WW I: An Assessment

World War One  (WWI) was essentially a European war opposing France and England – joined by Italy and allied with Russia – to Germany and its Austrian, Turkish, and Bulgarian vassals. It was different from all previous wars that were characterized by long marches and few bloody battles. It had no front; the generals could not view the battlefield; combats were terrifying in trenches against an invisible enemy and fighting day after day; it was the most industrialized, violent, and lethal war up to then, involving the masses through general conscription (similar to the American civil war).[1] The deaths toll of this monumental miscalculation was some 8.4m soldiers,[2] and some ten million civilians. If one includes also the wounded, dislocated, diseased, or impoverished, the casualties are estimated at 33-40 million.

The story of the July crisis must be told and retold. The most extraordinary happening was that throughout it the leading players doubted they were starting a great war, and when it did break out in August, there was widespread belief that the war no one wanted would be over by Christmas.

After Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, Austria sent an ultimatum to Belgrade, charging the Serbian government of staging the murder. It actually took the murder as a pretext to subdue Serbia and eject Russia from the Balkans.

When Kaiser Wilhelm followed, Tirpitz pleaded with him to withdraw his war declaration, reminding him that his risk fleet was geared to defend Germany from an attack from Britain, not an offensive fleet to win a war of aggression. To which, Wilhelm reportedly responded: ‘The Kaiser cannot take back his word.”

After the start of the war, Tirpitz sensed that the Kaiser was at the brink of mental illness, and, in order to protect the monarchy, sought to reduce his influence by urging his physician, Gustav von Niedner, to declare the emperor unable to govern for a while hoping that the latter would temporarily delegate his powers to Hindenburg. But this plan failed. On 12 December 1916 Germany offered to discuss peace, but found no takers. The same month, US President Wilson offered to invite the governments of the warring nations to negotiate a ‘peace without victory’. All sides for both political and psychological reasons rejected his offer. They were all seeking gains that would vindicate their going into war and compensate for the financial costs and the casualties incurred. Moderate men everywhere were pushed aside leaving the advocates of the “knock-out blow” such as Ludendorff, Lloyd George and Clemenceau in charge. After that Wilhelm approved the resumption of unrestricted submarine war, which led America to enter the war on 6 April 1917.

Nevertheless, Germany fought long and well and seemed still able to win the European continental war as long as it would not last too long and avoid external intervention in it. A superb, concise description of the final phase of the war is Chickering’s below.[3] “By the first half of 1917, with Russia collapsing, France wilting, and Britain under the ‘counter blockade” of the U-boats, Germany seemed on the brink of victory. Despite the rhetoric of ‘fighting to the bitter end’, statesmen in London and Paris were going to be anxiously considering the possibilities of a compromise peace…” British defense expenditure had become unsustainable rapidly rising to “80 percent of total government expenditure and 52 percent of GNP (1918)…Despite increasing misery on the home front, growing unrest, the radicalization of the labour movement, and the polarization of opinion to the brink of constitutional crisis, the prospects for a German victory appeared brighter at the beginning of 1918 than they had any time since the summer of 1914…staggering losses among the armies of these (The Entente) powers in the spring and summer 1917 threatened to end the conflict before an American army could arrive in Europe…The German won the Eastern war in 1917 (with) the prospect of victory to the South and West in 1918…the belligerent sides remained in almost constant contact throughout the war…Unrestricted submarine warfare and Revolution in Russia convinced the Germans that they had the greater short-term prospects of military victory. The entry of the United States in April then convinced the western allies that they had the greater long-term prospects for military victory”. Although the military relevance of their intervention was minor until mid 1918, America’s vast economic potential allowed its allies to snatch victory from the jaws of possible defeat.

In 1918 the Germans had actually won the European war, only to see victory snatched from them by America before the end of the year. The Russian army had ceased to exist. In November 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power. With the accord of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918 with Germany) Russia lost the Baltic provinces and the Ukraine. The Germans dominated all of Eastern Europe.


Things could have turned out differently: 

  1. If America had not helped England with food and materiel and had not intervened against Germany, the latter might well have won the war and the peace and dominated the continent.
  2. If Franz Joseph had not approved Berchtold’s ultimatum to Serbia as a diplomatic bluff and had suspected that Serbia would not accept it.
  3. If UK Secretary Grey had been straight to Chancellor Bethmann from the outset stressing there were clear limits beyond which England would intervene in a war in continental Europe’.
  4. 4.       If Kokovtsov had still been Russia’s prime minister, and on 29 July 1914 Russia’s army chief had accepted the Tsar’s order to stop Russia’s general mobilization.
  5. 5.       If the French had not pressed for full mobilization on 27 and 28 July.
  6. 6.       If the British had given to Wilhelm a guarantee of neutrality in case Germany did not attack France.
  7. If England had accepted Tirpitz’s proposal in 1910 of a naval agreement on the basis of a 2:3 strength ratio, that would not have weakened the security of either side
  8. 8.       If Kaiser Wilhelm II had not initially believed that he could have a limited Balkan war;
  9. 9.       If Moltke had not independently exhorted the Austrians to mobilize against Russia promising the unconditional support of the German army.
  10. If Bethmann and Jagow had loyally carried out Wilhelm’s instructions on July 29 and brought Germany’s full weight to bear upon its Austrian ally against war.
  11. 11.    If there had been no hope of American intervention (Entente powers might have coveted a peace deal)
  12. 12.    If Germany had not conducted unrestricted submarine warfare and secretly offered a German alliance with Mexico (Wilson and the US Congress might not have entered the war.)
  13. 13.    If Germany, instead of making repeated offers to Britain (and refused some) had done everything possible in order to reach an understanding with Russia and Japan (Tirpitz’s bottom line)
  14. If Germany had not rejected Grey’s offer  to organize a European Summit Conference.
  15. If Wilson’s peace-without-victory plan had been accepted, it might have meant: no victory, no reparations, no war guilt, no Hitler, possibly no second World War.
  16. If England had committed itself, not only to defend France if attacked by Germany, but to support Germany against an attack by France, and to defend it if attacked by Russia, France or both. (Bernard Shaw’s proposal of 1912)

Fallout of WW I

George Kennan called WWI “the great seminal catastrophe of the century”. It destroyed the European order and let loose political storms that required another world war to calm them. The Versailles Treaty of 28 April 1919 was a miscarriage of peace, if not of justice. It created the Society of Nations (which was never ratified by the US and Russia), and was meant to create the basis for a lasting peace in Europe, but did not establish a new balance of power. It fragmented he Habsburg Empire into separate states (Clemenceau’s enormous mistake). Above all, it tried to do destroy Europe’s foremost economy sanctioning Germans with prohibitive war restitutions, and decreeing the expropriation of all German property abroad (including Tirpitz’s holiday home in Sardinia), the cancellation of all German patents and trademarks, and the requisition of all war and merchant ships. It also demanded the delivery of nearly 900 prominent people, military and not, including Tirpitz, representing the German leadership and intelligentsia, whose exclusion from running Germany would have condemned it to decay. To the poverty and famine Germans had suffered because of the British embargo, Versailles added a growing skepticism regarding the capitalist system, and a revanchist spirit for unjust treatment of Germany as the only culprit of WWI. The sanctions imposed by the Allies became the breeding ground of Hitler’s ascent to power, which ignited World War II and lead to Europe’s subsequent destruction and loss of international influence, dwarfed by two world powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. Britain and France took over the German colonies, only to eventually lose also their own.[4] The Arabs felt their national sentiments had been cheated and resented the creation of a Jewish homeland in their midst, which remains a thorn in Arab relations with the West.

[1] See: Jean-Claude Barreau & Guillaume Bigot, Toute l’Histoire du Monde, pp. 313-314

[2]  1.7m each Germans and Russians, 1.4m French and 1m British and Empire

[3]  Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918 (2008), pp. 166-175

[4]  France took Cameroun, Britain took Tanganyika, and they shared the spoils of the Ottoman Empire: Iraq went to Britain and Syria and Lebanon to France.