The Great War – Research Notes (1) The Origins of War

I’ve resumed work on a novel partly set during the time of World War One. In order to write about the time period and the events of the war accurately, I’ve embarked upon a lot of reading and research. Some of the things I’ve discovered along the way are just too fascinating not to share. I’m going to start at the beginning and repost some of my earlier pieces first. Hopefully, all of the new folks following along will find them interesting. And for my old friends, don’t despair, I will add fresh material as I discover it! Today, I will begin with a post that sets the stage for the war.

We all know the story. In Sarajevo, on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip -a Bosnian-Yugoslav Nationalist- shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary- the event that escalated the world into war. This was however, merely the match thrown onto the gasoline-soaked woodpile that was Europe in the years leading up to The Great War.

The geopolitical wrangling that went on in the decades leading up to outbreak of hostilities is complicated. Germany felt they were being economically oppressed and excluded politically by the other European powers, namely France and Britain. They were a relatively new nation, having coalesced from the unification of the separate states of Bavaria, Prussia and so forth. The map in the header image has the full list. And because they weren’t a colonial power like Britain and France they didn’t have the depth of resources to draw on or the room for expansion as did those two. Here is a brief background on how things got to this point. Bear in mind that massive and numerous books have been written on the subject, so this really is just the basics.

Germany as we know it did not exist in the early 1800’s. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the independent German territories were bound together into The German Confederation. The confederation that would eventually become The German Empire in 1871, was made up of constituent territories, including four kingdoms, six grand duchies, five duchies, seven principalities, three cities and one imperial territory.

With the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the states of Germany had shifted from a rural, agrarian economy to an industrial one, with strengths in coal, iron/steel and chemical production, and railroads. With this change came urbanization and the movement of its population from the countryside to the cities. During this time, Germany became an industrial, technological and scientific giant.

Otto Von Bismarck

With economic changes came political changes too. Economic wealth led to German nationalism which then resulted in a shift from a liberal democratic coalition among the states to imperialism and a united German Empire. During his tenure, Prussian Prime Minister, Otto Von Bismarck, engineered three successful wars, including the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which resulted in France’s loss of the region of Alsace-Lorraine and the final unification of all the German states under an Emperor (Kaiser Wilhelm I). Bismarck’s influence was instrumental in establishing the House of Hohenzollern (a Prussian dynasty) as the reigning monarchy over the newly-formed empire.

Nevertheless, economic power failed to give the German Empire the political status to which it felt it entitled within the European community. Additionally, since the Empire had failed to establish alliances with the other European powers, it found itself with only Austria-Hungary as its ally. And while the rest of Europe had embraced the concept of democracy and self-determination, Germany’s Wilhelmine Westpolitik was a powerful conservative force opposing revolution, supporting old dynastic tradition, second only to Tsarist Russia.

Alfred Von Schlieffen

The Germans felt that the British Empire had dominated the scene for too long and it was time for the rise of Mittel Europe -namely The German Empire to take its rightful place at the table alongside the other powers of Europe. It was with this idea that German growth and expansion were being strategically and maliciously restrained, that led the German military commander Count Alfred Von Schleiffen to formulate a plan for the invasion and defeat of France by way of Belgium. The Schleiffen Plan was completed in 1906, eight years before the outbreak of hostilities.

Meanwhile, the French, anxious about this new shift of military and economic power within Europe, and having been humiliated in 1870 by the German conquest of their territories, were developing their own plans to retake the regions of Alsace-Lorraine. So when the shot was fired in June 28, 1914, it was the match that set the woodpile of Europe ablaze.

Preparations For War: Plan XVII

Like Germany, France had also designed a plan for war far in advance of the outbreak. Their vision was to be clouded by a thirst for revenge. They were still smarting from the loss of their territories in Alsace and Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870’s. And with their recovery in mind, the French committed to the doctrine of the all-out offensive.

In 1911, Plan 16 was adopted. It called for the build up of troops on the Eastern borders of France, quickly followed by a straighforward drive into the lost provinces. This strategy meant the armies would have to cross the Vosges Mountains of Eastern France. The mountains, while not particularly high, are rugged and rough, and at the time, lacked much in the way of communication facilities. It would not be easy country to traverse in the rapid attempt to gain territory.

One man recognized this problem –the new Commander in Chief of the French Army, General Victor Michel. He correctly predicted that a German offensive would come through Belgium, not through the Eastern mountains. He suggested that a new plan be devised that would take the French Army northwest into Belgium to counter the anticipated German move. He was promptly fired.

Michel was replaced by General Joseph Joffre, a large man whose best attributes were patience and a refusal to panic.

Joseph Joffre via wikipedia

His version of a plan for war was a modified version of Plan 16, dubbed Plan 17, and kept two armies in reserve to monitor the southern Belgian border. Despite taking a possible German incursion through Belgium into account, the French offensive would still proceed to march through Alsace-Lorraine.

Joffre had made several mistaken assumptions regarding the course of the war: he thought Russian operations would have greater impact, he thought Britain would offer more help at the outset than they did and most tragically, he assumed the Germans had far fewer troops than they did. In fact, despite the early hints that vast numbers of German troops were massing north of the Ardennes, Joffre stuck to his convictions that the enemy didn’t have the manpower to concentrate that far north.

Thus it was that Plan 17 was put into action. On the Eastern offensive, the brightly uniformed French* –wearing the red trousers and navy overcoats of bygone days, their white-gloved officers with swords unsheathed leading the way– would sweep forward in long lines in perfect order. The German machine guns would open up and slaughter them.

Photo my own – Paris Musee de Armie

This is a brief overview… there is so much more that happened in those opening days of war. I recommend for anyone interested: The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman and A Short History of World War I, by James L. Stokesbury. Header Image courtesy History Extra.

*The French quickly realized the folly of their hubris. Their traditional uniform had essentially put targets on their backs. The sky blue uniform which had been suggested in the years prior to the outbreak was rapidly adopted.

Preparations For War: The Schlieffen Plan

The outbreak of war in 1914 had been planned in advance for nearly twenty years. In those preceding decades, the maneuvering for power on the Continent among the players who finally declared against each other in the early days of that fateful August, had resulted in their political and military leaders preparing plans for all the potential scenarios that might arise in the case of a general European war.

Of all the plans that had been drafted, the most important of them was that of the Germans because ultimately, its execution turned a regional war into a world war. It was called The Schlieffen Plan after it’s author, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, who served as the Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1906. The bulk of the plan had already been formulated by 1895. Minor modifications and what can only be called tampering, were the only changes that were made to the plan after Shclieffen’s retirement.

Count Alfred von Schlieffen

The plan went like this:

Shielffen concluded, based on the alliances formed during his tenure, that Germany would have to fight a two front war. France had allied with Russia, therefore any war involving either of those parties would inevitably drag the other into the fray. In those days the objective was to be the fastest to mobilize. The first army to get into position would ultimately be the victor, or so it was thought. Schlieffen calculated correctly that the German army would be the fastest to mobilize, with the French second fastest and the Russian army the slowest.

If Germany could rush into position, Shlieffen believed, the two front war could be avoided. With a massive push against France in the opening weeks of a confrontation, the speedy German forces could overwhelm the French before the Russians had their troops mobilized. After quickly defeating the French, they could now send the full force of the German war machine against the sluggish Russians.

For this plan to work, several assumptions were made. One, that an engaged French army would launch an attack into the region of Allsace-Lorraine– the former French regions lost to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870’s. This would leave the Western borders of France weak and vulnerable. The main wing of the German army would march west, drop down through Belgium (unopposed, or so they thought) and have the French forces surrounded from The English Channel on the west to the defensive forces engaging the French offensive in Alsace-Lorraine on the east. The whole thing would take no more than six weeks. Paris would be captured and the Germans could turn their attention to the Russian army on the extreme eastern front.

Shlieffen said, “Let the right-flank grenadier brush the Channel with his sleeve.”

However, for Germany to launch the massive and speedy offensive into Western France, neutral Belgium had to be invaded. The original Shlieffen plan also called for an intrusion into a small section of the Netherlands. Schlieffen had calculated (wrongly) that, despite a treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality and Britain’s promise to uphold such, the British would stand idly by while ‘little Belgium’ was violated by the massive two million man German offensive. That alone would not prove to be the only downfall of The Schlieffen Plan.

When Schlieffen retired in 1906, he was replaced by Helmuth von Moltke, nephew of the great Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke, director of the Wars of German Unification and military counterpart of Otto von Bismarck, the political might behind the Kaiser of united Germany. The namesake did not live up to his uncle’s reputation, however. He himself acknowledged this. Reportedly confessing to a friend he said, “I lack the capacity for risking all on a single throw.” And that kind of nerve was exactly what the Shlieffen Plan demanded in order to be successful.

Shlieffen had insisted that the strength of the right wing was critical to the success of the plan. Moltke weakened that very wing by reallocating troops (unnecessarily) to strengthen the defensive position in Alsace-Lorraine. He also opted not to violate Holland’s territory as well as Belgium’s, which meant the massive German wing (three armies) was squeezed though a narrow thirty-five mile gap between the Belgian/Holland border and the Ardennes forest. This also meant they had to fight their way past Belgium’s strongest defensive position – the fort at Liege.

Long story short – the Belgian army did not roll over and let the Germans pass. They put up a hell of a fight, slowing them down and totally disrupting the aggressor’s timetables. Additionally, the British did not stand idly by and let Belgium, whom they had sworn to defend, be invaded by the German army. They quickly declared war on Germany and sent the British Expeditionary Force into the fray.

The Germans had thought the Schieffen Plan guaranteed them victory within three or four months. And what it really guaranteed was that if victory was not achieved in that time, it would not be achieved at all. The two front war they hoped to avoid was now the reality. A reality that quickly became a nightmare.