The Crisis of 1914: War Looming at the Gate

  July 20, 2021   Read time 4 min
The Crisis of 1914: War Looming at the Gate
The crisis precipitated by the Archduke’s assassination at first seemed no worse than the half-dozen or so that had preceded it in the Balkans since 1908 and been peacefully resolved by the intervention of the Great Powers. But the Austrians were now determined to crush their Serbian enemy for good.

Austrians issued an ultimatum that would, if accepted, have turned Serbia virtually into a client state of the Dual Monarchy. This the Russians could not have tolerated, and the Austrians knew it; so before issuing their ultimatum they obtained what became known as ‘a blank cheque’ from Berlin, assuring them of German support in the event of war. In issuing that cheque the German government knew that it was risking at least a European war, but by now such a war was regarded in Berlin as almost inevitable. Germany’s military leaders calculated that it would be better to have it sooner, while the Russians had still not fully recovered from the defeat of 1905, rather than three years later, when they would have completed a huge French-financed railway-building and mobilization programme that could put them in an entirely new league of military strength.

France herself had been going through a phase of militant nationalism after the Agadir crisis, and was both militarily and psychologically ready for war. In Russia, Pan-Slav public opinion pressed strongly for war, even though the government knew very well the weakness not only of the army but of the entire regime, already shaken in 1905 by a revolution whose rumblings had not yet died away. As for the British, their interest in the affairs of the Balkans was minimal and their own domestic problems overwhelming; but if there was to be a European war, they were unlikely to stand by and watch France defeated by a Germany, many of whose publicists had for long been designating England as their principal enemy and for whom victory in Europe would be only the preliminary to her establishment as not just a Great, but a World Power.

Europe thus stood on the brink of war in July 1914. To understand why she toppled over we must now look at the other two elements in the Clausewitzian trinity: the activities of the military and the passions of the peoples. The German victories of 1866–70 had opened a new chapter in the military as well as the political history of Europe. The German triumphs were generally seen to have been due to two factors, one strategic and one tactical. The first had been Germany’s capacity to deploy very much larger forces in the field than could her adversaries, and this was itself due to two causes. One was the development of railways and telegraphs, which made possible the rapid deployment to the theatre of war of unprecedented numbers of men.

The other was the introduction of universal peacetime conscription, which ensured not only that these numbers were available but that they had been fully trained and could be rapidly mobilized when required. Such armies—and by 1871 that of the Germans already numbered over a million—required an unprecedented degree of organization, which was the task of a general staff whose head became the effective commander-in-chief of the entire force. It also called for a devolution of command that imposed new responsibilities on middle-ranking and junior officers. Battles could no longer be fought and decided under the eye of a single commanding general. They might extend, as they did in the RussoJapanese War, over many scores of miles. Once he had deployed his forces on the battlefield, the commander-in-chief could only sit in his headquarters many miles behind the front line and hope for the best.

This extension of the front was increased by the second factor, the development of long-range weapons. The introduction of breech-loading and rifled firearms for infantry increased both range and accuracy to an extent that would have made frontal attacks out of the question if simultaneous developments in artillery had not provided the firepower to support them. Even since 1870 ranges had increased enormously. By 1900 all European armies were equipped with infantry rifles sighted up to 1,000 yards and lethally accurate at half that range. Field guns were now ranged up to five miles, and capable of firing up to twenty rounds a minute. Heavy artillery, hitherto used only for siege work, was being rendered mobile by rail and road, and could engage targets at a range of over twenty-five miles. Armies would thus come under fire long before they could even see their enemy, let alone attack his positions.