The War in 1914

by I.A. Isherwood

Today we examined the war in the west in 1914. Initially, I hoped to get through 1915 too, but my long-windedness got the better of me, so we’ll have to wait until Wednesday to do so.

I started the class by defining some terms on the power-point so that we had a frame of reference for certain things. This is a 200 (intermediate) level class. Though there are some military history buffs in the class, not everyone is born knowing the difference between a division and a corps, so I went over some military definitions and what they meant during the First World War. Then we briefly touched upon Sir Hew Strachan’s excellent essay on command and strategy in John Horne’s companion. I tried to relate this essay by defining how the First World War fell in-between two models of strategic thought: the nineteenth century conception of strategy defined by generals commanding armies in the field and the more twentieth/twenty-first conception of ‘grand strategy’, such as what we see with the Second World War, where political leaders and general staffs coordinate resources and command across multiple fronts, with multiple allies. As the Strachan article indicates, the WWII model of grand strategy did not exist in 1914. Even as the war went on, allies were coordinating through conferences and negotiation rather than through unified command. I wanted students to see First World War on its own terms and understand the strategic dilemma of a world war, particularly one fought by (relatively) insecure allies.

From there I outlined each of the major armies on the western front in 1914: their command structures, sizes, and mobilization plans. I also put up some pictures. A good photo of the Kaiser always livens a discussion.


Wilhelm II. on picture postcard, 1905. Reichard & Lindner; publisher: Gustav Liersch & Co. Wikipedia.

See what I mean.

Then the war came . . .  The war in 1914 was one of maneuver and decision, far different than the helmets, mud, gas masks, and hip waders of Ypres in 1917. Our story began and ended with Belgium: with the invasion by the  German army in August to the First Battle of Ypres in October. In between, we covered much of the traditional military narrative of the war. This included the Battle of the Frontiers, the Retreat from Mons, the Marne, and the ‘Race to the Sea’.  Much of our conversation was traditional military history: map pointing and summarizing the thinking of the generals on the ground. Students brought up German conduct in Belgium, an important factor, one that we will be discussing in a later week when we look at atrocities in WWI. One student referred to General Joffre by his nickname ‘Papa’, which is not only indicative of close reading, but also, of the universal appeal of a good nickname, one that can last throughout the ages.

In general, I think the conversation was less lively in this class than it has been in others. This may have been an issue of preparation on the part of some in the class or it might be that all that map pointing on my part stifled the conversation a bit. We are a liberal arts college and not a staff briefing room, so I hope for a little more back and forth as we move forward, especially on military history topics. Here is what I would recommend:

  1. Students: learn the narratives of ‘what happened’ from the reading assigned. Take notes and develop a narrative in your head. Think ‘If I was pointing at a map and talking to a class about this, how would I explain this subject?’ You have wonderful resources at your fingertips in your textbooks – use them. I want to move beyond repeating what you have already read in class.
  2. Write down a few questions before class. No question is too simple, so don’t be sheepish: there is always someone in the room thinking the same thing. (On the flip side, there is such thing as an overly complicated question. Any question containing an advanced form of punctuation, such as a semi-colon, should be rethought)
  3. Have the courage to turn the class into a conversation. I like to begin class with about 15/minutes of summary lecture of the material for the day and then have a spirited back and forth regarding the key themes outlined. The easiest thing for a professor to do is to talk for 75 minutes about a subject that they love. But that isn’t very exciting for you (or for us, really, since we’re just saying what we think we know). It is the unpredictability of the classroom that really makes people learn. This works on both sides of the faculty/student divide.
  4.  See point (3) above and know that I am very sincere when I write it. When I was an undergraduate I remember a professor telling me that he really valued our opinions. I didn’t put much thought into that until he thanked his students in the acknowledgements to one of his books. He meant it. So do I.