1914, Europe Goes to War
How the great powers of Europe plunged into a globalised conflict.
The First World War, known at the time as The Great War, escalated seemingly out of nowhere after a long period of peace. The diplomatic forum, known as the “Concert of Europe”, formed from the great European powers was designed to provide a means for defusing inter-state rivalries through diplomacy and had a good track record for avoiding war when international incidents arose. When a new crisis occurred in the Balkans, it was reasonable to assume that this crisis too would pass.
By 1914, the great powers of Europe were arrayed in two great alliances that created a balance of power and generally deterred alliance members from resorting to war. On one side, Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy had formed the Triple Alliance since the 1880s, and on the other side, Russia, France and Great Britain formed the Triple Entente, formed between 1894 and 1907.
When the crisis came, it was assumed that well-worn diplomatic channels and relationships would resolve and de-escalate the situation as they had done before, but in 1914 the dynamic between the powers had changed. Crucially, some nations now saw war as being in their interest, most significantly Germany.
The new crisis began in Sarajevo, when a group of Serbian nationalists successfully assassinated the Archduke of Austro-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand, as he went about a poorly organised visit. The Austro-Hungarian government decided that this would give them the perfect opportunity to pick a fight with its smaller neighbour and issued an ultimatum with harsh terms to the Serbian government. Crucially, their ultimatum was only sent after Austro-Hungary had checked with their German allies that they would back them in the event of any escalation.
The crisis began to spiral out of control, rapidly turning from a localised dispute, to one that would involve the two great European alliances. Russia saw Serbia as within its sphere of interest and, sharing a border with Austro-Hungary, was well placed to intervene. German and Austro-Hungarian plans required both countries to attack Russia simultaneously. However, for the Germans it was not as simple as that as they faced an alliance of the Russians in the east and the French in the west. German plans calculated that they would have to fight both powers. The German high command planned to move against the French first, then, having knocked France out of the war, they would entrain and face the Russians in the east. The whole plan was based on calculations that France would mobilise in days, whilst Russia would take weeks; a short crushing blow against France would free the German army to turn and face the Russia behemoth.
The German plan for defeating France was to avoid the fortified Franco-German border by sending her armies on a huge sweep through Belgium and into France’s lightly defended northern border. This made military sense but would involve violating Belgian neutrality. This violation became the cassus belli for Great Britain to honour her commitments within the entente. Thus, a localised crisis was set to become a pan-European war.
In a world of mass armies, being mobilised before an opponent was a war winning strategy. No country could allow its opponents to mobilise ahead of its own armies. It was impossible to mobilise in secret, notices had to be posted and newspaper proclamations published, and no country could get left behind. Once one country began to mobilise, there were huge penalties for others not to follow suit. Mobilisation was never defensive; the whole point was to “steal a march” on an opponent.
Once mobilisation started, Germany’s strategic position meant that war was inevitable. As Russia mobilised against Austro-Hungary, Germany felt compelled to invade France. This was Germany’s only chance to avoid a two-front war and the only way to crush France quickly was to invade via Belgium.
German forces mobilised according to a complex and well-rehearsed railway plan. Invading Belgium, the citadel of the great fortress at Liege was taken in days, the remainder of the defences being demolished by heavy artillery. By the 18th of August, the German armies were massed and executing their great flanking movement.
The French countered with their predetermined response, Plan XVII, a powerful thrust across the Franco-German border. Their attack foundered against German left flank’s machine guns at Morhange-Sarrebourg. Then the French tried again in the Ardennes region, striking at the German centre. Meanwhile, the German right flank marched on, covering around 20 miles each day, mostly on foot; a pace that was to take its toll on regular and conscript soldiers alike.
The next encounters saw the Germans maul Lanzerac’s army, pushing the French line back and fracturing the join with the British. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), small by the standards of continental armies and forming a part of the French front, encountered the German army along the Mons-Conde canal and fought well before falling back under artillery fire. The French and British armies fell back in an exhausting but orderly retreat, pursued by the equally exhausted Germans who were unable to achieve the great encirclement that the German high command dreamed of.
On the Eastern Front, the Russians invaded Prussia in mid-August, in line with their alliance commitments to the French. Thirty Russian divisions, divided into two armies pushed over the border in the north and south-east with the intent of encircling the only German army facing them just across the border. However, the Russians ran into supply and communication problems in terrain fragmented by woods and lakes, meanwhile the Germans were operating on internal lines and benefiting from their enemy’s poor (non-existent) radio security. The result was a crushing defeat at Tannenberg towards the end of August that lost the Russians over 100,000 men, 50,000 of them killed or wounded.
Further south, the Austro-Hungarian command had found itself on the horns of a dilemma; the whole point of the war was to attack Serbia, but commitments to German meant that they were supposed to deploy the bulk of their forces against the Russians in Galicia, drawing Russian forces away from Germany. A compromise solution was found, throwing the mobilisation into disarray, as men and material were loaded and unloaded to cope with the vagaries of the Austro-Hungarian rail network. Two armies pushed into Serbia, one being defeated in mid-August and both having to withdraw in the face of a competent enemy. Towards the end of August, the Austro-Hungarians made good progress in the north against Russian Poland. However, on their eastern border, the Austro-Hungarians were outnumbered and overwhelmed, by early September they were falling back to defend along the Carpathian mountains.
Back on the Western Front, as the Germans approached Paris, the French were able to stabilise their front and counterattack along the River Marne with multiple French armies and the BEF. At the Battle of the Marne the Germans were halted, pushed back, threatened with encirclement, and forced to retreat before digging in along a defensive line on the River Aisne; the German’s chance of a quick victory in the west was over. The commitment to the planned great right hook began to waver as the Germans allocated troops to screening the forts of Antwerp and Maubeuge and reinforcing their Eastern front.
With the front solidifying wherever hostile armies faced each other, the opposing forces began a series of attempts to outflank each other towards the north in a series of encounters that became known as the “race to the sea.” A series of battles in Picardy, Artois and Flanders throughout September and October were characterised by neither side being able to move rapidly enough to turn the flank of their enemies, leading inexorably to the coast.
The opposing sides ran out of space to execute outflanking manoeuvres in the low-lying plains around Flanders. With no room to manoeuvre, both sides began to reinforce or improve the positions they held and the Germans, reinforced by new conscripts, launched a major attack around Ypres to try and force the Allies out of Belgium. The British army faced the onslaught, with 60,000 casualties using up the remainder of its original army as it defended a great salient that, on military grounds, should have been given up. The Belgian army lost a third of its strength whilst the Germans lost a further 130,000 men.
All along the Western Front, both sides began to dig and extend trenches to form continuous defensive lines. The Germans, facing an extended war on two fronts, took the decision to move onto the defensive in the west and their fortifications reflected this; by contrast, the Allies clung to the offensive, having the imperative to free their territory from the invader. Accordingly, their defences tended to be less developed.
In the east, distances were greater with lesser concentrations of manpower. Here a war of movement was still possible, but the great distances meant that there was always space to remedy setbacks. Germany had to contend with supporting their unreliable Austro-Hungarian ally who had already lost half a million men, with a further 120,000 besieged in the fortress of Przemysl. A German army under Ludendorff was duly sent to support the Austro-Hungarians.
Further east, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), smarting from the British appropriation of a pair of modern battleships that were nearing completion in Newcastle, decided to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers. Two German battleships were sent to Turkey, manned by German sailors wearing Turkish costumes, and attacked Russians ports in the Black Sea at the end of October. The Triple Entente powers duly declared war on the Ottoman Empire, further globalising the war.
The end of 1914 saw two power blocks with enormous resources engaged in a vicious struggle that spanned most of Europe and reached far out into the wider world. Early thoughts of a quick victory gave way to realisation that there was no clear path to achieve this on the fronts now sprawling across the map. Much of the next three years would consist of attempts to find a way around the primacy of the defence over offence, to break the deadlock and return to open warfare.
Next story 1915, The War Escalates
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