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The Great War V

Misreading the Lessons of Past Battles

If there is anything clear by now and by the end of this series, it is the fact that  strategic plans and preparations were almost exclusively based on the Franco-Prussian War. Not only its outcome, but predominantly the tactics and techniques utilized by Prussia drove other countries to adopt the of warfare a la Prusse, through which the impact of the industrial revolution along with the deployment of massive armies allowed to concentrate And that the armies (mostly the Prussian one) were able toproving a rapid decision to the war. Such rapid decision, in addition, made all of the armies and strategists in Europe to prepare for a future war to be defined within a very short period of [1]. Rather unnoticed consequences of the Franco-Prussian war were the Plan Schlieffen as well as the French desire for revenge and its military and diplomatic preparations for it. Both ignored or dismissed the hints given on how a much modern warfare would be like. Those hints were given by two other wars: The American Civil War, and the Russo-Japanese War[2].

In the case of the American Civil War, the encounter between the changes being introduced by the industrial revolution and the introduction of new assets (like machine guns and ironclads) made the war not only a bloody conflict, but also a war that would take a considerable period of time. Of course, there were other elements such as the nature of the theatres of operations and the extent of the territory where the war took place. But those factors also meant that a great effort in logistics and the procurement of resources to wage the war was another factor too big to be ignored, since they forced the contenders to do so. The utilization in the battlefield of some of the new weapons would be able to do a lot of casualties to the advancing party at the point of halting the advance (Grant, 2006; Keegan, 2012; Kennedy, 2004). Half a century later at the fields of Mons, Somme and Marne, these consequences were to be witnessed.

The Russo – Japanese war also gave some hints about the nature of the war about to come: the Japanese charges against the Russian trenches and barbwires in the battles of Port Arthur and Mukden left many casualties, thanks to the machine guns (Kennedy, 2004). Even if this was impressive for foreign observers at the time, the casualties and the reasons for them went entirely unnoticed or were not properly analysed. As a result, similar charges against trenches, barbwires and machine guns were in the order of the day during the Great War. Perhaps it was the fact that the Japanese conquered the Russian trenches at the end which made the generals – from both sides and right after the war derived into trenches –think attacks as such would be successful.

But the most striking fact was that of all the armies that took part in the war, the British army was the least prepared – despite the negative experiences in the Crimea War, as Kennedy remarks (2004)[3]. Not only the time distance between the Great War and the Crimea war, but the British Empire’s lack of will to take part in a war might explain this[4]. But these are not the only factors. For instance, the  excessive reliance on the ideas of liberalism and interdependence made the British Government thinking that other nations would follow such path, and that economic interdependence along with diplomacy would prevent a war (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013)[5]. Paradoxically, the continuous clashes with France and, later on, Germany made the British to evaluate the capacities of an army designed to fulfil colonial tasks, rather than to fight in a full-scale war with new and deadly armament[6]. 1898, following Kennedy (2004), seems to be the year where some British strategies predicted a war with a similar dynamics as those of the Great War. But by that time, it was too late to implement the needed reforms, and therefore to correct a century of wrong assumptions and lack of preparedness.

They All Wanted to Fight…

As pointed out, all of the war were made under the assumption (or the preference) that the war would be either regional or local and simply short –  an attitude adopted by the Allies and Central Powers alike.

The plan Schlieffen, although its dual nature, was basically a utilization of the same advanced concept of 1870 – 1871. Yet its problematic element was the invasion of Belgium by the German Army in order to defeat France. During the Franco-Prussian war the Prussian army and its allies managed to penetrate the French territory through a relatively narrow space (the Luxemburg-French-Prussian border and the upper right corner of France)[7]. But the French reinforcement of the area of operations after the war pushed von Schlieffen and other German strategists to consider taking the risk of advancing through Luxemburg and Belgium. Although responding to a needed strategic re-adaptation for the next war, it was enough to provoke the British Empire to intervene at the very late moment in defence of both France and Belgium (Morgenthau, 2006; Segesser, 2013). In this regard, this particular plan places part of the blame on the Germans premeditated attack and occupation of Belgium. Yet, mitigating factors relating to German responsibility are: firstly, their assumption that the war would last for a short period of time and that a victory was within reach.

But also the naval race against Great Britain and the plans to attack the Royal Navy were an unnecessary provocation of the British Empire, alongside with challenging the established colonial order of von Bismarck’s prudence and the already established Realpolitik. And of course, the idea of German investors and the Turkish government to build a railroad from Berlin to Baghdad, which put the British Empire on edge since it felt that its colony India was threatened (Barth, 2012; Morgenthau, 2006; Segesser, 2013)[8]. By challenging Great Britain and its rule of the waves, the German Empire by the hand of the Kaiser only accelerated the pace of the war and, in turn, contributed to the French plans of attacking Germany along with her newly acquired allies.

The French war – more accurately, revenge – plans contemplated two main directions of advance. One was aimed at Lorraine itself, and the other one to recover the lost provinces and invade Germany through Belgium and Luxembourg (Godl, 2009; Segesser, 2013). The fact that the Germans moved faster and invaded first had made this factor – from the French side – to be poorly analyzed if not entirely ignored. Should France attacked first via Belgium and Luxembourg, it would have pushed Great Britain to fight against its ally or oddly, side-by-side with Germany. Not to mention that France would be known as the invader of small and defenceless nations. History is now written, but it is rather obvious now that France was one of the nations more interested in unleashing a war and even to invade other nations to meet its goals. And it is this desire of  revenge as well as the irresponsible encouragement of France with Russia to attack Germany and its allies by any reason for the sake of its own interests[9] that makes for a certain share of the blame for the war to France.

Russia in turn has its own share of responsibility for the Great War. It paid too much attention to the French requests and it was too keen to honour with France[10]. Indeed, Russia needed the French investments for its own economy, but the nationalism mentioned in the previous article pushed the country to commit itself with the alliances and support of Serbia as a pivot towards the Balkans. As a result, Russia would end up attacking Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the same time, only after discarding a defensive plan following a French encouragement to do so (Godl, 2009; Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013). This very hostile attitude was explained by the refusal of the Kaiser to renew a treaty Germany had with Russia, and the clashes that followed the German staunch support – tied by an alliance treaty – of Austria. Moreover, it was Russia as the third nation to mobilize troops shortly after the Austrian declaration of war to Serbia, which in turn mobilized its troops after the Austrian ultimatum. Needless to say, the Russians immediately implemented their war plans against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later on against the German Empire. Like all the contenders, Russia relied on a brief and localized war. In addition, the mediation efforts of Kaiser Wilhelm were ignored due to the pressure built by Russian generals over the Tsar (Lupsor, 2013) [11]. Lest we forget, the Russian encouragement of the First Balkan War led to a Second Balkan War that further increased instability in a region that was only waiting for a spark to ignite a fire, as it happened later on in 1914.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire has also its own share of responsibility. This was  the fact that it created a stir in the Balkans with the annexation of Serbia and Croatia, thus increasing the tensions it was facing at home. But the old empire was a victim of the prevailing circumstances: it was an old and decaying empire no longer able to keep up stability inside its territory and among the diverse peoples under its rule (Kennedy, 2004; Segesser, 2013). When it came to dealing with Serbia, it clearly aimed at occupying the territory of the nation ignoring the German moderate calls to simply punish but not to invade Serbia. Additionally, the Kaiser’s attempts to mediate with the Tsar in order to avoid conflict were ignored by the latter.

The fact that the plans were prepared in a clearly offensive manner and that diplomacy of some nations encouraged others to attack in exchange of support of any kind, reinforces the verdict that in the end all the Great Powers were guilty for the war – especially on the last period of the 19th century. Although, they were also victims of a structure very susceptible to be unstable and therefore prone to give way for a high-scale confrontation. In turn, the nationalism and chauvinism of the people, from the kings and presidents to the generals and the common people, as well as the political use of such ideological expressions by every great power, reinforces such judgement.

The past is full of lessons that must be learned, hence an epilogue will follow reflecting on the present and the undergoing similarities with the decades prior the war, and how the lessons of the past can prevent the occurrence of a similar tragedy.


[1] It is important to remark that, where industrial revolution and military innovations meet, a war by the times (and any war, I am afraid) would be anything but short and decisive.

[2] Both practically ignored by the European Great Power strategists given the scenarios and the countries involved.

[3] An observation validated by the fact that only Great Britain was politically more capable of preserving the equilibrium after von Bismarck’s dismissal.

[4] Even by the eve of the Great War this way of thinking was prevailing among the British authorities and strategists.

[5] Along with the idea of a state spending as less as possible and having small armed forces plus the reliance on the Navy.

[6] As a result, the British army was small in contrast to the German one.

[7] For a brief but concise insight into the Franco-Prussian war, see: Franco Prussian (n.a). Mobilization. In: Franco-Prussian Retrieved from:

[8] Also the Russian Empire and France, which latter on would refude to negotiate with Germany and strongly opposed the railroad. Such opposition, as Maloney (1984, p.8) remarks, had as origins the objections placed by some British private investors in the area.

[9] France was not entirely prepared and waged a defensive war, although it declared war to Germany first following the latter’s declaration of war to Russia.

[10] Such compromises were to assist France by attacking Germany, so a strategic distraction from the French front would be created thus weakening the German advance in France.

[11] A point in favour of the Kaiser, despite his eagerness to support Vienna in spite of Russia and his underestimation of the action that Vienna would take further measures against Serbia.



Barth, R. (2012).1871 – 1919: Aufstieg und Untergang. Preußen. Die eigenwillige Supermacht. Zum 300. Geburtstag von Friedrich dem Großen. STERN Extra, 1, 86 – 97.

Godl, J (2009). The Planning of War. In: Retrieved from:

FrancoPrussian (n.a). Mobilization. In: Franco-Prussian War. Retrieved from:

Kennedy, P. (2004). Auge y caida de las grandes potencias [The Rise and the Fall of the Great Powers, Ferrer Aleu, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Mondadori (Original work published in 1987).

Lupşor, A (2013). The First World War: Who’s at fault? In: Retrieved from:

Maloney, A. P (1984). The Berlin-Baghdad Railway as a Cause to World War I. Professional Paper 401. Alexandria, Virginia: Center for Naval Analyses. Retrieved from:

Morgenthau, J. A. (2006). Politics Among Nations. The Struggle for Power and Peace (Revised by Thompson K. W, & Clinton D. W. 7th Edition). New York: McGraw Hill.

Segesser, D. M. (2013). Der Erste Weltkrieg in globaler Perspektive. Stuttgart, Deutschland: Marixverlag.


Image credits: Renault FT 17 Tank. By Author


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