“An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.” Barbara Tuchman
On August 1st 1914 the armies of Europe were mobilizing for war. The last feeble efforts at diplomacy were failing as leaders, and diplomats sought a way out of the situation that their policies had brought about. They had allowed the military instrument to drive policy, rather than for policy to dictate how the military should be employed as an instrument of national strategy. As such they became prisoners to their military mobilization plans, all of which depended on speed in order to gain advantage over their adversaries.
The nations and militaries of Europe were devoted to the “cult of the offensive” by which they would crush their enemy’s armies in a quick campaign. In Germany there was the modified Schlieffen Plan that was about to be executed by the army commanded by Von Molkte the younger in which Germany would violate the neutrality of Belgium in order to invade France, risking war with England in the process. In France, the offense was also the rule of the day, Plan 17 dictated an advance to recapture the Alsace and drive into the heart of Germany. Russia had “Plan 19” nicknamed by some “the Russian Steamroller,” while Austria-Hungary, the chief protagonist of the War dithered with plans to attack Serbia and defend against Russia, which her military commander Conrad von Hotzendorf neither shared with his German allies, or the politicians leading his country to war.
The numbers of troops were massive, the Germans mobilizing nearly four million troops in less than two weeks, the Austrians three point three million, the French over three million and the Russians nearly five million. Serbia, Belgium and Great Britain were mobilizing as well, but the numbers of soldiers that they mobilized were a fraction the size of the major land powers. Soon other nations would become involved, the Ottoman Empire on the side of Austria and Germany, Italy on the side of England and France. Bulgaria and Romania would become involved as well as far away Japan, which saw the opportunity to expand its empire and influence at the expense of Germany.
No leaders had planned for a long war; they did not believe such a war could last. “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”
But they were wrong and in the opening weeks and months of the war, every army lost massive numbers of troops ensuring that victory would not come quickly or cheaply. Between August and December 1914 the Germans had sustained about 800,000 casualties, the French about the same, the Austrians close to a million, the Russians at least 500,000 and the tiny British expeditionary force took about 87,000 casualties of the 110,000 troops deployed to France.
The war dragged on until November 1918. An armistice was signed; a peace treaty made, territory divided but the war never really ended, and in a way continues today in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe. The “War to end all War” really never ended, it continues today in some many places. It really was a war without end.
Of course in August 1914 the leaders of Europe gambled everything on a roll of the dice. The decisions that they made were made deliberately and with forethought, but the logic of those leaders was fatally flawed, and the implications of their flawed decision making process are still haunting us today. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like the politicians, pundits and preachers, that “Trinity of Evil” that find glory and profit in war have learned anything. Like Conrad von Hotzendorf many leaders today believe that “the essence of politics lies in the use of the means called “war.” As Barbara Tuchman said “Learning from experience is a faculty almost never practiced”