World War One: The Most Surprising War of the 20th Century

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Aug 2013


World War One was far and away the most surprising war of the 20th Century. It wasn't surprising that a war was fought in the 1910's -- Europeans were all expecting one. But the way it played out, and the way the aftermath played out, were not in anyone's turn-of-the-century playbook!

This is a discussion of why the war and the aftermath were so surprising to the people of the time.

Before the war

The rise of Italy and Germany

The French Revolution a hundred years earlier showed Europe that industrialization meant big social change and disruption was on the way. The surprising string of French victories of the Napoleonic Wars spread that awareness all the way to Moscow.

Industrializing meant millions of Europeans would be transformed from farmers and farmers wives into factory workers and factory workers wives. It meant an entirely new influential social class would come into the various communities -- industrialists. It also meant that the landscape was going to be transformed with the addition of railroads, improved roads, factories, sanitation systems, mines and bicycles. This wasn't going to be your grandpa's Europe anymore!

The change started in England and France and moved east. One surprise fallout of this wave of change was both Italy and Germany unifying into nation-states. Since the fall of the Roman Empire 400 years earlier these areas had been a patchwork of city-states and small kingdoms, and the sporting grounds whenever the surrounding areas decided it was time for a war.

The social ground shook in the Revolutions of 1848, but status quo was maintained. Then in 1866 Italy unified under the leadership of Garibaldi, Cavour, Victor Emmanuel II and Mazzini. The next year Germany unified. But here a historical accident comes to the fore. Germany unified under Prussian rule, not Austrian or Bavarian, because of the brilliance of Otto Von Bismarck as a diplomat as well as warrior -- he was a rock star of diplomacy up against an ADHD-style Napoleon III running France. He outmaneuvered Napoleon III, and the Austrian Hapsburgs, over the 1850's and 60's. The coup de grace was The War of 1870.

The war of 1870, a splendid little war

The War of 1870 was the last in a series of splendid little wars fought by the Prussians that unified Germany under Bismarck's guidance. Bismarck was a master at reassuring those he didn't want to fight -- chiefly Britain and Russia -- and isolating those he did want to fight -- Austria and France. In the war of 1870 he maneuvered France first into diplomatic isolation and then into hastily declaring war on Germany, which kept England and Russia from helping France.

The war went according to Prussia's Plan A (my term) and within three months the French army in disarray.

The surprise twist for the Prussians was the Parisians didn't give up when the army surrendered and Napoleon III was captured. Instead they formed the Fourth Republic, raised a new army, and kept fighting. The Prussian commanders had a bit of a pause over that, then said, "OK" and in another three months surrounded Paris and besieged it.

But the Parisians still didn't give up. Instead the government transformed into the Paris Commune, one of the first modern socialist/communist governments. This was surprising and spooky for both the Prussians, and the other people of France. The Commune ended when the Prussians let rural Frenchmen through their siege lines to crush this strange and unnatural occurrence (to them) and that ended the war.

The multi-cultural monarchies under siege

The Paris Commune was a vision of things to come. And the people most scared of that vision where the rulers of the empires that spanned many agrarian cultures in eastern Europe: Austrians, Russians and Turks. Even before WWI these governing systems were having a hard time coping with the disruptions of industrializing. Austria transformed into Austria-Hungary in 1867. Russia had serious unrest in 1905. And the area where interests of all three converged, the Balkans, was suffering a lot of conflict in the 1910's.

The Balkans had been dominated by the Ottoman Turkish Empire during the 1700's. All through the 1800's it was losing its grip, and by turn-of-the-century 1900's both Russia and Austria were looking to replace it as regional hegemon. But as of 1910 there was a power vacuum not a hegemony, and a lot of violence. Small wars had been fought there in both 1912 and 1913. World War One started there. If it hadn't surprised the world by spreading to the rest of Europe, it would have been the Third Balkan War -- just another small war in a region that had a habit of small wars.

The new style of militarizing

Industrializing prompted many changes in how army equipment and army people were handled. These changes had two powerful effects that added to the surprise of WWI. First, fast mobilizing became an important tactic. This meant that once war was declared the military would start marching quickly. The German Army started mobilizing 30 July 14, and was fighting the Battle of the Frontiers with France just two weeks later on 14 Aug 13. Compare this to the American Civil War (1860's) where the first big battle was fought six months after war was declared... and people were criticizing Lincoln's government for being hasty. This is why the declarations of war spread so swiftly once Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary in support of Serbia -- if a government was slow to decide, it lost a lot of advantage on the battlefield.

The second big change was that weaponry was much faster firing and more accurate than ever before. Bullets, as we know them today, became commonplace in the 1900's -- for both rifles and artillery -- and machine guns also became commonplace. This meant that marching in mass formations over open fields was now an invitation to get soldiers killed in huge numbers... but no better tactic for attacking had yet been developed. (late in the war better tactics were implemented)

The result was a casualty count that was ten times higher than anyone was expecting. And when the war turned into quagmire (static trench warfare) this casualty count problem multiplied every month the war lingered on. This was not the kind of war anyone was expecting in 1910!

The new styles of socializing

Monarchies set atop a mesh of landed nobility work well for governing pre-industrial agrarian societies. But the disruptive changes of industrializing don't mesh well with the timeless rituals that are the heart of that monarchy/nobility ruling system. But what should replace it? This was subject to a lot of experimenting all through the 18-1900's. America was trying the Republican democratic system, and found it was stable for its circumstance of being a growing nation next to a giant wilderness that it could settle... except for the vicious Civil War of the 1860's, that is. That was one pole. On the other was France. After the French Revolution, the French government oscillated between monarchy and republic about four times, and as written about above, tried the Paris Commune in 1870.

France was far from alone in this chaos and confusion. This was the era when Marx and Engles wrote about Communism as an alternative to monarchy, and the British were trying a constitutional monarchy with an active Parliament based on liberal ideals. There were dozens and dozens of other ideas being advocated and tried on smaller scales.

New bad blood, old bad blood

The rise of Germany and Italy changed the "bad blood" relations in Europe. England and France had had bad blood between them since William the Conqueror invaded England from France in 1066. It was ferociously bad during the 17-1800's when they were competing as world colonizers. But the unification of Germany and its rise to first-rate industrial and military power forced change in the British-French relation. They became strange bed-fellows.

Likewise, there had been long-standing bad blood between the Austrians and the Italians. The Italians considered the Austrians chronic meddlers in their affairs -- they were as bad as the French! But when Germany went shopping for allies in Europe after it unified, Austria and Italy both signed up -- the trio became the Central Powers, also known as the Triple Alliance. This was another collection of strange bed-fellows.

The Turks had been having governing problems for a hundred years. They went from an unstoppable Islamic wave, besieging Vienna in 1529, (their high point) to losing Greece in 1832. It was being called the "sick man of Europe" starting in the 1850's. There was long-standing bad blood between them and the Russians and Austrians -- they all contested for influence in the chronically chaotic Balkans.

This newly unified Germany was sandwiched between Russia and France. It feared, and planned for, a two front war. In self-fulfilling prophecy, those plans made the French and Russians pay a lot more attention to each other as potential allies.

How were these alliances really going to shake out?

There are plenty of alliances in 1910... but... no one knew for sure which ones counted! There were overt alliances and secret alliances. All these Great Powers were wheeling and dealing with several different agendas in mind. What this meant was: It really was uncertain who would back up whom when push finally came to shove.

Examples: Italy was allied with Austria and Germany as a Central Power. But they stayed neutral in the first round of war-declaring and fighting, then turned on Austria and Germany a year after the war had started. Conversely, Britain had a lot of influence at the Ottoman Court. It was expected that they would stay neutral or join the allies. Surprise! They decided now was a great time to take a swing at Russia, and they joined Germany.

During the war

Plan A... Plan B... Plan C... PlanBRRRlagh!!!

During the fighting in 1914 no nation's plan went as expected -- no one won a splendid little war. Likewise, no nation's plan went as expected in 1915... or 1916... OR 1917! It wasn't until November 1918 that the Western Allies "Plan Whatever" finally brought Germany to an unconditional surrender.

This ended war on the Western Front and started the negotiations that produced the Treaty of Versailles. But in eastern Europe the fighting continued on for another few years, through the early 1920's, as the Russians, Poles, Finns, and other Eastern Europeans decided boundaries and social systems. And the same kind of unrest completely disintegrated both the Austrian and Ottoman Turkish empires. The Russian empire disintegrated, but much of it was subsequently unified under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Germans also had a deep social revolution, and ended up trying multi-party democracy (Weimar Republic).

This east Europe and Middle East unrest did not get much attention in the US. The US, France and England were all busy recovering from both the war and the shock of how damaging it turned out to be. As I've said earlier, this war was seen as an off-the-charts bad result.

After the war

World War I was so surprising that when it finally did end in the western Europe area no one was sure what to do next. And it had scared a lot of people with its strange course and hugely damaging outcome. This meant the negotiators came to the table with lots of emotion and idealism in mind and little analysis or pragmatism.

In the eastern Europe area the war was even stranger and more damaging. It didn't even end when Germany surrendered. Instead it changed from organized to chaotic. The old empires shattered and they were replaced with all kinds of new wave social scheming, old fashioned war-lording, and nation building campaigns built on the culture of the area -- a new concept in this region.

The Middle East also went chaotic, but in a different way. The Ottoman Empire shattered as Russia and Austria had, but the rebuilding was shaped by more British and French colonial influence than was true in eastern Europe. The British and French drew the lines on the map. Sometimes they reflected culture of the area, but often they did not because the cultures in the Middle East were thoroughly mixed together.

But most important, the amazing and surprising technological and social changes didn't end when peace finally came again. They came on even more fast and furiously. Today in the US this post-war period is called the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, and it paved the way for World War II -- a completely different style of war.

That's an overview, let's look at some details.

Sorting through the ruins

This war was like nothing anyone alive had ever experienced. It was like no war the world had ever experienced! The war making technologies were so much more damaging that people were literally amazed at the damage done -- both while the bullets were flying and when they looked at the elaborate trenches, smoking ruins and huge grave yards left behind when the bullets stopped flying.

Given how surprising the war was, it is not surprising that shaping the peace that followed was not a smooth, well-oiled process, either. Lots of mistakes were made.

In the west: Too scared to figure out a good peace

In the west the victors assembled in Paris in 1919 to figure out what to do next. They didn't handle this process well and the result was the Treaty of Versailles which has subsequently been condemned as masterwork of bad choices. One good element of the treaty was trying to set up an organization to prevent future world wide conflicts: The League of Nations. This was modeled after the Congress of Vienna that followed the Napoleonic Wars, but didn't work out nearly as well.

The worst element was it played Blame Game. The treaty declared that this mess was Germany's fault, and Germany should pay a big bunch of money (reparations) to the Allies for all the damages it had done -- to France in particular. This made perfect sense... to France. But it was crazy, and it laid a financial foundation for Germany's chronic financial and economic problems that ultimately brought the Nazis to power in the 1930's. Germany didn't strongly object because a) it wasn't invited, b) it was in the throws of building up a post-Kaiser, democratic government so all the leaders were very busy at the time, and it wasn't clear who should be its voice.

And sadly, the League of Nations turned out to be controversial and ineffectual. The US senate would not let the US join it, and it was not good at resolving the international disputes that came on hot and heavy in the 1930's as all nations tried to figure ways out of the Great Depression.

In the East: Empires disintegrating

In eastern Europe peace was not even a prospect in 1918. There were several more years of war to be fought. But the nature of the fighting changed. It was now smaller scale, not part of a global picture anymore. In the Russian Empire area the war transformed from world war into civil war and wars to set up cultural nation states within the old empire. Russians fought themselves, Poles, Finns, Ukrainians and many others.

The Austrian Empire pieces did not fight as much. The empire quickly transformed into smaller nation states and the Treaty of Versailles/League of Nations did good work in this area to make this transition fairly smooth.

Likewise, the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. This was between Russia and Austria in violence. The national boundaries of the Middle East as we know them today were laid out in this era, except for Israel. That was created after World War II.

New Social Orders

The most exciting new experiment to be started after World War I was the Communist experiment in Russia, which changed its name to the USSR. This started in the midst of deep chaos in Russia as the Romanov dynasty disintegrated under the stress of fighting the world war. The Bolsheviks were just one of a dozen or so factions that had ideas about how to replace the Romanovs. By historical accident they ended up on top, and Communism burst on to the world scene as a for-real governing form. For some people this was just as new and scary as World War One had been, and America experienced its first Red Scare.

But the Bolsheviks were just the most spectacular. Following the war new governing systems were tried in various places all over Europe. Lots of experimenting was going on.

New Technologies, New Prosperities

There was lots of experimenting going on with new technologies as well. Oil was replacing coal as the best way to power engines. (The Titanic, an icon of modern technology in 1912, was coal powered.) Electricity and electric motors were replacing steam engines and belts and pulleys as the way to power industrial machines. Henry Ford started automobile mass production. Disease was getting better understood which produced better medical treatments such as diphtheria vaccinations and better sanitation systems such as flush toilets. ...Lots and lots of change in how people lived.

New Disruption, New Paranoia

This change was good, but it was unsettling. There were even more ways for people to make money and even more ways for government to be called upon to regulate what was happening. This was an era that vigorously supported class warfare -- fat cat capitalists versus workers joining in solidarity. Political parties, and the governments they supported, vigorously chose sides in these warfare contests.

The Twenties had a lot of post-war optimism. This was the time of both the Roaring Twenties social liberation movements and temperance crusading Prohibition movements.

At the end of the twenties the boom ended with a famous stock market crash and that was followed by an equally famous Great Depression. For ten years no one could figure out how to get the boom back. People in America, Europe and Japan got frustrated, then scared. The conventional solutions hadn't worked, so they started supporting radical unconventional solutions. These unconventional solutions famously included New Dealism, Fascism, Nazism, Communism and many other which were less successful and less famous.

These new movements also brought famous strong men to power -- Roosevelt, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and others -- and some of these proved "adventurous". The result of their adventures: launching World War II, which I will cover in another essay.


The 1910's brought the world to a place it had never been before. Sadly, one part of that place was a style of war-making that shocked the world with its ability to kill and damage.

It shocked the world, and the world stayed shocked with all sorts of new ideas, technologies and social movements for twenty years following it.

--The End--