Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Big One, Plus One Hundred

Your humble narrator has not devoted much attention to this year's big centennial, the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, for which he offers this explanation: the critical events of the First World War rarely fit into a single day, but rather stretched over several days or weeks or (in the case of battles like the Somme) several months. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, to be sure, was exceptionally sudden, but it took another month for German leaders to goad Austria into picking a fight with the Russians and the Serbs. It took another week after that for France, Belgium, and Britain to enter the war, and when the first major engagement on the Western Front, the Battle of the Marne, erupted in September, it took the Allies another full week of barrages, alarms, and excursions to halt the German advance. One can't easily devote a day here and a day there to commemorating the anniversaries of important battles and events, as one can do with, for example, the Napoleonic Wars.

I can suggest one excellent recent book on the outbreak of the war, David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer (2004).* Contra Barbara Tuchman's classic but dated The Guns of August (1962), Fromkin observes that WWI resulted not from a series of interlocking blunders but from definite decisions by two of the Great Powers: Austria, which wanted to use the Sarajevo assassination as an excuse to crush Serb nationalism, and Germany, which made the price of its assistance an Austrian war against Serbia's ally Russia, whose growing economic and military might German generals feared. As Norman Stone pointed out in his own study of the war, Gavrilo Princip took the fall for a disaster that Germany would probably have engineered anyway. (World War One [Basic Books, 2009], p. 23)

For the war itself, Mental Floss's blogger Erik Sass has been doing a fine job summarizing the major developments of 1914, using seldom-seen photographs and witnesses from both sides of the battle lines. Among the events he's covered so far are the Battle of the Marne (5-12 September 1914), whose outcome he connects to two of the largest problems facing the commanders of wartime offensives: the huge advantage that rail transport (not to mention Paris taxis) gave defending armies, and the difficulty of coordinating the movement of multiple corps of soldiers. Sass also offers essays on the German capture of Antwerp (7-10 October), whose final days one observer described as a “glorious and fascinating nightmare”; the First Battle of Ypres (12 October – 12 November 1914), which sucked in a million soldiers and killed or wounded 300,000 of them, allegedly including several divisions of German college students; and the forgotten battles beyond Europe, like Qingdao, Basra, and Coronel. I look forward to his account of the famous “Christmas Truce” a few weeks hence.

Finally, while it is a trifle shallow, this Daily Mail article demonstrates that life in wartime Britain wasn't nearly as dowdy and stoical as Britons later remembered, unless there is something dowdy about cocaine, binge drinking, and casual sex.

The images above are from "Apocalypse at Ypres," the third Mental Floss link from paragraph three, and "The Marne Taxis," by Leon Loupy (http://www.worldwar1.com/heritage/marnetaxis.htm).

* One caveat to my review of Fromkin's book: the “cheering crowds” that greeted the war actually represented a small minority of their countries' populations, most of whom found the news bewildering or dismaying.