Friday, 31 October 2014

Warning Signs and Portents.

This is a woefully inadequate brief summary of the events leading up to 1914, a subject on which billions of scholarly words have been written from a vast range of perspectives. It helped me, though, to get my head around a sequence of linked but disparate historical moments

1. Warning Signs and Portents.
The balance of power in 18th and 19th Century Europe was held by the great powers: Russia; Prussia; France; Britain; and Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) empires. To the East the Ottoman empire covered much of Eastern Europe (Rumania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, then Asia Minor extending to the middle east. 
  • Multiple small European states especially prior to the unification of Italy after Napoleonic wars; and of Germany by Bismarck later in 19th century.
  • Creation of Germany as a super power - especially after the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, which weakened France - led to a change in the equations of power, with a rising, ambitious Germany as the greatest new influence. Other changes, tensions and hotspots:
  •  Gradual weakening and eventual crumbling of Ottoman empire creating instability in the east
  • Weakening of the Austro-Hungarian empire, with Hungary wishing to be free of Habsburg rule
  • Ethnic and nationalist tensions in the Balkans, with Serbia in particular wishing to be independent of Austria-Hungary. Balkan league v Ottomans; 1st  Balkan War 1912; 2nd Balkan War 1913
  • Developing alliance between Russia and France (traditionally enemies viz 1812) as balance to ‘central’ European power of  Germany / Austria
  • Developing entent cordiale (1906) between Britain and France, traditionally enemies.
  • Global power of the British Fleet unchallenged since Trafalgar 1805 envied by many, but particularly by Germany
The Agadir crisis of July/August 1911 was the first diplomatic incident with flexing of muscles by Germany to test out France’s resolve re empire in Africa and supremacy on the sea. Agadir is a small port on the Atlantic coast of North Africa. German ships put in there, and high ranking Germans visited triumphantly. Lots of diplomatic activity calmed things down, but people looked seriously at likely military aspects of a war between the great powers. Agadir ended in November 1911, with the usual imperialists' carve-up, and self protection, but it made people think seriously about how war would impact.  Churchill’s (WSC) memo at the time on likely 20 day and 40 day positions of opposing forces in Europe proved remarkably accurate when it actually transpired in 1914.

In 1908-09 Kaiser Wilhelm II (KW2) and Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand became close friends, mainly because KW2 was very friendly and welcoming to FF’s wife, the Countess Chotek, who was ostracized and unpopular in Austrian high society.
FF held power in the AH empire from around 1890, though his elderly uncle, Franz Joseph was the emperor. In 1906 FF appointed Conrad von Hotzendorf to modernize the Austrian army. They pursued war with four natural enemies: Italy, Rumania, Russia and Serbia. The strategy was to take them on one at a time. WSC said of von Hotzendorf “he dwelt year after year at the very centre of Europe’s powder magazine, in special charge of the detonators”.

From 1909,  Sukhomlinov was Russian minister for war. He made huge improvements following disastrous defeats in Manchuria in 1908, but in 1915 was scapegoated for defeats and was imprisoned for life, until rescued by Lenin after the Revolution in 1917. Sagonov was the influential Foreign Minister 
In France, Joffre came to power as Vice-President for war in July 1911.

In December 1913, Russia unsheathed its diplomatic sabres again when General Otto Liman von Sanders took command of a Turkish army corps in Constantinople. But the Ottoman navy already employed a British admiral, Arthur Limpus. Neither France nor Britain felt very much alarmed.

Contents Page

The Great War – 100 Years On
Notes, maps and trips
 Part 1 - 1914

Sean Hilton


  1.   Warning signs and portents
        Agadir 1911
        Build up in 1914
        The assassination

  2.   War becomes inevitable
        37 days timeline
        Declarations of war

      3.  Western  Front 1914: Battle of Frontiers; Mons to the Marne;   First Ypres
            The Schlieffen Plan
            Outbreak of war for Great Britain
            Strength of the combatants and the nature of war
            Battle of the Frontiers
            Mons and the Great Retreat
            Battle of the Marne
            Battle of the Aisne
            Race to the Sea and First Ypres
            The Western Front at the end of 1914

        4  The Eastern Front: Lemberg; Tannenberg; Lodz and Warsaw
            Mobilisation and the Alliances
            The Front takes shape
            Lemberg and Tannenberg
            Major actions post Lemberg

      5. Turkey and Balkans

      6. Overall situation at end of 1914
             Naval situation
             Political and military situation

Why On Earth Blog About World War One?

Fair enough question - there's more than enough high quality stuff out there (and the rest).

I have been fascinated by WW1 for fifty years - neatly, half the time since it began. The grainy images of the BBC Great War documentary series struck fear into my adolescent consciousness. Everybody in my family knew about WW2, and my father had served in the Battle of the Atlantic, but this was different. It was there on the screen in moving pictures, but very remote, and the people looked strangely different, with their big moustaches and jerky movements.

Around thirty years ago I bought Liddell Hart's History of the First World War, the first of many, and have been triangulating since then (notably Churchill; Martin Gilbert; Richard Holmes and Hew Strachan). This accelerated with the profusion of new titles in the lead up to the centenary, many of which have given new or different perspectives. In my view Max Hastings' Catastrophe is the best of these for balance and narrative, but I'm just starting on Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers, and may return to that. A wider bibliography is given in a separate post. PS January 2015: Clark's 'Sleepwalkers' is indeed a masterpiece, and the best account I have read of the 10-12 years leading up to War, albeit very detailed. Also enjoyed hugely Barbara Tuchmann's "Guns of August" a well deserved Pulitzer Prize winner over 50 years ago.

In the past 15 years regular visits to the memorials and battlefields of the Western Front have heightened my awareness of the scale of actions and sacrifices made. In the first few months of the war the actions on the Eastern Front were just as staggering, and I'd really like to visit some of those historic places between Galicia and the Baltic.

Aside from the military and political upheavals of 1914-18, whole other areas of change - social, cultural, art and music, technology - intrigue me, whether in antecedents, influencing the course of the war, or in its consequences. They don't feature much in what I have written to date, but do influence greatly our views of what was done in four ghastly years of conflict.

This blog is self indulgent and entirely derivative, although if it's of interest to others that would be great. After a career struggling for peer review publications, this is great fun. Reading about the antecedents inevitably leads to delving back into 19th and 18th centuries for the impact of Franco Prussian war; Napoleonic wars and other events. The reflections, such as they are, are my own, but no claim of originality is made.  I have drawn heavily on the (nearly) contemporaneous works of Winston Churchill The Great War and John Buchan's A History of the Great War. They are both beautifully written in the prose of that time and give (at least they do to me) a feeling of authenticity, despite their inevitable partiality in some areas. 

I had planned to do this in four large chapters - one for each year - posted in instalments roughly 100 years on, but things have grown and I'm running a little late. I'll catch up in early 2015 I hope.