“Over by Christmas”. It’s what everybody thought when the war broke out in August 1914. It was not to be. Unexpectedly, the armies came to a stalemate on the fields of Flanders. Unexpectedly, the war turned into the destruction of lives, towns, landscapes, wildlife on an industrial scale. Unexpectedly, it was going to be four hard, terrible years before it was over.Unexpected (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) "Over by Christmas". It's what everybody thought when the war broke out in August 1914. It was not to be. Unexpectedly, the armies came to a stalemate on the fields of Flanders. #WWI… Click To Tweet
German Schlieffen Plan rested on the idea that it was paramount to avoid a two-front war. Therefore German should first attack the western front (France and Belgium), secure it, and then turn to the eastern front (Russia).
The plan started off right too. By 20 August, German troops had occupied large parts of Belgium, including the capital Brussels, and were ready to head for Paris. On the eastern front, they had already inflicted a crushing defeat on the advancing Russians at the Battle of Tennenberg (26-31 August).
It really seemed that the plan would work out fine, and the war would be over well before Christmas.
Then the Battle of the Marne happened.
The retreating Anglo-French forces at the Marne mounted a staunch rearguard action in early September 1914. The battle on the Western Front descended into a bloody stalemate that would not be broken for four more years.
The war ended up engulfing an unthinkably huge number of soldiers. It employed unthinkably destructive technology. And it lasted unthinkably long – to the point that it was perceived as potentially endless. Nobody could foresee such a thing to happen before it actually took place.
In hindsight, we can see the signs. But very few saw them back then. Nobody believed – or wanted to believe – that the unthinkable could happen.
Probably the single most important reason why this happened was the great advancement in technology in the decades right before the Great War. This changed the way battles occurred on the ground, leaving apparently unsolvable problems to the army tacticians, who were unable to bring their strategy up to date with the new technology, and persisted in employing outdated tactics in modern warfare.
Explosives, rifles, machine guns, everything became faster and more effective and made the old tactics not just useless but downright dangerous.
The first kind of total war first manifested at the beginning of the 19th century: the Napoleonic Wars. All of the European chancelleries saw the danger. Therefore they devised a diplomatic system that would allow avoiding such kind of destructive war. The system worked for the subsequent century, during which many other things happened. When diplomacy failed in August 1914, the world where the new war broke out was very different from the world that had seen the rise of that system.
The war opposed the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia to the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. These were all nations that could count on vast empires that had been growing over the previous century and from where they could draw resources of every kind, both human and material.
Troops converged on the European theatre of war from all over the world. Some were allied with these empires, such as India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mesopotamia, North Africa, China. Others had different dealings with them. Goods and raw materials came from places as far away as Mexico, India, again Africa. These resources fuelled a war that wouldn’t have lasted as long if it had needed to stand only on the European resorts.
This is why this was indeed a ‘world’ war, even if the battles only happened on European soil.