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Author Biography: Robert Cowley is the founding editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, from which these articles were taken. He has edited two previous MHQ anthologies, No End Save Victory, about World War II, and With My Face to the Enemy, about the Civil War. He has also edited two volumes of the What If? series, and a third that will appear later this year. Cowley, a well-known authority on the Great War, has traveled the entire length of the Western Front, from the North Sea to the Swiss border. He lives in Connecticut.
Sir Michael Howard
I hold war to be inevitable, and the sooner the better." The frequently quoted words of General Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, were part of a memorandum to the Reich chancellor written at the end of 1911. "Everyone," Moltke added, "is preparing for the great war, which they all expect." He was merely putting on paper a fatalistic anticipation that had become increasingly widespread. A series of intensifying international crises seemed to justify an ever-heightening military preparedness-which, in its turn, only ratcheted up Continental tensions. It was clear that soon enough scores would be settled not at the conference table but on the battlefield.
More than just expecting war, most Europeans wanted it. They snapped up novels about war in the near future, which had developed into something of a literary subgenre. (Only the 1898 Is War Now Impossible? by the Russian industrialist Ivan S. Bloch envisaged a long war leading to major upheavals, in which "the spade will be as indispensable to the soldier as his rifle.") The heroic paintings of Detaille and Lady Butler, full of bright uniforms, grim-nostrilled chargers, eager marksmen, and clean deaths, were the most familiar images of combat; few, probably, had glimpsed the American Civil War photographs of Alexander Gardiner, with their bursting corpses. "In the popular mind, as in the military mind," Michael Howard notes in the essay that opens this book, "wars were seen not as terrible evils to be deterred but as necessary struggles to be fought and won."
Howard, one of the preeminentmilitary historians of our time, reexamines the fateful decisions taken in the midsummer days of 1914, as well as the near-universal mood that sustained them, decisions that would finally bring on the great Continental civil war. What, he asks, did Europeans-governments, armies, and ordinary citizens-think would happen to them if they did not go to war? "Why did war, with all its terrible uncertainties, appear to be preferable to remaining at peace?" Every potential belligerent, except perhaps Russia, could summon convincing rationales for an immediate score-setting. The risks of continued peace seemed greater than those of a quick and decisive war. Politicians like to deal in sure things. Going to war seemed to be one. Meanwhile, military leaders on both sides maintained publicly that the best chance for victory lay in taking an immediate offensive: To yield the initiative, as the French had done in the Franco-Prussian War, was to court defeat. (New documents discovered in the former East German military archives indicate that even before 1914, many German senior war planners had private qualms about whether they could indeed achieve a quick win.) "The lessons of history," Howard concludes, "seemed to reinforce the strategic imperatives of 1914." But how dangerous such "lessons" can be, he points out-and how often they can lead us to opt for short-term gains that may have unforeseen long-term consequences.
Sir Michael Howard is the former Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University and the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University. This article was included in Howard's collection, The Lessons of History, published by Yale University Press.
In a place of honor in the Oxford Examination Schools, there hangs a portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, wearing the robes of the honorary doctorate of civil law bestowed on him by the University of Oxford in November 1907. Seven years after the kaiser received his degree, out of a total of seven Oxford honorands in June 1914, five were German. The duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Professor Ludwig Mitteis of the University of Leipzig, and the composer Richard Strauss all received their degrees at the encaenia on June 25. Special sessions of convocation were held to bestow honorary doctorates on the king of Württemberg and the German ambassador, Prince Karl Lichnowsky. At a banquet in the latter's honor, the professor of German reminded his audience that the kaiser's great-grandfather, King Frederick William III of Prussia, had also received an honorary doctorate of civil law exactly one hundred years before. He welcomed the presence of so many German students in Oxford (fifty-eight German Rhodes Scholars had matriculated over the previous ten years) and expressed the hope that thereby the two nations would be "drawn nearer to one another," quoting the belief of Cecil Rhodes "that the whole of humanity would be best served if the Teutonic peoples were brought nearer together and would join hands for the purpose of spreading their civilization to distant regions."
Three days after this encaenia, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated at Sarajevo. When the university reconvened three months later in October 1914, many of the young Germans and Englishmen who had rubbed shoulders at those celebrations had enlisted in their respective armies and were now doing their best to kill one another. The Examination Schools had been turned into a hospital. The number of undergraduates in residence had dwindled by over half, from 3,097 to 1,387. (By 1918 it would be down to 369.) During the vacation over a thousand of them had been recommended for commissions by a committee established under the vice-chancellor, and they were already serving with the army. As yet, only twelve had been killed; the slaughter of the First Battle of Ypres was still a few weeks away.
Several colleges had been taken over to house troops. Organized games had virtually ceased, while the Officers' Training Corps, to which all able-bodied undergraduates now belonged, trained for five mornings and two afternoons a week. As if this were not enough, the Chichele Professor of Military History, Spenser Wilkinson, advertised a course of lectures "for those who are preparing themselves to fight England's battles." The course was to begin with a description of "the nature and properties of the weapons in use-the bullet, the shell, the bayonet, the sword and the lance."
In one way it can therefore be said that the war came out of a clear sky. But these events do not indicate a profoundly pacific community taken totally by surprise and adjusting only with difficulty to astonishing and terrible new conditions. Everyone seems to have known exactly what to do, and to have done it with great efficiency. Arrangements to take over the Examination Schools and colleges had been made by the War Office two years earlier. The OTC was already flourishing: One undergraduate in three belonged to it, and five hundred were in summer camp at Aldershot when the news of the assassination came through. And insofar as such iconographic evidence can be legitimately adduced, group photographs of Oxford colleges and clubs show how the lolling dandies of the turn of the century, with their canes, blazers, and dogs, had given way soon after the Boer War to a new generation of muscular young men-fit, serious, short-haired, level-eyed-whose civilian clothes already seemed to sit uneasily upon them. This generation may not have expected war to break out in the summer of 1914 but was psychologically and physically ready for it when it came. The challenge was expected, and the response full of zest.
In this respect Oxford was a microcosm, not only of Britain but of Europe as a whole. Europe was taken by surprise by the occasion for the war-so many comparable crises had been successfully surmounted during the past five years-but not by the fact of it. All over the Continent long-matured plans were put into action. With a really remarkable absence of confusion, millions of men reported for duty, were converted or, rather, reconverted to soldiers, and were loaded into the trains that took them to the greatest battlefields in the history of mankind. It cannot be said that during the summer weeks of 1914, while the crisis was ripening toward its bloody solution, the peoples of Europe in general were exercising any pressure on their governments to go to war, but neither did they try to restrain them. When war did come, it was accepted almost without question-in some quarters indeed with wild demonstrations of relief.
The historian is faced with two distinct questions: Why did war come? And when it did, why was it so prolonged and destructive? In the background there is a further, unanswerable question: If the political and military leaders of Europe had been able to foresee that prolongation and that destruction, would the war have occurred at all? Everyone, naturally, went to war in the expectation of victory, but might they have felt that at such a cost even victory was not worthwhile? This is the kind of hypothetical question that laymen put and historians cannot answer. But we can ask another and less impossible question: What did the governments of Europe think would happen to them if they did not go to war? Why did war, with all its terrible uncertainties, appear to be preferable to remaining at peace?
Clausewitz described war as being compounded of a paradoxical trinity: the government for which it was an instrument of policy; the military for whom it was the exercise of a skill; and the people as a whole, the extent of whose involvement determined the intensity with which the war would be waged. This distinction is of course an oversimplification. In all major states of Europe, military and political leaders shared a common attitude and cultural background, which shaped their perceptions and guided their judgments. The same emotions that inspired peoples were likely also to affect their political and military leaders, and those emotions could be shaped by propaganda, by education, and by the socialization process to which so much of the male population of Continental Europe had been subject through four decades of at least two years' compulsory military service at an impressionable age. (It must be noted that the British, who were not subjected to the same treatment, reacted no differently from their Continental neighbors to the onset and continuation of the war.) Still, the triad of government, military, and public opinion provides a useful framework for analysis.
First, the governments. Although none of them could foresee the full extent of the ordeal that lay before them, no responsible statesman, even in Germany, believed that they were in for "a fresh, jolly little war." It was perhaps only when they had made their irrevocable decisions that the real magnitude of the risks came fully home to them. But that is a very common human experience. The German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, in particular saw the political dangers with gloomy clarity: A world war, he warned the Bavarian minister, "would topple many a throne."
There had indeed been a certain amount of wild writing and speaking over the past ten years, especially in Germany, about the value of war as a panacea for social ills; and the remarkable way in which social and political differences did disappear the moment war was declared has tempted some historians to assume that this effect was foreseen and therefore intended: that the opportunity was deliberately seized by the Asquith cabinet, for example, to distract attention from the intractable Irish problem to Continental adventures, or that the German imperial government saw it as a chance to settle the hash of the Social Democrats for good. One can only say that minute scrutiny of the material by several generations of historians has failed to produce any serious evidence to support this view.
Rather, the opposite was the case: Governments were far from certain how their populations would react to the coming of war, and how they would stand up to its rigors. A whole generation of English publicists had been stressing the social consequences of even a temporary blockade of the British Isles: soaring insurance rates, unemployment, bread riots, revolution. The French army, for ten years the butt of left-wing agitation, hardly anticipated an enthusiastic response from conscripts recalled to the colors, and the French security services stood by to arrest left-wing leaders at the slightest sign of trouble. It was only with the greatest reluctance that the German army forced military service on the supposedly unreliable population of the industrial regions. The Russian government had within the past ten years seen one war end in revolution, and for at least some of its members this seemed good reason to keep out of another.
It was one thing to enhance the prestige of the government and undermine support for its domestic enemies by conducting a strong forward policy, whether in Morocco or in the Balkans. It was another to subject the fragile consensus and dubious loyalties of societies so torn by class and national conflict, as were the states of Europe in 1914, to the terrible strain of a great war. Governments did so only on the assumption, spoken or unspoken, that the war, however terrible, would at least be comparatively short-no longer, probably, than six months, the length of the last great war in Europe in 1870. How could it be otherwise? A prolonged war of attrition, as Count Alfred von Schlieffen had pointed out in a famous article in 1909, could not be conducted when it required the expenditure of milliards to sustain armies numbered in millions. The only person in any position of responsibility who appears to have thought differently was Horatio Herbert, Lord Kitchener, a British imperial soldier who had served outside Europe throughout his career and who had never, as far as we know, seriously studied the question at all.
But whether the war proved to be short or long, it was for all governments a leap into a terrible dark, and the penalties for defeat were likely to be far greater than the traditional ones of financial indemnities and territorial loss. So we inevitably come back to these questions: What appeared to be the alternatives? And in the event of victory, what appeared to be the probable gains? Why, in the last resort, did the governments of Europe prefer the terrifying uncertainties of war to the prospect of no war?
Let us begin where the war itself effectively began, in Vienna. Was not the prospect that lay before the statesmen of Vienna, even if this crisis were successfully "managed," one of continuous frustration abroad and disintegration at home? Of a Serbia, doubled in size after the Balkan Wars, ever more boldly backing the claims of the Bosnian irredentists, while other South Slavs agitated with ever greater confidence for an autonomy that the empire would never permit them to exercise? What serious prospect was there of the empire hanging together once the old emperor had gone? A final settling of accounts with Serbia while Germany held the Russians in check must have seemed the only chance of saving the monarchy, whatever Berlin might say; and with a blank check from Berlin, Vienna could surely face the future with a greater confidence than had been felt there for very many years. No wonder Count Leopold von Berchtold and his colleagues took their time drafting their ultimatum: They must have found the process highly enjoyable. A successful war would put the monarchy back in business again, and keep it there for many years to come.