Last week’s column touched on a subject, which is critical to the winning of a war, namely esprit de corps, which is achieved when the men in arms have an unswerving belief in what they are doing. War is not a pretty process; it is bloody, exhausting, and miserable. If there is anything that can determine both the outcome of a battle, and even the outcome of an entire war, it is the willingness of the troops to give all they’ve got, day after day after day because they believe in their cause.
Not only that, but the morale of the civilians who produce the vast amounts of materials on which those troops rely has an immense affect on the outcome of any war. Without the unswerving support of the folks back home, the morale of the troops on the firing line can falter, leading to anything from half-hearted fighting, to desertions and surrender.
At the beginning of World War I, the soldiers of the German army were by far the best troops in Europe. They were disciplined, well trained, filled with a fervent devotion to both their leaders and their cause, and ready to go through almost anything necessary to produce an eventual victory. However, that devotion was undermined by things ordered done by the German General Staff.
Germany’s goal in War World I was the conquest of its two major enemies, France and Russia; and therein lay a great problem facing the German General Staff, a war that had to be fought on two fronts. As a result, the Schlieffen Plan, a strategy developed by Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, was adopted to allow Germany to take on and whip France very quickly, thereby leaving her free to focus on the much larger armies of Russia.
Along with that plan, a new — and highly repugnant! — view of war was promulgated and written into the Official Textbook of the General Staff.
Just read it:
“... a war conducted with energy cannot be directed merely against the combatants of the enemy State and the positions they occupy, but it will and must in like manner seek to destroy the total intellectual and material resources of the opposing people. Humanitarian claims, such as the protection of civilian lives and goods, can only be taken into consideration insofar as the objective of the war permits. Consequently the nature of war permits every belligerent State to have recourse to all means which enable it to obtain victory.”
That view renounced the fair and honest conduct of earlier wars, including the proper treatment of non-combatants. Its “anything goes as long as we win” attitude changed the entire face of war, and undermined the ability of Germany to win World War I because it eroded away both the loyalty of the men in the trenches and the people at home.
How? The Schlieffen Plan, you see, called for a sneak attack on France which bypassed the French border defenses by attacking neutral Belgium, and passing through that small and unprepared nation so fast that the French front line troops found themselves outflanked and were forced to flee or surrender, ending the fight on Germany’s western front so quickly that Russia could be attacked before it was ready.
In attempting to achieve that goal, the German leaders used cruel and inhuman measures that undermined their chances of victory by destroying the very thing any nation needs to win, namely belief in itself.
Next week: Where and how Germany went wrong from the very beginning of WWI.