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The War to end all wars: The First World War

December 9, 2021

Micheal Howard’s treatment of the First World War is a succint description of the horrors, challenges, tactics, politics, and sentiments that paved the way for one of the bloodiest wars the world had ever seen.

Overview of the causes of WW1

Karl von Clausewitz, after the Napoleanic Wars noted that war was a trinity of the government, the activities of the military, and “the passions of the people”. Howard goes on to unravel in great detail how these came together to become the causes of WW1. Now, to pinpoint any single event as the cause of WW1 is a risky business as is any such ordeal in history.

The First World War was a culminative result of an ambitious German Empire bent on repressing socialist uprising by feeding monarchistic sentiments and the idea of a Weltmacht or a World Power to the masses, surrounded by nations that were anxious to restore their lost territories and statuses in former defeats (France) with the aid of a disorganized, underdeveloped, yet resourceful ally (Russia). In 1914, Britain was interested in dominating its Colonial supremacy, a result of its excellent sea power (The Royal Navy) and monitoring threatening developments in the Continent. It was the most industrialized and urbanized nation in Europe. The Germans, though being the most powerful Empire, had to beat Britain if it were to convince its people of the rightful superiority of the German race, a result of its active (and glorious) advancements in the fields of art, music, culture, science, and technology. Some of the greatest leaders and thinkers were Germans: Wagner, Beethoven, Bach, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, and so on. It was decisive that a nation which such a diverse and advanced tapestry would grow politically ambitious. Then, of course, there existed the Balkan and Ottoman issues.

Thus, Europe found itself in the midst of these conflicted self-interests of Great Powers and everybody knew that a war was inevitable, which was finally initiated when Austria declared war on Serbia after the assasination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and indirectly because Austria was apprehensive of the Russian-backed Serbian victories in the Balkan Wars. Germany invaded neutral Belgium to take on France and Britain, being unhappy at Germany actions, declared war on August 4th, 1914.

The continuation of the war

Everyone involved believed the war to be a short and decisive one, leading to a quick territorial change in the European subcontinent but they were all mistaken. The war, instead, dragged on and got more bloodier, violent, and inhumane as countries rushed to develop more lethal and barbaric weapons and ruthless strategies. The battlefields of Somme, Verdun, and Passchendaele bore witness to the destruction and death these nations bore in order to uphold their dignity in the European political landscape. The First World War was a war of many firsts.

The Germans unleashed chemical weapons, followed a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare (a violation of their previous treaties), air bombings (“Zeppelins”), German generals deployed innovative tactics (Bruchmuller’s “storm troopers”) and in general, displayed increasingly savage behaviours throughout the war. The British developed “tanks” and low-altitude airplanes, with resources from its ample colonies and trading with America (The US joined in 1917 and later considered it to be a mistake). The French were experienced fighters having fought some of the most historic wars till date. The Russians were able to mobilized and upgrade its industrial and armament sector mainly because of French investment, fueled by a “nationwide allegaince to the Monarch” but unfortunately, it amounted to little when the Czar was forced to abdicate in March 1917 (and later assasinated with his family) by Socialists and the subsequently creation of the Soviet Union led by the Bolsheviks who signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March, 1918 and ended Russia’s participation in World War I.

The conclusion of the war

The famous Treaty of Versailles of June 1919 was particularly hard on an already straining German economy, not to mention the humiliation faced by the Germans whose objective for the offensive was to become Weltmacht, their right as World Power. The sentiment was so strong that most Germans believed they have been deprived of their victory and blamed the Reichsfeinde (Socialists and Jews). The public imagination of Germany was up for grabs for any ideology which could pacify its apprehensions and promise restoration of its “rightful place”. Indeed, Germany would find such a charismatic leader in Adolf Hitler in 1933.

Author’s note

Arguably, what I present here is just a slice of the dynamics and web of cause and effects that motivated and prolonged WW1. I don’t aim to be comprehensive in my treatment of the subject and leave that to more able hands (Indeed, I haven’t touched on the developments on the two Fronts and overseas colonies). The following list is heavily inspired by Howard’s book.

Further reading

The subject of World War 1 is a vast and daunting field. A general overview of the big pictures followed by detailed examination of granular events is how one might choose to proceed.

  1. Howard, Michael: The First World War, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford (Great first introduction)
  2. Strachan. Hew (ed.): The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, Oxford University Press
  3. Joll, James; Martel, Gordon: The Origins of the First World War, 3rd edition, Routledge (Just the origins)

For more, refer to Howard’s further reading section. Happy learning!

Basil | @itbwtsh

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Basil blogs about complex topics in simple words.
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