History Wars World War I

Why military leaders knew World War I would be terrible

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The cultural lead-up to World War I was naive at best and bloodthirsty at worst. People who had never faced combat convinced themselves that future wars would be short, civilized, and restrained. And some even saw war and other violent conflicts as a sort of societal hygiene. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” meant, to them, that war would burn off the weak while leaving the strong even stronger.

But some military veterans, some authors, and a few political leaders saw the development of industrial warfare from the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the Russo-Japanese War, and more. These men and women saw the seeds of a truly terrible conflict if Europe went to war.

The nationalist’s clamor before World War I

The Western world, and especially Europe, was obsessed with the rise of nationalism and social Darwinism.

Nationalism – a deep-seated belief in one’s nation and identifying with its history, culture, and perceived destiny – rose after the American and French revolutions. As members of European and Western nations increasingly saw themselves as actors within their countries and on the world stage, rather than simply peasants and workers of one noble or another, many formed national identities.

A German trench occupied by British Soldiers near the AlbertBapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. The men are from A Company, 11th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment. Public Domain.

So, someone born to a French farming family in Alsace in the early 1800s might have seen themselves as a farmer. But they would only sort of be part of France, and the French shared identity wasn’t all that strong. But a few generations later, their great- or great-great-grandson would see themselves as French, as an heir to the Revolution, and—as a voter—potentially a decision-maker on the world stage.

The rise of national identity, on its own, was no problem. After all, patriotism can be a strong unifying factor in societies. But combined with an increased martial spirit, where military values and actions became national ideals, and Social Darwinism, in which some saw a value of war in burning off the “weak” from society, patriotism quickly turned to fierce nationalism and, in some cases, a sort of proto-fascism.

Split identities during a rise of nationalism

And that was a huge problem for places like Alsace. That farming family with formerly weak ties to France? Well, it became German in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War. So, it included many people who increasingly saw themselves as French or German, but not necessarily both. And the French and German people both saw the territory and people there as belonging to them.

The French saw German control and Germans there as an insult to their national identity. The Germans saw French people as a threat to their control and identity. And both saw war as a suitable method of deciding the issue.

Similar problems existed throughout Europe in areas where ethnic or cultural identities didn’t match the rising national identity of the host country.

Famously, this became a huge deal in Austria-Hungary when Serb nationalists lobbied aggressively for their own state. By killing a duke. And his wife.

Since some European powers, like Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, and the Ottoman Empire, had globe-spanning territory, each had a lot of places where local nationalists might agitate for their own state even as the dominant powers in each country saw its national power as part and parcel with the control of foreign territory.

All this led to a lot of people who had never seen combat drooling for war, social hygiene, and national glory. They convinced themselves that wars would be short, the more industrialized country would quickly prevail, and both sides would lose the weak and keep the strong.

Complicated systems of alliances led these small conflicts to quickly snowball into World War I.

The cooler heads that did not prevail

Of course, many military leaders knew that war was becoming industrialized, and the carnage was getting worse, not better. European observers in the American Civil War noted how advances in artillery, rifles, and Gatling guns drastically increased the blood toll of combat.

European armies used even more advanced weapons, including the Maxim gun, in combat to put down colonial uprisings. While some civic and a few military leaders consoled themselves that Europeans would never do that to each other, those who had studied the French Revolution and civil wars, the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and similar conflicts all doubted that Westerners would refuse to use such weapons on each other.

And those who had seen combat knew, of course, that battle rarely claims only the weak soldiers. There is no careful organization on the battlefield to make sure that everyone gets a fair shot at surviving, that everyone’s sacrifices and risks are equal.

A bunch of people—all men, at the time—walk into a meat grinder, and some of them survive and make it out. But there’s no reason to think that the “fittest” always survive in normal times, let alone war. (Indeed, Charles Darwin only adopted the term “survival of the fittest” in the fifth edition of his book to try and dispel the idea that some embodiment of nature selected winners, a misconception rooted in his use of “natural selection.”)

World War I erupts

But as a few individuals warned of the risk of war, including from the military establishment, eager populations saw the race to build dreadnoughts, the expanding rail networks, and the modernization of armies as a sign that their country could bring its force to bear against its rivals and take its place in history. Of course, that required they ignore the fact that other countries also had new navies, rail networks, and modern armies.

Some groups, like Italian Futurists, even saw war as a new, exciting disruption of stale culture.

Leaders avoided a continental war during a series of crises in the early 20th century, but the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand famously caused the tense peace to finally collapse. The armies marched to war and quickly stalemated. For years, World War I centered on a long line through France that shifted a few hundred meters at a time, back and forth, but rarely moved significantly.

And it became one of humanity’s worst, bloodiest, and longest conflicts.

Logan Nye was an Army journalist and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. Now, he’s a freelance writer and live-streamer. In addition to covering military and conflict news at We Are The Mighty, he has an upcoming military literacy channel on Twitch.tv/logannyewrites.