Why did the Great War last so long? (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 24)

When it comes to international politics, World War I pretty much has it all. That’s a blessing in some ways—there’s lots to be puzzled by, to explain, and to learn from—but in others, it’s not so great: any one event looks overdetermined when you look closely enough, and it’s inferentially impossible to prize some explanations over others. That said, we spent some time today talking about why the war lasted as long as it did. We finish the “real time” part of the course in December 1914/2014, but there were/are 46 more months of war to go. Why, after Germany’s defeat at the Marne, the onset of trench warfare on the Western Front, and the stalemating of the East, did the war continue until 1918? After all, while Germany suspected it was beaten in December 1914, it pretty much knew that it was in December 1917…and yet the war dragged on.

There’s a lot to draw on here, and if you want some accessible treatments of war termination in general check out this and this (both of which figure prominently in today’s story). To summarize the discussion, though, we emphasized that wars often end when fighting solves the problem that stood in the way of a settlement in the first place. When wars are driven by commitment problems, for example, they tend to end when either (a) commitments are made credible by removing incentives or abilities to renege or (b) the source of incentives to renegotiate (like rising power) are eliminated. This, of course, tends to push states towards particularly extreme war aims, from dismembering states to “ending” them as great powers to replacing their governments. On the other hand, when wars begin with states disagreeing about how a total war would play out, they end once fighting produces sufficient agreement that both sides can agree to save the costs of further fighting. (This happens a lot; there’s a damned good reason the vast majority of wars end short of what we talk about colloquially as military “victory.”)

Our first step was to see if these stories helped us explain why the war lasted so long, and they got us pretty far. Germany, for its part, was fighting a preventive war against Russia and its French ally, the solution for which was ending their run as great powers. The British, likewise, were fighting to make Germany’s commitment not to dominate the Continent credible. Both, of course, drive war aims towards totality, because solving them requires the ability to dictate some pretty harsh terms—terms you can only successfully dictate when your opponent is well and truly prostrate. Defeating an army in the field, especially when prevailing technology and doctrine favor the defense, simply takes a long time, and that helps explain why the war was so long. Total-ish aims didn’t come out of nowhere (though plenty of scholarship acts like they do), and here they emerged from commitment problems. Nice. Okay. One factor in favor of a long war.

But what about information problems? Some work argues that information problems can’t be a compelling account of long wars (here, here), but—especially in the case of WWI—I’m not sure that’s so hard and fast. Consider what our belligerents were uncertain about: the ability to hold out, to wage an attritional conflict by sustaining a war effort that drew over and over from a limited pool of labor and manpower, to bring (and keep) the whole of the population into the war effort, to outlast the other on the way to a “peace of exhaustion.” As opposed to valuations of the prize, per-battle chances of winning, or per-battle costs of fighting, it seems that the only way to prove how long one can hold out is to…well, hold out. In that sense, uncertainty over which side could sustain mobilization likely kept the war long as well—fighting before full mobilization wouldn’t be revelatory (and those involved knew this), but after that (1916, roughly), verbal claims of one’s ability to outlast the other simply couldn’t be credible. Fighting on was the only way to demonstrate that one could fight on, and that likely lengthened the war as well.

However, one can argue that this only gets us so far. By late 1917, with American troops arriving en masse to negate whatever advantages Germany won from the Russian separate peace, the game was clearly up; even gambling to try to hold on to parts of Belgium was likely a dead letter. Why did Germany still fight on? One possible answer is that the German elite was “gambling for resurrection“; expecting a pretty grim personal fate if they settled short of victory, they opted to throw everything into a pair of desperate gambles (unrestricted submarine warfare, then Operation Michael) that bet everything on slim chances of victory. After all, if peace would be disastrous, while the worst possible outcome of fighting on was also a disaster—why not fight and hope for a slim chance of survival?

It’s possible, then, that the commitment problems that drove belligerents to seek military victory, as well as the informational obstacles to judging the relative chances of success in a war of attrition, could explain why the war was a long one. However, why it ended in 1918—and in the way that it did, with a precipitous bottom-up collapse of the will to resist on the front lines—might require an appreciation of the fates awaiting the German leadership (at this point, dominated by the Army) if they did what in 1917 an outside observer might expect of them: settling on Allied terms.

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?

Comparing the Eastern and Western Fronts (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 20)

After a break to take the second exam last Thursday (a break in which I forgot to do a “let’s look back” filler piece), we spend some time today on the Eastern Front, which—if I’m being honest—I’ve short-shrifted a bit in the course thus far. That’s too bad, because I think we can use the Eastern Front to learn a lot about the reasons behind the consuming indecisiveness of the war’s early years…on both fronts.

Last week, we showed why military technology and the strategic environment produced an attritional equilibrium on the Western Front, where each side sought to return to mobile warfare but was unable to do so without opening up its own lines to the breach that the opponent’s (similar) strategy denied it. The end result, of course, was a long period in which a military decision was impossible. Two factors often put up to explain the lack of decision on the battlefield are (a) the compactness of the Western Front, where ratios of soldiers per mile were always higher than the East, and (b) a lack of “imagination” amongst each side’s commanders—that is, the lack of an appropriate strategy. However, in class today we show that neither of these is a terribly strong explanation for the lack of decision, because the Eastern Front was, while much longer and less densely-manned and home to a wider variety of tactical combinations, almost equally indecisive.

The Eastern Front was never as deeply entrenched or as static as the Western, meaning that the fighting was certainly more mobile; commanders had the room in which to maneuver their troops, and whether or not we call it incompetence, we saw a variety of attempts to break the stalemate that the belligerents on the Western front didn’t have available. Nonetheless, with cities changing hands back and forth in both East Prussia and Galicia, as well as Russian Poland, the reality of modern firepower and the limits of logistics in newly-captured territories ensured that, as in the West, no local successes could be converted into a genuine, sustained breakthrough—that is, into a more general success.

Thus, even though it wasn’t as static as the Western Front, the war in the East was still one of reserves, indecision, and grignotage—of attrition, albeit with a different face. Only when reserves and populations were used up, pulled out of the line by collapse or by exhaustion (or, you know, the Bolshevik Revolution), did the character of the war in the East change. Years later, with the wearing-down of German reserves in the face of Allied weight of numbers, similar factors would presage the end of the war in the West…the length of the front or “imaginations” of the generals notwithstanding.*

* For one of the best accounts of the similarities on Eastern and Western Fronts, check  out William Philpott’s War of Attrition. It’s excellent.

Public opinion and the outbreak of war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 7)

After working through the strategic implications of German and Russian goals in the July Crisis over the course of the last week, particularly what it meant for explaining the outbreak of the Great War, we spent time today on another puzzle—one that had never really struck me until prepping for today’s class, in fact.* We noted a few weeks ago that the Continental armies were all focused on the offensive, on striking the first blow and achieving a decision that would keep the war short.** However, two things stand out about the maneuvering in the early days of the war that don’t fit neatly into the idea of the “cult of the offensive“:

  1. Germany delayed mobilization until it could claim that Russia had mobilized first.
  2. France mobilized, but orders its forces to stay 6 km back of the German border.

In each case, a belligerent that knows war to be imminent gives up something valuable—Germany a mobilization lead over the Entente Powers and France the ability to do anything other that mount a defense in the early days of the war—that would seem heretical to the ideal of offensive operations. Why?

The answer, in each case, turns out to be public opinion—specifically, the desire of both governments to ensure that as much of the public as possible would be on board with the war, whether as willing conscripts, temporarily silent dissidents, or factory workers making shells instead of striking. (Merely locking up the leaders of socialist or workers’ parties wasn’t going to cut it in this case.) Making the war a national one of defense or survival (said, surely, with a bit of a wink in the Kaiserreich) would be key to winning a long, drawn-out war, should it come to that—Germany, after all, knew that beating Russia would take a while—but there were also strategic reasons to secure public opinion and achieve a mass mobilization of soldiers and laborers: if any belligerent failed to mobilize the whole of the public, it would be disadvantaged at the outset, and if would certainly want to mobilize the whole public against an opponent that hadn’t done so in order to secure a quick victory. So, oddly, while the desire to capture public opinion resulted in both Germany and France trading off some of the benefits of a first-strike strategy, these intentional disadvantages might’ve canceled to a degree—and thus masked the true effect of mobilizing public opinion on success in war, which requires a disparity to realize. (From a game-theoretic perspective, the effects are both canceled out in equilibrium, in the behavioral prediction, but the reason this is so is the desire to blunt any advantage an opponent might have from securing more public support than oneself.)

So what can we learn from looking at public opinion in the outbreak of war?

First, even in a semi-autocratic state like the Kaiserreich, it drove governments to trade off some of the benefits of a first-strike, offensively-oriented strategy, in order to ensure that their opponents couldn’t secure a unilateral advantage in mobilizing the whole public for war. At a minimum, it confirms for us that governments made tradeoffs in the face of strategic dilemmas—that they weren’t necessarily the outmoded, single-minded wellsprings of outdated ideas that it’s easy to see them as.

Second, and perhaps more disquieting, by enabling the mobilization of the nation qua nation for war, governments maneuvering to secure public opinion might have helped create the very conditions that made the war as long as it was and gave to the war its brutal, extractive, resource-driven, attritional character. Absent some ability to commit not to make it a “people’s war,” one that mobilized nearly everyone in society, governments presiding over a conscious, nationalist mass public found themselves leaping headlong into a drawn-out cataclysm, the alternative to which was losing—and much sooner—to an enemy that did bring the nation along with it.

* Thanks, by the way, are in order to Phil Arena for helping me out with the ideas here:

** Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there weren’t many illusions about what would happen if decision weren’t achieved early; the strict focus on the offensive was designed to avert the long, bloody, total war that ultimately did ensue.