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The War That Changed The World

June 2024
8min read

In the summer of 1914 the nations were at peace and the future seemed serene. Then the guns spoke, and things would never again be the same

The year 1914 was one of the most fateful years in human history. As the painful half-century which it inaugurated nears completion we can see that in that year there came one of those profound turning points that occur no more than once or twice in a millennium. Probably it will be a long time before we fully understand what 1914 got us into, but we can at least begin to see what it wrenched us out of.

World society then was essentially a European society, which believed that it had above all other things the quality of permanence. Whatever happened, it was going to stay fixed.

What 1914 demonstrated was that European society was actually as unstable as a bag of cordite. It was at the mercy of a jar or spark, and in the month of August, 1914, it went up in a prodigious explosion. It had grown too rigid to adjust itself to the pressures that were building up within itself.

Few things can be more instructive than a detailed examination of the way in which the explosion took place, and a genuinely excellent study is now at hand in Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August . Mrs. Tuchman indicates that the month of August not only brought the war on but determined the form that it was going to take. When the month began, the world was at peace; when it ended, the world had not merely gone to war but had gotten itself into a war that was going to last far beyond anything which the men who started the war had thought possible. The war would destroy the very things it was supposed to protect.

The men of 1914, in short, were doing a great deal more than they realized or intended, and there is a touch of inevitability about the way the war began. Everything that was done was done in the light of things done earlier. No man had real freedom of action. When the movement into war got fairly under way it could not be stopped, and the record of the tragically futile attempts to stop it constitutes, in Mrs. Tuchman’s fine phrase, “the eternal epitaph of man’s surrender to events.”

One illustration will make the point. At the last minute, while the ponderous machinery of mobilization was already in gear, the Kaiser wanted to cancel the projected invasion of France and confine the struggle to a one-front war. To his top military man, General von Moltke, he proposed: “Now we can go to war against Russia only. We simply march the whole of our Army to the East!”

Von Moltke was simply stunned, and his reply dashed the Kaiser’s hopes—which, as a matter of fact, probably were illusive anyway. “Your Majesty, it cannot be done,” he said. “The deployment of millions cannot be improvised. If Your Majesty insists on leading the whole army to the East it will not be an army ready for battle but a disorganized mob of armed men with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labor to complete”—and then, as Mrs. Tuchman remarks, he added the phrase that becomes inevitable when military plans dictate policy: “Once settled, it cannot be altered.”

Once the business began, it had to keep going. And in this account of the way war came to a Europe whose leaders did try—ineffectively and too late—to head it off, there is a haunting similarity to the way the Civil War came to the United States in 1861. Men had ceased to be free agents; once a certain indefinable point was passed, there was a dreadful irresistible quality about the move toward disaster. Mrs. Tuchman’s comment on the remorseless sequence of events is strangely like Abraham Lincoln’s confession that he could not claim to have controlled events but that events rather had controlled him.

One of the fatalities that shaped things in August, 1914, was the fact that nobody believed that the war could last very long. Whatever happened, it would soon be over: nations might get defeated, but they would not get bled to the point of exhaustion. “The economic impossibility of a long war,” Mrs. Tuchman points out, “was everybody’s orthodoxy.” War would dislocate Europe’s economy so completely that it could not possibly last more than three or four months. The professional soldiers planned for a short war, and when it came they embraced it.

They were, of course, as wrong as men could be. They had devised total war, and they were unable to understand what total war really meant. When one German official tried to show General von Moltke what an extended war would do to the German economy, von Moltke answered irritably: “Don’t bother me with economics—I am busy conducting a war.” That the world simply could not afford a long war was as true as gospel, but the world went ahead and had a long war anyway. The people who had made it could not see that the one great rule about modern war is that it had better be brief.

In its essence the German war plan was an enormous gamble in which everything rode on one cast of the dice, the general idea being: Ignore all of the little things that may go wrong and strike for final victory with one irresistible blow. Then the gamblers’ nerves began to fail, and when the little things went wrong, the German commanders tried to hedge their bet; hedging, they weakened the blow just enough so that it was not quite irresistible, and instead of getting a quick victory they got a ruinous stalemate. The French, in their turn, aimed at a quick victory by striking the German left with an irresistible offensive of their own; they succeeded only in wrecking a large part of their army and insuring that the war would be fought on French soil at a crippling cost to the French nation.

The British clung to the old formula of a naval war, in which the small professional British Army would fight with one eye always on the line of retreat to the channel ports; and they wound up with conscription and neck-deep immersion in the kind of continental war which they had hoped at all costs to avoid. And the Russians, as blind to reality as any people that ever lived, set out brightly to capture Berlin and ruined both their military machine and the dynasty which that machine was supposed to protect.

By the end of August all plans had failed. The war had got entirely beyond any man’s control; the only thing that was certain about it was that it was going to go on, all-consuming, drawing in all the world, infinitely destructive. Mrs. Tuchman underlines it: “The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.”

There has been no exit, which is why 1914 was such a prodigious turning point. It destroyed the old European society, the old European controls, the stability of the entire world structure. All that has happened since—the rise of monstrous dictatorships, the collapse of colonial empires, the Second World War, the uneasy time in which a world that has lost its equilibrium struggles so painfully and at such mortal risks to find a new equilibrium—all of these things, which we have had to live with, followed inexorably on the First World War.

Prisoners of Matériel

Many things led up to the First World War. One element certainly was the overpowering fascination that the machinery of destruction exerted on the minds of the men who had the war in preparation. That earlier armaments race was, to be sure, a symptom of society’s progress toward disaster rather than a primary cause of it, but it was a symptom that deserves careful study. At the very least it was an indication that nations which rely too confidently on their ability to wreak destruction may find in the end that it is the only reliance they have.

The classic case, before 1914, was the great naval race between England and Germany, and this comes up for examination in a thoughtful survey by Arthur J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow , of which Volume I, The Road to War , is now out.

The Anglo-German naval race, which contributed a good deal to the rising tensions that led to war, was a comparatively short-lived thing. Until some time after 1900, as Mr. Marder points out, England was “building against” France and Russia—nations which were to be her allies when the war at last came. England was following the two-power standard; that is, her navy was to be at least the equal of the next two strongest navies, so that the empire would be secure even if those “next two” combined against her. Until the new century was several years old, it seemed likely that England must some day fight the French and the Russians, and her building program was shaped with that danger in mind.

Then the picture changed. The Russo-Japanese war ended Russia’s naval pretensions. Germany came to look more and more like a nation that might rise to dominate Europe, and in the face of this threat the French forgot their old antagonism toward England. At the same time the Kaiser began to build a battle fleet, with a good deal of carefree talk about getting so strong a navy that even the world’s mightiest naval power would think twice about making war with Germany. The British immediately readjusted their sights and began to build against Germany.

Oddly enough, the British fleet, immense as it was, had somewhat gone to seed when this race began. It had not fought a full-dress war for nearly a century, and it had grown slightly ossified. Encased in a spit-and-polish routine, it was by no means ready for battle. It was brought up to the mark chiefly by the energetic exertions of two remarkable men—Admiral Sir John Fisher, who was First Sea Lord from 1904 to 1910, and Winston Churchill, who was made First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911.

It was Fisher who brought in the dreadnought— H.M.S. Dreadnought , specifically, the all-big-gun battleship that made all other battleships obsolete and compelled every navy on earth to rebuild its battle fleet. In a way, this was a disadvantage to England; with everybody starting from scratch, the old overwhelming margin of British superiority disappeared, and Germany’s chance to build a fleet that could fight the British with at least a fair chance for victory was greatly increased. But Fisher saw to it that Britain built faster than Germany, maintaining a substantial margin of superiority.

Naturally, this was enormously expensive, and in 1912 German and British statesmen undertook to see if they could not find a way to end this competition and work out some agreement that would freeze the two fleets at a mutually satisfactory level. The effort failed because the diplomats went off on opposite tacks. The German position was: Let us work out a political agreement between our two countries, and then a naval agreement can easily be made. The British put it other end to: Let us work out a naval agreement, and then we can doubtless reach a political understanding. The result, of course, was a deadlock, and the race went on.

There was one oddity about the situation that became apparent only later. The dreadnought was the great weapon, and the two nations built with feverish haste; but the dreadnought was actually in the process of going out of date because the big gun itself was on the verge of becoming obsolescent. The torpedo was beginning to emerge as the decisive weapon, the submarine was looking more and more like the craft that could best use the torpedo, and the airplane was a fluttering shadow just offstage.

In any case, the men who controlled these two navies made their battle fleets as great and strong as they could—and became, at last, obsessed by the sheer weight of matériel . The battle fleets were almost too big and cumbersome to maneuver easily, and more and more they came to seem too valuable to be risked. When war finally came, the German fleet played it safe, and in effect consented to the blockade which the British imposed; the Kaiser apparently felt that his magnificent ships must not be risked in action, and ordered his admirals to follow the most cautious defensive strategy. The British in their turn were under much the same spell. They got, during the war, just one chance to destroy the German fleet, at Jutland, and contented themselves with a purely defensive victory; to have pressed the attack home, at a time when their battle fleet stood between the German fleet and German harbors, might have cost too many ships. Similarly, the attempt to open the Dardanelles by naval action was abandoned just when it was on the verge of success because it had cost several obsolete pre-dreadnought battleships and might cost more. The naval men on both sides were the prisoners of their own weapons.

Wartime events, to be sure, go beyond the scope of Mr. Marder’s present volume. But he sets the stage for them. He shows how dedicated men on both sides became so engrossed with the expensive mechanisms for destruction that they were not quite able to use those mechanisms freely when the time came: The British Navy’s prized “Nelson touch” was not evident in the First World War. One reason may be that Nelson never had to carry the burden of a fleet that was too costly, too intricate, and too valuable ever to be risked.

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