Loose Canons

The Lost Lessons of World War I

Great wars are not begun by accident.

By 6.30.14

Wilhelm II and his Generals (Wikimedia Commons)
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Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That event is supposed to have caused World War I, which was commonly labeled “the war to end all wars.”

I say supposed to have caused the war because if we look at what actually happened, we can gain a far better understanding of the lessons the world should have but never learned from World War I.

We know the vast scale of the number of dead, wounded, and missing. There were more than 200,000 Americans, three million British, six million French, seven million Germans and nine million Russians among them.

Ignorance of the lessons of World War I is a commonplace. The first among the lost lessons is: contrary to what we are told by an endless string of movies and novels, great wars cannot be begun by accident or by relatively small events such as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

Belgium’s independence began in 1830, and nine years later, Germany, England, and France entered into a treaty that guaranteed its neutrality, promising not to engage in war within its borders. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany had other ideas. He saw Britain, under King George V, as trying to encircle Germany and prevent it from becoming the great power Wilhelm believed was its destiny. He pushed German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck from office and his military leaders, led by Field Marshall von Schlieffen, had by December 1905 drafted secret plans to invade Belgium with a massive force and sweep south to conquer France. Germans of that era often toasted to “der Tag,” the day that Germany’s conquest of Europe would begin.

German planning for the war, over the nine years from 1905 to 1914, was developed in the most minute detail. The Schlieffen plan included the movement of armies down to the mobilization of each unit of two million troops, equipping them and sending them by rail (with each locomotive planned to move specific cars and leave at a specified minute) to the points of disembarkation to invade Belgium.   

Bismarck predicted that the next great war would start with “some damned foolish thing” in the Balkans. When Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, a month of diplomacy ending in ultimatums sent between France, Germany, and Russia provided Wilhelm with the spark he chose to begin the long-planned war.

The second of the lost lessons is that civilian control of the military is essential to democracy. Our military learns this lesson endlessly. It’s not an exaggeration to say that our would-be officers—whether in ROTC or in the military academies—are taught this in almost every class. On August 1, 1914, having ordered the general mobilization of Germany’s military, Kaiser Wilhelm had second thoughts. Having been told of Britain’s possible neutrality in a war between Germany and France (the British were at that point ignorant of the plan to invade neutral Belgium), the Kaiser—whose power was supposedly that of a warlord—wanted to try another round of diplomacy to prevent Germany’s having to fight a two-front war with both France and Russia. But General von Moltke, a successor to Schlieffen, refused because he feared that any halt to the mobilization already under way would leave Schlieffen’s war plan in disarray. Having waved the bloody flag, the Kaiser, as emperor and commander in chief of the army, found that he couldn’t unwave it. His military wouldn’t obey. 

The third unlearned lesson is that every nation has a psyche, a mental state ingrained by events over many years, that cannot be unlearned except in overwhelming events such as the world wars. Vamik Volkan of the University of Virginia has written several brilliant treatises sufficient to prove that theory.

France had suffered a disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. But by the beginning of World War I, France’s national psyche had brought about a military doctrine that was based entirely on the presumed elan vital, a belief that its troops had so great an all-conquering spirit that little else was required. France’s only strategy was to attack and its operational doctrine ignored training, equipment, communications, and almost everything else required to win a then-modern war. That was shattered by defeat after defeat in 1914, at the loss of about 300,000 killed and 600,000 wounded (according to historian John Keegan) out of a male population of about ten million of military age. 
By the end of 1914, with four years of war still ahead, that spirit had been broken irreparably in a manner that prevails to this day. At the beginning of World War II, Churchill said that “France though armed to the teeth is pacifist to the core.” Its military adventures in its overseas possessions such as Vietnam and Algeria ended in failures almost as damaging. Germany’s psyche was entirely the opposite of France’s. German (and Prussian) nationalism produced a psychology of thwarted destiny that a subsequent warlord—Hitler—quickly revived at the cost of another five million German dead in World War II.

France, Germany, Russia, Britain, and the rest of Europe all have psyches that still show the damage of both World Wars. Their effort to form the European Union (excluding then-Soviet Russia) was based in part on trade and in part on the desire to subsume nationalism to prevent another all-encompassing war 

Another unlearned lesson of World War I is that nations must fire the generals who do not produce winning strategies. The French, under Marshall Joffre, took that practice to extremes. Joffre fired dozens of generals in the initial stages of the war, some who hadn’t commanded for more than two weeks, and couldn’t be judged successful or not. The British declined to fire Sir John French who, from the moment of the British Expeditionary Force’s landing in France, thought most about withdrawal. French was relieved in late 1915 after suffering many casualties and losing the confidence of the British war cabinet. In French’s defense, his failings were tied to those of Joffre and his commanders but, according to historians, French eventually lost his nerve.

The last and probably most important forgotten lesson is that to the victors belong not the spoils of war but the power to make the most crucial mistakes in its aftermath that create the forces that bring about new wars. In the 1918 Treaty of Versailles, Britain and France crushed Germany and laid the foundations for World War II. But they also, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, seized much of the Middle East and laid the foundations for the wars there that threaten the world today. America is not innocent of those same mistakes, which we have compounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush’s neo-Wilsonian doctrine of nation-building, unchanged by President Obama, leaves both nations as terrorist safe-havens that threaten our allies, and us, for the foreseeable future.

The era of European map-drawing is over, at least until some new nationalism takes hold. But other powers—Iran, China, Russia, and the Islamic terrorist states and the terrorist networks they support—are eager to take up that practice around the world.

The lessons we should have learned from World War I weren’t new. They have been taught by every war since Sun Tzu wrote in about 2,300 BC. Yet each generation has made new versions of the same  mistakes, as Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly proves. The best we can do is to study history and nations’ psyches, and do our best to avoid the mistakes of the past.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.