The World War of 1914-18 – The Great War, as contemporaries called it, was the first man-made catastrophe of the 20th century. It was a war without parallel and all previous wars were eclipsed by its scale of destruction. Even in retrospect the war which began as a struggle between Europe’s great powers, which were grouped into two hostile alliances, is one of the bloodiest wars ever seen with an estimated 10 million men who gave their lives on the battle field and over 20 million more wounded . It was the first intervention of American forces in European affairs for which they lost more than 100,000 troops who were killed helping to guarantee an allied victory . The Great War involved at least 32 nations directly who declared war against one another over the course of four years of world turmoil.
Industrial expansion and wealth had a profound impact on economic life that lead to conflicts, jealousies and differences that were not easily reconcilable. Monarchies and democracies alike sought to cope with the changes and to protect their authority and major European nations sought to expand their wealth and territories looking for partners they could turn to in case of war. True to these military alliances, Europe’s powers quickly drew up sides after the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The allies — chiefly Russia, France and Britain — were pitted against the Central Powers — primarily Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. These immediate and strongly bound alliances that stemmed from years of treaties and alliances are one of the speculated reasons underlying the causes of the war. The number of men mobilized by both sides: the central powers (consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey), and the allied powers (which were Britain and Empire, France, Belgium, Russia, Italy, USA), totaled over 65 million , a number unprecedented in the history of civilization and modern warfare.
From the very beginning, the war grew rapidly out of control. New styles of warfare, like the use of gas and heavy artillery, produced new kinds of horror and unprecedented levels of suffering and death. For the first time war involved the use of new technology such as airplanes, tanks and submarines. "World War I marked the first use of chemical weapons, the first mass bombardment of civilians from the sky, and the century’s first genocide," (Winter, 1996). The increased power of the more modern weapons gave much greater advantages to defense, making it more difficult to win quick victories. In addition was the introduction of trench warfare, a military strategy based on attrition warfare in which a belligerent attempts to win a war by wearing down its enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and material . Trench warfare arose when there was a revolution in firepower without similar advances in mobility. To try to break through the opposing lines of trenches and barbed wire entanglements, both sides employed huge artillery bombardments followed by attacks by tens of thousands of soldiers. Battles could last for months and lead to casualties measured in hundreds of thousands for attacker and defender alike. After most of these attacks, only a short section of the front would have moved and only by a kilometer or two . This was the period of the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of the arms race in combination with the was resulted in a slow and grueling form of defense-oriented warfare in which both sides constructed elaborate and heavily armed trench and dugout systems opposing each other along a front, with soldiers in both trench lines largely defiladed from the other’s small arms fire and enclosed by barbed wire . Trench warfare created an endless demand for men, munitions and supplies with often no apparent gains or victories. Men dies by the thousands daily with the French army losing 27,000 soldiers in a single day . On average, daily losses for the British soldiers were nearly 7,000 men killed, disabled or wounded . It became the first war in which combatants mobilized all their resources, military, industrial and human, on a scale never before thought possible, emerging in a war on the battle field that resulted in a war that went on for 1,500 days .
However it was not foreseen that the war would drag on for so many years. "The Great War was without precedent … never had so many nations taken up arms at a single time. Never had the battlefield been so vast… never had the fighting been so gruesome," (Winter, 1996). Indeed, by November of 1914 many speculated that the war would be over by Christmas . In retrospect it seems absurd that so many could believe the war would end so swiftly when it is known now how the massive scale the war had taken. None of the states that went to war realized how long it would last or how terrible the cost might be and most of the leaders in 1914 had no real idea of the war machine they were putting into motion. Although the catalyst for the war was the death of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated while he was visiting Sarajevo, the initial reasons for being involved seemed to become less important as the months went by and the great powers battled it out to see who would be left standing at the end, and end that would only come four years later. The reasons that so many people in various positions guessed that the war would be over by Christmas are numerous and in this paper those reasons will be examined, helping to uncover why and how so many never predicted this long devastating war.
Military Authorities and Government Politics
As far as military generals and leaders were concerned, both sides believed that the Great War would be over quickly. In Germany, this belief was based on a long established war strategy called the Schlieffen Plan . It was a strategic plan for victory both on the Western Front against France and against Russia in the east, taking advantage of expected differences in the three countries’ speed in preparing for war . The plan required precise timing, with no interruptions in the timetable with its first objective being to capture Paris in precisely 42 days, a rigidity of the plan that many blame for its failure and inflexibility. This would force the French to surrender after which the German armies would then shift their focus to the eastern front and defeat the Russians before they were fully prepared to fight . Although the Schlieffen plan got off to a quick start, the German strategy quickly came undone, when a French counterattack on the outskirts of Paris, the Battle of the Marne, combined with surprisingly speedy Russian offensives, ended the German offensive. This would be the beginning of what would turn out to be years of trench warfare and a war that would continue for years.
The French had their own military tactic to defeat the Germans. Entirely offensive in nature, Plan XVII made extensive use of the belief in the mystical élan vital assumed to be instilled within every Frenchman – a fighting spirit capable of turning back any enemy by its sheer power. It assumed the average French soldier to be more than a match for its German counterpart. Whilst the French had accurately estimated the strength of the German army at the opening of the war, they did not place much emphasis on Germany’s extensive use of reserve troops, having little faith in their own. This proved a serious miscalculation which, in conjunction with an underestimation of the Schlieffen Plan, almost led to France’s undoing within a month of the outbreak of war . From the perspective of the French Generals, the war could not last long due to the various motives behind each nation that in fact, has little to do with the initial declaration of war by Austria. Since each nation had its own personal motives for joining in the war, it would only be a short matter of time before everyone came to the conclusion that war was unnecessary and diplomatic policies would resume.
Furthermore, the war was propagated by the plethora of treaties that were signed between countries, binding them to one another in somewhat unnecessary ways. Russia was bound by agreement with Serbia to protect her in the event of attack. Further, the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary stated that if either found itself at war with Russia the other would enter the fray to provide assistance. Similarly, the Franco-Russian Military Convention of 1892 provided for French assistance should Russia find itself at war with either Germany or Austria-Hungary . And Britain was in effect (as the result of a number of agreements) – although not technically – bound to aid France should she be at war with Germany. These treaties resulted in many countries being involved in a war that most did not have any political reasons to join initially. Such were the mechanics that brought the world’s major nations into the war at one time or another that it is clear that the alliance system was as much at fault as anything in bringing about the scale of the conflict. Since all nations recognized this as being a major flaw, many subsequently believed it would also end quickly, since few nations had much invested in the war except the recognizing of treaties formed previously.
Months before, on August 4, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson of the United States declared the United States’ neutrality, both in consideration of the war being swift and thus not needing American military support and to promote peace. Indeed, the United States maintained their policy of neutrality until April 6, 1917 when they at last joined the alliances and declared war against Germany, provoked by Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which seriously threatened America’s commercial shipping .
The Common Man
Soldiers also did not believe the war would continue for so long. Upon initially joining and being sent to the front lines, many thought the war would be swift due to the extensive military strategies on both sides that ensured war would only last several weeks and did not make amends for a war which would be drawn out. Governments were actively involved in portraying the war as being swift and quick, encouraging men to join the offensive, and making the war seem less serious which promoted general high spirits . Young able men in the thousands joined the military in the spirit of nationalism, all believing the war would be over before the next year and none estimating the high death toll or treacherous conditions of trench warfare with the advancements of weapons machinery. Many also had much confidence in their authorities and governments at the time, never second guessing ulterior motives for joining war that would risk the lives of so many citizens.
Propoganda posters at the start of the war even encouraged women to send their men to fight on the front lines, influencing the thinking of many middle class citizens that they were merely practicing nationalism and protecting their common interests, despite military strategy that placed their country at the offensive, attempting to gain peripheral interests in colonies, previously lost territories, or simply political power .
With the popularized ideas of Social Darwinism that were influential during this period, many common people also felt a sort of nationalism that urged them into believing the war would be swift due to the inherent superiorities of some nations over others. The French especially thought they were intrinsically bestowed with élan vital, an inner force that rendered them superior by nature to their German counterparts. It emphasized the competition on a social scale between different national, ethnic, or racial groups. Darwin believed that, "at some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world," (Westwell, 2008). These ideas were profoundly influential particularly in militaristic and nationalistic thinking, but also among the general populations.
Those Who Knew Better
Available military theory at the time, especially the work of Ivan Bloch, an early candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, points to much evidence that there was no reason for people to believe the war would be swift and "over by Christmas." Bloch’s predictions of industrial warfare leading to bloody stalemate, attrition, and even revolution, were widely known in both military and pacifist circles. Bloch devoted his private life to the study of modern industrial warfare and its tactical, strategic and political implications. His works were widely read throughout Europe further pointing to the fact that people should have been aware that war was inevitable to last longer. Bloch’s theories made the following conclusions, all of which were present at the outbreak of the war and should have led authorities and common folk alike to believe that the war would indeed be long.
New arms technology (e.g. smokeless gunpowder, improved rifle design, Maxims) had rendered maneuvers over open ground, such as bayonet and cavalry charges, obsolete. Bloch concluded that a war between the Great powers would be a war of entrenchment and that rapid attacks and decisive victories were likewise a thing of the past . He was able to calculate that entrenched men would enjoy a fourfold advantage over infantry advancing across open ground. This conclusion led to the advent of trench warfare, a mark of World War I that would be its lasting legacy in wars to come.
Bloch also predicted that industrial societies would have to settle the resultant stalemate by committing armies numbering in the millions, as opposed to the tens of thousands as in preceding wars . An enormous battlefront would develop resulting in a type of war that could not be resolved quickly. He also theorized that the war would become a duel of industrial might, a matter of total economic attrition. Severe economic and social dislocations would result in the imminent risk of famine, disease, the "break-up of the whole social organization" and revolutions from below . It would be a war of attrition, with no side giving in until the last possible moment when their nations were suffering economically and engaging in war was no longer financially possible. It would be a war that would result in "last man standing" and not in a diplomatic end. These philosophies were widely known at the star of the war and available to many academic scholars and authorities who were directly involved in the war. However many suggest that although Bloch’s theories were well known in military circles, they were largely dismissed on the basis that, while his ‘mathematics’ might be correct, his overall message ran the risk of being bad for morale and clashed with another popular theory of Social Darwinism that was influential during the same period. Maintaining the overall morale of the masses was important in gaining support for the war and in influencing men to join the military forces at the front line.
The was also a slight hope that war might be over before 1915 with the commencement of the Christmas Truce. Although sometimes thought in modern day to be a myth, the truce actually did happen. The meeting of enemies as friends in no-man’s land was experienced by hundreds, if not thousands, of men on the Western Front during Christmas 1914. It was a spontaneous effort by the lower ranks to create a peace that could have blossomed were it not for the interference of generals and politicians. Towns, villages and cities, and numerous support associations on both sides also flooded the soldiers at the front with gifts of food, warm clothes and letters of thanks. The Belgians and French also received goods, although not in such an organized fashion as the British or Germans. For these nations the Christmas of 1914 was tinged with sadness – their countries were occupied. The Truce lasted all day; in places it ended that night, but on other sections of the line it held over Boxing Day and in some areas, a few days more. In fact, there parts on the front where the absence of aggressive behavior was conspicuous well into 1915.
While there are mixed reasons why people on all levels thought the Great War would in fact, be a not-so-great war that would finish by the end of the year, hindsight is 20/20 and in looking back, it is simple to see the reasons which made the war last longer than anticipated. The war could never have been "over by Christmas" as many people wanted to believe. Perhaps it was merely this hope that propagated the idea that the war would not last as long as it did. Indeed if many knew how atrocious the war would be and could foresee the millions that would give their lives for this war, it might have been ended far before it had with the armistice of November 11, 1918. By the last year of the war, many viewed the continuing war as "the war without end" and even with the armistice that officially ended the war, the world could not return to the way it was and to what was ‘normal.’ Millions of people tasted the ideas and feelings associated with nationalism, national self-determination and democracy. The war would not end in the Christmas of 1914, nor would it really end with the armistice in 1918-instead the ear and its effects would continue for many months and years after, influencing the lives of an entire generation.