Seven million men marched off to war in August 1914. A million of them lay dead by the end of the year.
Mainland Europe became a battleground. Both sides wanted to crush their enemies and end the war quickly. In the west, British, French and Belgian troops fought the German invaders. In the east, Germany and Austria-Hungary clashed with Russia and Serbia.
Neither side achieved a decisive victory. The horrific number of casualties caused by modern weapons came as a terrible shock. War crimes against civilians made the horror worse.
The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the core of Britain’s small army, was almost destroyed.
Europe’s Hour of Destiny
‘Europe’s Hour of Destiny.’
German newspaper editorial, 1 August 1914
In 1914 all armies hoped for a swift victory. On the Western Front Germany planned to defeat France quickly. It would then strike at Russia. The Germans won a series of bloody clashes, but were driven back at the Marne.
Yet they still occupied nearly all of Belgium and much of northern France.
On the Eastern Front, Russia captured much Austro-Hungarian territory, but its invasion of Germany was a disaster. Austria-Hungary failed miserably in fighting Serbia and Russia.
Why was there no quick victory in 1914? Modern weapons caused enormous numbers of casualties. Endless marching and fighting exhausted men and horses. Generals lacked the communications equipment to control huge armies. On both fronts, the war ground to a halt.
This is the uniform of a Russian artillery officer. Russia had an enormous population and many millions of men to turn into soldiers. But, with its limited industry, Russia could only arm and feed so many. The country’s vast size, coupled with an underdeveloped rail network made it difficult to transport troops to the Front. It also had too few of the mobile guns it really needed.
Most soldiers in the Russian Army were peasants. With crops to harvest, many marched unwillingly to war. Two million men even rushed to get married so that they could claim to be breadwinners and avoid conscription.
Yet Russia still had the largest army in the world. Though ill-trained and poorly equipped, its soldiers were, early on, intensely loyal to their leaders. While they won a major victory against the Austro-Hungarians, a Russian attempt to invade the German province of East Prussia ended in disaster.
Germany’s new heroes, Generals von Hindenburg and Ludendorff (right and left centre)
This poster-map of the Battle of Tannenberg celebrates the German victory over Russia in the province of East Prussia (in present-day Poland). Tannenberg made national heroes of the victorious, Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff.
Their success deflected public attention away from Germany’s failure in the west.
The army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which set out to crush Serbia and fight Russia, was an extraordinary mix of men from 14 nationalities. It included Bosnians, Croats, Czechs, Italians, Poles, Romanians, Slovaks, Slovenes and Ukrainians.
Between them, they spoke 27 languages and dialects.
By the end of 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Army had suffered nearly a million casualties.
This is the uniform of a trooper from the Austrian 8th Lancer Regiment. Many of the men in this regiment came from a Polish-speaking region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Poles had a proud tradition of fighting on horseback with long lances.
But the cavalryman’s lance and sword were no match for modern weapons.
These posters give a German view of ‘Our Enemies in the West’, the French, British and Belgians, and ‘Our Enemies in the East’, the Russians, Serbs and Montenegrins. The ‘East’ also includes the Japanese, Britain’s allies in the Far East since 1902.
The posters reinforce the idea that Germany was ‘encircled’ and could only defend itself by going to war.
A German patriotic medallion was made in anticipation of a triumphant victory march into Paris. As soldiers departed for the Front in August, the Kaiser had promised them, ‘You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees’.
The Battle of the Marne proved that the battle was a thing of the past. The Marne was a series of connected battles fought over a week, along a 95-mile front. The French commander, General Joseph Joffre, used railways to concentrate his scattered forces. French guns showered German soldiers with shrapnel.
The ‘miracle of the Marne’ saved France and forced the Germans to retreat. But Germany had not been beaten.
General Joseph Joffre, victor of the Battle of the Marne
German cavalry bugle and lance pennant
This German cavalry bugle and lance pennant were captured during the Battle of the Marne. German cavalry regiments, especially the Uhlan lancers, had a fearsome reputation in 1914, so trophies like these were highly prized by British and French troops.
The German Army was led by the world’s most professional officers. The soldiers they commanded were conscripts, but many more men volunteered for service after the outbreak of war. The German arms industry which supplied them and the railway system which transported them to war were considered the best in Europe.
But in 1914, on the Western Front alone, 750,000 German troops were killed or wounded.
This is the uniform of a German private of the 56th Infantry Regiment. The field grey uniform was adopted by the German Army in 1910. Most German troops also wore the leather Pickelhaube helmet. The spike was meant to deflect sword blows from cavalry.
Foot soldiers formed the bulk of all armies. German troops invading Belgium and France marched on average 12 miles each day while heavily laden with weapons and equipment.
In August 1914 France had an army the same size as Germany’s, despite having a much smaller population. It could only do this by calling up over 80 per cent of men of military age.
French troops hurled themselves at the Germans, often in reckless attacks.
Between August and December 1914, an average of 2,000 French soldiers were killed every day.
This is the uniform of a French private of the 5th Infantry Regiment in 1914. French politicians resisted attempts to update their army’s colourful uniforms.
Heroes were expected to dress the part, and their highly visible red trousers were seen as a symbol of French bravery and superiority.
But in practice it made the men easier targets.
France, like Britain, could call upon troops from home and also from its extensive empire. These patriotic dolls depict an alpine light-infantryman from France, a Spahi cavalryman from Morocco, a Zouave and an Algerian sharpshooter. Zouaves were recruited from French settlers in Algeria and Tunisia.