For Great Britain, World War I began near Casteau, France with the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, a cavalry regiment. The first shot of the war was fired by Edward Thomas, a cavalryman, on August 22, 1914. By the end of the war in 1918, horses, which had been used in warfare since antiquity, were used only as beasts of burden. A simplification of history would have WWI as the delineation between the old and the new. For historians, it is a convenient time to start the story of ‘the 20th century’ because at first glance, the world that followed WWI seemed to have no resemblance to the world the war started in. Barbara Tuchman begins her retelling of WWI with the funeral of Edward VII of England in May 1910. In the centre of the procession rode George V, the new King of England and William II, the Kaiser. Also in attendance were Emperor Franz Josef, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Albert, the King of the Belgians. Behind them were the brothers of the Emperor of Japan and the Russian Czar. This archaic scene epitomized the politics of Europe before 1914, when Europe had 19 monarchies and 3 republics. By the end of the war, republics increased to 15 and four empires – German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman – were no more. Yet despite these modern results, neither the causes nor the practices were particularly modern. The war was started for the same reason as most wars: conflicting ambitions and mutual fear. The principal actors were fearful of the future: the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires were crumbling; Britain and France were afraid of a rising Germany. If the Napoleonic wars were the contest for French supremacy, then WWI was a contest for German supremacy. To call the Great War a ‘World War’ is somewhat of a misnomer. It was fought mainly between the five Great Powers that had been belligerent as early as the 1600’s. Although there were skirmishes abroad and an Eastern Front, the war was principally fought on a small stretch of land in France and Belgium on the front that was crossed less than fifty years prior by Prussia. WWI was principally fought by old powers over old rivalries. However, when the war did end, the world had changed. Democracy and communism were taking hold and the world no longer belonged to Europe. No, WWI was not the first modern war - but it did help create the modern world.
WWI originated in a modernizing world. New powers were replacing old ones. Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905 upset the balance of power that was established at the Congress of Vienna a century prior. Russia’s weakness left France without a suitable ally, positioned beside a country with a higher birthrate, four times the industrial capability and a history of aggression. In 1911, the Kaiser’s gunboat diplomacy in Agadir, Morocco sent the French desperately to England to replace Russia, giving the entente cordiale military character. Along with Russia, old regimes like Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were failing. The polyglot Austria-Hungary was ‘balkanizing’ as pan-Slavic nationalism was taking hold. Waves of independence movements made the Balkans a powder keg, set off by Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The spark that started WWI was the result of failing old powers and a modernizing world obsessed with independence. But Europe had contained the first and second Balkan wars. Why not a third? The modern origins of the war explain the localized conflict but not the broader European conflict.
The road to WWI was hardly revolutionary. There were no “chest-thumping crusades”. It wasn’t fought for modern ideas like communism (e.g. Russian Civil War) or for democracy though it resulted in both. In 1914 the five Great Powers were fearful: France feared the military power of Germany; Britain feared losing naval and economic supremacy to Germany, or more holistically as Eksteines believes, losing hold of the British order (Pax Britannica) that had given the world a century of peace ; Russia was fearful of losing face to Austria-Hungary, especially after being forced to back down during the annexation of Bosnia in 1908 ; and Austria-Hungary was afraid of losing its empire. Even Germany was fearful. Despite Franz Fischer’s well-known argument that Germany aimed for world dominance, even he concedes that Germany was “deeply shaken by the increases in the French and Russian Armies”. Despite the Russian army’s fallibilities, it still had amassed 2,200,000 men. Fischer argues that Germany heavily influenced the start of the war by provoking Austria-Hungary to strike Serbia. Yet Germany had not devised war aims until September 1914. And, the Schlieffen plan, devised in 1906 by the late Alfred von Schlieffen, was a recipe for preventative war, just as France’s Plan XVII was a recipe for defense.
Eksteins concedes that preventative war was certainly on the minds of German Admiral Tirpitz and Army Chief of Staff Moltke. Instead, he argues that war was embedded in the culture of Germany and essential to its self-esteem. To answer why war aims were so murky, he explains that visions of German expansion were “existential” rather than physical. Indeed, war was glorified in German culture, as it was in many cultures. But war was not necessarily a part of Germany’s plans. When Lord Grey was misquoted to offer British neutrality for Germany’s promise not to attack France, the Kaiser was inclined to agree. Much to Moltke’s despair, it seems like the Kaiser took every opportunity to end the war on August 1st. It seems hardly likely that Germany preempted a war in August for world domination with a decade-old plan and no war aims to speak of. Keegan questions why a continent would risk it all at its peak of economic prosperity and intellectual achievement. The answer is the continent did not intend for it to happen at all.
Europe plunged into war because of mistakes and miscalculations. At times, military power had overridden civilian control. The General Staff in Germany imposed the Schlieffen plan on the politicians. Russian generals forced the weak Czar into mobilization. Diplomacy that had worked in Morocco and in Bosnia failed in 1914. The Kaiser thought Britain would stay neutral, the French President and Prime Minister were on holiday , Austria assumed Russia would not intervene, Russia assumed Germany would not intervene and Britain thought the crisis would resolve itself. Countries enacted their mobilization plans too quickly and feared moving slowly would hurt their plans. The Schlieffen Plan had specified that France was to be defeated in six weeks, before Russia could launch an attack. If anything, the war was fought by nations that were fearful of the world moving too quickly – of modernity catching up with them. They were old powers fighting to keep the status quo.
Pan-European conflicts were nothing new. Wars often drew in most of Europe. The Great Powers that started WWI or their predecessor states previously engaged each other in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). These wars had international characteristics of their own: the Seven Years’ War had skirmishes as far as Quebec and the U.S. declared war on Britain in the Napoleonic Wars. The course WWI took was somewhat unprecedented. Europeans were used to Bismarck’s wars of movement that came to quick conclusions with limited financial costs and loss of life. Technological improvements to firepower (the machine gun) were not matched by improvements to mobility. The result was the tiring and devastating tactic of trench warfare. However, battles still resembled traditional warfare: soldiers, mostly conscripted, were each other’s targets. WWI was not the first modern war because of technology. Many advancements had already been used in battle or did little to move the war forward. Maxim guns had already been used in the Boer war. German railways had already given Germany the edge in the Franco-Prussian wars. Tanks failed and airplanes were in their infancy. It became obvious that artillery support was required for an effective assault. But ineffective explosives and lack of communication channels made execution difficult. Artillery was then was filled with poison gas. The gas froze in the Battle of Bolimov but worked in Ypres. Gas masks then neutralized it. The German invention of submarines threatened to challenge British dominance of the seas. Ironically, unrestricted submarine warfare and the sinking of the Lusitania brought the U.S. into the war, which broke the stalemate in the favour of the Allies. By the end of the war, technology might have had a cumulative effect. The British Naval blockade starved Germany and attrition had taken its toll. In August, 1918, Germany had less than 6 weeks of oil left and its last offensive failed. It surrendered on November 11, 1918. The Alliance lost because it had fewer resources; technology had a minimal effect.
The peace conference that ensued was strangely reminiscent of the Congress of Vienna in pomp and complexity. Although the Congress of Vienna sought to strengthen Europe’s monarchies, the Peace of Paris disintegrated empires and increased independent states from 20 in 1914 to 27 in 1919. It was believed that international stability and security no longer depended on the balance of power between the five Great Powers but instead depended on political structure. It was said democracies do not go to war with each other. Wilson further advocated “open diplomacy”: open seas, open trade and disarmament. This, said Wilson, would help alleviate alliances, economic rivalries and militarism that launched the world into war in the first place. Finally, a League of Nations, a group that still exists today as the United Nations, was a new kind of institution dedicated to human welfare and keeping peace. What the Peace of Paris proposed was vastly modern, if a little too ambitious. The League, of course, would fail and new nations would later be annexed by Hitler.
Europe was no longer the centre of the world. Just as the Wilson directed Europe politically, the U.S. also became a financial centerpiece of post-war Europe. There was mass unemployment in post-war Italy, Germany, Britain and France. Meanwhile, the U.S. went from a net debtor to a net creditor position. To help Germans pay their $132B marks of reparations, the U.S. proposed The Dawes Plan (1924) whereby U.S. institutions lent money to Germany, which it used to pay war reparations to the Allies, who paid off war debts back to the U.S. America was finally involved with European affairs though interventionism was not yet assured: the Republicans did not support Woodrow’s plans and America was aloof in the inter-war years.
WWI also helped create the first communist and fascist states. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini and Hitler all originated from the era of WWI. First was Lenin. The war had cost Russia 17 million roubles, 4 million men and caused inflation to reach 400%. Czar Nicholas II survived in 1905 after losing to Japan but did not survive 1917. In his place, the Bolsheviks created the first communist state. Other communist uprisings occurred. The May Fourth Revolution, the result of China’s mistreatment in the Treaty of Versailles, can be directly traced to the formation of the Communist Party of China in 1921, though it strengthened the Nationalists as well. Then, there was fascism. Italy felt mistreated, as it was denied northern Dalmatia and the city of Fiume. Italia irredenta, or unredeemed Italy, helped the rise of Mussolini from small-time political journalist to a central figure for fascism. Germans, bitter with the Treaty and Versailles and angry at Jews and communists (the November Criminals) catapulted Hitler to chancellor in 1933. As Germany was never occupied, the German populace was unsure if they ever, in fact, lost the war. Communism and fascism grew out of the discontent from WWI.
“The short 20th century” (1914-1991) begins with WWI, the transition point that set the world up for WWII and the Cold War. It originated in the old world: it was started because of mutual fear and mounting rivalries. As Europe slid down the path to war, it was a system of alliances, pressure from the military, inability to stop mobilization and failure of diplomacy that made war a reality. The same Great Powers had fought each other on countless other occasions, over reasons not too different. The war began with men on horses and the first skirmishes at the Battle of Mons were much like those of the 19th century. Technology moved forward but unevenly. Advancements in firepower were unmatched by advancements in mobility, creating a stalemate between trenches. In general, technology did not sway the outcome of the war to any side. Two modern events occurred in 1917. First, Russia exited the war and would create a communist state that would vie for world dominance in the Cold War. Second, the U.S. entered WWI, signifying the end of U.S. isolationism and the emergence of a new world power. Wilson led the peace as much as the victory – helping to create seven new nations on the basis of self-determination and helping to craft a more democratic world. But WWI also created a less democratic world through fascism, an ideology that would cause an undeniably modern war a few decades later. WWI grew out of an aging world but was the decisive event that launched the world into the 20th century.