Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Falkenhayn’s Christmas Memorandum (December 1915) and the Plan for 1916

In his memoirs, Erich von Falkenhayn, former chief of staff, published the text of a memorandum he claimed to have given to Kaiser Wilhelm II “around Christmas” 1915. The communication seems to summarize his thinking about the relative strength of the various opponents and outlines his recommendations for defeating the Entente in 1916.  The original of the document has never been found, so there is much doubt about its authenticity.  Nevertheless,  it does reflect with considerable accuracy the 1916 campaign, at least as to its opening with the attack on Verdun in February.

France has been weakened militarily and economically—almost to the limit of what it can stand—through the ongoing loss of coal fields in the northwest of the country. Russia’s army has not yet been fully defeated, but its offensive ability has been so broken that it will not be able to regain anything like its old strength. Serbia’s army can be considered destroyed. Italy has without a doubt recognized that it cannot count on its appetite for spoils being satisfied in the near future and would therefore probably be happy to escape from this adventure in any honorable way possible.

If conclusions are nowhere drawn from these facts, then this is due to various phenomena, which do not need detailed discussion. There is only one matter—the most important one—that cannot be passed over. That is the incredible pressure that England still exerts on its allies.

[ . . . ]

Thus it is all the more important that all the means suitable for harming England in what is properly its own territory are simultaneously brought to ruthless application. These means are submarine warfare and laying the groundwork for a political and economic alliance not only between Germany and its allies, but also between Germany and all those states that are not yet fully constrained within England’s sphere of influence. The formation of this alliance is not the topic of this exposition. Solving this task lies solely with the political leadership. Submarine warfare, however, is a tool of war, just like any other tool. Those in charge of leading the war effort cannot avoid taking a position on this. [ . . . ]

An advance against Moscow would lead us nowhere. We do not have enough strength for any of these enterprises. As a result, Russia is not a suitable object for attack. Only France remains.

[ . . . ]

There are targets lying within reach behind the French section of the Western Front for which the French leadership would need to use their very last man. Should they do this, then France would bleed to death, for there is no retreat, regardless if we ourselves reach the target or not. Should they not do this, and should these targets fall into our hands, then the effect on morale in France would be enormous. For these operations, which are limited in terms of territory, Germany will not be compelled to expend itself to a degree that would leave it seriously exposed on other fronts. Germany can confidently await the relief operations that can be expected at these fronts—and, indeed, hope to have enough forces available to meet the attacks with counter-strikes. For Germany can conduct the offensive quickly or slowly, break off the offensive for a period of time or strengthen the offensive, according to its objectives. The targets being spoken of are Belfort and Verdun. What was said above applies to both of them. All the same, Verdun is to be preferred.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War

by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith
Basic Books, 2020
Jim Gallen, Reviewer

Ruth of the Red Sox

The Great War unleashed fevers that spread far beyond the battlefield. War Fever is the story of three lives that it changed forever—one an unmitigated tragedy, another a perverse tragic glory, and the third a vaulting to demigod status.

Kurt Muck was conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra until his German nationality made him an enemy alien under suspicion for everything from espionage to sabotage. Babe Ruth was a German American pitcher for the Boston Red Sox who, within the scope of this book, adapted to and molded the game with which his name will ever be associated. Charles Whittlesey was a Boston Brahmin and Wall Street attorney who carried on the tradition of a family that had fought for its country from the Pequot Wars.

Muck's misfortune arose out of a sudden national hostility to everything German and rumors such as a refusal to play "The Star-Spangled Banner," which he denied. Despite his Swiss citizenship, it led to investigation that uncovered compromising letters with a woman that provided evidence for criminal prosecution. Confronted with that, he chose to accept internment as an enemy alien in Georgia after which he was deported back to Germany, a victim of the unthinking prejudice of his era.

Ruth avoided the anti-German hysteria as he successfully transitioned from the American League's most dominant left-handed pitcher to "The Babe" (how American and Bunyanesque can you get?), the perennial symbol of baseball power. As players were either pulled away by the draft or abandoned the game for "essential jobs" that carried draft deferments, the Red Sox roster was depleted of hitting, a gap which Ruth filled. Between intolerance of wartime "slackers" and decreased attendance, Ruth's exploits renewed the public's interest in baseball, making it the national pastime.

Roads readers may find the story of Charles Whittlesey to be the most interesting. A quiet scholar, he attended Plattsburg Camp and received a commission in the National Army, a polyglot amalgamation of draftees from various lands. He was placed in the 77th Division, officered primarily by scions of establishment families and enlisted men drawn largely from the streets of New York. As a major commanding the 308th Infantry Regiment, he led his men to France.

Charles Whittlesey in France

Whittlesey's rendezvous with destiny began on 2 October 1918 as the Meuse-Argonne offensive launched. The 308th initial success earned it eternal fame as "The Lost Battalion" although it was neither a battalion nor lost. Breaking through enemy lines, it got so far in front of other units that it was cut off and deprived of reinforcement and resupply. Whittlesey directed and encouraged his diminishing effective forces until relieved. His rejection of surrender demands—"Go to Hell!"—although probably apocryphal, gave voice to American determination and became his nickname for life. The authors' descriptions of life in "the pocket," the wounded and starved who fought on, the depleted food and ammunition, the stench of decaying flesh and the burns from flame throwers put the horrors of war onto the printed page. The names and actions of his men personalize the battle in which even carrier pigeons had names and played vital roles. Quotations of Germans outside the lines send shudders through the reader. Amidst the din, Whittlesey could still allude to the poetic "Pipes at Lucknow." He was awarded the Medal of Honor, a decoration that he believed belonged more to his men than to him. Sadly, the returning hero was unable to cope with the world in which he found himself—probably a victim of what today would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder

Oh, by the way, the Spanish flu (which Ruth contracted) intruded into these three tales and created another crisis for the torn world.

The events narrated in this work bring to mind many subsequent events. The internment of German enemy aliens presaged the evacuation of Japanese Americans in a greater war. The isolation of the Lost Battalion brings to mind the "Battling Bastards of Bastogne." Ruth's rescue of baseball is akin to McGuire and Sosa's repair of its reputation in the wake of the strike. Read in the summer of 2020, the accounts of the Spanish flu are easily compared to current news. As to racial stereotyping, well, take your pick.

Whether your passion is the Great War, human rights, baseball or the fascinating interplay of life, War Fever is a book you will not want to miss.

Jim Gallen

Monday, August 10, 2020

Which Troops Were Most Likely to Suffer Shell Shock?—Battle of Messines Case Study

Aid Station at the Battle of Messines

An examination of the admission and discharge books of No. 4 Stationary Hospital, the "Not Yet Diagnosed Nervous Centre" (NYDN) for the First and Second Armies, is instructive. Set up in December 1916 at Arques, France, about miles from Messines Ridge, it was designed to treat psychiatric casualties quickly with the expectation that the soldier would return to active service.  This facility would receive the bulk of possible shell shock cases, leading up to and including the Battle of Messines (7–14 June 1917).

Observations of shell shock cases at base hospitals, both on the French coast and in the UK, had suggested that symptoms tended to multiply the longer a man was an in-patient. During the first three months of its operation, a period of routine trench warfare, admissions to the shell shock unit were steady and at a relatively low level with 107 new cases in January, 80 in February, and 110 in March. These have been analysed by unit to show whether they were in frontline units or combat support roles (Table 1). 

Virtually all admissions to the shell-shock division were from units directly engaged in combat, the majority being infantrymen. Combat support troops (Army Service Corps and Labour battalions) and non-combatant medics were scarcely represented. 

The attack on Messines Ridge brought a rapid increase in the incidence of shell shock. The detonation of 19 mines on 7 June led to initial gains, though the attempt to advance further was responsible for most of the 25,000 casualties. Admissions for shell shock escalated. On 7 June alone, over 50 cases were referred followed by 100 the next day. Ten days later there were 1,011 cases of shell shock in No. 4 Stationary Hospital, and one month after the first attack 1,800 psychiatric casualties had been admitted.  To some extent, the dramatic rise in the number of admissions reflected the increased number of troops deployed for the attack. 

The pattern of admissions to No. 4 Stationary Hospital (Table 1) reflected the offensive nature of warfare. The attack was preceded and accompanied by artillery barrages, which in turn inspired counter-barrage from German gunners. As a result, the percentage of gunner patients rose dramatically from 9.1 percent in March to 21.8 percent in June. Royal Engineers in combat roles were needed in greater numbers to maintain communications and the flow of munitions, though their admission rates did not rise significantly. The number and proportion of combat-support troops rose but represented only 7.7 per cent of all admissions. 

These figures suggest, therefore, that frontline combat troops, those most exposed to danger and those best placed to kill the enemy, were the most likely to break down.

Source: "The Psychology of Killing: The Combat Experience of British Soldiers During the First World War," Edgar Jones, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 4, 2006

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Trenchard and the Birth of Strategic Bombing

Hugh Trenchard
The father of the RAF was one of the first to grasp that aviation would radically change warfare. Before Hap Arnold, before Tooey Spaatz, before Douhet and de Seversky, even before Billy Mitchell, there was Britain's Hugh M. Trenchard. Yet, Trenchard today rates barely a footnote in most histories of airpower. When mentioned at all, he is remembered mainly as an advocate of an independent air force and as the first true practitioner of strategic bombing.

In his day, Trenchard was known as the father of the Royal Air Force—a gruff and forceful patron saint of airpower. He trained and organized the RAF (then the RFC) for World War I, then led it into battle, pioneering many of the concepts central to air warfare today. In this article we discuss Trenchard's contributions to the birth of strategic bombing.

Trenchard was one of the first to grasp the radical impact aviation would have upon land warfare. The revelation came in September 1912, when he flew as an observer with Longmore during army maneuvers. In less than an hour, Trenchard was able to locate the opposing force. He and Longmore reported back to headquarters, then set out again to find their side's cavalry and redirect them. Trenchard realized that no army could maneuver in secret with airplanes to spot them. From 1912 on, he was convinced that aviation would change the conduct of war. 

In August 1915 Trenchard became commander of all British air forces in France. He would proceed to win numerous commendations for his innovative tactics and firm leadership.  Despite these successes for airpower and Trenchard's ease with Allied airmen, he often faced trouble with his superiors in London. The discord reached a peak in April 1918 when Trenchard abruptly quit his post as the first chief of the Air Staff after only four months in the job and just two weeks after formation of the Royal Air Force. He blamed headquarters politics. However, within a few weeks, he expressed shame at his behavior at a time when the Germans were poised to invade Paris. Returning to France, Trenchard took command of an inter-Allied independent bomber force.

Trenchard's aim was to use long-range bombing to take more of the offensive to Germany itself, but the French commanders, who were leery of the independent air force, needed convincing. The father of the RAF faced an issue that would hound air commanders until the end of the 20th century: the allocation of airpower. Even the head of the French air service, Gen. Maurice Duvall, believed that allocating bombers to Trenchard for independent bombing equated to making the bombing of Germany the primary objective and relegated defeat of the enemy in the field to a secondary role.

The debate laid bare the essential point: armies had grown attached to airplanes, and the trade-offs necessary to apply airpower to theater wide objectives raised huge concerns for ground commanders. They were not soothed by Trenchard's assurances that he could easily divert bombers to support missions when ground forces got in trouble.

The 1918 campaign did not resolve this issue; indeed, it reappeared in every major combined campaign until the end of the 20th century. In the summer of 1918, with all eyes on his bomber force, Trenchard had to produce results. His strategy was to distribute attacks across different points in Germany to keep the German air force off balance and unable to concentrate against the Allies. 

Trenchard's favorite targets were railways, since the Germans were short of rolling stock, and blast furnaces, because they were easy to find at night. His pilots also specialized in bombing German airfields.

Two Handley Page Bombers

His new challenge was motivating aircrews to carry out the campaign in spite of nearly overwhelming hazards. They not only had to make deep night bombing raids, flying under-powered machines loaded with bombs weighing up to 1,650 pounds, but also had do it in bad weather. Trenchard, as quoted by Boyle, later said, "My job was to prod, cajole, help, comfort, and will the pilots on, sometimes to their death." His customary technique was to make frequent unannounced visits and talk straight. Often he watched the squadrons take off, waiting up until they returned. 

The Handley Page bomber crews were Trenchard's prized veterans, assigned the most difficult long-range night missions. The aircraft were also prized for the loads they could carry. Metz, Cologne, Coblenz, Stuttgart, and many tactical targets in Germany felt the weight of Trenchard's bombers. They routinely raided cities up to 200 miles from their bases in France. Steadily, their bomb tonnage increased, from 70 tons dropped in June to 1,000 tons in August. 

After World War I, Trenchard battled for the continued existence of the Royal Air Force. In 1919, Churchill, who became secretary of  war and air, recalled Trenchard to be chief of the Air Staff, a position he kept until his retirement in 1929.  British, French, and American airmen in two wars all owed much to Trenchard's practical ability to mold airpower into a respected weapon of warfare. That he did so in an age when airpower's technologies were still sorely lacking made the feat even more remarkable.

Excerpted from  "Trenchard at the Creation," by Rebecca Grant, Relevance, Summer 2011

Thursday, August 6, 2020

London's Machine Gun Corps Memorial

On 19 July, I presented an article on World War One sites in London (HERE). Contributing Editor David Beer has pointed out one very impressive memorial that should have been included. It's the Machine Gun Corps Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.

Machine Gun Corps Memorial

The Machine Gun Corps of which His Majesty King George V was colonel-in-chief, was formed by royal warrant dated 14 day October 1915. The corps served in France, Flanders, Russia, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Salonica, India, Afghanistan, and East Africa. The last unit of the Corps to be disbanded was the depot at Shorncliffe on 15 July 1922. The total number who served in the Corps was some 11,500 officers and 159,000 other ranks of whom 1,120 officers and 12,671 other ranks were killed and 2,881 officers and 45,377 other ranks were wounded, missing, or prisoners of war.

The memorial's main figure is a noble and heroic but thoughtful and non-aggressive David, slayer of Goliath. David holds the massive two-handed sword of Goliath, having just beheaded the giant with it. He is flanked by a pair of realistically modelled Vickers guns, silent, barrels pointing down, bedecked with wreaths. The discarded helmets and coats of the gunners lie below. A  biblical verse on the plinth is from 1 Samuel 18 vii, reading: "Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands."

David (Detail)

The memorial was erected in 1925 next to Grosvenor Place (the road entering this traffic hell from the south) but was dismantled in 1945 due to roadworks. It was rededicated in its present location in 1963 at Hyde Park Corner. When the memorial was originally unveiled in 1925 there was outrage, many condemning it as glorifying war. Letters were written to the Times and questions asked in Parliament. 

The sculptor, Derwent Wood, served as a medical orderly in the trenches and later designed prosthetic masks for burns victims, so he was entirely aware of the nature of the conflict. His aim was to point out the solitary position of the machine gunners in their positions forward of the rest of the army facing the tide of the assault. Despite the carnage they inflicted, the machine gunners themselves faced the worst casualties of any unit, at about 30 percent, gaining the nickname "The Suicide Club."

Vickers Machine Gun (Detail)

Sources: Ornamental Passions (29 December 2014) and London Remembers

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Schweinemord: The German Pig Slaughter of 1915

One spectacular case illustrating both the complexities and the cost of  economic planning is the German Pig Slaughter of 1915. Beginning in November 1914, the government had put in place price ceilings on potatoes, which made it more profitable for farmers to feed their potatoes to their hogs than to sell them, though the government also rapidly outlawed the foddering of potatoes. 

The inevitable potato shortages were immediate and severe. In the cities, outcries were raised, but against the farmers rather than the government. Soon, journalists and politicians were claiming that people and pigs were in a competition for the potatoes, and that some portion of Germany’s 27 million pigs must go. Beginning in March, the government therefore signed the death warrant for nine million pigs. 

The decline in pork had many unanticipated and lasting consequences even after the program was killed in May when the death count had grown to five million dead hogs. It is hardly surprising that in this welter of planning and intervention neither potatoes nor pork became more plentiful.  The demand for meat shifted to beef–whose prices was as yet uncontrolled—so beef prices spiraled upward. Also, officials did not take into account the use of pig manure as fertilizer on small farms. Because of this, killing the pigs actually decreased crop yields.

Sources: "The Hindenburg Program of 1916" by T. Hunt Tooley and Wikipedia.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the First World War in Africa (Author Interview)

by Edward Paice
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020 Reissue
Leonard Shurtleff, Interviewer

(Note: Interviewer Leonard Shurtleff Passed Away in 2015. He had interviewed Mr. Paice on the occasion of the initial release of Tip and Run.)

German Officers Leading Native Troops in Africa

LS: Mr. Paice—Mike Hanlon, Editor of, asks me to interview you regarding your new book on WWI in East Africa, Tip and Run. Let me introduce myself. I am a retired American Foreign Service officer. I spent most of my career working on African affairs and had five postings on the continent. I served mainly in West and Central Africa (including in former German Cameroon). I have visited on business Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe and have seen some of the places named in Tip and Run. I am also an honorary vice-president of the Western Front Association (UK) and a past president of WFA's U.S. Branch. My interests in WWI center around the political, diplomatic, financial, economic, and social aspects of the conflict.

EP: I am familiar with your very distinguished career and thank you very much for contacting me.

LS: I must admit I was put off by your publisher's pitch that this is the first time the true story of the war in East Africa has been told. We both know this is sales hype, and I expected a potboiler. However, when I read your book, I discovered it was indeed an in-depth, well-researched, and well-presented history of the period. Congratulations on producing a well-founded work that is also eminently readable.

EP: I am pleased that you find the work to be "in-depth, well researched and well presented." As for the publisher's over-exuberance I can only apologize for any irritation this may have caused you. Unfortunately that bit of blurb slipped through without me being given a chance to edit it; such things do happen, but they can be annoying nevertheless.

LS: I note that you have done other work on Africa. How did you first become interested in the continent?

EP: As a child, my family often had schoolmates from Nigeria staying with us in southern England. They were unable to go home because of the Biafran war. Then, at the age of 12, I was set a history project which involved drawing a map of Africa with the colonial and postcolonial names of all the countries. My fascination (and a fascination with maps) started there, and soon afterwards I remember being fascinated by the news coverage of the Rhodesian war in the 1970s. My family also had relations in Kenya and South Africa, and by the time I read African history as part of my degree at Cambridge University I had visited both countries and was smitten.

EP: After Cambridge I spent a dozen years working in industry and then in the financial markets. But after one of my regular visits to Kenya in 1993 I decided to take a chance by leaving "formal" employment and seeing what might come my way in Africa. I settled first in newly independent Eritrea, and it was there that I secured my first writing job producing a guide book to the country for Bradt Publications.

LS: Where and when did you live there?

EP: It was an exhilarating time to be in the country; there was so much optimism about the future. All that is dashed now, following the return to war with Ethiopia in 1998. I am very glad that in the course of three years I visited almost every corner of the country because it may not be possible to do again in a very long while. My next writing project was in Kenya, creating an illustrated "docu-book" about a magnificent area north of Mount Kenya called Lewa Downs. Apart from being fascinating from a historical point of view, it is also one of the leading rhino sanctuaries in Africa. It was while I was in Kenya in 1998 that I decided to return to African history proper and sought out David Anderson, my former tutor at Cambridge who is now the Director of African Studies at Oxford University. It was with his encouragement that I wrote Lost Lion of Empire: The Life of Cape-to-Cairo Grogan and now Tip and Run.

Both projects involved spending substantial amounts of time researching in Africa.

LS: How did you first become interested in the Great War?

EP: Well, the war in Europe war has always interested me, and I became more familiar with the campaign in eastern and central Africa when researching Lost Lion of Empire. The most up-to-date account at that time was Charles Miller's Battle for the Bundu, which, although a great read, had become a little outdated (having been written in the 1970s). William Boyd's magnificent novel An Ice-Cream War was another trigger for my interest, as were several trips during the late 1990s to the battlefields along the Kenya/Tanzania border.

LS: What were your most fruitful avenues of research and resources for Tip and Run?

EP: For the war diaries of individuals the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds, the South African National Museum of Military History, Rhodes House, and, of course, the Imperial War Museum proved to be invaluable repositories. For official documents the key was a thorough trawl of the National Archives in London, Kenya, and Lisbon in particular. Most of what survives concerning German participation is available in print.

Among the highlights, for me, were discovering that Smuts had contemplated using gas against von Lettow-Vorbeck in 1916, discovering the original surrender document, and finding one of the last surviving African veterans of the campaign in Isiolo (Kenya) in 2002. None of these were to have much bearing on my narrative, but it is moments such as these that keep the spirits high when spending two full years researching.

LS: What surprised you most about the results of your research? What new things did you discover?

Author Edward Paice
EP: In addition to what I mentioned above, the biggest surprises for me were the realization of the true scale of the suffering that the campaign wrought on the civilian populations of the sub-Saharan Africa; that although this had been written about in the past by certain academics there was still no popular recognition at all of it—or even that the First World War had involved campaigns in Africa; the extent to which territorial hegemony in Africa mattered to the European Powers at the time; and, finally, my respect for those—Black and white—who had to fight under the most trying conditions imaginable became unbounded. As one senior British officer put it, there is no form of fighting that requires so much inherent "pluck" as bush fighting.

LS: I am impressed by the range and usefulness of the maps in your book. Where and by whom did you have these produced?

EP: I compiled all the "roughs," or drafts, and they were then skillfully converted into real maps by a professional cartographer, David Hoxley. The publisher kindly bore the cost, knowing that a book of this type is almost unreadable without proper maps.

Thank you for joining us today.

Monday, August 3, 2020

The North Sea Mine Barrage

U.S. Minelayers in Planting Formation

On 8 June 1918, the U.S. Navy began laying mines in the North Sea Mine Barrage. By war's end, the U.S. Navy had placed a total of 56,570 sea mines, helping to create a 300-mile barrier against Germany, stretching from Scotland to Norway. At least five U-boats were sunk by the barrage and many others forced to waste valuable time avoiding the mines.

The mine laying effort was a huge project from creating a technology from scratch and implementing it in a few months. Admiral W. S. Sims described it in an address to the Minelaying Squadron in Portland England, December 1918: 

After we came into the war we designed a mine, built it, equipped the mine layers, sent them over, and planted more mines in less space of time than any nation in the world ever thought of doing–one of the finest stunts the Navy has accomplished on this side.

Location of the Barrage

From a seemingly innocent material called wire rope came the ability to lay and anchor the sea mines in an effective manner. The wire rope had to be developed beyond the civilian sizes and quality and be produced in quantity way above that already needed for other parts of the United States industries. Over two hundred million feet of wire rope was eventually required for the North Sea Mine Barrage. No wire rope failed in action.

Twenty-six operations were required to produce the specific types of wire rope needed. From steel ingots to pulling steel rods through dies, to bathing, baking, and cooling each redrawing, then the actual rope making began. The steel wire was squeezed and twisted and spooled. The sea mines were the other aspect of this technology, and although mines had been around for decades, a new device had to be created to withstand the rigors of the environment and with the power to carry out their mission. The deployment of individual mines is shown in the diagram at the end of the article.

Mark VI Mine and Base

U.S. Rear Admiral Joseph Strauss, commander of the American mining operations in the North Sea, wrote in June 1918: "The mines carried 300 lbs. of T.N.T. and the explosion of such a mine would be quite effective at the several depths. It was decided to plant an upper row of mines at a depth of 45 feet, the middle row at a depth of 160 feet and the lower row at 240 feet." 

When the decision was made to proceed with the North Sea Mine barrage, only two modern minelayers were active in the U.S. Navy. With over 5000 mines to lay a week, advances in laying techniques and actual mine layers had to be advanced rapidly. Obsolete minelayers were quickly updated and other suitable vessels were converted.

The effort after the war to recover the mines was no less important and as staggering in proportions and time restraints as the creation of the mine barrage. The U.S. volunteered to remove all mines laid by the U.S. Navy with sweeping operations started less than four months after the Armistice.

Sequence After the Mine Is Released

The great success of the mine barrage as both a weapon and a deterrent was unqualified. The secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, related that "the mine as a weapon of nautical warfare now presents greater possibilities than ever before." 

Source: Paper by Doran Cart of the Liberty Memorial at the 2009 Western Front Association—Great War Society National Seminar

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Confused Allies: The Dual Alliance on the Brink of War

Part I:  Background
By Ferenc Pollmann
Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church, Budapest

When William II was enthroned as emperor of Germany and king of Prussia in 1888, things changed significantly [diplomatically]. Two years later, Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, had to go, and a new German foreign policy was inaugurated. Austria-Hungary’s position in the Dual Alliance had been modified as well. Unlike during the Bismarckian era, the Dual Monarchy could perceive distinct evidence of support from Berlin concerning Balkan affairs. Germany seriously worried about its doomed ally, whose fate seemed to be similar to that of the Ottoman Empire. An active Balkan policy would be needed against this threatening outcome, and Berlin promised full support for such a new course. Germany’s backup was efficient during the crisis of annexation, and later, to Vienna’s great surprise, its ally declared acceptance of the casus foederis  (an obligation of the alliance) for the Balkans and initiated intense cooperation between the chiefs of the two General Staffs. Despite the constant urging of the Austro-Hungarian chief General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf,  however, again there was no elaboration of a synchronized common deployment. Although the two military leaders agreed to accept the principles of a common strategy based on the plan devised by Alfred von Schlieffen, the Germans refused to tell the Austrians that in all probability they would have to hold off the mighty Russian Army without any significant German contribution.

On the other hand, the deployment of the necessary Austro-Hungarian divisions in Galicia would make it impossible for the Dual Monarchy to realize its most important war aim—defeating Serbia. In fact, war aims of the two allies not only differed from each other but, to some extent, also could be achieved against each other. The mutual distrust may be explained by this, as well as from the different military strengths of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Moreover, as the international relations grew more unfavorable for  the participants of the Dual Alliance, their interdependency deepened. Anglo-German antagonism prevented the powers from loosening their bonds to the alliances and seeking connections with members of other coalitions. On the eve of the First World War, the Dual Alliance—established as a defensive pact—mutated after 1909 into a bloc, had similarity to the classic movie titled The Defiant Ones, in which Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis play fugitives shackled together and trying to survive. Each step they take demands cooperation and this causes serious difficulties for each man. As their interdependency increased, it was hardly possible for the stronger party to set the pace, especially when temporarily ceding power to the weaker member, as happened when William II gave Austria-Hungary a blank check of support in July 1914. As Günther Kronenbitter, one of the best German experts on the history of German–Austro-Hungarian relations of the time, has written, “despite the fact that it was Austria-Hungary that triggered the Third Balkan War and thereby  provoked the outbreak of the Great War, historians interested in the origins of World War I have tended to focus on the system of international relations or on Germany’s role before and during the July crisis. Even today, it seems to be received wisdom among scholars in Germany and elsewhere to consider the Habsburg Monarchy as the weak-willed appendix of the powerful German Reich.”

Kronenbitter considers the hesitation of the Austro-Hungarian chief of the General Staff to abandon the Serbian campaign and transfer the bulk of the dual monarchy’s army to the Galician theater before receiving reliable reports on the Russian general mobilization to be evidence of an attempt to exploit the given situation for setting the pace and carrying out his own war, no matter what happened with the Schlieffen Plan.

To be sure, Conrad von Hötzendorf was rather pressed by Austro-Hungarian policymakers to achieve quick military success on the Balkan peninsula and restore the prestige of the Habsburg monarchy as a great power. On the other hand, it is true that after writing out the blank check, the German government and the Kaiser showed signs of uncertainty and kept their ally in the dark about unconditional support for an Austro-Hungarian war against Serbia. In Vienna, therefore, one could not know whom to believe—the Kaiser of 5 July or the Kaiser of 30 July, chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke or chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.

Source: "The Dual Alliance and Austria-Hungary's Balkan Policy,"  2005 Conference Paper

Part II:  What Happened When the Armies Marched

General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austrian chief of staff, was delighted in 1914 at the opportunity to punish the Serbs; it was something he had long advocated. He was far less enthusiastic about fighting Russia. This led to indecision at the start of hostilities. His heart was in his Balkan strategy that involved invading Serbia with three of his armies while placing the remainder of his forces on guard against the feared Russians. However, when the Russians declared war, Conrad was presented with an immediate threat of invasion through Galicia and Poland. The Russia-centered alternate strategy involved a stronger defense in Galicia and a thrust to cut off enemy forces in Russian Poland. 

Belatedly shifting his forces to the north for these tasks, Conrad weakened his advance into Serbia. Poor railroads ensured that the tardy shift of units northward was a confused mess and boded ill for the ensuing operations against the Russians. Serbia—fighting for its homeland and experienced from the earlier Balkan Wars—repelled three invasions. They used the mountainous terrain cut by numerous rivers to great advantage, winning decisive victories in August and in December pushing their opponents out of their temporarily occupied capital, Belgrade, and then beyond the frontiers. Austria-Hungary would need help from both Germany and Bulgaria to rout the Serbs in October 1915. In just weeks, all the plans and the wishful hopes of the nations that had opted for war during the July Crisis were obliterated. With casualties already being reckoned in the millions and no end in sight, an immeasurable catastrophe had fallen on Europe. 

Source:  Over the Top, March 2009