Popular history says World War I began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 and ended with the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. But the fuel for that war was laid far earlier, and its embers burn still today.

And the troops would be “home before the leaves have fallen.” (More)

Unintended Consequences, Part I – Home Before the Leaves Have Fallen

This week Morning Feature looks at the causes and unintended consequences of World War I. Today we examine why it wasn’t the quick and easy war that leaders promised. Tomorrow we’ll explore its lingering effects in the Balkans and the Middle East. Saturday we’ll consider lessons on sweeping, systemic change from “the war to end all wars.”

When Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany told his departing troops “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” he expressed a common estimate of the war’s duration, albeit not of its outcome. Russian officers debated it would last two months or three; those who suggested it might last six were criticized as defeatist. French and English leaders thought likewise. The history of recent European wars supported such ideas.

Why did it become a five-year, worldwide conflict that killed 16 million, plus another 15 million on the Russian Civil War it ignited and 50-100 million more in the 1919 influenza pandemic it helped to spread, and topple the Austo-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, seeding conflicts that continue today?

Pregnant for war.

Historians often describe Europe in 1914 as a “tinderbox,” and focus on the complex network of alliances that amplified a murder in Sarajevo into a worldwide conflict. But John Keegan offers a better metaphor in the prologue to his 1989 analytical history, The Second World War. He writes that Europe was “pregnant for war.”

The difference has to do with which of two questions we ask: (1) “What caused the war?” or (2) “What caused the war to be a protracted, global conflict that transformed Europe and the world?” The tinderbox metaphor works well enough for the first question, and we’ll consider it more below. But that analysis misses the second, more important question.

Conditions in Europe had changed dramatically since the last major power wars, the Crimean War of the 1853-56 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Both were brief, geographically contained conflicts, in contrast to the 16 years of Napoleonic warfare. Military theorists thought war a science whose principles trended toward shorter, more decisive campaigns. Perhaps they had, given the still largely agrarian Europe of the 19th century.

But by the 20th century Europe had industrialized. Better diet, sanitation, and medicine had doubled Europe’s population since 1800. Germany had grown faster yet, from 12 million in 1815 to over 60 million in 1914. Add to that a culture of “every man a soldier” – where military service was both an obligation of enfranchisement and a unifying cultural experience – and the armies of 1914 were ten times larger than in 1850. Finally, the armies of 1914 had Industrial Age tools: railroads and tractors, telegraphs and telephones, fast-firing artillery and machine guns.

A climate of distrust and the race to war.

By 1914, industrialization and universal military service had made a quick major power war all but impossible. They had also made a major power war more likely, for several reasons.

First, no country could afford to maintain huge standing armies. It would cost too much to pay them, and young, able-bodied men were needed to work in the factories and fields. So the major powers adopted cadre-and-reserve systems, where almost all military-age males were conscripted and given basic training, but most were assigned to reserve units based near their homes. They lived and worked as civilians, subject to mobilization if the nation went to war.

That meant an enemy that mobilized its reserves faster would have a temporary but very significant military advantage. So every major power developed a detailed plan that committed every available resource to mobilization. Once the order was given, civilian transportation and communication would all but stop as reserve units were assembled and transported to their assigned fronts. Because the mobilization edge would be only temporary, plans called for defeating an enemy before he could bring his reserves into action.

Put simply, every major power had the same war plan – mobilize and attack first – and they all knew it. But none could be certain of winning the mobilization race.

For insurance each sought allies, and therein lay the second part of the tinderbox. Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had agreed to support each other in case of war with Russia or France, as had France and Russia in case of war with Germany. Moreover, Russia had helped to form the Balkan League in 1913, and supported Serbian independence as a means of extending her own influence in the region.

Thus when Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th, the dominoes began falling. By August 1st, Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. Russia replied by declaring war on Austria-Hungary. In response, Germany declared war on Russia, and France on Germany. The remaining question was whether England would enter the war, and on which side.

And that was the third piece of the tinderbox. German planners knew they could not win a long, two-front war, and that Russia be slower to mobilize with her poor rail network. The German war plan was to defeat France quickly, but the Franco-German border was too narrow for massive, 20th century armies. The fastest route to victory in France lay through Belgium, whose neutrality was guaranteed by England. England and France had informal plans in case of war with Germany, but England had made no promise other than to protect Belgium.

German planners hoped England would not intervene. Even if she did, the war with France would be over within 40 days, before British troops could arrive. Germany would then transport her armies east to defeat Russia, and the troops would be “home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” Or not.

Grand plans to start the war worked smoothly, but grand plans to end it did not. Nor, as we’ll see tomorrow, did grand plans to ensure there would never be another major war. Making grand plans is easy … except for those unintended consequences.


Happy Thursday!