The Lessons of World War I

One hundred years ago tomorrow, at 8:05 a.m., two Belgian border guards stationed outside Gemmenich spotted a squadron of twenty-five German cavalrymen approaching the village.  They ordered the patrol to halt.  “Belgian frontier,” one of them announced.  “I’m perfectly aware of that,” said the commanding officer.  “But the French have crossed the border and we’re going to continue on our way.”  The officer handed a proclamation to one of the guards.  “It is with greatest regret that German troops find themselves forced to cross the Belgian frontier,” it began, and concluded by asking Belgians to use their “discretion” to save their country “from the horrors of war.”

The guards discreetly moved aside and the horsemen galloped off.  More squadrons followed.  A third guard, the head of the station, telephoned the news to Army Headquarters at Leuven.  The information was passed along to the Foreign Minister in Brussels, who cabled the Belgian embassies in London and Paris.  And thus, around 12:30 PM on August 4, the world learned that the Great War had begun.

Belgian cavalry had been given strict orders not to engage the invaders.  However, around 10:30 a.m., one hot-headed cavalryman, Antoine-Alphonse Fonck, fired on some uhlans near the town of Thimister.  German cyclists were in the vicinity and fired back, killing the Belgian.  Fonck became the first soldier to fall in World War I.  There would be some 8.5 to 10.7 million more, along with as many as 7 million civilians.  But these were only a small percentage of the number of deaths in the wars and revolutions that were a direct consequence of the First World War. 

The most chilling fact about the 20th century is that historians cannot estimate to the nearest ten million how many individuals were shot, blown up, incinerated, asphyxiated, or deliberately starved to death between 1914 and the present.


The cause of the war is really not so mysterious. 

As the diplomatic correspondence reveals, the Austrians were issued a “blank cheque” by Germany on July 5th to present Serbia with an ultimatum unacceptable to any sovereign nation.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire would then be able to “settle accounts” with its southern neighbor.  After Serbia submitted an unexpectedly conciliatory reply, the politicians in Berlin and Vienna rejected all offers of mediation.  They were set on a military solution -- the invasion and conquest of the Slav nation.  That this was a breach of international law was not a problem.

Two years earlier, however, German policy-makers had recognized that the invasion and occupation of Serbia was not something Russia could permit.  There would be no repetition of 1909, when St. Petersburg backed down after the Germans brandished “the mailed fist” following the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  But in July 1914, the Chancellor and Foreign Minister threw caution to the wind, persuading themselves that Russia was still unprepared for war and would bluster but not move.  France would be reluctant to offer support, and the rift between the Entente partners would widen. 

The military, however, hoped that Germany’s eastern neighbor would mobilize, and they could launch a preventative war.   In two or three years, both France and Russia would be more formidable rivals, and even little Belgium would have doubled the size of her army. 

Britain, both the German civilian and military leaders were convinced, would remain neutral.  In any case, her pint-sized army could have no impact on the outcome, and the war would be over long before a blockade by the Royal Navy could have any effect. 

For their part, the Austrians were unconcerned with any international repercussions from their attack on Serbia.  That was Germany’s problem.

When one looks for lessons, one turns to Britain’s response.  The U.K. and France were the two democracies among the European powers, and a large body of literature by political scientists supports what common sense suggests:  democracies are less aggressive than dictatorships.  Families are not happy to see their sons march off to war, nor industrialists and bankers to welcome its economic dislocations, and the more power vested in individuals, the more reluctant is a government to wage large-scale wars.  (Dispatching professional soldiers to fight colonial and neo-colonial battles is another matter.)

So democracies, then and now, tend to be reactive.  They respond to threats, or perceived threats, to their vital interests.  The lessons of the outbreak of the war thus concern what democratic governments ought to do to deter aggression on the part of others.


In 1914, Sir Edward Grey did not have much time.  To all clear-sighted diplomats and officials, the Austrian ultimatum, issued at 6 p.m. on July 23rd, meant only one thing:  that the Empire had decided on war and that, as a junior partner in the Triple Alliance, it must have secured the support of Germany before issuing it.

The German diplomatic strategy was to pretend to be just as surprised as everyone else by the ultimatum, and to make the case for “localizing the war,” that is, permitting Austria to attack and dismember Serbia unmolested.  Berlin imagined other nations would be persuaded by appeals to “the monarchic principle” -- that the assassination of the heir apparent was a grave crime offensive to all European governments -- and by the insincere promise that Serbian territory would not be annexed.

Essentially, what Grey failed to do until it was too late was to call Germany’s bluff.  Relations between the two countries had warmed during the previous eighteen months.  Not only had bitter, long-standing disputes been settled -- notably, over a railway connecting the Aegean Sea to the Persian Gulf -- but the two nations had collaborated in negotiating disputes arising from the First Balkan War.  Throughout the week, Grey persisted in viewing Germany as a partner in resolving the crisis.

Briefly, he made three mistakes:

1) He suppressed the surprise, anger, and alarm the ultimatum provoked.  Diplomats are obliged to use diplomatic language, but it would have been very useful had he revealed more directly his dismay at what he did call “the most formidable document he had seen addressed from one state to another.”

Specifically, he did not tell the Austrians that British public opinion did not accept the concept of collective responsibility.  If the Austrians could provide persuasive evidence that the Serbian government was directly involved in the assassination, then regime change would be in order.  But especially given the fact that Austria had recently fabricated evidence against alleged Croatian Serb conspirators in the infamous Friedjung trial, empty declarations that “the threads of the conspiracy lead to Belgrade” were not going to cut any ice with the British government.

As for Germany, Grey ought to have made it clear that no responsible Chancellor or Foreign Minister would ever permit an ally to issue any ultimatum, let alone one so clearly intended to provoke a war, without seeing it in advance or approving the language in which it was couched.  German disclaimers, in short, ought to have been coolly rejected.

And when it became clear that Berlin was exerting no moderating influence on Vienna, the German government ought to have been called out.  “Localizing the conflict,” permitting Austria to invade and conquer its neighbor, was not an option.

2) Grey failed to issue a clear warning as to the consequences if a negotiated settlement was not agreed upon.

The British Foreign Secretary and his Russian counterpart Sergei Sazonov suggested two formulae for mediating the conflict:  a conference of the four Powers not directly involved in the dispute, Italy, France, Britain, and Germany, and direct negotiations between Vienna and St. Petersburg with a view to reaching a compromise on the one demand in the ultimatum that was incompatible with the rights of a sovereign nation.

After rejecting the first and resisting the second, Vienna finally agreed to direct talks.  But as the Austrians refused to consider modifying the demands, discussions were bound to be fruitless.

What Grey needed to make clear specifically was that the Germans should not count on British neutrality.  He later argued that he could not have done this, since the great majority of the Cabinet was opposed to any involvement in a Balkan quarrel.  He claimed also that he did not want to do anything to make Russia and France more intransigent.

However, no public warning was necessary.  On the afternoon of the 29th, following an Austrian declaration of war and the shelling of Belgrade, Grey cautiously and circumspectly let the German Ambassador Prince Max Lichnowsky know that Berlin should not count on British neutrality.  The Foreign Secretary said that if Germany and France were involved, Britain “might possibly find itself impelled to take rapid decisions.” 

These mild words had an electric effect on the German Chancellor.  In the early hours of the 30th he sent two telegrams to Vienna urging that the Austrians resume talks with Russia.  We “must decline to let ourselves be dragged by Vienna…into a world conflagration,” he wrote.  But Bethmann Hollweg took no concrete action to deter the Austrians, promising instead that we “are prepared to fulfill our duty as allies.”  Count Berchtold assumed that, as before, the warning was being issued with a wink and a nod, and was intended either for domestic consumption or for the British and Italian newspapers.

Had Grey made it clear earlier in the crisis, and in stronger language, that Britain might not remain neutral, this would have had a salutary effect in Berlin.  Even after the 30th, comments made by the Foreign Secretary continued to give the Germans hope the Britain would stay on the sidelines.

3) In order to issue an unambiguous warning, however, Grey had to understand clearly the consequences of a Russian mobilization.  Germany would mobilize in response, and this would mean an immediate invasion of France.  Instead, Grey believed that talks might continue even while Russia and Austria were fully mobilized, so long as their armies didn’t move.


Academic historians wince when it’s suggested that there are “lessons” to be derived from events in the past.  Yet in fact many have no hesitation about making analogies to the present.  In her recent book about the origins of World War I, The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan takes several swipes at George W. Bush. 

And once upon a time, political leaders turned to history in order to make more informed decisions.  The Founders pored over histories of the Roman republic and the republics of medieval Italy when they drafted the Constitution.

What are the take-aways from the July Crisis?

Essentially, they are that candor and clarity are of paramount importance, and, one of the oldest of lessons, that appeasement seldom pays.


Just as Germany represented itself in the last week of July 1914 as a “partner for peace,” so the PLO has been similarly regarded by the U.S., E.U., and U.N. since 1993.  The historical record richly belies this claim, most recently in the accord with Hamas signed by Mahmoud Abbas in April of this year.

Even before the events of the last two weeks, and the shocking discoveries of the IDF in Gaza, land for peace was the emptiest of promises.  It would be very refreshing if this were to be acknowledged publicly by our Secretary of State and other self-appointed peacemakers.

“Germany is playing with us,” warned a top Foreign Office official, Sir Eyre Crowe.  Berlin “has said not a single word at Vienna in the direction of restraint or moderation.”   Would that someone at the State Department was no less candid about the government of the Palestinian Authority.


The failure to see immediately that an invasion of Serbia would have grave consequences was a stumbling block to British diplomacy as the crisis unfolded.  The result of democracy in Iraq ought to have been just as clear:  a corrupt Shi’ite government that would exact revenge on the Sunnis and ally itself with the most dangerous power in the region, Iran.  A civil war was a likely outcome, once American troops withdrew.  But the kumbayah squad in the Bush administration ignored this reality, and cynical GOP Congressmen went misty-eyed over the purple thumbs.  Rose-colored spectacles were once again de riguer during the Arab Spring.


On July 24, 1914, immediately after the contents of the Austrian ultimatum became known, the prescient Crowe wrote

The point that matters is whether Germany is or is not absolutely determined to have this war now.

There is still the chance that she can be made to hesitate, if she can be induced to apprehend that the war will find England by the side of France and Russia.

I can suggest only one effective way of bringing this home to the German Government…  If, the moment either Austria or Russia begin to mobilize, His Majesty’s Government give orders to put our whole fleet on an immediate war footing, this may conceivably make Germany realize the seriousness of the danger to which she would be exposed if England took part in the war.

Had Crowe’s advice been heeded, it’s just possible the war would have been averted.

It’s important to remember that among our adversaries today, as in Germany in 1914, there are moderates or pragmatists even within the most hardline regimes.   A credible threat opens their eyes and strengthens their hand.   A hundred years ago, if Britain had mobilized its fleet and let the Germans understand that it would not stand aside if Belgium and France were invaded, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow might have paid more attention to the advice of the sensible Lichnowsky, and resisted the importunities of the Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, and the War Minister, Erich von Falkenhayn.

Today, of course, we have no equivalent of mobilization.  Sanctions, introduced by the League of Nations, and becoming widespread by the 1990s, are the weapons that now back up diplomacy by the West.  

The verdict on their effectiveness is mixed.  When applied to a small exporting country with a monoculture, they can be crippling.  In the case of large nations with complex economies, it depends on their scope and the rigor with which they’re enforced.

Sanctions, clearly, ought to have sharp teeth.  But they ought to be applied sparingly, perhaps only as mobilization was advocated by Crowe in 1914:  when the nation’s vital interests are imperiled. 

As always, a little clarity is required:  the prospect of a nuclear Iran ought to be distinguished from the prospect of Ukraine losing a semi-autonomous region that is less than 25% Ukrainian and more than 60% Russian


As for the war itself, there are few lessons, and the Germans had mastered them by 1940.  While the British dug in in western Belgium, preparing for another long stalemate, and the French hunkered down in their air-conditioned trench, the Maginot Line, German panzers swept around the Allied defenses.  World War II was a war of movement, a war of assaults by bombers and tanks.  Machine-guns and heavy artillery would never again pin down millions of soldiers. 

The military lessons are therefore those of any war:  good staff work and good intelligence are indispensible.  With the Germans overextended after their spring offensive in 1918, the Allies were able to exploit this by careful planning that drew on tactics learned at great cost over the previous three and a half years.


What about the peace that followed?

If anyone thinks about the lessons of the First World War, the Versailles Treaty is certainly the first thing that comes to mind.  Students knowing nothing else about the war are always quite sure that the Allies imposed a draconian peace on Germany, and the treaty’s harsh terms led directly to the Second World War.  Nemesis followed hubris, always a popular scenario.

Unfortunately, the consensus about the Versailles Treaty is one of the great myths of the war.  History is not always written by the victors.

In the first place, it’s worth comparing the treaty to those the Germans imposed on their enemies. 

In the Treaty of Brest Litovsk of 1918, the year before Versailles, Russia was stripped of a quarter of its territory in Europe.  Poland, Ukraine, Bylerus, and the Baltic states were established as German satellites.  Russia lost 90% of its coal mines, 50% of its industry, 30% of its population, and was obliged to pay about $1.5 billion in reparations, a figure bearing no relation to the losses Germany had suffered during the brief Russian invasion of East Prussia in 1914.

The Treaty of Bucharest the same year stripped Romania of significant territory and Germany acquired a 90-year lease on the Ploieşti oil fields.

Twenty years after Versailles, Berlin again had an opportunity to dictate a peace treaty.  Germany seized 92,000 square miles of Poland, with a population of 10 million, 8.9 million of whom were Poles.  The unincorporated “General Government,” with 16 million inhabitants, was ruled directly by Germany, with executions of political and cultural elites, mass killings of civilians, confiscations of food, levies of forced labor, etc.

And a generation before Versailles, a triumphant Prussia had stripped France of Alsace and Lorraine, with their rich coal and iron reserves and heavy industry, and assessed France an indemnity of 5 billion gold francs, nearly double the Prussian war costs.

In contrast, in 1919, the territorial losses imposed on Germany were modest.  Its colonies became protectorates, but the Empire was not dismembered.  No autonomous state was created in the Rhineland.  Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France, Eupen and Malmédy (400 square miles; 64,000 inhabitants) were transferred to Belgium, Danzig was turned over to the League of Nations, with a narrow corridor assigned to Poland, and Memel restored to Lithuania.  Plebiscites enabled Germany to retain southern Schleswig, Allenstein, Marienwarder, part of Upper Silesia, and the Saar.  Apart from residents of Danzig, nearly all the German speakers who remained outside the Weimar Republic had been subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

What about reparations?

Here again, the consensus is wide of the mark.

In his speech to the Reichstag on August 4, 1914, the German Chancellor admitted that the invasion of Belgium was “a wrong” that “we will try to make good.”

He did not anticipate how much damage his country would do to Belgium and northern France during four years of occupation.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put the figure at $40 billion, a very high estimate.   A more realistic total was around $19 billion.  The destruction was deliberate:  factories were stripped and dynamited, orchards uprooted, fields plowed under, mines flooded, etc.

The Germans were assessed about $33 billion, but only expected to pay $12.5.   Payment of the remaining 62% was contingent on the repayment of the first two series of bonds.  The subterfuge was adopted to deceive voters in Allied countries; Germany would be forgiven the bulk of its debt when this was politically possible.  By 1929, the Dawes and Young Plans had lowered the interest rate and reduced the total owed to $9.25 billion.

In the end, Germany actually paid $5.375 billion, about 28% of the damages it had inflicted on Belgium and France, and it made its payments entirely by borrowing, mostly from the U.S.  German taxpayers were not burdened with the direct cost of reparations.  America meanwhile insisted that Britain and France repay their war debts in full.  In 1935, Germany defaulted on its Dawes and Young bonds.

When Germany began re-arming in 1933, it averaged about $3.375 billion per year in military expenditure.  This was almost seven times what J. M. Keynes, the great critic of Versailles, insisted that Germany would be able to afford in reparations.  It was roughly double the amount, and the percentage of GDP, that the country would have been required to pay by the Reparations Commission.


The Versailles Treaty was so bitterly resented in Germany because the country had signed an armistice with the Allies.  It had not surrendered.  And those signing the agreement at Compiègne were representatives of the new socialist government.  With typical tone-deafness to the symbolic significance of the event, Woodrow Wilson had insisted that the Kaiser abdicate and that a democratic government be installed before negotiations commenced.  He ought to have required that the Kaiser, Hindenburg, and Ludendorff personally hand over their swords and sign on the dotted line.

German troops marching through Berlin were greeted as heroes by the new President, Friedrich Ebert:  “I salute you, who return unvanquished from the field of battle.”

While it’s perfectly understandable, after four years of slaughter, that hostilities should cease as soon as possible, the American commander, General John Pershing, recognized that it would be a terrible mistake not to require Germany to surrender.  In November 1918, the country was on the brink of collapse.  “There can be no conclusion to this war until Germany is brought to her knees,” he declared, and wrote a long statement to the Supreme War Council defending this view.  Staff members reported that they had never seen him so angry as when his plea was rejected.

The final lesson of the war is thus a bitter one, and one no historian can be happy to pronounce.

A lasting peace sometimes requires a decisive military victory.  Germany and Japan, whose armies wreaked so much havoc in the 20th century, have been the most pacific of countries for nearly seventy years.

Pressuring Israel to negotiate a truce with Hamas will not bring peace and prosperity to Gaza.  And, if history is a guide, Israel’s right to exist will not be recognized by Arabs in Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere until a decisive defeat is inflicted on those who seek its annihilation.


On Charlemagne Boulevard in Thimister, in Belgium’s Liège province, there stands today a statue of Antoine-Alphonse Fonck, the first soldier to fall in the Great War.  His right hand shields his eyes and he squints eastward, toward Germany, toward Russia, toward the Middle East.

Jeff Lipkes is the author of Rehearsals:  The German Army in Belgium, 1914, a second edition of which appeared earlier this year, along with a translation of Henri Pirenne’s La Belgique et la guerre mondiale, Belgium and the First World War, and a collection of the letters of Sir Edward Grey, Dear Katharine Courageous.