World War I Combat History Part I- The problems of 1914

As I was contemplating what a spectacular time this is for military history, I decided to start beefing up my knowledge on World War I.

This book was brought to my attention via the New York Journal of Books, my new and most excellent venture into the world of free books for book reviews and I decided to read it on my own.

I will give my full review of the book later, but I considered that each year of the war provided a unique strategic challenge to the combatants and a detailed examination of the strategic and operational challenges faced by each side on the various battle fronts might provide some interesting insights.

First of all, in spite of a general lack of knowledge  by most Americans of this most crucial war, probably THE critical war of the 20th century, there have arisen many myths and "truths" about the war the I suspect the author is going to challenge.  The whole issue of "the mindless slaughter of trench warfare" is likely the biggest myth to be challenged, so I look foward to what Mr. Hart has to say.

Looking at the beginning of the war in 1914, what do the military actions of the Great Powers tell us?  Quite a lot, if you take a dispassionate and realpolitik viewpoint of their actions.  From a strictly historical point, our old friend Thucydides is always timeless and relevant--> FEAR, HONOR, INTEREST provide an excellent framework to understand why and how the events of 1914 played out.

As Mr. Hart points out, Germany and her ally Austria-Hungary, were pivotal to understanding why a seemingly minor terrorist incident, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, ignited a world war.  First, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dying a slow death as it was coming apart at the ethnic seems.  Serbian nationalism was a festering sore that the Austrians hoped to lance once and for all.  Compounding this issue was the general fear of Germany that the correlation of military power was not in their favor long term, and it was to their advantage to fight what the General Staff hoped would be a short, quick campaign against France-a la 1870, before turning to deal with the growing colossus of Russia.

So factoring interest with fear, to the Germans, a war in 1914 seemed perfectly logical and in their strategic interests.

The problem for the Germans was their inability to balance ends, ways, and means to achieve their strategic goals.  Or, in the realm of "grand strategy" the Germans had no real plan to match their political goals with their military capability...forgetting their Clausewitz or even the style of Chancellor Bismarck.  It is very unclear to this Grouchy Historian what the desired end state was when the German Army crossed the Belgian frontier in 1914.  Assuming the Germans had achieved some measure of victory and captured Paris in 1914---> THEN WHAT?  Would they have turned their army east to face the leviathan Russian Army?  What exactly was their plan?  This seems to be a common theme in 20th century German military history...they dazzle at tactical and operational levels of warfare but have no freakin' strategy. Germany was certainly between a rock and a hard place, but it appears that the General Staff did their war planning cut off from the political and diplomatic parts of the government and had no clue how to end the war...if it could even be ended. 

Although the Germans crushed the tactically inept Russians at The Battle of Tannenberg, one is left wondering how they planned to conclude the war with Russia.  Certainly an invasion and drive on Moscow was not even considered, nor was their any notion of a coordinated war plan with Turkey and Austria, so one is left wondering how 1914 could have ended favorably for Germany?

This leads to Hart's sorta snarky observation that World War I, begun in the mind of all the European powers as a short, sharp decisive war, was destined to become a morass of blood and frustration as none of them understood the new technologies of the machine gun, bolt action rifle, or the mundane trenching tool and how the old notion of infantry charges were forever doomed.  His point that the only way to have won the war was to avoid it is certainly logical in hindsight but the combination of Thucydides logic and political and military naivete about the changes to warfare made the war all but inevitable.

1914 ended with a lot of dead soldiers, dug in troops wondering what comes next..and various republics and empires just waking up to the military, social, and economic challenges their countries were facing.  There was no decisive victory for anyone and certainly no end to the war in sight.