So there we were, the summer of 1914. The archduke and his wife had been assassinated, all of the alliances that had been put into place over the last several decades went into play, the domino chain cascaded, and the world was at war. The first time the world had been at war.
Piece of cake, right?
The prevailing opinion on both sides was that it would all be over before Christmas.
Why on earth would anyone assume that?
For one, there was a recent precedence for shortish wars. The Franco-Prussian War, between France and what was soon to become a unified Germany, was fought from July of 1870 to May of 1871. Although the hostilities that lead to the outbreak of this conflict had been brewing for decades the war itself was short due, in part, to the fact that it was so lop-sided. Prussia had a clear military advantage. They had better railroads for supplies and more advanced artillery. They were pretty much able to walk in to France and get what they wanted. Which, by the way, was something France was still smarting over 43 years later.
The British had engaged in a couple of shorter wars themselves. The First Boer War, fought in South Africa against the Dutch-descended Afrikaners, lasted only from December of 1880 to March of 1881. The Second Boer War was a bit longer, from October of 1899 to May of 1902. This was the war that Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey fought in, by the way, where Mr. Bates served as his assistant. But even this war took place in phases with breaks in between.
Even the United States had had a short little war preceding The Great War. The Spanish-American War took place from April to August in 1898.
In all of these cases the winning side saw themselves as technologically and nationalistically more advanced. They saw victory as their right as much as anything else. This is that whole Nationalism thing I mentioned last week in my post about the Causes of WWI.
There were other reasons as well. Technology had advanced. The days of long mobilization and marching troops across Europe was gone. Railroads meant that men and supplies could be delivered to the sight of a battle faster than ever before. Ships were tougher and faster than ever as well. Aerial reconnaissance was new and vital to any campaign. Surely if it was so easy to get the troops where they needed to go in relatively no time at all the fighting that would take place would be quick and decisive too, right?
That was another consideration. People often mention when talking about World War I how profound it was that the technology of warfare had outpaced battle tactics. Much has been made about the futility of 19th century infantry charges mounted against machinegun nests and mustard gas. It’s one of the saddest things about the war, if you ask me. But it wasn’t like nobody knew what a machinegun was or what it was capable of. There was definitely a feeling that because warfare technology had advanced so much, because a gun had been invented that could fire bullets so much faster, for example, battles would be over quickly.
Which brings us to early 20th century military mentality. It was all about aggression. He who struck first and struck hardest would certainly win. The armies of Germany, France, and Russia mobilized so mind-bogglingly quickly that many at the time speculated that once the process started there would be no politically or economically feasible way to stop it. These were nations that committed and committed hard. Germany began mobilizing on July 30th and bashed across Belgium less than two weeks later. And by September 12th both sides were already entrenched along the Maginot Line and wouldn’t move much either way until the end of the war.
But perhaps the biggest reason everyone thought that the war would be over by Christmas was because that was what the government wanted people to believe. Internal war correspondence and wires of the time suggests that at heart the military leaders probably knew they were in for the long haul. But most nations tried to keep the public opinion light and positive. Keeping a light-hearted attitude about the war, painting a rosy picture of the call to glory that it represented, meant that recruiters had an easier time convincing young men to join up.
There is some evidence to suggest that some military leaders actually thought things would be over quickly. Germany, for example, only stocked about 6 months’ worth of chemicals needed to make gunpowder. Any Russian officers that suggested the war would be longer than six weeks were derided as pessimists. It was only the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, who went on record as saying the war would last at least three to four years. He was criticized for being negative.
Of course history proved that the world was in for the long haul. The war wasn’t over by Christmas. In fact, it had disintegrated into two-front trench warfare in Europe and scattered colonial clashes everywhere else in the world.
So as you watch all of our Downton Abbey boys out fighting in the trenches, as you see the exhausting effects back home of a war that seemed like it would never end, you can gain a sense of appreciation for what people were feeling. Warfare is bad enough, but the psychological toll it took on nations full of people who had been told it would be quick and glorious was devastating.