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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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.