I considered talking a bunch about the causes of the First World War during these first couple of pages, but there are huge tomes you can read on the topic that do a better job than I could. I’d rather talk about lesser known stuff in these posts, so I’ll focus on army mobilization today since that’s what is happening in these pages.
One of the many reasons the war unfolded as it did is due to the German General Staff’s planning for a two-front war (France and Russia had allied in 1894). The German plan was to mobilize the majority of its forces in the west for a quick victory against France, then rapidly redeploy these forces to the east against Russia (The details of this plan are for another post). Time was of the essence, and Germany had to give the order to mobilize as soon as hostilities were expected, or their opponents would mobilize first and rapidly advance through their frontiers, unopposed.
“Build no more fortresses, build railways,” said Helmuth von Moltke the elder.
Railways were vital for mobilization, and fell under military control. The movement of men and supplies had been meticulously planned by the German General Staff for years, and 10,000 trains had to be co-ordinated in the event of war, scheduled to be at certain places in ten minute intervals. Some of the country’s best minds went into the railways and they were kept in constant practice through wargames.
“The best brains produced by the War College, it was said, went into the railway section and ended up in lunatic asylums.” – Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August.
A flaw with this meticulous planning became evident on the night of August 1, 1914. The General Staff had assumed that France would be their opponent, and had planned around that scenario. But Kaiser Wilhelm II had received word from his ambassador in Britain that the British would keep France neutral in the event of war, as long as Germany did not attack France (the ambassador had misunderstood Sir Edward Grey, who said France would remain neutral so long as Germany did not attack both France and Russia).
Wilhelm was ecstatic, “Now we can go to war against Russia only. We simply march the whole of our Army to the East!”
The German Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke the younger, shot down the Kaiser’s plan, “Your Majesty, it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised. If your Majesty insists on leading the whole army to the East it will not be an army ready for battle but a disorganized mob of armed men with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labor to complete.”
According to Barbara Tuchman, the German General Staff did have alternate plans, revised each year until 1913, for deploying the army east instead of west. I haven’t read anything that counters this, and Holger Herwig doesn’t mention these plans in his book, The Marne, 1914. Was it possible that the Germans could have simply deployed east instead of west? Tuchman lays the blame on Moltke, who lacked the “iron nerve” to turn around the army and its supplies. She cites another staff officer in the railways, who after the war wrote and demonstrated that it would have been possible to mobilize east. I thought I read somewhere that these eastern mobilization plans were not as well developed as the western ones (because the German General Staff was so certain France was its mortal enemy) but I can’t remember the source (if it even exists).
Regardless, general mobilization began in the west on August 1, with the Germans seizing Luxembourg’s rail hub at 7:00pm. On August 2 its armies continued to mass at the borders of France and Belgium, with war formally declared on the afternoon of August 3, 1914.