The diplomatic drift towards war: AD 1890-1914
In the years leading to World War I there are five major powers within Europe – Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France and Britain. The cast list is unchanged since the early 18th century (except that Prussia is now Germany), and the players are well used to the game of diplomacy in which alliances formed for defensive purposes turn into aggressive partnerships as soon as a new war develops (a circumstance considered almost inevitable sooner or later in the atmosphere of national rivalry).
However the 19th century has introduced one new element in the form of very much shorter wars. If the Seven Years’ War characterizes the 18th century, the Seven Weeks’ War is more typical of the 19th (the Franco-Prussian War is almost equally short).
The idea of rapid victory in a short war is particularly prevalent in Germany, the victor in both the Seven Weeks’ War and the Franco-Prussian War. And the German nation is both more hungry for immediate success on the international stage than its rivals, and more nervous about succumbing to hostile alliances.
The reasons are numerous. Germany has recently been transformed by Bismarck from a relatively minor player to potentially the most powerful nation in continental Europe. But as a late arrival on the world stage, it has no empire to match those of Britain, France and Russia. Nor, unlike them, has it a great navy – the most tangible symbol, perhaps, of international power.
German nervousness is increased during the 1890s when alliances among the European powers seem to be slipping beyond German control. Bismarck worked on the assumption of hostility from France (eager to avenge the loss of Alsace and Lorraine) and a neutral stance from Britain (historically the great rival of France).
He therefore concentrated his efforts on creating alliances with his eastern neighbours, Russia and Austria-Hungary. To these he added Italy, a new nation on the verge of great power status within Europe. The Triple Alliance, agreed in 1882 between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, lasts until 1915.
Bismarck’s chosen path is not easy, particularly since Austria-Hungary and Russia have conflicting spheres of interest in the unstable Balkans. As a result, while Austria-Hungary and Italy remain constant allies (the three nations become known from 1882 as the Central Powers of Europe), Bismarck is constantly having to patch up or renew the alliance with Russia under the pressure of international events.
The careful edifice crumbles after Bismarck’s dismissal in 1890. The new Kaiser, recognizing the incompatibility of Russia and Austria-Hungary as allies, breaks off the alliance with Russia. As a result Russia and France, both equally alarmed by Germany, begin secret negotiations – which result in the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894.
Then, even more surprisingly, in 1904 France and Britain agree an unprecedented Entente Cordiale. And in 1908 Austria annexes Bosnia-Hercegovina, ending any hope of a rapprochement with Russia (the traditional protector of the Serbs, who are outraged by Austria’s action). Austria-Hungary, a declining power, and the relatively weak Italy now seem to be Germany’s only probable allies in a European conflict. And by this time many, particularly in Germany, feel that such a conflict cannot be far in the future.
All the major nations have been preparing for such an eventuality, but Germany has done so in the most deliberate fashion.
The strategic drift towards war: AD 1890-1914
A popular buzz-word in Germany at this time is Weltpolitik (‘world politics’), meaning that the nation must assert itself on the international stage in order to claim its ‘place in the sun’ (another current phrase). To this end much pride is placed in the plan devised by Admiral von Tirpitz to provide the nation with a High Seas Fleet to match the naval forces of Britain.
Tirpitz’s demands on the Reichstag escalate in the inexorable pattern of any arms race. In 1898 he persuades the politicians to pass a Navy Law providing for a fleet of 16 battleships. Two years later a new Navy Law revises the figure to 38 battleships, with a completion date of 1917 for the full fleet.
This level will still be below that of the British navy, but Tirpitz argues that it will provide Germany with a Risikoflotte (‘risk fleet’), meaning one too dangerous for Britain to attack. Britain radically upsets the calculation by introducing in 1906 a vastly more powerful class of battleship, the first of the famous ‘dreadnoughts’. Germany follows suit, upgrading its production line to the new standard.
To the German argument that Britain is escalating the stakes, Winston Churchill (when first lord of the admiralty in 1912) replies that for an island nation a powerful navy is a defensive necessity, whereas to Germany it is ‘more in the nature of a luxury’.
Meanwhile the German strategy for the army in the event of war is both more secret and more illicit. It is the work of Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the general staff from 1891 to 1906. During the second half of the 1890s, when France and Russia are in alliance and it is accepted that a war must be fought on both fronts, Schlieffen devises a two-stage plan.
A massive and rapid flanking attack will be made on France from the north, through Belgium (in total disregard of Belgium’s neutrality), while a relatively light force holds at bay the Russians – who are likely to be slower in their mobilization. France will then be defeated in time to redirect the full German might against Russia.
In December 1912 the emperor William II and his military advisers hold a secret meeting in which they discuss the possible launch of a preventive war, on the basis of the Schlieffen Plan, to protect Germany’s interests. Tirpitz argues for delay to give him more time to build up the fleet. His view prevails, but it is agreed that it will be essential to wait for not much more than two years.
In 1913 the Reichstag passes a bill to increase the size of Germany’s peacetime army, with a target of 800,000 men by the autumn of 1914. The other four players in this dangerous game are also now following suit. There is no evident reason for war. But policy, as if by stealth, seems to be making it inevitable.
Five weeks to war: AD 1914
The flashpoint comes in Bosnia on 28 June 1914, when a Serbian nationalist assassinates the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. This is a highly dramatic event, though less unusual then than now (since the turn of the century assassins have claimed the lives of a president of the USA, a king of Portugal and a king of Greece). But it is certainly not due cause for a world war.
The mere five weeks between the shot fired in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip and the first declaration of war between the major powers demonstrates vividly the tangle in which Europe’s statesmen have tied themselves.
The first reaction to the outrage at Sarajevo is from Vienna. To the Austrian emperor and his advisers the immediate requirement is to destroy the influence of Serbia, the mainstay of Slav resistance to Austria-Hungary in the Balkans. But the danger is that an invasion of Serbia may provoke Slav solidarity and thus war with Russia.
So an urgent question is sent on July 4 to Berlin. Will Germany come to the assistance of Austria-Hungary if Russia intervenes on behalf of Serbia? Within two days an answer comes back in the affirmative. The Austrian emperor should deal with Serbia as he thinks fit.
Germany nevertheless hopes that Russia will hold back, leaving the Serbian crisis as a local affair between Vienna and Belgrade. Subsequently the Kaiser even sends telegrams to the Tsar urging this course of action. But if Russia does intervene, there will be one advantage to Germany. The subsequent war can be presented to the world as the result of Russian aggression.
For three weeks there is a deceptive lull, partly owing to disagreements in Vienna and partly because Serbia makes conciliatory efforts to defuse the situation. Then suddenly, on July 28, Austria-Hungary declares war on its small neighbour. The following day, removing all chance of further diplomacy, an Austrian flotilla on the Danube bombards Belgrade.
In response Russia mobilizes her army, thus inevitably triggering the urgent launch by German of the Schlieffen Plan – for if Russia gains the advantage of amassing troops in the east, there will be no time for the preliminary defeat of France in the west. With her options thus seemingly reduced by strategic demands to only one, Germany impetuously declares war on Russia on August 1.
Two days later she also declares on France. During the night of the same day, August 3, German armies cross the border into Belgium, to begin the flanking movement which is intended to bring them rapidly down into northern France and so once again (echoes of 1871) to Paris.
This action brings in the fifth of the European powers. Britain’s Entente Cordiale does not commit her to come to the defence of France, and many in the German high command expect her not to do so. But the violation of the neutrality of Belgium introduces an element which the Germans have either overlooked or have considered insignificant. Britain was one of the powers guaranteeing (in 1831 and again in 1839), to protect Belgium as ‘an independent and perpetually neutral state’.
Under this obligation Britain declares war on Germany on August 4. For the first time in 100 years all the major powers of Europe are at war. A mere five weeks and three days have passed since the unexpected event at Sarajevo.
War in the west: AD 1914
At first the thrust of the German armies through Belgium and south into France seems to fulfil the Schlieffen Plan. ‘Victory by Christmas’ does indeed seem possible (though the German high command is not alone in making this promise to its citizens – all the other combatants are professing equal optimism).
The Belgian army puts up a heroic resistance but is unable to prevent the Germans from taking Liège on August 16, Brusssels on the 20th and Namur on the 23rd. Meanwhile a small British Expeditionary Force, rushed across the Channel in mid-August to Boulogne, reaches Mons.
Confronted at Mons on August 23 by a much larger German army, the British Expeditionary Force fights a successful rearguard action and retreats south again to escape encirclement.
Meanwhile the initial French effort has been wasted in a drive east through Lorraine. By August 22 this is halted by the Germans, bringing France massive numbers of dead and wounded (in the region of 300,000, a foretaste of the ghastly statistics which will characterize this war). After this disaster the French redirect their efforts northwards to counter the threat from Belgium.
The German intention has been to sweep to the west of Paris and thus encircle the city. Opposition in Belgium and northern France has been sufficient to confine the German thrust to the east of the capital. Nevertheless by September 3, a month after their invasion and well within their schedule, German armies cross the river Marne. To safeguard against the likely fall of Paris, the French government moves south to Bordeaux.
The Germans are within 30 miles of the capital when a mainly French force finally halts and then rolls back their relentless advance. During four days of fighting (Sept. 5-8, the battle of the Marne) the German army is pushed north of the river.
This reversal means the collapse of the Schlieffen Plan in the west, depending as it did on a rapid conquest of France. Meanwhile it has proved equally defective in the east, where the Russians make early advances.
These advances prompt the German high command, in late August, to transfer four divisions from Belgium to the eastern front. So the army which is forced back over the Marne is smaller than intended. It is also much more vulnerable than it should be. The German supply lines have not been able to keep up with the army’s rapid move south.
With the tide turning, the German forces hurry back to the river Aisne to regroup. They then move west in a second attempt to outflank the Allied armies. (By this time Britain, France and Russia are known as the Allied Powers, after signing a treaty in London on September 5 in which each guarantees not to make a separate peace treaty with the Central Powers.)
The Allies also move west, to frustrate the German flanking movement. Thus begins the competitive advance which becomes known as the ‘race to the sea’, during which the most hard-fought encounters are in October and November around Ypres. The point at which the two armies reach the sea becomes the northwest end of a 400-mile line of demarcation.
By November 1914 the line is fixed. It runs roughly along the French and Belgian border and then down the French and German border to Switzerland. The only part of this terrain which is flat and therefore hard to defend is in the northwest, among the fields of Flanders.
Here, in the winter of 1914, each side begins feverishly building trenches. These become permanent defensive structures, more like cramped underground barracks than mere shelters from bullets and shells. They will be home to hundreds of thousands of Europe’s young men for more than three years. The fanciful notion of ‘victory by Christmas’ is transformed into protracted and nightmarish warfare of a kind previously unknown in history.