Military history




From the moment the First World War began, the belligerents began publishing their own accounts of how the conflict had been caused. They did so because the issue of responsibility was the key element in the propaganda battle. Neutral opinion had to be won over. Within Europe, neither Bulgaria nor Romania had yet committed itself, and the search for allies in the Balkans was to preoccupy the chancelleries of both sides well into 1916. Outside, the United States was the world’s premier industrial power, and, although nobody thought it likely that it would itself enter the war, access to its production might be vital to the war’s outcome. At this stage of the war, opinion at home could be largely taken for granted. The war was justified because it was interpreted as a war of national self-defence. Before the war socialists had threatened to oppose war and disrupt mobilisation. However, the war they had vilified was a tool of imperialism and conquest. In 1914 every belligerent on the continent of Europe portrayed itself as the subject of direct attack. The working-class populations of all the powers may not have welcomed the war but they did not reject the duties and obligations it imposed. Phrases were coined — the ‘union sacrée’ in France and the ‘Burgfrieden’ in Germany — to insti tutionalise this new-found domestic unity.

There was a paradox in the flood of government white books, black books and yellow books produced in 1914 — 15 to buttress these perceptions. Their focus was on the events of July 1914 itself, but their central debate concerned the issue of whether or not Germany was guilty of causing the war. The paradox was this: Austria-Hungary, not Germany, was the power that at the beginning of July 1914 planned to use war as an instrument of policy. Admittedly, the conflict it sought was designed to be short, localised and fought between single powers, whereas the war that resulted was none of those things. For this Germany was blamed, both then and since. Even Austria-Hungary cast aspersions on its ally, holding Germany responsible for getting it into a war which was bigger than it could handle. For the Entente, the foreign ministers of Russia and Britain, Sergey Sazonov and Sir Edward Grey, were convinced that Vienna would never have acted as it had done unless Berlin had pushed it. But if they were right, the causes of the war were not short-term but long-term. Sazonov and Grey brought to the events of July 1914 assumptions formed before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and reckoned that their opposite numbers in Germany and Austria-Hungary had done so too.

Political maps graphically summarised the enmities and alliances of Europe in 1914 This German example, published by W. Trier, is typical of how instruction was fused with propaganda

They were right in one respect. Germany had played the key role in changing the tempo of international rivalries. When Germany was united in 1871, its chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, set out to reassure the powers of Europe about the ambitions of the powerful new political entity that had emerged in its centre. And those powers directed their competitiveness to fields beyond Europe. When Britain and France confronted each other in Africa they did not resort to war. Indeed, the original purpose of the Anglo-French Entente of 1904 was not to create a united front against Germany, but to settle the two powers’ long-standing imperial rivalries in North Africa. The deal left the French free to expand westwards from Algeria into Morocco. Germany, however, saw the Entente as creating a new diplomatic constellation in Europe itself. The independence of Morocco was guaranteed by an international convention of 1880. On 31 March 1905 the Kaiser landed in Tangiers and declared his support for the Sultan of Morocco. He had little interest in Morocco but he was anxious to disrupt the Anglo-French Entente. Germany’s heavy-handedness had precisely the opposite effect. The Entente hardened, and Britain as well as France began to see Germany as a potential enemy. This, the first of two crises over Morocco, showed that regional rivalries could no longer be handled by diplomats in a self-contained fashion, but were liable to be both ‘Europeanised’ and ’militarised‘.

The Kaiser’s action made clear that Germany had cut loose from Bismarck’s inheritance. Germany was no longer posing as an upholder of the existing order; instead, it aspired to carve a fresh path. Bernhard von Bülow, foreign minister in 1897 — 1900 and chancellor from 1900 until 1909, promoted a ‘world policy’ or Weltpolitik. This rested on the premise that the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership was not a culminating point in the history of the nation, but a new departure — a beginning, not an end. The political theorist Max Weber declared in his inaugural lecture at the University of Freiburg in 1895: ’We must understand that the unification of Germany . . . would have been better if it had never taken place, since it would have been a costly extravagance, if it was the conclusion rather than the starting-point for German power politics on a global scale‘.1

Weltpolitik was not a policy to use war for the fulfilment of German objectives; it did not make Germany responsible for the outbreak of the First World War. But it did challenge the status quo in three ways: colonial, naval and economic.

Of these the colonial was the least significant, and it roused little tension with the world’s largest empire, Britain. By 1914, the German colonies attracted one in a thousand of Germany’s emigrants, absorbed 3.8 per cent of Germany’s overseas investment, and accounted for 0.5 per cent of its overseas trade. Territorial expansion was not a high priority for Germany, and it was not a cause of the First World War. Britain was more worried by the growth of the German navy, which began in 1897. From 1905 the German fleet replaced the French and Russian navies as the benchmark for British naval strength. But even here the rivalry proved containable. Agitation for increased naval spending on both sides of the North Sea aroused public awareness of the competition, but in their calmer moments both Tirpitz, the head of the German naval armaments office, and Jackie Fisher, the First Sea Lord between 1905 and 1910, recognised that their fleets were above all deterrents. Britain managed to maintain its naval supremacy in quantitative terms, and in the crisis of July 1914 both fleets were able to go onto alert without accelerating the plunge into war. The mobilisation of armies did not prove so politically neutral.

More important to Weltpolitik were its economic dimensions. Germany industrialised late but very rapidly. The value of its output increased well over six times between 1855 and 1913. In 1870 Britain, with 32 per cent of the world’s manufacturing capacity, was the largest industrial power in the world. By 1910 it had been overtaken by the United States, which had 35.3 per cent of the world’s manufacturing capacity, and Germany with 15.9 per cent: Britain now had 14.7 per cent. But Britain was still the dominant power in the world’s banking, insurance and shipping markets. Its invisible exports therefore compensated for its relative decline in the manufacturing sector. Moreover, Germany’s rapid industrialisation damped down its liquidity: it invested so heavily domestically that it could not use overseas investment to gain influence abroad. The key need of Weltpolitik, therefore, was to open world markets to German products. This was an aim which an open door in world trade would secure — an objective favoured by Britain’s own historical commitment to free trade. As those engaged in commerce in both Britain and Germany recognised, war would only disrupt this growth and limit it.

Despite its title Weltpolitik also carried a domestic and internal purpose. The chancellor of Germany held office because he was the Kaiser’s choice, not because he enjoyed a majority in the Reichstag. His success as chancellor largely depended on his ability to manage the Reichstag despite the lack of a party base. Weltpolitik was Bülow’s solution to this problem — an effort to use foreign policy to appeal to different constituencies within Germany. But the funding of the navy undermined the internal coalition on which Bülow relied. He planned to increase inheritance tax to pay for warships but this challenged the interests of conservative landowners. The conservatives and the Catholic Centre Party crushed the proposal in favour of a tax on mobile capital, which of course struck at business and urban interests. Confronted with domestic discord, Bethmann Hollweg, Bülow’s successor as chancellor, therefore abandoned Weltpolitik and attempted to curb naval spending. He aimed at detente with Britain, using the idea of an Anglo-German naval agreement to do so. This, too, was not without domestic problems, as both Tirpitz and the Kaiser were bound to oppose him. But it might appease the socialists, who became the largest single party in the Reichstag in the 1912 elections.

Foreign policy and domestic policy were therefore linked, as they were in Austria-Hungary, but in the German case the connections were not as immediate and, if they did contribute to the outbreak of war, they did so indirectly. The foreign policy that Bethmann Hollweg pursued up to, and including, the crisis of July 1914 stood in its own right. He wanted to disrupt the Entente, and so relieve Germany of the encirclement into which the alliance system had drawn it. This was the subtext of the proposed Anglo-German naval agreement: what the Germans wanted in exchange for a limit on warship construction was Britain’s neutrality in relation to Europe. Britain rejected the proposal not only because the trade-off was unequal but also because its strategic interests bound it to the Entente. It could not afford to reopen rivalries outside Europe. Its need to neutralise the Low Countries, in order to leave the main sea route from London to the wider world unfettered, bound it to maintain the balance of power within Europe: geography and economic necessity determined that it would back the weaker power against the stronger on the Continental seaboard.

German efforts in the same vein, to loosen the ties of the Entente by pursuing bilateral deals with the Russians and the French in relation to issues outside Europe, were designed to reawaken the old rivalries between Britain and its Entente partners. Bethmann Hollweg had some success with Russia in relation to the construction of the railway from Berlin through eastern Anatolia to Baghdad: tensions between Britain and Russia in Central Asia had resurfaced by 1914, especially in Persia. But the policy backfired when it came to France.

On 17 April 1911 the French pushed troops into Morocco, ostensibly to police Fez, where riots had been directed against the Sultan. Under the terms of the Algeçiras conference, hammered out in 1906 after the first Moroccan crisis, France should not have acted without consulting the other signatories, including Germany. The French prime minister was Joseph Caillaux, the man whose wife did so much to distract the French in the key days of the July crisis: he was sufficiently conscious of the weakness of the French position to encourage the German Foreign Ministry to believe that Germany might be recompensed with concessions elsewhere in Africa. On 1 July 1911 a German warship, the Panther, appeared in the Atlantic port of Agadir.

Three weeks later, on 21 July 1911, David Lloyd George delivered the customary annual speech of the chancellor of the exchequer to the City of London. Lloyd George was a radical influence within the Liberal government of Herbert Asquith, promoting old age pensions and national insurance. At the beginning of the century he had been a ‘pro-Boer’, opposing Britain’s policy in the South African war. But he did not use the opportunity of the Mansion House speech to counsel disengagement from the foreign relations of the powers of Continental Europe. Instead he sent a clear warning that war might be imminent. He went on: ‘I am also bound to say this — that I believe it is essential in the highest interests, not merely of this country, but of the world, that Britain should at all hazards maintain her place and her prestige amongst the Great Powers of the world. Her potent influence has many a time been in the past, and may yet be in the future, invaluable in the cause of human liberty. It has more than once in the past redeemed continental nations, who are sometimes too apt to forget that service, from overwhelming disaster, and even from national extinction . . . If a situation were to be forced upon us in which peace could only be preserved by the surrender of the great and beneficent position Britain has won by centuries of heroism and achievement, by allowing Britain to be treated, where her interests were vitally affected, as if she were of no account in the Cabinet of nations, then I say emphatically that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a great country like ours to endure.’2

What had been a Franco-German dispute about colonial ambitions, designed to be resolved by diplomacy, now became an issue of vital national interest to Britain. Germany had deployed sea power beyond the purlieus of its immediate geographical waters; this was a direct threat to the premier navy in the world. Moreover, by doing so Germany had challenged the strength of the Anglo-French Entente as an alliance. Lloyd George’s speech — for all that its words emphasised Britain’s sense of honour and its status as a great power — was not, therefore, simply about prestige. Britain saw both the defence of its maritime supremacy and its alliances as matters of vital national interest.

The first of these hardly surprised the Germans. The second did. As a Protestant nation, ruled by a monarch with blood ties to most of the royal families of Europe, including that of Germany, Britain seemed temperamentally a more natural ally of Germany than of France. But what this calculation left out of account was the British Empire. Between 1902 and 1907 Britain entered into three alliances, all of them designed to ease the burden of imperial defence. The first, with Japan, relieved it of naval responsibilities in the Pacific and gave it a counterweight to its principal Asiatic rival, Russia. The second, the 1904 entente with France, effectively allocated the eastern end of North Africa (including the Suez Canal, the all-important link to the Far East) to Britain. And the third, in 1907, promised to lessen the rivalry with its most persistent challenger in the Near East and Central Asia, Russia. In combination, these alliances both secured the heart of the empire, India, and protected the routes to it.

The second Moroccan crisis confirmed the consequences of the first: that imperial and colonial rivalries could no longer be divorced from foreign policy in Europe itself. Britain supported France despite the technical strength of the Germans’ case. Army staff talks between the two powers, which had originally begun during the first Moroccan crisis but had then lapsed, were renewed, and in 1912 the two navies divided responsibilities, with the French taking on the Mediterranean and the British the North Sea and the Channel. There was still no formal alliance in terms of an automatic commitment to aid France if it found itself at war with Germany, but Lloyd George’s audience - and it went far beyond the Mansion House - could be forgiven if it thought there was.

These tensions - colonial, naval and coalition - were the underpinnings of the crisis in July 1914. But none of them in any direct sense related to the Balkans or to Austria-Hungary. The war did not begin over another clash between Germany on the one hand and Britain and France on the other, and, if there had been such a clash, it would - on past form - have been a prolonged crisis and resolved by negotiation not force of arms. On 30 July 1914, Jean Jau res, the French socialist leader, remarked to his counterpart in Belgium, Emil Vandervelde: ‘It will be like Agadir. There will be ups and downs. But it is impossible that things won’t turn out all right.’3

The principal link between the long-term and short-term origins of the First World War is the First Balkan War. The Germans saw it as a war fought by Russia by proxy, and on 2 December 1912 Bethmann Hollweg announced in the Reichstag that, if Austria-Hungary was attacked by a third party while pursuing its interests, Germany would support Austria-Hungary and fight to maintain its own position in Europe. Britain responded on the following day: it feared that a Russo-Austrian War would lead to a German attack on France and warned the Germans that if that happened it would not accept a French defeat. The Kaiser was furious, and summoned a meeting of his military and naval chiefs on 8 December. He said that, if Russia came to Serbia’s aid, Germany would fight. He assumed that in such a war Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Turkey would all side with the Triple Alliance, and take the main role against Serbia, so leaving Austria-Hungary to concentrate against Russia.


Bethmann Hollweg was the key player in July 1914, but he was not present on 8 December 1912. What the meeting focused on was the armament programmes of the navy and the army. Tirpitz declared that the navy was not ready for war, and given that the Kaiser’s ire was directed against Britain a large navy bill would have been its logical outcome. But that did not happen: Bethmann Hollweg was anxious both to pursue detente with Britain and to head off further naval spending. The army was increased by a total of 136,000 men in 1912 and 1913. But these additions were already in train before the First Balkan War, and were not due to be assimilated until 1916. They marked the inauguration of a land arms race. In the first decade of the twentieth century the budgets of European armies were too taken up with the procurement of quick-firing field artillery to allow room for expansion; that changed in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the First World War. The increases in the German army were driven by its size in comparison with those of its neighbours, France and Russia, not by some notion that the German army itself would be deployed to the Balkans. Cooperation between Germany’s general staff and Austria-Hungary’s remained as rudimentary as it had been before the crisis, and certainly inferior to that between Britain and France, and France and Russia. The crisis therefore revealed how the Balkans might become a flashpoint for wider European tensions.

At the meeting of 8 December Moltke had expressed himself in terms similar to those used by Conrad: ‘I believe war is unavoidable and the sooner the better’.4 His thinking on preventive war accustomed the Kaiser and Bethmann Hollweg to the idea of war, but his arguments hardly constituted a case for seeking war as a definite policy objective. When he had been canvassed as chief of the general staff in succession to Alfred von Schlieffen at the beginning of 1905, he had told the Kaiser that a future war ‘will be a national war which will not be settled by a decisive battle but by a long wearisome struggle with a country that will not be overcome until its whole national force is broken, and a war which will utterly exhaust our own people, even if we are victorious’.5

Moltke was not unusual among professional servicemen in anticipating that any future European war would be long, nor uncharacteristic among his own class in fearing that such a war would have revolutionary domestic consequences. Moreover, what he had described to the Kaiser was the war of one state against another. During his tenure of office it became progressively clearer that any war would be fought by coalitions. The creation of alliances reduced to vanishing point the chances of a quick and decisive victory. If one power defeated another in short order, the victory would not end the war. The conquered power would be bailed out by its ally.

Moltke’s advice, though both sensible and accurate, showed how his realism could slide into pessimism: the former was a desirable attribute in a supreme commander in war, the latter not. Many German soldiers, particularly after the First World War, were wont to compare him unfavourably with his predecessor, Schlieffen. But, although the two were very different personalities, their thinking on the nature of future war was similar. Schlieffen, like Moltke, saw that war in Europe might become protracted and indecisive. In an essay on ‘War Today’, written in 1909 after he had retired, Schlieffen described the extension of the battlefield, and concluded that the war would be made up of several related battles, not one decisive victory. ‘The total battle as well as its parts, the separated as well as the contiguous battles, will be played out on fields and across areas that dwarf the theatres of earlier martial acts.’6

The extension of the battlefield, and its apparent emptiness, was a direct con-sequence of Europe’s industrialisation. The principles of breech-loading and rifling in firearms and artillery were finally allied to mass production in the last third of the nineteenth century. In 1815, at Waterloo, the infantry soldier’s musket had a maximum effective range of 150 yards and a rate of fire of two rounds a minute; a century later, the infantry rifle could range almost a mile, and - fed by a magazine - could discharge ten or more rounds in a minute. A machine-gun, firing on a fixed trajectory, could sweep an area with 400 rounds a minute. The adoption of smokeless powder in the 1880s protected the location of the firer and guaranteed that visibility on the battlefield was subject only to the influences of nature (cloud, mist and night) but no longer to smoke. And in 1897 the French developed the first really effective quick-firing field gun, the 75mm. By placing the barrel on a slide and by absorbing the recoil with buffers, the 75mm could fire up to twenty rounds per minute without being relaid after each round. To protect himself from the volume of long-range fire the infantry soldier either dug trenches or erected field fortifications. Advances in artillery made permanent fortifications vulnerable, and their modernisation with reinforced concrete was costly. But in 1914 they were still used, as at Przemysl, to block the likely routes for a would-be invader and to defend high-value objectives. The strength of the defensive and the probability that attacks would soon get bogged down in a form of siege warfare led soldiers to warn against any exaggerated expectation of quick, decisive victory.

Moltke the younger (in the centre of the main group with field glasses) insisted on greater realism in the annual manoeuvres In September 1912 the Kaiser, no longer able to lead the final cavalry charge, was restricted to waving his cane Russia’s commander-in-chief in 1914, Grand Duke Nikolay, stands second from left.

But such conclusions, drawn from tactics and technology, left Schlieffen and Moltke in a quandary. Strategically, Germany could not embark on a long war against an alliance which, even if it consisted of only France and Russia, outnumbered it. If Britain joined the French and the Russians, the arguments against accepting the inevitability of a long war were even greater. Both Schlieffen and Moltke reckoned that the British army was likely to be deployed to the Continent in the event of war, but that was not the major consideration. As a professional force shaped primarily for colonial warfare, its numerical contribution - about 100,000 men - would be paltry alongside armies which in peacetime approached one million men and on mobilisation for war would rise to three times that. The real threat posed by Britain was the Royal Navy, which could cut Germany off from overseas trade, and especially from the raw materials vital to its war industries in a long war. Until 1914 Germany relied on Chile for imports of saltpetre, from which it produced fixed nitrogen. Nitric acid was needed for explosives, and nitrogen for fertilisers and therefore for food production. Schlieffen and Moltke had to find a short war solution precisely because they recognised the dangers of a long one. In a bid to secure a quick victory Schlieffen scouted an advance on France via the Low Countries, including Holland. But what made sense in operational terms did not do so in economic. In 1911 Moltke dismissed the idea: ‘it will be very important to have in Holland a country whose neutrality allows us to have imports and supplies. She must be the windpipe that enables us to breathe.’7

The invasion of Holland formed part of a memorandum which Schlieffen finalised at the end of his tenure as chief of the general staff, or just after, and which has been handed down to posterity as ‘the Schlieffen plan’. This recognised that the strength of France’s defences on its eastern frontier, from Verdun down through Toul and Nancy to Belfort, prevented a frontal attack and demanded that the Germans swing into France from the north past the Belgian fortresses of Liege and Namur, and through Dutch territory around Maas tricht. This was not the plan with which Germany went to war in 1914, not least because each year the general staff went through a cycle of revision and analysis which meant that what was posited in 1905 would be automatically superseded in 1906. Moreover, the evidence of exercises conducted in 1904 and in 1905 shows that Schlieffen was considering a number of different scenarios. The most important was the possibility that the German army would have to fight either first or simultaneously against Russia in the east. In 1905 itself that was in fact not too worrisome, as the Russian army was still reeling from its de-feat at the hands of the Japanese and from the revolution: Germany was not so secure thereafter. Schlieffen also recognised in 1905 that he would probably not be free to swing right through Belgium and then bear down west of Paris, but might well have to react to what the French army did as it turned to meet the Germans. This would probably entail encounter battles close behind the French fortress barrier. The Germans upgraded their own fortifications at Metz as the pivot for these manoeuvres. ‘The Schlieffen plan’ was therefore no more a definitive statement of thinking in the German general staff in 1905 than it was in 1914. And what demonstrates this point most conclusively of all is its approach to manpower. ’The Schlieffen plan’ assumed that Germany had ninety-four divisions available; in fact in 1905 it had barely sixty.

German plans demanded more trained men than the army had available for mobilisation As a result, it called up all its reservists, including men in middle age, from the very beginning This was not just a young man’s war

Between 1905 and 1914 the relative manpower position grew worse. France was only too aware that its population - 40 million to Germany’s 60 million - confronted it with the danger that its army would be outnumbered on the battlefield. In 1911 it therefore conscripted 83 per cent of its eligible adult males, to Germany’s 57 per cent, and in 1913 it extended its period of regular service from two years to three. In 1914 the size of its army was comparable with that of Germany, and its ally, Russia, had recovered from the de bacle of 1905. On the other hand, Austria-Hungary had failed to expand its army with sufficient urgency and both Italy and Romania failed to honour their obligations to the Triple Alliance. When war broke out the Entente could put 182 divisions into the field against 136 of the two Central Powers.

As a result, the increases of 1912 and 1913 were deemed inadequate by the German general staff. Moltke had asked for 300,000 but got 136,000, and his chief of operations, Erich Ludendorff, wanted full conscription so that all able-bodied males received military training. It was reckoned in 1912 that 540,000 adult males in Germany avoided any form of military service. Schlieffen’s and Moltke’s need for a bigger army for operational reasons had to be balanced by the concerns of the Kaiser and of the minister of war. The former was of course the supreme commander of the army, the one person in whom the strands of military and political power were united, and it was to him that all the generals commanding the twenty-one corps districts (excluding three additional corps in Bavaria) were directly responsible. Many of them were stationed in areas where the rapidity of industrialisation and its corollary, urbani sation, threatened the conservative constitution of the Reich. Strike-breaking seemed a more imminent military duty than war against a foreign opponent. The Kaiser, too, thought that the army’s first use might be to quell internal insurrection. When he addressed recruits to the Guards regiments at Potsdam on 23 November 1891, he told them that they must be prepared ‘to shoot and cut down your own relatives and brothers’.8 The more inclusive the embrace of military service, the greater the likelihood of this happening. Internal policing was therefore a constraint on the army’s size. In 1914 only 5.84 per cent of German reservists came from big cities; as a result the army was comparatively untouched by the socialism that seemed to threaten the Reich from within.

The argument about quality over quantity was not driven solely by the fear of revolution. In peacetime the minister of war, a general who had to manage the army’s budget and answer to the Reichstag on military issues, was as influential as the chief of the general staff. Karl von Einem, minister of war from 1898 until 1909, preferred more machine-guns to more men, and rated command as more decisive in war than mass armies. A sudden increase in the recruit intake adversely affected training levels. Charles a Court Repington, military correspondent of The Times,attended the manoeuvres of the German army in the autumn of 1911. ‘No other modern army’, he wrote, ‘displays such profound contempt for the effect of modern fire’. And that was before the increases of 1912 and 1913 worsened the ratios of officers and guns to men.

Repington’s charge is one more frequently directed at the French army. But all armies in the decade before the First World War confronted the problem of how to mount an attack across a fire-swept battlefield. It was not sufficient to say that the defensive was the stronger form of warfare - nor was it necessarily true, as the First World War was itself to show. To win, an army had eventually to attack. The general solution was for the attacking troops to approach under cover, to close by breaking into small groups, advancing in bounds, and then to build up fire superiority before the final rush. It was this last and most difficult phase that dominated so much military thought before 1914, as well as generating a great deal of wishful thinking. If an attacker could not believe that he was going to be successful, he was unlikely to have the resolve and determination to advance under fire. Good morale and the will to win were essential attributes of infantry soldiers, not the semi-mystical incantations of military theorists blind to the effects of the transformation of firepower.

The attack across a fire-swept battlefield was a tactical problem. The issue of whether the French war plan should revolve around the offensive was of a totally different order - a matter of strategy. The French knew that the Germans would come through Belgium, but they also knew that they had major forces facing them in Alsace-Lorraine, and that German railway communications to the eastern frontier had received as much attention as those to the Belgian. Joseph Joffre, an engineer, possessed of a large and contented belly and an imperturbable temperament, became chief of the general staff in 1911. He could not see how the German army could cover both fronts adequately, given its size. This was hardly surprising when it was an issue the Germans had not resolved, either. The French had to do three things in their war plan. First, they had to mobilise as fast as the Germans, avoiding the chaos into which their army had been thrown by mobilisation in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. They managed it so well that in 1914 they mobilised ahead of the Germans. Second, they had to deploy their forces to allow them to concentrate to either north or east, depending on where the main weight of the German attack came. Plan 17, the final version of France’s war plan, posted ten corps on the eastern frontier and five on the Belgian, with a further six behind Verdun ready to go in either direction. Formally speaking, Plan 17 made no provision for the British Expeditionary Force, but in the years before the war the expectation had developed that its two corps would be added to and extend the French front facing Belgium. The third task was to provide for advance guards to make contact with the enemy and identify the thrust of the attack. This was where things came unstuck. On 1 August France mobilised in support of its Russian ally, and on 3 August Germany declared war on France. Three days later Sordet’s cavalry corps set off into Belgium, following the line of the Meuse to within nine miles of Liege. It covered nearly forty miles a day, giving the horses no rest on the metalled roads, and getting through 15,000 horseshoes by 10 August. The cavalry continued the hectic pace over the next five days, ranging through the Ardennes and as far west as Charleroi. Sordet found no evidence that the Germans had come west of the Meuse. Joffre’s expectations that the Germans lacked the strength to make more than a limited incursion into Belgium, that they would stay east of the Meuse, seemed confirmed.


On 6 November 1913 Albert, King of the Belgians, visited Berlin. He was taken on one side by both the Kaiser and Moltke and warned that Belgium should throw in its lot with Germany in the coming war. Albert was no more blind to the drift of German war planning than were the general staffs of France and Germany. He recognised that his country was likely to be invaded. The Belgian military attaché in Berlin reported that Moltke had been enquiring what Belgium would do if a large foreign army crossed its territory. The answer, if that army were German, would be a defence on the Meuse based on the fortresses of Liege and Namur. But Belgium was not decided that the invader would be German. Right up until the war’s outbreak it continued to espouse a policy of pure neutrality, treating all its neighbours as potential enemies. To enable all-round defence, the main field army would be massed in central Belgium, with the fortified port of Antwerp to its rear. Thus Belgium would be as ready to strike against the French and British as against the Germans. The fact that the British showed so much concern for the protection of Belgium’s neutrality was seen as evidence of the self-interested nature of their policy, and a reason for Belgium distancing itself from the Entente as international tension mounted, not aligning itself with it.

As Catholics, many Belgians felt sympathy for Austria-Hungary even after 23 July. They suffered a tremendous shock on 2 August. The Germans presented Belgium with an ultimatum, demanding passage for its army through Belgian territory and a reply within twelve hours. It was the occasion, if not the cause, for Britain’s entry to the war. Belgium’s neutrality was guaranteed by all the great powers acting collectively, and they included Germany as the successor state to Prussia. Legally Britain was under no obligation to act. But the threat to Belgium fused British strategic self-interest with liberal morality. It united the government and it rallied the nation. Britain responded with an ultimatum of its own, demanding that Germany respect Belgian neutrality. It expired at midnight on 4 August.

For the Belgians, the issue now was not religious fellow-feeling but national identity. The manifestations of popular support for resistance surprised and gratified the King. His problem was that the army was in the throes of a reorganisation not due for completion until 1926. A field army of 117,000 was improvised, and 200,000 were left to man the fortifications. In theory all remaining able-bodied males were liable for service in the Garde Civique. In reality only those who resided in towns and fortified places were active and possessed the Garde Civique’s rather unmilitary uniforms: in 1913 it had 46,000 members. In the enthusiasm of early August 1914 about another 100,000 joined the non-active Garde Civique based in rural areas.

The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 had attempted to codify the laws of war. They had recognised the rights of an invaded people to rise up in resistance, provided they formed themselves in organised bodies and were identifiable as belligerents. As the Belgian representative at the 1899 conference said: ‘If warfare is reserved exclusively for states and if the citizens are mere spectators, does one not thus lame the force of resistance, does one not thus deprive patriotism of its effectiveness? Is it not the first duty of the citizen to defend his fatherland?’9 The Germans opposed this interpretation. They argued that war on land was a matter for large standing armies only, and that the international recognition of the levee en masse and of guerrilla war would remove limits on war and lead to barbarism. Their field service regulations published the relevant articles of the Hague convention in an appendix, but the body of the text made clear that the general staff did not recognise the right of civilians to resist invasion.

Germany was fearful of ‘francs tireurs’ - irregular combatants or literally ’free shooters’ - because of its experiences in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71. The war had been prolonged by France adopting the levee en masse. The Germans had responded by taking hostages, by organised and collective reprisals, and by increasingly random violence. They feared a recurrence when they invaded France again. In reality there was very little - and possibly no - civilian resistance to the German invasion. But the German army killed 5,521 civilians in Belgium and 896 in France. Citing the Germans’ suppression of the Herero uprising of 1904-5 in their colony in south-west Africa (modern Namibia), allied propagandists damned such practices as ‘colonial’. Stories of the atrocities focused on the rape of young girls, the cutting off of infants’ hands, and the execution of priests and nuns. The destruction of buildings - including the university library of Louvain and the cathedral of Reims - confirmed that anti-Catholicism was an element in the Germans’ motivations.

The first wave of outrages clustered around the Germans’ attack on the fortresses of Liege. The siege began on 4 August and was not completed until Krupp 420mm and Skoda 305mm heavy mortars were brought up. But the frustrations of the advance were also self-inflicted. When the main German advance began, on 18 August and long after Sordet had reconnoitred the area, Alexander von Kluck’s 1st Army on the German right wing was expected to march an average 23 kilometres a day for three weeks. The railways were disrupted by Belgian and French sabotage, and the roads were cluttered with refugees. Lorry transport was in its infancy, so the supply systems of the armies once they were beyond their railheads were predominantly horse-drawn. Kluck’s army had 84,000 horses and much of its supply effort was devoted to the fodder - 2 million lbs a day - needed to feed them. Most of the transport formations were newly formed on mobilisation, with both men and horses new to the rigours and demands of military supply in war. Thus tired and exhausted infantrymen, having marched all day and perhaps having fought as well, had to set off in search of food before they could settle down for the night. The local civilian population, itself worried about its own food supply, was hardly disposed to be cooperative.

On 4 August 1914 Belgian civilians had not yet learned to fear German soldiers. These young men pose alongside each other at Stavelot, just across the German border in the Belgian Ardennes

Discipline was on a knife-edge. But the killing of civilians was not the product simply of alarmed and nervous reservists losing control. It was condoned and promoted from above. Conscious of both the need for speed and the threat of insurrection in their rear, army and corps commanders endorsed repression of imagined civilian resistance. One Saxon soldier, named Philipp, entered Dinant on the Meuse at 10 p.m. on 23 August, and found fifty civilians, ‘shot for having treacherously fired on our troops. In the course of the night many more were shot, so that we could count over 200. Women and children, with lamps in their hands, were forced to watch the horrible spectacle. Then we ate our rice among the corpses, as we had eaten nothing since the morning.’ 10 In all, 674 civilians were killed in Dinant by the Saxons on the orders of their corps commander. Conceived as a pre-emptive strike against anticipated franc-tireur activity, the massacre was justified by German claims that they had indeed been fired upon. The shots probably came from French soldiers on the other bank of the Meuse.


The German army was not the only army to find that the strains of war caused discipline to collapse and buckle. Joffre began his campaign by pushing the French 1st and 2nd Armies against the German left, into the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, forfeited as part of the peace settlement in 1871. By 18 August he realised that the German right was swinging north of the Meuse. He deemed his 5th Army sufficient to counter the threat. The 5th Army was supported on its left by the British Expeditionary Force. It had been decided on 5 August that the BEF should go to France, but initially it deployed only five divisions, or about 100,000 men, the largest body that the diminutive professional British army could put into the field. With the Germans strong on their left and on their right, Joffre concluded that they must be weak in their centre, and so he directed his 3rd and 4th Armies to attack into the Ardennes, aiming to hit the German right wing on its left flank. In fact the German 4th and 5th Armies were also pushing into the Ardennes and a series of bloody encounter battles took place in the forested and steep ground on 21-22 August.

The ‘battles of the frontiers’ were the first occasion on which most French, German and British soldiers came face to face with modern firepower, and they were devastated and disorientated by the effects. Lieutenant Ernst von Röhm, on coming under heavy French fire in Lorraine, thought that at last he would see the enemy and got out his field glasses, ‘but there is nothing to recognise and nothing to see’. As the fire of his own unit slackened, he stood up and called on his comrades to do likewise. ‘I want to see how many are still fit to fight. The bugler, who has remained by my side like a shadow, says to me sadly: “Herr Leutnant, there is nobody there any more!” And in truth nobody is standing on the whole front line. Only three men are still unscathed, everybody else is dead or wounded.’11 On the other end of the line, at Mons on 23 August, the British army found itself holding ground against the main weight of Kluck’s 1st Army. Aubrey Herbert recalled that ‘It was as if a scythe of bullets passed directly over our heads about a foot above the earthworks. It came in gusts, whistling and sighing ... It seemed inevitable that any man who went over the bank must be cut neatly in two.’12

In the fighting in the Ardennes on 21-22 August 1914, thick woods meant that the armies stumbled into each other while still formed in column of march The steepness of the hills made it difficult for field artillery to elevate sufficiently to engage

Over a period of three days the allies were defeated along the entire length of the front. Forty thousand French soldiers were killed, and by 29 August their casualties totalled 260,000. They retreated. Rumour now fed panic. The 2nd Army had been shattered by the Germans in defensive positions on the Morhange heights, and fell back on the Grand Couronné de Nancy. On the morning of 24 August, Le Matin described the state of its 15th Corps: ‘Companies, battalions passed in indescribable disorder. Mixed in with the soldiers were women carrying children in their arms or pushing little carts in front of them, girls in their Sunday best, old people, carrying or dragging a bizarre mixture of objects. Entire regiments were falling back in disorder. One had the impression that discipline had completely collapsed.’13 Within four days the gossip in a village in central France reported that in one of the 15th Corps’ regiments, ‘the men had reversed arms in front of the enemy. The colonel, outraged, killed six of his men with a revolver. So the soldiers had massacred their officers, then had taken to their heels, turning their backs to the enemy, and throwing into panic the army of Lorraine, which had been obliged to retreat 75 kilometres.’14

The French army’s use of summary justice was more severe at this than at any other stage of the war. On 1 September the Ministry of War instructed the army to carry out death sentences within twenty-four hours. Soldiers were executed without trial. Joffre emphasised that requests for clemency were to be exceptional : ‘Men have been recovered in bivouacs or in the rear without packs and without rifles. It is indisputable that most of them have abandoned their posts in the terms defined by the code of military justice ... We must be pitiless with the fugitives.’15 France executed about 600 soldiers in the First World War, and the majority were shot in the first year of the war. The British pattern was similar to the French. They executed 346 soldiers between 1914 and 1920, almost all for desertion in the face of the enemy. Although the absolute numbers rose as the war progressed, that was because the army itself became bigger. When judged in relation to the size of the army, both convictions for desertion and executions peaked in the first year of the war.

These British soldiers were regulars. Previous combat experience was not necessarily proof against a loss of nerve in this sort of fighting. Commandant Wolff, a veteran of France’s colonial campaigns, was executed on 1 September after he had raised a white flag and called on his men to retreat in the fighting on 25 August at Meurthe-et-Moselle. On the same night a British veteran of the South African war, Douglas Haig, commanding one of the two British corps as they fell back from Mons, panicked when one of his brigades clashed with German advance guards. It was an uncharacteristic response, probably the result of the fatigue that gripped the entire British force. Haig’s career prospered, but those of the two regimental commanding officers, who decided to surrender their exhausted battalions at St Quentin on 27 August, did not. Like Haig, both colonels had served in the South African war. They did not in fact surrender, but they were court-martialled and cashiered. One of them, J. F. Elkington of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, joined the French Foreign Legion, was badly wounded and awarded the Croix de Guerre, and was then reinstated in the British army in his old rank and given the DSO.

A French farm-worker, described as a ‘spy traitor to his country’, shot near Reims in September 1914 to bolster the union sacrée in the fluid fighting following the battles of the frontiers, both sides convinced themselves that civilians could be agents for the enemy

Joffre asserted his authority. By 6 September he had purged his army of fifty-eight generals who had failed to meet the demands of war. But there were tactical solutions as well. His instructions repeatedly insisted that infantry attacks should not be launched from too great a distance or prematurely. He emphasised the role of the artillery, not only in support of the attack but also in its preparation. Backed by their 75mms, the French infantry dug in. The battle of the Marne, fought between 6 and 9 September 1914, checked the German advance. One of the truly decisive battles of history, it is remembered as a battle of manoeuvre, but the fighting extended from Paris on the French left all the way across France to Verdun and then turned south to the French right resting on the Swiss frontier. On 6 September the sector from Verdun to Switzerland, 280 km, was already stable; by the 9th the sector from Verdun to Mailly, another 100 km, was also fixed. On that day only the 105 km from Mailly to La Ferté-sous-Jouarre was really fluid; the rest was dominated by a dogged defensive battle. French corps commanders, like Ferdinand Foch in the marshes of St Gond, continued to use the rhetoric of the offensive, but the key point was that their lines held fast. On 5 September the French had 465,000 75mm shells in reserve; by the 10th the reserves had slumped to 33,000. Free to choose their ground, the French gunners had good fields of fire. Employing delayed-action fuses for ricochet fire, a 75mm battery was able to sweep an area of 4 hectares, 400 metres deep, in 40 to 50 seconds. Its four guns, firing ten rounds of shrapnel a minute, discharged 10,000 balls. This was far more effective against advancing infantry than machine-guns.

The French 75mm field gun was the artisan of the victory on the Marne Able to fire up to twenty shells a minute, it was deployed with good fields of fire in direct support of the infantry During the course of the battle French ammunition stocks fell by 432,000 rounds

The Kaiser’s son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, commanding the German 5th Army, later said of Moltke’s intentions, ‘The plan of the supreme command was simply to overrun the enemy’s country on as broad a front as possible.’16 This is accurate on two counts. First, if the French line had broken anywhere - particularly between Verdun and Toul or south of Nancy - the battle of the Marne would have been lost as surely as if things had miscarried round Paris: Moltke was looking for victory where he could get it, not where some grand design of envelopment suggested. Second, Moltke was in no position to exercise hands-on command in this battle. With his headquarters in Luxembourg, he was too far from the fighting, and used only one officer, his head of intelligence, Richard Hentsch, to go forward to seven separate army headquarters scattered over a massive front. Wireless communications were slow and often overloaded; they could take twenty-four hours in transmission, and by then had often been intercepted by the French.

Posterity has seen the German invasion of France somewhat differently. It emphasises the strong right wing aiming to envelop the French army round Paris. But the right wing was not strong enough. It had detached forces to carry on operations to its rear - especially around Antwerp, behind whose fortifications the bulk of the Belgian army had withdrawn - and it had to occupy conquered territory. The army as a whole had lost 265,000 men killed, wounded and missing by 6 September. Meanwhile the French, holding their positions in the east defensively, were able to redeploy troops to the west, using their own railway system. On 23 August the 24.5 divisions of the three armies of the German right wing faced 17.5 allied divisions. But between 27 August and 2 September an average of thirty-two trains travelled westwards every twenty-four hours. Joffre created a new army, the 6th, around Paris and outside the German envelopment. By 6 September the German right wing confronted a total of forty-one allied divisions.

As Kluck’s 1st Army turned to face the threat to its flank from the 6th Army a gap opened between it and its neighbour, the 2nd Army under Karl von Bülow. Sir John French, the British commander-in-chief, had taken the British Expeditionary Force out of the line, planning to give it a rest behind the Seine and west of Paris. On 4 September the French realised - thanks not least to the use of aircraft for reconnaissance purposes - that the moment for a counter-stroke had arrived. Joffre stressed to the British that the BEF would be supported by the French 6th Army on its left and the 5th Army on its right, and pleaded with Sir John for it to enter the gap and strike Kluck’s exposed left flank. In reply, Sir John ‘tried to say something in French. For a moment he struggled with his feelings and with the language, then turning to an English officer ... he exclaimed: “Damn it, I can’t explain. Tell him that all that men can do our fellows will do.”‘17

Aeroplanes reached maturity over the four years of the war In August 1914 their principal function was reconnaissance, but they were already being used as fighters and bombers by the year’s end

On 6 September the allies’ retreat ended as they turned to attack. Kluck remained focused on his battle with the 6th Army, and so in Bulow’s mind the threat from the BEF was primarily to his right flank, not Kluck’s left. On 8 September he pulled back his exposed right wing, reorientating his army more on a north-south line - and thus widened the gap. None of Kluck, Bülow or Moltke knew what the others were doing or intended to do. On the morning of 8 September Moltke sent Hentsch to establish what the situation was. He was authorised to order a retreat on the part of the right wing only if this was the only way to close the gap between the 1st and 2nd Armies. Hentsch visited the 5th, 4th and 3rd Armies first, travelling along roads clogged with troops and transport, and did not reach the 2nd Army until 7.45 p.m. Bülow had already decided that the 1st and 2nd Armies should retreat on converging lines. Whereas he was preoccupied with the dangers presented by an enemy breakthrough, Kluck was focused on the opportunities for victory presented by envelopment : the one was the obverse of the other, since Kluck’s pursuit of envelopment was what opened the opportunities for an allied breakthrough. When Hentsch at last arrived at Kluck’s headquarters after a five-hour drive on crowded roads on the morning of the 9th, Kluck himself was out of contact, pushing the attack on the French 6th Army. Hentsch and Kluck’s chief of staff therefore took the responsibility for ordering the 1st Army’s retreat. Kluck liked to maintain that he was on the verge of defeating the 6th army, but such an argument leaves out of account any effects that the BEF’s advance would have had as it hit his army on its left and rear. The Germans fell back to the heights overlooking the Aisne valley, where they entrenched.

After the First World War was over the German army claimed that it had been ‘stabbed in the back’ - that the war had been lost because of the collapse of the home front. According to this argument, the army itself had been undefeated in the field. But such assertions ignored the events of 1914. France had been saved. In its eyes, the Marne was a miracle and Joffre a new Napoleon. The battle was seen in traditional terms, confirming the expectation that manoeuvre would bring operational success. Pre-war staff exercises seemed still to be relevant. They were not: the efforts that had enabled that manoeuvre, the lines of trenches and the dogged defensive battle to the east of Paris, were. Opinion among neutrals and waverers, including Germany’s nominal ally, Italy, hardened against the Central Powers. Germany had failed to secure a quick victory in the west, and was now committed to a long war on two fronts - a war it could not win. The Marne was a decisive battle, and its consequences were strategic. But German press releases between 6 and 16 September presented the withdrawal as tactical. The full truth was not divulged and a false prospect of continued military success generated - one which fed German domestic reporting right up until August 1918. In its own internal post-mortems the German army blamed individuals - Moltke, Hentsch, Bülow, and Kluck - rather than reviewing its own approach to strategy or its own institutional weaknesses.

Germany had, however, made two significant gains, even if both were incidental. First, it had overrun almost all Belgium as well as the industrial heartlands of north-eastern France, including 74 per cent of its coal production and 81 per cent of its pig iron. Second, it held so much French territory, and did so along positions which in many cases were so extraordinarily well adapted for fighting defensively, that it retained the advantages of an offensive strategy. The allies would have to attack across the fire-swept battlefield just to regain what was rightfully theirs. And it would seem that they had little choice in the matter: their own strategy had been forced into a straitjacket.


The comparatively static nature of the front line in the west for much of the war meant that, after the first three months, most of France and Belgium was not directly in the fighting zone. But for those trapped in the areas of German occupation the war took on another meaning. Some were interned in concentration camps and others held as hostages. For the remainder, the pattern of the day was set by German time; they required passes in order to go about their daily business; family life was disrupted as women were deported as labourers; class was reversed as bourgeois families found themselves short of food and humiliated by the invaders. Many of these indignities were little different from those suffered as the result of wartime necessities in the rest of France, but those who were suffering them did not know that. Nor did those from whom they were divided. In 1916 Henri Barbusse published one of the most famous novels of the war, Le Feu (Under Fire). It won the Prix Goncourt and became a bestseller. The book focuses on the life of a squad. One of its members manages to get behind enemy lines to his home in Lens. He arrives at night and stands outside his home, looking into the lighted house. There is his wife: ‘She was smiling. She was contented. She had a look of being well-off, by the side of the Boche non-com ... I could see my baby as well, stretching her hands out to a great striped simpleton and trying to climb on his knee.’18

France and Belgium had been invaded, and their soldiers were fighting either to protect their homes and hearths or to liberate them. The purpose of the war was clear: it was not a war of dubious morality but a struggle for basic freedoms. In the minds of some it was even more. Jean-Richard Bloch, a socialist, wrote to a friend, the pacifist Romain Rolland, on 2 August 1914, as he went off to enlist: ‘The war of the Revolution against feudalism is reopening. Will the armies of the Republic assure the triumph of democracy in Europe and perfect the work of [17]93? That will be more than the unavoidable war for home and hearth, that will be the awakening of liberty.’19

Germany, too, was invaded, even in the west, for all that it was the aggressor there. French troops entered Mulhouse in Alsace and posed a danger to Freiburg. In southern Bavaria the wives of some reservists, left at home without their men, killed themselves rather than confront vengeful French soldiers. To the east, in August the Russians threatened to overrun East Prussia up to the line of the Vistula. The image of the Cossack, ruthless, unprincipled, and above all uncivilised, had a pedigree which stretched back to the Russian army’s occupation of Paris at the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars. Germany was not just defending itself against invasion but defending Europe against barbarism. Bloch’s correspondent, Rolland, saw the German point of view. In October he declared that Prussian imperialism was ‘the worst enemy of liberty’ and a ’barbaric despotism‘. But he acknowledged the glories of German culture and appreciated that tsarism could be construed as a threat to it. Recognising his own desire for an Entente victory, he retired to Switzerland rather than compromise his objectivity.20

Polishing boots in the Place Rogier in Brussels may have been how this Belgian woman made her living in 1914, but her actions symbolise her nation’s subordination to German militarism

Thus, as men adjusted to the idea of war, their nations became vehicles for broader ideologies. Britain, alone of the original belligerents, was not invaded. In a speech at the Guildhall in London on 9 November 1914, the prime minister, Asquith, explained his country’s involvement in the war not in terms of its own strategic and imperial interests, but through the German invasion of Belgium and the protection of France from aggression. Britain was fighting to uphold international law and the rights of small nations; its enemy was Prussian militarism, embodied in the Kaiser himself. The French government used the vocabulary of the French Revolution and the Terror to mobilise the nation: it was fighting for the legacy of the revolution in terms of democracy and political rights. But, in doing so, it incorporated the right and the Catholic Church. Joan of Arc became an icon for all France. God would protect France as He had guided Joan. Before the war the socialist Jean Jaurès had been criticised by the radical right for his internationalism and his advocacy of a pure citizen army. But when he was assassinated by a solitary maverick on 31 July 1914, his death became symbolic for the right as well as the left. This was a Jaurèsian war: a war of national self-defence.

Both Britain and France were defenders of the status quo. Germany said it stood for progress and change. On 16 October 1914 over 4,000 German academics signed a manifesto identifying German culture with Prussian militarism. The outbreak of the war in 1914 marked the end of the ‘long’ nineteenth century, which had begun with the French Revolution in 1789. In its stead would be erected a set of values which elevated the heroic spirit over the materialism of capitalism and the mediocrity of political liberalism. A German Jew, Nachum Goldmann, in Die Geist der Militarismus (1915), described the military spirit as the means to human progress because it combined equality of opportunity with the advantages of a meritocracy. On 9 August 1914 another Jew, Walther Rathenau, of the German electronics firm AEG, was put in charge of organising raw materials for the purposes of war production by Falkenhayn, the minister of war - an extraordinary step for a Prussian officer to take. Rathenau postulated a new form of economic organisation which would combine the best features of capitalism with those of collectivism in a managed economy. ’The German eagle‘, Paul Natorp wrote in 1915, ’is not like the bird of Minerva, which, according to Hegel, first begins its flight at dusk. We signify the morning chorus of a new day not only for Germany, but also for mankind.‘21 The sociologist Werner Sombart wrote a book called Händler und Helden (Traders and Heroes) in 1915 in which he interpreted man as living two lives - one superficial and the other spiritual - and described life as a continuing struggle to pass from one to the other: his heroes, the Germans, were those who freely responded to the call of duty and willingly sacrificed self.

This was a great war because it was a war fought over big ideas. What had begun in the Balkans and had been originally driven by issues of ethnicity and nationalism was now clothed with principles whose force lay precisely in their claims to universality. In due course these ideologies became the basis of propaganda, but that could only happen because they expressed convictions with which the belligerent populations could identify. They were deemed to be so fundamental that they sustained the war despite both its length and its intensity. The peoples of Europe fought the First World War because they believed in - or at least accepted - the causes for which their nations stood. It was emphatically not a war without purpose.

The photographs of August 1914 suggest a party mood. But those were brave faces put on for the cameras. Most reservists called up on mobilisation in August 1914 left their families and jobs with reluctance. They went because it was their duty. They consoled themselves that they would be back home soon: before the leaves fell as winter set in, and certainly in time for Christmas. It is here - in the fantasies of peasants and clerks, shoe-horned into uniform once more - that the idea that the First World War would be short took hold.

The war confirmed the Lutheran church as the religious bedrock of the German state and the army as defender of both In Potsdam on 9 August 1914, the Kaiser and his family join the 1st Garde-Reserve-Regiment in a field service before it departs for the front

It was a fantasy which helped sustain the front-line soldier for far longer than rationality suggested was likely. On Thursday, 1 January 1915, New Year’s Day, Heinrich Woebcken - who was not a conscript but a twenty-eight-year-‘ old schoolmaster who had volunteered for military service - wrote home to his family from Champagne: ’This year the decision will certainly come. It is taking a long time, but it’s getting there.‘22 In other words the ’short war’ illusion was being recycled: the war would end within a recognisable time-span, but - because no one could see how - the victory had to be located at a point which was in the middle distance rather than immediate. On the same day but a bit further south and on the French side of the line, Alexis Callies, a regular artillery officer in his mid-forties, wrote: ‘We don’t doubt that this war - already five months long - will end in the coming year. But how will it end?’23

Trenches were built from the outset of the war but by the winter of 1914-15 they were its dominating feature. Mud and rain meant that they required constant maintenance, especially in Flanders. The 2nd Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers takes a rest from its labours.

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