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The German Empire Lost World War One Before the Start

The German Empire, despite being a leading European power, lost the Great War before a shot was even fired due to military mistakes and underestimation.

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By John Keller | United States

In 1914, the stage was set for a world war with European imperialism, growing nationalism, and a web of alliances all coming to a head. The “Powderkeg” of Europe, the Balkans, was set to explode for the third time in two years with the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The German Empire, a key military power of the Central Alliance, lost the war before a shot was even fired. How is this possible? There are several reasons for this, but they fall mainly into seven themes: The German independence of command structure, the mass alteration of the set military plan, the gross misjudgement of French military power, the inability to calculate the size and power of the Russian military, the underestimation of the British field army, overestimation of Austro-Hungarian military strength, and the failure to keep Italy in the Triple Alliance.

An Independent Command Structure

The first major error of the German military was its structure of independence of command. The German officer corps, deeply rooted with origins in the Prussian military dating as far back as 1525, boasted a strong tradition that if an officer was correctly trained he could act independently of orders because he would simply know what to do. This system, although effective when dating back to the set-piece battles of the 1700’s, proved to be disastrous for the German Empire. An example of this is at the Battle of the Marne, occurring September 5th through the 12th, 1914.

The German First and Second Army were attacking towards Paris and were starting to lose momentum. The French commander, General Joffre, quickly counterattacked against German General Bulow’s First Army’s right flank. Due to Bulow lacking direct orders in the field from von Moltke, the German Chief of Staff, Bulow ordered his men from his left flank to reinforce his right. This created a several mile wide gap between his army and the neighboring Second Army under General von Kluck. Joffre recognized the opportunity, seized the initiative, and ordered the British Expeditionary Force forward, directly into the gap. As the gap widened, panic struck the two German generals and, lacking communication, a general collapse of the German armies ensued. Lastly, the head of the German command, von Moltke, was proven to be an incompetent leader due to his belief that once he set a plan in motion, his generals would be able to swiftly execute it without major issues or direct intervention from his headquarters. This is apparent during the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes and the First Battle of the Marne when von Moltke issued a total of two orders, neither directed towards either of the battle zones. This inability to coordinate attacks and failure of the German generals to cooperate cost them the war.

A Modified Plan

Although the German officer corps was plagued with issues in regards to the autonomy of their generals on the field, they also suffered from Moltke’s constant alteration of the original military strategy. The German military plan, originally formed by Schlieffen, called for a strong right-wing thrust through the Netherlands and Belgium and into northern France, where the bulk of the army would be in position to take Paris and strike the rear of the French military, leading to a swift victory and allowing for the Germans to then swing their full military might on Russia. The problem that arose occurred when Moltke ordered 40,000 men, roughly the strength of a corp, away from Third Army, under General Hausen, which served as the center of the swing through Belgium. These men were strategically redeployed to the 8th Army in East Prussia preparing to fight against Russia in the case of a two-front war. This was further an issue when in September of 1914, when the German attack through Belgium was in full swing and was on the verge of ending the war in the west, von Moltke ordered three divisions, roughly 54,000 men, to the east to support von Hindenburg’s Eighth Army, which had recently won a miraculous victory at Tannenberg. Due to Moltke’s meddling with the original plan, roughly 94,000 men were taken away from the main German thrust into northern France, which led to the Germans being forced to switch from their main drive from the West of Paris to the east, leaving a 296 kilometer gap between the German far right flank and the sea.

Underestimations of the Enemy

Furthermore, the Germans grossly underestimated the military power of the French. With the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the Germans believed the French army to be weak, and rightly so. In the German Empire, they had a population of roughly 40 million people, in which they mobilized 1.2 million men. The French Empire, which had a total population of 42 million, only mobilized 900,000 men. The aftermath of the war was roughly 139,000 French killed to roughly 28,000 Germans killed. With such a grand victory over an empire that was larger, the Franco-Prussian War showed the weakness the French army had and led to Germany being the undisputed European superpower on land. Germany also believed that France and its army was lacking in quality due to the French army’s failures abroad in their interventions in Mexico (1862-67), their loss to Korea (1866), and their slow victory over Algeria, taking them 17 years to conquer this small nation lacking in modern military equipment, when the Germans defeated France’s modern army in roughly nine months. This all led to the underestimation of France’s military, which, in 1914, boasted a mobilization strength of 2.1 million men and 4,000 artillery pieces to Germany’s 2.9 million men and 5,700 artillery pieces.

Moreover, the Germans had the inability to calculate the size and power of the Russian military. Although Russia had suffered a string of defeats, it had also seen a vast improvement overall. The Russian Empire had suffered a defeat in the hands of the “Allies”, a united alliance of the French Empire, British Empire, Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia, in the Crimean War of 1853-56. Although the Russian Empire lost the war itself, they had won most of the land battles. They were only forced to surrender when the Tzar ordered a backing out of the war (and the Danube region, giving power back to the Turks) as a result of the need to train the Russian Army. They had sent their men into combat inexperienced and mostly untrained which cost them about half a million men. As a result of this war, Russia was misjudged as weak; however, Russia took from their mistake and started equipping and retraining her army.

The belief that Russia was weak was furthered by a series of 1500 minor mutinies in the Russian ranks up until 1903. At this point, Russia was on the verge of completing its initial reformation policy; however, in 1904 they were at war with Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Japan had attacked the Russian Empire without a formal declaration of war. The Tzar was totally stunned by this and ordered a mobilization of forces into Siberia. The problem was that there was only one railway into Siberia and the bulk of the Russian Imperial Navy was in the Baltic Sea when it needed to be deployed against the Japanese in the Sea of Japan. It was clear that the Japanese had the clear advantage in the war, and after about a year and a half of fighting the Russians were defeated, Nearly one-third of the Japanese Imperial Army was killed (86,100 men) compared to the Russians dead of 54,400 men.

The Russians, then returning from a “defeat”, were then tossed into a war-torn empire with the outbreak of the Revolution of 1905. After winning the revolution and a constitution put in place, although the Tzar kept his throne, several political, economic, and primarily military changes went underway. From 1856 to 1905 the Russian Imperial defense budget dropped by 12%, coming to only 56% of the German military’s budget, even though the Russian military was nearly  47% larger. Russian mobilization strength went from a million men and 22 artillery batteries to 3.1 million men and 385 artillery batteries. By the time their new policy was implemented and ready to go, the Russian Empire would be able to raise ten armies fully backed by artillery (an estimated 13,400 artillery pieces). This compared to Germany’s mobilization strength of 2.9 million men composed into eight armies supported by 206 artillery batteries (5,700 artillery pieces). This miscalculation would lead to a brutal campaign that would force Germany to move over 100,000 men away from France, which would be crucial in the first campaign.

In addition to this, the German high command seriously underestimated the British Army and disregarded it as an effective force in the field. A key factor in this assumption was the size of the British professional army. It had only 125,000 men composed into six infantry divisions and one cavalry division backed by only 470 artillery guns. The entire British field army had hardly the strength of a German field army; however, they still had a militia reserve of 285,000 men. In addition, they had only 66% of the artillery one German army would have. To further the German’s belief that the British army was inferior was the recent defeats and poor conduct of the British army. While fighting the Zulu African tribe for control of South Africa, they lost most of their battles despite holding superior firepower. Furthermore, in the Boer Wars, the British Empire had to fight South African militia rebels, and the British suffered nearly 22,000 dead to the Boers 9,000. Although the British had won, thousands of British were left dead or seriously injured at the hands of the South African militia. Moreover, the British Empire had a naval focus. The British Navy boasted nearly 160 modern warships and the German navy boasted a strength of only 87. In addition, the French Navy supported the British Navy with an additional 91 warships. By having twice as many warships, the British spent £173,500,000 on their navy (roughly $267,190,000) and the Germans spent ₰986,523,189 on their total military (roughly $573,000,000). This vast difference would be a key premise that lead to a major underestimation of the British military power.

The Overestimation of an Ally

To add to the miscalculations by the German General Staff was the overestimation of the military strength of Austria-Hungary. The first error of this was that Field Marshal von Moltke expected his Austrian counterpart, Field Marshal Conrad von Hotzendorf, to field a modern and effective army. The Austro-Hungarian army fielded about one million men at mobilization, supported by 1,200 artillery pieces. 26% of the Austro-Hungarian army had equipment dated back to 1895. The remaining 74% of the Austro-Hungarian military had mainly 1903 equipment; however, their artillery force used mainly guns dating back to 1908 and even fewer more modern 1911 guns. The main rifle being used by the Austro-Hungarian field armies was the Mannlicher-Schonauer, a rifle that went into production in 1903. The secondary rifle of the Austro-Hungarian field armies was the Steyr-Mannlicher M1895. This army was expected to decisively defeat 420,000 Serbians using generally more modern equipment, notably pre-modern (post-1900 production) rifles and artillery, as well as roughly 2,000,000 Russians, using mainly postmodern rifles and artillery, due to the modernization after the Russian loss in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Outnumbered and primarily outgunned, the German high command expected the Austro-Hungarian to perform ably and decisively in the field.

To cause this belief among the German General Staff was a recent string of Austro-Hungarian victories. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had a stunning victory over the Ottoman Empire, where they funded a revolution in Bulgaria. This sparked the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, in which the Austro-Hungarians brought their two greatest rivals against each other, which lead to a serious weakening of the Ottoman Empire when the independence of Bulgaria was established in the postwar treaty. This war further benefited Austria-Hungary, because the Russian Empire was forced to back down when they attempted to make Bulgaria a puppet state and assert their dominance in the Balkans, due to the fact the British Empire stepped in and humiliated the Tzar. This caused a restriction on Russian influence in affairs in the Balkans.

With such a stunning result, and wanting to further their gains, the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1905 and became the undisputed power in the Balkans. This, however, was a major diplomatic and political victory, and not a military victory, which the Germans were depending on their southern neighbors to make in the next war. The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s military problems were furthered by their Chief of the General Staff, Conrad von Hotzendorf, who proved unsuited for his position. He was fancied a military genius by colleagues when this proved to be nowhere near reality. He simply could not deliver a decisive victory when it was needed. He lost battles in Galicia, got, an entire army enveloped and entrapped around the Fortress of Przemysl, and was forced to abandon his positions around Krakow. Conrad von Hotzendorf proved in his many failures that he could not lead the Austro-Hungarian military, and the defeats were only going to add up as the war prolonged.

The Italy Problem

The final issue that brought the German Empire ruin was their failure to keep Italy in the Triple Alliance. The main reason for this was the Austro-Italian complex. Article Seven of the Amended Triple Alliance, written in 1912, states that:

“Austria-Hungary and Italy, having in mind only the maintenance, so far as possible, of the territorial status quo in the Orient, engage to use their influence to forestall any territorial modification which might be injurious to one or the other of the Powers signatory to the present Treaty.”

Between 1848 and 1866, Italy fought three wars of independence from the Austrian Empire. Although independence was eventually granted, Italy still had claims on the Tyrol Region (Trento), Trieste Region, the Dalmatian Islands, and much of the Austro-Hungarian coast on the Adriatic Sea. This all contributed to strained relations between Italy and Austria-Hungary, which created the Italo-German Complex. After Italy gained independence and Prussia unified Germany and formed the German Empire, they became natural allies, as they were the only new nations in the world power struggle of the era; however, as time went on, it was clear that Germany and Italy had different national goals. Germany planned on taking territory from France and weakening Russia as a European power. Italy had very limited plans about war with France, as they had helped secure Italian independence. Furthermore, Italy had made plans to reclaim their lands from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and form an Empire dominant in the Mediterranean and Africa. These plans would cause the final issue, the Ottoman-Italian complex. The Ottoman Empire had formed a secret alliance with the Germans, which was a problem for the Italian Empire. The Ottoman Empire dominated the eastern Mediterranean which made it a prime rival for the Italians, who proved they were on a warpath with the Ottomans in the Italo-Ottoman War of 1911 in which they seized several Ottoman islands and took Ottoman controlled Libya. These all led to the following message from the German Ambassador at Rome, Baron Ludwig von Flotow, to the German Foreign Office in 1914:

“The Minister, who was in a state of great excitement, said in explanation that the entire Ministerial Council, with the exception of himself, had shown a distinct dislike for Austria. It had been all the more difficult for him to contest this feeling, because Austria, as I myself knew, was continuing so persistently with a recognized injury to Italian interests, as to violate Article 7 of the Triple Alliance treaty, and because she was declining to give a guaranty for the independence and integrity of Serbia.”

This culminated in Italy rejecting the Central Powers offer to join them in their war against Serbia, which violated Article Five of the Amended Triple Alliance of 1912, “They engage henceforward, in all cases of common participation in a war, to conclude neither armistice, nor peace, nor treaty, except by common agreement among themselves.” This then further disconnected Italy from the Central Powers and would eventually cost the German and Austro-Hungarians 1.6 million casualties and forced 66 divisions away from the other main fronts.

The German Empire, through their independence of command structure, the mass alteration of their military strategy, the gross misjudgement of French military power, the inability to calculate the size and power of the Russian military, the underestimation of the British field army, overestimation of Austro-Hungarian military strength, and the failure to keep Italy in the Triple Alliance, lost World War One before even a shot was fired. Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.” The German Empire failed to do the many calculations needed to wage war, and therefore the First World War was lost to them before it was even fought.


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