March 28th, 2007
Most people believe that World War II was largely the result of the “bad peace” negotiated at the end of World War I. Much unwarranted blame has been laid at the feet of Woodrow Wilson and his peers for the series of events which followed the truce signed by all parties in 1918. It is important to remember that most of the world turned a blind eye to Germany’s rise to war between 1933-1938. But a true appreciation of what happened cannot be gained without a thorough review of the first great conflict, the “War to end all Wars”, and the events leading up to August 1914. In this month’s read, we look at The First World War by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson.
The dawn of the 20th century found Europe under the influence of a variety of changes. Germany’s military and industrial juggernaut had firmly established itself as the dominant force on the continent. France still held bitter resentment towards Germany as a result of their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which signaled the gradual rise of German power. However, given that relative peace had reigned over Europe for more than two decades, the various monarchs expected more of the same: little to no aggression towards one another, industrialization and modernization, and so on. However, changes which occurred during this period had laid the foundation for a much different century.Many scholars point to the web of alliances that spanned the continent as the primary cause of what became known as World War I. However, as masterfully laid out in the Introduction of The First World War by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, alliances have rarely ever been honored by countries when it conflicts with their true national goals and priorities. A strong case can be made that the true origin of the conflict can be found in Germany’s imperialistic ambitions. When viewed in this context, the “war to end all wars” perhaps was only a matter of time given that an entire generation of Germany’s entire military institution was trained for implementation of the “Schlieffen Plan”- the invasion plan for France first conceived by Germany’s hero of the Franco-Prussian War, Alfred von Schlieffen. Schlieffen’s overall strategy was to support the countering of a joint attack. His premise was that when (it was not really an “if” in the mind of the German general military staff) war broke out again with France, it was absolutely vital to kill off the French war machine in a lightning manner, before her allies Russia and England could rally to her defense. As France had a series of massive forts on their mutual border, his plan called for the bulk of Germany’s forces to simply move through Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg around the defensive wall. The French forces would be caught in a pinch as other forces would press the French from the east. The remainder of Germany’s army would stop any proposed advance from Russia. When Helmut von Moltke replaced Schlieffen as chief of staff in 1906, Moltke modified the plan slightly to press directly across Flanders (modern day Belgium) and Luxembourg only.
On August 2nd, 1914, the plan was put into effect. The Belgian army, in a heroic effort that most likely salvaged the entire war for the Allies, stalled the German advance long enough for the French army to re-organize its defenses, and for the British to deploy an initial force across the channel. In a theme to be played out many times for both sides, things were made worse by the Germans overextending their forward troops- essentially they did such a good job of driving forward that they exhausted their ability to maintain momentum as supply lines lagged far behind. Together with an unexpectedly strong push by the Russians along the eastern Prussian front, the modified Schlieffen Plan was thwarted. A mad dash for the sea ensued over the next few weeks as both sides began to entrench their lines from the Swiss border all the way to the English channel.
Still, all across the military and political spectrum of both sides with little exception, everyone expected a short war that would be “over by Christmas”. Instead, the world was introduced to the brutality of trench warfare and stalemate all along the western front, with death counts in the millions. Russia was absolutely devastated which contributed, in some measure, to the Russian Revolution and the overthrow of the tsar in favor of the socialists. By late 1917 the United States, a British and French ally, was bringing hundreds of thousands of troops (the infamous “doughboys) to the field each day. An armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. Many believe that the treaty signed at Versailles illustrated the French and British desire to punish the Germans still further. However, Prior and Wilson make a good case that Germany was in fact not punished enough, that the German industrial machine was left virtually untouched.
The First World War is an excellent introduction to the conflict, its roots, and its aftermath. With liberal use of illustrations, maps and vintage photographs, the book offers a concise history of the subject, and feeds a desire to discover more about individual topics.
Two other great books on the subject include The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman and The First World War by John Keegan. Jeff Shaara’s recent historical novel, To the Last Man, offers an interesting perspective from both sides. The Web also offers three very good sources for articles, maps, timelines, photos, and even some vintage video. They include PBS’s site (http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/), the BBC’s site (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/wwone/index.shtml), and Michael Duffy’s personal site (http://www.firstworldwar.com).
Entry Filed under: Book Reviews