Monday, July 28, 2014

Centenary of WWI – But Not Many Lessons Learned

This first of August 2014 is the centennial of the start of the Great War.  

 The road to The War to End All Wars was a long one and although not compeletly inevitable, but became more certain as the military and political lines hardened.  I am going to take a different track in looking at this misunderstood conflict and use the perspective of the timetable, (which is how the general staffs of the belligerents looked at it) and less at the classic timeline and battle approach.  But a timeline is also important to get the facts in their correct order. 

As every school child knows, the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand by a terrorist group on 28 June 1914, one month before the start of the war, (see the July Crisis) began the final (and probably inevitable) sequence leading to a world war.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on little Serbia and the whole series of patched-up relations and entangling treaties between European powers began to unravel.   I won’t go deeply into the causes, because it’s pretty involved, but I am sure that the TV entertainment powers will jump onto bandwagon and we’ll have endless rehashes and revisions and finger pointing, all with commercial interruption galore.  One thing I will talk about is timing, but more on that a bit later. 
The regional war that started in the Balkans on the 28th of July 1914 became a world war by the 1st of August, when some of the world powers declared war on each other.  Note the world war starts when the big power war declarations fall on and just after 1 August.   America manages to hold off from joining in the war until 6 April 1917. 

On a personal note, for those of us folks who can remember the centennial of the Civil War, the bicentennial of the American Revolution, the Centennial of WWI is a sobering thought if nothing else, due to the passage of time and how few lessons have been learned.  Years back I had met a small number of WWI vets from different of countries and they are all gone now.  It’s made me to reflect and I have to wonder about what the world will look like by the time of the Centennial of the Gulf War.  If I don’t miss my bet, it won’t look any better and people won’t be any smarter.  See also, “A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” with the coda that “the rich get richer”.  Sounds kind of jaded, doesn’t it, but it rings true regardless of your political affiliations. 

OK, back to timing.  One thing that most modern people fail to realize in this age of large standing armies, is that previously, a military mobilization was generally felt to be an act of war.  Mobilization was a key part of warfare in a time of small standing armies.  Europe, while keeping small but professional armies, had wide-spread conscription and a complex and in-depth system of reservists and national service.  In the US the system was a bit different.  They augmented their very small standing army with state militias (later national guard units) along side conscription of raw recruits.  In this way, countries could have both a large and small army at the same time.  In times of national emergency, you mobilized your reservists, who then went to their local depots, drew their war fighting gear and then under a war plan, were either set in a defensive stance or as a combat reserve in pre selected locations or went to marshalling areas to be sent on the offensive and meet the enemy in battle.

Here’s how the dominoes fall:  On 28 July, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war on Serbia (Russian ally) and the Russians begin mobilization on 1 August, the French order a general mobilization, and the Germans mobilize also on 1 August.  The world war has started.  The actual declarations of war follow swiftly with Germany declaring war on Russia (and its allies by way of interlocking treaties), on 4 August the UK officially declares war on Germany (and its allies), and France declares war on Germany somewhat belatedly on 11 August.  Note that it is the mobilizations that start the war and the declarations are somewhat beside the point. 

So you see how this works?  It’s like launching missiles in this day and age, they may be armed or they may not, they may have nukes and they might be filled with flowers.  You launch we launch.  You mobilize, we mobilize.  Guess what, a war has just broken out.  To follow the analogy, a country calling a mobilization in 1914 equals launching rockets in the Cold War or today.    In the next few days in the summer of 1914, things get uglier as the great powers unlimber for war and declarations fly fast and furious and it all goes downhill from there.

As a quick aside, one myth about WWI is that it was a war completely tied up in trench warfare.  The truth of the matter is that it was only the portion of the world war, located in Western Europe that eventually devolved into defensive trench warfare. The war in Eastern European theater was one of classic maneuver as was the war in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.  It’s a world war remember, not the war of Western Europe. 

Let's return to the timetable.  The clock was ticking for a war by the fall of 1914:  Military theorists of the time held that seizing the offensive was extremely important. Timetables were paramount and starting your war by the end of the fall harvest had been part of war ever since there were agricultural civilizations.  This theory encouraged  belligerents to start their was as early as possible after harvest and strike first to gain the advantage.  If you mobilize when the harvest is over, releasing your agricultural workers to fight, who at this time are over half the population, you then have at least 150 days of decent weather to fight.  Once you get northern European snows, wars bog down and movement is pretty much over in this period, so you have a limited time to get your work done, mobilize and fight your war before winter sets in.  If you get caught, then you have to wait for the spring thaw and the inevitable mud bogging your down your spring offensive.  So the fall timetable works best if you want a quick war.  See how the timetable works?  The ultimate application would be the blitzkrieg (a later term, but quite succinct), whose roots were in the Franco Prussian War, was the prime ideal for rapid employment and a quick war, but not drawn into full fruition until WWII by the Germans.  Practice makes perfect.

So if you could field your army first while the other countries were still trying to muster, you would have the field and the initiative.  If the other guy fails miserably in mustering their army, they probably will lose or at the very least, be dangerously on the defensive as they flounder.  The French found that out in the Franco Prussian War.  To misquote Confederate General Forrest of American Civil War fame, you will “Git there fustest with the mostest”.* 

The actual conduct of the battles in the World War is not within the purview of this brief blog post so I’ll fast-forward a few years and a few million casualties later to 1918.  After years of fighting and with casualties in the millions, the fatigued belligerents signed an armistice on 11 Nov 1918 at 11 a.m., the famed 11, 11, 11.  It put the war on hold, stopped the fighting, but did not actually end the state of war.  That happened on 28 June 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was hammered out.  But military actions continued, such as on the Russian front with an allied invasion of the Bolshevik held portions of Russia, but that’s another story for another time.  There was plenty of unfinished business and lots of new bad business created by the Treaty of Versailles.

The general reaction once the war was over, was to try forget as much as possible for some, to marginalize the event for others, and a movement towards pacificism (and even pacifism)+ and isolation for the US.  Victorious allies heaped indemnities upon Germany through the Treaty of Versailles, which also dismantled the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and carved up Asian, African, Pacific, and Middle Eastern colonies of the losing side for the victor’s own benefit.  In general setting up the world for more problems in the following decades, not the least of which was another world war.

Here are some “didja knows” for your next cocktail party’s awkward moment:  Italy and Japan were on the side of the Allies in WWI, with Japan declaring war on 23 August 1914.  The Dutch were neutral.  Mexico was supposed to be neutral, but that didn’t stop them from being part of casus belli for getting the USA into the war, see also the Zimmerman Telegram.  Brazil declared war on Germany on 28 October 1917.  China declared war on Germany 17 October 1917 – it might be of note that Germany had colonies in China, something previously noted by Japan, who wanted Port Arthur and other German areas.  They ended up with a number of German owned Pacific islands as war booty.  See my previous post about early Japanese aircraft.  That those factoids should get you disinvited to the next soiree.   

For those of you who come to my blog for reasons other than an interest in history, e.g. H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and movies, there is indeed some link to this post and horror writings (other than the obvious).  In a previous post I wrote about Arthur Machen Angels of Mons becoming folklore and in a post about author William Hope Hodgson, that was killed in WWI, who was a major influence on the writings of  H. P. Lovecraft.  Further you might check out the movie horror series Hellraiser and the origin of Pinhead, Capt Elliot Spencer, who turns out to be a disillusioned WWI vet in his own private hell.  Along with rank and file, WWI ate up company grade officers at a phenomenal rate as they were expected to lead their men personally.  If kings, dictators, generals, and presidents were obligated to lead charges, there might be less wars. 

WWI even had literary repercussions in such innocuous works as Herge’s Tintin books in the person of war profiteer and all around badguy, Bazil Zarahoff, AKA Basil Bazarov in the Tintin adventure, The Broken Ear.  Herge even drew the fictitious Bazarov exactly as Zarahoff to make the point clearly.  Another pop culture post WWI reference to war profiteering was in the person of  Little Orphan Annie’s adopted father, Sir Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, a steel industrialist.  Sadly, despite eventually inheriting a fortune, Annie never got eyeballs.^

In ending, I hope that some of you out there, up-time from us won’t be observing the Centennial of a future WWIII.  If you are, swill your grog from the skull cups made from your enemies and enjoy the Dark Ages, if the lord of the castle allows.
If you are actually interested, but don’t know much about WWI – read a book or two, there are quite a number of good ones around.  I don’t mean that facetiously because this is far too complex and involved for a short treatment on television or on a blog. If the subject is too big to eat whole (and it is), take it a bite at a time, starting with what you think you know and try to expand your knowledge base from there.  Good reading to you.

*This misquote first appeared in the New York Tribune (a Northern publication, mind you) “written to provide colorful comments in reaction to European interest in Civil War generals” (no date to the NYT article provided) from a Wikipedia article about Gen Forrest.  I would appreciate somebody finding the date of the NYT misquote, if they would and possibly a scan. 

^She died Sunday 13 June 2010 at the age of 97, unrepentant and in the hands of a Guatemalan kidnapper. 

+For the distinction  between the two, see this article

Links of interest:
Newspapers of the era:  declarations of war 

WWI timeline of causes

Detailed timeline for WWI 

On the lighter side, a blog post about Turkish delight, WWI and the Crimean War

A Quotable quote not used in this blog article:
“Violence” came the retort, “is the last refuge of the incompetent.”  Isaac Asimov, from The Encyclopedists as originally published in Astounding magazine in May of 1942.  The story was published as a whole as the novel, Foundation the first of the Foundation Trilogy in 195.  The quote was just too good not to use somewhere.

"But what good came of it at last?"
    Quoth little Peterkin.
"Why that I cannot tell," said he,
    "But 'twas a famous victory."

From Robert Southey’s poem, 
After Blenheim


  1. Great article. The more I read about WWI the more interesting bits of history I discover. The Allied interevention in the Russian civil war is almost unknown in the US. Outside of historians and dedicated wargamers most people would arge if you said the US goverment landed troops in Russia after WWI. Another "didja know" was that a Squadron of Japanese warships ended up stationed at Malta during WWI.


  2. Wow, I didn't know that! Thanks, I'll bring that up at my next soiree, which will probably having some wargamming, military history, and general literature geeks over for dinner.

  3. I did a bit of reading after your revelation of Japanese in Malta and turned up a good article:

    I was also surprised to find that the Japanese Navy supported and covered New Zealand Commonwealth forces in occupying German Samoa on 6 August 1914.

    Then again, the Japanese were deeply chagrined at the US annexing the Kingdom of Hawaii enough to send a warship to Pearl Harbor in 1897. The occupying of the Spanish colony of the Philippines in 1898 excited a lot of comment in Japan as well. The American excuse was it was to keep European foreign powers, the Germans, out of the area. But I fear I am drifting off subject.

  4. The deeper you look the more interesting things you find.