Archive for the ‘World War I’ Category

July 23, 1914: Austria-Hungary’s Ultimatum to Serbia

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

July 23, 1914: Wladimir Giesl von Gieslingen, Austria-Hungary’s ambassador to Serbia, presented a ten-point ultimatum to the Serbian government, demanding a response within 48 hours. The Austrian government had carefully crafted the ultimatum to be unacceptable, thereby either providing the Austrians with a pretext for war or fatally undermining the authority of any Serbian government craven enough to accept it.

It had been nearly a month since the assassination by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The Austrians were caught on the horns of a dilemma. The natural horror at the assassination of the Archduke and his wife had temporarily rallied popular sympathy for Austria. The Austrian Empire was, however, incapable of taking advantage of that fleeting moment, and not simply because the proverbial (and often overstated) incompetence of its bureaucracy.

Of Europe’s five great powers—Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, Austria-Hungary was on the verge of slipping to the next rank to join Italy and the Ottoman Empire. Its population was smaller and its military more impoverished than Europe’s other powers. Most importantly, any confrontation with Serbia immediately raised the possibility of war with Russia, which shared ethnic and religious ties with the Serbs and was engaged in a long-term contest with Austria for influence in the Balkans. The Austrians could not provoke a crisis with Serbia without first assuring themselves of German backing. They had gotten German support, but it took time.

By July 23, rumors of Austria’s plans to issue an ultimatum to the Serbs circulated through Europe’s foreign ministries, though the precise nature of Austrian terms was still unknown.

Liveblogging Russia’s Great War

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Liveblogging the First World War on the Eastern Front

One hundred years ago today, the July Crisis leading to World War I began with Austria-Hungary’s delivery to Serbia of an ultimatum deliberately designed to be unacceptable.

I use that anniversary to begin an experiment: liveblogging Russia’s Great War a century after the fact, tracing the key events and developments as far as possible as they happened, without the benefit of hindsight. While of course I cannot put aside my knowledge of where this story is headed, I will try as much as possible to present events as they appeared to observers at the time, hoping to restore immediacy and suspense to things long past.

Brad DeLong has been doing something similar for World War II, though primarily through the presentation of quotations and excerpts from sources on the war.
My hope is to do things a little differently than that–talking about and explaining moments in the war for an audience of non-specialists.

My goal is somewhat different as well. Western knowledge of the Second World War is highly uneven, but it’s hard to deny that the place of World War II in popular consciousness is far ahead of World War I in the English-speaking world. Certainly the 1914-1918 war looms large in places where it formed a central part of national identity, as in Australia and New Zealand, or where it shaped the culture and politics of a generation, as in Britain. But living memory of the First World War is almost gone and with it much of the most basic knowledge of the events of the war.

So I intend this livable to restore some basic knowledge of the Eastern Front to the Western public. I also want to showcase two forthcoming publication projects, one particular, the other collective. I myself have completed a book on Russia’s military experience in the First World War, forthcoming shortly from the University Press of Kansas.

The other project is a much larger collective work, Russia’s Great War and Revolution, drawing on the efforts of an international team of dozens of editors and over a hundred contributors to present the state of our knowledge of all facets of Russia during the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War. The first books in the project, offering a broad and comprehensive look at Russian culture during the war, will be available soon.

Caring for Imperial Russia’s Sick and Wounded Soldiers

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I heard about a lot of interesting new work at the ASEEES conference this year, and one of the exciting things ASEEES was the way in which research at one panel complemented and extended research presented in an entirely different context. The way in which the Russian Empire handled the medical demands of war is one of those serendipitous moments.

I served as commenter on a panel loosely defined as veterans in Russian and Soviet history, but ended up being a wider ranging discussion on war and society in broad terms. One paper by Andrew Ringlee, a graduate student at North Carolina, looked at the Red Cross and its de facto role as the Russian Army’s medical service prior to World War I.

Though Ringlee’s research is still in its early stages, he has some intriguing findings. The Russian Red Cross might have been the largest and most significant of the various national chapters, and likewise might have invented the modern concept of disaster relief: stay tuned for the dissertation for full discussion of that point. On the specific question of the Russian military, the Russian Red Cross had its first experience handling sick and wounded soldiers in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, where its performance was remarkably good and well-regarded by the Russian educated public. Despite the normal frictions and difficulties we extent under such circumstances, the results were clearly positive. In 1904-05, however, the Russo-Japanese War proved quite different. The Red Cross was less effective, in part because of the remote theater of war and in part because the Russian Army’s failure to properly integrate the Red Cross into its planning. More importantly, the Russian public believed the Red Cross to have failed, and to have squandered its resources through incompetence and corruption.

What struck me about the story Ringlee told was the way in which the Russian high command expected its medical needs to be met by the Red Cross, and yet made no effort to integrate the Red Cross into its contingency planning or to provide it with the information and resources it would require to deal successfully with the challenges of war. Part of the reason seems to have been a deep official mistrust of Russian civil society. Though Ringlee has not yet taken his research into the First World War, there are clear parallels to the poisonous relationship between state and civil society we see in that period.

Peter Waldron (University of East Anglia) picked up the story in a roundtable on health and living standards in World War I and World War II by looking specifically at epidemic disease in the First World War. Many of the themes of Ringlee’s work–relatively successful efforts by Russian civil society to deal with a crisis, and tsarist indifference or hostility–were equally clear in Waldron’s.

Waldron provided a wealth of welcome data on the nature of disease in the war–of the five million hospitalized Russian soldiers during the war, just under half were there because of contagious disease. The biggest killer was cholera, which killed a third of all those it infected and accounted for 20% of all disease fatalities, but the most prevalent disease was typhoid. Despite the difficult conditions of wartime, Russian public health had made remarkable strides even since the 1890s. A cholera epidemic in 1892 had killed half of those it infected, rather than the third who succumbed during the war.

The pattern of disease is what we might predict: concentrated behind Russian front lines and in big cities, particularly Moscow. Though the precise reasons for this remain to be determined, Waldron found that while wounded soldiers were widely scattered around Russia, infected soldiers were concentrated in Moscow. It’s difficult to know what to make of this: given the city’s importance as an industrial and transportation center, and the huge numbers of vulnerable refugees in Moscow, dumping disease-carriers there would seem a really bad idea. This is hard to imagine as a result of deliberate policy. Of course, we are talking about Nicholas II, so deliberate policy is certainly a possibility.

In terms of the bigger theme, though, Waldron amply confirmed the pattern of the Russian state having a terrible time working effectively and productively with private initiatives. While Waldron did not discuss the Red Cross, he did bring in the Union of Towns, which had a great deal of responsibility for aiding the sick. Desperate for assistance, the Union of Towns begged for help in setting up hospitals, only to find the the tsarist government slow and grudging in its responses. In a remarkable range of circumstances, not simply care for sick and wounded soldiers, this seems to be the rule.

Russo-Turkish War as World War Zero

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Nice to have John Steinberg as one of our frontoviki.  Welcome aboard, John.

On the issue Steinberg raises of World War Zero–it seems to me it happens quite often in history that  one historian argues “We think of X as the first example of category X; in actuality, earlier event Y is the first example of category X.”  The historian’s natural instinct in response to this (or at least MY natural instinct) is to go back to a still earlier event Z.

Let me throw out one of my favorites: the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War.

How does it measure up against Steinberg’s ten criteria?

1.  Imperialist competition.  Check.
2.  Began in a neutral country .  Check–here I have in mind the war’s origins in the Orthodox states of the Balkans, slowly moving towards autonomy / full independence from the Ottoman Empire.
3. Breakdown of government and humanitarian crisis.  Check–especially the latter.  Atrocities in the Balkans are one of the things that kept British public opinion somewhat more sympathetic to Russia.
4. Lethality of industrial warfare.  Check.  Bruce Menning’s Bayonets before Bullets is particularly good on the impact of breech-loading rifles and improved artillery on the battlefield.
5.  Mass casualties.  Check.
6.  Long battles.  Half-check–field engagements are relatively quick and localized, but sieges draw out at Plevna because of the lethality of modern firepower.
7.  Cost and financial difficulty.  Check, I think.  I don’t happen to know a great deal on the financial side of the war, but the Russian Ministry of Finance was always upset about the state of the ruble.
8. Widespread reporting.  Check.  The Pan-Slavs stir up Russian opinion and get Russian volunteers to the Balkans well before official Russian entry, and reporting of Ottoman atrocities in Western Europe gives Russia useful diplomatic cover.
9.  Peace of exhaustion and seeds of future conflict and 10. Future destabliization.  Emphatically check and check.

AND you can throw in as well that the Russo-Turkish War and World War I started over, to use Bismarck’s phrase, “some damn fool thing in the Balkans,” and even more specifically Serbian nationalism.

To be sure, my argument for the Russo-Japanese War as World War Zero, making the Russo-Japanese War World War Point Five, could easily be overturned by precisely the same method.   I’ll leave it as an exercise for the student to make a case for the Crimean War as the REAL World War Zero.

World War Zero?

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

On May 15th 2009 I had the opportunity to give a lecture to a group of about 100 members of the History faculty and students at Huazhong Normal University in Wuhan, China. The lecture was based on new archival research conducted in support of a recently published two-volume set The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective: World War Zero which I edited along with several colleagues.

After briefly summarizing the operational history of the War, I offered ten reasons why new research findings justify the conclusion that the Russo-Japanese War should be considered World War Zero.

1. Like World War I, the origins of the Russo-Japanese War were rooted in imperialistic competition between world powers

2. As in August 1914, when the Russo-Japanese conflict began, it was fought in a neutral country(s) (China and Korea)

3. In the midst of the conflict and in the area where combat occurred, governmental structures broke down and the emergency was greeted with a response by non-governmental agencies such as the Red Cross

4. The conflict was marked by the use of sophisticated, complicated, and (above all else) lethal industrial weapons such as machine guns, rapid fire infantry assault weapons, rapid fire artillery, mines, and torpedoes. These were accompanied by the logistical infrastructure needed to keep ammunition and other essential supplies flowing to modern fielded armies

5. The natural product of the War’s deadly battlefields — mass casualties — required levels of aid which no medical corps of the period had the ability to help. The sheer numbers of men in need of aid overwhelmed these units.

6. The duration of battles at the beginning of the War lasted two or three days (The Yalu and Nanshan) and were contained to relatively small areas.  By the end of the war the battles of Liaoyang and Mukden lasted weeks and featured battlefields that extended for kilometers.  [NB: In terms of duration and brutality, the six to seven-month siege of Port Arthur foreshadowed what later happened at Verdun in 1916.]

7. The cost of fighting such a technologically demanding war required the formation of international syndicates of bankers simply to derive the credit needed for both the Japanese and Russians to keep purchasing and producing weapons and munitions.

8. Like WWI, the Russo-Japanese War was widely reported on and represented in all forms of visual presentations, from photographs to wood block prints.

9. Like Versailles, the Treaty of Portsmouth occurred only after one belligerent (Japan) ran out of men, materials and credit, and the Russians found themselves in the midst of a Revolution.  Perhaps more to the point, the treaty itself resolved little beyond ending hostilities and, worse, created circumstances that fueled grievances that culminated in future conflict.

10.  When the war concluded and the peace was signed the strengthening of the pan-Asian movement continued to fuel animosities that further destabilized the world.

How well did my Chinese audience accept the logic of the Russo-Japanese War as World War Zero?  While the faculty liked the idea, they accepted it with much circumspection.  More surprising were the questions I received from the students which suggested that they had little knowledge of the conflict in general.  Whatever the case, the students were far more interested in discussing Japan’s role in the Asian world during the first half of the 20th century.  The students were particularly curious to know my thoughts on to possible re-emergence of Japan as a world power in the 21st century.

As for the concept of World War Zero, most western military historians continue to view the Russo-Japanese War as a regional conflict rooted in the age of imperialism. Historians in Asia, appear much more respective.  I remain a World War Zero advocate. And I look forward to continuing public discussion of the War’s legacy, especially when that discussion is conducted within a new international frame of reference.