A History of the Great War: 1914-1918

A History of the Great War: 1914-1918

by C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, Charles Robert Cruttwell

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This vivid, detailed history of World War I presents the general reader with an accurate and readable account of the campaigns and battles, along with brilliant portraits of the leaders and generals of all countries involved. Scrupulously fair, praising and blaming friend and enemy as circumstances demand, this has become established as the classic account of the…  See more details below


This vivid, detailed history of World War I presents the general reader with an accurate and readable account of the campaigns and battles, along with brilliant portraits of the leaders and generals of all countries involved. Scrupulously fair, praising and blaming friend and enemy as circumstances demand, this has become established as the classic account of the first world-wide war.

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"He has a remarkable gift for description... the book is admirably written." — New York Times

"... for my money it's the best history of World War I." — Robert Cowley, Military Historical Review

"... it is by far the best short history of the war in English." — American Historical Review

"This is perhaps the best one-volume history of the war in English." — Foreign Affairs

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A History of the Great War 1914â"1918

By C.R.M.F. Cruttwell

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1934 C.R.M.F. Cruttwell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89733-315-3




The great states of Europe had never been so powerfully prepared for war in human and material resources as in 1914, And this was a natural result of the policy which they had pursued. In spite of the lip-service rendered in theory and practice to international law, each had tended, partly subconsciously, to organize itself upon a basis of absolute power, and to worship its own collective image. The idea of European solidarity was no longer seen with even the deceptive clearness of a mirage. Thus the period has been well named by the author of a poignant book 'the international anarchy'. The motive which inspired this great and increasing military organization was not so much hatred of other states as a determination to be as strong as possible without regard to the effect which any accession of strength might have abroad. It would be wrong to ascribe this determination solely to a low and material ambition. The scramble for colonies can indeed be largely set down under this head of condemnation. Though in some cases the happiness of the subject populations may have been increased, no one will assert that this was the motive which prompted the conquest. Further, this sharing out of the world largely increased the points of envy and hostile contact between nations.

But the greatest of all problems which called for the intensive organization of national power was how to use man's ever-increasing command over nature in such away as to provide greater happiness for an ever-increasing population. In democratic countries this was the direct result of the constitutional pressure of the multitude upon its governors, but even in a despotic state like Russia the fear of revolution exercised a certain intermittent influence.

Naturally the ordinary man was led insensibly to exalt the power of the state, and to demand that it should perform more and more tasks for his benefit, without adopting any such full-blooded theory as Treitschke elaborated for the Germans. Naturally also he believed that its strength was the only guarantee that he would be able to enjoy present and future benefits without interference from strong neighbours similarly organized. Moreover, the nineteenth century had identified the nation with the state to a degree hitherto unknown. Thus, on behalf of the state, the nation as a whole was prepared to make unprecedented sacrifices which were also in accordance with the democratic principle of equality. Where on the other hand the nation was not identified with the state, as in Austria-Hungary and Russia, the governing and best-organized nationalities within it had the sharpest incentive to impose no less thorough an organization, lest failure should mean disintegration. Moreover, when once the principle of universal service was firmly established on the Continent, there was little possibility of its relaxation. The ex-conscript was unwilling that younger men should escape his own burden, while to the youth itself the prospect was as natural and inevitable as going to school — in some countries more so. Thus it came about that the nineteenth century, and in particular its last three decades, intensified and universalized the principle of universal service. It is an amazing paradox that, in the very age when the working class were everywhere gaining power and increasing in comfort, when commercial competition was becoming keener and keener, they should have been ready, nay, often anxious, to impose upon themselves this tremendous servitude and potential risk. It is impossible to explain except on the principle that they believed more and more in the power of the state, and identified the state with themselves. To say that they were deceived by their rulers is to trifle with words: 'You cannot fool all the people all the time.'

Yet the object of these enormous armaments remained obscure. The peoples of Europe did not certainly, in so far as they reflected upon them, believe that their aim was to provoke war at a favourable moment, yet because they felt continually insecure they did not shrink from the idea of war. It is true to say that the growth of insecurity corresponded with the growth of armaments. Therefore, while the peoples did not envisage war, they did not clearly embrace peace; their desire was rather for security, an impossible ideal, given the unrestricted sovereignty of the state-system. So, realizing something of the delicate poise and unstable equilibrium of Europe, they were content to hand over foreign affairs to the almost uncontrolled discretion of those in power, ready to accept the consequences which might flow from the secret search for security. Thus came about the terms of the great alliances, while the very atmosphere engendered by these 'hidden manœuvres for position' still further heightened the insecurity which it was intended to dissipate. Hence arose the ominous series of international crises in the last decade before 1914 — more alarming and more frequent than those which had troubled the uneasy Continent since 1870. And the natural result of these crises was to intensify military preparation and to influence national hatreds. So the vicious circle went round.

My object is not to apportion war-guilt but to write a history of the war. But it is impossible to write about the war without trying to explain, however generally and inadequately, why the peoples of Europe, claiming to be more reasonable and more civilized than at any time in history, were prepared to make war on one another à outrance with all their strength. The only possible explanation seems to be this deep-rooted and ineradicable conviction of insecurity. Consequently it was both natural and inevitable that the war should be regarded everywhere, on its outbreak, with passionate sincerity, as a sacred duty to defend not merely the national honour but the national existence. Yet that it was so regarded is no proof that the peoples can be exonerated from blame. Populus vult decipi, et decipiatur is a pregnant saying. The enthusiasm which almost everywhere greeted the advent of the greatest war in history is its own condemnation.


If war is rightly defined as 'the continuation of policy by other means', the soldiers of the Central Powers had no reason to thank the diplomatists when they received from the latter the instructions to organize decisive violence. The most favourable conditions under which they might expect to wage the great war were these: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, with Rumania as a subsidiary ally, were to oppose France and Russia with the probable subsidiary support of Serbia and Montenegro. Great Britain was expected to remain neutral for the opening at least of the campaign.

The reality in 1914 was far different. Germany and Austria-Hungary stood by themselves. Italy declared that she was not bound by the terms of the Triple Alliance which held good only for a defensive war. It is indeed improbable that the Central Powers expected any active assistance from her, for she had been edging towards the Entente ever since 1902. In fact Conrad von Hotzendorf, the Chief of the Austrian Staff, who presented his master with a proposal for war every spring with the regularity of an almanac, had more than once suggested that a first experiment should be made on Italy. But the unconditional terms in which Italian neutrality was couched relieved the French of the necessity of watching their south-east frontier. Rumania was always torn by two rival ambitions, to obtain Bessarabia from Russia and Transylvania from Hungary, both of which she has accomplished since the war, probably without adding anything to the happiness of the transferred populations. In 1914 the cry of the Transylvanians sounded more enchantingly in her ears, and the old Hohenzollern King Carol was obliged with reluctant shame to tell Czernin, the Austrian ambassador, that his country could not fulfil her obligations. It is said that his death, which occurred soon afterwards, was hastened by the bitter sense of his humiliation. The importance of Rumania's neutrality is obvious: it not only deprived the Central Powers of a shaft at southern Russia, but left the Danubian plain open to a side thrust. It is true that both these consequences were mitigated by secret agreements with Turkey and Bulgaria, which, however, it was recognized would be contingent for their fulfilment on great and speedy successes by the Central Powers.

The participation of Belgium must obviously have entered into the calculations of both German diplomatists and soldiers as they had determined to invade the country. But they held the view, certainly shared by many Belgians, that any resistance would be in the formal nature of a protest to be speedily abandoned before the enormous superiority of the enemy. In any event they counted on encircling and destroying the Belgian field army before it could reach the refuge of the great entrenched camp of Antwerp.

The entry of Great Britain into the war affected the statesmen and commercial classes of Germany far more acutely than the military. Neither of the former really believed in the short war, irresistibly concluded by a swift series of overwhelming blows, in which the soldiers put their trust. The event which moved the Kaiser to write the most hysterical and yet the most prophetic of his minutes, which wrung from Bethmann-Hollweg the most penetrating of self-revelations, and threw Ballin the great shipowner into the profoundest dejection, was not considered as affecting in any vital way the plans of the General Staff. At the worst it would allow the unimpeded transfer of a small army-corps from Morocco and the use of French 'coloured' resources; it would free a certain number of French garrison troops from the necessity of protecting their northern ports, and would oblige the Germans to provide for the coast defences of Schleswig-Holstein and Pomerania. Finally, it would add perhaps 100,000 seasoned troops to the French left wing. To this last consideration little importance was attached, for it was believed that the blow in contemplation was of so overwhelming a nature that such a contingent, however excellent its quality, could not avert decisive defeat. The army therefore put no pressure upon the navy to interfere with the shipment of the British Expeditionary Force, for it naturally preferred that the latter should be involved in a common ruin rather than remain intact after a French débâcle.


The problem to be solved by all the countries at war except Great Britain was in its general lines the same: so to dispose of the armed and trained manhood with which mobilization provided them as to strike with the utmost speed a blow strong enough to destroy their opponents' will to resist. All the continental belligerents had therefore made plans for a short war in which victory should be decisively achieved by an offensive concentration. These plans, matured during peace, had to be carried out on mobilization; any improvisation, except in detail, was impossible, as it would have destroyed the elaborate schedule for rail and road transport and thereby created chaos. Every General Staff was therefore irrevocably committed to its own plan of campaign until the first great shock of armies brought its own inexorable changes.

Of all the Powers engaged Germany had the most compelling reasons for staking everything on a short war — she had to face both west and east. The enormous population of Russia, which exceeded that of both the Central Powers by nearly half, might be expected to provide an almost inexhaustible human reservoir. Germany's ally, Austria-Hungary, neither believed herself, nor was believed by others, to be capable of a long war, and was in any event likely to receive a stab in the back from Italy after any serious reverse. The control of the seas by Great Britain would restrict, and perhaps finally bar, the import of all those commodities by whose means alone modern war can be waged.

Now it was clear to the German Staff that the only hope of a speedy decision was by an attack upon France. The Russians had almost unlimited means of parrying a deadly blow by retreating and devastating wide areas which were always badly provided with communications, and the feeling of whose inhabitants, mainly Poles, Lithuanians, and Jews, they would not be likely to consider in the smallest degree. Moreover, it was very plausibly believed that Russian finances could not last if once France were knocked out. It had therefore been determined for many years to attack France and to stand on the defensive against Russia; then after crushing the former to turn rapidly on the latter and strike her down before she had been able to use her slowly gathering masses, whose capacity for mischief would meanwhile be limited by the opposition of nearly the whole of the Austro-Hungarian army.

This tremendous plan demanded unprecedented speed in achievement; for it was hoped that 'the battle without a morrow' would be concluded in the west within three weeks. It also demanded a thorough and devoted attention to detail, without which this great double transportation would be impossible. The Germans prided themselves justly on their superiority in this respect over any other nation. But it was considered impossible to pierce the powerful French line between Luxembourg and Switzerland within the required time-limit. The ground is naturally strong and had been more heavily fortified since 1870 than perhaps any other region in Europe. The Vosges, densely wooded, with a steep eastward escarpment falling into the Rhine Valley, protected the French right flank; three large rivers, Meurthe, Moselle, and Meuse, ran at right angles to the German advance. Farther north on either side of Verdun the heights of the Meuse rising to 1,300 feet commanded the road from Metz. The great chain of concrete forts stretched from Verdun to Belfort with one intentional gap of thirty miles between Épinal and Toul, called the gap of Charmes. On the south the gap of Belfort was far too narrow for the deployment of modern armies and led to the fortified region of Langres. Finally, on the north the passage between Metz and Luxembourg led into the confused and densely wooded hills of the Argonne. Moreover, the common frontier between France and Germany was too short to allow the latter to use fully her superiority in numbers, and the strategy of envelopment long taught by the General Staff.

Schlieffen, the Chief-of-Staff from 1891 to 1906, a typically iron and secret soldier, had worked out the invasion of Belgium as the appropriate solution. He was so contemptuous of small nations that he included Holland in his plan of violation. He proposed to pass through the so-called 'Maestricht appendix', which juts out south almost to Liege, in order to have more room for the deployment from Aix. His successor Moltke, a nephew of the great organizer of victory of 1870, struck this out, realizing that a mere military convenience would be too heavily purchased by the resistance of the Dutch, who could have thrust continually at an open flank from behind their water defences. Moreover, a neutral Holland would be invaluable to Germany for the importation of war material and commodities in the event of a prolonged war. As Moltke wrote, 'If we make Holland our enemy, we shall stop the last air-hole through which we can breathe'. He made also another grave alteration, which many critics believe was responsible for the failure at the Marne. Schlieffen had staked everything upon the strength of his encircling right, and had been content to hold Alsace-Lorraine with a mere cordon; his last authentic words were apparently, 'Strengthen the right wing'. But his successor thought more seriously of a French offensive towards the Rhine — he very probably had information that it was intended; for political reasons also an invasion of southern Germany was particularly dreaded, as history showed that its consequences might be incalculable. He therefore made, as we shall see, a very large addition to the number of troops designed for the left wing. Schlieffen had intended to consummate victory entirely by the great sweep of his right to the west of Paris, driving the enemy eastward towards the Swiss frontier. Moltke apparently hoped by a subsidiary offensive through Lorraine to break through the Meuse line and isolate the French centre by a double envelopment.


Excerpted from A History of the Great War 1914â"1918 by C.R.M.F. Cruttwell. Copyright © 1934 C.R.M.F. Cruttwell. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Meet the Author

Mr. Cruttwell served in France as an Officer in the 1st/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment, and later as an Intelligence Officer at the War Office. He was also Principal of Herford College, Oxford, from 1930 to 1939 and was formerly a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He died in 1942.

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