BIG GUNS: Germany, 1914

Militarist, expansionist, successful, frustrated, to blame… that’s pretty much the heritage story when it comes to Germany in 1914. It doesn’t tell you much and what it does suggest is, as usual, only part of the truth.

Modern historians generally agree that the main impetus to general war in 1914 came from Berlin, but heritage remembrance tends to skate over the equally accepted view that Vienna, Paris and Belgrade deserve their share of the blame. It also lets us assume, albeit largely by omission, that Germany went to war inspired by some Teutonic imperative to greed and martial glory, when in fact the German leadership’s decision to embrace war sprang primarily from desperate fear of the immediate future without it.

So by way of softening any cartoon images you may have picked up, here’s a beginner’s guide to the real German Empire. It’s not particularly snappy reading and it’s not meant to be, but it should at least demonstrate that Germany went to war for intelligible reasons.

Germany was a federation of twenty-two kingdoms or principalities and three independent city-states (Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen). The biggest component was Prussia, which accounted for 64 percent of the country’s land area; the smallest was the principality of Schaumberg-Lippe, covering all of 340 square kilometres.

They had been united as Germany since 1871, largely thanks to Prussian military successes against Austria and France, and they were dominated by Prussia in 1914. Some of the larger kingdoms – Bavaria, Saxony and Württemburg, for instance – enjoyed military autonomy in peacetime and retained much of their previous national identity, but the Prussian king was Emperor of Germany, with control over foreign policy, ministerial appointments and the armed forces, and Berlin served as the Imperial capital.

Here’s a map, which I will of course remove should anyone object to its use.




Germany was Europe’s great economic success story in 1914. Industrial output, trade and infrastructural development had all mushroomed since the 1880s, and although an increasingly urban population had grown from 41 to 65 million in forty years, some 35 percent of German workers were still employed in agriculture and the country was virtually self-sufficient in food. Along with the United States, it had caught and was overtaking Britain as the world’s leading economic power, but with no colonial empire to speak of Germany badly needed new export markets if its rampant production boom was to be sustained.

German politics ran just as hot. The industrial working class was expanding fast, as was an educated middle class, but the constitution denied them genuine political representation. At federal level, every male citizen was entitled to vote for members of the parliamentary lower house, the Reichstag, but its only real function was to approve measures enacted by the upper house, the Bundesrat. That was elected by partial suffrage and populated by conservative aristocratic, military and business interests, as were most of the regional parliaments that ran the internal affairs of individual states.

Atop this pyramid of yes-men and natural supporters, the Kaiser appointed his ministers and ruled with no real need for concessions to a plethora of political parties that reflected stresses all through the system. Regional differences were important political issues, as were tensions between Protestants and Germany’s large Catholic minority, but the fault line that threatened a political earthquake in Germany was the country’s ever-widening socioeconomic divide.

The regime received qualified support from conservative and liberal parties in the Reichstag but had a real problem with the rapid rise of socialism. Most parliamentary socialists belonged to the relatively moderate Social Democratic Party (SDP), which sought gradual reform but was seen by all shades of conservative opinion as a pack of rabid revolutionaries. Once the 1912 election returned the SDP as the largest single party in the hitherto acquiescent Reichstag, some kind of constitutional crisis seemed inevitable to all sides.

German street politics were even more polarized. Few German employers recognised unions, but strikes had become a major issue by 1914, many of them focused on demands for an eight-hour working day. Socialist community organisations had sprung up all across the industrial landscape, and printed attacks on the regime proliferated in an atmosphere relatively free from media censorship. Every left-wing pressure group, however radical, had its right-wing counterpart, often in the form of ‘patriotic’ Leagues sponsored by conservative interests. Most called for military expansion and a more aggressive foreign policy but some, like the anti-feminist German Women’s League, existed primarily to oppose perceived radicalism.

Faced with rampant economic growth and sitting on a political pressure cooker, Germany’s ruling elites expected revolution at any time during the first decade of the twentieth century. Terrified of reform, on the grounds it would unleash the revolutionary agents of their own destruction, they tried to release the pressure with a policy, personally led by the Kaiser and known as Weltpolitik, aimed at making Germany a world power.

Broadly, Weltpolitik sought to establish a pan-German state, win colonial markets, secure economic domination of continental Europe and build up armed forces. It was supposed to culminate in a short, decisive war against France and Russia, as detailed very precisely in the Army’s Schleiffen Plan. So far, so militarist and expansionist, but by 1914 Weltpolitik lay in ruins.

Attempts to secure overseas possessions had achieved little, but had helped provoke France and Britain into an arms race that threatened German military superiority, while tax battles fought in Berlin to pay for German arms expansion, especially its new navy, had brought political tensions at home close to the boil. With every day that passed the enemy abroad became stronger and the enemy within more likely to explode into revolution.

By 1914 siege mentality had taken a firm grip on the administration. The Schlieffen Plan for a rapid attack on France through Belgium still beckoned as a solution to all its problems, but had to be implemented sooner rather than later or everything would be lost. In that context the Balkan crisis of 1914 and an appeal for help from Germany’s main ally, Austria-Hungary, looked  to political and military planners in Berlin like a last shot at salvation.

Once the opportunity had been seized and the world’s most efficient military machine set in motion, Germany’s internal problems evaporated in a blaze of national unity. At that point German civil and military authorities, astonished by the speed and depth of the change, had every right to consider the War an instant success, and to hope that the new patriotism would endure into peacetime. After all, even if the Army failed to deliver its rapid knockout blow, economic arguments insisted that the conflict couldn’t possibly last for more than nine months.

History knows better, and so does heritage. But where history tries to see the past from the perspective of its participants, heritage seems happy to describe it in terms of modern stereotypes. The Kaiser’s Germany, aggressive and unafraid?  That’s poppycock.


Just been for another look at the BBC’s I-Wonder feature on what it calls World War One, and in some ways it’s an impressive, informative exhibition. I particularly recommend the piece explaining the War’s effects on the Middle East as a well-presented, straightforward outline of events that were hugely important for the world we live in today but are largely forgotten.

Shame the rest of the site is so relentlessly Anglocentric and fixated on the Western Front. Buses, songs, poets, the post office… home front, trenches, home front, trenches, on and on it goes. It’s all good stuff and, as I’m bound to keep on saying, well worth the telling, but it’s also editorially timid. It offers an expanded, high-quality dose of what the public expects and what it’s getting elsewhere, and as such it’s an opportunity thrown away.

Given that my last sniping attack was on Radio 4, it might look as if I’m picking on the BBC, but they attract the bullets because they’re the best out there, providing more diversity and depth of commemoration than any other major media outlet I’ve found. But with its global reach and access to international expertise, the BBC should be ideally placed to remind us that this was a world war. Instead, deep in the Internet where tabloid values aren’t an economic requirement and the competition is pitiful, editorial decisions seem to have been made along standard commercial lines. Why offer up interesting, relevant, often eye-opening information about the wider war, when you can play it safe and pile up the poppycock? Over to you…

22 SEPTEMBER, 1914: Das Boot

Popular views of the First World War tend to be obscured by the monolith of the Second, in all its screen-friendly pomp. Submarine warfare, for example, is so thoroughly established as a Second World War story that a lot of well-educated people I meet have no idea it took place at all during the First. It did.

Conducted by men in slow, often experimental boats, operating in appallingly unhealthy and uncomfortable conditions, submarine warfare spread terror across the seas during the First World War, had globally important diplomatic and political effects, and threatened, as in the 1940s, to warp the War’s military course. It was also big news at the time, but although both submarines and their potential had been a fact of military life for some years when the War began, it took the events of 22 September to embed its underwater menace in the popular imagination.

Between six-twenty five and about eight in the morning, in an area of the North Sea off the Dutch coast known as the ‘Broad Fourteens’, the German submarine U-9 torpedoed and sank three Royal Navy cruisers, killing more than 1,400 crew. The action made global headlines and sparked outcry in the British press, focused on criticism of the Navy’s failure to prepare against the threat of submarines. The critics had a point.

The three patrolling cruisers had all been obsolete, slow and unable to carry out the relatively fast zigzag manoeuvres recommended as protection against surface attack. Known as the ‘livebait squadron’, they were largely crewed by cadets and reservists, operating without protection from faster destroyers, and should probably have been spared active service – but their commanders hadn’t even considered the possibility of submarine attack and had contrived to make the ships easy targets during the action.

To make matters worse, the U-9 was – as its number suggests – one of the German Navy’s first operational submarines, in service since 1910. In the context of rapid design advances it was hardly less obsolete than the cruisers it sank, and superior boats were already available to both the British and German services. The British public (not to mention British merchant fleets) trembled at the havoc they might cause, and British naval officers awoke from the collective denial that had been warping their responses to submarine technology for years.

At the very top of the Royal Navy, principally in the person of recently retired arch-reformer Admiral Sir John Fisher, the realities of submarine warfare had been understood for some time. The Navy had built plenty of submarines, among the best in the world, and though strategic priorities meant it saw little need for them as offensive weapons, the threat posed to all forms of surface shipping by invisible attackers with torpedoes was no secret. Here’s where it got a little weird. A large number of British naval officers, important figures from senior admirals down to combat level, simply refused to accept that submarines and torpedoes had changed the game for navies at war.

Surface fleets had ruled the waves for hundreds of years, and the British had long been the unchallenged masters of fleet warfare. Vast amounts of money and manpower had been invested in making the Royal Navy the mightiest weapon of naval warfare ever seen – but it all counted for nothing if cheap little submarines could destroy battleships and devastate trade routes. So they couldn’t.

Sneaky underwater attacks were immoral, ran the argument, against the rules of war and would never be carried out by any civilised nation. Better to carry on building Dreadnoughts and perfecting fleet operations, it went on, and despite decrees to the contrary from above this attitude extended to a neglect of anti-submarine tactics as war approached. The attitude came home to roost on 22 September.

Submarine warfare would prove persistently difficult to carry out in pursuit of any organised, strategic goal, and anti-submarine measures would quickly develop the capacity to limit its impact, inflicting terrible casualties on submarine fleets. That story goes for both world wars, but nobody knew it in September 1914. What the whole world did know, and never forgot, in the aftermath of U-9’s exploits was that something invisible and deadly had been added to the terrors of modern warfare.

Like other new weapons of the time, submarines weren’t war-winners.  Their direct military impact was peripheral but, like the heavy bombers foreshadowed by raids on Paris, they would cast a long shadow over the decades to come. Nuclear-armed, they still stalk the oceans today.

There you go: important, direct consequences for the future of humanity, ideally with a little craziness thrown in; that’s the First World War I’m talking about.

18 SEPTEMBER, 1914: History suspended

A hundred years ago most British eyes were on the Western Front, where the Battle of the Aisne subsided into stalemate after days of attack and counter had convinced both sides that frontal assaults on installed defensive positions were suicide in the machine-gun age.  Outflanking the opposition was now the name of the game, and would remain so until the front line ran out of flank at the Channel to the north and the mountainous Swiss frontier to the south.

On the same day, exactly a century before today’s Scottish independence referendum, the British parliament was imposing its own stalemate on the ambitions of Welsh and Irish populations.

The Welsh Church Act, creating a Church of Wales that freed Welsh nonconformists from paying taxes to the English church, was finally given royal assent on 18 September, after Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government had ridden popular controversy and used legislation to override opposition in the House of Lords.  The same method enabled passage of the even more controversial Government of Ireland Act on the same day.  Otherwise known as the Third Home Rule Bill for Ireland, it provided for devolved Irish government within the United Kingdom and was supposed to bring an end to three decades of violent social and political strife.

The Welsh bill was the first applied separately to Wales, rather than to the entity of England and Wales, and the Irish act was the first concession to devolution made by any UK administration.  Both should have been significant successes for the government’s peacetime reform programme – but the War had changed everything.  The really momentous legislation given royal assent on 18 September 1914 was a third bill, the Suspensory Act, which postponed implementation the first two, initially for a year but effectively for the duration of the War.

Wales eventually got its church in 1920, but home rule never came to Dublin.  The Act of 1914 had brought the predominantly Protestant and pro-British northern province of Ulster close to civil war, and during the next four years southern Ireland’s evident determination to secure immediate independence rendered home rule redundant.  We’ll never know what difference a devolved parliament in 1914 might have made to Ireland’s twentieth-century history, but without it the country went on to suffer decades of uprising, suppression, partition and inter-communal violence.

The Suspensory Act was a small but significant side effect of the First World War’s outbreak that is easy to miss amid the remembrance.  Today, when the possible effects of Scottish independence loom large in British thinking, feels like a good time to mention it.



11 SEPTEMBER 1914:  Bad Day for the Bad Guy

These were momentous times on the Western Front a century ago, and there’s no denying that events in France and Belgium were the War’s big stories in mid-September.  The Marne was ending and military focus shifting to the River Aisne as Allied and German forces sought to outflank each other, but Poppycock knows you can get all you need elsewhere about the Battle of the Aisne and the series of similarly inconclusive actions that followed.  Instead, let’s talk about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which officially called off its invasion of Russia on 11 September, and about the man responsible for Vienna’s spectacularly creaky war machine.

Franz, Count Conrad von Hötzendorf, generally known as Conrad, became the Austro-Hungarian Army’s chief of staff and effective commander in 1906.  Apart from a hiatus in 1911–12, he held the job until 1917.  Like any historical event great or small, the First World War emerged from a swathe of interconnected dynamics and circumstances, and no single person or cause can be held responsible for its outbreak – but if you were looking for a single bad guy to blame for the catastrophic collapse of European diplomacy, then Conrad might be your man.

The hawkish epitome of pre-War European militarism, Conrad was convinced that aggressive expansion was the cure for his multiracial Empire’s economic problems and mounting internal tensions.  For years he had argued strongly but in vain for surprise attacks on disputed territories in Italy and Russia, and he was responsible for Vienna’s aggressive response to the Serbian crisis of 1914.  He did everything in his power to ensure Germany’s support for the Austrian invasion across the Danube that followed, and when general war broke out he launched a second invasion, across the Empire’s eastern frontier into Russian Galicia.

Conrad was also a military optimist to the point of fantasy, and as such a byword for folly among contemporary commanders.  He had been responsible for some modernisation of the Army, particularly its antiquated artillery arm, but it was still largely dependent on obsolete equipment, guided by outdated tactics and hamstrung by tensions (and language barriers) between its component nationalities.  Conrad nevertheless expected this Army to knock out Serbia at a stroke, redeploy a thousand kilometres to the northeast and invade Galicia before the Russians were ready.

In fact, Serbia held firm against tactically naive Austrian attacks in August, while Russia took nothing like the expected six weeks to bring troops to the front.  Conrad reacted by halting reinforcements en route for Serbia and sending them to Galicia instead, an idea based on a fantastically optimistic view of the Imperial railway system, which was largely single-tracked and collapsed into utter chaos trying to turn all the trains around.

With half the invasion force and much of its equipment stranded on the railways, and available units still in the process of basic organisation, Conrad launched the attack into Galicia anyway.  Committed to offensives at every opportunity but never remotely fit to carry them out, the invasion quickly disintegrated in the face of Russian counter-pressure and had been driven back into the Carpathian Mountains by the time Conrad called an official halt on 11 September.

Meanwhile, Austro-Hungarian forces in the south were launching a second invasion of Serbia, but simple frontal attacks on strong defensive positions met the same fate as before, this time at the River Drina.  That invasion was suspended on 15 September, leaving Conrad’s grand scheme in tatters and Vienna saddled with expensive, dangerous stalemate on two fronts.

Close to the royal family and with no credible rival among an anaemic officer corps, Conrad held onto his job and went right on launching his troops into hopelessly optimistic offensives against Russia, Serbia and Italy for the next two years, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives in pursuit of a crushing, decisive victory that never came.  His influence waned in the second half of 1916 as Austro-Hungarian command effectively passed under German control, and the new emperor, Karl, eventually dismissed him in March 1917.

The importance of Austria-Hungary in 1914 is largely overlooked by heritage commemoration, not least because the Empire had ceased to exist by the time the War ended and escaped the contemporary bad press heaped upon Germany.  This tends to let Conrad off posterity’s hook, but amid all the exposure of Prussian militarism his disastrous contributions to the bloodletting shouldn’t be forgotten.  While the British leadership went reluctantly into battle, the French righteously and the Russian blindly, while even the Kaiser abandoned peace with dread in his heart, Conrad’s Austria-Hungary marched greedily to war and sought advantage in its extension across Europe.



In northeastern France, the Battle of the Marne is getting fully underway.  For all the vast scale and cost of later battles on the Western Front, the Marne can claim to be the theatre’s one decisive action, in that it ended German hopes of a rapid victory and effectively condemned both sides to the long haul.  It was quite a fight, four days of thrust and counterthrust, error and opportunism – but you don’t need me to tell you about it.  Instead, let’s talk about another battle on this day in 1914, much smaller and altogether less significant, unless you happen to come from Cameroon.

To begin at the beginning, Germany had established a sprinkling of colonies in Africa during the late-nineteenth century.  The best developed by far was German East Africa, comprising modern Ruanda, Burundi and mainland Tanzania, while the western colony of Togoland was well-established and economically self-sufficient, but Southwest Africa (modern Namibia) and Cameroon were still little more than expanded trading posts when war broke out in Europe. Cameroon, for example, covered an area bigger than Britain and France combined but contained no more than 2,000 European personnel in 1914.  Here’s today’s borrowed map.


The Allies, and Britain in particular, didn’t waste much time before attempting to replace German authorities in Africa, and a joint Anglo-French expedition to Cameroon was agreed on 22 August, aimed at capturing the strategically useful radio station at the capital, Douala. That force took almost a month to arrive from Europe, and meanwhile a separate, three-pronged invasion across the northern border was launched on 24 August by British forces in Nigeria.

On 30 August some two hundred British troops took and occupied the village outpost of Nsanakong, a few kilometres inside the frontier, but they were surrounded and attacked by four times as many Germans on 6 September.  It was a rout.  Half the British force was killed, against forty German dead, and more died as the invasion was driven back into Nigeria.

This small German victory set the tone for a campaign that lasted until the spring of 1916.  The Allied attack on Douala succeeded comfortably enough because German forces retreated into the hinterland, but attempts to secure the colony as a whole (from Douala, Nigeria and French Equatorial Africa) were repeatedly thwarted by rearguard actions, skilled retreats and difficult conditions, particularly in the rainy south of the country.  The majority of the surviving German population completed a fighting retreat to the neutral Spanish coastal enclave of Rio Muni in January 1916, and 832 survivors were eventually evacuated to internment in Spain.  Allied forces couldn’t take the last German outpost of Mora, and its 388 survivors surrendered on generous terms before Britain and France officially partitioned Cameroon on 4 March.

In total, the campaign employed some 18,000 British and French imperial troops, of whom 4,235 were killed, mostly by disease, along with unknown numbers of German personnel and native bearers.  Not much in the context of the killing fields elsewhere, and you may still be wondering why I bothered.  I can think of three reasons.

First, a lot of people have no idea there was a war in Africa.  Togoland, barely defended, was in Allied hands by the end of August 1914, and the conquest of Southwest Africa by forces from the newly independent South Africa was completed in the summer of 1915, but an epic struggle for German East Africa was still in progress some time after the Armistice of 1918.  I’ll discuss the latter campaigns at a later date, but take my word for now that both had side effects with great significance for the future of the continent.   This is worth knowing.

Secondly, it seems important to mention that, despite Allied propaganda to the contrary, Germany was in many ways the most enlightened of the European powers in Africa.   Though German forces were still struggling for control of Southwest Africa against hostile local tribes, regimes in East Africa and Togoland were pursuing programmes for self-sustaining social and economic development that put other colonial powers to shame.  The future of those countries was drastically altered, arguably for the worse, when they passed into British and French hands, and the same may well be true of Cameroon, which was still in a very early stage of colonial development in 1914.

Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that the vast majority of men fighting in Cameroon, on both sides, were imperial troops recruited from West African colonies, known to Europeans as Askaris, and many more local people served as guides, bearers or other auxiliaries.  Though they sometimes changed sides or went home if mistreated by their white masters, Askaris were generally loyal, reliable and by far the most effective fighters in African conditions, not least because they were less susceptible to sickness than Europeans.  The best European commanders learned to trust Askaris as they would first-class European troops, and their contribution to momentous changes wrought by the First World War shouldn’t be forgotten.

I’m not suggesting the Battle of Nsanakong was more important than the Marne, or than actions taking place on the Eastern and Serbian fronts at the same time, but it was a significant moment in the history of a very large African country that our heritage war chooses to ignore.


30 AUGUST, 1914: THE BOMB!

During its early phases, the war in France generally stopped for lunch, a national habit personified by Army c-in-c Joffre, who always insisted on a full, uninterrupted midday meal wherever he happened to be on the Western Front.  Today in 1914, Sunday lunch was well underway all over Paris when, at 12.45, a lone German aircraft flew over the city.

The aircraft was a Taube , a little reconnaissance monoplane, already in service for four years and appropriately slow, that was known for its stable flight and therefore considered ideal for bombing experiments.  Parisians, who at this stage called any German aircraft a Taube, watched as it circled the city centre and tossed five small objects over the side

Four were bombs, small four-pounders designed for anti-personnel use, and the fifth was a propaganda message to Parisians, advising surrender in the face of the impending German Army onslaught.  The bombs killed two people, injuring two more, and the propaganda had no discernible effect, but both were global firsts with long-term implications.

There’s never been the slightest proof that dropping propaganda leaflets on enemy civilians has any effect on anything, but air forces still do it today.  Nor, nuclear madness aside, has there ever been any evidence that large-scale bombing of civilian targets can deliver a knockout blow to an enemy, or even significantly shorten a major war – but the bombs dropped on Paris a century ago were the first, small expression of a theory that went on to blight the twentieth century in defiance of logic.

The theory that massed fleets of aircraft could bomb cities and nations into submission, even instant submission, was popular with a few military theorists and many more fiction writers even before powered flight had been achieved.  Informed observers at the start of the War were well aware that aircraft technology couldn’t yet deliver this ‘war-winning weapon’, but experiments began nonetheless and development of heavier, long-range machines soon followed.

Paris, within easy reach of German forces at the front line, bore witness to the wartime escalation this entailed.  The raids by single Taube machines continued in 1914, arriving at about five o’clock each evening and killing a few civilians but occasioning more curiosity than panic.  Zeppelin raids would follow, spreading greater destruction and fear but remaining no more than a minor nuisance to the city, and as the War grew old fleets of German heavy bombers – the Gothas – would deliver smaller loads in greater numbers and with more destructive power.  By the end of the War German bombs had killed 275 Parisians, injured more than six hundred and achieved nothing of military value.

The story was the same elsewhere.  German raids on other cities and countries (including Britain), Allied reprisal raids on more distant German targets and, ultimately, a major British experiment in massed bombing, all failed on a number of levels.  Lumbering bombers were easy meat in daylight for improving defence systems, night raids were hopelessly inaccurate, and even when targets were hit civilian populations showed no sign of the morale meltdown predicted by strategists.  At the end of the War, their case still unproven, the disciples of ‘strategic bombing’ in Britain, Germany, Italy and elsewhere went right on believing that all they needed to win future wars at a stroke were aircraft that were big enough, fast enough and numerous enough.

History records that they were given their chance to prove it and that, until Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the rules, they kept on trying in the face of repeated and ghastly failure.  Even now, conventional bombing of civilians is used to create ‘shock and awe’ on the grounds that raining death on people makes them stop wanting to fight.  As Parisians gathered each evening to watch the daily Taube in 1914 they surely knew something new had come into the world.  They couldn’t know they were witnessing the birth of the twentieth century’s most monstrous chimera.

We can know, even should know, but somehow our commemorative obsession with the Western Front manages to bypass some of its most far-reaching consequences.  The heritage story sees the air war over France as a support act for the futility of trench warfare.  In many ways it was, and air forces did get tangled up in their own private war, well documented and essentially pointless.  History can show us there’s more to it, stretching the story across time to reveal hidden punchlines and make direct connections with our modern experience.  Strategic bombing is a huge story, casting a giant shadow across the last hundred years and worth a lot more than a few hundred words.  Any version of the War that ignores its first chapter is sadly incomplete.