What made the Western Front the “decisive” one? (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 22)

We spent Tuesday (a lecture about which I forgot to blog) talking about the expansion of the war, particularly the decisions made by neutrals like Italy, the Ottoman Empire, and (later) the United States to join the war. Today, though, by zeroing in on other neutrals like Romania and Bulgaria, we might have stumbled across an interesting explanation for why the Western Front was the decisive one of the war—not because it was fated to be so, but because of some key strategic problems posed by the two-front nature of Germany’s war. Here’s how.

Suppose, first, that Germany has two goals (among many, of course): fighting an attritional materialschlacht in the West, where decision—though delayed—is possible against the Western Allies, while ensuring that Eastern neutrals like Bulgaria and Romania don’t jump over into the allied camp. Second, suppose further that Germany expects that many neutrals’ decisions will be driven by which side is believed likely to win on the Eastern Front (Hastings has a discussion of this in Chapter 16), beliefs that Germany is in a position to shape as the Dual Monarchy’s armies stagger from disaster to disaster in Galicia and Serbia. To pursue its goals, Germany has an allocation decision to make: how many of a limited number of troops should it send to each front?

Faced with this problem, Germany weakened its forces in the west, ensuring that breakthroughs, if possible, couldn’t be turned into broader successes, sending troops to shore up Austro-Hungarian forces fighting the Russians. Germany is often criticized for this diversion of attention from the “decisive” Western Front, but I’m not sure that’s the right way to think about this. Consider, for example, what would happen if Germany threw its whole effort into the West; a possible Hapsburg collapse, a cascade of neutrals bandwagoning with the Allies, and disaster in the East—which, of course, would make the East the decisive front. On the other hand, if Germany focuses too much on the East, the Western Front can’t sustain attrition, and the Western Allies might win. Faced with the prospect of full-on defeat on one front or the other, Germany accepted an attritional stalemate on both. Stopping a loss in the East, it prevented (in the short term) critical neutrals from taking undesirable actions, but doing so required stalemating the West at the same time. However, had it taken the frequently-given ex post advice of concentrating in the West, the Eastern Front might well have been decisive. In short, the Western Front was decisive in equilibrium, but it wasn’t fated to be so.

Interesting right? Germany and the Allies all bet on attrition in the West, horrific as it was, because (a) the Allies had no better options, and (b) nor did the Central powers, who chose to make the stalemated West the critical front rather than an Eastern Front that might have turned out worse under another strategy. This also means that, in a way, Bulgaria and Romania, at least early on, played a role in which front would be decisive in the Great War before either fired a shot. Is it any wonder that no one really likes fighting two-front wars?

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