It is worth remembering, in August 2012, that in August 1914 the people of Europe sat witnessing the dreadful outbreak of World War One.. which took place with the German invasion of Belgium from 4 August – 16 August 1914, and led to the outbreak of the mass killings over a four year period known as “World War One”. Here is a fascinating new book that outlines the military thinking behind this mass slaughter. IIPSGP was partly launched as a result of the influences experienced by my nursing old World War One soldiers in Calgary, Canada from 1977-1981. My subsequent work as a peace educator and philosopher has been geared towards preventing the possibility of World War Three, whose destructiveness would be incalculably greater.. By studying the causes of previous world wars and seeing the folly involved, we can perhaps prevent their recurrence.. This is why we are organising a special conference at the Castle of the Muses on September 15th to focus on Iranian-Western peace thinking.. (Thomas Clough Daffern)
Review of Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War
(Princeton University Press)
By Richard A. Koenigsberg
Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War
(Princeton University Press)
Description: World War I casts a long shadow over the twentieth century. The fear that a distant crisis could rapidly escalate into a major conflict continues to haunt contemporary international politics. This revised and expanded edition includes nine essays that analyze the outbreak of the First World War. They consider how offensive military strategies helped to trigger the Great War.
This essential work reveals the logic or ideology that generated the First World
War. It is available directly from Princeton University Press, or through Amazon
at very special discounted rates.
Having completed a round of research on Hitler and the Holocaust in 1989, I
drifted over to an adjacent set of stacks at NYU’s Bobst Library and began
skimming books on an earlier episode of Western political violence, the First
World War. I was astonished at what I discovered: the monumental casualties
and—so difficult to fathom—the way battles were fought. For four years leaders of the “greatest nations in the world” asked young men to get out of trenches and move toward opposing trenches where they were torn apart by artillery shells and machine gun-fire.
I sought to understand the causes and meaning of this endless slaughter.
Historians write about the facts of the war, which began in August 1914 and
ended in November 1918. They trace the events that led up to the war, but rarely are they able to explain the perpetual slaughter. Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War, Edited by Steven E. Miller, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Stephen Van Evera is perhaps the most important book ever written on the Great War because it succeeds in articulating the ideas that generated events. Though irrational and bizarre, the First World War grew out of a particular logic. Military Strategy is an edited collection that reveals the mind-set that led to war. Particularly valuable are essays by Michael Howard, “Men Against Fire,” and Stephen Van Evera, “The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War.”
The nations participating in the First World War included the Allied Powers
(Russia, France, the British Empire, Italy and the United States), the “Central
Powers” (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria), as well as many other
countries. Germany moved through Belgium to attack France, expecting a quick
victory, which did not occur. Soon there was a stalemate, as combatants built
500 miles of zigzagging trenches in France. Soldiers settled in on opposing
Battles occurred when massive numbers of troops got out of their trench and
attacked the opposing trench. Modris Eksteins describes the fundamental
The victimized crowd of attackers in No Man’s Land has become one of the supreme
images of this war. Attackers moved forward usually without seeking cover and
were mowed down in rows, with the mechanical efficiency of a scythe, like so
many blades of grass. “We were very surprised to see them walking,” wrote a
German machine-gunner of his experience of a British attack at the Somme. “The
officers went in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking
stick. When we started firing, we just had to load and reload. They went down in
the hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.”
By the time the war ended in November 1918, casualties had been staggering.
Matthew White’s table summarizes the results: 65 million soldiers were
mobilized to fight of which 9.5 million were dead, over 21 million wounded, and
nearly 8 million taken prisoner or missing. Total casualties were over 37
million: 57.7% of all forces mobilized.
The mind boggles at these statistics. What could have been at stake to justify
this massive episode of slaughter? What kept the war going for so many years?
Jay Winter—one of the most prominent historians of the First World War—concludes
his six-part video series, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century,
in a tone of baffled bewilderment, summing up his reflections: “The war solved
no problems. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or
disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading,
confused in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in
European history of meaningless conflict.”
What requires explanation is the military strategy that governed the First World
War. Why did Generals persist in fighting battles as they did, despite the
futility of the strategies they employed? At conferences I’ve attended, the best
people can do is say that the Generals were “stupid.” Historians often ascribe
the outbreak of the war, Stephen Van Evera notes, to the “blunders of a mediocre
European leadership.” Barbara Tuchman describes the Russian Czar as having “a
mind so shallow as to be all surface,” and Luigi Albertini refers to the
“untrained, incapable, dull-witted Bethmann-Hollweg,” the “mediocrity of all the
personages” in the German government, and the “short-sighted and
Of course, the scope of destruction requires an explanation that goes beyond
claiming that the Generals who fought the war were shallow, dull-witted and
ignorant. Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War draws our
attention to an ideology that seems to have lain at the root of what occurred.
This strategy, the doctrine of the “offensive at all costs,” governed the
thinking of First World War military leaders. It revolved around the belief that
in waging war it was imperative to attack at all costs. A nation could achieve
victory, according to this philosophy, only if troops had the courage and will
to move forward relentlessly—to continue to attack in the face of heavy
In France, Van Evera tells us, the army became obsessed with the “virtues of the
offensive,” an obsession that spread to French civilians. The President of the
French Republic, Clement Fallières, announced that “the offensive alone is
suited to the temperament of French soldiers. We are determined to march
straight against the enemy without hesitation.” One French officer contended
that the offensive “doubles the energy of the troops” and “concentrates the
thoughts of the commander.” British officers declared that modern war conditions
had enormously “increased the value of moral quality.” Mind would prevail over
matter; morale would triumph over machine guns. War, General Ian Hamilton
declared, is the triumph of “one will over another weaker will.”
Despite the advent of the machine gun, military leaders continued to focus on
the significance of the bayonet. German writer Wilhelm Balck stated (1911) that
the soldier should be taught “not to shrink from the bayonet attack, but to seek
it,” and quotes Russian General Mikhail Dragomirov that the bayonet could not be
abolished—even in the face of modern weaponry—because it was the exclusive
embodiment of will power, which was the source of success both in war and
The doctrine of the offensive at all costs, Michael Howard tells us, grew out of
the nagging, fundamental problem of morale, a problem all the greater since a
large part of armies would now be made up of reservists, whose moral power, it
was feared, had been sapped by the enervating influence of modern life. Balck
observed that the “steadily improving standards of living” tended to increase
the instinct of self-preservation and “diminish the spirit of self-sacrifice.”
Concern about the army’s morale was bound up with concern about the morale of
one’s nation as a whole. Contemporary life would undermine the “fanaticism and
national enthusiasm” of a bygone era.
Howard suggests that it was neither the Boer War nor the American Civil War nor
even the Franco-Prussian War that established the template for the First World
War. Surprisingly, the 1905 Russo-Japanese war provided the model that France,
Great Britain and other nations sought to emulate.
In February 1904, the Japanese navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian
fleet at Port Arthur. It took the Japanese army a year to establish themselves
in the disputed province of Manchuria, capturing Port Arthur by land assault in
a two-week battle involving over half a million men.
The general consensus of European observers—who followed this war closely—was
that infantry assaults with bayonets were still not only possible but necessary.
The Japanese had carried them out time and again, and were ultimately
successful. In spite of enormous losses in these assaults (Japan suffered an
estimated 85,000 casualties during the war); soldiers had broken through the
enemy line against machine gun fire and other obstacles. Bodies were heaped on
the ground as one wave of troops followed the next, but the attacks eventually
resulted in victory.
Japanese bayonet assaults came, it was true, only at the end of a long and
careful advance. A French observer described one Japanese attack:
The whole Japanese line is now lit up with the glitter of steel flashing from
the scabbard. Once again officers quit shelter with ringing shouts of “Banzai!”
wildly echoed by all the rank and file. Slowly, but not to be denied, they make
headway, in spite of the barbed wire, mines and pitfalls, and the merciless hail
of bullets. Whole units are destroyed—others take their places; the advancing
wave pauses for a moment, but sweeps ever onward. Already they are within a few
yards of the trenches. Then, on the Russian side, the long grey line of Siberian
Fusiliers forms up in turn, and delivers one last volley before scurrying down
the far side of the hill.
Japanese losses in these assaults were heavy, but they succeeded; and so,
European theorists argued, such tactics would succeed again. “The Manchurian
experience,” one British military theorist wrote, showed over and over again
that the bayonet was “in no sense an obsolete weapon. The assault is the supreme
moment of the fight. From these glorious examples it may be deduced that no
duty, however difficult, should be regarded as impossible by well-trained
infantry of good morale and discipline.”
It was the “morale and discipline” of the Japanese armed forces, Howard tells
us, that all observers stressed. They were equally unanimous in stressing that
these qualities characterized not only the armed forces but the entire Japanese
nation. General Alexei Kuropatkin, the commander of the Russian forces, noted in
his memoirs that his nation’s defeat was due not to mistakes in generalship, but
Russia’s inferiority in “moral strength.” Lacking “moral exaltation” and the
“heroic impulse,” Russia did not have sufficient resolution to conquer the
The issue of national morale and will was a central concern of European leaders
who studied the War. British General Sir Ian Hamilton stated that the
Russo-Japanese war should cause European statesman anxiety. People seemed to
forget that millions “outside the charmed circle of Western Civilization are
ready to pluck the scepter from nerveless hands as soon as the old spirit is
allowed to degenerate.” Much as some worry today that China might become the
“greatest country in the world,” supplanting the United States, so European
leaders at the turn of the century worried that Japan might supplant Western
nations as the greatest country.
The basis of national greatness was, essentially, the spirit of self-sacrifice.
Hamilton said that England still had time to “put her military house in
order;” to “implant and cherish the military in the hearts of children.” It
would be necessary to impress upon the minds of the next generation of British
boys and girls a “feeling of reverence and admiration for the patriotic spirit
of their ancestors.” The cult of the offensive, it would appear, represented a
desire to make manifest the national will—the capacity for self-sacrifice—and
therefore to demonstrate the greatness of one’s nation.
In the following report, British Brigadier-General Hubert Rees describes a
battle in which his own brigade was massacred as they advanced on German lines:
They advanced in line after line, dressed as if on parade and not a man shirked
going through the extremely heavy barrage, or facing the machine-gun and rifle
fire that finally wiped them out. I saw the lines, which advanced in such
admirable order melting away under fire.
Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. I have never
seen, indeed could never have imagined such a magnificent display of gallantry,
discipline and determination. The reports from the very few survivors of this
marvelous advance bear out what I saw with my own eyes: that hardly a man of
ours got to the German Front line.
In spite of the total failure of this attack, it is evident that General Rees
regarded the destruction of his brigade in a positive light. He observed that
not a man “shirked” in the face of the machine-gun and rifle fire. He was proud
that even though his troops were “melting away under fire,” they continued to
advance “in admirable order.” His men did not waver, break ranks, or attempt to
retreat. The General gushed that he had never seen such a magnificent display of
“gallantry, discipline and determination.”
His soldiers were slaughtered and “hardly a man got to the German Front line.”
However, the General does not evaluate the battle in terms of success or
failure. Rather, his reflections revolve around the morale and spirit
demonstrated by his troops. The fact that his soldiers continued to advance
despite being riddled with bullets leads General Rees to conclude that the
attack had been “marvelous.”
I theorize that the ideology of the offensive at all costs grew out of the
desire to demonstrate the moral courage and will of one’s troops, and therefore
the greatness of one’s nation. Such a strategy rarely resulted in breakthroughs.
By virtue of attacking—even when slaughter was the result—soldiers exemplified
the will to national self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s nation.
Admiration for how the Japanese fought in 1905 led European leaders to adopt the
offensive at all costs doctrine in an effort to demonstrate that their
civilization also possessed moral fiber and greatness. The strategy of the
offensive conveyed the strength of the national will: If the Japanese could so
easily sacrifice the lives of young men, so too would the nations of Europe.
One may describe the First World War as a vast sacrificial competition. Leaders
were willing to send young men to their deaths, and young men did not hesitate
to die for their country. In the “spirit of the offensive,” young men got out of
trenches and ran into artillery shells and machine gun fire—demonstrating the
power of the national will.