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The view through a dark mirror

Even historians stare with blank faces when asked who Voja Tankosic and Dragutin Dimitrijvic were.  The names are largely unknown today.  And yet, insofar as individuals can ever affect the course of history, they did more than most to shape the modern world.

Let me try another name on you: Nedeljko Cabrinovic… anyone?

That these names remain almost unknown is a tribute to our ability to forget the lessons of the past and to blunder into repeating them time and again.  Let me try the name of the more famous associate of the secret Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death) terrorist group; Gavrilo Princip.

Now, at least, the historians know what I am referring to.

Dimitrijvic was the Osama Bin Laden of his day – a senior Serbian military officer as well as leader of the  Union or Death terrorist organisation.  Tankosic was also a senior military officer who acted as the link between the terror organisation and the various radical cells which plotted atrocities in the name of Greater Serbia.  One such terror cell included Cabrinovic and Princip, who were provided with arms and explosives by Tankosic.

On 28 June 1914, Cabrinovic threw a bomb at the motorcade carrying the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  He missed.  The Archduke’s driver saw what was happening and accelerated.  The bomb bounced off the car and exploded beneath the car behind.  It was this failed assassination attempt that caused the Archduke to alter his plans, thus beginning the chain of events that led his car to take a wrong turning and come to a stop immediately in front of the startled Princip; who, believing the plot had failed, was in the process of making his escape.  Princip drew the pistol that Tankosic had given him, stepped forward and shot both the Archduke and his wife.  As historian Clive Ponting puts it:

“In the end the conspiracy hatched among young Serbian extremists and backed by elements in the Serbian elite achieved its aim.  On 28 June most of the conspirators panicked and the planned assassination was badly bungled, but by chance Princip finally succeeded.  However, the consequences of the fatal shots in Sarajevo were to be profound: within little more than a month nearly the whole of Europe was to be at war.”

None of the other European Empires saw the events of 28 June as a casus belli.  The assassination was barely mentioned in Western Europe.  In France it was seen as but one more drop in the flowing rivers of Balkan blood.  The British cabinet briefly noted it before moving on to the more serious question of Irish independence.  In Vienna, however, a more belligerent line was taken.  The outrage had to be punished; and punishment meant some form of intervention against Serbia itself.

In another rash and ill-conceived action, German Kaiser Wilhelm II pledged to support Austria-Hungary in whatever action that country chose to take.  Clearly not believing this now infamous “blank cheque” to have major ramifications, the Kaiser then left for a holiday cruising around the Norwegian fiords.

The ultimatum that Austria finally presented the Serbian government with was tantamount to an instrument of surrender prior to a shot being fired.  Serbia was, in effect, being asked to surrender sovereignty by allowing the authorities of a foreign power to take control of its military, police and security services.  Even the Germans were taken aback, while the governments of France and Russia correctly drew the conclusion that Austria-Hungary was bent on war.

The trouble was that while Vienna was undoubtedly trying to start a war, it lacked the means to conduct one.  Most of the Austro-Hungarian army was out of position, working on farms and gathering the harvest.  Even as the troops were called to arms, the Austrian government lacked clarity over what its aims were.  Should it throw all of its weight into a rapid assault on Serbia, or should it deploy the bulk of its forces along the border with Russia in anticipation of that country coming to its ally’s aid?  Instead of the quick and decisive act that military planners in Berlin had urged, Vienna served up vacillation and incompetence.  When, finally, Austrian troops opened fire on the far smaller Serbian forces, they were roundly beaten and, in a harbinger of things to come, became bogged down.

By this time, however, the conflict was already expanding out of control.  The alliance system mattered, because no one country (with the possible exception of Great Britain) could afford to be neutral.  Ironically, however, the system of alliances that was meant to defend these countries from aggression became their opposite once hostilities looked likely.  Had Russia not to come to Serbia’s aid, the Franco-Russian alliance would be in doubt.  Were Germany to hang its Austrian partner out to dry, who would come to its aid in a future two-front war with France and Russia?

A British error at this point paved the way for all-out war.  Although Britain was not formally allied to Russia and France, in the previous decade it had switched away from its historic ties (via its Royal Family) to Germany in favour of rapprochement with its historical enemy, France.  Russia, however, was the reason for this shift.  As the Russian empire gradually expanded into Central Asia, its troops had moved ever closer to the Indian Northwest Frontier and to British holdings in Persia.  Primarily a naval power, the British were increasingly concerned that their small colonial army (which had recently been massacred by Zulu impis at Isandlwana, and by Dutch farmers across South Africa) would be overrun by the “Russian Steamroller.”  Their only course of action was to make friends with Russia; and the way to do this was to make friends with Russia’s ally.

The increasingly frantic diplomacy in the fortnight before the outbreak of war turned on the question of British neutrality.  Given how well German troops performed during the First World War, their calculation in July 1914 was correct; that along with Austria, they could prevail in a conflict with France and Russia provided that the British sat on their hands.

The British dilemma was that they needed to both to reassure Russia of their support, while also not encouraging Russian belligerency.  This meant that they could not openly deter Austria and Germany.  In a message to British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, George Buchanan, Britain’s ambassador in St Petersburg suggested a form of words that might have saved the day:

“I thought you might be prepared to represent strongly at Vienna and Berlin danger to European peace of an Austrian attack on Servia.  You might perhaps point out that it would in all probability force Russia to intervene, and that this would bring Germany and France into the field, and if war became general, it would be difficult for England to remain neutral. (My emphasis.)

British Foreign Secretaries, it turns out, are not particularly good at sticking to agreed forms of words.  Instead of taking this line, Grey told the Austrian and German ambassadors to London that it would be “unfortunate if a four power war broke out in Europe.” (My emphasis.)  That is, instead of clarifying that Britain could not remain neutral – something that may well have stayed Germany’s, and thus Austria’s, hand, Grey appeared to be guaranteeing British neutrality.

The cause of war itself was twofold.  The first was the German military tradition of “the forward battle.”  Born out of a history of invasions and incursions across the Holy Roman Empire, the Prussian military were fixed in the view that to win a war necessitated taking the fight onto enemy territory.  From this flowed the conclusion that Germany had to get its revenge in first.  In today’s parlance, it had a “first strike” policy.

Faced with the Franco-Russian alliance, German military planners concluded that they could not hope to advance simultaneously into both enemies’ territory.  Instead, they chose to focus on the stronger enemy; France.  The 1906 Schlieffen Plan calculated that by use of modern railways, Germany could invade and defeat France in the period during which Russia was mobilising and deploying its massive army.  With France defeated, the full force of the German army could then be turned on Russia.

The technical problem with the Schlieffen Plan by 1914 was that France had invested heavily in Russian railways following the 1905 defeat by Japan.  This allowed Russia to cut significantly the time required to mobilise and deploy its armies and thereby cutting the time Germany would have to defeat France.  The bigger problem, however, was that the plan depended upon Russia playing its allotted role of sitting on its hands until after the Germans began the invasion of France.

It was Russia’s refusal to play this role that undoubtedly caused the First World War.  On 25 July 1914 the Russian Tsar approved a “partial” mobilisation of Russian forces against Austria.  In practice, there was no such thing as a partial mobilisation.  Russia’s only operational plan was for a complete mobilisation against both Austria and Germany.  This troop movement was picked up by German agents in Russia, who reported it back to Berlin.  In effect, Russia had fired the starting gun that obliged the countries of Europe to implement their prepared and inflexible military plans.

Despite the frantic diplomacy that continued even after the first German troops crossed into Luxembourg, War was guaranteed.  No statesman or general, still less the workers’ representatives gathering for their annual meeting of the Second Internationale, could stop the monster they had unleashed.  Railway timetables aimed at moving troops from depots to that portion of the front allocated to them by the Plan, became the algorithmic masters of war.  When, at the last minute, Kaiser Wilhelm ordered his commanders to turn his armies against the Russians, all they could do was shrug.  There was simply no way to order the trains to halt; still less to turn them back.

The bloodiest battles of the American Civil War had provided the first glance of what an industrialised “Total War” would look like.  Nevertheless, European politicians and generals assured themselves that the troops would be home before the leaves had fallen from the trees.  Most imagined some repetition of the set-piece battles of the Napoleonic Wars or the rapid defeat of France by Germany in the 1870-71 war.

Only Germany had consciously developed a mass industrialised army.  All of the apparently benign education and social welfare programmes introduced under Bismarck were designed to allow millions of reservist troops to be rapidly incorporated into the standing army – allowing millions of troops organised into five armies to march across the French and Belgian frontiers.  Contrast this with the British, who could not agree among themselves whether to deploy all six divisions of the British Expeditionary Force to France or whether to keep two at home to defend against invasion.

Not one person within the British establishment in August 1914 could even glimpse the destruction of their Empire that was about to unfold.  The mass volunteer army so careless squandered two years later on the banks of the Somme was still undreamed of.  The 1915 shell crisis borne out of the failure to understand the dimensions of the conflict they had so carelessly entered into was a mere symptom of the industrial and financial strain that was to follow.  In just four years, Britain went from the world’s richest power to its most indebted.  A generation later, its leaders would be obliged to sell their souls to the USA in exchange for that country bailing them out in an even bloodier European conflict whose origins, too, can be traced back to 1914.

What lessons might the events of the summer of 1914 have for us today?

The two most relevant lessons are that seemingly minor events like political assassinations and poisonings by persons unknown can rapidly spiral out of control, and that military actions (Russian mobilisation/US missile strikes) that are believed to fall short of war are easily interpreted as the opening shots of a wider conflagration.

None of the politicians of 1914 believed they were about to send an entire generation to be slaughtered and maimed on the fields of Europe.  Even as mobilisation was gathering pace, most still believed that peace was possible.  Even among those who did glimpse the inevitability of war, the belief was that casualties would be counted in thousands.  None could imagine the 11 million deaths that actually occurred.  In the same way, today’s Western politicians and diplomats appear to believe that they can go about the business of overthrowing regimes, destabilising regions and firing bombs and missiles into other people’s countries without reaping negative consequences.  Like the Russian Tsar before them, they may see these acts as preventing rather than opening a war.  But like the Russian mobilisation in 1914, a large-scale air assault on Syria might be treated as the opening shots in a wider war.  In which case, there may be too few of us left in the ashes to count the casualties.

As you made it to the end…

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