October 15, 1914

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

The days headlines from The Daily Capital Journal:

White Men Familiar With Situation Say It Is One of Utmost Horror
Roots, Weeds and Refuse Devoured and Cannibalism Is Resorted To

VON BOEHM fails to block retreat of allied forces
Failure to Cut Off Retreating Allies Robs German Victory of Importance
Allies However Command Railroads, Endangering German Position

Say They Have Marked Advances Between Arras and Albert
“Have Made Advances to the North Along Verdun Line Toward Metz”

Failed in Attempt to Bottle Up Belgians and British in Antwerp
It Is Admitted that All Belgium Will Soon Be In German Hands

By the end of the month of October the belligerents will have fought to a virtual standstill. The toll of death and destruction mounts and will continue to for four long years. By the end of the month, to use the British forces as an example, to say Britain’s forces have been decimated would be an understatement as “decimate” implies a factor of one in ten. Few of the units that entered the war in August remained intact by the end of October.

To put the casualties into a modern context, imagine the Fifth Marine Regiment, the 81st and 101st Airborne Divisions all suffering so many casualties in a single three month period on a single battle front as to be virtually unrecognizable as fighting units.

At Eton, there is a memorial listing the names of 1,157 scholars who died during the war, approximately 20% of the students. Most of that number would have attended during the preceding twenty years.

How did this war begin? We cannot with any assurance point to a single event as the trigger. We point to the assassination of the Archduke as the cause, but it was not as transparent a cause as was December 7, 1941 to our parents or grandparents, or 9-11 is to our time.

Probably fewer than a hundred individuals were involved in the decisions that led to the war. There was no wide public debate of the merits of war. The principals sometimes did not know what was going on or would go on (the kaiser, for example, did not know that “mobilization” meant mobilization against France, as well as Russia). Miscommunication, prevarication, dissimulation, and just plain missing the point often characterized the debates and the communications between chancellories and embassies.

There was little or no coordination between ministries of war and the foreign ministries. The military general staffs planning for war often did not tell the civilian leadership what would happen in case of war. Armies did not speak to navies and branches of the military would negotiate and arrive at agreements without consulting other affected ministries.

What each belligerent clearly understood was the necessity of avoiding condemnation by history. The events leading up to war were a diplomatic game of chicken. In 1914, the process of going to war involved a two step process. The first, to use the Russian term, was “The Period Preparatory to War.” This notified commanders to bring troops back from leave and to hold themselves ready for the second stage, mobilization.

Mobilization was approximately a 14 day period necessary to move troops and resources to their positions along pre-determined fronts. Mobilization plans could not be altered at the last minute without causing utter chaos. Once mobilization orders went out, war was inevitable (the toothpaste was out of the tube by then). No resource existed to stop the process once it had been triggered.

Furthermore, there was no “Plan B.” Russia was not able to mobilize against “just” Austria; her plans contemplated a two front war, with a focus primarily on Germany. Germany’s plan as well contemplated a two front war with the initial strike against France.

All parties knew that the nation mobilizing first would be held to blame. All parties also knew that the nation that mobilized first had a significant advantage because the strategies on all sides was predicated on going on the offensive. No side planned for a defensive war. No side planned for a stalemate. Once the stalemate occurred, there were no plans as to what to do next.

And that is were we are on the fifteenth of October, 1914.


About whclarc

We are devoted to providing information fresh from the Archives, Library and Collections of the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Oregon. We specialize in the history of Marion County and the greater Salem area.
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