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Life Before World War I and Life of Soldiers in Trenches Essay

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Introduction

The nation-state was a European invention. Although afterwards it was imitated all over the world often with bizarre results its origin lies in Western Europe, in the period between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century. First England, France, and Spain organized themselves around a common core. In the nineteenth century, Germany and Italy overcame their more stubborn disunity and emerged as nation-states. By the twentieth century, the nation-state had become the norm throughout Western Europe. This undivided loyalty was the great political novelty of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth.

As the twentieth century opened, the nation-state claimed exclusive and total allegiance. Here lay an obvious danger, for the new exclusiveness of national loyalties intensified old hatreds and awakened new rivalries. More particularly, the tendency to define a nation as consisting of those people who spoke the same language brought disastrous consequences, it dramatically oversimplified an enormously complex question, and it encouraged conflicting claims that were forgotten. The present dominance of this political model has obscured its comparatively recent origin and the large variety of alternative possibilities that were gradually eliminated through the course of time.

The peculiar circumstances of the Habsburg Empire played main role in breakout of the WWI. Vienna, its capital, was a brilliant but febrile city, humming with presentiments of disaster. Immigration from different parts of the empire had produced or exacerbated existing social tensions. It was peculiarly difficult to operate parliamentary government, and there was little eagerness to attempt it. Czechs and Slovaks, Poles and Ukrainians, Croats and Serbs, were among the ‘suppressed nationalities’ jostling for position and satisfaction. Since the constitutional settlement of 1867, the Magyars had internal control within Hungary; friction between Vienna and Budapest was endemic and not without repercussions for the management of foreign policy. The future of these Habsburg domains, assembled over the centuries by marriage, purchase and conquest, was the subject of endless coffee-table speculation, but the subsequent demise of the monarchy should not necessarily encourage the notion that it was in fact on the point of collapse. The Habsburgs themselves were there to be criticized rather than replaced. Looked at as a whole, the empire presented a puzzling picture of industrial development and agricultural backwardness — regional contrasts were notable. ‘Better a fearless end than endless fears’ was becoming more than a cliché, particularly in military circles. The army took the view that it held the future in its hands. It could claim to be the embodiment of a state which could not rest its raison d’être upon national consciousness. The multiplicity of languages and the susceptibilities they engendered frequently complicated organization and training, but senior officers could overcome these difficulties by their own linguistic proficiency. Austrian poets were elated by the thought that with every shot Germany was on the way to establishing mankind’s ‘golden empire on earth’. Whatever their notional political convictions, they had no doubt that with cold blood and hot iron ‘wonderful work of man’ was being done. Some of this martial zeal was of the kind that subsequently expressed itself in an eager search for un-heroic employment in the imperial war archives; but not invariably so.

Why were so many people unprepared for the outbreak of war in 1914?

The domination of Europe was considered inevitable even at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nearly all Europeans and most non-Europeans as well assumed that this little continent would continue to play the leading role in world affairs, as it had during the four centuries past. Very few suspected that the end of Europe’s global supremacy was already on the horizon. In the decades after 1914, Europeans were only rarely conscious of the historical fate that was overtaking them. Their former claims to world supremacy gone, their concentration on internal affairs now sanctioned by both old preference and new necessity, the Europeans of today are settling into a more modest role of social and cultural example, experienced pace setters for the rest of mankind that has been in such a hurry to overtake them. Along with their scientific and technical bent, Europeans developed a new kind of business enterprise. Like modern technology, modern capitalism, with all its complex financial and industrial devices, was a unique creation of the European spirit.

Was there a chance for peace before the war?

Before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, there were few observers who thought that by early August 1914 the major, and some minor, states of Europe would be in this condition. The summer of 1914 was not the first international crisis in Europe in the twentieth century, but previous episodes had been successfully ‘managed’, by luck or good judgment. The breakdown of 1914 was merely a breakdown. It does not even mean that the ‘system’ was fundamentally unsound. If that system is taken to be the ‘Concert of Europe’ – a set of rules, conventions and restraints informally agreed by a set of states within a given area existing in approximate equilibrium – then it had certainly been under strain since before the turn of the century. The events of 1914 finally disrupted that mutual confidence which was already badly frayed. Again, no single individual, cabinet, government or military staff may have planned such an outcome. Many professionals thought that there are chances of peace and if war broke out then it would be shorter one. Speculation about a future war was not confined to professionals. The Polish-Jewish financier Ivan Bloch wrote a massive work, The Future of War, which was translated from Russian into the other major European languages and widely discussed in the decade before the war. The ‘voices prophesying war’ helped to create a climate of expectancy which perhaps fostered the very event that was being predicted.

There existed a wide variety of viewpoints about the best way to establish the common goal of peace. One emphasis was upon arbitration as a means of settling disputes between sovereign states, but there was no unanimity about the best machinery for this purpose or how judicial decisions could be implemented if the parties concerned would not accept them

Why did so many people expect a short war in 1914?

The record seemed to suggest that wars might be nasty and brutish but they would be short months rather than years. This ‘short war illusion’ was widespread in military and political circles. Its popular expression was the notion that the war would be over by Christmas. From a naval standpoint, Admiral Beatty thought that the timing of the war could have been a lot worse. The French writer Jules Isaac subsequently recollected that his predominant feeling was to get the war ‘over and done with. This sentiment can be found in many other sources in all the belligerent countries. If the risks politicians took in the July crisis are thought unacceptable, their behavior might at least be explained by suggesting that their conception of war was very different from what turned out to be the reality. Yet not everybody shared the view that the war would be over quickly with a minimum of disruption and destruction.

Why wasn’t it short?

Fighting a war across the Atlantic raised other serious problems of management and control. Preparation for war in Europe clashed with the president’s initial intention to be impartial in thought as well as in action. Army leaders had to console themselves with the possibility of intervention in Mexico. The prevailing assumption, even after the declaration of war, was that the American contribution would be mainly naval and financial. However, during May, the secretary of war, Newton Baker, selected General Pershing to command the expeditionary force. He speedily disappeared to London, armed with more freedom to plan than any other commander. Over the months that followed, his major preoccupation was not the government in Washington but those in London and Paris. European politicians in turn found it extraordinary that a general should have such freedom in matters of strategy as Pershing evidently possessed. The American war effort in Europe did indeed seem to be run by military men. It was an extraordinary transformation of their influence within such a short period, to be explained in pan by logistical and geographical considerations but also by the commander-in-chief’s profound lack of interest in the army which, as president, he required to bring him victory. The inconvenient end of the war prevented Pershing from becoming an even more formidable politico-military figure than he did become. It was indeed a ‘short war’ for the United States as a whole and neither the American public nor army went through the same cycle of moods as those of the European belligerents. The peculiar people had an appropriately peculiar war.

Why was there so much initial enthusiasm for the war?

All accounts of the French mobilization of 1914 now must defer to Jean-Jacques Becker’s magisterial analysis decisively labels as myths the two standard interpretations of France in 1914 that the French embraced the war with great enthusiasm, and that the French people were duped by their political leadership. Becker has also in Le Carnet reconstructed and explained the famous potential arrest list of those persons suspected of being willing to interfere with mobilization. While “Carnet B” was not implemented in 1914, Becker concludes that the concerns that underscored its development were not foolish; most on the lists were committed anarchists who had “talked a good fight” and seemed to represent a significant threat to public order.

Their continuing drive for further concessions produced a growing political crisis that paralleled a mounting wave of labor and peasant unrest, which the various revolutionary groups encouraged whenever possible. All these strains seemed to peak in the summer of 1914. Yet when war broke out in July-August 1914, most members of Russian “society, like their compatriots in the other warring powers, supported their government. Formal opposition practically disappeared with the proclamation of a “sacred union” in support of the country’s war effort. Even many striking workers seemed caught up in the nationalist enthusiasm that apparently gripped St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other urban centers, and to a much lesser extent, the rural peasantry. Despite informed expectations, however, the war was not over by Christmas. The fighting instead wore on, casualties mounted, and the mood began to change dramatically, especially after the defeats and Great Retreat of the spring and summer of 1915. In this atmosphere, the political battles resumed and after a period of seeming reconciliation in June-July 1915, a battle to the death opened between the Tsar and his government on one hand, and the “loyal” opposition on the other. Austrian poets were elated by the thought that with every shot Germany was on the way to establishing mankind’s ‘golden empire on earth’. Whatever their notional political convictions, they had no doubt that with cold blood and hot iron ‘wonderful work of man’ was being done. Some of this martial zeal was of the kind that subsequently expressed itself in an eager search for un-heroic employment in the imperial war archives; but not invariably so. And there were some, like Kafka, who could not, in any event, be spared from employment in a workman’s accident insurance company.

How and why did it trail it off in 1915?

During the next year of war British troops had to move east to fight on the Western front. For most Frenchmen, the war was taking place in the north of their country. British politicians and soldiers talked about the Eastern front, although for their Russian ally it was a war being fought in the west and south-west. The Scandinavian states (and The Netherlands) were all neutral, though not unaffected. The Southern front was difficult to categorize: initially, Vienna had only to face the forces of Serbia but had a more formidable opponent in Italy after the summer of 1915. Ottoman Turkey, after initial wavering, came into the war in October 1914 on the side of the Central Powers. Only recently defeated in the Balkan wars, Constantinople faced possible assault from Greece and Bulgaria, from Russia to the north and feared further erosion of her control over large areas of the Arab world from the British based in India and Egypt.

The extent of such involvement necessarily entailed a wide divergence in the terrain of battle. It is difficult, in such circumstances, to speak of ‘typical conditions’ for warfare.

In a more general sense, too, the number of belligerents increased the diversity and complexity of objectives. The smaller countries, like Bulgaria and Romania, entering the war in October 1915 and August 1916 respectively, were balancing, in the event not very successfully, their assessment of local advantage and the overall position of the respective sides.

Describe the training needed by soldiers to fight this new style warfare

In Britain, steps were taken to improve aircraft design at the recently established National Physical Laboratory. There was considerable disagreement as to whether precedence should be given to the development of lighter-than-air or heavier-than-air craft. The Italians had even used aero planes in their war against the Turks in Tripolitania. The Germans appeared to place most hope in their rigid airships Zeppelins. They could fly higher than aero planes and seemed suitable for carrying heavy loads of bombs, which could be dropped with precision. At the outbreak of war, Britain had a mere 37 planes while France had 136 and Germany 180, though too much weight should not be attached to these figures.

The squadrons were, nevertheless, soon dispatched to France. Pilots speedily adapted themselves to their tasks — artillery spotting, photographic reconnaissance and the occasional piece of bombing. They sportingly carried rifles and revolvers in case any alien aircraft should chance to come near. The British stuck tenaciously to the view that aircraft should be maids-of-all-work, though it soon became apparent that different types were suited to different tasks. Even so, reconnaissance remained paramount and photographic skills improved with great rapidity, though it was by no means easy to make intelligent use of the information thus obtained.

Describe life in the front line trenches, touching particularly on the subject of how men fighting the war survived the horrors of the trenches

Cholera raged in the trenches and it was reported suffering Italian soldiers crying out ‘Viva la guerra’ in bitter mockery and cursing those who had drawn Italy in. Even a little touch of King Victor Emmanuel in the night could not console his soldiers for the fact that such losses had only brought trifling additions of territory.

The installation of cylinders in the front-line trenches from which gas-clouds could be discharged seemed to meet the need of the hour. They were released on 22 April on a section of the Ypres salient held by French Colonial, Canadian and British troops. It happened to be Moroccans who were enveloped by chlorine gas. Their discipline had never been exemplary – it now ceased to exist. The British and Canadians put up a brave fight on their exposed flank, but it became clear that the gas did not only affect North Africans. Soldiers died from suffocation in gas-filled trenches. In the fighting, the Allies lost a two-mile zone to the north and east of

During the late spring, the size of the French contribution which would be committed dwindled with every passing month. Haig even toyed with postponing the attack until mid-August before agreeing to I July. He seemed confident in his preparations and did not seem perturbed by the fact that the Germans must have detected the impending ‘Big Push’. Indeed, they looked down from their fortifications on a gentle ridge. British confidence rested in the anticipated effectiveness of the preliminary bombardment. It would range over a wide front rather than concentrate on specific strong points. Some three quarters of a million men were assembled — roughly seven British to one French ready to clear a gap through which cavalry divisions would gallop to untold excitements in the interior. Rawlinson, commander of the Fourth Army, claimed that it was only a matter of walking over and occupying the desecrated trenches.

How did soldiers cope with their front line and wartime experiences?

The men who fought in World War I were mostly products of large-scale military conscription and training programs that emerged in the nineteenth century. Among the major European powers, only Great Britain avoided a draft, preferring instead to invest its defense money in the Royal Navy. Conscription became a regular fact of life for hundreds of thousands of European men, creating large armies in all the major powers.

The capital cities of Europe filled in the summer of 1914 with eager young men, draftees and volunteers alike, ready to go to war. War, as it had for generations, became a test of manhood, of patriotism, and of individual honor. For some, these appeals blended with the age-old allure of warfare to provide adventure. The new soldiers were led by officers who believed that the war would be short. All sides counted on the moral and spiritual superiority of their nation’s value system to produce a quick victory. Few officers were adequately prepared to deal with the realities of a long, industrial war.

They were, however, prepared to start one. European general staffs developed complicated, highly secret, and often inflexible war plans, designed to be opened and implemented at a moment’s notice. The most famous of these, the German Schlieffen Plan, tried to resolve Germany’s basic strategic dilemma. Stuck between a more populous Russia to the east and a vengeful France to the west, Germany needed to avoid a two-front war. The Schlieffen Plan proposed moving eighty-seven per cent of Germany’s mobilized manpower against the French, encircling Paris, and defeating France in six weeks. German troops would then entrain, move east and meet the presumably slower mobilizing

How do you think the war helped to usher in the 20th century?

In literature and painting, music and drama, philosophy and theology, it is difficult to see the war as inspiring developments and ideas for which there was no prewar precedent. Yet the prophets of doom and disaster were as much confounded as those who talked romantically about the homes for heroes. It was the ability of European states to recover their strength which was most striking. War forced men to find more efficient ways of administration and industrial organization and to concern themselves with improvements in health and welfare. The thrust of technological and scientific development had been dramatic, with totally unexpected benefits and complications. The pace of change in these respects only marginally slackened and further revolutions in transport and mass communications were imminent. Europe soon reasserted itself, though it also carried with it the danger of promethean ambition and a further armed struggle for mastery. In 1919, that contest seemed to most people a remote contingency. For the time being, the bruised and battered earth was bandaged and restored. Huge numbers of crosses peopled the silent landscape. From all over the world, in years to come, relatives and friends trooped through these incommunicative dries of the dead. The cemeteries of Europe housed them, for, in the end, there was little to be said for trying to bring the fallen home. ‘It is just as near from France to heaven as from Indiana,’ concluded one mother. There could be no better comment on the fate of those who left their homes to fight in the First World War.

Works Cited

Ellis, John. Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.

Harris, Greg. “Compulsory Masculinity, Britain, and the Great War: The Literary-Historical Work of Pat Barker.” Critique 39.4 Summer 1998): 290-304.

Shevin-Coetzee, Marilyn and Frans Coetzee. Wold War I and European Society. A Sourcebook.

Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim. The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890-1914. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

Winter, Denis and Allen Lane. Death’s Men. Soldiers of the Great War. London: Penguin, 1978.

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