Tuesday, March 31, 2015

World War I: Part III

Opening Gambits and Early Battles

The opening of World War I on the Western Front is usually divided into two main phases, the Battle of the Frontiers and the Race to the Sea, which together took place between August and November of 1914. Usually, historians describe the earliest phase from the viewpoint of the Germans because, at least in Western Europe, they were the most successful at the outset in moving against enemy territory. In a sense, it was their war to lose at this stage, and some historians believe that the ultimate failure of the Germans’ opening gambit doomed the Germans to defeat no matter what they did for the next four years. Although the Russian army had been mobilizing since the end of July—and turned out to mobilize faster than the Germans had anticipated, nevertheless, the first notable fighting of the war broke out on the Western Front when Germany entered Belgium on the 4th of August and soon thereafter moved into northern France. This first phase began mere days after Germany, Russia and France had traded war declarations. The Germans’ successful attempt to push their frontiers into France was not quite matched when the French tried and failed to push their own frontiers into Germany.

General Helmuth von Moltke, the Younger

German General Helmuth von Moltke, the Younger, launched the invasion of Belgium, a country that had not declared war on anyone, although he had declined to invade the equally neutral Netherlandsdespite the fact that the Schlieffen Plan, from which Moltke was working, originally called for an invasion of the Netherlands as well. (However, the railroads of the tiny neutral country of Luxemburg also fell under the control of the German invaders.) Moltke’s forces did not move as quickly as he had hoped, partly because of unexpected Belgian resistance, but the Germans soon reached France. In the face of this onslaught, both the French, led by Marshal Joseph Joffre, and their new British allies fell back. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was led by General Sir John French (who, despite his name, did not speak French and did not get along with some of the French generals). Sir John was reluctant to commit his army which was below strength. While some of his divisions fought along side French troops, Sir John himself held back until the end of August, often reacting with over concern to exaggerated reports of losses to his divisions. General Charles Lanrezac was extremely frustrated with Sir John, regarding the British commander as timid to the point of cowardliness. In Sir John’s defense, Joffre, Lanrezac and their fellow French commanders were in retreat, too; it was not as if Sir John was the only commander falling back in the face of the German onslaught. (And Joffre would soon replace Lanrezac for being too timid!)


The Schlieffen plan called for splitting German forces into two armies, one of which was to sweep across northern France while the other encircled Paris, closing a large loop around the French capital and the troops defending it. Moltke’s two armies were like two separate arms, and their progress seemed encouraging at first. Then two types of problems developed. One was that the logistics of the plan required troops and supplies to be moved in a coordinated fashion, and it proved to be impossible to keep the two movements synchronized. It was also important to keep the two different armies that were involved in the operation more or less synchronized, although this may have been a greater problem in the minds of the German commanders than it actually was. This leads to the second kind of problem which was the self-inflicted one of not following—and probably not understanding—the spirit of the original plan. To Schlieffen, it had been important to understand which of the armies was carrying out the main attack, but Moltke ended up turning Schlieffen’s secondary movement into the main one. In addition, Moltke felt the need to react to two trouble spots by siphoning off some of his troops to deal with them.


In mid-August, the first of these trouble spots appeared when Joffre attempted the execution of Plan 17, which, like the Schlieffen Plan, was a preexisting operation intended to recover the Alsace-Lorraine territory that had been taken from France by Germany in 1871, but this scheme underestimated the Germans’ ability to bring troops quickly to this front. Modern railroad trains would play a crucial role in World War I in getting troops to the battlefield even though they could not get the same troops across the battlefield, which still had to be done on foot (until the first successful use of tanks, which only came late in the war). Joffre’s attempt to recapture the territories collapsed. It did, however, distract the Germans and bought France a little time, and, although it caused the French enormous casualties, including many of the finest French officers, it did not prevent Joffre from later amassing enough French troops to defend northern France.


General Paul von Hindenburg
General Erich Ludendorff

The second trouble spot for the Germans was the Eastern Front where, as already mentioned, Russia mobilized faster than the Germans had expected, invading East Prussia in August and actually capturing German territory. Alarmed, Germany not only sent troops eastward from Belgium and France, but brought out of retirement General Paul von Hindenburg to lead the German troops against the Russians. His aide was General Erich Ludendorff, who had already distinguished himself in Belgium. The two generals would work so well together—despite differing personalities and styles—that later critics referred to them as the Siamese twins. The Russian army was numerous but not well-equipped and trained. At the Battle of Tannenburg, at the end of August, they made the mistake of sending radio transmissions about troop movements in the clear—that is, not as coded messages. The Germans gambled that these messages were not a ruse and took advantage of the intelligence, with the result that the Germans knew exactly where the Russians would be and where they were weakest and thus succeeded in dividing and conquering their armies. Russian troop morale, not terribly high to begin with, generally fell and never recovered. The defeat of the Russians at Tannenburg made Hindenburg and Ludendorff heroes to the German public to such an extent that both of them were able to leverage this regard into political power both during and after the war. After Tannenburg, Germany captured territory from the Russians in Eastern Europe, the occupation of which was to become a mixed blessing for the balance of the war. While necessary to Germany’s security, occupation of the region required large numbers of troops that otherwise were needed in the west. While the Russians’ attack on Germany succeeded at first but then crumbled before Hindenburg, they also succeeded in invading Austria-Hungary's province of Galicia, which was recaptured only with German assistance.

Meanwhile, a gap had opened and expanded between the two arms of the German advance on the Western Front. While this was to be expected to some extent, it grew to a degree that worried Moltke and his commanders, who finally decided to close the gap by bringing the army that was supposed to encircle Paris further east and closer to the other German army. In this way, Moltke gave up any chance of encircling Parisand, by turning his flank toward the enemy, invited the very counterattack he dreaded. By early September, Allied generals Joffre and French had brought enough troops to bear against the now exposed German flank so that they put the invaders on the defensive. Famously, the French used every mode of transportation, including taxi cabs and bicycles, to get troops to the Marne Riverwhere the Allied armies made their effective counterattack (Hence this was called the Battle of the Marne.), forcing the Germans to fall back to the Aisne River before making a stand. They dug shallow trenches—forerunners of the deep, fortified trenches that would be dug later on. In mid-September, Moltke was replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn, but it was too late to reverse the collapse of Germany’s opening gambit. The virtually unbreakable stalemate on the Western Front had already begun to take shape.


The second phase of the war’s opening, which lasted from October to November, is called the Race to the Sea, although it was not anyone’s intention actually to reach the North Sea; rather, there were a series of attempts by each side to outflank the other and get around the northern-most end of each other’s lines, in order to force the forward edge of the enemy's line to flatten along an east-west axis rather than remain north-south. Each attempt to accomplish this, by whichever side, failed, each side kept extending its line northward so that the other could not get in front and turn them back. Finally, both sides reached the North Sea and the English Channel and could go no further. Indeed, both sides were prevented from getting all the way to the sea because the last few miles of land between them and the sea were below sea-level, and the Belgians simply opened the sluices and let water completely flood their fields, stopping the Germans from pressing any further toward the coast.


It is an interesting historical note, which would only later take on some significance, that during the Race to the Sea an obscure private in the Bavarian army first saw action. His name was Adolf Hitler, and he belonged to a lowly reserve regiment made up of middle-aged veterans and raw recruits like himself. After only a few weeks of basic training, during which they had been taught to shoot with obsolete rifles, the Sixteenth Reserve Regiment was outfitted with unfamiliar new rifles on the eve of battle and not given helmets at all. (They wore oil cloth hats that, from a distance, looked enough like the helmets of the BEF to invite a number of instances of friendly fire from fellow German troops.) During their first battle in Belgiumat the end of October, their commanding officer, Colonel List, was killed. Ever afterward, the unit was affectionately called the List Regiment by its members.


The opening weeks of the war everywhere saw a grim introduction between nineteenth-century-trained soldiers and twentieth century machines of war, but the slaughter of Austria-Hungary’s highly trained officer corps was, perhaps, the fastest and most thoroughly devastating. Austria-Hungarynever recovered from this loss of military talent. The Austro-Hungarians also suffered from the fact that many of their troops were from occupied territories within the empire. Czechs and Poles, for example, felt no national loyalty to the Emperor Franz Joseph (who was to die in 1916, before the end of the war) and feared that their ethnic cousins would likely as not be directly across the battlefield fighting for the other side. While other combatant nations could appeal in their propaganda to a sense of national pride and patriotism, this justification of Austria-Hungary’s war aims made no sense and was abandoned after ill-received initial attempts. Before very long, the empire had reason to regret the part it had played in precipitating the Great War, the outcome of which would not merely determine whether or not Austria-Hungary would be victorious but whether it would exist at all after the shooting stopped.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

World War I: Part II

World War I, or the Great War as participants came to call it, was a war of contrasts. From the beginning, reactions to the news of war were strong but sometimes opposite in character depending on where one stood. In the large cities of the Great Powers—cities such as Berlin, Munich, London, St. Petersburg, and Paris—there was great enthusiasm with spontaneous pro-war demonstrations in the streets that were almost completely unanticipated by the various governments. While it is true that there were some instances of protest marches against the war, these were dwarfed by the wave of pro-war demonstrations that came to be described as the “August Madness.” When the Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, son of Wilhelm I, came out onto his balcony to see the pro-war crowds gathered at his residence in Berlin, he declared that he could no longer see different interest groups, religions or parties. “I see only Germans,” he said. This August Madness was less pronounced, however, in the countryside, where farmers realized that it was going to be harder to make a living or produce a crop with all of the young men being drafted into the army. Feelings about the looming war were even more ambivalent in the smaller and occupied countries that had no stake in war and saw only the likelihood that their lands would be invaded, occupied and destroyed, their lives disrupted or taken away. Soldiers would be drafted from among these occupied peoples, especially by the Austro-Hungarians, and many of these peoples resented having to fight for a distant emperor they only wished would leave them alone. The problem of being a colonized people expected to fight for one of the Great Powers also troubled those who were occupied by Russiaand Germany, especially those, such as the Poles, who had relatives fighting for the other side. The situation in the dominions of Great Britain and France were only slightly different in that many citizens of their colonies held out the hope that if they distinguished themselves in the defense of the mother country, they might earn some degree of autonomy or even independence as a reward at the end of the war.


World War I was also full of surprises and ironies, to put it mildly. If you asked each combatant country what they were fighting for, initially, many of them would have claimed to be defending their country against aggression. Both Franceand Germany made this claim against each other, but if each side was defending against an aggressor, then who was that aggressor and how could that aggressor also claim to be fighting a war of self defense? Part of the explanation is that everyone subscribed to the theory that the best defense is a good offense. In fact, both Germany and France felt that if they did not attack first they might be destroyed; so, they both made preemptive invasions of each other. The French effort would have driven into the middle of Germany, precisely at the point of her strongest defenses. This strategy collapsed quickly. Meanwhile, the German plan, meant to invade Francethrough the neutral nation of Belgium, was at first successful. Based on a plan that had been originally designed by the late General Alfred von Schlieffen and thus called the Schlieffen Plan, the invasion of Belgium was supposed to lead to an invasion of northern France, and it did stun French and British troops, pushing them back, if only momentarily. Then the German plan collapsed in place, resulting in a stalemate that lasted for most of the rest of the war. From the North Sea to Switzerland, with the Germans on one side and the British and French on the other, the combatants faced each other across a nearly static “no man’s land” that shifted very little and very rarely from where it was toward the end of 1914. In the larger picture, Germanyhad hoped to defeat Francequickly so that Germanycould turn its full attention to Russia, which presumably would take a long time to mobilize for war. This did not work out as hoped. Russia mobilized faster than anticipated and invaded East Prussiabefore the Germans fully realized that the Schlieffen Plan had collapsed. It had been precisely the hope of the Schlieffen Plan that it would prevent Germany from having to fight simultaneously on Eastern and Western Fronts.


There has been a long debate over the Schlieffen Plan and its execution. Many came to believe that the plan itself was hopelessly flawed from the outset. General von Schlieffen had worked out precise timetables to move troops by train to where they had to be in order for the plan to work. Some think that the failing of the plan was that this timing did not allow any leeway. On the other hand, some military historians believe that this is not the problem. They might say that the original Schlieffen Plan did not need to be executed perfectly, only that it had to be executed in more or less the way Schlieffen designed it. Instead, the German commander, General Helmuth von Moltke, the Younger (His father and namesake had been the able general who defeated the French in 1871.) radically changed the Schlieffen Plan, turning what was supposed to be a feint into the main attack and what was supposed to be the main attack into a lesser maneuver. These critics say that he thereby weakened the plan and that, had he followed the original scheme, it might have worked. Part of Moltke’s change of the plan was understandable if strained in its logic. The original plan had called for the invasion of both Belgium and the Netherlands. The invasion of neutral countries without even a pretext was a violation of the gentlemen’s agreement that had helped keep the peace in Europefor so long. The only reason the Schlieffen Plan called for it was the convenience of invading northern Francethrough borders where there were few defenses and a swift path toward Paris. (Actually, the plan called for a wide encirclement of Paris.) Germany decided to leave the Netherlands out because they thought that invading the Netherlandsas well as Belgium went too far, but, as every other country saw it, invading Belgiumwas so great an infringement that sparing the Netherlandsearned Germanyno advantage or favor whatsoever.


An early expectation of the warring nations had been that this war would be like other wars before it with cavalry charges across open fields of battle, sabers flashing as horsemen in colorful uniforms and plumed hats rode into the enemies’ ranks. This expectation was cruelly crushed by reality. Artillery barrages—made by the cavalrymen’s own side—pocked the fields with craters in which their horses stumbled. Additionally, before the cavalry reached enemy lines, they would be mowed down not only by rifle fire but by machinegun fire. The machinegun had previously been used to put down colonial rebellions, but now, for the first time, Europeans used it against each other, and it helped to change war forever. With surprising speed, the combatant nations put aside their colorful and flashy uniforms in favor of drab gray and khaki. Helmets became less decorative and more practical (although, the new helmet designs often borrowed from the look of medieval headgear). Officers’ uniforms became more like those of their men so that snipers could less easily spot the commanders.


Nothing changed the look and feel of war on the Western Front as much as the stalemate of trench warfare. The trenches were so complex that it was necessary to have a map of your own trench network—or, alternatively, a guide—in order to navigate them. There would be several rows of trenches from the rear toward the front, and they would be cut into the earth in a saw-tooth pattern so that an explosion at one point might be prevented from sending fire and debris all the way down the line. Because large areas of the battlefield were below sea level, the bottom of the trench was apt to fill with water, which made it difficult for men to keep dry and led to health problems. (Diseases of various kinds killed soldiers more often than bombs or bullets.) Men’s hairstyles were profoundly affected by this type of warfare. In the previous century, wearing one’s hair in a military fashion could have meant somewhat long hair and, especially, a beard or long side whiskers; now, in order to protect against lice, soldiers cut their hair very short and limited any facial hair to a small “toothbrush” mustache. Hunkered in the warren-like complexes of troughs that were dug into the bomb-riddled, rain and blood-soaked fields of Belgium (often referred to as Flanders), soldiers on both sides were subjected to an alternating pattern of boring routine and terrifying slaughter.


The generals on both sides were devoted to what historians have called the “cult of the offensive,” to which I previously referred as the sentiment that the best defense is an offense. The goal was to break through the enemy’s lines by shear force. The two stages of the typical attack, used again and again by both sides on the Western Front, was to bomb the enemy trenches with artillery, using a rolling barrage that began in the empty field or no man’s land in front of the enemy trenches, and then moved into the trenches from front to rear (sometimes continuing into the rear headquarters area). When the barrage stopped—or even beginning before it stopped—the attacking side’s infantry would march forward across no man’s land and attack the enemy trenches that had supposedly been “softened up” by the barrage. This idea of assaulting an enemy who is dug into a fortified network of trenches failed to work for several reasons:


1) The bombed trenches were not softened up at all, being well fortified so that most of the defending soldiers simply hid themselves and survived the barrage. Afterward, they came out and laid down fire against the attacking troops. Machinegun posts were especially well fortified, and their return to operation after the barrage was most deadly to the attacking side.


2) The barrage announced exactly where the attackers were going to send troops, giving the defenders plenty of time to call for reinforcements. The defending side could use trains and trucks to get reinforcements to the trenches before the attackers could slog across no man’s land on foot.


3) The same barrage that had failed to soften up the enemy made a mess of the battlefield so that attacking infantrymen had difficulty making it across the bomb-cratered landscape, which was often turned into mud that additionally slowed their advance.



The hope and faith that a large enough attack would break through the enemy’s strong center enthralled German, French and British generals throughout most of the war. The idea of attacking an enemy at his strongest point has been recognized by the best military strategists throughout history as the opposite of a wise tactic; it is far better to attack where an enemy is already weak. Only belatedly did any of the military commanders of World War I understand this. As a result, many fierce battles were fought on the Western Front with enormous casualties in exchange for gains and losses of only a few miles or even yards. The advantage of the defensive position became obvious to anyone who faced the facts. Unfortunately, it was enlisted men and junior officers who recognized this before the general officers did.


The traumatic stalemate on the Western Front so captured the imaginations of the combatant nations both during and after the war, that it was sometimes imagined that all future wars would be characterized by the phenomenon of stalemate. It was less well appreciated that this type of stalemate rarely occurred in other theaters of the Great War. Especially on the Eastern Front, where Central Power and Russian forces clashed, there were sweeping battles that achieved definitive victories for one side or the other, but there was also a seesaw effect whereby one side’s sweeping victory would be followed within weeks by a sweeping victory by the other side. Although the Russians attacked Germany more quickly and with greater initial success than Germanyhad anticipated, the German’s achieved their first great victory of the war at Tannenberg at the end of August 1914. At first the Russians had driven deep into German territory, but Tannenberg turned the tide. In 1915, the Russians would win one more great victory, but it would be their last.


Meanwhile, Great Britain’s entry into the war was a factor that Germanyhad not anticipated, and this made the situation for Germany more dire. (Some historians think that the participation of Britaincombined with the collapse of the Schlieffen Plan made German defeat inevitable after the first month of the war; no matter how long it might take for the allied Powers to defeat her, Germanyultimately could not win.) Britain’s entry was also less easily justified to the British people. Why should an island nation get involved at all when Germanycould not invade it as easily as it could invade Franceor even Russia? Britain had an agreement to help Francebut it also resorted to extolling the ideal of the sovereignty and independence of smaller nations. This cause was often justified by pointing to Germany’s invasion and occupation of Belgium. The real reason for British involvement, however, was a fear that German domination of Europe would mean German rivalry on the high seas at a time when Britainhad enjoyed worldwide naval supremacy for generations.

The early developments of the war led to shifts in strategy and especially in personnel. Following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, General Moltke was replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn as Chief of the General Staff of the German army. Falkenhayn settled into the supervision of the Western stalemate although he authorized and led several attempts to break it, leading to high casualties but no further territorial gain. Although he also supervised the Eastern Front, his service there was little needed. German management of the Eastern Front was already in the able hands of the so-called "Siamese twins"--generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. (Later, Hindenburg and Ludendorff would play backroom politics within the German military and force the resignation of Falkenhayn, to be replaced by Hindenburg himself.) Early during the war a pattern developed in terms of the comparative strengths of the combatant countries. The opening of the war, with its unexpected wholesale slaughter on the early battlefields, hurt Austria-Hungary most of all. Her best professional army officers were killed in the first weeks of the war and were never replaced by men who were as good. The result was a dismal performance by the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russian forces. The only enemy forces against whom the Austrians did well were the Italians who entered the war in 1915. Even so, the Austrians were so weakened by the end of the war that even the Italians were able to defeat them. Time and again, especially against the Russians, the Austrians needed to be bailed out by the Germans. The Germans came to complain that they were "shackled to the corpse" of Austria-Hungary. Similarly, while the French army did well under the worst circumstances, facing perhaps its greatest crisis of the war during the ten-month-long battle of Verdun in 1916, the help of the British army was indispensable to France's survival. Consequently, the German predicament was that they might be able to fight the French alone, but not the British, too. German sentiment, which had held France in contempt for generations, turned its long-held distrust of Britain into an especially white-hot hatred.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

World War I: Part I

World War I


This is the one hundredth anniversary of World War I, which began, officially, on the 28th of July 1914 and ended, officially, almost four years and three and a half months later, on the 11th of November 1918. While the war has official beginning and end dates, much saber-rattling preceded and fierce fighting continued after the official beginning and end. Some historians argue that World War II was really a continuation of World War I with an uneasy lull—rather than a true peace—in between.

Although it is now called World War I or the First World War, those who lived through it could not have called it that because they did not know that there was going to be a World War II. As it progressed, World War I came to be called the Great War. Neither did anyone know, at the beginning of World War I, that it would become such a great conflict. As often happens at the beginning of wars, many observers thought it would all be over in a few months. They were slow to recognize the mounting numbers of combatants and troops, the intensity of mobilization, and the way that the war soon took over every aspect of life and insidiously altered what people had come to think of as the limitations of war (and of government involvement in their lives). They thought that some actions in war were too ruthless and brutal to be contemplated let alone done, but they would soon find that the desperation of the war on both sides would stretch the limits of their tolerance.

Only World War II would be greater in size, scope, number of countries involved and casualties, tonnage of explosives used, etc. Historians debate numbers, but by some estimates there were ten million soldiers killed and seven million permanently disabled (a quarter of a million British soldiers lost limbs). Germany lost at least two million soldiers while the United States, which entered the war late, suffered about 100,000. The other major powers involved each lost a million or more, and none of that counts the civilian casualties which must also have ranged in the millions. The Ottoman Empire alone, while fighting on the side of the Central Powers, massacred, possibly, a million or more Armenian civilians.

The origins of the war go back in the history of Europe. After the end of the Napoleonic wars in the early nineteenth century, Europe redrew its maps and achieved a kind of peace for several decades, based on a gentlemen’s agreement that certain countries would be the “Great Powers” and other countries would be secondary or tertiary powers, or would be dominated by the Great Powers. The great upset in this “balance of powers” scheme came in the 1860s when, under the guidance of Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the loose federation of German-speaking states—excluding the Astro-Hungarian Empire to the south—were united. Germanyofficially became a single country in 1871 when Bismarckengineered the defeat of Franceand the coronation of the king of Prussia, Wilhelm I, as the first emperor—or Kaiser—of the new German Empire.  


Europe only rose to preeminence in the world between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, but by the latter half of the nineteenth century, the most powerful European countries dominated the rest of the world, having colonies in Africa and Asia. By 1900, the United Statesand Japanwere trying to join the colonial bandwagon and becoming secondary powers in their own rights. Meanwhile, Germany, which had been slow to join the colonial sweepstakes, had begun to acquire colonies in Africa and the Pacific. This globalization of European influence would help to globalize the war between the European powers once the conflict began in earnest.


The immediate cause of the Great War was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in the city of Sarajevo. The archduke was the heir-apparent of the Astro-Hungarian Empire, the amalgamation of central and eastern European peoples that was then one of the Great Powers in the middle of Europe. Well over a dozen different nationalities and their territories were under the control of the union between Austriaand Hungary with an emperor seated in Vienna, Austria. The Hapsburg family of emperors could trace their ancestry back to the Dark Ages and the great Emperor Charlemagne.

If Belgium does not go with me, I will be guided solely by strategic considerations.”
Kaiser Wilhelm II to King Leopold II of Belgium, January 1904
This intemperate remark seemed to be a thinly veiled threat, and this assessment proved to be too true when Germany invaded Belgium in 1914. The context of the quote was the German Kaiser’s offer of rewards to Belgiumif Belgium sided with Germany in a future war with France. When the King of Belgium declined to make such a commitment, the Kaiser seemed to be threatening to use Belgiumas a “strategic consideration” in any war with France, which is exactly how the German army treated Belgiumin August 1914, invading Belgiumonly as a route to northern France.
In Volume II of his biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II, John Röhl described Wilhelm as “a kind of missing link, as it were, between Bismarck and Hitler” whose governments were “mere administrative organs” that implemented his “imperial commands.” He “controlled every fundamental decision on matters of personnel, foreign and armaments policy.” This observation is belied, however, by the fact that, perhaps also like Hitler, Wilhelm could be mercurial in his policy obsessions. An alliance with France might tickle his fancy one day and a war with Francemight be equally appealing to him the next. His notions about foreign policy seem to have been temporary rather than enduring. They might well be described as whimsical.


In 1909, Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia, the country of which Sarajevo was the capital. It was home to several nationalities including Croatians and Serbians, as well as three religions: Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims. Serbia was an adjacent kingdom to the east and a secondary European power in its own right. The Serbians were resentful of Austria-Hungary’s growing power on their borders and sympathized with the Bosnians who wanted to be free of Austria-Hungary.

In late June 1914, the archduke and his wife, Sophie, were touring the city in their car when a Serbian nationalist threw a bomb at them. It failed to kill the royal couple, but after two such failed attempts, and after the couple’s entourage failed to immediately extricate them, the couple were finally attacked by another Serbian assassin who this time fired several shots into the car, killing the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne as well as the would-be empress.


The political ramifications of the assassination ratcheted up already existing tensions between the Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Much later historical investigations turned up the likely facts. While the assassins were ethnic Serbs, and although they might have been directly or indirectly encouraged by a rogue Serbian intelligence officer, it now appears that the Serbian government did not instigate or sponsor the assassinations. At the time, Austria did not know this, of course, and suspected the worst. The imperial government wanted answers and justice. They demanded that Serbiaadmit guilt and let Austriacome into Serbiato conduct the investigation and mete out punishment to those responsible. Under these demands, Serbiawas actually surprisingly conciliatory. They said they were very sorry that ethnic Serbians were responsible but assured Austriathat Serbiahad had nothing to do with it. They agreed to several of Austria’s demands, but they would not allow Austria to come into their country and conduct an investigation. This was understandable since it would have been tantamount to an Austrian takeover of Serbia.


Austria-Hungaryresponded by giving Serbiaan ultimatum: accept all of our demands or face war. When Serbia refused to give in, the Austrians declared war at the end of July. To understand what happened next, it is necessary to remember the situation in Europein the late-nineteenth century. When Bismarck was done with his task of creating a single German nation, he busied himself during the rest of his chancellorship by making deals to solidify Germany’s position as one of the Great Powers, as part of the balance of power between Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, Russia and France. (At the same time, Italy had recently become a unified nation and also one of the Powers.) Bismarckmade several interlocking treaties, some of which even made alliances that contradicted each other. For example, he made separate alliances with both Austria-Hungary and Russia. What if these two countries went to war with each other? Which would Germany side with?


By 1914, these treaties had been sorted out, and Germany was committed to take the side of Austria-Hungary, while France was allied with Russia. It also happened that Russia was allied with Serbia, so that when Austria-Hungarydeclared war on Serbia, Russia was soon drawn into the conflict. On the 1st of August 1914, Germany declared war on Austria-Hungary’s enemies and a chain-reaction based on previous alliances and treaties then brought most of the Great Powers into the war including France and Britainon the same side as Russia. The German and Austro-Hungarian alliance became known as the Central Powers while the French-British-Russian coalition was called the Allied Powers. As the war progressed, other nations would join one side or the other. Often forgotten in the popular memory of the war is that the Ottoman Empire—modern-day Turkey—joined the Central Powers. (Two movies that happen to commemorate this front of World War I are “Lawrence of Arabia” from 1962 and “Gallipoli” from 1981.) Another factor is that Italydid not enter the war right away but waited more than a year to decide to join the Allied Powers. Over the four years of the war, a number of other nations joined, usually joining the Allied Powers once they recognized that this was likely to be the winning side.


Japanalso joined the Allied Powers, and did not wait to do so because they saw the war as an opportunity to pick up Germany's island colonies in the Pacific. The Marianas, Carolines and Marshallsquickly fell. However, the Japanese also sent a couple of ships to help the Allies in the Mediterranean. The participation of the Japanese was not the only factor that made the Great War truly global in scope. German colonies in Africa as well as Asia were soon attacked and usually overwhelmed, although German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in East Africa managed to hold out against superior British and French forces until the end of the war when he surrendered only after learning that Germany had surrendered.


Naval battles, by the way, were fought all over the world, in both the Atlantic and Pacific, although the British blockade of Germany was so effective that only a few German surface ships were actually deployed around the world. In contrast, however, the Germans made the greatest use of submarine warfare in the Atlantic and seriously threatened Allied shipping.

The tragedy of World War I was that cooler heads might have avoided it. While the judgment that the war was all Germany’s fault is unfair (even aside from Austria-Hungary’s key role), it is true that the second ruler of the German Empire, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was intemperate and given to making bellicose statements that made other nations fear that Germany was contemplating aggression toward her neighbors. The reaction of Britain, Franceand Russiaagainst any German assertiveness was also provocative, however. For example, as Germany built up her navy, so did the other powers, until Germanybelieved that they meant to encircle and overwhelm her. This only led the Germans to build up their military capabilities even more. On the eve of war, Europe was a collection of heavily armed camps.