This month’s entry is written by my brother John L. Tillman, Stanford graduate and Rhodes Scholar who contributes to almanacs and encyclopedia, often from memory. Though nearly twice the length of my usual blogs, the subject warrants it.
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The "War to End All Wars" ended in armistice at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918. On this date each year, Allied nations honor the service and sacrifices of all military veterans. France observes Armistice Day, the British Commonwealth Remembrance Day and the United States Veterans Day (Armistice Day before 1954). The celebration now commemorates veterans of all their countries' wars, but citizens should also reflect on the meaning of the Great War of 1914-18 in particular.
How World War I began and ended both merit remembrance. The lessons of its end have been applied both correctly and inappropriately in the century since the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. American General John Pershing wanted to fight on and force Germany to surrender unconditionally. The bloodied, impoverished, war-weary Western Allies preferred a quick end to hostilities, followed by a punitive peace against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
The lessons of the war's start may have even more to teach great powers today. The international “July Crisis” began with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Bosnia on 28 June 1914. It culminated with the British declaration of war on Germany on 4 August.
The conflict would never have gone global, and having done so, would have ended sooner, had national leaders made better decisions from before the war to its aftermath. All the major belligerent states blundered badly. That isn't purely hindsight. In each country, members of the public and government urged wiser courses.
The miscalculations were largely based upon wishful thinking. Each nation and alliance concluded that it could take advantage of the July Crisis to achieve all or some of its often overly ambitious war aims.
When a Slav nationalist, Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, murdered Austro-Hungary’s imperial heir Ferdinand, Vienna with reason suspected that Belgrade was behind the assassination. Thus, Austria-Hungary felt compelled to attack Serbia in retaliation for the outrage. It also coveted some Serbian territory.
The global catastrophe thus began at 11:10 a.m. on 28 July when Austria declared war by telegram on Serbia, a month after the Archduke's murder. Austria shelled Belgrade the next day. Vienna calculated that it could beat Serbia before Russia could mass on their common border, or that Russia might not even join the fight.
The still-small war could have remained “some damned thing in the Balkans,” but Mother Russia felt compelled to back her Pan-Slavic protégé’ and fellow Orthodox “Little Brother” Serbia. Many in Russia knew that the Czarist empire wasn't ready for a modern European war, having lost to emergent Japan in 1905. Russia had previously promoted disarmament, since it lacked the funds and industry to buy or build the new weaponry adopted by its adversaries, especially Germany.
Russia, however, calculated that, with Austria-Hungary busy against Serbia, she stood a good chance of taking Slavic Galicia, present-day westernmost Ukraine, from the Dual Monarchy. Russia mobilized faster than expected, so Austria had to divert troops from its initial invasion of Serbia, which was defeated.
Germany decided to mobilize in response to Russia's moves. Relying on the prewar Schlieffen Plan, Berlin hoped to fight on the defensive against Russia, assumed to mobilize slowly, while swiftly defeating France in a sweeping right hook around Paris. Then western divisions would be quickly transferred by train across the Fatherland to block any Russian invasion of Prussia or German Polish territory, then invade the Motherland in order to acquire more territory and set up puppet states as buffers against the huge, but underdeveloped empire.
The Schleiffen Plan relied on France's aggressively invading its former territory of Alsace-Lorraine on the left bank of the Rhine, to recapture the provinces and avenge its humiliating loss to Prussia in 1870-71. With much of its army thus drawn east, the strong German right wing could sweep along the Channel Coast to encircle the capital and much of northern France, cutting off French forces in Alsace-Lorraine.
The problem was that the maneuver required invading neutral Belgium, risking Britain's entry into the war over the flagrant breach of international law. German planners were willing to take the chance because they thought that Britain would get drawn in to aid France regardless, and that its small but professional army couldn't make much difference in a war of vast conscript armies.
Besides the alliance system and mobilization schedules, Germany's grand strategy might help explain the decision to violate Belgian neutrality. The global aspects of The Great War included German Weltpolitik strategy, envisioning not only a reordered Mitteleuropa under its control or that of its ally Austria, but a Mittelafrika. While Britain sought to unite its African colonies along a Cape-Cairo railway, Germany wanted to connect its East African (Tanganyika) and Southwest African colonies, which would interrupt the north-south route. Germany also hoped to appropriate the Belgian Congo and, ideally former French and Portuguese colonies. Conquering Belgium obviously would further the scheme. If Britain joined the war and was beaten, it could pressure traditional ally Portugal to hand over Angola and Mozambique to the victorious Kaiser. Defeating France not only promised occupation of its African colonies, but possibly of its rich iron ore deposits just west of Alsace-Lorraine. Thus, success in war might bring riches beyond the dreams of German avarice.
In mid-August Russia launched an offensive against East Prussia sooner than Germany expected, though the Kaiser's forces defeated the invasion. But not before Germany transferred troops intended to fight France eastward, where they arrived too late to help. For reasons beyond the scope of this post, the Schlieffen Plan failed. Both sides on the Western Front were soon mired in trench warfare, with mud from autumnal rains adding to the misery.
The Great War introduced large numbers of submarines, tanks and powered aircraft to military operations. The first known dogfight occurred during the August 1914 Battle of Cer between Austria and Serbia, when an Austrian pilot pulled out a pistol to shoot at a Serbian pilot, who escaped.
That month a millennium event occurred when airplanes supplanted cavalry’s traditional reconnaissance role. Germany’s Rumpler Taubes—birdlike flying machines—provided vital information on Russian movements during the strategic Battle of Tannenberg, and simultaneously the Royal Flying Corps’ less primitive BE-2s warned of the developing threat to the British Expeditionary Force.
Most belligerents failed to appreciate the advantage that modern weapons afforded the defense. Russia had experienced their effect against Japan in 1905, but, had its army learned the lesson of 20th century firepower, the country couldn't afford quantities of machine guns and quick-firing artillery. German infantry was supported by more machine guns than France and Britain, but still fewer than would become common on both sides. Infantry tactics were scarcely advanced over 19th century line of battle formations, despite far more lethal weaponry.
So, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and eventually Italy all could have stayed out of the war between Austria and Serbia, sparing the world squalid slaughter, famine, pestilence, revolution and societal collapse that took the lives of tens of millions, maimed millions more and impoverished great nations. But what if the United States had not come to the aid of the Western Allies?
The hideous casualties on the Somme and at Verdun in 1916 bled Britain and France almost to death. The French army mutinied in 1917. After Germany knocked Russia out of the war in 1917 and signed a treaty with the new Communist regime, troops were freed for offensives in the West and in support of Austria against Italy. If Germany, starved by the Royal Navy's blockade, didn't win decisively in 1918, then an armistice would be necessary.
But Germany had made another error. Its leaders knew that unrestricted submarine warfare risked bringing America into the war. But they accepted the odds to try strangling Britain as its navy laid siege to Germany. President Woodrow Wilson didn't join the war even after a U-boat sank civilian liner Lusitania (secretly carrying ammo from America to Britain) in 1915. However, in 1917 Germany offered to help Mexico reclaim parts of the U.S. Southwest in order to keep America out of the European war. The “Zimmermann telegram” was intercepted and gave reelected (“He kept us out of war!”) Democrat Wilson a casus belli.
Knowing that the Yanks were coming Over There, the Allies held on, stopped Germany's spring offensive, and awaited the arrival of millions of green if eager doughboys, supported by the sailors of a respectable navy.
The human toll was massive, the result of war on an industrial scale. Military deaths to all causes ran from 8.5 to 11 million; civilian losses might top 8 million including war-related disease and starvation. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920 remains somewhere between 40 to 100 million deaths.
The rest is sad and terrible history. Germany fell to a conglomerate of French native and colonial forces, the British Commonwealth led by Australian shock troops, remnant Belgians, and hordes of Americans in giant divisions.
At Versailles in 1919, Germany was punished severely, arguably leading to the rise of the Nazi Party. Austria-Hungary was broken up on the basis of nationalism. Russia descended into the dark night of Bolshevik barbarism. The Yugoslav state so devoutly wished for by Princip (who died in prison) proved a bad idea and fell apart soon after the demise of the USSR.
Another, even more terrible European world war followed in 1939, spreading globally. Then the long, costly Cold War, 1947-91, and hot wars within it. Then a new series of Balkan Wars late in the 20thcentury. Then yet more war in no small part caused by France and Britain's divvying up the Ottoman Empire with little regard to natural geographical, linguistic, ethnic and religious boundaries. Just the opposite of what befell Austria-Hungary's constituent states.
The world had a shot at being a better place in the 20th and 21st centuries had America stood in bed in 1917, and not gone Over There. But U.S. financiers had enormous stakes in protecting loans to the Allies. The War to End all Wars probably wouldn't have done so in any case, but our involvement may have guaranteed seemingly endless war since 11/11/18.