James Simpson on the revolution in military affairs triggered by the development of the steam engine and the railways:
Navvies working on the Grand Crimean Central Railway, 1854. Charles Walker: Thomas Brassey, Railway Builder, 1969. (via Wikipedia)
Trains were cutting-edge weapons of war in the 19th century — and all the major powers were figuring out how to deploy them. The Europeans learned how to move troops by train. The Americans — how to fight on rail cars. The British, meanwhile, found they could dominate an empire from the tracks.
In today’s world of tanks, bombers and submarines, it’s perhaps hard to believe that the train was once an amazingly mobile weapons platform. They might be locked to their rails, but for over a century trains were the fastest means of hauling troops and artillery to front lines across the world.
The invention of the railway shaped warfare for a century. Rails allowed force projection across immense distances — and at speeds which were impossible on foot or by horse.
The first demonstration of the military efficacy of the railroads was the 1846 Polish Uprising. Prussia rushed 12,000 troops of the Sixth Army Corps, with guns and horses, to the Free City of Krakow to help put down the Polish rebellion. In this period of nationalist uprisings, Russia and Austria also used their railroads against similar uprisings from 1848 to 1850.
A lack of infrastructure and experience stifled the success of these early endeavors. Due to a lack of rolling stock, suitable platforms and double-track stretches, the trains sometimes operated far slower than a man could march on foot.
Austria was first to get it right. In 1851, the Austrian Empire shuttled 145,000 men, nearly 2,000 horses, 48 artillery pieces and 464 vehicles over 187 miles.
At War on the Rocks, Jake Hall talks about the pervasive inflence of intoxication during the First World War:
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is often regarded as the proverbial match in the tinderbox where World War I is concerned. The imperial-nationalist tensions surrounding Austria-Hungary’s waning empire, tensions which inspired the assassination and ensuing conflict, were frankly unwarranted, considering the swill these regions were, and still are, trying to pass off as potable spirits. Then again, what’s a tragic war of global scope without tragically misguided motivations at the start? One contributing factor to the war-primed Europe of 1914 sounds oddly familiar. Disenfranchised youth of marginalized states resorting to suicidal violence. It’s easy to see how the seven agents of Ferdinand’s assassination could be lining up to enlist in ISIS today. Youthful, “angsty,” and driven by an unhinged sense of importance and righteousness, it was a 19 year old, Gavrilo Princip, who carried out the clumsy assassination on the streets of Sarajevo. After a failed bombing attempt, failed suicide attempt, and a major security lapse by Ferdinand’s guards, the conspirators succeeded in gunning down the Archduke and Duchess almost by chance. With that act the Serbian nationalists, on a quest for south Slavic unification, killed a couple that were by many accounts lovely people, and started the July Crisis that led to the Great War.
The conflict that followed became the then-largest mobilization of military force ever, until the rematch 21 years later. HG Wells was the first to declare WWI the “war to end war,” and though that designation had contemporary critics, it quickly became a motto for the hostilities. A war to end war seems like an occasion for a drink, no? If it doesn’t, you’ve either never had a drink or you’ve never had a soul. In any case, what follows is an account of which powers were most benevolent during the war, measured chiefly by the alcohol rations secured and distributed to their soldiers. It presumes that the men fighting in the trenches on all sides had drawn short straws in life, and the side most willing to allow a little buzz on the front line exhibited a little humanity.
So how does all this play out in the end? France occupied the role of major supplier to all sides drinking needs. The Germans made large gains at the start of the war, and enabled rear-echelon troops to frequent taverns in their newly conquered territories. Couple that privilege with their substantial liquor rations, and the German rank-and-file were well situated for some time. Ultimately, the British naval blockade started affecting German supplies, which directly cut into their drinking. When the Allies reversed Germany’s advances and ended the war, they virtually ensured the Germans would only be drinking regret and resentment for nearly two decades. The French military was also generous with its rations where allies were concerned, attempting in a small way to soften the hard line the British and American citizens and leadership held with regard to their troops’ drinking. Russia incurred the mother of all hangovers when it finally stopped drowning itself in vodka for a minute, and basically played the role of your friend who passes out at the bar. Final outcome? À votre santé, France.
Conrad von Hötzendorf was one of the main figures pushing for war and escalating the July crisis in 1914 leading to World War 1. His failure as commander in chief of Austria-Hungary were staggering but still today some consider him a military genius. Who was this man who polarizes military scholars till today and played such a huge role in the downfall of the Habsburg empire? Find out in our biography.
At the heart of the grandeur was a man who liked plain food, predictable routines, and, for relaxation, hunting and shooting. He was a good Catholic without thinking much about it. Like his fellow sovereigns Nicholas II and Wilhelm II, Franz Joseph loved the military life and almost always appeared in uniform. Like them too he was sent into a rage when the details of army uniforms were wrong. Apart from that, he was invariably courteous to everyone although always conscious of rank. He only shook Margutti’s hand once, to recognize that he had been promoted. (Margutti regretted ever after that no one else at court had seen this momentous gesture.) Franz Joseph found modern art puzzling but his sense of duty took him to public art exhibitions and the opening of important new buildings, especially if they were under royal patronage.” His taste in music ran to military marches or Strauss waltzes and, while he liked the theater and from time to time the prettier actresses, he preferred the old favorites. He did not like unpunctuality, loud laughter or people who talked too much. He had a sense of humor, of a rather basic sort. He had climbed the Great Pyramid in Egypt, he wrote to his wife, Empress Elisabeth, with the help of Bedouin guides. “As they mostly only wear a shirt, when they are climbing, and that must be the reason why English women so happily and frequently like to scale the pyramids.”
Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, 2013.
The leaders of the Ottoman Empire are looking for a scapegoat after their collosal defeat in the Caucasian Mountains a few month earlier. They start the systematic relocation and disarm Armenian troops among their ranks to end all calls for Armenian independence. Today’s estimates place the death toll of the genocide up till 1.5 million men, women and children.
Not only the soldiers are suffering on the Eastern and Western Front, the Dardanelles or since this week also in Macedonia. More and more civilians become refugees in this modern war. Even far away from the battle grounds they are not safe anymore when German submarine sink civilian ships.
The generals at the Western Front are slowly starting to adapt to the modern war. The battle of Neuve-Chappelle will be a blueprint for future operations and further improvements are supposed to finally bring the decisive advantage. In the meantime, after 133 days, the fortress of Przemyśl capitulates – the longest siege of World War 1.
Even though the Entente offensive near Constantinople didn’t really take off yet, the allied powers were already dreaming about splitting up the Ottoman Empire between themselves – and even promised territory to other nations. In the meantime, Austria-Hungary started its third offensive in the Carpathians to free the besieged army in Galicia.
The British Expeditionary Forces are starting their first major offensive since the beginning of trench warfare. Near Neuve-Chapelle they attack the Germans and try to “bite and hold” their position. This battle will be the blueprints for future British offensives. On the Balkan, Serbia is facing a different enemy: Typhus. The catastrophic sanitary conditions enable the disease to spread across the whole country.
World War 1 was a a fight of nationalism and self determination for many countries which did not yet exist then. One of those countries was Poland – its territory split between Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. In our first of multiple special episodes, Indy tells you everything about Poland and it’s fight for independence.
To break up the stalemate and get a decisive advantage, France and Great Britain open up yet another theatre of war in the Dardanelles. The plan is to seize the strait and open eventually open up the Bosporus in order to ship supplies to the Eastern and Balkan front. And so begins the naval bombardment of ottoman forts as prelude to a big offensive which will we know to today as Gallipoli.
After more than six months of war, the first big mutiny breaks out in Singapore. The endless battles in which big powers sacrifice thousands of soldiers are leading to an organised resistance for the first time. Indian troops refuse to board a ship because they don’t want to fight other muslims in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the great offensives at the front in Europe continue.
This week, well over 1 million soldiers are on the advance everywhere in Europe. General Hindenburgs tries to beat the Russians once and for all at the Masurian Lakes. Austria-Hungary is fighting the Russians with German support in the Carpathian mountains and on the Western Front the Champagne offensive is still going.
A particularly striking example is the sometime Times correspondent (later editor) Henry Wickham Steed. In 1954, Steed declared in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement that when he had left the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913, ‘it was with the feeling that I was escaping from a doomed edifice’. His words confirmed what was then the widely held view. Back in 1913, however, he had seen things differently. Though he was an outspoken critic of many features of Habsburg governance, he wrote in that year that he had been unable during ten years of ‘constant observation and experience’ to perceive ‘any sufficient reason’ why the Habsburg monarchy ‘should not retain its rightful place in the European Community’. ‘Its internal crises,’ he concluded, ‘are often crises of growth rather than crises of decay.’ It was only during the First World War that Steed became a propagandist for the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian state and an ardent defender of the post-war settlement in Central Europe.
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.