, the eldest son of Queen Victoria. And well they should have, since so many of the royal families were closely related. British, German and Russian imperial families (and even the Danish royal one) were all cousins, and the upstart royal families of south-eastern Europe — in places like Romania, Greece, and Bulgaria — were all descended from the wide tapestry of the intertwined German princely houses as well. The final rituals of Edward VII’s last journey were, in a real way, like a large, extended family funeral.
It was fitting, therefore, that historian Barbara Tuchman’s exploration of the first two months of the war’s outbreak in the summer of 1914, The Guns of August, began by describing Edward’s burial as a demonstration of just how unimaginable it was that a four-year catastrophe could follow soon thereafter and slaughter millions. (It is said President John F Kennedy was so startled by the details of the fatal misjudgements of the belligerents that Tuchman’s book served as a warning to him of the possibilities of misunderstandings between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War that could lead to nuclear warfare — and most explicitly during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
This weekend, the world has watched as many of its leaders, including Donald Trump, gathered in Paris to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, as fighting ceased at 11 in the morning on 11 November 1918 when Germany gave up what had become an increasingly unequal, impossible-to-win fight.
Of course, Donald Trump, true to some deep, perverse impulse, declined to pay his respects to the deceased at an American military cemetery in France — apparently due to inclement weather. But that same weather did not, somehow, deter all the others from paying their own respects at the many military cemeteries scattered across northern France.
As it began
Back on 28 June 1914, together with a small group of other conspirators, Bosnian Serb ultra-nationalist Gavrilo Princip had assassinated the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife. They had been on an inspection tour of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. That territory had recently been formally annexed into the Habsburg domains, after having been administered by Austria-Hungary since 1878.
By his actions, Princip had hoped to provoke the uniting of all ethnic Serbs — those in Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and Montenegro — into one Serbian state. What he did, instead, was set Europe on a course that ultimately drove the entire continent (with fighting that eventually extended into Africa, East Asia, the Pacific, and the Near East) into four years of total warfare — with a horrendous human cost, numbering in the millions.
In the 100 years since this war ended, many historians have tried to explain why the war had broken out. Crucial questions remain: Why did that immediate assassination crisis escalate into general war; why did leaders across the continent fail to halt the slide to catastrophe; and why, once the war had begun, did they fail to bring it to a halt before the apocalypse?
The death of the Habsburg heir should not have pushed the continent into general war by itself. Over the past two or three decades, there had been a number of violent political deaths in Europe and there had been various near-outbreaks of more general warfare — sometimes it was a clash between powers for influence in Morocco (largely France v Germany), in the southern reaches of the Nile watershed at Fashoda (France v Britain), and over the disposition of the remaining European portions of the collapsing Ottoman Empire (pitting Italy, Britain, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and all the newly created Balkan states against one another in various combinations).
Moreover, save for the near-explosions over Morocco and Sudan, the European powers had managed to divvy up most of Africa and a good chunk of Asia (from India to the frozen tundra of Siberia) — without open hostilities between great powers. This had happened even as the invading colonisers had battled the inhabitants of those soon-to-be-subjugated territories, winning nearly all those unequal contests, save for the Italian defeat at Adwa in Ethiopia.
In the post-Napoleonic era, the “Concert of Europe” — with its consequent counterbalancing alliances — had withstood the shocks of the German and Italian unifications (and the several small wars fought to achieve those events), as well as the breakup of the Ottoman Empire’s remaining European lands into six new quarrelling nations and several dependent territories.
It survived the competitive burst of colonial expansion; survived pressures to find new markets for the output of the competitive, expanding industries in Germany, France, the UK, the Low Countries, Italy, and America; it survived the domestic tensions from the rising industrial working classes across Europe against the industrial elites; and it survived still other tensions from the rising tide of modern nationalist fervour in many quarters. But none of these potential powder kegs had managed to provoke a general European war — until the death of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, that is.
The chancellor of the newly united Germany, Otto von Bismarck, had cautioned his several Kaisers to focus on building up the land power of Germany, to nurture the explosive growth of the country’s industrial might, and to keep European stability in place through good relations with autocratic Austria and Russia. He had also famously cautioned that “some damned fool thing in the Balkans” was the most likely way the long peace would be destroyed.
But by the early years of the 20th century, the Great Powers had split into two alliances: France and Russia versus Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary — and with the UK maintaining an awkward position balancing the whole system and guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium from attacks by either side, in the event of hostilities. Or, as French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron has recently called it, “the leprosy of nationalism” had taken hold in Europe.
Together with all those factors, technological and military developments had made the possibilities of catastrophic warfare ever more real, even as the continent’s statesmen remained stuck in earlier conventions of diplomatic niceties. Foremost among those technological developments had been the advent of dense railroad and telegraphic networks all across Europe, advances in steamship and gunnery technology (such as very lethal machine guns), rapid developments in submarines, the possibilities of weaponised poison gases, and even the possibilities of aircraft and dirigibles in combat.
Taken together, all of these seemed to obviate the possibility of actual prolonged warfare — it would simply be too terrible. Meanwhile, however, the various national military establishments were working to perfect those strategic plans that would be used to win short, but decisive, campaigns.
In opposition to the generally acknowledged British control of the seas, the Germans, buoyed by a growing national pride and their industrial might, also embarked on a massive naval build-up designed to match British naval superiority, and to pursue claims for their “place in the sun” — colonies, dependencies, and new trade advantages — especially since their national unity had only come into being after many of the juicy bits of global territory had already been claimed by France, the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium. Even Spain and Portugal still retained sizeable empires.
Influenced by their respective histories and national stories, each of the powers made their military plans, and then integrated those plans with their respective new national railroad and communications grids. Concurrently, national economic growth and logistic skills now allowed for armies and naval forces an order of magnitude larger than those in prior European conflicts.
Military general staffs worked out detailed mobilisations (including the drawing in of large reserve forces) harnessed to those battle plans and that would quickly move forward to the front lines, largely by trains.
The Germans, building on their success in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, planned ever-larger sweeps around the forward positions of the French armies in order to roll up the French military positions and then capture Paris. But crucially, that larger rightward sweep of their armies eventually required planning an advance through neutral Belgium. Their original plan also included blocking Russian attacks until they could ship their victorious army to crush the Russians.
The French, meanwhile, adherents to the theory of the elan of the attack as a force multiplier and decisive edge, devised by their military theorist, Antoine-Henri Jomini, nearly a century earlier, planned a quick advance into Lorraine and on into the Rhineland, determined to liberate the two provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, territories that had been lost to Germany in 1870.
The Russians planned to attack East Prussia, annihilate any German forces there, and then march towards Berlin and so wrap things up quickly. The Austrians actually put most of their strategic thinking into a swift conquest of their eternal enemy, Serbia, and after that, their forces would move on to support German advances into Russian Poland. Meanwhile, the British assumed their navy would protect against any conceivable invasion of the home islands, while their small professional army could be sent to France in the event of an attack on Belgium.
But none of the planners or generals envisioned the possibility of a deadly slog, one that would put a premium on national industrial mobilisation, defensive formations based on mass killing via machine guns and poison gas, and the grim realities of prolonged, debilitating trench warfare. No one had spent much time analysing the lessons of the American Civil War, or even the Anglo Boer War, instead relying far too much on lessons from the expansionist colonial wars they had all carried out over the past 100 years.
In the end, in the summer days after the assassination, as the continent’s foreign ministries and prime ministers spent a month posturing on behalf of their allies, and even as the Serbians largely attempted to placate the enraged Austrians, the Germans gave unconditional support to their Austrian allies, the Russians backed up the Serbians, the French offered their support to their Russian allies, and all of the militaries embarked upon their respective mobilisation schedules, lest one antagonist get a fatal jump on the other.
By the time the German Kaiser had begun to have second thoughts about how things were about to spin out of control and beyond the promises of the general staff for a quick win, and had asked if the newly mobilised armies couldn’t be brought back to their staging areas until things were sorted out. In response, his military advisers are reported to have thatched with horror over the damage that would be done to the railroad timetables and military schedules, jumbling up the entire invasion plan, and so the armies continued their movements forward.
As it was fought
The fatal result of those miscalculations, blithe assumptions and military plans gone awry led to a nearly static Western Front fought between parallel trench lines that extended from the English Channel to the Swiss border. The generals, mired in obsolete doctrine, staged countervailing attacks that generated horrendous casualties among the troops (giving rise to the sneering insult that the soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”), but only produced incremental changes in the trench frontier during four years of fighting.
Gas warfare was eventually employed, to little strategic benefit, that added to the already shocking casualty lists; machine guns ensured few could reach the opposition’s fortified trench lines; and precision artillery barrages guaranteed conditions in the trenches were nearly beyond endurance for many.
Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, the Russians, after a few initial successes, were increasingly pushed back into their own territory, and the Turks and Bulgarians, sensing imminent German victory, joined the Central Powers. Italy, accepting the promised blandishments of the Allies, came over to that side and agreed to attack Austria-Hungary through the Italian-Austrian Alps.
The decisive naval battle that had been expected to seal the fate of the war at sea never materialised, and so the Germans increasingly resorted to submarine warfare to starve the UK, while the British Navy imposed an increasingly effective surface blockade on German shipping — and thus on needed food and fuel supplies for its population.
The war had begun in a burst of patriotic fervour. Young men rushed to join their respective national forces, even as socialist politicians and union leaders attempted to argue that this war would be fought for the benefit of the wealthy, the elites, and the capitalists — and using the working class as cannon fodder — but initially, to no avail.
Eventually, though, the slaughter of the battle lines made conscription necessary on all sides. As the years passed, the dislocations and disruptions in rear areas and among civilian life became ever-deeper, especially for combatants like Russia and Austria-Hungary. In Russia, even as the constant stream of military defeats sapped morale, food availability in the cities dropped precipitously and the country moved ever closer to revolt and defeatism, while the polyglot, multi-ethnic Austrian army began to break down as desertions rose among the Slavic, Romanian, Italian, and Polish contingents in the military. Soon enough, the Germans realised their alliance with a faltering Austria meant they were now “shackled to a corpse”.
Among all combatant nations, ever more extreme measures to drive an opponent out of the war were tried. The British and French attempted (and were soundly defeated) to break Turkish control over the sea lane to Russia via the Dardanelles. The Germans, desperate to get Russia out of the struggle, agreed to send Vladimir Lenin and his colleagues into Russia via that famous sealed train from Switzerland through Sweden, with the understanding Lenin would take Russia out of the war entirely. (It did leave the fighting, but expectations Russian agriculture would feed Germany proved misguided.)
And it was Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, and the consequent sinking of noncombatant ships, that eventually led the US to enter the war on the side of the Allies. Ultimately, the grim realisation that sheer weight of American manpower would be decisive led the Germans to risk all with a massive effort to break the Allied lines in the spring of 1918. This attack had an early success until the German advance petered out for lack of manpower. Thereafter, it was one hard-fought defeat after another until the final German military collapse and their decision to seek an armistice to end the fighting.
By then, Germany itself was on the verge of social revolution, as the Kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland. The Habsburg state was similarly collapsing as its constituent elements were eagerly breaking free of the smaller German core. The Russian Empire had already collapsed into civil war, and the Baltic nations of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had all declared independence, along with Poland.
In the peace negotiations, the Ottomans were driven from most of their remaining non-ethnic Turkish lands, while Germany lost its colonial outposts and portions of its long-held Polish lands, and Alsace Lorraine was returned to France. Pursuant to the final settlements also included the establishment of a British mandate in Palestine, including its place as a Jewish homeland, and the mandates over the rest of the old Ottoman territories by the British and French, setting up the turmoil in the Middle East for years to come.
As it ended
By the time the Treaty of Versailles and related treaties had redrawn the continent’s boundaries, assessed blame for the war, and levied ruinous reparations payments from Germany, the revanchist feelings among Germans were already beginning to take hold — feelings that would coalesce into the myth of “the stab in the back” that would help fuel the rise of the Nazi Party in 1933.
Meanwhile, the Italians, ostensibly among the victors, felt their winnings had been insufficient in comparison to the rewards promised; the new successor nations of Eastern and Central Europe squabbled over their boundaries and subject populations; and the Soviet Union eventually emerged after a further three years of ruinous civil war.
By the time the fighting of the actual war and its immediate aftermath across Europe had run its course, there had been at least 20 million combat fatalities, and many millions more civilians had died as a result of starvation, injury, disease, and forced dislocation — and yet more millions would die from the ravages of an influenza epidemic that struck globally at the end of the war. The peace settlements (and the cost of the war), together with popular feelings that such massive killing should not be allowed to happen again, gave birth to the new League of Nations.
The international body had been a particular goal of American President Woodrow Wilson, even if America eventually did not join it. A wave of isolationism led the US Senate to reject the accord that Wilson had campaigned so hard to establish. This vital absence and American isolationism would contribute to the failure of the League to contain new German and Italian aggressions that fed directly into an even more extensive Second World War, which broke out just 20 years after the first war had ended. The war’s end also led to a great upheaval in the finances and economies of many nations. The great strain on Germany of reparations payments and hyperinflation destroyed the savings of the German middle class, giving yet more impetus to the promises of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party in righting unfairnesses and returning order and strength to a deeply bruised nation. And, of course, generating the genocide that became a central feature of the Third Reich.
Beyond the actual fighting, the war had major — and sometimes unexpected — impacts globally. To carry out their side of the war, the Allied nations had drawn upon the labour of more than a million men from colonial and British Commonwealth nations, in addition to their own conscripted nationals. Their European battlefield experiences, and the experiences they had had in the varied British and French military campaigns to conquer Germany’s colonies, all in addition to the continuing coverage in newspapers of that vast war in Europe, contributed to an awakening of nascent anti-colonial feelings — and the realisation that Europeans were not destined by God or natural law to rule their respective territories forever.
Among the combatants, the growing manpower shortages for the defence industrial sector, as men were conscripted to fill the ranks, led to women entering factories to do jobs heretofore the sole sphere of men. Such a change fed demands for women to gain the right to vote where they did not already have it. And across many nations, the vast upheavals of the war had great impact on culture and the arts as well, as creative people shucked off old restraints.
A new generation of artists explored the possibilities of cubism, abstraction, surrealism, futurism, and constructivism; composers built on the ideas of twelve-tone, serialism, and yet other movements, as well as the new popular music form of jazz. Writers, too, explored forms of expression from experiments from social realism to stream of consciousness.
But the impact of the war was especially striking on artists and writers who had actually lived through the horrors and disruptions themselves. Artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz portrayed the terrors of the fighting as well as the aftermath of a wounded German society. British soldier poets such as Seigfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke spoke not of grand patriotism or national glory, but of the fears and hopes of common soldiers.
And to look at the great novels that came out of the war, most seemed to speak of the futility and waste of war, as with Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Remarque’s All Quiet in the Western Front or even Hasek’s The Good Soldier Sveyk, with the latter a kind of World War I version of Catch 22. Years later, novelists like Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn would chronicle the Czarist Russian army’s disasters with their vast, expansive novels, Dr Zhivago and August 1914.
Years later, Hollywood and other film centres found that their best way into World War I was either through adaptations of these writings, or projects like Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, a film that contrasted the struggles of common soldiers thrust into an impossible ordeal versus the mendacity and worse of their commanders.
Australia’s new film wave could offer Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, a drama of the futility of the Anzac campaign against the Turks, a military disaster that paradoxically helped create a sense of nationhood out of the Australian dominions.
Aside from genre bio pics like Sargent York or The Fighting 69th, Hollywood’s heroic impulses largely could only portray the war through a romance like The African Queen, or via a focus on an enigmatic yet romantic figure like TH Lawrence.
The judgement of history
But Australian-British historian Christopher Clark’s judgement on the Great War, the War to End All Wars, World War I, like so many others, of a war that had not been necessary, is harsh but on target.
In his recent volume on the war, The Sleepwalkers, Clark insists, “… the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world”.
He concludes with the following cautionary note:
“Behind the outrage of Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organisation with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organisation was extraterritorial, without a clear geographical or political location; it was scattered in cells across political borders, it was unaccountable, its links to any sovereign government were oblique, hidden and certainly very difficult to discern from outside the organisation…”
Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers — a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.
In our own era, with its rise of aggressive nationalist populism, growing trade conflicts, and numerous global leaders eager to denounce multilateralism in favour of nationalism, we should pay special heed to the lessons of Sarajevo and all that followed. DM
In other news...
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