Part One: Evolution of the Catastrophe

Imperial pomp: William II, German Emperor, and his generals (Wikimedia Commons)

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When the guns opened fire in the summer of 1914 no one, not even the generals, really knew what to expect. The last general European war had been fought in 1815, a year in which the military state of the art was represented by the Brown Bess musket. With this weapon, generally considered to have been the finest of its type, a well-trained soldier could load and fire two or three rounds a minute. The effective range of the Brown Bess and similar smoothbore muzzle-loading flintlock muskets was about 80 yards. As for the artillery, in 1815 it consisted mostly of cast bronze muzzle-loading smoothbore cannon of various types, such as the French 12-pounder field gun. This weapon had an effective range of about 1,000 yards with solid shot and 500 yards with canister. Its rate of fire was one or two rounds a minute. The main weapons of the cavalry arm were the sword, the saber and the lance.

The armies that employed these weapons were of modest size. At Waterloo about 75,000 French troops fought some 120,000 allied troops. The battles of the Napoleonic era were, indeed, larger and more sanguinary than those of the preceding Seven Years War. But a soldier of the army of Frederick the Great would not have felt entirely out of place at Austerlitz or Borodino. Between the general adoption of the flintlock musket around 1700 and the defeat of Napoleon, military technology had remained relatively stable. Such improvements as occurred were incremental, for instance the replacement of wooden musket ramrods by more durable iron ones.

Most of the states that fought the wars of that era still had roots in the feudal and absolutist past. What would come to be called the modern nation-state was best exemplified by France, with profound implications for the art of war. The French Revolution gave birth to a concept of national citizenship embodying both rights and duties, and foremost among the latter was the duty of bearing arms in defense of the nation. The citizen-soldiers of the French armies were not mercenaries or press-ganged peasants, as in the Russian, Prussian and Austrian armies. The rigid discipline and draconian punishments that kept the soldiers of those states under control were not necessary to make French soldiers fight. Patriotic ardor powerfully reinforced traditional military discipline, and this was reflected in new, flexible battlefield tactics that Napoleon was to exploit to the fullest. And wherever the French armies marched, they brought with them the ideas of the French Revolution—nationalism prominent among them.

Europe on the eve of the Great War (Department of History, USMA West Point)

Between 1815 and 1914, the growing national consciousness of its peoples transformed the face of Europe. The Greek War of Independence, the Polish revolts, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, Italian and German unification, all in their various ways undermined the old order. This was particularly true as regards the multinational Russian, Austrian and Ottoman empires. The Ottoman Empire's gradual decline was a major source of European tension in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the Habsburg Monarchy's fear of South-Slav nationalism was a major contributor to the crisis that led to war in 1914.

War in the age of the nation-state meant national mobilization and it was the Industrial Revolution, advancing pari passu with nationalism, that had made this possible. The growth, development and diversification of industry—coal and oil, steam, steel, electricity and chemistry—provided the material means to arm, equip, transport and sustain the new mass armies. National conscription was managed by the administrative apparatus of the modern state. The railroad and the telegraph facilitated the mobilization and movement of armies. And the great increase in the population of Europe between 1815 and 1914 supplied vastly more manpower for the armed forces.

Thus by 1914 the muskets of Waterloo had been replaced by bolt-action magazine rifles (rate of fire 6-8 rounds per minute, effective range 800-1,000 yards) and the machine gun. Smoothbore muzzle-loading cannons had been replaced by breech-loading, recoil-stabilized field guns and howitzers firing high-explosive and shrapnel shells to ranges up to 10,000 yards. In the cavalry arm, though the sword and lance still held sway they were now supplemented by rifles and machine guns. And the armies themselves were far larger. In 1914 France mobilized nearly 3 million men to bring its peacetime army of about 800,000 up to war strength. The mobilized German Army contained 4.5 million men. What would happen when such gigantic armies clashed, no one could say.

Nevertheless it was the business of the generals and general staffs who controlled these forces to plan for war. In Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Russia this planning proceeded on the assumption that the impending war would be decided in a single campaign of several months. There were reasons to think that modern Europe could not sustain a long war. Many people felt that Europe’s economic interdependence, the vast cost of modern war and, perhaps, the social unrest accompanying it would soon bring any fighting to a halt. So, having read their Clausewitz, the general staffs of the major continental powers thought and planned in terms of decisive battle.

The announcement of French mobilization, 1 August 1914

More precisely, they planned in terms of a series of battles whose cumulative effect would be decisive. Military leaders perceived that no single battle would determine the outcome of the next war. Their planning thus focused on the mobilization and initial deployment of their forces. All the major European powers, Britain excepted, employed a similar military system. Their peacetime armies were relatively small, consisting of long-service officers, NCOs and soldiers whose main business was to train the annual intake of conscripts. These latter served for two or three years, afterwards passing into the first-line reserve where they remained for six or eight years. Thereafter they passed into the second-line reserve, called the Territorial Reserve in France and the Landwehr in Germany. Upon mobilization the first-line reservists would be used to fill out the units of the active army and to form additional units. The second-line reservists would be formed into units for employment on subsidiary duties: rear-area security, guarding prisoners of war, garrisoning fortresses, manning quiet sectors of the front, etc. By this means an army of millions could be raised in three weeks to a month.

Prewar military planning thus concerned itself with two problems: (1) mobilization and organization of the army; (2) its deployment to the zone of active operations. It was the second problem that most exercised the minds of the general staffs. After reporting to their regimental depots, mobilized reservists would be uniformed, equipped, armed and organized into units. But then they would have to be transported by rail to the zone of operations. The complications involved in this process were formidable. All general staffs included railway sections whose specialists concerned themselves exclusively with the rail scheduling necessary to bring off a smooth deployment. In 1914 the German Army’s western deployment required 11,000 troop trains. At the height of the effort, trains were crossing the Rhine River bridges at two- or three-minute intervals.

Men realized that a mistake made in the initial deployment of the army could not be rectified. Millions of soldiers with all their horses, guns, ammunition, supplies and impedimenta could not summarily be moved from place to place like counters on a game board. Getting the initial deployment right thus became the focus of prewar planning. The most famous example is the German Schlieffen Plan, that famous right hook—which actually was a scheme of deployment, not a battle plan. The Chief of the Great General Staff, General von Schlieffen, poring over his maps at the turn of the century, sought sufficient space for the western deployment of the German Army in full strength. His eye fell inevitably on Belgium, “the cockpit of Europe.” There a powerful attacking force would find ample ground on which to array itself, pressing down the Channel coast into France, turning the left wing of the French army in a series of engagements whose cumulative effect would bring decisive victory south and west of Paris.

Similar planning had been going on in the offices of all the general staffs of the European powers. Now war had come; the military plans thus developed, the military instruments thus forged, were about to be tested in battle.

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Copyright © 2020 by Thomas M. Gregg. All Rights Reserved

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