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

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The First World War: To Arms.

By Hew Strachan
Oxford University Press, 2001.
Geoffrey Wawro, Naval War College, Reviewer

Professor Hew Strachan
(WFA Photo)

What began as a single-volume replacement of Oxford University Press’s long-running World War I survey (A History of the Great War, by C. R. M. F. Cruttwell [1934]) has, in Hew Strachan’s hands, burgeoned into three mammoth volumes, of which this is the first. The second, we are told, will cover the years 1915 and 1916 and will be called No Quarter. The third and final volume, entitled Fall Out (reader be warned that the first volume has been in the making since 1989), will pick up in the winter of 1916 and push through to the end of the war.

Since this first volume alone runs to 1,127 pages, readers will want to know how this book differs from an already crowded field. The answer is that it looks at topics—origins, war planning, tactics, munitions crises, morale—in a broad comparative context. No blundering great power is unfairly singled out. As is obvious from the subtitle, the book is about the origins of the war, mobilization, and opening campaigns. To rephrase what has already been written many times over by battalions of historians is no easy task, but Strachan rises to the challenge. Better yet, he works through all the latest literature in English, French, and German to provide the most up-to-date interpretation of the war’s outbreak. 

In common with most historians, Strachan points to the shakiness of the German Empire and its nervous quest for status and security as the main causes of the war. A chief abettor was Austria-Hungary, whose own military had become so enfeebled by the continuous Vienna-Budapest budget skirmishes that war in 1914 appeared the only way to rally the monarchy behind a much-needed program of rearmament. Similar calculations prevailed in Russia, where the tsar hoped that mobilization in defense of Serbia would heal political wounds and stop a politico-economic strike wave that had escalated from 222 strikes in 1910 to 3,534 in the first half of 1914. France and Great Britain appear more benign; Strachan concludes from the most recent French scholarship that there was no real war fever in France—rĂ©vanche was a slogan of certain pressure groups. Britain was hamstrung between its fleet and “continentalists” clustered around General Henry Wilson.

Strachan’s analysis of the competing war plans is excellent. Regarding the Schlieffen Plan, he describes Moltke the Younger’s growing unease with the seven-to-one ratio set by Albert von Schlieffen to overweight the “right hook” through Belgium and Holland that would envelop a French thrust into Lorraine. Although Wilhelm Groener and B. H. Liddell Hart later blasted Moltke for his timidity—he reduced the ratio of troops on the right wing to those on the left to three to one—Strachan points out that “an army would [not] behave as a united mass, gaining impetus on its right specifically from the weakness of its left,” for an army “is a combination of individuals and not a weight obeying the laws of physics.” 

That is precisely the point: the Schlieffen Plan was undone not by its relative weighting but by inadequate transport and insoluble problems of supply. Each German corps required 24 kilometers of road space, and there was just not enough of that on the right wing once the Belgians tore up their railways and Holland was foreclosed as a corridor. Add to this the fact that no fewer than 60 percent of German trucks had broken down by late August 1914, and it is easier to explain the German floundering at the Marne. There was also the small problem of French resistance. Having begun the war with tactics that were notoriously “perplexed by the problems of firepower,” the German army faced French forces, commanded by Field Marshal J. J. C. Joffre, that hacked five entire German corps to pieces in the last week of August and the first week of September 1914.

Strachan’s larger analysis of this Battle of the Marne is interesting. The German high command’s initial response to the defeat— Moltke and 32 other generals were dismissed—was to blame individuals, “to make the debate about operational ideas, not about grand strategy.” In fact, the Marne was a strategic failing that should have discredited the kaiser and his army, which “had failed to succeed in its prime role.” Yet there was no healthy introspection or self-assessment; the imperial army would simply hammer away for another four years.

In contrast to the Western Front, hammering seemed to work in the East, where the Germans shattered the Russians at Tannenberg and the Austro-Hungarians achieved some early successes in Galicia. However, there too the war stagnated for logistical reasons; with Germany committed on the Western Front and Russia’s strength divided by French demands for an attack on East Prussia, it was difficult to mass troops and artillery anywhere on the Eastern Front, and yet more difficult to move them, given the poverty of communications.

Although the production of this three-volume history of World War I will take far longer than the Great War itself took to fight, readers willing to enter the trenches with this first volume will be rewarded with a kaleidoscopic and elegantly written presentation of the great issues and problems raised by the war’s origins, campaigns, and home fronts.

Originally published in the Naval War College Review, Autumn 2002


  1. "... first volume alone runs to 1,127 pages" Two more volumes yet to follow (maybe years, - if ever to be published). Not so attractive to me

  2. Why run this old review (published over 20 years ago) of this old book published over 20 years ago? This book was supposed to be the first of three volumes covering the entire war. Instead of recycling an old book review, why not try to find out why volumes two and three have never been published? The author has continued to write since volume one came out. It's not like he stopped writing. Has anyone asked him in a published interview about why volumes two and three were never published? I bet your blog readers would find the answer to that question quite interesting.

  3. Bought and read this work when it first came out, Beyond battles and leaders to the politicall/social resons why.