Long Road to Victory

“I have a rendezvous with Death

At some disputed barricade,

When Spring comes back with rustling shade

And apple-blossoms fill the air—

I have a rendezvous with Death

When Spring brings back blue days and fair…”

Alan Seeger(1888-1916)

Alan Seeger, author of the infamous poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death”, was one of many hundreds of thousands of men to lose his life during the horrific and bloody Battle of the Somme. Unfortunately, skirmishes such as the Somme would continue for over four years, culminating in an estimated twenty million military and civilian deaths, and countless wounded. While the cause of World War I was widely regarded as to have been the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at the hands of young Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, it would be a disservice to those who paid the ultimate price to assume this was the only cause of such a conflict. Failing diplomacy, militarism, and growing nationalism were just as much to blame as the catalyst that was the Archduke’s assassination for the horror that would come to be known as “The Great War”. To fully understand the disputed outcome of World War I, and why it is a popular notion that the seeds of World War II can be found in the armistice, we must look at the political and societal developments that not only led to the conflict, but also the technological and military advancements that evolved upon the battlefield that would shape the course of history henceforth.

The Failure of Diplomacy and Entry into War

            From the beginning of the 20th century, Europe was strongly, though informally divided into two primary military strengths: The Triple Entente that was Britain, France, and Russia, and the Triple Alliance of Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary. Imperial and military rivalries exacerbated the mutual mistrust that characterized this secretive system, as both groups coveted the lands of the Ottoman Empire.[1] Not only was expansion in Europe ever-present in the minds of national leaders, but colonial expansion in other regions such as Africa and the Pacific led to a naval race between Great Britain and Germany, culminating in an encouraged rise in military expenditure. This would cause a dramatic increase in the size of militaries in Europe, especially French, Russian and German forces.

            The nations of Europe, unable to compromise, prepared for a war each felt would be inevitable That fear became realized on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. The Archduke of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie visited the Serbian city, a city already torn by civil unrest due to the Serbs discontented with Austrian rule, with an unusually small amount of security. A young Serb named Gavrilo Princip and a small group of Serbian rebels funded by a black operations unit named the Black Hand staged an assassination of the Archduke. While the small groups plan ultimately failed, Princip’s and Archduke Ferdinand’s paths crossed by sheer happenstance later that day, and Princip effectively shot and murdered both the Archduke and his wife Sophie. The Archduke’s death therefore did not merely give the pretext for war, but also removed a major obstacle to it.[2]

            After the murder of the Archduke, and the involvement of the Black Hand in his death, it seemed that civil unrest had surpassed the want for peace, as Austrians demanded recourse against the Serbs of Bosnia. It would be at this moment where Austria-Hungary appealed to Germany for support in its retaliation and want to prove itself worthy of such an alliance. It would be at this point that Germany issued Austria a “Blank Cheque”, which would not only secure German resources, but also military support.  According to Michael Howard in his novel The First World War, the German government knew it was risking at least a European war, but by now such a war was regarded in Berlin as almost inevitable.[3] The month of July would be tense, as the powder keg that was Europe waiting for the spark that would ignite the world in horrific bloodshed. Militaristically speaking, most European countries were prepared for a war. In 1914 even France was going through a successful period of militant nationalism and ready for war in all manner of speaking.

             In R.J.W. Evans’ novel, The Coming of the First World War, he states that undoubtedly, large logistical issues were involved in putting the main and subsidiary Habsburg armies on a war footing…yet the events of July equally undoubtably compromised the Monarchs integrity.[4]  The Austrians would deliver an ultimatum to the Serbians during the month of July that essentially demanded the elimination of the Black Hand, destroy anti-Austrian propaganda, and allow Austro-Hungarian inquiry into the assassination of the Archduke one month prior. Austria gave a time limit of 48 hours for this to be answered, however it was clear that they desired the Serbians to reject the ultimatum and that is precisely what occurred.

            In fact, when they received this ultimatum from Austria, Serbia appealed to Russia, and in defying the Austrian and German expectation that Russia would not rise to the occasion of such conflict, the Russian government agreed to order the military to mobilization, promising Serbia four divisions.[5] However, in one last effort to preserve peace, Serbia agreed to all manner of the ultimatum save one: They disagreed that Austria be allowed national involvement into the assassination investigation. It would be this interaction that would throw Europe into its first, and arguable most devastating of World War. Diplomatic relations between the Central Powers of Germany, Austria, and Italy and the Allied Powers of France and Great Britain (and later the United States) would give way to weapons developments and conditions that would pave the way for a dramatic rise in militarism that would define the world henceforth.

Militarism      

            Militarism in its most basic definition is the belief that strong military power is essential to the strength and success of a nation. This belief was ever in the forefront of the minds of the belligerent nations military and political leaders. Though ever-present in all nations, militarism was at its strongest in Germany where Kaiser Wilhem II relied heavily on his military leaders and less on the Reichstag, or civilian government which had very little power. This was primarily due to the rise of military influences in governmental policy making in the early years of the 1900’s. It became increasingly common for current and former military leaders to be in positions of governmental power, as well as national leaders’ servitude in their respective militaries that would contribute to this. This contribution to politics led to the rise of militarism that would be one of the driving forces behind the impact of World War I, as it became ever more apparent that the thought of war, not negotiations or political diplomacy would be the primary method of resolving international disagreement. 

            This basis of thought would stem from nineteenth century ideals that the way to a  powerful nation was with both a strong army and navy. Strong armies and navies were needed to defend the homeland; to protect imperial and trade interests abroad; and to deter threats and rivals.[6] However, in this period war was avoided whenever possible, but could also be used to advance a nations prowess and power. Nineteenth century European politics and militaristic notions became intertwined, as comparative to modern political and economical practices. During this period, governments and leaders who failed to maintain armies and navies capable of enforcing the national will were considered weak or incompetent.[7] It would be this thought process that would develop into the militaristic thinking that would fuel the course of World War I and the technological advancements that would be produced as a result, such as the German UBoat, and improvements upon the range of rifles such as the British Enfield.

In a sense, World War I was to be the first of many national instances of an “arms race” in which each nation struggled to have the most powerful military. Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary during 1914, stated: “A great European war under modern conditions would be a catastrophe for which previous wars afforded no precedent. In old days, nations could collect only portions of their men and resources at a time and dribble them out by degrees. Under modern conditions, whole nations could be mobilised at once and their whole life blood and resources poured out in a torrent. Instead of a few hundreds of thousands of men meeting each other in war, millions would now meet – and modern weapons would multiply manifold the power of destruction. The financial strain and the expenditure of wealth would be incredible.”[8] Grey was of course correct in his assessment, and this revelation would not only carry Europe through World War I, but also subsequent conflicts throughout modern history.

Growing militarism did not just affect political decisions during the course of World War I, it also had a dramatic effect on those conscripted and volunteering soldiers on the battlefield. In a letter to his mother American poet Alan Seeger, who volunteered to serve with a French unit, described the conditions and advancements of trench warfare against the German military. In a letter to the New York Sun, dated December 14th, 1914, Seeger attempts to describe life in the trenches as “a long gallery cut in the ground, like catacombs, with pick and shovel.. Down the length of one curving wall the soldiers sit huddled, pressed close, elbow to elbow. They are smoking, eating morsels of dry bread or staring blankly at the wall in front of them. Their legs are wrapped in blankets, their heads in mufflers… Where the lines run close together the soldiers sleep in the simple trenches and fire through small holes in the wall of the combined trench and dugout…”[9] Hunger and disease were rampant for the soldiers on both sides of the conflict, and Seeger’s battalion was no exception. During his memoirs he frequently mentions the horrific conditions in which each man was forced to survive, including an instance when he mentions that two Germans were discovered. “One was dead from hunger and exposure and the other nearly so.”[10] Alan Seeger was one of many to surrender his life during the infamous Battle of the Somme, and is best remembered for his poem I Have a Rendezvous With Death. He would be one of millions to die in the war-torn battlefields of France.

Growing Nationalism

            If militarism was a contributive factor to the destruction and horrific nature of the war, the ever growing nationalism developing could be considered even more destructive in many ways. In fact, many historians argue that rising nationalism was the primary cause of World War I. It is certain, regardless of if the actual cause can be narrowed down, that both militarism and nationalism worked hand in hand to wedge Europe apart, and down the road that led to global conflict. General Freidrich von Bernhardi stated in 1912 that military service not only educates nations in warlike capacity, but it develops the intellectual and moral qualities generally for the occupations of peace. It educates a man to the full mastery of his body, to the exercise and improvement of his muscles; it develops his mental powers, his self-reliance and readiness of decision; it accustoms him to order and subordination for a common end; it elevates his self-respect and courage, and thus his capacity for every kind of work.[11] This way of thinking would gradually incorporate the views of militarism into the growing nationalism of 1914, thus essentially creating civilian and military citizens alike that were enamored with their nations, each thinking their way was the best for the world. In order to explain nationalistic views of the period, one must examine the true nature of nationalism. For example, take a moment to consider American views. Many would argue that America is the “greatest country in the world”, primarily due to the thought that any one person can choose whatever life they wish in the United States of America and be treated as an equal despite their origins, customs and beliefs. This is a prime example of nationalism, namely the thought that “America is the greatest country” thoughts.

            With that understanding, and the knowledge that in 1914, Germany was inarguably the most powerful nation in eastern Europe. German nationalism, a new development with the unification of Germany in the late nineteenth century, was at the forefront of eastern Europe. Though it would be the pan-Slavic nation of Serbia that would ultimately throw the world into chaos, German response would be the scapegoat for the carnage that ensued. Despite the conditions set forth in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany would remain a primary contender in nationalist movement, even through the hardships of the Great Depression that spanned the globe. This would be even more convincing in the minds of the Germans after the Russian Revolution of 1917, having effectively ended Czar rule and giving way to Soviet rule.[12] It would be the remnants of this nationalism that would give way to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party two decades later, reigniting the fire of global conflict.

            When one considers the outcome of World War I, it is easy to understand how it is theorized that the seeds of World War II were blatantly obvious in the aftermath. With the forced signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the Germans were to take the blame fully and wholly for the war and pay reparations that exceeded any fathomable repayment ability as well as disbandment of military forces. It is only through the understanding of the various aspects of perceived nationalism, the rise of militarism, and the failure of diplomacy that we can begin to understand at least some of the events and actions that spurred the world into its first modern global conflict.

Bibliography

Von Bernhardi, Freidrich. “Germany and the Next War, Bernhardi.” The Medical Aspects of Gas Warfare, WWI. December 16, 2007. Accessed June 02, 2018. http://www.gwpda.org/comment/bernhardi.html.

Evans, Robert John Weston, and H. Pogge von Strandmann. 2001. The coming of the First World War. [electronic resource]. n.p.: Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2001., 2001. SNHU Online Library Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed June 6, 2018).

Michael Howard, The First World War: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)pg.15.

Llewellyn, Jennifer, and Steve Thompson. “Militarism as a Cause of World War I.” Weimar Republic. January 22, 2016. Accessed June 21, 2018. http://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/militarism/.

Seeger, Alan. “Alan Seeger. Letters and Diary. 1917. I-IV.” The Medical Aspects of Gas Warfare, WWI. Accessed June 23, 2018. http://www.gwpda.org/memoir/Seeger/Alan1.htm#II.

“Nationalism.” Romanticism. Accessed June 22, 2018. http://www.iun.edu/~hisdcl/h114_2002/ww1.htm.


[1] Von Bernhardi, Freidrich. “Germany and the Next War, Bernhardi.” The Medical Aspects of Gas Warfare, WWI. December 16, 2007. Accessed June 02, 2018. http://www.gwpda.org/comment/bernhardi.html.

[2] Evans, Robert John Weston, and H. Pogge von Strandmann. 2001. The coming of the First World War. [electronic resource]. n.p.: Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2001., 2001. SNHU Online Library Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed June 6, 2018).

[3] Michael Howard, The First World War: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)pg.15.

[4] Evans, Robert John Weston, and H. Pogge von Strandmann. 2001. The coming of the First World War. [electronic resource]. n.p.: Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2001., 2001. SNHU Online Library Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed June 6, 2018).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Llewellyn, Jennifer, and Steve Thompson. “Militarism as a Cause of World War I.” Weimar Republic. January 22, 2016. Accessed June 21, 2018. http://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/militarism/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Seeger, Alan. “Alan Seeger. Letters and Diary. 1917. I-IV.” The Medical Aspects of Gas Warfare, WWI. Accessed June 23, 2018. http://www.gwpda.org/memoir/Seeger/Alan1.htm#II.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Von Bernhardi, Freidrich. “Germany and the Next War, Bernhardi.” The Medical Aspects of Gas Warfare, WWI. December 16, 2007. Accessed June 02, 2018. http://www.gwpda.org/comment/bernhardi.html.

[12] “Nationalism.” Romanticism. Accessed June 22, 2018. http://www.iun.edu/~hisdcl/h114_2002/ww1.htm.

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