Why did they fight the war?
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The strange thing about World War I—the Great War as the Europeans call it—is that nobody really knows why it was fought.
There is only a sequence of events, the first of which happened 100 years ago this month. In June 1914, the heir to the empire of Austria-Hungary was killed by terrorists smuggled in from the new nation of Serbia. They were not sent by the Serbian government, but by a mysterious organization called Black Hand.
The Austro-Hungarian empire had subjects of the same Slavic race as the Serbs and viewed Serbian nationalism with suspicion. But the assassination by itself should not have triggered war, because Serbia accepted all of Austria-Hungary’s demands except that it be allowed to intervene and supervise the investigation.
This softening was rejected by Austria-Hungary, which wanted to squash and swallow Serbia. This would bring it into conflict with Russia, Serbia’s friend and fellow Slav nation. This would bring Russia to war against Germany, ally of Austria-Hungary. This would bring in France, ally of Russia, which felt threatened by German expansion. And this would bring in Italy, which was in alliance with Germany. Finally, it would bring in Britain, which wanted the status quo maintained in Europe while it managed its global empire, and was in alliance with France and Russia against German aggression.
The paragraph above should tell us that once the conflict began between two relatively insignificant powers, the whole of the continent would go at it for reasons other than the original offence. Indeed, one scholar feels that it is the unstoppable sequence itself that caused war.
Of all these nations, only Germany had a plan for war. The others had defensive reactions. The German plan was named after the man who drafted it, Alfred von Schlieffen. It solved the problem of Germany’s two-front war against France in the west and Russia in the east. The solution was to invade France from the north (through Belgium, bringing it into the war as well), sweep around Paris and turn east to crush the French army in the rear where it would be deployed on the German border. This would take the Germans, Schlieffen calculated, 42 days. This was less time than Russia needed to mobilize, and after finishing off France, Germany would then move on to Russia.
The French suspected this plan, but were not sure of it, and so did what they thought would be least risky. They would deploy their army against Germany’s border and march east in case of war. This, of course, was what Schlieffen had anticipated.
In his classic work, War By Timetable, A.J.P. Taylor offered a most convincing reason for World War I: that once mobilization began, the war could not be stopped from being fought.
Mobilization was getting all soldiers into their planned positions. In those years, the army consisted mainly of reserves, men who had been drafted and trained, but then returned to civilian life to await the call of duty. “At a given signal—usually the display of placards on public notice-boards—every man recently discharged would proceed to rejoin his unit at a centre designated on his card,” explained Taylor.
“These units would in turn proceed to some higher formation until the structure of armies was complete. Not only would men be on the move. The light and heavy guns and their shells had also to be assembled from their peacetime parks. Most conspicuous of all would be the horses, most of them also mobilised from their peacetime tasks. Quite apart from the cavalry and their remounts, there would be horses for the artillery and their supply wagons...
“Every railway wagon in France had long been labelled: ‘40 men or 8 horses’... The entire process would be conducted by rail until the armies had reached the assumed point of battle, and general staffs had been labouring for years past to perfect their time tables. It was universal doctrine that speed was essential. Whichever power completed mobilisation first would strike first and might even win the war before the other side was ready. Hence the time-tables became ever more ingenious and ever more complicated.”
Major general Sir Edward Spears, who watched the French mobilize, described the resultant problem: “If mobilisation is delayed or slow, the enemy will be able to advance with a fully equipped army against an unprepared one, which would be disastrous.
“The time factor also makes it essential that the armies, once mobilised, should find themselves exactly where they can at once take up the role assigned to them. There is no opportunity for extensive manoeuvres: mobilisation is in itself a manoeuvre at the end of which the armies must be ready to strike according to the pre-arranged plan...
“Every man must know where he has to join, and must get there in a given time. Each unit, once complete and fully-equipped, must be ready to proceed on a given day at the appointed hour to a pre-arranged destination in a train awaiting it, which in its turn must move according to a carefully prepared railway scheme. Each unit has also to drop into its place in the higher formations, and these again must find themselves grouped in position according to the fundamental plan. No change, no alteration is possible during mobilization. Improvisation when dealing with nearly three million men and the movements of 4,278 trains, as the French had to do, is out of the question.”
And so, once the massive action began, it could only end in war, because mobilisation was when each nation pulled the trigger.
The great boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face.” And everything went wrong immediately once the war began. In the beginning, the generals followed 19th century tactics, sending soldiers charging into the enemy ranks that were equipped with machine guns and excellent field artillery. The armies were massive, in the millions, but even so the casualties were appalling. The French lost 27,000 men on one day, 22 August 1914, alone. This stupidity continued for weeks till the soldiers figured out that fighting from defensive positions (in trenches) made more sense.
In his book The First World War, military historian John Keegan wrote: “The first trench raid appears to have been mounted on the night of 9/10 November 1914 near Ypres by the 39th Garhwal Rifles of the Indian Corps. Fierce irruptions into enemy positions under cover of darkness was a traditional feature of Indian frontier fighting and this first murderous little action may have represented an introduction of tribal military practice into the ‘civilised’ warfare of western armies.”
But the fact is that soon it was the uncivilized Indian style of war that was adopted. Keegan adds: “The event set a precedent of which the British were to make a habit and which the Germans were to copy. The French, despite their long experience of tribal warfare in North Africa, never found a similar enthusiasm for these barbaric flurries of slash and stab.”
Schlieffen’s 42-day fantasy had long been put behind, and the combatants faced one another in a series of trenches that went from Belgium in the north to the Swiss border. There the frontline remained for four years.
The British were embarrassing in their effort, particularly the young Winston Churchill, who was in charge of the very expensive navy (which took a fourth of the budget). The British navy was totally useless in the war against the Germans, who had a fleet but kept it mostly in its base while they fought a continental war. You would never know this from Western documentaries about World War I.
Keegan is rude in his writing about Indians, but another historian, Max Hastings, writes that “Indian troops taught the rest of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) the art of patrolling”.
There were so many Indians in the trenches that the British foreign office was asked to supply 10,000 live goats a month to meet the ritual dietary requirements of Indian troops in France.
In his work Catastrophe: Europe Goes To War 1914, Hastings writes: “An advertisement (in The Times) reflected the awesome ingenuousness about the struggle on the continent which persisted at home: ‘India’s magnificent loyalty in the Empire’s hour of need has stirred the imagination of the world. Indian princes and Indian peasants, Indians troops and Indian treasure—all are being placed at Britain’s service with touching devotion. You can do India a small service in return—and gain by it. Use Pure Indian Tea at home, insist on getting Pure Indian Tea in public tea-rooms and restaurants.”
France was just as sanguine. Just yards behind the trenches, the war ended and restaurants and bars were open across France. America entered the war in 1917 after Germany began sinking its merchant ships going to England with submarines and stirring up trouble for the US. This began a fresh series of trench-charging that killed more people without much result. The butchery exhausted all the nations concerned and bankrupted them.
The war ended in 1918 just as mysteriously as it began. Only weeks after Germany was in control of more French territory than it had ever been during the war, its army suddenly gave up. The war changed Europe from the inside. The German emperor fell, as did the Russian emperor (to the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin) and the Austro-Hungarian monarch. The British were humiliated, though few of their own historians will admit this.
All this centenary year, on television and in print, we will be subjected to stories about European heroism and history during the Great War. That should not distract us from the fact that this was a dumb war that shouldn’t have been fought.
It happened only because any reason was good enough to fight it out in an era when empire and expansion and not economy were the most important words. It had no higher purpose than greed, than settling the scores of old enmities and ancient hatreds.
Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian soldier-scholar, defined war as a continuation of politics through other means. Violence was to be used only when one was convinced it would decisively end the argument in one’s favour. This great rule was not followed. In its mindlessness, World War I resembled the LoC, or line of control, conflict between India and Pakistan. Two nations stupidly pummelling one another across a line for years without reason and without result.