War had changed in the years leading up to 1914. Never before had armies been so large, never before had there been such a robust and developed rail network to move the troops around, never before had there been such large concentrations of machine guns and artillery. The armies of 1914 were products of strategic and technological choices made in the late 19th and early 20th century. In this episode we discuss the history of those choices and how the European conflicts of the 19th century directly affected how the war was fought in 1914.
Hello, and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 2. In our march towards war we land upon July 5th, on this day one of the great contributing factors to the start of the war occurred. It was on this day that, and I’m going to slaughter this name here, Ladislaus Szogyeni-Marich, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Germany, gave to Kaiser Wilhelm two documents from his government that discussed the situation in the Balkans and stressed the need for immediate action. After some pressure from the ambassador, the Kaiser said that Germany would give Austria-Hungary its full support in whatever action it chose to take in the Balkans, even if it meant war with Russia. This decision was later confirmed by a German council of ministers. Germany had given Austria-Hungary a “blank check” and was now committed to following whichever path Austria-Hungary chose. Several weeks later this agreement between the two countries would play a big role in the events when the war started. This episode however is not about this decision, the decision was made and you should log it away because I will be referring to it extensively in episode 4.
I struggled a bit with the name for this episode but I settled on the title “War Has Changed.” Because in the decades leading up to 1914 war really had changed. Today we will first look at some of the large military conflicts in the 19th century that affected how the nations in Europe would prepare for and fight the opening months of the first world war. We will then look at some of the national philosophies that had changed that allowed the belligerents to fight a war on the scale that would be seen in the years between 1914 and 1918. Finally, we will look at some of the tools that soldiers would be using that underwent fundamental changes leading up to the war.
The 19th century was one of great military changes. The first few decades saw the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. From 1803 to 1815 France, under the leadership of Napoleon, was at war with various countries throughout Europe, the only constant was the standing state of war between Britain and France. In spite of several coalitions of nations Napoleon, and his French army, eventually controlled most of Europe either directly or indirectly. It was not until his ill-fated invasion of Russia that Napoleon’s star began to fall. Throughout the 12 years of war the battles became larger and larger. The battle of Austerlitz was considered one of Napoleon’s greatest victories, taking place in 1805 and involving about 160k soldiers. By 1813 Austerlitz was dwarfed by Leipzig, the largest battle ever fought at that time, with 600k soldiers involved in the fighting. With armies of this size it became impossible for one man, even the great Napoleon, to keep control of all the fighting. This led to the French using the structure of having a Corps commanded by a Marshal who, while taking orders from Napoleon, had complete control over his troops. Through this more flexible system a general like Napoleon could move the pieces of his army around the battlefield even though the pieces were larger than any time in history.
Napoleon was eventually defeated in 1815 at Waterloo and the staggering effects of the wars led to the creation of the Concert of Europe. The Concert of Europe was a loose organization of the major European powers who made an attempt to prevent a large war from happening again through maintaining the balance of power on the continent. It was used as a venue to organize treaties between nations, not unlike the modern United Nations, from 1815 until the outbreak of war in 1914. This group wasn’t an iron clad alliance between the nations involved and its attempts to maintain peace were not always successful. An example of members of the concert going to war with each other was the Crimean war which started in 1853.
The Crimean war was fought on the Crimea peninsula in modern day Ukraine between 1853 and 1856 with Russia on one side and France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire on the other. The war began due to Russia’s expansion into the Black Sea region in search of a warm water port for its navy. A warm water port would be navigable through the entire year whereas all the major ports in Russia were in areas that would have a lot of ice in the winter. Another big driver for the war was France’s desire to regain the prestige it lost after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. This war continued the decline of the Ottoman Empire which would lead to the independence of the Balkan countries a few decades later.
Two big military innovations were seen in this conflict that would be big influences on the combat in World War 1 the evolution of indirect artillery fire and the extensive use of entrenched positions. There were many instances of indirect artillery support during the war. It had been used in previous conflicts but this was one of the first times it was saw massed and purposeful use. The experiences in this war with indirect artillery fire would have an effect on artillery development in the coming decades. Battles such as the long siege of Sevastopol saw extensive use of large trenched defensive systems. These were used for the protection of both armies during the siege. These large trench systems would be a precursor to the even larger systems used in World War 1.
The last big conflict in Western Europe prior to 1914 was the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. This war was fought by France and an Alliance of German states led by Prussia. At this point Prussia either directly controlled or had strong alliances with all of northern Germany. It was only a few southern states that were not under Prussian influence. Prussia was keen to start a war to help in its goal of unifying Germany under its rule and it saw a defeat of France as a great way to increase its prestige.
As would be the case in 1914 the armies of France and Germany had access to similar technologies for their military with the only major differences being a better infantry rifle for the French and an advantage in artillery for the Germans. The major advantage that Prussia had was in its organization of its armed forces. Prussia had a far more comprehensive system of conscription and mobilization that allowed it to field an army much larger than France could in the same amount of time. This allowed the Prussians to maintain a numerical advantage in almost all the battles in the war. The Prussians also had a more advanced command structure that utilized a General Staff that worked closely together to control the entirety of the Prussian military. This allowed the Prussian Armies to be far more coordinated with each other than the French armies. Both of these advantages were used by the Prussians to greatly out-maneuver their French counterparts and all of the countries taking part in World War 1 would do their best to mimic to Prussian system used in 1870.
At the start of the war France took a defensive stance, split their forces into two armies, and waited for the Prussians to attack. Due to their numerical superiority and coordination the Prussians quickly separated the two armies and forced one into a siege at Metz. With half of its manpower trapped in Metz the second army was forced to try and rescue them. This movement resulted in the Battle of Sedan. At Sedan the French army was soundly beaten and surrounded, after a day of fighting the army surrendered to the Prussians. The defeat resulted in over 45,000 Frenchmen being killed or captured including the Emperor of France Napoleon the third. The result of this battle sealed the result of the war, although it would go on for another six months. With the Emperor captured a new government was formed in Paris to continue the fighting, and the Third French Republic was formed. The Prussians continued their advance through spotty resistance finally settling into a siege around Paris in September. It would be four months before Paris surrendered at which point an armistice was signed to end the war. The French were forced to pay 5 billion francs to the Prussians and forced to give large areas of Alsace and Lorraine, two Eastern French territories, to the Prussians. These terms, coupled with the humiliating defeat, would create very strong anti-German sentiment that would play a part in bringing France into World War 1 and also would influence the strategy used by its armies in the opening weeks of the war.
While France suffered a humiliating defeat in 1870, its last major conflict prior to 1914, its future ally Russia would also suffer a similarly humiliating defeat in 1904 at the hands of the Japanese. In 1904 the Russian Empire and the Japanese Empire went to war in Eastern Asia over territorial disputes in the region. Throughout the war Russia suffered defeat after defeat. The first defeat was suffered at Port Arthur where the entirety of the Russian Pacific fleet was blockaded by a Japanese fleet. At the same time the Japanese army was attempting to take the city by land. In December 1904 after months of heavy fighting the Japanese gained a critical hill overlooking the port and began shelling the Russian Navy with artillery. In January 1905, to the shock of the Russian Government and the Japanese, the garrison at Port Arthur surrendered. This was a massive blow to the Russian military, it had lost its pacific fleet and its largest naval base in the Pacific. To make matters worse a few months earlier the Russians had dispatched their Baltic fleet to the Pacific which entailed a seven month journey around Africa. When the fleet did finally arrive in the Pacific it was quickly found and destroyed by the Japanese fleet at the battle of Tsushima. Finally, in September 1905 the Russian government sued for peace and were forced to hand control of Manchuria over to the Japanese as well as agree that Korea was in the Japanese sphere of influence.
The results of the war shocked Russia and other European countries. It was the first time in the modern era that an Eastern country had defeated a Western great power. There were many European observers on both sides of the conflict to observe the fighting and they made detailed reports back to their governments with what they saw. The Russian army was found be in serious need of modernization and the Russian navy almost ceased to exist. The war was also a great showcase for the new military technology of machine guns. Many observers pointed out the massive casualties sustained by attacking troops due to the usage of entrenched machine guns. If the governments of Europe listened to these observers in 1904 some of their advice must have been forgotten before 1914.
The last European conflict before the start of World War 1 was the Balkan wars in 1912-1913. These wars pitted first the Balkan countries of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro with the support of Russia against the Ottoman Empire. The first war was started by the Balkan countries who sought to expand their territory into some provinces of the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans were decisively defeated in the conflict and much like the Russians in 1904 their military was shown to be ineffective and very outdated. It took only six months for the Ottomans to surrender and in the process they lost virtually all of their territory in the Balkans. The Balkan states split up the resulting territorial gains which greatly enlarged their territories. In late 1913 the second Balkan war was fought between Bulgaria and its former allies to settle a few squabbles about how the territories had been split up, the war lasted a little over a month and it resulted in Bulgaria being defeated with Serbia left as the clear military power in the Balkans. The complete defeat of the Ottoman Empire was a concern to the other countries in Europe as they were, at the time, considered one of Europe’s major power. The events just continued the trend of Ottoman decline and would be a precursor to the mostly disastrous military campaigns by the Ottomans in World War 1. The Balkan states gained a great amount of respect during the conflict and were shown to be a serious military threat to the other countries in the region something that Austria would discount almost entirely in 1914.
Combat over the length of the 19th century changed a lot. As we have looked at Europe went from the Napoleonic wars where maneuvering was key to the long slow slog of trench warfare to seemingly great power being defeated by coalitions of tiny countries in the Balkans. Over this time the way in which nations waged war also changed. As nations and populations grew larger it required new dedication from all citizens of a nation when their country went to war. This gave rise to two big changes in the way societies participated in war, the concept of mass mobilization and the concept of total war.
Mass mobilization, which is the quick call up and deployment of a nation’s military assets over a short period of time, would play a huge role in World War 1. In a conflict where millions of men are moving to the front it is critical that a nation prepare for such a large transition from peace to war. A lot of the preparation done by the countries of Europe revolved around the use of railroads for troop movements. Railways were really the only way to move men and material on the scale required in 1914 and this led to a massive increase in railway investment in the years leading up to the war. David Stevenson wrote an interesting piece focusing strictly on the role the national railways played in the events of the war in his piece entitled War by Timetable? The Railway Race Before 1914 in it he mentions the rivalry between nations to build more and more railways. This competition between nations resulted in an almost tripling of the railway mileage in Europe between 1870 and 1914. When it came time for mobilization in late July 1914 both France and Germany utilized over 11 thousand trains all moving towards the front. In some Western German and Eastern French railways stations trains went by every 4 minutes. By early August 1914 Germany and France, the countries with the best railways in Europe, had moved over 1.5 and 1.3 million men to the front. The ability to move men on this scale allowed the Germans to begin to invade Luxembourg on August 1, just 2 days after they started mobilization. Russia wasn’t so lucky, having a far less dense railway network and far greater geographical distances to traverse. They were forced to begin their offensive in the East with just 800,000 men instead of over a million as planned, this would have a great effect on the outcome of their battles in 1914.
Over the course of the war millions and millions more men were mobilized. Some numbers that almost boggle the mind: Russia 12 million, Britain 9 million, France 8.5 million, Germany 11 million, Austria-Hungary 7.8 million. Having this many personnel mobilized required a new kind of dedication to the war effort by every citizen. World War 1 was in every sense of the word a total war. Total War is the concept that when a nation enters a war they commit everything available to the war be it men, materials, technology, everything. War had not always been like this, there were many factors in the late 18th century that caused wars to become more and more consuming such as the rise of nationalism, or the idea of the citizens of a country fighting not for survival or for a king but for their country. While this sort of idea had been present for several centuries the revolutions of the late 1700s crystalized this idea and made it a big driving force in events. Another reason for this change was the rise in the size of armies, as we discussed just a bit ago when discussing the Napoleonic wars the armies kept growing and growing. As an army grows the cost of supporting and maintaining that army grows which requires more and more of the economic output of a country to sustain. Most nations had not properly prepared for what the war would be like due to the very common belief that the war would be over quick resulting in no real plans for what would happen when millions of men were taken out of the work force for several years. In the great war huge percentages of the young men from every country were utilized in the war effort, by 1918 France and Germany had 20% of their 1914 population number in the military. These huge armies also required a complete change in economic output to support the soldiers. Almost all of the European countries implemented harsh rationing during the war and in Germany specifically shortages became very severe due to the British blockade of German ports. These economic shortages resulted in the entire society feeling the negative effects of the war, even if they weren’t at the front.
The ideas of what it would take to fight a war had changed over the decades leading up to 1914 and the technology that would be used to fight the war had also drastically changed. The last few decades of the 19th century saw two huge changes in the form of the development of the machine gun and the drastic improvements made to artillery. There were also two developments in the early 20th century that, while not hugely influential in 1914, would leave a huge stamp on the war before 1918 the airplane and the motor vehicle. These four technologies would change how the war was fought, although they would teach some very harsh lessons first.
The machine gun had been a dream of military men around the world for generations. In the middle of the 19th century those dreams started to become a reality. There were several early machine guns and perhaps the most famous was the Gatling gun. This saw some action in both the American Civil War and the Franco Prussian war. Its design was one of multiple gun barrels that were spun by a hand crank. This spinning action loaded, fired, and ejected the shell casing automatically. This was a huge improvement on any previous attempt but there were still some serious drawbacks. First, the gun was mounted on an artillery carriage which meant it had to be pulled by horses and it was hard to manhandle into positon. The second, and related problem, was that with it being on top of an artillery carriage it required the men operating the device to be very exposed to fire from the enemy. Finally, at the time there wasn’t such a thing as smokeless powder, every shot gave off a small puff of smoke, this made it very obvious where the gun was and made it a very very big target for enemy fire.
The next big innovation for machine guns came in 1884 with the creation of the Maxim gun which took away a lot of the disadvantages that the Gatling gun was saddled with. The Maxim gun brought the gun much closer to the ground, being able to be operated while in the prone position. It also incorporated the first smokeless gunpowder, meaning that the crew operating the gun had better visibility and they could remain hidden from the enemy more effectively. The biggest innovation was the use of part of the explosive power of the previous shot to automatically work the action on the gun. This meant that all the user had to do was pull the trigger and the gun would continue to fire itself. This design used just one gun barrel and because of this it required better cooling which resulted in the gun barrel being surrounded by a casing that was filled with water. By water cooling the gun the fire could be continued for much longer than it could have been using air cooling. After a few jamming problems early in its life by 1914 the Maxim, and copies of it in other armies, was used by all of the participants in the first world war.
The weapon that would cause the most deaths in the four years of the first world war was artillery. Artillery had been used for centuries, ever since the invention of gunpowder by the Chinese in the 9th century. However there were four big advancements in artillery that would make it the most deadly weapon on the battlefield, breech loading, rifling, recoil compensation, and the concept of indirect fire. Just as breech loading revolutionized the infantry weapon by increasing the rate of fire of an individual soldier breech loading artillery allowed for a greater sustained rate of fire for artillery pieces. It was also safer for the artillery crew to operate the system since it didn’t involve long periods of being exposed in front of the artillery piece. The problem with breech loading, and what made it so hard to actually accomplish was the need for the mechanic pieces of the breech to be strong enough to withstand the force generated by the firing of the gun but also be able to be open afterwards. It wasn’t until some advances in metallurgy and precision engineering that it was possible to create a breech that could be screwed into place and not jam when the charge was detonated. Rifling was another advancement shared between infantry weapons and artillery guns. By rifling the barrel of the gun the shell could travel farther and had a far more predictable flight path. This allowed for artillery to be further away from the battle lines but it also made artillery fire and aiming more scientific and able to be calculated. However, until the invention of the recoil compensation system these calculations wouldn’t have helped because the gun had to be re-aimed after every shot. The recoil compensation system, which was pioneered by the famous French 75, used pneumatics to compensate for the recoil of firing the weapon. Whereas before firing an old artillery gun would result in the whole gun being pushed back some distance the French 75 would stay roughly in the same spot after every firing. This allowed for artillery pieces to really use the increased fire that breech loading allowed while still being able to maintain some form of accuracy.
All of these technological advancements allowed for a the tactical idea of indirect artillery fire. Before this concept artillery usually was placed in a position and then fired at threats that they could see. This usually involved placing your artillery in some sort of elevated position where they were vulnerable to counter battery fire from the opposing artillery. With the greater range and accuracy provided by the rifling of the gun barrels the artillery pieces could actually be moved further back and into a location where they couldn’t see their targets but still fire upon them. This obviously offered some advantages with the artillery being almost immune to small arms infantry fire it did however sacrifice accuracy usually requiring an extensive period of “registering” the guns on specific targets before the battle would begin. This indirect fire also made howitzers more important, in essence a howitzer is just an artillery gun with a high angle of fire which allows it to loft shells over obstacles. This high angle of attack became very important when you were trying to hit the enemy artillery who were hiding behind a hill just like you were.
While Machine Guns and artillery had a direct and immediate impact on the war two technologies that would take a bit longer to make their impact were airplanes and motor vehicles. Airplanes would have a massive impact on later wars, but in 1914 they were mostly just used for reconnaissance. They also came to be used for artillery spotting. They would observe the impact of artillery shots and then fly back to their lines to drop a message canister to the gunners, obviously after the use of the wireless radio became practical it was much easier for this artillery spotting role to be fulfilled. While we will discuss the evolution of airplanes in far more detail in a later episode over the course of the war they would evolve rapidly to the point where the skies over France saw the first aerial dogfights in history. Motor vehicles were also used in 1914 although very rarely. Until the usage of the tank later on, vehicles were mostly used at transports with all sides having at least some form of motorized cargo trucks. Perhaps the most famous use of motor vehicles, at least until the unveiling of the tank in 1916, was the usage of Paris taxis to ferry troops to the battle of the Marne in 1914. Another interesting fact was that General Joffre of the French Army had the winner of the 1912 French Gran Prix Georges Boillot as his driver in the early months of the war to quickly move him between his army corps. Airplanes and vehicles would come to define future 20th century wars and they found their start in 1914.
In the century leading up to 1914 war had changed. In 1805 the biggest battles in the world were fought with 160,000 men on a battlefield marching in formation with muzzle loading muskets and artillery with one man able to command entire armies. In 1914 millions of men would meet on battlefields spanning hundreds of miles marching with machine guns and breech loading rifles and artillery. The armies would be transported by rail to the battlefield and they would be supplied by those same railways. Airplanes may be in the sky and some of the soldiers may have ridden to the battle in a truck. War had changed, and the army commanders of Europe weren’t ready. Next week we will take a closer look at those commanders and the plans they had to devised to try and win the war.