In considering WW1 and its aftermath it is important to understand why that war was so destructive. In many ways the horror of the Great War was an oddity of historical timing. Had the war began earlier or later than it had the results would have been much different.
WW1 was such a horrific war because it was fought in an odd cusp of military history. It was fought in a time where the defensive in military strategy had the upper hand. Most times in history the side that had the advantage of movement was the side that had the military victory. This is why the Huns, Mongols, Magyars and other people of the steppes were able to roll over their more settled opponents. Time and time again the mobile shock troops of “barbarian” horsemen were able to make short work of the entrenched defenses of their more settled and “civilized” opponents.
WW1 was different. Trenches, barbed wire, artillery fire, and machine guns tilted the tactical advantage to the defenders. Once the Germans exhausted themselves in the initial push of the Scheflin plan both sides had no more bright ideas. The front was stabilized and the attempt of both sides to outflank each other (the “race to the sea”) quickly failed because of geographic constraints.
Both sides now found themselves in a war of attrition. It was a situation that no one was really prepared for. The only historical references either side had was the US Civil war. As this war was far away in both time and geography it was treated as a curiosity by the Continental military schools if it were treated at all.
Thus all the combatants were left with the strategy of the “big push.” Armies would attempt near suicidal assaults for pitiful gains. The meat-grinder strategies and tactics left both military and general history with the name of battles that are by-words for futility.
As the war ground on and on the weaker political entities started to unravel. The first to show the strain was Russia. Russia in WW1 is the best example of the difference between power in theory and power in actuality. Russia looked absolutely awesome on paper. It had superfluity of men under arms. All those Russian Divisions looked terrifying to a military planner on the opposing side. In reality it was a totally different story. It is next to impossible to find a more incompetent political-military structure in history than the one that “lead” the Russians in WW1.
The Russian rot started right at the top. The Czar of all the Russians was the wrong man at the wrong time. In another time, in another social-political structure Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov, Czar and Autocrat of all the Russian, would have been a fine constitutional monarch. Nicholas II was a man of impeccable breeding and the finest of manners. He was a devoted family man and a deeply religious person. His effortless charm would be perfect for the daily routine that modern monarchs find themselves employed with: opening public buildings, making small talk with the unwashed masses, planting symbolic trees, visiting the odd school yard, meeting artistic types, and so forth. In short, he would be perfect for a position that did not require him to actually govern.
Alas for Nicky, he found himself in a position that he had neither the wit, nor the intelligence, nor the luck to manage. Not only was the man hopelessly incompetent, he was cursed. No matter which decision he made it was always the wrong one. His last words were both typical and pathetic. Informed of his immanent execution it is claimed that his last words where “what, what?” just before the bullets flew.
Placed under the unrelenting pressure that is a war of attrition Russia shattered. The implosion began in the Battle of Tannenburg and never stopped until near the end of the Russian Revolution. Only the ruthless actions of Trotsky and his Red Army finally stabilized the situation.
Russia was not the only country to come unraveled by the pressures of the Great War. The Hapsburg dominions also did not survive the stress. By the end of the conflict not only were ethnic grouping spinning away from Vienna forming their own political entities but the army was no longer under control of the Empire. The Germans, disgusted with the inefficient and inept leadership that the dual monarchy was providing had taken over the running of the Austro-Hungarian forces.
While the Germans were reorganizing their allies affairs they also decided to reorganized their own affairs. The Prussian generals who were running the war made one of the more rational decisions of the war: they consigned their monarch to the dust bin of history. The generals had a war to win and the German Keizer was a hopeless leader.
Wilhelm II was a constantly distracted and peripatetic leader. He was man bursting with an excess of ideas and catastrophic lack of follow through. His over-reliance on his personal relations with his fellow monarchs was one of the major caused of the move toward war. He never understood how his own government worked and how his elites had stolen the march on him. In this cluelessness he was matched by his good friend and fellow monarch “Nicky.”
Equally out of sorts was the leader of the Dual Monarchy Franz Joseph I. The Octogenarian Monarch lost control of the ship of state and let his fragile nation be lead into a war that it could not possibly survive. The pressures of the War to End All Wars allowed the centripetal forces always working underneath the grand façade of the empire to rip apart the Hapsburg dominions into its constituent and sub-constituent parts. The only way Austria-Hungary would have survived WW1 was to never get involved in the first place. The irony is that it was Vienna’s insistence in the extermination of Serbia that cause the obliteration of the Empire.
At the core of the disaster of the First World War were the machinations of the great Empires and the crass calculations of political power. Those calculations caused great nation states to come to blows over ephemera. The rise of Serbia in the Balkans was never an existential threat to the Hapsburg position in Europe. The Dual Monarchy was a solid, if shabby, fourth place power in the pecking order of the day. Serbia, at best, barely rated being a fly in the ointment for the Austrians. It was Austria’s insistence of using a sledgehammer on the gnat of Serbia that caused the situation to get out of hand.
The alliance structure of the time and the time-tables of the involved militaries caused an unstoppable momentum of their own. Plans that had been on the drawing boards for a generation took on a life and an awful logic of their own. With each “logical” step dictated by the last, the European powers found themselves in a conflict that none of monarchs actually wanted. The nations involved found themselves in a nightmare war of attrition that had no good end for any of them.
The Western front became a vast charnel house because neither side had any other option other than tossing more men into the gaping maw of trench warfare. As the losses mounted up each side was that much more unwilling to accept any other result than full victory. The stalemate was only broken by two things, the development of the tank and the entry of the United States. The tank finally allowed a war of movement and the US Doughboys weight of numbers wrenched the scales of war in favor of the allied governments.
Unfortunately for the great Colonial European powers by the time the hostilities had ended they had managed to thoroughly discredit the prewar status quo. The rule of the prewar elites was prefaced by the claim that they had superior knowledge and abilities to ordinary people. The obvious disaster of WW1 belied such claims. The highly bred, highly trained, “natural leaders” managed to drive their respective nations off a cliff. Instead of brilliant performance, the status quo power structures had delivered breathtaking incompetence. A mountain of young mens' deaths had achieved a mole hill of results. The long twilight struggle of attritional warfare either destroyed the great powers of Europe or hollowed them out to the point that they were walking corpses. As noted before, the leadership that somehow managed not to get themselves killed in the trenches, a very small cohort, had lost all legitimacy with base population; the ordinary citizens had lost all enthusiasm for dying for king and country in obscure parts of the world. The ordinary citizen was no longer interested in glory unless it could be purchased on the cheap.
If there is one thing that stands out from WW1 more than anything else is how conventional thinking by the “right kind of people” can place blinders on people and nations. The nostrums of great power politics in 1917, the calculus of power, lead to results that were catastrophic. Bismarck saw this all too clearly and moved heaven and earth to make sure that Germany did not get involved in some “damn fool thing in the Balkans.” He correctly surmised that the entire area was not "worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier.” With his departure Europe was soon to be buried in the bones of millions of men. The awful illogic of preserving the power and prestige of the various participatory Empires quickly drowned out any still small voices pleading for reason.
Thus in order to prevent a decline of their relative power and position in the grand game of European statecraft the participants of the Great War managed to not only totally erase that power but themselves too. It is a harsh warning to our times : by trying to maintain global leadership you can actually managed to completely undermine one’s leadership position.
Cross Posted at History Isn't What It Used To Be