The Magazine

How It All Began

A historian assigns the blame for World War I.

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By HENRIK BERING
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While the Second World War is considered the necessary war against Nazi evil, World War I is widely seen as a pointless tragedy, an impression first shaped by the British trench poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, then reinforced by Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August (1962). That book, which was on John F. Kennedy’s mind during the Cuban Missile Crisis, held the Great Powers equally responsible, and blamed the outbreak of war on mobilization timetables spinning out of control. Many readers came away convinced that wars are mainly caused by accident, as no rational person would want them—a fallacy that still persists.  

French troops en route to the front, August 1914

French troops en route to the front, August 1914

uig / getty images

Max Hastings does not buy any of this. What he sees as “the poets’ view” of the Great War has been accepted uncritically by historians for much too long, and though he admires Barbara Tuchman’s narrative power, in his view, her arguments do not hold up. Rather, World War I happened because somebody wanted it and worked hard to bring it about. Rich in detail, Catastrophe 1914 covers both the diplomatic lead-up to the struggle and its first five months, when the battlefields were still fluid, until stalemate set in around Christmas 1914.  

The trigger was the assassination in Sarajevo (on June 28, 1914) of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. But with their patchwork empire suffering from internal strains,  Austria’s military leaders had long been itching for an excuse to attack their pesky Serbian neighbor: The murder of the archduke provided the perfect occasion. So the Austrians presented the Serbians with an ultimatum they knew the Serbs could not accept, as it included the right of the Austrians to conduct investigations on Serbian soil. The Serbs agreed to all of the demands except that one. 

Whatever the Serbs had done, however, it would have made no difference, as proved by this message from Vienna to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador in Belgrade: “However the Serbs react to the ultimatum [then being prepared] you must break off relations and it must come to war.” Hastings also quotes the Austrian count of Hoyos, the official who handled relations with Germany, as a typical example of parochial Austrian recklessness: “It is immaterial to us whether world war comes out of this.” If the Russians, who were the Serbs’ security guarantor, intervened, the Austrians trusted their ally, Germany, to back them up. 

But in their alliance with Germany, the Austrians were very much the junior partner: The Germans could have stopped them had they wanted to, notes Hastings. But as victims of a self-induced paranoia, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his High Command’s chief of staff, Colonel General Helmuth von Moltke, had their own reasons for war. Believing that the strategic balance in Europe was about to turn against them, they felt it imperative to strike while their empire was at its peak. In 1912, Moltke had stated, “a war is unavoidable; the sooner the better.” 

Compared here to an amateur actor struggling with the monarch’s part in a Shakespeare drama, the kaiser, in between his bloodcurdling posturing, had moments of hesitation—but always too late to make up for his rashness: “The exclamation mark was his favored instrument of policy making,” writes Hastings.  

Instead of acting as a brake on the Austrians, the Germans urged them to hit the accelerator. “What happened was not ‘war by accident’ but war by ill-conceived Austrian design, with German support,” Hastings writes. Afterwards, of course, the Germans pretended not to have seen the Serbian ultimatum before it was published.    

Neither the Russian czar, Nicholas II, who feared for the future of his dynasty, nor the British government of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was eager for war. The Manchester Guardian memorably reflected the British mood: “If it were physically possible for Serbia to be towed out to sea and sunk there, the air of Europe would at once seem cleaner.” Though the British cabinet knew that it could not afford to let a victorious Germany dominate the continent, it did not fully commit itself until Germany broke Belgium’s neutrality.  

The German war plan was a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan, named for Moltke’s predecessor as army chief of staff, Alfred Graf von Schlieffen. It envisaged a two-front war, first hitting the French, and then dealing with the Russians. On the Western Front, Moltke’s idea was to pin the French down with a defensive force in Alsace-Lorraine, while the main German armies would pour through Belgium and hit France from the north in a great flanking movement. 

The early stages of the war were fought in a decidedly 19th-century fashion. French cavalry were still wearing fancy Napoleonic uniforms; the French infantry, proponents of the offensive and the bayonet attack, were dressed in red pants and blue coats, while the British were more sensibly dressed in khaki, and the Germans in field gray. (The French military attaché in Berlin had earlier that year suggested that it might be wise for the French to follow the German example and dress in something a little less conspicuous. But at the war’s outbreak, the switch to new uniforms had not yet been accomplished.)  

And instead of learning from the American Civil War that attacks over open country against prepared positions are not a great idea, tacticians had drawn the opposite conclusion from the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, which saw big Japanese charges succeed against poorly organized Russian defenses. A photograph from the beginning of the Great War shows French foot soldiers attacking in dense formation, creating perfect targets for German machine gunners. As a result, on August 22, 1914, 27,000 Frenchmen were killed, to which should be added the wounded and missing, casualty figures surpassing those of the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916), which, as Hastings notes, is customarily (and wrongly) cited as the costliest day of the war. During the next five months, the French incurred over one million casualties, while German casualties numbered 800,000.  

“Both sides’ commanders grossly underrated their opponents,” writes Hastings. On the Allied side, the French commander in chief, Field Marshal Joseph Joffre, was totally absorbed in his own plans (a thrust through the Ardennes), and was oblivious to the intentions of his foe. But having bungled the start, he redeemed himself when Moltke’s strategy finally dawned on him: Joffre shifted large forces to the north and made his stand on the Marne. Though not one of history’s great commanders—he was replaced two years later after the huge losses at Verdun—Hastings considers Joffre’s firm stand on the Marne a vital contribution. 

Joffre’s British ally, Field Marshal Sir John French, embodied British superciliousness at its infuriating worst. “Au fond they are a low lot,” he noted of his French colleagues, with whom he preferred to have as little interaction as possible. Only when ordered to do so by his government did Field Marshal French take his position alongside the French Army, and Hastings describes the British contribution to the Marne offensive as “slow and half-hearted. .  .  . The best that could be said is that they took their place in the line.” But, as Hastings further notes, the German commanders who headed the best-trained army on the continent did not acquit themselves much better. Moltke put all his weight behind the Schlieffen Plan, although he was not at all confident that it would actually work. Moltke saw his main role as keeping the meddling Kaiser out of mischief, and Hastings portrays him as acting more like the chairman of a corporate board than as chief executive officer: “The consequence was that Germany’s seven field army commanders in the west were left to conduct the largest military operation in history in a manner each thought best.” 

Indeed, after initial successes, and convinced that victory was in the bag despite a manifest lack of prisoners, the Germans managed to delude themselves into believing that an overall strategy no longer mattered. When things started to bog down, Moltke suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be replaced: “No man had done more to precipitate the calamity of European war,” writes Hastings, “yet, having got his way, Moltke proved incapable of effectively conducting his nation’s armies.”

Much has been made of Moltke weakening his right flank by siphoning off troops for Alsace-Lorraine and the Eastern Front, but Hastings makes a larger point: “Not even Napoleon could have achieved a different outcome in 1914.” With firepower vastly surpassing developments in communications and mobility, odds favored defenders. And since the warring sides were about equal, stalemate was inevitable: “The war now became a contest of rival wills, a case of displaying superior tolerance of suffering and loss.” 

So what might have happened if the Kaiser had won? Hastings rejects as ahistorical the arguments of those who, professing to see little moral difference between the warring sides, claim that Europe would have been better off with a German victory. 

It is entirely a mistake to suppose that it did not matter which side won. Even if the Kaiser’s regime cannot be equated with that of the Nazis, its policies could scarcely be characterized as enlightened.

The dominance of Europe was Germany’s aim, and the 6,000 civilians massacred in Belgium and northern France did not speak well of their intentions.

No doubt, in Germany, some may interpret Catastrophe 1914 as British German-bashing: While Germans are willing to assume responsibility for World War II, they generally consider the Great Powers to be equally at fault for World War I. But no one can accuse Max Hastings of engaging in triumphalism here, and, as he has argued elsewhere, ignoring the historical record serves no one.

Henrik Bering is a writer in Copenhagen.