Review Essay of Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War
This essential work—consisting of nine essays—reveals the logic or ideology that generated the First World War.
To read Michael Howard’s paper, “Men against Fire: Expectations of War in 1914,” click here.
To read Stephen Van Evera’s paper, "The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War," click here.
Having completed a round of research on Hitler and the Holocaust in 1989, I drifted over to an adjacent set of stacks at NYU’s Bobst Library and began skimming books on an earlier episode of Western political violence, the First World War.
I was astonished at what I discovered: the monumental casualties so difficult to fathom—and the way battles were fought. For four years, leaders of the “greatest nations in the world” asked young men to get out of trenches and move toward opposing trenches— where they were torn apart by artillery shells and machine gun-fire.
I sought to understand the causes and meaning of this endless slaughter. Historians write about the facts of the war, which began in August 1914 and ended in November 1918. They trace the events that led up to the war, but rarely are able to explain the perpetual slaughter. Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War, Edited by Steven E. Miller, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Stephen Van Evera is perhaps the most important book ever written on the Great War because it succeeds in articulating the ideas that generated events.
Though irrational and bizarre, the First World War grew out of a particular logic. Military Strategy is an edited collection that reveals the mind-set that led to war. Particularly valuable are essays by Michael Howard, “Men Against Fire,” and Stephen Van Evera, “The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War.”
The nations participating in the First World War included the Allied Powers (Russia, France, the British Empire, Italy and the United States), the “Central Powers” (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria), as well as many other countries. Germany moved through Belgium to attack France, expecting a quick victory, which did not occur. Soon there was stalemate, as combatants built 500 miles of zigzagging trenches in France. Soldiers settled in on opposing lines.
Battles occurred when massive numbers of troops got out of their trench and attacked the opposing trench. Modris Eksteins describes the fundamental pattern:
The victimized crowd of attackers in No Man’s Land has become one of the supreme images of this war. Attackers moved forward usually without seeking cover and were mowed down in rows, with the mechanical efficiency of a scythe, like so many blades of grass. “We were very surprised to see them walking,” wrote a German machine-gunner of his experience of a British attack at the Somme.
“The officers went in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing, we just had to load and reload. They went down in the hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.”
By the time the war ended in November 1918, casualties had been staggering. Matthew White’s table summarizes the results: 65 million soldiers were mobilized to fight, of which 9.5 million were dead, over 21 million wounded, and nearly 8 million taken prisoner or missing. Total casualties were over 37 million: 57.7% of all forces mobilized.
The mind boggles at these statistics. What could have been at stake to justify this massive episode of slaughter? What kept the war going for so many years? Jay Winter—one of the most prominent historians of the First World War—concludes his six-part video series, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, in a tone of baffled bewilderment, summing up his reflections: “The war solved no problems. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.”
What requires explanation is the military strategy that governed the First World War. Why did Generals persist in fighting battles as they did, despite the futility of the strategies they employed? At conferences I’ve attended, the best people can do is say that the Generals were “stupid.”
Historians often ascribe the outbreak of the war, Stephen Van Evera notes, to the “blunders of a mediocre European leadership.” Barbara Tuchman describes the Russian Czar as having “a mind so shallow as to be all surface,” and Luigi Albertini refers to the “untrained, incapable, dull-witted Bethmann-Hollweg,” the “mediocrity of all the personages” in the German government, and the “short-sighted and unenlightened” Austrians.
Of course, the scope of destruction requires an explanation that goes beyond claiming that the Generals who fought the war were shallow, dull-witted and ignorant. Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War draws our attention to an ideology that seems to have lain at the root of what occurred.
This strategy, the doctrine of the “offensive at all costs,” governed the thinking of First World War military leaders. It revolved around the belief that in waging war it was imperative to attack at all costs. A nation could achieve victory, according to this philosophy, only if troops had the courage and will to move forward relentlessly—to continue to attack in the face of heavy casualties.
In France, Van Evera tells us, the army became obsessed with the “virtues of the offensive,” an obsession that spread to French civilians. The President of the French Republic, Clement Fallières, announced that “the offensive alone is suited to the temperament of French soldiers. We are determined to march straight against the enemy without hesitation.”
One French officer contended that the offensive “doubles the energy of the troops” and “concentrates the thoughts of the commander.” British officers declared that modern war conditions had enormously “increased the value of moral quality.” Mind would prevail over matter; morale would triumph over machine guns. War, General Ian Hamilton declared, is the triumph of “one will over another weaker will.”
Despite the advent of the machine gun, military leaders continued to focus on the significance of the bayonet. German writer Wilhelm Balck stated (1911) that the soldier should be taught “not to shrink from the bayonet attack, but to seek it,” and quotes Russian General Mikhail Dragomirov that the bayonet could not be abolished—even in the face of modern weaponry—because it was the exclusive embodiment of will power, which was the source of success both in war and everyday life.
The doctrine of the offensive at all costs, Michael Howard tells us, grew out of the nagging, fundamental problem of morale, a problem all the greater since a large part of armies would now be made up of reservists, whose moral power, it was feared, had been sapped by the enervating influence of modern life.
Balck observed that the “steadily improving standards of living” tended to increase the instinct of self-preservation and “diminish the spirit of self-sacrifice.” Concern about the army’s morale was bound up with concern about the morale of one’s nation as a whole. Contemporary life would undermine the “fanaticism and national enthusiasm” of a bygone era.
Howard suggests that it was neither the Boer War nor the American Civil War nor even the Franco-Prussian War that established the template for the First World War. Surprisingly, the 1905 Russo-Japanese war provided the model that France, Great Britain and other nations sought to emulate.
In February 1904, the Japanese navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. It took the Japanese army a year to establish themselves in the disputed province of Manchuria, capturing Port Arthur by land assault in a two-week battle involving over half a million men.
The general consensus of European observers—who followed this war closely—was that infantry assaults with bayonets were still not only possible, but necessary. The Japanese had carried them out time and again, and were ultimately successful.
In spite of enormous losses in these assaults (Japan suffered an estimated 85,000 casualties during the war), soldiers had broken through the enemy line against machine gun fire and other obstacles. Bodies were heaped on the ground as one wave of troops followed the next, but the attacks eventually resulted in victory.
Japanese bayonet assaults came, it was true, only at the end of a long and careful advance. A French observer described one Japanese attack:
The whole Japanese line is now lit up with the glitter of steel flashing from the scabbard. Once again officers quit shelter with ringing shouts of “Banzai!" wildly echoed by all the rank and file. Slowly, but not to be denied, they make headway, in spite of the barbed wire, mines and pitfalls, and the merciless hail of bullets.
Whole units are destroyed—others take their places; the advancing wave pauses for a moment, but sweeps ever onward. Already they are within a few yards of the trenches. Then, on the Russian side, the long grey line of Siberian Fusiliers forms up in turn, and delivers one last volley before scurrying down the far side of the hill.
Japanese losses in these assaults were heavy, but they succeeded; and so, European theorists argued, such tactics would succeed again. "The Manchurian experience," one British military theorist wrote, showed over and over again that the bayonet was “in no sense an obsolete weapon. The assault is the supreme moment of the fight. From these glorious examples it may be deduced that no duty, however difficult, should be regarded as impossible by well-trained infantry of good morale and discipline."
It was the "morale and discipline" of the Japanese armed forces, Howard tells us, that all observers stressed. They were equally unanimous in stressing that these qualities characterized not only the armed forces but the entire Japanese nation. General Alexei Kuropatkin, the commander of the Russian forces, noted in his memoirs that his nation’s defeat was due not to mistakes in generalship, but Russia’s inferiority in “moral strength.” Lacking “moral exaltation” and the “heroic impulse,” Russia did not have sufficient resolution to conquer the Japanese.
The issue of national morale and will was a central concern of European leaders who studied the War. British General Sir Ian Hamilton stated that the Russo-Japanese war should cause European statesman anxiety. People seemed to forget that millions “outside the charmed circle of Western Civilization are ready to pluck the scepter from nerveless hands as soon as the old spirit is allowed to degenerate.”
Much as some worry today that China might become the “greatest country in the world,” supplanting the United States, so European leaders at the turn of the century worried that Japan might supplant Western nations as the greatest country.
The basis of national greatness was, essentially, the spirit of self-sacrifice. Hamilton said that England still had time to “put her military house in order;” to “implant and cherish the military in the hearts of children.” It would be necessary to impress upon the minds of the next generation of British boys and girls a “feeling of reverence and admiration for the patriotic spirit of their ancestors.” The cult of the offensive, it would appear, represented a desire to make manifest the national will—the capacity for self-sacrifice—and therefore to demonstrate the greatness of one’s nation.
In the following report, British Brigadier-General Hubert Rees describes a battle in which his own brigade was massacred as they advanced on German lines:
They advanced in line after line, dressed as if on parade and not a man shirked going through the extremely heavy barrage, or facing the machine-gun and rifle fire that finally wiped them out. I saw the lines, which advanced in such admirable order melting away under fire.
Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. I have never seen, indeed could never have imagined such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination. The reports from the very few survivors of this marvelous advance bear out what I saw with my own eyes: that hardly a man of ours got to the German Front line.
In spite of the total failure of this attack, it is evident that General Rees regarded the destruction of his brigade in a positive light. He observed that not a man “shirked” in the face of the machine-gun and rifle fire. He was proud that even though his troops were “melting away under fire,” they continued to advance “in admirable order.” His men did not waver, break ranks, or attempt to retreat. The General gushed that he had never seen such a magnificent display of “gallantry, discipline and determination.”
His soldiers were slaughtered and “hardly a man got to the German Front line.” However, the General does not evaluate the battle in terms of success or failure. Rather, his reflections revolve around the morale and spirit demonstrated by his troops. The fact that his soldiers continued to advance despite being riddled with bullets leads General Rees to conclude that the attack had been “marvelous.”
I theorize that the ideology of the offensive at all costs grew out of the desire to demonstrate the moral courage and will of one’s troops, and therefore the greatness of one’s nation. Such a strategy rarely resulted in breakthroughs. By virtue of attacking—even when slaughter was the result—soldiers exemplified the will to national self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s nation.
Admiration for how the Japanese fought in 1905 led European leaders to adopt the offensive at all costs doctrine in an effort to show that their civilization also possessed moral fiber and greatness. The strategy of the offensive conveyed the strength of the national will: If the Japanese could so easily sacrifice the lives of young men, so too would the nations of Europe.
One may describe the First World War as a vast sacrificial competition. Leaders were willing to send young men to their deaths, and young men did not hesitate to die for their countries. In the “spirit of the offensive,” men got out of trenches and ran into artillery shells and machine gun fire—demonstrating the power of the national will.