Was the First World War inevitable?

Discussion in 'Historian's House' started by Eustace, Nov 8, 2011.

  1. Eustace

    Eustace The One True Tsar

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    Perhaps not as controversial as my previous topic, but still!

    It seems increasingly to me that there was no way that a major conflict at the beginning of the 20th Century could have been avoided. The power blocs that had built up, the rising importance of 'the masses', the rise of Nationalism and Pan Nationalism... most dangerous, I feel, was the generally accepted contemporary view that war was now impossible.

    Thoughts, anyone?
  2. bloodfiredeath

    bloodfiredeath Die by the Sword

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    Opening a can of worms here!! Ok here's some thoughts.

    The reasons behind that inevitability had nothing to do with just one country, but rather the entire pattern of European society of the time. Each of the great powers believed they had something to gain from war, fostering the national pride and the national positioning that made World War I inevitable.
    General European diplomacy from all countries tended to be driven by absolutes, rather than a sense of compromise, with positions staked out at extremes and with little sense of "give and take". This stance was reinforced by the editorial bent of all European mass media, which tended towards what is now described as "Yellow Journalism" - hyperpartisan, hypernationalistic, and extremely uncompromising tones. This drove public opinion into very narrow, myopic, and self-centered views, which politicians obvious reflected.

    Imperialism was the dominant form of government - inherent in imperialism is the collection of colonies and outside territory. Since most of the world had been explored and conquered as of 1900, competition was increasing over already-owned areas, which lead to significantly more friction between counties. The relative "quality" of statesmanship and leadership in practically all European governments was abysmal. Leaders were petty, notably short-sighted, bombastic, and hot-tempered, and usually more concerned with personal advancement than the interests of their nation.

    Communication methods were primitive, and political decision-making was not efficient, both were still being conducted at the lazy speeds of the early 1800s, and communications between capitals could take days, instead of hours as one would expect (i.e the telegraph was in commonplace use, but messages between ambassadors and national decision-makers was horribly slow).

    War was seen as a part of "national honor" - not something to be avoided, but something which would boost prestige and be "beneficial".Military planners drew on recent history in planning strategies and advising politicians - the prevalent view was that wars would involve a short-term "maximum effort", ending with a quick decision (either victory or defeat), and thus, that warfare was a good "quick-return" gamble. That is, the military viewed wars a a calculated risk, where the only stakes were relatively minor loss/gain of territory and a gain or loss of "national honor". In gambling terms, the military assumed that you were playing with table stakes (that is, one could lose no more than the existing military force); in reality, the industrialization of war meant you were gambling with the future of the entire nation (of "unlimited stakes").Military planning required tight timetables for mobilizations; thus, mobilization schedules drove diplomatic timetables (rather than the inverse), enforcing a very small window of time to resolve any crisis before war would break out.

    Also a lot of Ethnic groups were increasingly demanding more autonomy, particularly inside the larger cosmopolitan empires. This is what effectively lead to the "spark" that set off all of the convergent factors; The assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
    And of course the varying alliances that had been formed were brought into play by this event.
  3. Eustace

    Eustace The One True Tsar

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    Alright then - two questions arising from that! :)

    First off, did recent wars (I'm thinking mainly of the Franco - Prussian War and the Russo Japanese War) make war more likely? I realise that the first made France want retribution against Prussia/ Germany, but I'm thinking more on a strategic level - The first made possible the belief you mentioned above, that large decisive blows (Like Sedan) could end wars quickly, and the second maybe started to introduce the idea that Russia perhaps wasn't the Great Power it supposedly was?

    Second, and more controversial... who was mainly to blame for the war - bit of a loaded question there! If anyone was to blame (And not the shifting balance of alliances) Then I think the blame is shared in fairly equal parts between Britain (Trying to control the balance of power in Europe), Germany (Looking to expand and create Mitteleuropa) and France (Still smarting after defeat at Sedan). I see Russia, Austria Hungary and Italy as more peripheral, even if you could say the war actually began in Austro - Hungarian territory, and was sparked by Vienna's ultimatum to Serbia.

    Oh - thirdly! Was there another way in which the war could realistically have been fought? I mean obviously elan was a disasterous idea, but once trenches were dug was there really any other alternative to what actually happened?
  4. Sparrow

    Sparrow Well-Known Member

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    The short answer, no.

    Because the trenches were set in rows of defense, artillery was only useful until your enemy retreated out of rage, and because a network of trenches have essentially no flanks every effort to gain ground comes by way of frontal assaults. There's almost no strategy involved or imaginative way around it. Worse still, once these areas had been laid flat with days and weeks of shelling, they turned into muck that even modern tanks couldn't maneuver in. Aircraft at the time were slow and could be brought down with a single well placed bullet, and coupling aircraft with the needs of ground troops as well as timing artillery barrages with the movements of ground forces turned out to be extremely difficult because of horrible communications. The only other option is to go around the trenches... which you can only do if you have a highly mobile force and a reliable resupply line... which nobody had.
  5. Eustace

    Eustace The One True Tsar

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    They did actually try this on the Western front (both sides) in 1914 - 15 didn't they? The Race to the Sea? They tried the rather slower version, trying to get their own trenches around the other side's trenches... I also remember hearing about some attempts to make amphibious landings on the WF, but the plans always seemed to rely on 'First capture town A' and get bogged down there.

    Could it all have been prevented? I mean - Germany wanted to basically be the dominant economic power on the continent. Two world wars, dismemberment and reunification later... Germany IS the dominant economic power on the continent with a trading league that it's basically in charge of. I know hind sight is twenty twenty, but would it have been possible back then to see the writing on the wall, or is that asking too much? Germany was an economic powerhouse, with arguably the best land army in the world (I use the Japanese military window shopping of the very early twentieth century as my yardstick, they chose Germany to train their army and Britain to train their Navy), massive natural resources (barring oil and I think wolfram, both very strategically important of course but something they could have traded for).

    I suppose I should simplify - if Britain hadn't been so intent on continuing to be the world hyperpower, could this war have been avoided? And does that give us some ominous lessons we need to learn? Or have already learnt?
    Last edited: Nov 24, 2011
  6. bloodfiredeath

    bloodfiredeath Die by the Sword

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    I think there was no way the First World War could have been avoided. The various people and Monarchies in power all believed their ideals were correct and were willing to go to war over them. However no one could foresee that it would turn into the bloodbath it became as the flower of that generations youth withered and died on the wire in no mans land.
    There was an effort made to halt the war in early 1915, brokered by the Americans. But the demands from both the French and Germans were too exorbitant to be taken seriously.
    The point you make that Britain's intent to be a "World hyperpower" could be one of the main catalysts for the war is not true in my view. The headstrong monarchs of any of the main players in Europe are all equally guilty of pushing their ideals that their respective countries were the best and deserved to rule Europe. The only possible exception to this was France, who had the opportunity to use the foundations of their revolution to quell warlike ideals, especially through the efforts of men like Jean Jaurès and other social democrats.
    However, despite the push for peace by these people in France, the plans of the Kaiser and his Generals, forced war upon them any way.
    So in theory the only way war could have been avoided in 1914, was by Revolution in a number of countries and the toppling of the Monarchies and the instigation of democracy.