Mr. Sensitive

March 11, 2010

The Foolishness That Was World War I

Filed under: Stuff I Just Wanted To Say — lbej @ 11:34
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German leaders were a paranoid bunch, it seems.  War planners always believed they were going to have to fight eventually, so they might as well get things started on their own timetable.  The idea of a sustainable balance of power in Europe apparently did not strike the Germans as very realistic.  So really, the repeated invading of the countries around them was the fault of the countries around them for being so, you know, around them.

When the Austrian Archduke was assassinated in June 1914, Germany was facing an enemy to her west in France, and another to her east in France’s treaty partner, Russia.  Germany was part of the so-called Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy.  Britain was largely minding its own business, which was business.  The German High Command did not believe Germany could win a two-front war, yet that is what she was facing.  They believed Germany could defeat both France and Russia, but not if she had to fight them both at once.  The High Command created the Schlieffen Plan a decade earlier so that perhaps she wouldn’t have to attempt it.

The basic strategy of the Schlieffen Plan was to throw the full strength of the German army against France and knock her out of the war before turning to face Russia.  To do this, Germany needed speed and surprise against France.  The attack had to come from a direction French planners would not expect: it had to come from the north, through neutral Belgium.  This would horrify many observers at the outset, but once the Germans were in Paris, it would be for them to write the history of the war, not the simpering French and Belgians.  For the plan to work, three key assumptions had to hold:

  1. Russia would not be a problem, at least not initially.  She would be slow to mobilize her full strength, and anyway, the Austrians could handle whatever she might bring to bear before Germany had tidied up in the west.
  2. Italy would support her treaty partners, or at the very least she would not support the enemies of Germany and Austria in the coming war.
  3. Britain would not enter the war.  She had no formal treaty of alliance with France or Russia, and if her overseas empire was not threatened, her leaders would not be able to justify going to war to the people they foolishly allowed to vote about such things.

Germany possessed the mightiest army in Europe, the legacy of her Prussian forebears, so she might have been able to overcome the loss of one governing assumption.  All three, not so much.

So what happened?

  1. Russia was a problem.  Actually, the problem wasn’t Russia so much as it was Austria.  Not only did the Austrians invade Serbia when the German High Command expected them to concentrate on the Russians, they were subsequently whipped by those same Serbians.  This began a pattern of Germany having to cover for the military impotence of critical allies that would last for the rest of the First World War and recur during the Second.  Germany had to divert forces to smash the advancing Russians (which they did, at Tannenberg), forces that she would have otherwise deployed against France.  Had those troops been in reserve for the first Battle of the Marne in September 1914, the valiant efforts of Marshal Foch and the taxi drivers of Paris might have meant much less to history.
  2. Italy messed things up for Germany.  Interestingly, one could describe either of the World Wars that way.  But Italy caused problems for Hitler by trying to fight when she couldn’t, whereas in the first go-round the problem was that she wouldn’t fight on behalf of her German allies.  Turns out the Italians were playing both sides, trying to see who would give them the better deal.  In the end, what Italy most wanted was territory held by the Austrian Habsburgs, and she figured joining the Entente was the best way to get it.  Italy went to war with Austria in 1915, thus stamping out any chance Germany had of getting anything but a headache out of its partnership with the house of Habsburg.
  3. The Redcoats are coming.  In this war as in WWII, Germany discounted disastrously the willingness of the British to go to war despite not having an overwhelming commercial reason for doing so.  Britain was very much threatened by the rapid industrial and naval growth of Germany, a reality the Germans never really embraced.  And the British simply didn’t take it well when an expansionist Germany invaded her neighbors with no provocation.  Britain didn’t strictly need to declare war on Germany when she invaded Belgium in 1914 anymore than Britain needed to declare war when the blitzkrieg struck Poland in 1939.  But she did declare war, and once she was in, she was all in.

Germany bet her future on those three assumptions.  Once the war was underway there were a number of other developments of a more tactical nature that were crucial to the outcome of the initial German drive into France, but the point is that when so much goes wrong from a strategic standpoint, the chances of even tactical brilliance saving the day aren’t great.  Germany absolutely had to have a quick victory, and she didn’t get one.  Once the Schlieffen Plan failed and the digging began, all bets were off.

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