One hundred years ago this month, the world entered into a conflict that became known as The Great War and, eventually, World War I. While the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were assassinated by a Serbian nationalist on June 28th of 1924 and Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia one month later, it might have been a localized war between the two. If not for a series of alliances. But by August, the die was cast. In that fateful month, Germany declared war on France, Britain declared war on Germany, Montenegro declared war on Austro-Hungary, Austro-Hungary declared war on Russia, Serbia declared war on Germany, Montenegro declared war on Germany, France declared war on Austro-Hungary, Britain declared war on Austro-Hungary, Austro-Hungary declared war on Belgium, Japan declared war on Germany, and Japan declared war on Austro-Hungary. Although the Ottoman Empire did not technically enter the war until November, it closed the Dardanelles that month, pinning a part of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. Since Britain, France and Germany had colonies in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and in the Pacific where battles were fought, the world was at war.
These were not idle declarations of war. By the end of August, Germany had overrun Luxemburg and Belgium (with no declaration of war), and the Allies (France and Britain) had been pushed back across the Marne River into France, with thousands of casualties on both sides. Russia had suffered a costly defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg, with 140,000 of their soldiers dead, wounded or captured. Combined British and Japanese forces captured the German-held port of Tsing-tao in China and New Zealand troops seized the German half of Samoa. First blood had been drawn, in the tens of thousands, and it would not end for four years and millions more deaths. Brave men would charge into the certain death of machine guns on the orders of short-sighted generals who did not vary their tactics in the face of more efficient weaponry.
Barbara Tuchman described the dominoes that fell to bring about the Great War in her book, The Guns of August (from whence I got my title for this blog). Many of the ills in today’s world came as a result of the Great War. The vindictive peace at Versailles in 1918 had a direct effect on the rise of Nazism in Germany. In spite of one of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points being self-determination, colonialism persisted. In fact, the Ottoman Empire’s holdings in the Middle East were broken into mandates administered by France and Britain. These lines became countries, without regard to ethnic or sectarian populace, and have much to do with the current problems in the Middle East today. The fall of the czar in Russia was hastened by the war and the Kerensky democratic government’s continued support of the war had much to do with its fall to communism. From there, it spread to China and North Korea with the aid of Russian support. Many of the Balkan problems can be traced to the creation of Yugoslavia as a reward to Serbia after the war.
Idealism can be deadly. When men enlisted on both sides, they were sure they would be home by Christmas. They went with a youthful patriotism and enthusiasm. Yet they were soon bogged down in the mire of trench warfare and thick mud. When America entered in 1917, it was to be “the war that ends all war.” Obviously, that was not the case. George Santayana wrote, “Those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.” What can we learn from this war one century ago? Here are a few of my observations:
1. Winning a battle does not ensure winning a war. Winning a war does not ensure winning a lasting peace. Both sides dreamed of winning the big battle that would force the other side to sue for peace. Battles were won, many times by the Germans, but it was four years of a bloody war of attrition before Germany sought peace.
2. The spoils of war will always spoil. Refrain from taking them. The French were still livid at the Germans seizing Alsace-Lorraine after the Franco Prussian War forty years before. President Wilson claimed self-determinism of all people to be a goal when America entered the war, yet that was not the case when peace was finally made. It was the winners seizing whatever they wanted and playing political games with the rest. That sin haunts us to this day.
3. Do not start a war, but make sure you win. Then have an exit strategy and plan for the fallout that happens even if you win. The sides were too evenly matched and the sheer numbers of men and equipment made a quick victory impossible. It became a war of grinding away at each other, destroying men and economies. England had a thriving, world dominating economy at the onset of the war and never recovered that strength. Both sides were anxious to get into the fight and, in a very real sense, neither side won.
4. Wars are often fought with the tactics and strategies of the previous one. But situations change, as do weapons and combatants. Be ready to change your strategies, tactics and weapons as quickly as needed. That did not happen in the Great War, with generals pouring men into hopeless offenses. A definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different result. By that definition, both sides had many insane officers.
5. Everybody lies. Well, almost everybody. While T.V.’s Dr. House may not have always been right about that, too often it is true. Doubt what everyone says, but yourself. Maybe even yourself. Err to the side of caution on the oxymoron, “military intelligence.” Many men have died because of faulty intelligence before a battle.
6. There will always be another war. This was to be the “war that ends all wars,” yet that obviously was not the case. All too often, the previous war leads to the next one. And the outcome of that often reverses the gains of the previous one.
Does following these six points ensure success in war? If you say “yes,” please check out point 6.