04 August 1914. 100 years after Great Britain declared war and the commencement of the Great War’s major hostilities (later retitled the First World War by jaded journalists, scholars and soldiers in 1918) began, I am tempted to simply point at Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August as the best description how the war broke out. Others would disagree:
Tuchman says nothing about Austria-Hungary and Serbia on the eve of the war, and nothing about the Russo-Austrian and Serbo-Austrian fronts once it began. ‘The inexhaustible problem of the Balkans divides itself naturally from the rest of the war,’ she thinks, and in any case nothing much happened there in the period she covers. More surprising is that in the first third of the book there isn’t a word about Serbia. The assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 goes by in two sentences, one of which, a quotation from the oracular Bismarck, may be all she needs: ‘some damn foolish thing in the Balkans’ would ignite the next war.
Thomas Laqueur prefers an account from a more “modern” viewpoint:
Christopher Clark’s breathtakingly good book is, much more self-consciously than Tuchman’s, also a history for its – that is, our – times. An act of terrorism in Sarajevo – the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife – led the Austrian government to make demands on Serbia. If not quite a terror state, Serbia had close links to terrorism and made no effort to hide its view that Austria had it coming. The boundaries between official state policy, the army and clandestine terrorist cells were blurred at best. The Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pašić, may not have planned the assassination but he clearly knew about it in some detail and failed to pass on any but the most vague – in today’s terms ‘not actionable’ – warnings to Austria. Serbia had something to answer for.
That answer was delivered by genocidal Austro-Hungarian troops. I’ve had an issue for a while with describing 1914 Serbia as a “state sponsor of terrorism”—official declarations are authorized under the Export Administration Act of 1979 and the list is administered by U.S. Department of State. They officially list four, and Serbia has never been listed (on account that the Sarajevo assassinations occurred 65 years and two world wars prior to the law’s enactment). Some consideration must be given to the era in question: Serbian forces under Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijević had murdered their own monarchs eleven years prior to Apis orchestrating the deaths of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, and the year prior to the Sarajevo killings the Ottoman Minister of War was shot and killed during the 1913 coup d’état, leading to the retaliatory assassination of the Grand Vizier. Murder was not an uncommon means to effect political change in the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Balkans. “Austria-Hungary had a right to countermeasures in the face of Serbian irredentism,” as Christopher Clark is fond of pointing out, but did those countermeasures extend to the wanton killing perpetuated by Dual Alliance forces against Serbia and Belgium?
The Pattern of Germanic Aggression
I’ve already charged Austria-Hungary committed genocide in choosing to take extremely brutal measures against Serbian civilians in August 1914. Further north, other German-speaking soldiers started wantonly killing civilians ten days before the Austrian invasion of Serbia:
Kalisz was a city of 70,000-80,000 people on the Russo-German border. German troops occupied the city on 20 July/02 August, a day after the German declaration of war on Russia. On the following day, the German commander (Major Preusker) put the city under martial law. That evening, things began to fall apart. In a pattern that would be repeated many times in Belgium and France in the next few weeks, a group of nervous, trigger-happy German soldiers led by officers fixated on the danger of civilian snipers (francs-tireurs) got into a firefight in the dark and lashed out at an entire city. It is still unclear who set off the gunfire. The first official German report blamed civilians, and second allowed for the possibility that Russian provocateurs had ambushed the troops, and Polish residents thought it was a case of friendly fire. In private correspondence, Russian officials were convinced the incident began when a group of Russian army reservists returning from Lask marched singing into the darkened town, not knowing it had been taken by the enemy. The phenomenon of both hostile and friendly troops stumbling into one another at night and firing at each other was quite common, especially in these early probing days of the war. What made this incident special was the fact that it happened in an urban center and German troops quickly became convinced that locals had taken up arms against them.
The German response was excessive, a point that even the German commandant of Kalisz in November 1916 came to admit. German troops shot suspected ringleaders, took the town government and religious leaders (and at one point 750 other men) hostage and promised to execute them if further assaults occurred, levied a 50,000 ruble fine, and then withdrew from the town to punish it with an artillery barrage. The Germans admitted to killing eleven people, other sources estimate the figure was over 100, and one local priest reported he buried 500 people by the time the smoke had cleared. German soldiers also engaged in widespread raping, pillaging, and arson.
Russia did mobilize first, triggering the war…wait, what’s that mention of Belgian civilians?
I doubt we will hear of Belgian towns like Dinant where hundreds of civilians, many women and children, were systematically gunned down by German forces marching through. Maurice Betemps and Nelly Pollet were both 11 months old. Like Gilda Genon, 18 months, and Gilda Marchot, aged two, they were shot in the arms of their mothers.
No doubt, their deaths will be bracketed as ‘Allied propaganda’, along with those lurid tales of Germans bayonetting babies and roasting prisoners.
What exactly had these Belgian civilians done to bring down the wrath of the Imperial German Army (a country whose neutrality Germany purposely violated on 4 August 1914)?
Alan Kramer and John Horne, in their magisterial volume on this subject (German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial; 2001), have painstakingly reconstructed the reality behind the propaganda in a way that should leave no reader in doubt. Through years of careful archival research they have reached the conclusion that there was indeed a systematic program of civilian executions — sometimes en masse — conducted in Belgium, by the German army, with the purpose of breaking the spirit of resistance and striking terror into the heart of the population. The anniversaries of the worst of these catastrophes are upon us; on August 23rd, 1914 — ninety-nine years ago tomorrow — the German army took revenge upon the Belgian city of Dinant for what it falsely believed to be the actions of Belgian francs-tireurs (“free-shooters”, or non-military partisans). This revenge took the form of the burning of over a 1,000 buildings and the execution of some 674 civilians. The oldest among them was in his 90s; the youngest was barely a month old. These civilians were killed in a variety of ways. Some were bayoneted, others burned alive; most were bound, put up against walls, and then executed by a volley of rifle fire — all in reprisal for something that had not actually happened.
They were Clausewitz’s pawns. Unlike their children during the Second World War, the German soldiers of 1914 had the sense not to take pictures. Though the murderous Imperial German troops did not escape the eye of Evariste Carpentier:
The terrifying behavior of German forces would also cause devastation that was far more difficult to hide than the bodies of their murder victims:
Situated between Liege and Brussels, the Belgian University town of Louvain (or Leuven) fell to the German First Army on 19th August 1914 as German forces moved through Belgium on their way to attack France.
Leuven/Louvain was relatively peaceful under its German occupiers until 25 August when German units camped on the approaches to the city were attacked by an initially successful Belgian force advancing from Antwerp. The German troops withdrew under fire and great confusion to Louvain.
Rumours abounded among the German troops that they had been attacked as they withdrew from behind by Belgian civilians located within the town.
Either in response or to teach a lesson that dissent would not be tolerated the Germans burnt and burned the town over a period of five consecutive days from 25th August. Both the University and its library of ancient manuscripts was burnt and destroyed. The church of St. Pierre was similarly badly damaged by fire. Citizenry of Louvain were subject to mass shootings, regardless of age or gender.
The Library at Leuven before and after its destruction in 1914
How exactly are rape, pillage and mass murder hidden from the historical record? It was a a strange quirk of the Roaring Twenties. Less than a decade after the armistice the crimes at Kalisz, Dinant and Leuven became “discredited:”
Then from the mid-1920s and onward something extraordinarily interesting happened: wartime cultures began to be demobilized and the human cost of the war now predominated public discourse. Lifting a page from pacifist wartime critique, intellectuals, first in Britain and then in France began to view war itself as the ultimate evil and challenged the notion of German guilt. This “pacifist turn”–as Horne and Kramer very appropriately denote it–tended to relativize events in Belgium and France, and discredit atrocity stories as vile propaganda. The highest degree of skepticism developed in the United States, where a large number of historians and journalists came to view the stories about “German atrocities” as mere lies, designed to feed a ravenous war machine. It was quite ironic that the arguments of pacifists in France, Britain, and the United States, paralleled the rhetoric of German revisionists. The works of leading pacifists in allied countries were distributed by nationalist circles in Germany, and some of the writers even received generous financial support from the German Foreign Office. During the Second World War, reports of Nazi horrors fell on deaf ears, partly because they resembled discredited stories from 1914. “The legacy of the pacifist turn,” conclude Horne and Kramer, “resulted in widespread scepticism toward new reports of enemy atrocities” (p. 410).
The German crimes committed at Leuven cannot be discredited. German State Secretary of Foreign Affairs Gottlieb von Jagow released this written statement in response:
The barbarous acts of the Belgian people in almost all the territories occupied by the German troops have not only justified the most severe reprisals on the part of the German military authorities but have even compelled the latter to order them for safeguarding the troops.
The intensity of the resistance of the population is proved by the fact that it took our troops twenty-four hours to overcome the attacks by the inhabitants of Louvain.
In the course of these combats the city of Louvain has been destroyed in large part by a conflagration which broke out after the explosion of a convoy of benzine, and this explosion was occasioned by shots fired during the battle.
The Imperial Government is the first to deplore this unfortunate result, which was in no way intentional. Nevertheless, because of the acts of the francs-tireurs, it was impossible to avoid such an outcome.
Moreover, any one who knows the conciliatory character of the German soldier could not seriously assert that he has been led to act in such a manner without serious provocation.
Under these circumstances the Belgian people, who respect neither right nor law, bear all the responsibility, in conjunction with the Belgian Government, which, with a criminal nonchalance, has given to the people orders contrary to international law by inciting them to resistance, and which, in spite of reiterated warnings by the German authorities, did nothing, after the capture of Liege, to induce the people to take a pacific attitude.
Not to mention the Emperor and King:
Not only have they employed these atrocious [dum-dum cartridge] weapons, but the Belgian Government has openly encouraged and, since long, carefully prepared the participation of the Belgian civil population in the fighting.
The atrocities committed even by women and priests in this guerrilla warfare, also on wounded soldiers, medical staff and nurses, doctors killed, hospitals attacked by rifle fire, were such that my generals finally were compelled to take the most drastic measures in order to punish the guilty and to frighten the bloodthirsty population from continuing their work of vile murder and horror.
Some villages and even the old town of Loewen [Louvain], excepting the fine hotel de ville, had to be destroyed in self-defence and for the protection of my troops. My heart bleeds when I see that such measures have become unavoidable and when I think of the numerous innocent people who lose their home and property as a consequence of the barbarous behaviour of those criminals.
WILLIAM, EMPEROR AND KING
These crimes were stated German policy. It is quite amazing these criminals even tried to put forth propaganda, their incompetence is so striking:
The above image is an extract from a proclamation by the German General Otto von Emmich, distributed widely in Belgium in the autumn of 1914 as the German army crossed the tiny nation’s borders and began its slow march south. The declaration it makes is rather incredible:
It is to my very great regret that the German troops find themselves compelled to cross the Belgian frontier. They are acting under the constraints of an unavoidable necessity, Belgium’s neutrality having been violated by French officers who, in disguise, crossed Belgian territory by motor-car in order to make their way into Germany.
It goes on to insist that the Belgian people should look upon the soldiers of the German army as “the best of friends,” that those soldiers would “pay in gold” for anything requisitioned by that army in the course of its uneventful passage through Belgium, and closes with von Emmich’s “formal pledges to the Belgian population that it will have nothing to suffer from the horrors of war.” The document carries an ominous tone throughout, however; the reader is coolly informed that von Emmich “hope[s] the German army of the Meuse will not be forced to fight you,” and that any Belgian destruction of their own bridges, tunnels and railways “will have to be looked upon as hostile acts.” The Belgian reader could be forgiven, perhaps, for looking upon the above assurances with a degree of skepticism.
Skepticism? I would say so. Germany couldn’t even keep the logic straight…
The Imperial Government possesses reliable information of the intended deployment of French forces on the Givet-Namur stretch of the Meuse. This information leaves no doubt about France’s intention to advance against Germany through Belgian territory.
The Imperial Government cannot help but be concerned that without assistance Belgium, in spite of its good intentions, will not be able to repel a French attack with sufficient prospects of success to provide an adequate guarantee in the face of the threat to Germany. It is essential for Germany’s survival to pre-empt this enemy attack.
The German Government would therefore consider it with utmost regret if Belgium saw an unfriendly act in the fact that measures taken by its enemies force Germany for defence purposes likewise to enter Belgian territory.
To exclude the possibility of misinterpretation, the Imperial Government makes the following declaration:
1. Germany has no hostile intentions towards Belgium whatsoever. If Belgium is willing to adopt a position of benevolent neutrality towards Germany in the imminent war, the German Government promises to fully guarantee the kingdom’s possessions and independence at the conclusion of peace.
2. Subject to the conditions laid down above, Germany is committed to withdrawing from the kingdom’s territory as soon as peace is made.
3. If Belgium co-operates, Germany is prepared, with the agreement of the Royal Belgian authorities, to pay for the requirements of its troops in cash and to compensate for any damage that might have been caused by German troops.
4. If Belgium should take a hostile stance against German troops, especially if she obstructs their advance by resistance from her forts on the Meuse or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels or other structures, Germany will regrettably be forced to consider the kingdom an enemy. In this case Germany would be unable to undertake any obligations towards the kingdom, but would have to leave the later resolution of relations between the two states to be decided by military force.
The Imperial German Government hopes that this eventuality will not occur, and that the Royal Belgian Government will take suitable measures to prevent the events mentioned from taking place. In which case, the friendly bonds between the two neighbouring states would undergo further and lasting consolidation.
…demanding Belgium remain “benevolently neutral” and permit eight full German armies to transit for the purpose of invading France. Should the Belgians refuse, Germany would declare war on the neutral state, meaning Belgium is siding with France. If the king accepted, he would be siding with Germany. How could Belgium remain neutral (as required by the 1839 Treaty of London) when either accepting or denying Germany’s ultimatum would make the kingdom a belligerent?
Naturally, one could argue “what choice did Germany have?” Really? The Schlieffen Plan (a plan to fight a major war with France) dated from 1905. Germany had no option to try to draw Belgium into the Triple (Quadruple?) Alliance before declaring war on their mortal enemy, France? Or wait for France to violate Belgian neutrality first, guaranteeing a new German ally?
I can already hear the counterpoint “victory [lies] in the attack.” Not during most of World War I. The French assault on Alsace-Lorraine was crushed. Russia was smashed attacking the Germans at Tannenberg. The Germans were devastated at the Marne:
Tired and harassed by resistance from the retreating foe, the soldiers had given way to a mass delusion that they faced concerted guerrilla resistance by Belgian and French civilians. The charge had no foundation, being rooted in the German military’s fear of democracy. But the result was a brutal reign of terror in the invasion zone resulting in widespread arson and the deliberate killing of 6,500 civilians, which prompted international condemnation of “German atrocities.” Above all, the French and British conducted an elusive retreat as the invaders fanned out over an ever-widening arc of territory. Unable to envelop Paris, the Germans tried to close ranks east of the capital. This left them open to a flanking attack from the city in conjunction with a massive counterattack ordered by the French commander, Joseph Joffre. The Battle of the Marne reversed the course of the war as the Germans retreated northward. Then, reaching high ground along the river Aisne, they dug trenches, and the Allies halted in the face of insuperable defensive firepower. Each side raced to outflank the enemy until by November a line of trenches stretched from Switzerland to southwestern Belgium. It was barely to move in four years.
War in the east remained more fluid. Distances were vast and the more primitive transport infrastructure was less decisive in supplying the defensive. After a Russian invasion of remote eastern Germany in August 1914, two German armies under the joint command of the venerable Paul von Hindenburg and the energetic Erich Ludendorff defeated the threat, though the Russians successfully took a large swath of Austrian Galicia. But even here, static trench warfare set in for long periods between dramatic shifts in the front. Elsewhere, trench warfare held sway. Ottoman Turkey entered the war in November 1914 on the side of the Central Powers. In addition to facing Russia in the Caucasus Mountains, the Turks confronted a Franco-British landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula in European Turkey in April 1915, which aimed to seize Istanbul and open a warm-water link with Russia. The operation was a failure, as trench warfare halted any advance and forced an eventual evacuation. When Italy joined the Entente in May 1915 in order to wrest the remaining Italian-speaking areas from Austria, it committed itself to fighting along its northeastern frontier, and despite the mainly alpine terrain, trench warfare predominated there too. Only on the margins, in Germany’s African territories and the Ottoman provinces of Palestine and Mesopotamia, did fighting remain mobile. The fact that it took the Austro-Hungarian armies three attempts to crush Serbia (which was not occupied until the end of 1915) proves the tenacity of defensive warfare in Europe.
Clearly, the tenacity of defensive warfare did not last. Germany overran France with ease and charged through The Soviet Union to the gates of Moscow 25 years later. This begs the question: why? Why was defensive warfare dominant during the Great War?
Answer: the weaponry. I’ve made the argument “war is a political decision made for military reasons.” When combatants don’t understand their weapons to the degree that opposing soldiers were confused in 1914, horrific wars that seem devoid of meaning occur. More on this at a later time.