The opening of the war in the West (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 13)

Today, we looked ex post at the outcome of the Colonel Blotto game played between France and Germany on the Western Front in August & September of 1914. France, hoping to hold and then beat back the German army while the Tsarist army mobilized on the other side of the Continent, aimed to match the Germans on their axis of advance—making it a natural fit as the defender in the game. Germany, on the other hand, was the attacker in the game, hoping to sweep past the main body of the French defenses and to prevent France from matching its move. In this case, the best way to play the game is to be unpredictable, secretive, or even dividing one’s attention across priorities (which Moltke’s reinforcement of the left wing certainly looks like after the fact), blunting any advantage your opponent would gain from knowing your likely action—but simultaneously accepting that your opponent, secretive and unpredictable in roughly equal measure, can do the same to you.

So, what does it mean for Colonel Blotto’s morning after? Well, both sides gamble, but only one side can win—Germany managed to sweep well north of the French thrust into Germany and the Ardennes dictated by Joffre’s Plan XVII, crashing through Belgium and eventually menacing Paris—thanks to a very information-poor environment. (A poverty of information, I should note, caused both by the state of technology and belligerent incentives in the Blotto game to deny one another information.) In the end, Joffre looks less like he made a mistake (he will, after all, redeem himself with the Grand Retreat), and Moltke less like a strategic genius. Both commanders faced a similar problem and made a structurally similar choice—making the famous problems of the fog of war quite obvious. In fact, the Colonel Blotto game shows how, in many cases, belligerents contribute to the fog of war quite on purpose.

On a teaching note, we also went over the students’ answers to last week’s assignment, which asked them to identify what had puzzled them so far—and what we might go on to cover later in the course. Here’s a sampling:

  1. Why did armies adjust so slowly to the realities of the modern battlefield and its industrial firepower?
  2. Why did Germany fight on even once British intervention became inevitable?
  3. Why did Belgium even bother fighting back?
  4. Why was Austria go into the field with an army that proved so ineffective?
  5. Why did Austria try to invade Serbia again, after first being thrown back and with Russia entering the war? Why not wait for German help?
  6. Why do states abrogate or fail to honor their treaties (looking at you, Italy)?
  7. How do individual soldiers exhibit behaviors (atrocities against citizens) they’d never show in peacetime?
  8. Why did the UK send the British Expeditionary Force to the Continent when it might’ve profitably specialized in the naval war?
  9. Why did Austria-Hungary plan to partition Serbia rather than simply absorb it?
  10. Why did Germany even bother retaining the Dual Monarchy as an ally?

It was a great discussion, and if any of these interest you, keep an eye on this space as we get deeper into the semester…

An assignment (WWI in Real Time)

I’m conferencing today, which means no lecture—but also means that I gave the class a writing assignment. Here it is:

Looking back on the course, particularly the readings, write a couple of paragraphs on one event, outcome, or choice that we’ve not yet covered that nonetheless puzzles you. (In other words, identify something that you were surprised by, something that you’d clearly have reasons to expect the opposite in terms of what happened.) Why is it puzzling?

The goal, of course, is to get them thinking like political scientists: being puzzled, identifying questions worth asking and answering, and then beginning the process of building explanations. Effectively, they’re doing what I do with the readings each day, “Wait, why would this happen? Let’s start writing down a game…”

Back on the horse next Tuesday…