22 June, 2015
If you like history, even just on a casual level and don’t consider yourself a “buff,” listen to this podcast!
Today, I finished listening to the final and sixth part of Blueprint for Armageddon. It’s radio host Dan Carlin’s history of the First World War. Mr. Carlin based his telling of the story on a long list of books he read and quotes extensively throughout the many hours of the series. He makes the history engaging, to put it mildly. Listening to Blueprint for Armageddon, you get a strong sense of the on-the-ground human side of this story, as well as the big picture view. You learn about the unbelievable hell that WWI soldier went through, the historical forces behind the start and end of the war, the lasting impacts of the war, and a great amount of context and commentary from leaders, journalists, and soldiers of the time.
Seriously, even if you have just a passing interest in history, (and full disclaimer I LOVE history,) you won’t be able to stop listening to these once you’ve started.
I’ve found the First World War interesting ever since I purchased the strategic war game Paths of Glory several years ago. Like many other historical games I’ve played, spurred my learning about the war, which at the time I knew little about compared to World War II.
What I’ve learned in the years since then is that the First World War is the most important human event of the 20th century. In many regards, we can think of the Great War as when the 20th century really began: people’s attitudes, military technology, art, and politics did not suddenly enter a different era when the calendar flipped from 1899 to 1900. But the world in 1918, compared to 1914, was an essentially changed place, and was changed in ways that shaped the events of the rest of the 20th century. How? Let me count the ways, and keep in mind this is not an exhaustive list:
- The Ottoman Empire, (the closest thing there had been to a united Islamic Caliphate since Medieval times,) which conquered the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, collapsed. The victorious Allies divided its large Middle Eastern territory into many of the countries we know today, such as Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. OK, Israel wouldn’t exist for another few decades after the end of the war, but it’s formation was tremendously helped along by the British/Arab defeat of the Ottomans in Palestine, as well as another big political event of the war:
- The 1917 Balfour Declaration (named for its author, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour,) promised the Jews of the world a national home in the territory called Palestine. Although this didn’t directly lead the British to create Israel, and it would take until 1948 for the Jewish state to exist, the Balfour Declaration was an enormous political victory for Zionists, and dramatically increased Jewish immigration into Palestine, as well as Jewish enthusiasm for the formation of a national identity. The Declaration also antagonized Britain’s Arab allies, who were also given promises of national independence in Palestine in exchange for joining with the British in fighting the Turks. (Awkward…) If you don’t understand why this is important, you need to read more about the recent history of the Middle East.
- The Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by that good old Holy Roman Empire-era dynasty the Habsburgs, collapsed due to Allied military victories as well as internal dissent. The monarchy ended, and the newly independent states of Czhecoslovakia, Poland, Austria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia all began. As with the Ottomans, the collapse of a long-standing dynasty ruling over a multi-ethnic empire led to rising national identity, pride, and strife.
- The young German Empire, (formed in 1871 by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s brilliant unification of the many German states,) ended, lost parts of its territory to its neighbors, went from monarchy to republic, and was forced to disarm itself and pay punitive reparations to the victorious Allies. Prior to the Great War, Germany was the world’s premier rising power, boasting the greatest industrial capacity and army, as well as an enviable culture of scientific, artistic, and philosophical achievement. Germany, at that time ruled by a Kaiser of the House Hohenzollern, went in less than five years from being the world’s greatest land power (with an increasingly powerful navy and expanding colonial ambitions) to being a humiliated and defanged third-rate power. Germany was destabilized by economic deprivation and political radicalism from both the Left and the Right, and ultimately was taken over the Nazis, who started WWII largely as a response to the first war.
- The Russian Empire’s Romanov Dynasty, which had ruled that multi-ethnic empire since 1613, collapsed due to the destabilization brought on by the war (massive casualties with few victories, food shortages, disruption of rural life,) and was replaced with the world’s first communist country, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Actually, the German military dictator Ludendorf smuggled Russian communist radical Vladimir Lenin into Russia with the express purpose of hoping he would ignite a workers’ revolution there that would knock Russia out of the war. (Yes, a large conspiracy that actually happened!) This unleashed the ideological power of communism, which spread and attempted (and many times succeeded) to overthrow governments and transform societies all over the world. The Soviet Union became a great power a couple decades after the war, and vied for power against the United States, the other great power to emerge in 1918.
- The United States, which had for most of its life followed (with a few exceptions) a policy of non-intervention in “Old World” affairs, entered the arena of international relations with great force. It sent a large army to fight in Europe for the first time in American history, and American President Woodrow Wilson acted heavily in the negotiations to end the war. Things ultimately didn’t go Wilson’s way in terms of the treatment of Germany and the influence of his proudest creation, the postwar League of Nations, (the predecessor the United Nations,) but the US was from then would be much more likely to intervene in world affairs.
These are far, far from all the impacts of the First World War. I’ve touched on only the broadest political changes, without getting into the details of those or the details of how military technology and tactics evolved from 1914 to 1918. But even the changes I have listed here essentially set the world up for another war, and for continued strife in the Balkans, Middle East, and everywhere touched by the proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union. A period of European peace, progress, and stability came to a cataclysmic end in 1914. The world has never been the same since.
OK, actually, I can’t resist, I’ll talk about some of the tactical military changes too. At the beginning of the war in 1914, European armies were not much different from how they had been in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, which was not that much different from how they’d been in Napoleon’s time. Most armies did not equip their troops with helmets. Many countries’ uniforms (the French most notoriously) were still bright colors rather than camouflaged. Troops marched and attacked in tight, company-sized formations. The “fire and move” leapfrogging tactics that are second nature to any contemporary infantry tactician were non-existent in 1914. Cavalry units were still maintained on a large scale, troopers equipped with sabers and prepared to charge and exploit break-throughs. But artillery had grown massively in size and rate of fire since Napoleon’s time, and machine guns had fully matured into incredibly deadly weapons. Open maneuver warfare was so costly in men to be unsustainable in the tight geography of the Western Front, so the trench warfare that the war is so infamous for was near-inevitable. Both sides had and used aircraft, but usually just for reconnaissance. Early in the war, when planes of opposite sides got close to each other their pilots would sometimes shoot at each other with pistols because the planes had no fixed armament.
By the end of the war, “infiltration/stormtrooper tactics” (basically contemporary infantry tactics) were in full use, aircraft were produced in large quantities for specialized roles which now included strategic bombing and air superiority, poison gas had revealed its horrible potency, tanks were being used in concert with infantry, aircraft, and artillery to break the enemy line, cavalry was confirmed as obsolete except in increasingly rare cases in certain environments, submarines had shown their potential to starve a nation into submission, and a human object (an artillery shell fired by a 100 foot barreled German gun in 1918) became the first to enter the stratosphere.
Seriously, just listen to that podcast. I’m gonna go listen to the other Hardcore History series now.