Category Archives: World War I

Book Review: Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I does for the Germany and Austria-Hungary what Niall Ferguson’s The Pity Of War did for the Allies in WWI.  It explains the war through the lens of the people that participated both at home and at the front and explores the ways in which the experience of war shaped the perception of the war and led to the dissolution of both empires.

The book itself is a hefty tome at first glance, it actually looks like it could serve as a doorstop in an emergency.  All told it is 788 pages and a good 2 ½ inches thick.  Much of that thickness comes from the notes and bibliography.  There are 120 pages of notes and the bibliography alone is 68 pages long.  That testifies to the depth of scholarship that went into the book.  Everything is meticulously sourced, often using primary as opposed to secondary sources.  The meat of the book is 567 pages of text consisting of an introduction, 13 chronological chapters, and an epilogue detailing the experience of war on Germany and Austria-Hungary from 1914-1918.

This is a story that to my knowledge has never been told in detail in English outside of academic journals and even there has only been told episodically covering narrow subjects.  This is the first holistic overview of the experience of war in Central Powers in World War I that am aware of, and I have been studying World War I for almost 25 years.  This is a study akin to Ferguson’s The Pity Of War in the quality of it analysis and description of life on the homefront.

One thing that is common to most World War I historiography is that homefront of the Entente powers is discussed in detail, such as things as wartime rationing, women war-workers, propaganda, and public opinion while this has been largely ignored in Germany and Austria-Hungary or at best caricatured.  This work tells that story in one place for the first time and puts a human face on the civilian population of the Central Powers.

One thing that comes out clearly is the huge difference in the ways in which Germany and Austria-Hungary responded to the stresses of war.  Watson makes an excellent point that the greater ethnic homogeneity of Germany was a large factor in German support for the war as well as the more liberal policies of the Reich in controlling information and in trying to implement a fair and equitable ration system for food.  The discussion of how the policies of the Third OHL of Hindenburg and Ludendorff backfired and led to public resentment and eventual loss of support for the war effort is very informative and confirms a suspicion that I have had for long while.  Namely, that the attempt at total coercive mobilization by the third OHL was counter-productive and that Hindenburg and Ludendorff only realized this at the eleventh hour when the only thing they could and did do was advise the Kaiser’s abdication and sue for peace.

The discussion of the myriad and various policies tried in Austria-Hungary to raise support for the war that were flawed in both conception and execution is illuminating.  The surprising thing is not that Austria managed to fight on but that they did not collapse in the first year of the war in the face of both military incompetence at the front and blatantly unfair and discriminatory policies among the multitude of ethnic communities that made up the empire.  The lack of will and basic incompetence of Emperor Franz Joseph is largely responsible for this as he did not have the strength of character to rein in the various power blocs within the empire that eventually tore it apart.  The story of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is both sad and comical at the same time.  Public support was squandered throughout the war and even activity discouraged at times.  It is almost as though Austria-Hungary was just as much at war with itself and its identity from 1914-1918 as it was with any external power and it is his internal conflict that ultimately undermined the empire and the Central Powers by sapping and wasting all the strengths of Austria and preventing the nation from gelling and prosecuting the war with anything but the basest competence and energy.

Another tale that has not been fully told until now is the way in which Germany and Austria-Hungary administered areas they conquered.  It is by turns a tale of brutality and lenience.  The one thing lacking in large part in both countries administration of occupied territory was consistency as the treatment of conquered lands and peoples changed with time and location.  Westerners were generally treated better than those in Eastern Europe but there was violence and compassion all over and much depended on the temperament and inclinations of the military governor as most governors administered their areas as independent fiefdoms to do with as they wished and mostly paid lip service to central authority.

This is an illuminating volume that tells a history that has largely been either ignored or caricatured in English historiography.  It is an outstanding book that has been scrupulously researched.  It is also surprisingly easy to read given the potential dryness of the subject.  The narrative flows and draws the reader along.  I highly recommend this book to students of World War I and indeed anyone who wants to see how the Central Powers dealt with the stresses of war on the homefront.  They will not find a better, fairer history because it has not yet been written.

Gallipoli, 1915: Analysis of a Glorious Failure

The Allied invasion of Gallipoli and its subsequent failure represented perhaps the greatest lost opportunity of the First World War.  There is every reason to expect that if the invasion of Turkey had been successful then much the same results would have accrued to the Allies then as were to accrue twenty-eight years later when the Allies successfully invaded Italy in the Second World War.  The tangible results of the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 was the capitulation of the government of Mussolini, and the diversion of up to sixteen German divisions in Italy that could have been more profitably used in France.  Additionally, one of Germany’s most capable generals, Albert Kesselring was also tied down in Italy.  If Kesselring had instead been in France it is conceivable that his operational creativity and flexibility could have made a crucial difference after Rommel was wounded in August 1944.

Anzac Cove shortly after the Start of the Dardanelles Operation
Anzac Cove shortly after the Start of the Dardanelles Operation

The Allies hoped that by successfully knocking Turkey out of the war they would open up a warm water route to Russia, divert German strength from the Western Front, and quickly conquer the Middle East thus freeing up western troops for service in France.  The Germans had been supplying and advising the Turkish army and navy since before the war in hopes of completing the Berlin-Baghdad railway and thus simplifying their access to Middle East oil.  The Allied invasion of Gallipoli in 1915 was a bold strategic move that if successfully executed could have changed the course of World War I.  The assault only became a disaster through poor, unrealistic planning and operational mismanagement.

The Allied assault at Gallipoli could have been as successful an operation as the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943-1944 if only the Allied planners had appreciated the real possibilities of a realistically planned operation.  The basic premise of both the Gallipoli and Italian campaigns was the same, namely to tie down enemy forces so that the war-winning blow could be landed elsewhere.  The vastly different outcomes in similar wars almost demand a comparison of the factors that led one operation to success and the other to failure.  There are many similarities between the concepts of the campaigns.  Both Gallipoli and the Italian campaign were considered secondary, both were very much ad hoc, both were fit into the larger Allied war-plans as off the cuff operations, and lastly neither were seen as potentially war-winning from the outset.

The origins of the Gallipoli campaign lie in the combination of stalemate on the Western Front and the Russian reverses after their disastrous defeat at Tannenberg in the fall of 1914 and the entry of the Turks into the war in December 1914.  The Western Front was seemingly locked in a stalemate without some innovation and it was felt that the Russians were on the verge of collapse after their massive losses at Tannenberg.  The thought was that if the Dardanelles could be forced and a warm water route to Russia opened the Russians could be assisted and the danger of their collapse could be averted.

The idea of forcing the Dardanelles was initially put forth by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in response to a request for a demonstration against the Turks to relieve pressure against the Russians.  Thus the initial concept of the operation was as a simple demonstration by the Royal Navy to force the Dardanelles there was no thought of a troop landing in support of naval forces, it was only later that an assault by land forces was added to the plan.  The Gallipoli campaign is one of the glaring examples in recent military history of what has become known as “mission creep” or the inevitable addition of tasks to what was originally a simple and straightforward assignment.

Planning initially began only for a naval attack to force the narrows at Gallipoli as Lord Kitchener, the British War Minister, said troops were not available for a land assault.  The initial plan called for the Mediterranean fleet to force the narrows and break out into the Black Sea where they could harass and interdict Turkish coastal shipping in support of the Russian army.  It was only after the Royal Navy’s failure in February 1915 with the loss of two capital ships that the idea of landing troops on the Gallipoli peninsula was batted around.  After the idea’s approval, only two months of planning went into the operation and the assault occurred in April 1915, with troops hurriedly collected from the Middle East and the diversion of the ANZAC corps that was stopped en route to the Western Front and assigned to the operation.

Book Review: The Month That Changed the World: July 1914 by Gordon Martel

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Given that 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, there has been a virtual flood of new books and scholarship on the war in the past few years. A flood that I sincerely hope does not stop anytime soon as the renewed emphasis on the war is starting to change the traditional view of the war. One area that has gotten particular emphasis this year is the Origins Controversy, as in, what really caused the war and who was responsible. The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 by Gordon Martel is ostensibly an origins book but in many ways, it is not. The main goal of the book, as the author puts it in the preface, is to lay out the way that events actually unfolded making clear who knew what, and when they knew it.

The book itself is 431 pages of text divided into three topical parts with the majority of the book being part two, a day-by-day narrative of events in the final week of July, 1914. There are also notes, a list of works cited, and an index.

Entire forests have been dropped in the past 100 years writing books about World War I.  This is particularly so in the past 30 years since Joll and Martel’s The Origins of the First World War produced a virtual deluge of books and journal article presenting competing theories. Trying to explain why the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in June, 1914 set in motion the train of events that led to World War I is almost the platonic definition of impossible. Nobody has come to a satisfactory answer, there are arguments that it was the fault of just about any of the belligerents and many of them are very good arguments. But arguments is all they are. There is not now, nor is it likely there ever will be a definitive answer as to why World War I started when it did. Suffice it to say that there is more than enough blame to go around that opprobrium can be heaped on the leadership of all the belligerents.

This volume is not an origins book per se. That is, it does not seek to assign blame for starting the war. What this book is, is a step by step, detailed narrative of the events between the death of the Archduke on June 28th, and the British declaration of war on Germany on August 4th. This is a straightforward account of when and importantly, what sequence things happened. The number of miscues, miscommunications, and diplomatic bumbles in July, 1914 is astonishing. The wonder is not why the war started when it did, but why it did not start sooner if the men involved were the highest quality diplomats Europe had available. Dr. Martell, lays out all these steps as they happened in a most engaging and readable way that pulls the reader along. I know what happened yet was compelled to keep reading because of the matter of fact way he writes.

What is abundantly clear in the narrative is that while Austria wanted to punish Serbia and eliminate them as a threat to the Dual Monarchy, they did not want a wider war.  It is equally clear that France, but particularly Russia, and to a lesser extent Britain, misread Austrian determination to deal with Serbia. Nobody except the Austrians really understood the lengths to which the Kaiser was willing to go to support Austria, Germany’s only true ally on the continent. Fault is not assigned in this book. The facts however, to the extent we know them, are laid out and it is left to the reader to determine what blame, if any, they assign to the various belligerents.

Diplomatic history, is one of the hardest types of history to write and make interesting. That difficult task has been accomplished in this work. I highly recommend The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 to anyone who wants an unvarnished narrative about July, 1914, possibly the most crucial month of the 20th century. This is an outstanding book that should be on the bookshelf of every student of World War I.

In Flanders Fields

Given that 100 years ago men were fighting and dying in the opening months of what they would come to call the Great War and we call WWI, I decided to post one of the most famous and memorable poems to come out of that war.  This poem is one of the reasons that the VFW sells Poppies today in their fundraisers.  It really is true that the fields of Flanders are covered with Poppies in spring and summer.  Every time I visit Flanders the poppies serve as a reminder of the slaughter that took place there.

In Flanders Fields
By John McRae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Some backstory on the Poem and Remembrance Poppies can be found on the In Flanders Fields page of GreatWar.co.uk