Approaching 1914

by I.A. Isherwood

Next week we are moving on from the causes to the conduct of the war in 1914. I will be covering the campaigns on the western and eastern fronts and then we will have a discussion on our reading, which will come from Professor Michael Neiberg’s excellent Fighting the Great War. To those of you who are following our journey this semester, I strongly recommend this book as it is supremely readable and covers the multiple fronts of the war with amazing comprehensiveness for such a compact text.

Twenty years ago (or so) when I first began reading about WWI, I was captivated by Barbara Tuchman’s depictions of red-trousered French soldiers fighting a nineteenth century war in the face of twentieth century weapons. Her book reinforced a romantic perception I had of the tragedy of WWI. In part, this was because the only other war I had studied closely was the American Civil War, so I saw frock-coated French infantry as basically Union soldiers marching off into the face of machine guns. I am probably not alone in doing so. Part of the appeal of her book, I think, was that it made tragic the idea of a cataclysm of modernity of the early battles of the Great War.

Though there is plenty of tragedy in the early months of the war and appalling casualties on all sides, the generals ordering their men to the fronts certainly knew they were fighting a modern war with modern machinery. The impact of rapid-firing field howitzers and the defensive advantages of the machine gun were well known in 1914. Many generals had a certain belief that fighting spirt (or will) could be decisive, but they were not naive about the bloodiness of offensive warfare. As such, we see an element of desperation in the early battles of the war, when maneuver mattered, and generals were scrambling to deploy mass armies with hopes of winning a fast victory. The hope for victory was part of the reason the casualties were so high in the early months of the war: generals had not resigned themselves to the idea of a war of attrition and hoped that short term high casualties could prevent a protracted war.

So that’s what we’ll try to understand next week. Stay tuned.