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More than you wanted to know: World War I
Interesting facts about the Great War
I recently finished reading the book The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman. The book covers the first month of World War I and won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. My knowledge of World War I is middling in that I know the basic facts (unlike the Korean War), but not much else (unlike World War II). Before starting the book, I knew that the war started when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and that trench warfare led to the deaths of millions of soldiers fighting for the same tiny chunks of land for years. I’d seen 1917 and All Quiet on the Western Front, both of which are excellent films. That’s about it. The Guns of August taught me many, many things, but here are some facts that everyone interested in WWI should know.
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Because the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was essentially a random act, I had long thought that WWI could have been avoided. The circumstances surrounding the assassination are terribly unfortunate - Ferdinand’s driver took a wrong turn while they were in Sarajevo, and Gavrilo Princip happened to be waiting on the corner with a pistol ready. If only Princip had missed, maybe millions of lives would have been spared.
The truth is different. Tensions had been growing across Europe for years, and everyone was preparing for a large conflict before the assassination. According to Tuchman, Germany in particular was itching for war. The fact that World War I started in Serbia wasn’t even a surprise. Otto von Bismarck predicted that “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” years earlier. So while the assassination of Ferdinand was the proximate cause of WWI, a large conflict was probably inevitable.
For a conflict that was defined by stasis and trench warfare, the first month of WWI was incredibly dynamic. Germany invaded Luxembourg on August 2, 1914, and Belgium on August 4. Less than two weeks later, most of Belgium had been occupied and a majority of the fighting was in France. By September 1, the German army had taken over a significant amount of French territory. The French government evacuated to Bordeaux and the German army was within 40 miles of Paris. On the Eastern Front, things also moved quickly. The Russian army was shellacked at the Battle of Tannenburg, and Germany quickly gained ground. All together, battle lines moved rapidly and initially favored a quick German victory.
France and Britain narrowly staved off a total defeat that opening month by retreating. The German battle plan relied on a quick victory and total defeat of the enemy. By retreating quickly and (relatively) orderly, the French and the British forced the German army to overextend and denied them large prisoner captures. After weeks of constant defeats and retreats, the French and British armies reformed along the Marne River for a desperate last stand. They won that battle and survived to fight on, but along battle lines that would move less over the next four years than had over the previous four months.
The Germans relied entirely on the “Schlieffen Plan”, which anticipated a quick victory in France. Amazingly, to me at least, the Schlieffen Plan had been developed eight years before the war started by a man who died in 1906. I’m not a military expert, but going to war based on a plan developed almost a decade ago by a dead guy doesn’t seem like the best strategy. When things go wrong (as they definitely will), it’s harder to adjust a plan that someone else developed.
A lot of events in WWI would echo in later conflicts. For example:
German brutality in occupied Belgium was startling; after guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, Germany invaded anyway and went to work burning down villages and executing civilians by the thousands. The Belgian government urged civilians to not take up arms against the occupiers, and most Belgians listened. All for not. The German army constantly used the excuse of “nearby snipers” to incinerate entire towns devoid of military value. These actions were fundamental in securing the military support of Britain and public support of the global public. The parallels between German actions in WWI and WWII are clear.
The total ineptitude of the Russian army is easy to compare to today. They often used radios and gave orders in plain Russian - the German army didn’t even have to decode many of their transmissions. The result was that the German army was able to beat larger Russian forces and consistently outmaneuver their enemy. The stories of the Russian-Ukraine war today of soldiers making cell phone calls and giving away their positions sound nearly identical to the issues the Russian army had a century ago.
Both sides recognized the strength of the American economy. Britain quickly blockaded German ports from maritime trade, an act that a century beforehand led to the War of 1812. To mollify Americans furious about the loss of their German customers, the English quickly upped their purchases and bought more from the Americans than Germany ever had. This satisfied American industry and would be repeated in WWII.
Throughout the book I kept on being reminded of Theodor Reik’s saying that “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes”.
The background that Tuchman provides about the long-term cultural contexts of the war was fascinating. In 1870 Germany and France fought a war that led to the German occupation of Paris and the gain of a significant amount of French territory. Many of the French and German commanders in WWI had fought in this conflict, and the result strongly motivated both German and French strategies. Germany especially was convinced that they were “destined” to repeat the result of 1870.
The Guns of August is one of those rare books that provides immense entertainment and prodigious information. The one caveat I would give to a reader is that the book is so full of names and places that I found it useful to keep Wikipedia open on my computer, and would often reference names to remind myself who was who. That said, Tuchman does an amazing job interweaving fascinating anecdotes and beautiful descriptions into massive battle scenes and complex political intrigue.