History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Month: December 2018 Page 1 of 4

The Real German War Plan 1914

German Military History Research Office Edition 2007

This post is an update of the original post Heretics of the Schlieffen Plan, which gave an introduction to the subject and remains the basis for this extended version. The original post solely discussed the Schlieffen Plan of 1905/1906 – now we shall consider the actual developments of August and September 1914 until the Battle of the Marne and the developments arising thereof.

Various newly discovered historical documents regarding 1914 will be translated into the English language and presented here for the first time, so hang on!


Before discussing the plans of Schlieffen, the “Schlieffen Plan”, and the real German war plan of 1914 in any detail, we must first familiarize ourselves with the geography of the battlefield. A common border between France and Germany exists only in the south, between Switzerland and Luxembourg, along the Vosges Mountains west of Mulhouse and Strasbourg, and the high terrain of the Lorraine between Donon and Thionville, through the upper half of which flows the Moselle River via Metz to the Rhine. These stretches of mountains respectively highlands are in general territory where the lay of the land favours the defender and hence were fortified by both sides. France built four principal modern fortresses in a north-westerly oriented line, from Belfort near the Swiss border, to Epinal, Toul/Nancy and Verdun at the Meuse River, which forms the main defence line in the north-western quadrant of the region.

The principal defences on the German side of this stretch ran along the ridgeline of the Vosges opposite the Upper Rhine and were strengthened by a fortified fallback position at Strasbourg. The highlands stretching out between Donon, Sarrebourg, Morhange and Metz had been fortified only weakly, for it was thought that a flexible defence in this area offered a good chance of mounting a counterattack. Along the Moselle river, from Metz to Thionville (Diedenhofen) near the border to Luxembourg, ran the “Moselstellung”, the ‘Moselle Position’, the main fortified German area, which was considered impenetrable. The good defensive perimeters on either side ensured that, once French attacks during the opening Battle of the Frontiers in the first weeks of August had been repulsed, and the Germans blooded their noses in attacking at the Grand Couronne de Nancy, the whole Franco-German border saw little action until late in 1918.

The middle part of the western theatre consisted of the independent Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the Ardennes Forest, a high plateau that stretches from northern Luxembourg about thirty miles on each side of the German- Belgian border into the respective countries, almost to Aachen (Aix-La-Chapelle) and Liège (Lüttich). The strategic pièce de résistance on this part of the front is Verdun, for an outflanking of Verdun from the north-west along the Meuse in south- eastern direction would outflank the whole French fortress belt.

But it was the northernmost part of the Franco-Belgian-German borderlands that received the most attention of military strategists, for the plains of Flanders and in particular a path following the northern bank of the Meuse and Sambre Rivers, along Liège and Namur in Belgium to Maubeuge at the Franco-Belgian border, offered a convenient route for an army crossing from northern France into western Germany or vice versa, presenting a good opportunity to outflank the enemy. It could thus not surprise anyone that Belgium fortified the areas of Liège and Namur, and France did the same with Maubeuge. Still, the opportunity provided by the plains loomed large in the minds of continental generals, and, as Gerhard Ritter explains, it was taken more or less for granted that the roads would be used. By whom, remained a topic of discussion.

We know that the idea of forcibly raising the Belgian frontier barriers played a great part at the height of the French struggle for hegemony under Napoleon III. After his fall there could be no thought of a French offensive for many decades. But when French chauvinism flared up again under Boulanger in 1887 and there seemed to be an immediate threat of a Franco-German war, European public opinion was not at all certain that Belgian neutrality would be respected by either belligerent, since both had secured their positions on the Lorraine front by strong fortresses.

In England there were uneasy memories of the obligation assumed in 1839, and renewed in 1870 by treaties with France and the North German Bund, to guarantee Belgian neutrality. British diplomacy at first assured Brussels that the obligation would be honoured; but soon it was advising the Belgians not to count on effective British help, for which there were too few military resources, but to try to defend their border on their own.

At the same time there appeared in the semi-official press some very strange articles, obviously inspired by the Foreign Office, which can only be regarded as “kites” to sound public opinion on the question of neutrality. They discussed whether, in the event of a German march through Belgium into northern France, England could not accept the situation provided Bismarck gave his word not to infringe Belgian sovereignty and only to use a “right of way” through the country. The question was answered in the affirmative.

Other newspapers, too, gave warnings against going beyond paper protests – an indication of how much the Liberal England of that day disliked being drawn into Continental quarrels. Furthermore it was clearly noticeable that Lord Salisbury regarded France, not Germany, as the country threatening European peace, and that his sympathies were far more on the German side. …

This was the time, in 1887, when the German General Staff, too, was discussing the possibility of the French Army being able to outflank the German position in Lorraine through Belgium. But Count Moltke was not in the least disturbed by this, as one sees from his great strategic plan of 1887:

“On the right our position could only be outflanked at any distance by a violation of neutral countries, Luxembourg or Belgium. This would result in an entirely changed military situation which we need not discuss here, but which would obviously develop unfavourably for the French. However poorly one may estimate the military resistance of these countries, the invasion would be weakened by the need to keep watch on their troops and hold their populations in check.

The whole operation would come to a standstill on the Rhine, while we ourselves would advance in mass from the south. If, incidentally, anything could spur England into action, it would be the occupation of Belgium by the French Army. For all these reasons, the whole enterprise seems highly unlikely.”

This fitted in with the declaration Bismarck had caused to be published in the semi-official “Post”; the British reflections were not only premature but also groundless. Germany would never open a war with the violation
of a European treaty. If one supposed that the German General Staff was bound to contemplate a breakthrough via Belgium, it had to be pointed out that this far from exhausted the ingenuity of the German General Staff. It was furthermore an error to suppose that the conduct of German policy was subject to the views of the General Staff. (26)

As long as Bismarck was responsible for Germany’s policies, nobody doubted that he exercised control, not the generals. But after his retirement in 1890, German foreign policy quickly acquired a vacillating quality – the subsequent chancellors Caprivi and Hohenlohe were not only ignorant of foreign relations but made no efforts to improve their expertise. Soon the situation Bismarck had toiled all his life to avoid came to pass – détente between France and Russia. The spectre of a two- front war first raised its head.


Perhaps the most famous – and most misinterpreted military document in world history – but not, as is often claimed, the blueprint for 1914 – is the so-called “Great Memorandum” (also known as the “Schlieffen Plan”), written by German Field Marshal and Chief of Staff Alfred Graf von Schlieffen – dated 1905, the year of his retirement, but probably completed in 1906. It was simply a memorandum – a military-political statement that repeatedly addressed the issue of (in Schlieffen’s opinion) a much-needed expansion of the German army at a time when much of the budget went to the Navy. It was not a current deployment, let alone a mobilization plan. Link to the PDF – File

In 1914, the axis of the German attack is clearly EAST of Paris, not WEST of it …

The “Schlieffen Plan”, like any other document, must be seen in the historical context in which it originated. Two arguments seem to be particularly valid here: (1) The plan arose from a certain tradition – that of the Prussian General Staff to plan and carry out rapid campaigns for limited objectives, which had worked so well in 1866 and 1870/71, and (2) no one had an alternative. Holger Herwig – with whom this author does not necessarily agree on everything – argued in 2003 in the anthology “The Origins of World War I,” Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-81735-8, p. 155:

But Schlieffen’s critics lacked a viable alternative. Their vision (or fear) of a ‘peoples war’ lasting anywhere between seven and thirty years was unacceptable – to Kaiser, generals, parliament and nation. The Second Reich was not the Third; total mobilization for total war was anathema to one and all. Thus, simply to reject Schlieffen’s blueprint of a short war for limited aims – a strategy deeply rooted in Prussian military annals – was to deny the very viability of what the historian Gerhard Ritter called „Kriegshandwerk“. Put bluntly, to concede that the vaunted Prussian General Staff could no longer conduct short wars of annihilation was to admit that war had ceased to be a viable option by the start of the twentieth century. There were few takers in Germany for such a radical notion.

Hence, war it had to be. After having lost the Great War, however, in various post-war works of German officers Hermann von Kuhl, Gerhard Tappen, Wilhelm Groener and Reichsarchiv (Imperial Archives) historians directed by former Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant-Colonel) Wolfgang Förster, a thesis or narrative was developed that held:

I. That in the years leading to 1905, the former Chief of the German General Staff, Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, had conceived a development and operations plan for a two-front war against France and Russia that all but guaranteed victory, and

II. that it was the failure of 1914 Chief of Staff Generaloberst (Colonel-General) Helmuth von Moltke the Younger to follow and execute the plan properly that led to Germany’s loss of the World War.

The story had to be taken on faith, because the famous plan was not made available – not a snippet of it was published to support the allegations. Yet in principle – so much was known – the plan prescribed an attack on northern France through Belgium and an encirclement and subsequent siege of Paris, which should force a French capitulation – more or less like shown in the West Point Map below:

After most German military archives were destroyed in the subsequent Allied bombings of World War II, the plan was believed lost, that is, until in 1953, German monarchist historian Gerhard Ritter found a copy of Schlieffen’s Memorandum of 1906 (backdated to 1905) at the National Archives in Washington. Indeed it appeared that the original memorandum had not been stored in the ministry of defense at all but at his home and was found much later in the estate of his daughter. In 1958 he published the paper in English, with a foreword by B.H. Liddell-Hart, under the title “The Schlieffen Plan – Critique of a Myth” at Praeger, New York (the original German version appeared 1956 at R. Oldenbourg, Munich). [No ISBN Number or Library of Congress Card available] It is available here as a PDF File – please read carefully.

THE GREAT MEMORANDUM by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the Great German General Staff 1891 – 1902. Often called the blueprint for World War I, although on closer inspection one might develop severe doubts. Why?

A few hints: The Memorandum describes war solely against France – not a two-front war including Russia. The plan employs 94 divisions plus 12 non-existing “Ersatz”-Divisions all in all – a number which never existed (Moltke had to do with 68 divisions in 1914, of which a few had detached duties at the North Sea Coast and around invested cities like Maubeuge and Brussels) – but most crucial are logistic and spatial impossibilities. John Keegan analysed them in “The First World War”, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, and the author hopes to be forgiven for quoting Keegan’s analysis at length:

The Great Memorandum - Author's Copy
The Great Memorandum – Author’s Copy

[Schlieffen’s] midnight pettifoggery had as its object an exact adjustment not of German numbers to those that the French could deploy, but to what the Belgian and French road network could carry. Such calculations were
the groundwork of staff-college training: students, transferring from prepared tables the length of a marching column – twenty-nine kilometres for a corps, for example – to a road map, could determine how
many troops could be pushed through a given sector at what speed.
Since thirty-two kilometres was the limit of a forced march, that would be the advance of a corps on a single road; but the tail of a column twenty-nine kilometres long would remain near or at the marching-off point at
the day’s end. If there were twin parallel roads, the tails would advance half the distance, if four three- quarters, and so on. Ideally, the units of a corps would advance not in a column but in line abreast, allowing all
of it to arrive at the day’s end thirty-two kilometres further on; in practice, as Schlieffen admitted in one of his amendments, parallel roads were at best to be found one to two kilometres apart.

As his great wheeling movement was to sweep forward on a front of three hundred kilometres with about thirty corps, however, each would have only ten kilometres of front on which to make its advance, in which
there might be at best seven parallel roads. That was not enough to allow the tails of the columns to catch up with the heads by the day’s end. The drawback was serious in itself; more seriously, it absolutely forbade any
attempt to crowd more troops into the radius of the wheeling movement. They would not fit, there simply was not room.

Here we come to the question how the six (non-existing) Ersatz-Corps that the attentive reader will see appearing out of thin air in Map 3 could have made their way to Paris?

It is at this point that a careful reader of the Great Memorandum recognises a plan falling apart: Map 3 in no way shows how the new corps are to advance or to invest Paris, the central strongpoint of the “great
fortress” that was Schlieffen’s France. The corps simply appear, with no indication of how they have reached Paris and its outskirts. The “capacity of the railways” is irrelevant; railways, in Schlieffen’s plan, were to carry the attackers no further than the German frontier with Belgium and France. Thereafter it was the road network that led forward, and the plodding boots of the infantry that would measure out the speed of
advance.

Schlieffen himself reckoned that to be only twelve miles [just under twenty kilometres, ¶] a day. In the crisis of August and September 1914, German, French and British units would all exceed that, sometimes day after
day – the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment averaged sixteen and a half miles during the great retreat from Mons to the Marne, 24 August – 5 September, and covered twenty-three and twenty-one miles on 27 and 28 August respectively – but Schlieffen’s mean was not far short of the mark. Von Kluck’s army on the outer wing of the great wheel achieved a little over thirteen miles a day between 18 August and 5 September, 1914, over a distance of 260 miles.

For the “eight new corps,” needed by Schlieffen as his plan’s clinching device, to arrive at the decisive place of action, they would have actually needed to march not only further and faster, which defied probabilities, but to do so along the same roads as those occupied by the corps already existing, a simple impossibility.

It is not surprising therefore, to find buried in the text of the Great Memorandum its author’s admission that “we are too weak” to bring the plan to a conclusion and, in a later admission, “on such an extended line we shall still need greater forces than we have so far estimated.” He had run into a logistical impasse. Railways would position the troops for his great wheel; the Belgian and French roads would allow them to reach the outskirts of Paris in the sixth week from mobilisation day; but they would not arrive in the strength necessary to win a decisive battle unless they were accompanied by eight corps – 200,000 men – for which there was no room. His plan for a lightning victory was flawed at its heart. It was pigeonholed for use nonetheless.

In the original 1956 edition of Gerhard Ritter the maps are in the back of the book and of low quality. The present author has placed them in appropriate parts of the text and added coloured lines for better following the argument.

The problem of the plan, as it lies before us, is its interpretation. After Terence Zuber (former US Army officer and historian in Würzburg) argued from 1999 on in various publications that the plan is just a memorandum, and there was no indication that it ever was the true basis of manoeuvres or even a comprehensible technical discussion  – on the contrary – documents were found in the 1990s at the archives of the former GDR on the actual exercises that his successor Moltke held until 1914. Naturally, there was a great outcry of established historians, who believed their livelihoods threatened. See Zuber, Terence, “The Real German War Plan 1904-14,” The History Press 2001, ISBN 978-0-7524-5664-5.

International conferences have swiftly been convened to stop the heresy, but Zuber’s critique, whose cornerstones are perhaps best read in the English Wikipedia article on the plan, makes perfect sense. The problem is that, if it were a real plan, one would have to assume that the German Chief of Staff was devoting himself to planning – until 1905 – for a single-front war against France, which was completely out of the question following the Franco-Russian alliance after the non-prolongation of the Reinsurance Treaty in 1890. There would be no single-front war, as Terence Holmes pointed out.

The counter-criticism also argues that the memorandum incorporates the brief military weakening of Russia after the catastrophe of the Russo-Japanese War. This seems, however, rather irrelevant, as in this war, the main losses of Russia related to their fleet, which did not interest the German Navy much – the High Seas Fleet prepared against England. The main problem of the present counter-criticism is that it argues the events of 1914 – not the memorandum of 1905.

In 2007, the German Military History Research Office (MGFA) published “The Schlieffen Plan: Analyses and Documents“, edited by Michael Epkenhans, Hans Ehlert and Gerhard P. Gross. Wiki informs us that “This volume contains a copy of Schlieffen’s 1905 Memorandum misfiled in the German Military Archives at Friedberg, and German deployment plans from the year 1893/94 to 1914/15, most of which had been lost otherwise. These documents, not yet available in English translation, are said to strongly support the traditional ideas of a “Schlieffen Plan” that Zuber disputed.”

First impression [Update 05.06.2019]: The problem of the book probably lies in the organization of the conference from September 30 to October 1, 2004, that gave rise to ist existence. The reason for convening the conference in the first place had been the fundamental criticism of Terence Zuber – see above. In the implementation of the conference, this was, however, not made the order of the day, but various participants were given the opportunity to present their own theses to the “Schlieffen Plan” – but not, as mentioned above, in response to the memorandum of 1906, but to announce their own, previously unpublished opinions about the developments of the German deployment plans from 1905 to 1914 or about the events of 1914.

There is a need for differentiation: When Zuber called the Schlieffenplan a “myth” after 2000, he did not mean that the plan did not exist – the memorandum lies plain in our sight – but he pointed to the incongruity of the memorandum (see John Keegan’s analysis of its tactical impracticability and the use of “Ghost Divisions”) with the legend developed after 1918 – that Schlieffen had presented a perfect plan that the younger Moltke did not understand, or “watered down” by changes to the plan.

Hew Strachan

This blog entry originally only referred to the memorandum of 1905-6, not the events of 1914 or the preparations and possible plans under Moltke. However, such was not the topic of the conference. Annika Mombauer develops theses concerning the “Moltke Plan”, i.e. her own possible history of the actual war plan of 1914,. Other contributions deal with the military situations, plans and political realities in Austria-Hungary (Günter Kronenbitter), France (Stefan Schmidt ), Russia (Jan Kusber), Great Britain (Hew Strachan), Belgium (Luc De Vos) and Switzerland (Hans Rudolf Fuhrer and Michael Olsansky). Regardless of the qualities of these contributions, the question of their relevance for the plan at hand arises.

Zuber’s core thesis was, and is, that the “Schlieffen Plan” (in the form of the Great Memorandum of 1905/6) was not an actually feasible plan and that there are no indications that it actually formed the basis for 1914 planning.

There is much work left for subsequent updates, but another striking example of the tactical impracticability of the plan (which John Keegan probably omitted for lack of space) would be the encirclement of Paris, as planned by 1st Army (v. Kluck, and the six – or eight – non-existent Ersatzkorps). If we imagine a ring  encircling Paris in a line Compiègne – Pontoise – Plaisir – Orsay – Évry – Brie-Comte-Robert – see picture below – we are faced with an additional front length of over 400 kilometres (in a two-sided enclosure front as in Alesia) without any flank protection or backing – which would all but invite the Allies to a catastrophic encirclement of the western part.

Siege ring around Paris …
Allied counter-attack …

[Update July 4, 2019] What then, was Moltke’s plan in August 1914?

These tactical and strategic impossibilities of the 1905/1906 Plan by Schlieffen were clear to his successor, the Younger Moltke. With only 38 corps (23 active, 11 reserve, 4 cavalry) available against the French, British and Belgian armies in the Western Theatre (4 corps and 1 cavalry division remained in East Prussia and 2 divisions guarding the coast), any attempt to follow Schlieffen’s Plan was simply suicidal. Schlieffen had used 94 divisions (= 47 corps) plus 6 non-existing “Ersatz”-Corps against France alone in his plan, and had still called for a further expansion of the army.

The idea of the double encirclement including the gigantic siege of Paris, as envisioned by Schlieffen, remained a pipe dream, as John Keegan’s operational analysis, the relative strength of the armies and geography prove. What did Moltke have in mind then? His full plan has never been published, but some of the underlying documents have seen the light of day since the German Reunification of 1990, which brought some documents long believed to be lost from East German sources to light. Let us first have a look at the deployment plan for 1914, the underlying assumptions and Moltke’s initial orders.

Original German deployment plan and general intentions in the Mobilization Calendar 1914/15

(To be translated into the English language for the first time, coming in July 2019)]


Quotations:

(26) Ritter, Gerhard, The Schlieffen Plan – Critique of a Myth, Oswalt Wolff Publishers, London 1958, pp. 79 – 81


Updates on the way … (© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

Hits: 47

Heretics of the Schlieffen Plan

German Military History Research Office Edition 2007

Perhaps the most famous – and most misinterpreted military document in world history – but not, as is often claimed, the blueprint for 1914 – is the so-called “Great Memorandum” (also known as the “Schlieffen Plan”), written by German Field Marshal and Chief of Staff Alfred Graf von Schlieffen – dated 1905, the year of his retirement, but probably completed in 1906. It was simply a memorandum – a military-political statement that repeatedly addressed the issue of (in Schlieffen’s opinion) a much-needed expansion of the German army at a time when much of the budget went to the Navy. It was not a current deployment, let alone a mobilization plan. Link to the PDF – File

Author’s remark: Please keep in mind that this post is about the 1905 original Great Memorandum of Count Schlieffen – NOT about what happened in 1914, as described in the map below.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 95

The “Schlieffen Plan”, like any other document, must be seen in the historical context in which it originated. Two arguments seem to be particularly valid here: (1) The plan arose from a certain tradition – that of the Prussian General Staff to plan and carry out rapid campaigns for limited objectives, which had worked so well in 1866 and 1870/71, and (2) no one had an alternative. Holger Herwig – with whom this author does not necessarily agree on everything – argued in 2003 in the anthology “The Origins of World War I,” Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-81735-8, p. 155:

But Schlieffen’s critics lacked a viable alternative. Their vision (or fear) of a peoples‘ war lasting anywhere between seven and thirty years was unacceptable – to Kaiser, generals, parliament and nation. The Second Reich was not the Third; total mobilization for total war was anathema to one and all.
Thus, simply to reject Schlieffen’s blueprint of a short war for limited aims – a strategy deeply rooted in Prussian military annals – was to deny the very viability of what the historian Gerhard Ritter called „Kriegshandwerk“.
Put bluntly, to concede that the vaunted Prussian Genera Staff could no longer conduct short wars of annihilation was to admit that war had ceased to be a viable option by the start of the twentieth century. There were few takers in Germany for such a radical notion.

Hence, war it had to be. After having lost the Great War, however, in various post-war works of German officers Hermann von Kuhl, Gerhard Tappen, Wilhelm Groener and Reichsarchiv (Imperial Archives) historians directed by former Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant-Colonel) Wolfgang Förster, a thesis or narrative was developed that held:

I. That in the years leading to 1905, the former Chief of the German General Staff, Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, had conceived a development and operations plan for a two-front war against France and Russia that all but guaranteed victory, and

II. that it was the failure of 1914 Chief of Staff Generaloberst (Colonel-General) Helmuth von Moltke the Younger to follow and execute the plan properly that led to Germany’s loss of the World War.

The story had to be taken on faith, because the famous plan was not made available – not a snippet of it was published to support the allegations. Yet in principle – so much was known – the plan prescribed an attack on northern France through Belgium and an encirclement and subsequent siege of Paris, which should force a French capitulation – more or less like shown in the West Point Map below:

After most German military archives were destroyed in the subsequent Allied bombings of World War II, the plan was believed lost, that is, until in 1953, German monarchist historian Gerhard Ritter found a copy of Schlieffen’s Memorandum of 1906 (backdated to 1905) at the National Archives in Washington. Indeed it appeared that the original memorandum had not been stored in the ministry of defense at all but at his home and was found much later in the estate of his daughter. In 1958 he published the paper in English, with a foreword by B.H. Liddell-Hart, under the title “The Schlieffen Plan – Critique of a Myth” at Praeger, New York (the original German version appeared 1956 at R. Oldenbourg, Munich). [No ISBN Number or Library of Congress Card available] It is available here as a PDF File – please read carefully.

THE GREAT MEMORANDUM by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the Great German General Staff 1891 – 1902. Often called the blueprint for World War I, although on closer inspection one might develop severe doubts. Why?

A few hints: The Memorandum describes war solely against France – NOT a two-front war including Russia. The plan employs 94 divisions all in all – a number which never existed (Moltke had to do with 68 divisions in 1914, of which a few had guard duties at the North Sea Coast and around invested cities like Maubeuge and Brussels) – but most crucial are logistic and spatial impossibilities. John Keegan analysed them in “The First World War”, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, and I hope I will be forgiven if I quote Keegan’s analysis at length:

The Great Memorandum - Author's Copy
The Great Memorandum – Author’s Copy

[Schlieffen’s] midnight pettifoggery had as its object an exact adjustment not of German numbers to those that the French could deploy, but to what the Belgian and French road network could carry. Such calculations were
the groundwork of staff-college training: students, transferring from prepared tables the length of a marching column – twenty-nine kilometres for a corps, for example – to a road map, could determine how
many troops could be pushed through a given sector at what speed.
Since thirty-two kilometres was the limit of a forced march, that would be the advance of a corps on a single road; but the tail of a column twenty-nine kilometres long would remain near or at the marching-off point at
the day’s end. If there were twin parallel roads, the tails would advance half the distance, if four three- quarters, and so on. Ideally, the units of a corps would advance not in a column but in line abreast, allowing all
of it to arrive at the day’s end thirty-two kilometres further on; in practice, as Schlieffen admitted in one of his amendments, parallel roads were at best to be found one to two kilometres apart.

As his great wheeling movement was to sweep forward on a front of three hundred kilometres with about thirty corps, however, each would have only ten kilometres of front on which to make its advance, in which
there might be at best seven parallel roads. That was not enough to allow the tails of the columns to catch up with the heads by the day’s end. The drawback was serious in itself; more seriously, it absolutely forbade any
attempt to crowd more troops into the radius of the wheeling movement. They would not fit, there simply was not room.

Here we come to the question how the six (non-existing) Ersatz-Corps that the attentive reader will see appearing out of thin air in Map 3 could have made their way to Paris?

It is at this point that a careful reader of the Great Memorandum recognises a plan falling apart: Map 3 in no way shows how the new corps are to advance or to invest Paris, the central strongpoint of the “great
fortress” that was Schlieffen’s France. The corps simply appear, with no indication of how they have reached Paris and its outskirts. The “capacity of the railways” is irrelevant; railways, in Schlieffen’s plan, were to carry the attackers no further than the German frontier with Belgium and France. Thereafter it was the road network that led forward, and the plodding boots of the infantry that would measure out the speed of
advance.

Schlieffen himself reckoned that to be only twelve miles [just under twenty kilometres, ¶] a day. In the crisis of August and September 1914, German, French and British units would all exceed that, sometimes day after
day – the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment averaged sixteen and a half miles during the great retreat from Mons to the Marne, 24 August – 5 September, and covered twenty-three and twenty-one miles on 27 and 28 August respectively – but Schlieffen’s mean was not far short of the mark. Von Kluck’s army on the outer wing of the great wheel achieved a little over thirteen miles a day between 18 August and 5 September, 1914, over a distance of 260 miles.

For the “eight new corps,” needed by Schlieffen as his plan’s clinching device, to arrive at the decisive place of action, they would have actually needed to march not only further and faster, which defied probabilities, but to do so along the same roads as those occupied by the corps already existing, a simple impossibility.

It is not surprising therefore, to find buried in the text of the Great Memorandum its author’s admission that “we are too weak” to bring the plan to a conclusion and, in a later admission, “on such an extended line we
shall still need greater forces than we have so far estimated.” He had run into a logistical impasse. Railways would position the troops for his great wheel; the Belgian and French roads would allow them to reach the
outskirts of Paris in the sixth week from mobilisation day; but they would not arrive in the strength necessary to win a decisive battle unless they were accompanied by eight corps – 200,000 men – for which there was no
room. His plan for a lightning victory was flawed at its heart. It was pigeonholed for use nonetheless.

In the original 1956 edition of Gerhard Ritter the maps are in the back of the book and of low quality. I have placed them in appropriate parts of the text and added coloured lines for better following the argument.

The problem of the plan, as it lies before us, is its interpretation. After Terence Zuber (former US Army officer and historian in Würzburg) argued from 1999 on in various publications that the plan is just a memorandum, and there was no indication that it ever was the true basis of manoeuvres or even a comprehensible technical discussion  – on the contrary – documents were found in the 1990s at the archives of the former GDR on the actual exercises that his successor Moltke held until 1914. Naturally, there was a great outcry of  established historians, who believed their livelihoods threatened. See Zuber, Terence, “The Real German War Plan 1904-14,” The History Press 2001, ISBN 978-0-7524-5664-5.

International conferences have swiftly been convened to stop the heresy, but Zuber’s critique, whose cornerstones are perhaps best read in the English Wikipedia article on the plan, makes perfect sense. The problem is that, if it were a real plan, one would have to assume that the German Chief of Staff was devoting himself to planning – until 1905 – for a single-front war against France, which was completely out of the question following the Franco-Russian alliance after the non-prolongation of the Reinsurance Treaty in 1890. There would be no single-front war, as Terence Holmes pointed out. Hew Strachan, perhaps the dean of World War I history, tends to accept many of Zuber’s conclusions.

The counter-criticism also argues that the memorandum incorporates the brief military weakening of Russia after the catastrophe of the Russo-Japanese War. This seems, however, rather irrelevant, as in this war, the main losses of Russia related to their fleet, which did not interest the German Navy much – the High Seas Fleet prepared against England. The main problem of the present counter-criticism is that it argues the events of 1914 – not the memorandum of 1905.

In 2007, the German Military History Research Office (MGFA) published “The Schlieffen Plan: Analyses and Documents“, edited by Michael Epkenhans, Hans Ehlert and Gerhard P. Gross. Wiki informs us that “This volume contains a copy of Schlieffen’s 1905 Memorandum misfiled in the German Military Archives at Friedberg, and German deployment plans from the year 1893/94 to 1914/15, most of which had been lost otherwise. These documents, not yet available in English translation, are said to strongly support the traditional ideas of a “Schlieffen Plan” that Zuber disputed.”

First impression [Update 05.06.2019]: The problem of the book probably lies in the organization of the conference from September 30 to October 1, 2004, that gave rise to ist existence. The reason for convening the conference in the first place had been the fundamental criticism of Terence Zuber – see above. In the implementation of the conference, this was, however, not made the order of the day, but various participants were given the opportunity to present their own theses to the “Schlieffen Plan” – but not, as mentioned above, in response to the memorandum of 1906, but to announce their own, previously unpublished opinions about the developments of the German deployment plans from 1905 to 1914 or about the events of 1914.

There is a need for differentiation: When Zuber called the Schlieffenplan a “myth” after 2000, he did not mean that the plan did not exist – the memorandum lies plain in our sight – but he pointed to the incongruity of the memorandum (see John Keegan’s analysis of its tactical impracticability and the use of “Ghost Divisions”) with the legend developed after 1918 – that Schlieffen had presented a perfect plan that the younger Moltke did not understand, or “watered down” by changes to the plan.

Hew Strachan

This blog entry does refer to the memorandum of 1905-6, as stated above, not the events of 1914 or the preparations and possible plans under Moltke. However, such was not the topic of the conference. Annika Mombauer develops theses concerning something she calls the “Moltke Plan”, i.e. a possible history of the still unknown actual war plan of 1914. Other contributions deal with the military situations, plans and political realities in Austria-Hungary (Günter Kronenbitter), France (Stefan Schmidt ), Russia (Jan Kusber), Great Britain (Hew Strachan), Belgium (Luc De Vos) and Switzerland (Hans Rudolf Fuhrer and Michael Olsansky). Regardless of the qualities of these contributions, the question of their relevance for the plan at hand arises.

Zuber’s core thesis was, and is, that the “Schlieffen Plan” (in the form of the Great Memorandum of 1905/6) was not an actually feasible plan and that there are no indications that it actually formed the basis for 1914 planning.

There is much work left for subsequent updates, but another striking example of the tactical impracticability of the plan (which John Keegan probably omitted for lack of space) would be the encirclement of Paris, as planned by 1st Army (v. Kluck, and the six non-existent Ersatzkorps). If we imagine a ring  encircling Paris in a line Compiègne – Pontoise – Plaisir – Orsay – Évry – Brie-Comte-Robert – see picture below – we are faced with an additional front length of over 400 kilometres (in a two-sided enclosure front as in Alesia) without any flank protection or backing – which would all but invite the Allies to a catastrophic encirclement of the western part.

Siege ring around Paris …
Allied counter-attack …

Updates on this article you will find on the new post

The Real German War Plan 1914


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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At the Brink of War – August 1, 1914

Ethnic Map Europe 1914
Ethnic Map Europe 1914

Ethnically, Europe was a complicated affair. Ethnicity had not been a primary political criterion in the Middle Ages within the original feudal system – especially in Central Europe – as the heterogeneity of not only the Holy Roman Empire, but also of Italian city-states and Turkish suzerainty over the fragmented Balkan lands anteceded the rise of nationalism.

This changed in the second half of the 19th Century. After the defeat of liberal hopes and the failed revolutions of 1848, a lethal scourge of nationalism, chauvinism and anti-Semitism swept the continent.

Not only Germans realized after 1848 and 1871 that the political status quo had not truly changed. The princes remained in control of Europe, the bourgeoisie concentrated on economic progress and the developing socialist movement sought consolidation. The Congress of Berlin 1878 had attempted to set the remaining issues of European disharmony.

Anton von Werner, Congress of Berlin (1881): Final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878, Bismarck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Alajos Károlyi, Alexander Gorchakov (seated) and Benjamin Disraeli
Anton von Werner, Congress of Berlin (1881): Final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878, Bismarck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Alajos Károlyi, Alexander Gorchakov (seated) and Benjamin Disraeli

Nationalism had originally been a leftist cause – against the princes – but it was skilfully turned against the burghers and the evolving working class and most effectively reinforced by a strange new ideological concoction – anti-Semitism.

While xenophobia remains one of the apparently ineradicable hobbies of man, and persecution of Jews has happened in history alongside the persecution of every other minority one can imagine, anti-Semitism as a concept is of quite recent origin. The word itself seems to have appeared here and there since the 1860s, notably in an essay Richard Wagner published anonymously 1850 (“Das Judenthum in der Musik” – Jewishness in Music), but only found general attention after 1879, when the German agitator Wilhelm Marr published a treaty named “Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum. Vom nicht confessionellen Standpunkt aus betrachtet (The Victory of the Jewish Spirit over the Germanic Spirit. Observed from a non-religious perspective)” [German text] – the same year in which he also founded the “Antisemiten-Liga” (League of Antisemites).

Sarajevo, June 28, 1914 - Moments before the Assassination
Sarajevo, June 28, 1914 – Moments before the Assassination

Anti-Semitism found a number of prominent proselytes – Emperor Wilhelm II, the influential political author Heinrich Claß and various men of the cloth, but was by far not confined to Germany. France struggled fifteen years under the Dreyfus-Affair and in Imperial Russia pogroms on Jews belonged to the favourite entertainment of the masses.

Whole books have been written on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, an asinine fabrication cobbled together and first published in Russia in 1903 – a ludicrous conspiracy theory on Jewish world domination – however, the quackbook was taken as holy writ by such usual suspects as Wilhelm II or Henry Ford, who had 500.000 copies printed and distributed.

Nationalism and anti-Semitism were the two major fulcrums of aristocratic domination of political Europe in the second half of the 19th Century until the rise of the socialist movement created an even more suitable bogeyman. Hence, the burghers need not only to fear economic ruin by Jewish shylocks and rapine by illoyal border-dwellers – indeed their physical existence was now jeopardized by the threat of revolution by the masses of unwashed labourers who failed to properly profess their gratitude for the starvation wages they were receiving.

It is thoroughly understandable that so much existential peril left the burghers of the continent in grave and present fear – which might best be mitigated by expanding self-defense. What were the numbers on which the glorious undertaking of arming the nation might be based on?

Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar by William Lionel Wyllie - The fixed idea of British Naval Tradition
Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar by William Lionel Wyllie – The fixed idea of British Naval Tradition

The following statistics, which give us an idea of Germany’s industrial and political developments versus her competitors, are provided by Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Vintage Books 1989, ISBN 0-679-72019-7 , pp. 200 ff.):

Kennedy1 Population

It is immediately visible that France is the odd man out in regards to her population growth; while the United States increased its population between 1890 and 1913 by 56.5%, Russia by 48.6%, Germany by almost 36% and Great Britain by a somewhat more modest 23%, the French population remained almost constant, growing only 3.5% in these twenty-three years. Another indicator for economic and industrial development is the percentage of urban versus rural population:

Kennedy 2 Urban Population


Great Britain, whose industrialization had started some fifty years earlier than that of any other country, not surprisingly leads the world, although percentagewise, her urban population grew only by 15.7% between 1890 and 1914, while Germany’s grew by 85.8% and that of the United States by 59.8% France looks better here, with 26.5% growth, while Japan more than doubles its urban population. Italy, Austria and Russia are in between as far as percentage change goes, but their low absolute shares of around or under 10% depict them as underindustrialized as of yet.

The following view centres on the sine-qua-non of early industrial development, the production of steel:

Kennedy 3 Raw Steel Production

These numbers depict the state of the respective country’s industrialization most consequentially, for without steel neither consumer goods nor arms could be built. Taking France’s small population growth into consideration, her increase of steel production between 1900 and 1913 is, percentagewise, an impressive 307%, although her total production of 4.6 million tons in 1913 is dwarfed by the USA’s 31.8 and Germany’s 17.6 million tons. Trendwise, both Great Britain and France lag behind them in industrial expansion, while Russian steel production is beginning to take off. It approximately doubles between 1890 and 1900, and again between 1900 and 1913, although, in absolute numbers, the 1913 output of 4.8 million tons was still meagre if compared to the country’s size. We now take a look at the total energy consumption:

Kennedy 4 Energy Consumption

If one were to combine the data above, and add a few other parameters, the result would describe the changes in relative industrial strength of the Great Powers:

Kennedy 5 Industrial Potential

This picture depicts the relative change in the potentials of the powers, which must be taken in their economic, as related to size and population, and geostrategic contexts, that is, related to their location. Italy and Japan remain struggling to catch up, while Russia is handicapped by her lack of infrastructure and Austria-Hungary by internal tension. If one compares the change of percentage over time, the USA expanded its capacity by 635%, Germany by 501%, and France by 228%, while Great Britain’s industrial power only grew 173%, an indication that her imperial splendour was beginning to fade even before 1914. We now shall compare the absolute market shares, which, over time, indicate relative ascent or decline:

Kennedy 6 Manufacturing Output

This table strikingly reveals the weakening of Western Europe, Great Britain and France, compared to the United States, across the Atlantic Ocean, and Germany, in the middle of the continent. England’s portion in 1913 is only 59% of her share in 1880, that is, a decrease of 41%. France fares a bit better but still loses 27% of her world market percentage of 1880, while the USA increase their ratio by 117, 6% and Germany by 74.1%. The quota of Russia, Austria and Italy remain largely unaltered. If a European war was in the cards, Germany’s continental enemies would be best advised to rush it before they fell further back. Speaking of war, we now shall turn our attention to the military:

Berlin - Unter den Linden 1914
Berlin – Unter den Linden 1914
Kennedy 7 Military Personnel
Army Strength 1914
Contemporary Comparison of Army Strength at the Outbreak of WW I

Even a cursory review of the table above sends the bells ringing for the burial of a few cherished prejudices. Not only is the German army, the presumptive menace of the continent, much smaller than Russia’s, which one might take for granted given the latter’s vastness, it is smaller than France’s, too. In the case of Austria-Hungary, her men, who are dispersed to cover a hostile border of some 1500 miles length, number only 100,000 more than Italy’s, who, after her entry in the war in 1915, had to defend or attack on a border of far less than a hundred miles; in essence the sites of a few Alpine passes. If we take the hostile coalitions of 1914, the Entente has 2,794 million men under arms, more than twice the number of the Central Powers’ 1,335 million men. All these numbers and many more will, of course, be discussed at length in “The Little Drummer Boy”, in the section on the Great War, from Chapter XIII on.

 A comparison of the great powers’ total military personnel in 1914 vis-a-vis 1890 shows us that, in less than a quarter century, the number of servicemen increased from 2,9 million to almost 5 million, by more than two thirds. How does this compare to the much-made-of naval races of these years?

Kennedy 8 Warship Tonnages
The High Seas Fleet at Kiel Harbour
The High Seas Fleet at Kiel Harbour

It would seem almost beyond belief, but the naval tonnage of the great powers more than quintupled from 1,533,000 tons in 1880 to 8,153,000 tons in 1914 – growing by 532%. Fish must have begun to feel claustrophobic. As the figures for Japan and the USA make clear, the naval race was not limited to the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea; the latter found it necessary to almost triple the size of her navy in the fourteen years between 1900 and 1914 from 333,000 tons to 985,000; that is, afterthe Spanish-American War and the annexations of the Philippine, Cuban and Hawaiian islands, not before it.

As it would be expected, the different geostrategic locations of the powers decided which service was to become the primary beneficiary of the increasing budgets: the naval power Great Britain had little use for much infantry; her temporary apex in 1900, with 624,000 men under arms, was a result of the ongoing Boer War, not of a sustained increase in army spending. Her senior service, the Royal Navy, primary power instrument and conditio-sine-qua-non of her imperial grandeur, launched into a protracted building spree against the German and American navies (1812 was by no means forgotten) that resulted in a quadrupling of her size between 1880 and 1914.                

There is a rule of thumb in history which holds that the more arms are being stacked upon each other the greater the probability that they will go off one day. It is true that this rule did not pan out during the Cold War, to our all survival, but this was more the result of the impracticability of nuclear warfare than of a sudden increase in human wisdom. In the early twentieth century, however, the focus of our inquiry, every new battleship launched and each new army corps established precariously challenged the balance of power – and one day, on August 1, 1914, the rule of thumb became reality.

German Mobilisation 1914
German Mobilisation 1914

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Divisional Organisation in the German Army 1914*

76th Füsilierbataillon in the Battle of Loigny
76th Füsilierbataillon in the Battle of Loigny

When we are talking modern warfare, one of the words we invariably encounter is that of a “Division“. But what exactly is a “Division”? Let’s have a look at this concept in World War I:

NB: This post refers to “Division” as the word is used in land warfare. It may have very different meanings in other contexts. See Wiki:

While the focus of this article is on army divisions, in naval usage division has a completely different meaning, referring to either an administrative/functional sub-unit of a department (e.g., fire control division of the weapons department) aboard naval and coast guard ships, shore commands, and in naval aviation units (including navy, marine corps, and coast guard aviation), to a sub-unit of several ships within a flotilla or squadron, or to two or three sections of aircraft operating under a designated division leader. Also some languages, like Russian, Serbo-Croatian and Polish, use a similar word divizion/dywizjon for a battalion-size artillery or cavalry unit.

“The partitioning of armies into ‘divisions’ came into practice in the two French Coalition Wars (France against counter-revolutionary Austria, Russia and Prussia) in the 1790s and the subsequent Napoleonic era, in which armies had to be split up to defend against or attack more than one enemy at a given time or to fulfill tactical assignments, such as outflanking or enveloping manoeuvres.

The definition of a ‘division’ is that it is the smallest sub-unit of an army that can fulfill independent assignments, i.e., the smallest unit that has everything to fight its own small war. Thus said, it follows that a division must have more than soldiers, guns and ammunition: it must have a staff, engineers, signal troops, supply troops, a medical corps, a hospital, kitchen, laundry, map bureau and so forth.

In the First World War, a fully equipped German infantry division would contain the following troops:

4 Infantry Regiments of 3,000 men each; each Regiment composed of 3 Battalions of 1,000 men; each Battalion composed of 4 Companies of 250 men; altogether 12,000 infantrymen;

1 Artillery Regiment consisting of 12 Field Batteries of 6 135 mm guns each and 2 Heavy Batteries of 4 155 mm guns (some divisions had an additional Heavy Howitzer Battalion with 16 150 mm howitzers);

2 Brigades of Cavalry, 680 sabers each, sometimes supported by 2 Field Gun Batteries of their own and a 6 Machine-Gun Company;

1 Squadron of reconnaissance aircraft, 6 machines, pilots, mechanics;

1 Special Artillery Brigade for the discretionary use of the division commander, (54 light 77 mm guns and 18 135 mm guns);

1 Special Machine Gun Company with 6 guns, and

1 Special Artillery Battalion with 18 105 mm howitzers.

Divisional troops, staff and support:

1 Battalion Combat Engineers (Sappers, in German called ‘Pioniere’ (Pioneers);

1 Signal and Communications Detachment with 2 Companies;

1 Quartermaster Train with 2 Companies;

1 Administrative Company;

2 Kitchen Companies (Butchers, Bakers, Cooks);

1 Mail Platoon and Field Post Office;

1 Medical Corps, consisting of 2 Hospital Companies and 4 Transport and Supplies Companies;

1 Veterinary Company;

1 Divisional Staff Company with 4 Detachments: Commanding Officer, Operations Officer (Ia), Supply Officer (Ib) and Intelligence Officer (lc);

1 Map Room;

1 Music Corps, and

1 Company Field Police (MP).

A complete infantry division employed therefore approximately 20,000 men, 7,000 horses and a train of 1,200 supply wagons. Yet a division that had all these troops present and correct would have to be called lucky indeed – for after the first battle most divisions had to do with half of these numbers – or less. In practice – after the huge losses of the first weeks – general staffs often commissioned whole corps take over the independent tactical roles that divisions had been assigned to before the melee had begun.

In terms of vertical composition, two divisions formed a corps, and two corps an army. In practice, as the war dragged on and many units had to make do with smaller numbers, corps tended to get larger, sometimes as big as four divisions. Attrition had halved divisions strengths. When whole divisions were not available or had to be broken up, infantry brigades were used, half of a division – two infantry regiments plus whatever artillery was available.

Every country deviated from the scheme in characteristic ways. French divisions were equipped with a brigade of pre-established reserves, and while their field artillery, the 75 mm gun, was excellent and outperformed the German 77 mm model, they were usually weaker in the larger artillery calibres. British divisions were of somewhat larger size and compensated for an initial dearth of machine-guns with excellent marksmanship. Russian divisions – at least in the early campaigns – were huge, on account of their having not only three but four infantry regiments per division, i.e. sixteen battalions as opposed to twelve. American divisions were truly monstrous, roughly twice as big as German divisions.”

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

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Development of the Modern Prussian Army

Attack of the Prussian Infantry at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg 1745
Attack of the Prussian Infantry at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg 1745

After the protracted period of peace that had followed the Congress of Berlin 1878, the first decades of the new century brought armed conflict back to the headlines – viz. the Russo-Japanese War in 1905/06 and the Balkan Wars of 1912/13. Coincidentally, the introduction of the new British battleship “Dreadnought” started a new round of a feverish naval race in 1906, for her innovative design made all elder ships of the line obsolete – the battleship counters of all nations had been reset to zero. On land, three changes led to the mothballing of most of Napoleon’s and Wellington’s war craft: 1. the invention of the General Staff, 2. the numerical expansion of the armies by conscription, and 3. industrial and technological development. The latter occurred chiefly in gun technology, which in turn invented the breech-loading rifle, the machine gun, and armour-penetrating shell fuses. Railways meanwhile had revolutionized the mobility of troops and the electric telegraph brought almost instantaneous communication to the battlefield.

Major Battles
Major Battles

The brisk pace of population growth due to improved agriculture enabled the maintenance of larger standing armies complete with cheaper, mass-produced weaponry; where formerly thousands had fought, tens of thousands, perhaps more, would now engage in battle. John Keegan (The First World War,Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361) summarizes the changes from the days of yore:

International, which chiefly meant European, policy was indeed, in the opening years of the twentieth century, guided not by a search for a secure means of averting conflict but by the age-old quest for security in military superiority. That means, as the Tsar had so eloquently warned at the Hague in 1899, translated into the creation of ever larger armies and navies, the acquisition of more and heavier guns and the building of stronger and wider belts of frontier fortification.

Fortification, however, was intellectually out of fashion with Europe’s advanced military thinkers, who were persuaded by the success of heavy artillery in recent attacks on masonry and concrete – as at Port Arthur, during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905/06 – that guns had achieved a decisive advantage.

Power had transferred, it was believed, from static defence to the mobile offensive as represented particularly by large masses of infantry manoeuvring, with the support of mobile field guns, at speed across the battlefield. There was still thought to be a role for cavalry, in which European armies abounded: the German army, in the years before 1914, added thirteen regiments of mounted riflemen (Jäger zu Pferde) to its order of battle, while the French, Austrians and Russians also expanded their horse arm.

It was on numbers of infantrymen, equipped with the new magazine-rifle, trained in close-order tactics and taught, above all, to accept that casualties would be heavy until a decision was gained, that, nevertheless, the generals counted upon to achieve victory.

The significance of improved fortification – the entrenchments and earthworks thrown up at speed which, defended by riflemen, had caused such loss to the attacker on the Tugela and Modeer rivers during the Boer War, in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War and at the lines of Chatalja during the Second Balkan War – had been noted, but discounted. Given enough well-led and well-motivated infantry, the European military theorists believed, no line of trenches could be held against them.

Among the other great industrial enterprises of Europe in the first years of the twentieth century, therefore, the industry of creating soldiers flourished. Since the triumph of Prussia’s army of conscripts and reservists over the Austrians in 1866 and the French in 1870, all leading European states (Britain, sea-girt and guarded by the world’s largest navy was the exception) had accepted the necessity of submitting their young men to military training in early manhood and of requiring them, once trained, to remain at the state’s disposition, as reservists, into late maturity.

The result of this requirement was to produce enormous armies of serving and potential soldiers. In the German army, model for all others, a conscript spent the first two years of full adulthood in uniform, effectively imprisoned by sergeants too close at hand. During the first five years after his discharge from duty he was obliged to return to the reserve unit of his regiment for annual training. Then, until the age of thirty- nine, he was enrolled in a unit of the secondary reserve, or Landwehr; thereafter, until the age of forty-five, in the third-line reserve, the Landsturm. The effect was to maintain inside European civil society a second, submerged and normally invisible military society, millions strong, of men who had shouldered a rifle, marched in step, born the lash of a sergeant’s tongue and learnt to obey orders.

The days when kings rode to war on horseback leading their vassals were gone – modern war became an industrialized mass product. The sheer number of combatants grew by factors of ten or more.

The extent of Europe’s militarization in the nineteenth century is difficult to convey by any means that catch its psychological and technological dimensions as well as its scale. Scale itself is elusive enough. Something of its magnitude may be transmitted by contrasting the sight Friedrich Engels had of the military organization of the independent North-German city states in which he served his commercial apprenticeship in the 1830s  with the force which the same German military districts supplied to the Kaiser of the unified German Reich on the eve of the First World War.

Engel’s testimony is significant. A father of Marxist theory, he never diverged from the view that the revolution would triumph only if the proletariat succeeded in defeating the armed forces of the state. As a young revolutionary he pinned his hopes of that victory on the proletariat winning the battle of the barricades; as an old and increasingly dispirited ideologue, he sought to persuade himself that the  proletariat, by then the captive of Europe’s conscription laws, would liberate itself by subverting the state’s armies from within.

His passage from the hopes of youth to the doubts of old age can best be charted by following the transformation of the Hanseatic towns’ troops during his lifetime.

In August 1840 he rode for three hours from his office in to watch the combined manoeuvres of the armies of Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck free city and the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg. Together they formed a force of a regiment – say, to err on the side of generosity, 3000 – men strong. In the year of his death in 1895 the same cities provided most of the 17th and part of the 19th Divisions of the German army, together with a cavalry and artillery regiment – at least a fourfold increase. That accounts for only first-line troops, conscripts enrolled and under arms. Behind the active 17th and 19th Divisions stood the 17th and 19th Reserve Divisions, to which the Hanseatic cities would contribute an equal number of reservists – trained former conscripts – on mobilisation. And behind the Reserve Divisions stood the Landwehr of older ex-conscripts who in 1914 would provide half of another division again. Taken together, these units represent a tenfold increase in strength between 1840 and 1895, far outstripping contemporary population growth.

In addition, these numbers must be seen under the proviso that Germany conscripted barely 55% of each annual class – chiefly farm boys untainted by socialism or big-city liberalism – while her smaller population and lower birth rate obliged France to conscript almost 90% of her youth. It was the policies described above by John Keegan that made the million- men armies of 1914 to 1918 possible, which in turn necessitated the development of completely new supply systems and mass-production of weapons and ammunitions. More than thirty-five million men were to fight in the Great War, about ten million of which were killed by the latest creations of the vultures of war, Schneider-Creusot, Skoda, Krupp or Enfield, the fertile European steel industry.

A metamorphosis of even more decisive character occurred in the “science” of war. The century of scientific progress and industrialization took the execution of war to a new, more effective level and the visions of ancient generals were replaced by exact computations. In the early nineteenth century, Prussia invented the “General Staff”, a concept subsequently adopted by all states. The idea facilitated enormous improvements in the age-old endeavour of the formulation and execution of war plans, as introduced here by John Keegan:

Armies make plans. Alexander the Great had a plan for the invasion of the Persian Empire, which was to bring the army of the Emperor Darius to battle and to kill or make him prisoner. Hannibal had a plan for the Second Punic War: to evade Rome’s naval control of the Mediterranean by transferring the Carthagian army via the short sea route to Spain, crossing the Alps – everybody remembers the story of the elephants –  and confronting the legions in their homeland.

Philipp II had a plan to win a war against England in 1588: sail the Armada up the channel, load the army which was fighting his rebellious Dutch subjects and land it in Kent. Marlborough’s plan to save Holland in 1704 was to draw the French army down the Rhine and fight it when distance from its bases made its defeat possible.

Napoleon made a plan almost every year of his strategic life: in 1798 to open a second front against his European enemies in Egypt, in 1800 to defeat Austria in Italy, in 1806 to blitzkrieg Russia, in 1808 to conquer Spain, in 1812 to knock Russia out of the continuing war.The United States had a plan in 1861, the Anaconda Plan, designed to strangle the rebellious South by blockade of the coasts and seizure of the Mississippi river. Napoleon III even had a plan of sorts for his catastrophic war against Prussia in 1870: to advance into southern Germany and turn the non-Prussian kingdoms against Berlin.

Much of pre-modern war planning was relegated to an ad-hoc basis, devised when an opportunity presented itself or an invasion had to be repelled. Commanders who did thoroughly plan their campaigns ahead thus often turned out fortune’s favourites – Alexander, Caesar and Charlemagne are examples. To a degree, success could be planned. Yet the emergence of the French “citizen army” following the revolution of 1789, and the resulting coalition and Napoleonic wars, set in motion not only the “division” of armies – to counter threats on multiple fronts or to effect flanking manoeuvres – but the scientification of planning – the diligent work of future General Staffs that was to allow, in Keegan’s often referenced phrase, the planning of war “in the abstract, plans conceived at leisure, pigeonholed and pulled out when eventuality became reality.” The General Staff was invented in Prussia and revolutioned the execution of modern war. Max Boot (War Made New, Gotham Books 2006, ISBN 1-592-40222-4) introduces the topic as follows:

As with so many military renaissances, Prussia’s rise had its origins in defeat. At the battles of Jena and Auerstaedt in 1806, Napoleon shattered the Prussian army and destroyed any mystique remaining from the days of Frederick the Great. The French army then entered Berlin and turned Prussia into a tributary state. The memory of this humiliation was only partially erased seven years later when Prussia joined Austria, Russia and Sweden to defeat Napoleon at the epic Battle of the Nations near Leipzig in 1813.

To a whole generation of Prussians, Jena had shown the rotten underpinnings of the Old Prussian state. The years after 1806 saw a burst of reforms including the freeing of serfs, the emancipation of Jews, the strengthening of government bureaucracy, and the weakening of trade guilds. The changes were especially significant in the military realm.

The overhaul of the army was lead by two officers, General Gerhard von Scharnhorst and Count August von Gneisenau, who sought to replace Frederick the Great’s force of aristocrats and mercenaries with a French- style nation in arms. They stopped recruiting foreigners and instituted a universal draft that did not allow the rich to buy an exception.

They also created a citizen militia called the Landwehr and a substantial force of reserves. After 1813, the army would conscript forty thousand men annually to serve for three years. Upon leaving active duty they would serve a further two years in the reserves and fourteen years in the Landwehr. By 1850 Berlin had around half a million trained soldiers at its beck and call.

And increasingly these soldiers were not the ignorant peasants of old. Starting in 1809, under the direction of Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussia created one of the best systems of public education in the world, offering elementary schooling for all, secondary schools for some, and university education for the elite. …

Special schools were set up to train a corps of non-commissioned officers, the sergeants and corporals who would become the backbone of the Prussian army.

As important as Scharnhorst’s and Gneisenau’s reforms were for the rank and file, they were equally significant for the officer corps. Their goal, in which they were only partially successful, was to break the
stranglehold of the Junker aristocracy (“heartless, wooden, half-educated men”, one reformer called them) on the leadership ranks in the army. They wanted to make merit, not birth, the most important criterion for officer selection, so they put many old warhorses out to pasture and forced every officer seeking promotion to pass an exam.Military academies and staff colleges were set up to train officers, the first one being the Kriegsakademie (War Academy), whose most illustrious early director was Carl von Clausewitz, author of the classic exposition of military philosophy, On War. Under the guidance of Clausewitz and his colleagues, soldiering became a profession, not a pastime for the nobility.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

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The Gothic Wars

Light Brown Line – Belisar AD 535 – 540 / Green Line – Totila AD 541 – 544 / Dark Brown Line – Narses AD 551 – 553 / Blue Line – Franks AD 540 / x = Battles / Numbers – Year of Conquest in Colour of Captor

Related Post: Theodora

Related Post: Procopius – The Secret History

Related Post: The End of the Legions

Related Post: Clovis – The Rise of the Franks


Background: What really changed in these years after AD 476, which is commonly cited as the “end” of the Roman Empire – a custom which seems to overlook the fact that the eastern part of it survived for another thousand years – was the basic structure of the western societies in favour of particularism – a fundamental change of structures.

But one could take any of the neighbouring decades and claim an “end” all the same; indeed, it is a mistake to see Roman and Barbarians as either/or, when in reality the cultures mingled; in the words of Chris Wickham, “Crisis and Continuity” were both present between AD 400 and 550. (43) The most significant change was the end of the centralization of politics, economy and culture that the great empire had provided; particularism set in, perhaps necessarily.

The end of political unity was not a trivial shift; the whole structure of politics had to change as a result. The ruling classes of the provinces were all still (mostly) Roman, but they were diverging fast. The East was moving away from the West, too. It was becoming much more Greek in its official culture, for a start. Leo I was the first emperor to legislate in Greek; under a century later, Justinian (527-565) may have been the last emperor to speak Latin as a first language. But it is above all in the West that we find a growing provincialization in the late fifth century, both a consequence and a cause of the breakdown of central government. … Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalized, exchange became more localized. The fiscal system, the judicial system, and the density of Roman administrative activity in general, all began to simplify as well. (44)

The decisive challenge, and indeed the most “taxing” matter, for any community that would endeavour to follow the Roman example, was how to pay for a standing army, which had been the instrument of Rome’s expansion and maintenance. It is true that in ancient Rome the farmer was expected to perform military service if the need arose, quite like in ancient Gaul or beyond the Rhine. But that had changed at the latest with Marius’s army reform around 100 BC. The Imperial decline and the decrease in political stability six hundred years later resulted in a corresponding shrinking of manufacture and commerce, which, at length, destroyed the Imperial tax base. It seems that the change from a paid to a landed army occurred in the West at the same time as Emperor Justinian I in the East embarked on his Imperial reconquista (which depleted his own treasury, too), that is, at the time of Theodoric’s Ostrogoths reign in Italy.

Beginning in the fifth century, there was a steady trend away from supporting armies by public taxation and towards supporting them by the rents deriving from private landowning, which was essentially the product of this desire for land of conquering elites. In 476, according to Procopius, even the Roman army of Italy wanted to be given lands, and got it by supporting Odovacar. Procopius may well have exaggerated; the Ostrogoths state in Italy certainly still used taxation to pay the army, at least in part, probably more than any other post-Roman polity did by the early sixth century. Overall, however, the shift to land was permanent. After the end of Ostrogothic Italy, there are no references in the West to army pay, except rations for garrisons, until the Arabs reintroduced it in Spain from the mid-eight century onwards; in the other western kingdoms, only occasional mercenary detachments were paid … .

The major post-Roman kingdoms still taxed, into the seventh century. But if the army was landed, the major item of expanse in the Roman budget had gone. The city of Rome, another important item, was only supplied from Italy after 439, and lost population fast, as we have seen. The central and local administration of the post-Roman states was perhaps paid for longer, but in most of them the administration quickly became smaller and cheaper. Tax still made kings rich, and their generosity increased the attractive power of royal courts. But this was all it was for, by 550 or so.

Tax is always unpopular, and takes work to exact; if it is not essential, this work tends to be neglected. It is thus not surprising that there are increasing signs that it was not assiduously collected. In ex-Vandal Africa after 534, the Roman re-conquerors had to reorganize the tax administration to make it effective again, to great local unpopularity; in Frankish Gaul in the 580s, assessment registers were no longer being systematically updated, and tax rates may only have been around a third of those normal under the empire. Tax was, that is to say, no longer the basis of the state. For kings as well as armies, landowning was the major source of wealth from now on. (45)

The differentiated Roman structures of administration and command could no longer be maintained. For centuries Rome had continued to grow by her arms while providing reasonable security and the general advantages to the annexes of being a province of the Imperium Romanum. The tax base that had provided for the maintenance of the legions was evaporating, and consequently no large standing armies could be maintained for the next thousand years. We will see in the following, that armies had to be assembled for each of Belisar’s and Narses’ campaigns, of varying size. Standing troops were too expensive, except for guards and border points.


Clovis I (Chlodwig, Chlodowech), the first man resonably called “King of the Franks” (Rex Francorum) did not hesitate long in his desire for the geographic expansion of his realm. Chris Wickham relates (in The Inheritance of Rome, Viking Books 2009, ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, p.92) that “in 507 he attacked the Visigoths, defeating and killing Alaric II at the Battle of Vouillé, and virtually drove them out of Gaul (they only kept the province of Languedoc, on the Mediterranean coast). The Burgundians held on for a time, but in the 520’s Clovis’s sons attacked them too, and took over their kingdom in 534.” Before long, Clovis accepted from Emperor Anastasius the honour of the Roman consulship, as a sign of Imperial support for his Catholic associates. But Clovis died soon, only four years after Vouillé [AD 511] and Italy remained beyond Frankish reach.

Statue of Theodoric by Peter Vischer the Elder

That particular trophy went to an initially obscure warlord, who governed the Ostrogoths, a people who numbered perhaps less than one hundred thousand heads and lived along the plains of Pannonia at the middle Danube River. This duke, Theodoric, one day received an embassy from the Eastern Emperor Zeno, Anastasius’ successor, who, at length, did want to punish the rebellious upstart Odovacar in Italy. In the missive, Zeno invited the Ostrogoths to subjugate Italy in his name and to destroy Odovacar’s regime of mercenaries. Theodoric accepted, and the greatest part of the nation set forth from their Pannonian pastures and Illyrian meadows in the direction of fabled Italia.

Zeno, however, got more than he had bargained for; belatedly he realized that the precious Italian provinces were now in hands much more capable than those of the comparatively simple soldier Odovacar. Theodoric’s gifts did not include much literacy, but a keen sense of political feasibility, of justice and fairness, honour and honesty, and in the murderous centuries of the age of migration, his name is one of the very few for whom the appellation of “the Great” is perhaps justified. His Goths swiftly closed in on Odovacar, who had no choice but to gain the security of Ravenna, where he resisted the Gothic siege for almost three years.

Yet in the commission of his duty, Theodoric committed, with his own hand (it is said), the only crime of his life. When, in March of AD 493, the situation became unbearable for both besiegers and besieged, a diplomatic mission succeeded with the proposal that Odovacar and Theodoric were to govern Italy and some neighbouring provinces [Sicily, Dalmatia, Noricum and Bavaria] together, like the original consuls had ruled the early Imperium Romanum. Edward Gibbon reports on the outcome of the deal:

Liebig Tradecard S824 - Invasion of the Ostrogoths (Liebig's Beef Extract The Migration of People Belgian issue, 1905 Theodoric, leader of the Ostrogoths
Liebig Tradecard S824 – Invasion of the Ostrogoths (Liebig’s Beef Extract The Migration of People Belgian issue, 1905 Theodoric, leader of the Ostrogoths

A treaty of peace was negotiated by the bishop of Ravenna; the Ostrogoths were admitted to the city, and the hostile kings consented, under the sanction of an oath, to rule with equal and undivided authority over the provinces of Italy.

The event of such an agreement may be easily foreseen. After some days had been devoted to the semblance of joy and friendship, Odoacer, in the midst of a solemn banquet, was stabbed by the hand, or at least by the command, of his rival.

Secret and effectual orders had been previously despatched; the faithless and rapacious mercenaries, at the same moment and without resistance, were universally massacred; and the royalty of Theodoric was proclaimed by the Goths, with the tardy, reluctant, ambiguous consent of the emperor of the East. The reputation of Theodoric may repose with more confidence on the visible peace and prosperity of a reign of thirty-three years, the unanimous esteem of his own times, and the memory of his wisdom and courage, his justice and humanity, which was deeply impressed on the minds of the Goths and Italians. [March 5, AD 493 – August 30, AD 526].

Zeno’s mounting anxieties were completely justified when, after the death of Alaric II at Vouillé, Theodoric was invested with the regency over the kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain, as the warden of Euric, Alaric’s eldest son [There seems to be some confusion, on Alaric’s sons see Amalaric]. Should Theodoric succeed to reunite the Goths and lead them against Constantinople, the continued existence of the Eastern Empire might well be in peril. Yet Theodoric did not strive at further conquests, which, he believed, could not be gainfully controlled with the limited number of troops available to him. Instead, he emphasized in embassies, who he directed at his German neighbours, the necessity of unity against their enemies; that is, against Byzantium.

Theodoric had diagnosed this enmity correctly, and it eventually resulted in unintended consequences for the Eastern Empire. Therefore, we shall have a more detailed look at the events of the second quarter of the sixth century. Significant changes on the political map around the Mediterranean Sea in the generation after Zeno and Theodoric were provoked, in these decades, by Emperor Justinian and his Imperial reconquista, which, one might argue, ran against the Empire’s best interests. Theodoric had brought stability to the remaining core provinces of the West; stability that Justinian could have utilized instead of hazarding it. Chris Wickham explains:

Theodoric ruled Italy from Ravenna, the western Roman capital, with a traditional Roman administration, a mixture of senatorial leaders from the city of Rome and career bureaucrats; he was (as Odovacar had also been) respectful of the Roman senate, and he made a ceremonial visit to the city in 500, with formal visits to St. Peter’s, to the Senate building, and then to the imperial palace on the Palatine, where he presided over games, like any other emperor. … The administrative and fiscal system had changed little; the same traditional landowners dominated politics, besides a new (but partly Romanizing) Gothic or Ostrogothic military elite.

At the height of power in AD 523

Ostrogothic Italy was the most “Roman” of all Germanic kingdoms in the West, and might have remained so. Tom Holland (In the Shadow of the Sword, Doubleday Books 2012, ISBN 978-0-385-53135-1) summarizes the effect of Theodoric’s long reign in that …

“…whether addressing crowds in the Forum, slaughtering armies of savages beyond the Alps, or building palaces, aqueducts and baths, he demonstrated to glorious effect just how Roman a king of foederati might truly be. By the time of his death in 526, he had ruled as the master of Italy for longer than any Caesar, with the exception of Augustus himself. As a result, it seems barely to have crossed the minds of most Italians that they might not still belong to a Roman Empire.”

Yet the emergence of new characters on the stage of Byzantium changed the political picture completely within a single year: in 527, one year after Theodoric’s death, the powers of the Empire were invested upon the new emperor Justinian, nephew of the previous emperor Justin, whose reign was long assisted by the famously wicked (says Procopius) Empress Theodora, the general Belisarius and the talented eunuch Narses.

Justinian, whom the dutiful laudations of his courtiers soon labelled “the Great”, was the son of a Bulgarian shepherd who nourished his flock on grazing grounds somewhere near today’s Sofia. The youth eventually headed to Constantinople, under the tutelage of his uncle Justin and two fellow villagers, the three of whom enlisted in the legions upon their arrival. The uncle proved an industrious if not exceedingly gifted soldier: but in an age when average performance, by the old standards, stood out as heroism had in days of yore, he was promoted steadily: to tribune, count, general, senator; finally to the command of the palace guard. He did not only retain his life and fortune at the delicate occasion of Anastasius’ death in AD 518, but emerged from the momentary confusion in possession of the diadem and purple that Anastasius had to relinquish the previous night.

Justin’s age, at this most mournful occasion, was already sixty-eight, and since he had been a brave but not an educated man and governed the realm without the benefit of literacy, he had to rely on the counsel of his Quaestor Proclus in affairs of the empire, and had long groomed his nephew Justinian as heir apparent.

A few years passed without remarkable advents, and an old wound which persistently festered despite the mobilisation of all the doctors of the capital at length deprived Justin of his life. His last act of state was to affix, in the presence of the senators and excellencies of the realm, the diadem of the Imperial dignity upon his nephew’s head, who was forty-five years of age at the beneficial occasion. The subsequent reign of the Emperor Justinian has been accounted for in copious detail by the quill of the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who lived in Constantinople as a patrician and senator during Justinian’s government. He has provided us with comprehensive descriptions of his sovereign’s activities as legislator, builder, especially of churches, warlord – relating to the campaigns of his generals – and bane of mankind.

Theodora by Giuseppe de Sanctis
Theodora by Giuseppe de Sanctis

The latter particularity, described in his Secret History, Procopius attributes to a large degree to the nefarious influence of the famous Theodora, whom Justinian promoted from most popular ecdysiast of the theatre and most expensive strumpet of the capital to the dignities of First Lady, Empress, and, post-mortem, Saint. The story is simply too juicy to be disregarded, and here is Tom Holland’s take on it:

Even her bitterest critics – of whom there were many – grudgingly acknowledged that Theodora, consort and beloved of the emperor, was a woman of exceptional abilities. Shrewd, far-sighted and bold, she ranked, in the opinion of Justinian’s cattier critics, as more of a man than her husband ever did.

Rumour had it that at the height of the deadly riots of 532, Constantinople ablaze and Justinian twitchily contemplating flight, she stiffened the imperial backbone by declaring, with a magnificent show of haughtiness, that “purple makes for an excellent shroud.”

Steel of this order, in a woman, was unsettling enough to the Roman elite; but even more so were the origins of the empress. Theodora, like an exotic bloom sustained by dung, had her roots, so it was darkly whispered, deep in filth. Dancer, actress and stand-up comic, she had also – long before puberty – been honing on slaves and the destitute a career even more scandalous.

Her vagina, it was said, might just as well have been in her face; and, indeed, such was the use to which she put all three of her orifices that “she would often complain that she did not have orifices in her nipples as well.” The gang-bang had never been held that could wear her out. Most notorious of all had been her trademark floor-show, which had seen her lie on her back, have her genitals sprinkled with grain, and then wait for geese to pick the seeds off one by one with their beaks. Such were the talents, so her critics sneered, that had won for her the besotted devotion of the master of the world. Yet, this sorely underestimated both husband and wife.

Related Post: Theodora Related Post: Procopius – The Secret History

In our context, the foreign policies and advantages and deficiencies of Justinian’s warlordship are of greater interest than his private pleasures. He had the fortune, yet, in hindsight, the empire perhaps the liability, to have at his command the military genius as well as the civil cowardice of the great general Belisarius.

It was Justinian’s desire to restore the lost provinces of the West to the imperial fold: Britannia, Gallia and Hispania, perhaps, later, but as soon as possible Africa, for its grain, and Italy, the original imperial treasure. But other business, that is, the perennial Persian wars, had to be dealt with first. The eastern border of the Empire had been fixed for centuries at the Upper Euphrates, but the boundless approaches through the Arabian Desert could not possibly be guarded effectively.

Parthian and Persian kings and their armies had overstepped the borders regularly, and sometimes with impunity. From the fourth century on, a time of military decay, the Romans had frequently replaced counter-attacks with financial considerations for the peace-loving Persian kings; in the year AD 532, for example, following five years of borderline rapine, Justinian’s contribution to the Royal Persian Exchequer amounted to 11,000 pounds (ca. 5 tons) of gold; this quantity was to secure, as the treaty document specified, nothing less than a perpetual peace between the two empires.

As the future was to show, perpetuity had to be reinforced every decade or so by additional remunerations. But the peace secured in AD 532 (which held until AD 540) allowed Justinian his first move in the West. He was assured of the services of a general whose military deeds were to rank him with Caesar and Alexander, but whose civil timidity placed him among the meek and mendicant of this earth.

The soldier Belisarius was born, not far from where the emperor’s father had kept his sheep, on the plains of Thrace. His military career proceeded timely and peaked in the command of the private guards of prince Justinian. When the prince was elevated to the royal dignity, the soldier was promoted to general.

When Justinian sought a commander whom he could entrust with the first step in rebuilding the glory of the Empire, he was unable to find a suitable candidate. At length, perhaps for the intimate counsel Belisar’s wife Antonina retained with the empress Theodora, her husband was chosen to lead the glorious enterprise. Due to his sovereign’s unwillingness to spend substantial sums upon the renovation of the Empire, Belisar was given only a small fleet and a few legions, yet, nonetheless, commanded to wrest Africa from the Vandals.

The Vandalic War
The Vandalic War

Against the odds, the mission succeeded: it was the first occasion in which Belisarius proved exceptional generalship. But to replace the money in the imperial treasury that had been spent on Belisar’s army, a “rapacious minister of the finances closely pursued the footsteps of Belisarius” and the unhappy province not only had to pay the regular dues but a special liberation tax.

The Vandals had destroyed the old tax registers, and when new ones were created, the quaestors did not forget to add another fee, to secure a just compensation for their own labours. Financial ruin was followed by depopulation, and Edward Gibbon cites Procopius, who, upon his first landing in Africa with Belisar in AD 534 “admired the populousness of the cities and country, strenuously exercised in the labours of commerce and agriculture. In less than twenty years, that busy scene was converted into a silent solitude; the wealthy citizens escaped to Sicily and Constantinople”; and the secret historian Procopius has confidently affirmed that “five million Africans were consumed by the wars and government of the Emperor Justinian.”

Although Procopius was not above the common tendency of antiquity’s historians to exaggerate his numbers, the fact remains that the wealth of Africa Provincia from then on constantly declined and the area lost its former status as the empire’s grain chamber. Belisar was not a politician, and it may be doubted whether he was even aware of the dangerous side effects of his conquest. He had to contemplate a different distraction.

That a victory afar, in particular if not necessarily expected, may induce a measure of suspicion at the court of a doubting monarch is, perhaps, a quite common occurrence. Hardly had the news of the triumph over the Vandals reached Byzantium when the subaltern officers who had preferred to remain in the safety of the capital instead of courting the danger or the glory of the battlefield, informed the emperor that the reliable rumour had arrived that Belisarius was about to declare himself King of Africa.

When the distrustful monarch inquired of his general whether he was to return to Constantinople soon or whether some urgent business would keep him in Africa, the general understood his master’s voice and recognized the portents of Justinian’s vindictiveness. He appeared in Constantinople tout de suite, where a grateful and elated Justinian sponsored a triumph for Belisar, the first for a non-emperor since the days of Tiberius.

An optimistic Justinian then planned his next stroke, and a somewhat bigger fleet and army were prepared for Belisar’s subsequent task: to deliver Italia and Dalmatia from the hands of the Arian, that is, heretic, Ostrogoths. That his predecessor Zeno had personally invited the Goths to Italy, well aware of their beliefs, Justinian resolved to overlook.

Indeed, it is hard to say, and the opinions of historians have clashed on whether the restoration of the Western Empire per se was Justinian’s aim or the destruction of the heretics, or whether both points of view happened to coincide. He had theological problems in his own house, for Theodora was a fervent Monophysite, and the emperor was driven to allow her, and hence her community, the licence that his strong Catholic convictions would not have granted otherwise. A glimpse into these complications of Christian doctrine is here provided by Tom Holland:

In 451, a year after the death of Theodosius II, the largest ecumenical council that the Church had ever seen, attended by a full six hundred bishops, was held at Chalcedon, directly across the straits from the imperial palace, in a conscious effort to rein in this tendency [of Christian communities’ theological independence]. The new regime’s aim – just as Constantine’s had been at Nicaea – was to muzzle a taste for bickering that had come to threaten, in the opinion of the authorities, not only the unity of the Church but the very security of the Roman people.

At stake for the delegates, however, was no longer the relationship of the Son to the Father, an issue long since triumphantly resolved, but a no less awesome mystery: the identity of the Son Himself. How, Christians wanted to know, had His divine and human natures coexisted? Had they been wholly intermingled, like water and wine in a goblet, to constitute a mone physisa “single nature”? Or had the two natures of Christ in fact coexisted within His earthly body as quite distinct entities, like water and oil? Had both His human and His divine essence experienced birth, suffering and death, or was it the most repugnant blasphemy to declare, as some bishops did, that God Himself “was crucified for us”? Knotty questions – nor easily unpicked. The Council of Chalcedon, nevertheless, did its level best. A determinedly middle road was steered. Due weight was given to both the divine and the human elements of Christ: “the same truly God and truly man.” This formula, devised by a bishop of Rome and graced with the approval of the emperor himself, struck the Christians of both the West and Constantinople as eminently reasonable – so much so that never again would they attempt to revise or reverse it.

In practice, the result of the council worked against the Monophysites and in favour of a Catholic Church that, with the emperor’s support, intensified the prosecution of apostates. While the privacy of his palace allowed Justinian religious tolerance and urged him moderation in the matter of the Monophysite error, the public Arianism of the Goths and Vandals challenged not only his Catholic beliefs but, indirectly, his profane authority as well. Belisar was summoned and given a second command: not only to regain Italia, the glory of the Empire, and Rome, its seed, but to liberate millions of souls from religious oppression by their errant masters.

The target of the renewed offensive, Ostrogothic Italy plus its appendices, had suffered from dynastic complications since the great king’s death, and “infighting between Theodoric’s heirs in 526 – 36 led to a more serious alienation of some of the aristocratic elite from the Ostrogothic regime, many of whom ended up in Constantinople.” Belisar’s second western campaign, begun in AD 536, was another success, it would appear: the Gothic arms were defeated at three different occasions and their authority diminished quickly, although they remained in possession of a few strongholds.

Belisarius leads the Roman army against the Goths, 540 AD. Flavius Belisarius, c. 505 – 565. General of the Byzantine Empire. From Ward and Lock's Illustrated History of the World, published c.1882.
Belisarius leads the Roman army against the Goths, 540 AD. Flavius Belisarius, c. 505 – 565. General of the Byzantine Empire. From Ward and Lock’s Illustrated History of the World, published c.1882.

The news of Belisarius´recapture of Italy spread swiftly through the realm, and fed Justinian’s suspicions for a second time. The hero was recalled again but brought with him, as his captives or guests, the royal pair of the Ostrogoths, who proceeded to sign a comprehensive treaty [Vitiges, a military man and his wife Matasuntha, Theodoric’s Granddaughter]. The agreement emphasized the Goths’ future and unconditional obedience to the emperor and introduced a great number of their youth to service in the legions. A delivery of Gothic hostages substantiated, as usual, the validity of the compact.

But since “the jealousy of the Byzantine Court had not permitted Belisarius to achieve the [complete] conquest of Italy … his abrupt departure revived the courage of the Goths [AD 540].” What happened next was much to Justinian’s chagrin. One thousand or so Gothic warriors, who had held the town of Pavia, received word from another small garrison, that still held Verona, and from another one that still controlled Teriolis (Tyrolia). The Byzantine army had been left, at the departure of Belisar, to the command of eleven equal-ranked generals, and the disaster this policy caused may easily be imagined.

Messengers from the Gothic garrisons remaining in Italy meanwhile had met, undisturbed, with their comrades that still guarded the northern borders of the Danube and the Alps, and before long the war the empire believed won was rekindled. The banner of the Gothic monarchy was resurrected by the young Baduila, called Totila, and the cause of the Goths profited greatly from the avarice and the appalling methods of Justinian’s fiscus. Edward Gibbon compares valour and corruption, in the tradition of Tacitus:

The rapid success of Totila may be partly ascribed to the revolution which three years’ experience had produced in the sentiments of the Italians. At the command, or at least in the name, of a Catholic emperor, the pope [Silverius], their spiritual father, had been torn from the Roman church and either starved or murdered on a desolate island.

The virtues of Belisarius were replaced by the various or uniform vices of eleven chiefs, at Rome, Ravenna, Florence, Perugia, Spoleto, etc., who abused their authority for the indulgence of lust and avarice. The improvement of the revenue was committed to Alexander, a subtle scribe long practised in the fraud and oppression of the Byzantine schools, and whose name of Psalliction, the Scissors, was drawn from the dexterous artifice with which he reduced the size without defacing the figure of the gold coin. Instead of expecting the restoration of peace and industry, he imposed a heavy assessment on the fortunes of the Italians.

The subjects of Justinian who escaped these partial vexations were oppressed by the irregular maintenance of the soldiers, whom Alexander defrauded and despised; and their hasty sallies in quest of wealth or subsistence provoked the inhabitants of the country to await or implore their deliverance from the virtues of a Barbarian.

Totila was chaste and temperate; and none were deceived, either friends or enemies, who depended on his faith and clemency. To the husbandmen of Italy the Gothic king issued a welcome proclamation, enjoining them to pursue their important labours and to rest assured that, on the payment of the ordinary taxes, they should be defended by his valour and discipline from the injuries of war. … The Roman captives and deserters were tempted to enlist in the service of a liberal and courteous adversary; the slaves were attracted to the firm and faithful promise that they should never be delivered to their masters; and from the thousand warriors of Pavia, a new people, under the same appellation of Goths, was insensibly formed in the camp of Totila.

Totila, by Francesco Salviati
Totila, by Francesco Salviati

It is obvious where Gibbon’s sympathies lay, but indeed, “most of the non-Gothic Italians were at best neutral about Justinian’s armies.” The Emperor now faced the pro-Belisar faction of the court, who argued that only the recall of the hero had made the renewed Gothic insurrection possible. There was not really a way to counter the postulation, and at length Justinian had no choice but to send Belisar back to Italy. The imperial frugality, however, restricted the general to such troops as he could support by his own means. Thus, Belisar arrived at Ravenna with his personal guards, but little else. Procopius relates a letter the fettered hero wrote to his master:

“Most excellent prince, we are arrived in Italy, destitute of all the necessary implements of war, men, horses, arms, and money. In our late circuit through the villages of Thrace and Illyricum, we have collected with extreme difficulty about four thousand recruits, naked and unskilled in the use of weapons and the exercises of the camp.

The soldiers already stationed in the province are discontented, fearful, and dismayed; at the sound of an enemy, they dismiss their horses and cast their arms on the ground. No taxes can be raised since Italy is in the hands of the Barbarians; the failure of payment has deprived us of the right to command, or even of admonition. Be assured, dread Sir, that the greater part of your troops have already deserted to the Goths.

If the war could be achieved by the presence of Belisarius alone, your wishes are satisfied; Belisarius is in the midst of Italy. But if you desire to conquer, far other preparations are requisite: without a military force, the title of general is an empty name. It would be expedient to restore to my service my own veteran and domestic guards. Before I can take the field, I must receive an adequate supply of light and heavy armed troops; and it is only with ready money you can procure the indispensable aid of a powerful body of the cavalry of the Huns.”

Belisar’s own words reveal that, almost ninety years after the general retreat of the Huns following Attila’s death in AD 453, large bodies of their mercenaries still infested the continent. At length, the hero gathered some troops and supplies on the opposite coast of the Adriatic Sea, in Dalmatia, and launched an expedition to deliver Rome from the Goths. Rome and Ravenna were the last two places in Italy still held by Justinian’s troops and had consequently been blockaded and beleaguered for years. The Byzantine fleet landed at the port of Ostia, five leagues from Rome, but the news of Belisar’s reappearance reached the town too late to prevent the famished garrison’s release of Rome to the charity of the king of the Goths [December 17, AD 546].

Saint Benedict receiving Totila, King of the Ostrogoths
Saint Benedict receiving Totila, King of the Ostrogoths

Totila’s soldiers requested permission to raze the walls and houses of the sinful city to the ground, but, swayed by a message from Belisar, who appealed, on Procopius’s counsel, to the king’s mercy for the eternal town, Totila spared Rome from devastation, on the condition of her future neutrality in the war and obedience to his and his successors’ directives, as a part of the new Romano-Gothic kingdom. The clemency of Totila forewent the institution of a garrison within the city: a single regiment of guards was stationed in a camp, perhaps five leagues away, epitomizing a protection of the town against pirates or meandering mercenaries rather than against a regular army.

The king’s leniency was ill rewarded, and Totila’s generosity became the cause of his downfall. The Gothic army had barely left Latium when Belisar assaulted and annihilated the Gothic sentinels and moved into Rome for the second time [February, AD 547]. Totila returned post-haste, but three successive attempts to take the city by storm failed and the newly formed Gothic and Italian army lost the flower of their men. Eventually, exhaustion paralysed both sides, until Belisar was, once again, recalled to Byzantium and Totila, once again, conquered Rome in AD 459. During the Gothic wars, the town changed hands five times.

It had been Justinian’s policy to deny the Goths a formal peace, but not to burden the treasury with the expenses of war either, and for years the Gothic war boiled on a small flame. But his resolve was injured when Gothic raids invaded the provinces of Epirus and Macedonia, in the Balkans, and Constantinople itself seemed in the reach of the Barbarians. Justinian realized the urgency of the situation, and, belatedly, the treasury was opened, but not to Belisar’s support.

The emperor was not a father, but he had a niece, who had married the young prince Germanus, a nobleman of whom public opinion held that this marriage was his sole accomplishment.

This is the way the story used to be told, somewhat of a cliché – and I repeated it for Edward Gibbons’s sake – in actuality Germanus was a nephew of Justin I and hence a cousin of Justinian. He was Magister militum in various campaigns, with varying success, and before setting out to Italy had the amorously as well as politically most excellent idea of taking for his second wife – with Justinian’s blessing – the fabled beauty Matasuntha, granddaughter of Theodoric and now widow of Totila’s predecessor Vitiges – a match that sought to entice Goth and Italians alike to switch sides.

The young man was promoted to the post of general-in-chief of the Gothic war, and put on a ship to Sicily, where he was to muster the troops assembling for the glorious enterprise of subduing Italy again. The solemn inspection, however, had to be postponed when the youth suddenly expired.

The empire awaited, naturally, the return of the Gothic command to Belisar, when “the nations were provoked to a smile by the strange intelligence that the command of the Roman armies was given to a eunuch,” the domestic Narses, who “is probably the sole representative of his peculiar sex in the annals of military history.” Narses was the complete opposite of Belisarius: weak of body and unfamiliar with the use of weapons, he was probably the only man, so to say, at the court of Constantinople, who dared to speak his mind.

He declined to accept a command without the means to enforce it, and “Justinian granted the favourite what he might have denied to the hero: the Gothic war was rekindled from its ashes, and the preparations were not unworthy of the ancient majesty of the empire. The key of the public treasure was put into his hand, to collect magazines, to levy soldiers, to purchase arms and horses, to discharge the arrears of pay, and to tempt the fidelity of the fugitives and deserters.”

The expedition of Narses [AD 552-554] was the last military effort of the Empire that stood up in comparison with the distinguished past. It is said that the Romans numbered 80,000 or more, mostly mercenaries, against which Totila, after the bloody losses at Rome between AD 546 and 549, could field probably less than twenty thousand.

Battle on Mons Lactarius by Alexander Zick
Battle on Mons Lactarius by Alexander Zick

At length, the Gothic arms were defeated: Totila died on the Battlefield of Taginae in July 552 and his successor Teja lead the remnant of the troops to a last stand at the Battle of Mons Lactarius on Mons Vesuvius. The remainder of the Goths from the northern garrisons retired past the Alps, where they reorganized and, with the assistance of a few mercenaries, attempted a return to Italy [AD 533]. They were defeated a second time by Narses, who, after a timely visit to Constantinople, was dispatched back to Italy to govern her, as Exarch, or lieutenant of the emperor, for the next about fifteen years [AD 554-568].

Yet something worse than the Vandal and Gothic wars was inflicted on the people around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. A horrific attack of bubonic plague was reported in Alexandria in the fall of AD 541, and the grain ships that emerged from its harbours in the spring of AD 542 spread the disease over the world. Constantinople was ravaged by the epidemic through which, as Procopius wrote, “the whole of humanity came close to annihilation.”

The Bubonic Plague - by Nicolas Poussin
The Bubonic Plague – by Nicolas Poussin

The emperor, too, was caught by Yersinia pestis but recovered. The disease travelled from Constantinople, over the Bosporus, to Asia Minor, and from there to Syria and Palestine. There it reversed direction westward, and by AD 543 it had spread over the provinces of the West, Africa, Italy, Gaul and Spain. Two years later, it struck the Far East, and devastated the Persian Empire: large parts of Mesopotamia, Media and Persia were depopulated. [FN1]

Article on recent research on the plague by medievalists.net

Overall, the results of Justinian’s anachronistic efforts to rebuild the empire were not only short-lived, but, for the worse, a financial catastrophe.   

The destruction of Africa’s and Italy’s tax base in the wake of the military occupations meant that the monarchy never even recovered its expenses. And since the Eastern Empire could not make the step to replace an army paid for by taxes to that paid by a landed gentry, losses of revenue implied losses of military power. Justinian’s escapades had almost bankrupted the realm and the net result of Emperor Heraclius‘ [r.AD 610-641] war against the Persians between AD 610 and 628 was that, a decade later, he lost everything he had gained and more to the assault of the recent Islamic Caliphate, which, ironically enough, “was itself built on Roman foundations (as also Sassanian Persian foundations),” and “it arguably preserved the parameters of imperial Roman society more completely than any other part of the post-Roman world, at least in the period up to 750.”

No happy end there was for the hero Belisar, as legends report – it is said that he was blinded by Justinian for the one or other infraction, and condemned to beg for alms at the Pincian Gate of Rome – while the story has long held to be apocryphal, Belisar’s biographer Philip Stanhope believed the story to be true based on some primary sources.

François Joseph Kinson – The Death of Antonina, the wife of Belisarius
Belisar as beggar in Rome - painted by Jacques-Louis David
Belisar as beggar in Rome – painted by Jacques-Louis David

Soon after Narses’ death Italy was taken over by the Lombards, who had, under their original name of Langobards, dwelt around the lower Elbe, near today’s Hamburg, before they joined the southward migration of the Germanic tribes. They had been employed, among other mercenaries, by Narses against the Goths, but in the aftermath of the Gothic war conquered most of rural Italy between AD 568 and 570, without encountering much resistance from the exhausted locals.

But the Gothic Wars were over.


[FN1] It was the effect of the plague of the 540s and its reoccurrence in much of Syria, Palestine, and Upper Mesopotamia from AD 600 on, and the eternal Romano-Persian border wars, that reduced the populations around the Eastern Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent (and hence the availability of soldiers) to a degree which permitted the eventual expansion of the Arabian Caliphate in the seventh century.

Related Post: Theodora

Related Post: Procopius – The Secret History

Related Post: The End of the Legions

Related Post: Clovis – The Rise of the Franks

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19) [Quotes, except where noted, from Edward Gibbon]

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A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum …

Cicero indicts Catilina - Painting by Hans Werner Schmidt
Cicero indicts Catilina – Painting by Hans Werner Schmidt

Political procedures of the Roman Republic

In the first two hundred years or so, Rome was a monarchy: the names of seven kings are known, of whom the last, Tarquinius, possibly of Etruscan origin, was deposed in 509 BC and the republic proclaimed. From then on, Rome was socially and politically divided in two “classes”, ninety-one “centuries” and thirty-five “tribes”, each of these classifications counting for a different political purpose. The two “classes” were, for one, the common men or “plebs” [short ‘e’, rhymes with ‘pets’, adjective ‘plebeian’, ¶], and, second, the “patricians” [from Latin ‘pater’, i.e. father, ¶], the nobility. These ancient aristocrats professed to rule the plebs much like a stern but benevolent father rules his children – for their own benefit.

These two classes worked together, or, rather, against each other, in four different legislative and executive congregations: one “Senate“, which comprised only patricians (in the first centuries), and three “assemblies of the people“, which had different legislative authorities. Since the origins of all these bodies reached back into the mythical days when Rome had been a monarchy, these bodies had been created without the benefit of written laws; hence legislative competition was furious, and it took three centuries to iron things out.

Due to its seniority as the oldest political institution, the Senate did not limit itself with technical jurisdictional issues; its members viewed themselves as the natural leaders of the commonwealth due to their former status as the king’s advisors. Membership was for life unless a senator was expelled for pauperism, immorality or treason. Technically, the senators were limited to income from agrarian possessions, for they were legally forbidden to entertain plebeian businesses; but they knew everything about silent partnerships and employing straw men.

The death of Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate by Vincenzo Camuccini
The death of Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate by Vincenzo Camuccini

In ancient times, the Senate had been a purely patrician affair, consisting of one hundred members. Around 500 BC, plebeians gained access, and during the days of the republic the membership swelled to 300, and in imperial times to 600 and eventually 1,000 members. As it may be assumed, it took the plebs decades and sometimes centuries to effect changes in the elitist club. In the early days, the Senate could not pass laws binding all Romans, for its exclusive patrician membership, but this technicality was easily circumvented. A decision of the Senate was called a “consultum”, a decree, and was technically a request to one of the assemblies of the people to enact a law in the form suggested by the Senate. Despite vigorous plebeian opposition, the house succeeded in retaining sole jurisdiction in matters of the treasury or  fiscus, foreign affairs, including war, and the appointment of provincial governors.

The three assemblies of the people dealt, each in its own distinctive way and composition, with elections and the enactment of lesser laws. The “Comitia Centuriata”, the Centuriate Assembly, included both plebeians and patricians and was organized in “Centuriae”, i.e. “centuries” of one hundred men each, classified by wealth. The system of centuries hinted at the congregation’s original military character: a centuria of one hundred men was, of course, the basic unit of the legion. In the Comitia Centuriata, ninety-one centuries were represented, and each centuria had one vote.

This small number of votes reflects on the character of Roman voting rights, which were timocratic in nature, not democratic: based on wealth or status, not “one man -one vote”. Each centuria had one vote, which was decided by the relative majority of votes within it; the swindle in favour of the nobility lay in the fact that a centuria of patricians was indeed composed of one hundred men, while each centuria of the plebs was comprised of many thousand men. The following description of the political system of the Republic is much indebted to the late Colleen McCullough.

Since forty-six votes were needed for an absolute majority of 46 to 45 in the 91 “centuries”, the 4,600 wealthiest men, all nobles, organized in these 46 centuries, were automatically assured of a majority.

The business of the Centuriate Assembly was to elect consuls and praetors annually, and two Censors every five years. In theory, the assembly could also pass laws, which happened seldom and was the proper court to charge and try “Perduellio” – high treason. Such trials, however, became increasingly rare when the plebs realized that it was impossible to convict a nobleman against the votes of his fellow aristocrats.

The “Comitia Populi Tributa”, the Tribal Assembly or Assembly of the People, was also composed of both plebs and patricians but rigged in a different way. The “tribes” were based upon the ancient rural origins of Rome and centred on the old families: a “tribe” was the equivalent of a former territory, a village, perhaps, that had belonged to one of the old clans. Thirty-one of the total thirty-five tribes were made up from people whose ancestry related back to these ancient rural communities, and it made no difference if only three or five living members were left: they had one vote. The multitudes of the plebs, however, were assigned to two of the four “city” tribes, Esquilina and Subura, and hence these tens of thousands of men together only had two votes. The business of the Tribal Assembly was to elect lower magistrates, the curule aedile, the quaestors and the military tribunes, the apprentices for future generalships. It could pass laws and hear criminal and “civil trials.

The principal political instrument of the plebs was the “Comitia Plebis Tributa” or “Concilium Plebis”, the Assembly or Council of the People. It was the youngest of the legislative bodies, excluded patricians, and had earned its power by sheer and determined opposition against Senate and nobility. It could only be convoked by the peoples’ own elected officers, the “Tribuni Plebis“, Tribunes of the People, and could pass any law law [which were called “plebiscites”, an appellation still in use today, ¶]. The three assemblies, as mentioned, but not the Senate, elected public officials, some of which wielded “Imperium” while others did not.

The word “Imperium” is best translated as the “power of command” and is obviously the root for the words “emperor” or “empire”. It prescribed the degree of legal authority vested in the office, the execution of power that bound every Roman citizen, plebe and patrician alike. It was conferred by legal act of the respective comitia and lasted for one year. Every holder of “imperium” was preceded in public by lictors, bodyguards, who shouldered fasces. Fasces were bundles of birch rods tied together crisscross wise with red leather thongs; an ancient design, probably of Etruscan origin. The number of lictors preceding the magistrate depended on the office: an “Aedile” was preceded by two lictors, a “Praetor”, “Propraetor” or “Master of the Horse” by six, a “Consul” by twelve, and a “Dictator” by twenty-four.

Outside of Rome, axes were inserted in the birch bundles to indicate that the magistrate wielded power over life and death. Only a dictator was allowed to show axes inserted in his fasces within the pomerium (the religious borders of Rome), a reminder of his unconditional power that could not be gainsaid. The words fascism and fascist derive, of course, from fasces; after his takeover of Italy, Benito Mussolini reintroduced them as symbols of his power. The number of legislative bodies and magistrates makes the Roman government a complicated affair; the graphic at the bottom may be of assistance.

In order of ascending authority, the following were Roman public offices: The “Tribunes of the Soldiers” were two dozen aspiring men, more often than not from noble families, between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine, which were elected by the Tribal Assembly and were basically cadets, officer trainees: six of them were allotted to each of the four Roman legions that, together with four legions of allies, made up the standing army in the days of the republic. They should not be confused with the centurions, which were essentially Roman NCO’s, company commanders. These tribunes could have authority in the field, if the general so decided, but carried no imperium.

Roman politics were a male-only affair - perhaps with the exception of the legendary Fulvia
Roman politics were a male-only affair – perhaps with the exception of the legendary Fulvia – here with the head of her arch-enemy Cicero

The “pomerium” were the sacred borders of the city, which ran essentially around the Capitol, Palatine and Aventine hills. To cross these borders from the outside meant to lose any imperium one possessed. This was essentially a precaution against military putsches, for the legions always assembled outside of the town and a general leading them in with designs on usurpation automatically lost his power of command. Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, which was the border from his province Gallia Cisalpina to Italia proper was the crossing of a similar legal border and thus amounted to a declaration of civil war against the Roman Republic.

The lowest rank of civil public servant was the “Quaestor”. They were also elected by the Tribal Assembly, usually six per year. This office was also considered the lowest rung of the “cursus honorum“, the acknowledged stations in the career of a full-time Roman politician. The quaestor’s duties were of financial nature: he was either seconded to a praetor or propraetor who governed a province, detailed to duty in the treasury, or consigned to one of the great ports. They did not carry imperium.

The next rank in the system was the “Aedile”, of which two varieties existed: two “Plebeian Aediles”, elected by the Assembly of the Plebs and hence not possessing imperium, and two “Curule Aediles”, which were elected by the Tribal Assembly and did wield imperium. Originally, the curule aediles had to be of patrician descent but this proviso was abandoned in the fourth century BC. The aediles governed the town itself: supervising construction and enforcing (or not) the building code, securing the supply of clean water flowing from the great aqueducts, and keeping roads, markets and other facilities in order.

The most important political part of the office was the aediles’ responsibility to arrange the ludi, the games, Rome’s favourite pastime. They provided the principal opportunity for a young politician to build a reputation; the more splendid the games, the higher the aedile’s prestige in the peoples´ esteem and his chances to be elected to more prestigious offices later.

There was a drawback: the state did not allocate funds for the games. The aediles were counted on to pay the expenses, which ran into the millions of sesterces, from their own purses. Not surprisingly, some aediles ruined their family fortunes in pursuit of sensational games and ended in exile, fugitives from their creditors. In most cases, however, the loan sharks were willing to wait until their candidate reached the rank of “Praetor” and was dispatched to govern a province. At such time, the recovery of the mostly modest principal plus interest, compounded, up to fifty per cent annually, took place, on the backs of the provincials. Exploitation was the normal and accepted course of business in the governance of a province: the governor could, for example, levy his own taxes, sell the Roman citizenship, forgive tax debts or issue exceptions, for a consideration, or create criminal indictments and then peddle their dismissal; treason was the favourite charge. He could also take advantage of the tax-farming system Rome implemented upon the provinces: contracts were let to businesses that paid the whole amount of taxes of, say, a town, an estate, or a whole province, in advance to the treasury and obtained, as compensation, the right to collect the imperial taxes on their own cognizance from the unhappy people. The tax rates they assigned were, alas, mysteriously high; higher than the amounts legally prescribed on some scroll in the treasury in Rome. The company, which belonged to the governor or his creditors, kept the difference. It was an excellent business, and for many politicians the only way to get rid of the debts they had incurred during their aedileship.

The second-highest rank in the hierarchy of Roman magistrates was the Praetor, as mentioned above. Initially entrusted with legal duties, the administration of justice and oversight of the courts, the number and duties of praetors varied in later years, when the government of provinces was added to their curriculum. Of the two praetors elected in ancient times, one, the Praetor Urbanus, as the word indicates, was responsible for lawsuits between Roman citizens or parties within the pomerium, while the second one, the Praetor Peregrinus, was deputized to litigate cases involving foreign entities. If both consuls were absent, chiefly during times of war, the praetor urbanus assumed the command over town and people. In the later days of the Republic, when more and more provinces were added to the Roman fold, additional praetors were elected as regents. They ruled either during their standard one-year term of office or in a subsequent year, in the case of which they were officiating as Propraetor [“in the stead of a praetor”, ¶). In the last century of the Republic, between six and eight praetors were elected annually. They did, of course, possess imperium.

The most senior regular officer owning imperium was the “Consul“, the executive head, or heads, of the Roman administration. It was one of Rome’s peculiarities to elect two persons to fill the highest office, so as to publicly and expressively deny any resemblance to a monarchy. The position of consul was also the zenith of the “cursus honorum”, but a popular or exemplary meritorious consul could be re-elected to a second term, provided that ten years lay between the first and second consulship.

Two plebeians could be consul at any one time, but not two patricians. A consul’s imperium eclipsed any other officer’s power, anywhere, unless a “Dictator” was in office. At the end of his term, the retired consul was given the honorific “consular”; he now was an elder statesman and enjoyed a privileged position in the Senate. Consulars were often deputized to govern provinces if no praetor was available, or were sent on special diplomatic or economic missions, the most important and recurring of which was to secure the annual grain supply from Sicily and Africa.

The office of Dictator was reserved for emergencies, most of which were of military nature. The office absolved the holder from any legal consequence of his actions or omissions, but was limited to six months. A dictator was appointed by the Senate, more often than not on the recommendation of the “Princeps Senatus”, the unofficial president of the Senate, or the consuls. Technically, the dictator’s title was “Magister Populi”, Master of the People; in this context “people” referred to the infantry he would presumably lead into the field. The first decision he had to undertake on the assumption of office was the appointment of a lieutenant called the “Magister Equitum” or Master of the Horse, that is, the cavalry. Dictators were appointed very infrequently.

The most senior of all Roman magistrates were the “Censors“, although they did not possess imperium. A candidate for censor must have absolved the complete “cursus honorum”, hence must have been a consul, and preferably one of the better ones. A team of two Censors was elected by the Centuriate Assembly for a term of five years, which they, however, were at liberty not to complete. In general, they busied themselves with their tasks for a year or perhaps two and then semi-retired. In addition to the duties mentioned above in the context of the elder Cato, they also administered the general economic classification which determined every citizen’s place in the proper centuria. On the outside of Rome, their duty was to perform a full census of all Roman citizens every five years, as mentioned in Luke 2:1.

The complete antithesis to all the offices and governmental functions enumerated above were the “Tribuni Plebis”, or Tribuni Populi, the tribunes of the plebs respectively the people (both terms were used). Their origin lies in the town’s early history, when political decision-making was more of a physical than verbal matter.

They were ten, elected annually by the Assembly of the People, and their task was the defence of the rights, the property and the lives of the common man against the machinations of the patricians, who in the days of yore had enjoyed a political monopoly. Since the tribunes of the plebs were elected by the plebs alone, they had no preconceived place within the fabric of Roman governance and thus carried no imperium. Their safety and authority lay in the oath the assembly took after election, to defend the inviolability of their representatives with their own lives.

The tribunal power was chiefly negative; although they could bring in and pass laws in the assembly of the people, the main authority lay in their what since has been called the “veto power” against the actions of any magistrate, officer or even fellow tribune; he could stop not only the passing of laws but even their discussion in the Senate or the assemblies with the magic word “intercessio” [“I step in”, ¶].

Such an ability to frustrate political action was not overlooked by the movers and shakers of the last century BC: it became common practice for Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar to have at least one or two tame tribunes whose election they had financed on the payroll, to counteract any designs their enemies came up with. Many parts of the Roman administrative machine became, often in only slightly different form, stock features of European political organization in the next two thousand years. The word “senator” comes to mind, as does “dictator” as a generic term for autocrats who, alas, only very seldom retire after six months. Consuls, albeit with different functions, work in every nation, and the word “patrician” still denotes a revered elder statesman. But it was the great concept of the “Imperium” that exerted the loftiest influence on the political designs of the next two thousand years: hegemony over the European continent became the treacherous ideal of many a ruler’s political daydreams.

Below an organizational diagram of Roman politics (inspired by Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series. Link for bigger version here.) (NB: “¶” in the text denotes a remark by the author. © John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

Roman Offices
Roman Offices

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Facts and Fancy of the Second World War

Although almost seventy years have passed since the Second War‘s conclusion, misapprehensions and inaccuracies – intended or not – retain an eerie popularity. Norman Davies (No Simple Victory, Penguin Books 2006 – ISBN 978-0-14-311409-3) has written on the wilful misconceptions that are the consequences of political correctness and national myth-making. He notes that:

Over sixty years have passed since the end of the Second World War. And most people would assume that the broad outlines of that terrible conflict had been established long ago. Innumerable books have been published on the subject. Thousands of films have been screened, portraying every aspect of military events and civilian ordeals. Countless memoirs of participants’ great and small have been collected. Hundreds of major monuments and scores of museums have been created to keep up the memory of the war alive. One might think that there is nothing new to add. At least one is tempted to think that way until one starts to examine what actually is said, and what is not said. [Emphases in original]

When Professor Davis set out to visit the various galas, celebrations and festivities that commemorated the Sixtieth Anniversary of the End of the War in 2005, he chanced upon mysterious perceptions …

… the new United States World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., bore, as its main inscription: “World War II 1941 – 1945”. The monument failed to inform the visitor that the United States did have allies, and seems to conclude that the United States fought and won the war alone, and in five years instead of seven …

… the British celebrations somehow forgot to invite delegations from, among many other former colonial allies, Canada, South Africa, India, New Zealand or Australia, all of whom had participated in the war on the side of Great Britain…

… the Russian celebration on Red Square in Moscow forgot to mention, among other little sins, that the Soviet Union in the six years between 1940 and 1945 invaded and annexed the three Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania not only once but twice, in the process deporting and/or murdering land owners and intelligentsia. In addition, nobody thought it prudent to recall that the Soviet Union, allied with Germany in 1939, had invaded Poland and Finland only weeks later…

and that

… none of these celebrations recalled the sufferings of the non-Jewish victims of the Fascist, Nazi and Communist regimes, nor the fate of the millions who were misplaced by the war or forcibly ejected from their homelands: over ten million Germans, five millions Ukrainians and about the same number of Poles, and millions of Byelorussians and Caucasian minorities. The Soviet Union in particular

… relocated national groups, uprooting millions in the process. In the immediate pre-war period they had forcibly removed some 500,000 Poles from the western borders and resettled them in closed districts on the Chinese frontier in Kazakhstan.

In 1939-41 massive deportations took place from all the lands annexed by the USSR; and, once the Great Patriotic War started, strategic deportations began with an order to remove all Finns from the vicinity of Leningrad. Later in 1941, a long-standing plan (first mooted in 1915) was activated to deport the entire population of the Autonomous German Republic of the Volga. Some 2.5 million Germans were either sent to the labour armies or to Kazakhstan to join the exiled Poles. Within a decade over half of them were dead. The forced deportation and resettlement of seven Muslim nations in 1943-4 was especially brutal.

Mindful of the spectre of selective memory, Professor Davies subsequently felt the need to take a few precautions before discussing the war:

As a prelude to various talks and lectures on the Second World War, therefore, I have often chosen to raise some of these problems by presenting the audience with four or five simple questions:

  • Can you name the five biggest battles of the war in Europe? Or, better still, the ten biggest battles?
  • Can you name the main political ideologies that were contending for supremacy during the war in Europe?
  • Can you name the largest concentration camp that was operating in Europe in the years 1939- 1945?
  • Can you name the European nationality (or ethnic group) which lost the largest number of civilians during the war?
  • Can you name the vessel that was sunk with record loss of life in the war’s largest maritime disaster?

These have usually been followed by a deathly silence, and then a hubbub of guesses and queries. Quelling the hubbub, I then offer my audience an opinion:”Until we have established the correct answer to basic factual matters,” I say, “we are not properly equipped to pass judgement on the wider issues.”

That nations cling to the chimera of glory and tend to forget failure is altogether human in its fallibility. In the same league, perhaps, is man’s perpetual underestimation of the amount of knowledge required before becoming able to judge on a subject. Perhaps ignorance may be bliss, as in Orwell’s 1984. Paul Fussell, historian and veteran of World War II, who was wounded 1945 in France, found numerous reasons to mistrust the victors’ polished platitudes and observed so many occasions of intentional misrepresentation in the treatment of the Second World War in American media that he felt compelled to conclude that “the Allied part of the war of 1939-45 has been sanitized and romanticized beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty.”

Naturally, such groups derive their redactional liberty from the fact that their side won the war and hence is able to evade moral ambiguity. Nearly everybody agrees that the industrial killing of Jews, or Gypsies, with cyanide was a crime nearly without precedent in history, but so were other inventions of the twentieth century: area-bombing civilians with conventional explosives as in, say, Dresden or Tokyo, or with nuclear fire as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the war had been lost, who could have explained the moral propriety of these undertakings?

Hence, here the answers to the questions posed above:

FIVE BATTLES, FATALITIES IN PARENTHESES: [1] OPERATION TYPHOON, THE BATTLE FOR MOSCOW 1941/1942 (1,582,000) [2] CASE BLUE, THE BATTLE FOR STALINGRAD 1942-1943 (973,000) [3] THE SIEGE OF LENINGRAD 1941-1944 (900,000) (4) OPERATION BARBAROSSA, THE BATTLE FOR KIEW 1941 (657,000) [5] OPERATION BAGRATION, SOVIET OFFENSIVE 1944 (450,000)

IDEOLOGIES: FASCISM, NATIONAL SOCIALISM, COMMUNISM, LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

BIGGEST CONCENTRATION CAMP: VORKUTA, USSR

LOSSES BY NATION/ETHNICITY: SEE DIAGRAM BELOW

MARITIME CATASTROPHE: GERMAN OCEAN LINER ‘WILHELM GUSTLOFF‘, TORPEDOED BY RUSSIAN SUBMARINE IN MARCH 1945, APPROXIMATELY 8000 FATALITIES

[SOURCES: DAVIES, ID., P.25 FF, DIAGRAM P.366]

SOME INTERESTING FACTS: BIGGEST EUROPEAN ARMY IN 1932 AFTER FRANCE: BELGIUM, 26 DIVISIONS – MOST TANKS IN 1940: FRANCE, OVER 3,000.

Losses / Casualties Diagram:

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

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The Battle of Fontenoy – the Roots of Germany

Frankish Empire and Treaty of Verdun AD 843
Treaty of Verdun 843 – Lothar receiving the Kingdom of Italy; Louis the German the Kingdom of Bavaria; and Charles the Bald the Kingdom of Aquitaine (Grey Area: Patrimonium Petri – the Papal States) [The arrow indicates the original direction of Frankish settlement]

If we survey the map of the Carolingian Europe around AD 800, the evidence of Charles’s magnificence is plain to see. The Empire of the Franks extends from the Spanish Mark, north of the Ebro River, to the Channel at Calais, although the Bretagne could never be truly claimed; from the Gascogne and Aquitaine at the Atlantic Ocean eastward to the lands of the Saxons and the Bavarians and even to Pannonia, the plains of today’s Hungary; and from the Frisian Islands in the North Sea south through Thuringia, Alemannia and today’s Austria, the Alps up to Lower Italy. But, behold, from Ferrara in the delta of the PoRiver to Ancona on the western piedmont of the Apennines, and on the eastern side of the mountains, between the Duchies of Tuscia in the north and Spoleto and Beneventum in the south, embracing Rome, a new entity presents itself, the result of Charles’s pious donation: the Patrimonium Petri, the Papal State, by which the bishop of Rome became a prince in his own profane right.

The “Donation of Constantine” which bestowed these lands on the pope, was a forged document, allegedly composed on behalf of Emperor Constantine, awarding Latium in the east and the Emilia in the west, plus neighbouring areas, to the pope as eternal secular possessions. It appeared out of thin air, mysteriously, around AD 750. The problem was to explain why the document had been found only 450 years later. Pope Hadrian I came up with some good excuses, and then petitioned Charlemagne to effect the donation, which the king did. The Patrimonium Petri, the Papal State, existed well into the nineteenth century. [Article in the Britannica] [Latin Text from the Bibliotheca Augustana, Augsburg] The Holy See had thus ample reason for gratefulness to the King of the Franks – in this context one may also consider how much of a role such thankfulness played in Pope Leo III proclaiming Charlemagne Emperor, as a counterbalance to the reign of the self-appointed Irene of Athens at Constantinople.

Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne, 25. 12. AD 800

Yet some designs do not survive the architect for long, and such was the case with Charlemagne’s pride: on June 25, AD 841, twenty-seven years after the emperor’s death, his three grandsons and their respective armies met at a battlefield near Fontenoy, one hundred fifty miles south-east of Paris. One may argue, with caution, that the day of this battle may serve as the beginning of a history of the future “Germans”, although neither the name nor the country were to appear for centuries to come.

The day of Fontenoy saw Emperor Lothar, the eldest of the siblings, fight his brothers Ludwig, King of Bavaria, and Karl, King of what used to be called Neustria, western Franconia. Myth has it that 100,000 men perished on the field, although a figure of some 20,000 to 30,000 appears more realistic. The outcome of the melee was a strategic stalemate; no clear winner could be established.

Yet its consequences were enormous, a few years down the line : Charles’s empire broke apart, irreparably, the grandsons proceeding to divide the realm among themselves (which was not truly a surprise, for their fathers had done so as well) (Treaty of Verdun, 843, see Map above, Lothar receiving the Kingdom of Italy; Louis the German the Kingdom of Bavaria; and Charles the Bald the Kingdom of Aquitaine).

Ludwig held on the eastern parts of the Franks’ dominions, which soon became known as the Kingdom of Eastern Franconia, the precursor of what much later would be called “Germany”. Technically, one might argue that the establishment of the kingdom was the first step in the direction of a “German” state, little though its people were aware of it. In this respect, the German ethnogenesis followed an inverted path. On most occasions, people form communities which slowly widen in scope, from the village of the clan to the town of the tribe to the capital of the nation; from counties to duchies to kingdoms. In the case of “Germany”, however, the political entity, the Kingdom of Eastern Franconia, existed first, while the notion of belonging to it as a fixed body politic evolved much later. Ludwig’s subjects would have been perplexed, or might have strongly objected if one were to call them “Germans”: they thought of themselves as Franks [“Free Men”, ¶], Alemans [“All Men”, ¶], or Bavarians [“Bohemian Men”, ¶].

The word “Deutsch” for “German”, as in “Deutschland”, did only slowly emerge as a linguistic classification, in a process that required centuries. Its root, “theodiscus”, Latinized from the Frankish “theoda”, for “volk”, i.e. “people”, was used to refer to any other language than Latin, the language of the church, the court and of diplomacy. “Theodiscus” was used to denote any vernacular language, Frankish, Thuringian, Bavarian, or even Normannic.

After a few decades of reposing in the bosom of the Eastern Franconian polity, the various tribes began to notice that they had, at least, one thing in common: the royal court, which was initially, as mentioned above, a moving affair. The court not only served as the primary legal institution, creating and employing, in due time, an Imperial, as opposed to Frankish or Saxonian, bureaucracy, it also was the centre of society and the arts; factors in creating the consciousness of belonging to a common culture. The second barrier-permeating institution of medieval life, in particular under Frankish hegemony, was the Catholic Church, which acted beyond the confines of tribal identities.

These first steps into the direction of a tentative communality were humbled, for a long time, by the absence of a common tongue. Many people had to learn a few words of Frankish to get by, which is the reason why we still call a trade language like, for example English in non-Anglophone countries, or Swahili in Eastern Africa, a “lingua franca”. The beginnings of what would one day become the “German” language, and its dialects (Dutch, English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian), were chaotic. It was only when basic communication was secured that the Germanic people realized that they had some things in common which differentiated them from, say, the Slays in the East or the far more Romanized people  of the lands west of the Rhine, and from a common tongue a common cultural identity developed, albeit slowly.

Shortly after the Battle of Fontenoy, in the year AD 850 or so, about 3,5 million souls lived in the assortment of territories which was commonly referred to as the kingdom of Eastern Franconia; between and around the three great German rivers Elbe, Danube, and Father Rhine. Three quarters of the land were still forest or swamp, or swampy forest, and only a single road, a leftover from Roman times, led from the mid-Rhine to northern Germany only to lose itself after a few dozen miles. Life was short and brutish; improved by the civilizing influence of agriculture only in the former Roman areas of Bavaria and Swabia and along the western bank of the Rhine. These were the only places where roads, chapels, shops or schools existed.

King Ludwig found himself the head of a state, but not of a nation; “Germany” did not yet exist. In geographic terms, his realm was an artificial construct without any natural borders, home to a variety of tribes who could not really understand each other’s language. Leftovers of the great battles that had raged between the legions and the natives in the first and second centuries AD, the tribes who had fought Germanicus and emperor Marcus Aurelius, had migrated through the woods and swamps for decades and at length coalesced into new tribal entities: Franks, Frisians, Saxons, Alemans, Hessians, Thuringians, and Bavarians.

It was, without doubt, Ludwig’s greatest achievement that the newborn state, a strange concoction of fiercely independent clans, did not disintegrate at the first opportunity. The lands east respectively west of the Rhine developed differently: in the West, Roman customs and language at length overpowered the Germanic element, while in the East, where Roman leverage had always been moderate, the Germanic element dominated and survived.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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On the Cusp of War – July 28/29, 1914

A picture acquired from the historical archives of Sarajevo on June 28, 2014 shows Archduke Franz Ferdinand inspecting his troops during military manoeuvre, on June 27, 1914 in Sarajevo, the day before his assassination.

It was Christopher Clark who recently, in “The Sleepwalkers”, had the beneficial idea to have a critical look at who and what exactly the people were who did, in fact, determine the fate of the continent (and much of the world) in these hot days of July 1914, respectively in the years preceding this summer.

If we survey the European chancelleries in the spring and early summer of 1914, it is impossible not to be struck by the unfortunate configuration of personalities. From Castelnau and Joffre to Zhilinsky, Conrad von Hötzendorf, Wilson and Moltke, the senior military men were all exponents of the strategic offensive who wielded a fluctuating but important influence on the political decision-makers.

In 1913-14 first Delcassé, then Paléologue, both hardliners, represented France in St. Petersburg; Izvolsky, still determined to avenge the “humiliation” of 1909, officiated in Paris. The French minister in Sofia, Andre Panafieu, observed in December 1912 that Izvolsky was the “best ambassador in Paris,” because he had “personal interests against Germany and Austria,” and his Russian colleagues noticed that whenever he came to speak of Austrian policy vis-a-vis Belgrade his voice took on “a palpable tone of bitterness which had not left him since the time of the annexation.” The excitable Austrophobe Miroslav Spalajković was now at the Serbian ministry in St. Petersburg – his old enemy Count Forgach was helping to formulate policy in Vienna. One is reminded of a Harold Pinter play where the characters know each other very well and like each other very little. [1]

Yet behind the facades, their masculinity was of the brittle sort. If we look at the photographs – as Stefan Zweig observed, their pompousness makes us laugh – that portray their stiff officiousness, burliness, lovingly tendered moustaches and uncomfortable clothing, we recognize vanity – men for whom appearances were the armour of the soul and who projected overdrawn notions of ego and honour as well as clandestine dread of volatility and impotence upon the battlefield of diplomacy, and when words failed they substituted blood – that of younger men.

The burial of Francis Ferdinand was a lesser affair …

At no time was the “honour” of nations an important if imaginary quality like then, in whose pursuit tens of millions of men were slaughtered and maimed. The sizable egos of fin-de-siècle manhood, however, came with that sort of irascibility which the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia had so successfully targeted. Of course, the Serbian government – well aware of its laxity towards terrorist organizations – could have taken the unruffled point of view that ten years later no one would care whether a few Austrian detectives had pursued their own investigations in Belgrade after the assassination of Francis Ferdinand or not, and it would seem that except for the rapid Russian intervention Pasić would have grudgingly submitted to the Austrian yoke. But once the honour of the Serbian nation – not always its most conspicuous characteristic – was in doubt, acquiescence was impossible – et pereat mundus.

Sarajevo after anti-Serb riots …

While St. Petersburg discussed the mobilization scenarios, Bethmann Hollweg in Berlin presented Wilhelm’s idea of an Austrian “Halt in Belgrade” (that a temporary Austrian occupation of Belgrade might suffice), as the Kaiser’s proposal of the 28th came to be known, to Vienna on the evening of the same day – albeit in a watered-down form. In his initial cable, a sceptical Hollweg minimized the impact of His Master’s Voice by cautioning Tschirschky to carefully “avoid giving the impression that we wish to restrain Austria.” But on the next day, July 29, the chancellor changed his tune, perhaps cautioned by Lichnowsky’s warnings that England seemed likely to stand by the Triple Entente yet considered a demarche in the direction of a “Halt in Belgrade” solution possible, and instructed Tschirschky to:

“Please communicate the enclosed (FN 1) to Count Berchtold at once, adding that we regard such compliance on the part of Serbia as suitable basis for negotiations on condition of an occupation of Serbian territory as a guarantee.” (3) 

[FN 1: A copy of Lichnowsky’s telegram from London, which laid out an Italian proposal to get the Great Powers, i.e. France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy to formulate terms under which Serbia could accept the Austrian ultimatum in toto, and cited Sir Grey’s opinion that it might be “possible to bring about an understanding as to the extent of Austrian military operations and demands,” which in turn Hollweg thought close enough to the HALT IN BELGRADE proposal that England  would also support the latter.]

Initially, Hollweg had been less than pleased with Wilhelm’s initiative for, essentially of little flexibility, he was loath to give up his policy of ‘localization’ of the conflict, although it became more likely with every passing day that Russia could not be neutralized. The chancellor did not believe that Russia would resort to war, but if she threatened to do so, he was prepared to call the bluff. It was no bluff, it turned out – Russia, sure of France and almost sure of Great Britain, did not blink. The prospect of unintended consequences occasioned a change in the chancellor’s opinion – Wilhelm’s offer of mediation began to make sense. In the night of July 29/30, Hollweg instructed Tschirschky to tell Berchtold that:

“We are, of course, prepared to fulfill our duty as allies, but must decline to let ourselves be dragged by Vienna, irresponsibly and without regard to our advice, into a world conflagration.” (4)

Actual dates of Declarations of War

Suddenly the dynamics of Austro-German relations had exchanged their polarity – initially the German government had urged Vienna to speedy action, so as to pre-empt all these problems that now towered before the two, while Austria had been her usual perfunctory self – now, as Hollweg sought to pull the emergency brake, Berchtold turned a deaf ear. But instead of doubling his efforts, Hollweg quickly fell back into apathy, submitting his own fate and that of the nation to the preordained but unfathomable offices of Divine Providence. It should have been clear by then that the best scenario available to the German chancellor was to urge on, nay, force the Kaiser’s proposal, HALT IN BELGRADE, down Berchtold’s throat, no matter the cost.

But this Hollweg did not do – he did not correspond at all with Tschirschky on the matter on this morning of July 30. Instead, he spent the day preoccupied by the tumultuous commotion but little constructive discussion precipitated in Berlin by the Tsar’s ominous telegram of 1:20 am, July 30 – the one that mentioned the “military measures … decided five days ago,” and the delayed receipt of Pourtales’s message sent on 3 pm the day before, informing Berlin of the Russian mobilization. The bad news sparked the Kaiser’s famous comments:

“So that [the five days mentioned by the Tsar] is almost a week ahead of us. And these measures are supposed to be of defence against Austria, who is not attacking him!!! I cannot commit myself to mediation any more, since the Tsar, who appealed for it, has at the same time been secretly mobilizing behind my back.

…  It  is  only  a  manoeuvre  to  keep  us  dangling  and  increase  the  lead  he  has  already gained  over  us. …

According to this the Tsar with his appeal for my help has simply been acting a part and leading us up the garden path! That means I have got to mobilize as well!” (5)


[1] Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914, Allen Lane 2012, ISBN 978-0-713-99942-6, pp. 358-9

[3] [4] [5] Albertini, Luigi, The Origins of the War of 1914, 1st Ed. Oxford 1952, 3 Vols., Enigma Books 2005, ISBN 1-292631-26-X, pp. (II), 504; p. (III) 1; pp. (III) 2-3

To be continued … (© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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