WWI in Color
October 31, 2013 3:50 AM   Subscribe

World War I in Color is a documentary designed to make the Great War come alive for a 21st-century audience. The events of 1914-18 are authoritatively narrated by Kenneth Branagh, who presents the military and political overview, while interviews with historians add different perspectives in six 48 minute installments annotated within.
"Catastrophe" This first episode looks at the fact that between 1914 and 1918, 65 million men took up arms. Ten million were killed and 20 million were emotionally and physically incapacitated. The war ushered in new terminologies, new and massive weapons, and a scale of artillery barrages never before imagined.

"Slaughter in the Trenches" This episode looks at trench warfare on the Western Front, which was at stalemate in 1915. Communications proved to be a major drawback for both sides, as messages were sent by runners - who invariably faced death. Two simultaneous battles to push back the Germans were launched at Artois by the French, and by the British at Festubert in May 1915. Both failed and brought the realisation that such massive casualties could not be sustained. With a need for more troops, Lord Kitchener went about a recruitment campaign that amassed some one million volunteers. The new volunteer soldiers lacked the discipline of the regulars, and were regarded with some disdain.

"Blood in the Air" In the battles of WWI a new theatre of war was to emerge -- the sky. This new warfare was to prove just as deadly as the trenches, where pilots flew into battle with as little as five hours flying experience, with an average life expectancy of 11 days in 1914. Initially the aircraft replaced hot air balloons as a reconnaissance device, spying and photographing deep behind enemy lines, but in 1915 aviation pioneer Fokker revolutionised the aircraft as a weapon when he synchronised a machine gun with a propeller -- allowing German pilots to annihilate French and British planes.

"Killers of the Sea" In this episode we discover that there was only one major clash of fleets in World War 1. Instead, the war at sea was one of blockades and sinkings and a small but feared U-boat. By August 1914 Germany and Britain were building massive and expensive warships - the dreadnoughts. The British controlled the North Sea, and built up supplies by commandeering all goods heading for Germany. Britain's survival depended on keeping her trade routes open, and for this reason Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on merchant shipping.

"Mayhem on the Eastern Front" When war broke out in 1914 the Eastern Front campaign moved swiftly. Austrian troops invaded Serbia, and Russia, as Serbia's ally, invaded both Germany and Austria. The Austrians quickly retreated, demoralised by the success of the Russian advance. Yet against the Germans, 50,000 Russians were killed or wounded at the battle of Tannenberg. German Generals Hindenberg and Erich von Ludendorff, spurred on by their easy victories against the Russians, dreamed of an extended German empire to the East.

"Victory and Despair" For the Allies, 1918 proved to be the costliest year of the war. On the Western Front 2 million British and 3 million French were either captured, wounded or killed - over a few miles of French and Belgian mud. On 21 March 1918, General von Ludendorff attacked along a 64-mile front which was to be the greatest attack yet seen in modern industrialized warfare. The Germans advanced 20 miles in 14 days, and von Ludendorff set his sights on Paris and victory. Field Marshall Haig rallied his British troops to fight to the end. Casualties ran at 350 000 for both sides, and the toll taken on von Ludendorff's troops had overstretched his war machine.
posted by Blasdelb (60 comments total) 132 users marked this as a favorite
See also,

The First World War, each about one hour long:
Part 1: Race To Arms The complex origins of the Great War, and how seemingly insignificant local tensions in the Balkans exploded into World War

Part 2: Under the Eagle (1914) The German invasion of Belgium and France was brutal and fanned the flames of war

Part 3: Global War 1914 to 1916 The European Empires clashed all across the world, from the South Atlantic Seas to the plains of Africa

Part 4: Jihad (1914 to 1916) The Turkish Ottoman Empire proved a formidable foe, as Allies found to their cost at Gallipoli and in the Middle East

Part 5: Shackled to a Corpse (1914 to 1916) As the Germans and Austrians clashed with the Russians on the bitter Eastern Front, Italy became embroiled in a terrible slaughter

Part 6: Breaking the Deadlock (1915 to 1917) The Somme and Verdun saw carnage on an unprecedented scale, as armies fought to break the stalemate on the Western Front

Part 7: Blockade (1916 to 1917) The war at sea was every bit as bitter as the war on land. The battle at Jutland proved inconclusive, but the U-Boat menace threatened Britain as never before. Meanwhile America entered the war.

Part 8: Revolution (1917) The effects of The Great War shattered nations, inspired mass mutinies by desperate troops, caused great upheaval on the home front and changed the world forever.

Part 9: Germany's Last Gamble (1918) Over 1 million German troops were committed to Kaiserschlacht - the last great offensive of the war, while conflict still raged on many other fronts

Part 10: War Without End (1918 to 1919) The dramatic Allied victory at Amiens led to victory in just 100 days and the signing of a bitterly resented peace, while other nations stumbled towards their own ceasefire agreements
posted by Blasdelb at 4:03 AM on October 31, 2013 [12 favorites]

Wow - thanks for this post! Listening to the first link I was wondering if there ever actually was some soldier on the scene playing a bagpipe lament after a bloody battle in the trenches. It seems right (and not too implausible) that there should have been.
posted by rongorongo at 4:34 AM on October 31, 2013

I don't have anything to contribute but just wanted to say thanks for the links.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 5:26 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

on this site also some color photographs are present.
posted by RobHoi at 5:28 AM on October 31, 2013

Forget about Halloween. This is true horror. I still remember the school visit to Ypres. The arrayed ranks of graves rob you of all speech.
posted by arcticseal at 5:37 AM on October 31, 2013 [6 favorites]

Well this is terrific! Just need to clear my schedule...
posted by Mister_A at 5:54 AM on October 31, 2013

Excellent Post. Your title made me think of this. Not about WWI, but ... well you'll get it. The War Was In Color.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:58 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

For those that want to gorge on history even beyond this treasure trove of links, Dan Carlin has just released the first of a five-part series on World War I on his Hardcore History podcast.
posted by dry white toast at 6:12 AM on October 31, 2013 [7 favorites]

Thank you. I need this to remind me that Turtledove's Great War series (which I have just finished reading) is fiction. Gotta clean out my head.
posted by Seamus at 6:18 AM on October 31, 2013

MAn, I wish I had this when I spent a couple of years teaching WWI....

The main lesson? Do not be a soldier in WWI. The second lesson? Do not be part of the Edwardian class structure, if you can avoid it.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:19 AM on October 31, 2013 [7 favorites]

Folks may also want to take a look at the plans the BBC has to commemorate WWI from next year, as well as the suggestions for improvement the Blood and Treasure regulars made.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:25 AM on October 31, 2013

I came in here to mention the new Dan Carlin bit, which he has been working on forever, and so far is fantastic.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:38 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

authoritatively narrated by Kenneth Branagh

I didn't realize that Shakespeare wrote WWI.
posted by Etrigan at 6:42 AM on October 31, 2013

Keegan's one-volume history starts with an era of peace, prosperity, and unprecedented levels of international harmony and interdependence. All thrown away in the blink of an eye for no good reason. (At least us H-Bomb kids had no illusions and knew we were doomed.) The parallels to today may not be as strong as they were thirteen years ago, but they still make my blood run cold.
posted by whuppy at 6:44 AM on October 31, 2013

I always wonder, if you're Asian or (non-white) African, is 1914 the start of your liberation? That's thirty million fewer healthy European men to staff garrisons, convert, invade, and even force you off the land and take it as their own. Ah, well.

I'd like to know, as a Briton, how we failed to recognise the lessons of the US Civil War and the South African War and the devastating effects of smokeless gunpowder and modern rifles, let alone machine guns. It's not that we were stupid and entered a war in 1914. These things happen. It's not that 1914 was so bloody. It's that by the end of 1915, say, we hadn't graphed casualty rates and the cost and the loss of shipping and thought "hang on, chaps, wouldn't we be better leaving the French to the Hun and getting out of the Continent again?" Imperial hubris, I suppose. Flags, patriotism, the demonised enemy, victory at all costs, for the folk back home. Parallels with the US today, I always think.
posted by alasdair at 7:00 AM on October 31, 2013

I know that we have talked about Harry Patch before - but it struck me that the generation of soldiers who served in WW1 could have hardly wished for a better person to carry their testimony forward.
posted by rongorongo at 7:02 AM on October 31, 2013

This is one of those excellent posts that will gather a lot of favourites, but few comments, I think, as we ponder whether we should watch all 15 hours of clips before putting a comment in. Excellent post, Blasdelb!
posted by Harald74 at 7:09 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

And look at the list of tags over there! ->

posted by billcicletta at 7:16 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Last year, walking by a Great War memorial, I remarked on how I stopped wearing the poppy because it's become ever more a symbol of militant nationalism, just like the poem that inspired the tradition, and that I've always detested how "In Flanders' Fields" ends with an admonishment not to abandon the 'cause' of a pointless slaughter. I figured this was a relatively inoffensive sentiment in a crowd of committed climate change activists leaving a planning meeting. To my surprise, I was attacked for dishonoring the sacrifices of our ancestors by claiming they died for nothing.

I try not to talk about stuff as much any more.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 7:19 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

I remember watching this when it was broadcast on ITV when I was in my teens, as well as The Second World War in Colour which made of point of using as much original colour footage as they could find. The documentaries, as far as I can remember, were great and deeply affecting and well narrated.

However, since then I've had growing issues with the colourisation of black and white footage in the name of 'realism'. I know it may seem obvious now that this footage was colourised after the fact, but at the time I (and many others) thought that ITV had found colour footage from the front line, and the promotion was purposely vague. Wartime footage is no less affecting because it's shot in black and white, and it bugs me that documentarians can be so heavy-handed with manipulating their primary historical footage.
posted by dumdidumdum at 7:26 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Somewhat germane, I want to add that the books "The Guns of August" and "A World Undone" are excellent narratives on the subject of the personalities and conflicts leading up to and through the war.

I cannot stress enough how important the study of The Great War is, on so many levels. It really marks the end of the old order, the Victorian/Edwardian age, or as a friend of mine calls it, the end of the era of kings and dominions. The parallels to the modern day are striking, especially when you examine the thought processes and just how accidental this war really was. The sad fact is that NOBODY wanted it.
posted by tgrundke at 7:42 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

The footage of dogfights is amazing.

I played the paper-based game Dawn Patrol during grade school, and no matter how much zooming-of-hands with our own sound effects we did, it was never so vivid.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:46 AM on October 31, 2013

Keegan's one-volume history starts with an era of peace, prosperity, and unprecedented levels of international harmony and interdependence.

Recommended reading: Barbara Tuchman's the Proud Tower and The Guns of August, dated but readable one volume overviews of the world just before the Great War and the first month of the war and how it started.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:47 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

authoritatively narrated by Kenneth Branagh

I didn't realize that Shakespeare wrote WWI.

Its not so much that Shakespeare wrote WWI, more that Laurence Olivier authoritatively narrated WW2.
posted by biffa at 7:49 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Great post, thanks.
posted by Outlawyr at 7:52 AM on October 31, 2013

It's that by the end of 1915, say, we hadn't graphed casualty rates and the cost and the loss of shipping and thought "hang on, chaps, wouldn't we be better leaving the French to the Hun and getting out of the Continent again?"

In analyses I've seen, they knew they were in a war of attrition that would bleed both sides terribly, and felt for various class-based reasons that they had no choice but to try to bleed less than the other guy and to not give up.

That said, the portrait of WWI as an endless trench-lived hell is inaccurate. There was much more fluidity to the battlefield than is typically portrayed, and both sides continually experimented with tactics to try to decisively shift the war in their favour. No war has had as high a number of generals killed in action as WWI.

The critical weakness was the lack of man portable radios. Battles had scaled past the point where a commander could see his troops, watch the battle, and shift forces accordingly; a general had to lay out a plan, brief everyone, and then rely on runners to keep him updated in his headquarters. This meant that reserves couldn't be quickly allocated to exploit a weakness or a success, and most battles ended up being a badly disorganized scrum of small units left alone to fend for themselves or die. No one was in control of the battle, so lots died for gains that were given up because a sergeant with 10 men didn't feel safe holding until he was back in a trench with friendlies on each side.
posted by fatbird at 7:52 AM on October 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

posted by fatbird at 7:53 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

These are wonderful, I found these a little while ago and I keep coming back to them (and for some reason I don't even find Branagh irritating here).
posted by fingerbang at 7:54 AM on October 31, 2013

fatbird -

Great points, and this highlights one of the reasons why the war was so bloody. The sheer scale and scope of the battles was well beyond the capabilities of the technology, tactics, dogma and abilities of those in command.

Tuchman, in particular, singles out the French military for their focus on "elan" and the ability of the sabre to win battles. They believed that guts would lead to glory, ignoring the fact that the implements, pace and command of battle had changed dramatically.
posted by tgrundke at 7:59 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wasn't there a comprehensive amateur documentary on WWI aviation posted to the blue a few years ago? Might be nice to add to this thread. I thought I favorited it but apparently not. Bueller?
posted by nathancaswell at 8:00 AM on October 31, 2013

Well, I still think that by the end of the war it was clear that there WAS an alternative to the attritional model. Unfortunately it was the Germans that worked out the details and by that point they no longer had the resources to put it into action.
posted by fingerbang at 8:06 AM on October 31, 2013

That said, the portrait of WWI as an endless trench-lived hell is inaccurate. There was much more fluidity to the battlefield than is typically portrayed,

Presumably you are referring to the Western Front. On the Eastern Front, fluidity was the norm.
posted by Mister Bijou at 8:32 AM on October 31, 2013

There's all these new books out titled "1913" or "1914". Currently reading Bill Bryson's latest "1927" which is fantastic, he's ahead of the game. "America, 1908" on my wishlist.
posted by stbalbach at 8:53 AM on October 31, 2013

This is a splendid series which I've enjoyed via netflix - the other fab series is "The World at War". One of the main things I've come to realize from absorbing these depictions of WWII is the only reason Hitler lost is that he was an insane and an amateur who wouldn't listen to his generals. His audacity at the onset of conflict brought success and led him to have 100% confidence in himself. Then, later on as conditions became far more complex and very dire, he still had nothing to fall back on other than his impulsive decisions. For instance, his tank forces were within sight of Moscow before the snows fell, but - against his generals' urgings - first he diverted his tanks south to capture oil fields first, figuring he'd waltz into Moscow right after. Instead, winter came, and his troops didn't even have cold weather uniforms. So we're just very lucky he was inept - his 2nd Front disaster weakened him enough for the Allies to overcome.
posted by TimiB at 8:59 AM on October 31, 2013

The technology, skill, and bravery of the RAF, the genius and ruthlessness of generals like Zhukov, the just-rightness of the umpty zillion T-34s, and the sheer overwhelming power of American industrial capacity had the odd thing to do with it too.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:20 AM on October 31, 2013

One of the main things I've come to realize from absorbing these depictions of WWII is the only reason Hitler lost is that he was an insane and an amateur who wouldn't listen to his generals. His audacity at the onset of conflict brought success and led him to have 100% confidence in himself.

Yeah, but his audacity and not listening to people who knew better is what got him to that position in the first place. You dance with who brung you.
posted by Etrigan at 9:21 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Carlin stuff goes into great detail about how the WWII German Army was in fact a pale imitation of its WWI counterpart. Blitzkrieg allowed the Wehrmacht to strike quickly and hard, but they did not have the defensive capabilities. When you bring into question the idea of what "winning" would have even meant for Germany (seemingly to capture enough territory to build a self-sustaining agricultural economy - a la the Jeffersonian ideal for the U.S. - for a fairly densely-packed German race), plus Russia... just, you know, Russia as a concept, well no. There was no way that Germany was going to "win" the war.

To say nothing of the fact that had Hitler not been a crazy man it is extremely unlikely that the war would have happened in the first place.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:39 AM on October 31, 2013

I recently watched BBC's 1964 26 episode series The Great War, with my kids and we were awestruck. The technological development was so fast -- too fast to stop -- no one could do anything but continue. Aircraft, machine guns, artillery (the Paris Gun, holy crap!). And the constant feeding of young lives to this empty cause (the war) until countries were so depleted that they couldn't sustain it anymore.

My younger son (10) was so blown away by the idea of soldiers first seeing tanks coming over the horizon that he spontaneously wrote a poem (he'd never done that before or since):

Big huge mechanical monsters they are,
as they lumber slowly toward you to either destroy you
or to save you,
as they invade cities with their spears raised high,
as they crawl through barbwire like through air,
as they crawl over mud without sinking;
and with their spears they obliterate cities, lives, land, and structures;
then they crawl over their remains to destroy even more.

We also watched All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Sergeant York (1942), and some other more recent stuff, but nothing compares to The Great War in terms of sheer jaw-droppingness. I'm hoping to find time to check out the linked stuff, so thanks for those!

Oh, also there's the related gem The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)!
posted by strangeguitars at 10:00 AM on October 31, 2013 [9 favorites]

It's fascinating to me how we get along with such a nonexistent popular understanding of what WWI was actually about. Most people talk about the trenches and nothing else, or at most mumble something about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, as if that in itself were some sort of explanation. To the extent that I understand anything about it myself, and I'm anything but a historian, it's that it was about a rebalancing of power in the death throes of the Ottoman Empire, with the great powers seeking control, territory, resources and influence and more to the point, preventing other powers from getting same. But it seems like nobody ever really talks about how you get from a Serbian assassin to the long, hideous stalemate in the trenches of NW Europe which constitutes most of our popular memory of the war, or the fact that there was a fuckload more to it than that.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:02 AM on October 31, 2013

It's great to see the footage (and I have no problem with its being colorized, though it would have been nice if they'd acknowledged that upfront), but I wasn't thrilled with it otherwise. I started watching Part 5, "Mayhem on the Eastern Front," and was first put off by the reference to the archduke's assassination by "alleged Serbian nationalists"—there's nothing "alleged" about them, and they would have been the first to tell you proudly that they were Serbian nationalists. Then there was the reliance on that Thatcherite asshole Norman Stone as a talking-head historian; I know I'm being ad hominem, but I don't like the man. They talked about "the ordinary Austrian soldier" without doing anything to counter the natural modern assumption that "Austrian" = "German by language and culture" even though the bulk of the Austro-Hungarian (not Austrian) army was made up of Croats, Romanians, Slovenians, Czechs, and other subject nationalities; in fact, Octavian Tăslăuanu is given a German accent when his accounts are read aloud despite his being a Transylvanian Romanian. Pronunciation was a minor but persistent irritant: Franz "Joseph" is incoherent (use either the anglicized "Francis Joseph" or say Frahnts YOH-zef), and BROO-siloff is simply wrong (it's broo-SEE-loff). And on the reading-aloud front, Brusilov is given a stage Russian accent suitable for Boris and Natasha when an Imperial Russian officer of that rank would have spoken correct English in a British accent (the tsar himself spoke English as well as he did Russian). But I finally decided to bail on the series when they referred to "the elderly sultan, Enver Pasha": Enver Pasha was neither elderly (born 1881) nor the sultan, he was the war minister; it would be just as accurate to talk about "the elderly king of England, Winston Churchill." I figured if they could be that inaccurate about that major a figure, it wasn't worth more of my time.

> It's fascinating to me how we get along with such a nonexistent popular understanding of what WWI was actually about.

It's not that surprising, since a) popular understanding of what any historical event was actually about—or of any specialized subject—is always going to be lacking (that's why we have specialists), and b) not even specialist historians agree on what WWI was actually about. I've read a shitload about it (including the documentary histories of Albertini and Sidney Fay), and all I can tell you is that a complicated mix of historical pressures and the personalities of the decisionmakers turned a trivial crisis (assassinations had been a dime a dozen for a couple of decades) into the kind of long, devastating war that nobody wanted or anticipated. No offense, but "a rebalancing of power in the death throes of the Ottoman Empire" is exactly the kind of meaningless summary you get in opinion pieces in the daily paper; it says nothing whatever about the war itself.
posted by languagehat at 10:36 AM on October 31, 2013 [8 favorites]

The combination of this post, and yesterday's home team series winner at Fenway (the first since 1918), reminds me that everything in this FPP is more recent than the last time the Cubs won the World Series.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 10:56 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

My point was that for most of the major wars we remember, there's some sort of abbreviated CW about it that the broader culture has settled on; irrespective of how accurate or useful it really is, and that we seem to have settled for not having one for a war that was basically pivotal for establishing the world order for the last century, and that it seems odd to me. People seem to like having a shorthand explanation even if it's bullshit. Not having one at all is sort of out of character.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:57 AM on October 31, 2013

People seem to like having a shorthand explanation even if it's bullshit. Not having one at all is sort of out of character.

On the contrary, I think we do have a shorthand explanation, which is that the war was a burst of incomprehensible carnage whose origins are still largely not understood. Certainly that is how it was presented to me when I was a kid...
posted by like_a_friend at 11:01 AM on October 31, 2013

Which sounds to me like a simple restatement of "settling for no explanation".
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:04 AM on October 31, 2013

It isn't, though. It's acknowledging that a thing *is inexplicable*, not that there's some explanation we're too lazy, or whatever, to uncover. It isn't settling so much as accepting.
posted by like_a_friend at 11:06 AM on October 31, 2013

I propose that there can also be a difference between a war's origins and what it's "about." The origins of WWI are an absolute mess, but I think once it was going everyone involved in it saw how quickly the world was changing and knew that they needed to be at the table to decide what direction it would take.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:08 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a 15 year old kid on my first visit to Europe in the mid-60s, I was taken to Verdun along with a tour bus load of my fellow young American tourists. A guide was describing the history of the battle, and particularly the rolling artillery bombardments that became famous, as we looked out over rough meadows that were still so loaded with unexploded ordnance, that no one could walk there, and occasionally errant livestock was still regularly getting blown to bits.

And he talked about how the unceasing barrages would go on for hours, until the simple repetitive concussions of firing and exploding shells made otherwise unhurt men in the trenches useless, shell shocked grey faced hulks. His phrase for the condition was that "the ceaseless sounds of the guns broke men's minds, even when it didn't kill them outright." I've never forgotten that description, and nothing ever made war's horrors more vivid to me.
posted by paulsc at 11:43 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Really, the more one learns about the lead-up to WWI the more it reads like it was written by George R. R. Martin. Numerous great powers, archaic diplomatic structures, lack of trust and good faith, rapidly-shifting societal changes, leaders who aren't generally keeping up with the changes of that world, massive discrepancies in the competency levels of those leaders, back-stabbing, unanswerable demands, neutral states being dragged into conflicts they didn't want, and calls for support across the narrow sea.

And, of course, more like GRRM than anything, no end in sight and no clear goal for what that end should look like.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:59 AM on October 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

Gwynne Dyer wrote a book called War, (with a PBS documentary series spun off from it in 1986). It's about the history of war leading up to the situation in the latter half of the 20th century. He posits that war is, fundamentally, a way of resolving a difference in the actual vs. the perceived/accepted power of the belligerants. After a war, actual and perceived power are in sync--the winner won, the loser lost, and we know who is who. But over time, there's drift. Perceived power lives on as political dominance, but the conditions of having actual power change without recognition in the political relationships and the dominant institutions, until seemingly the only way for an unrecognized power to be acknowledged is to earn that acknowledgement in war.

So prior to WWI, you had a newly unified and organized Germany building a strong state and military, but still treated as an inferior by France and England and the decrepit Austo-Hungarian Empire. You had Kaiser Wilhelm looking for any excuse to start a war in order for Germany to take her "rightful" place in Europe. You had a network or treaties and secret treaties so tangled that no one could say who was actually allied with whom. And you had a Serbian nationalist with comparitively petty grievances, and a bomb. There were a lot of other things going on, of course, but the underlying idea that war is how society works out tangled geopolitical knots doesn't seem so crazy after the insanity of WWI.
posted by fatbird at 12:40 PM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, in every analysis I've seen on WWI, there was an element of "war is the playground of the aristocracy", and in WWI, the upper classes were still firmly in control in Europe. I'm not sure we need much more complicated explanations than "the ruling classes were bored (and pace Martin, just didn't give a shit about those ground underfoot in the Game of Kings)."
posted by fatbird at 12:53 PM on October 31, 2013

Fatbird: nice. Still not as handy and pocket-sized as:

American Revolution: "We were throwing off the yoke of British tyranny!"
Civil War: "Slavery and secession! Preserve the Union!"
WWII: Everything from "Crazy dictator wants to conquer everybody because he's crazy and a dictator" to slightly more nuanced stuff starting with the Treaty of Versailles, but nobody seems to be scratching their head over it anyway.
Korea, Vietnam: "Commies and the Domino Theory"
Iraq: Real/imaginary WMDs and/or president with a hard-on.
Afghanistan: "Paybacks are a bitch, Taliban/al Qaeda"

But, y'know, getting there.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:54 PM on October 31, 2013

While "Dickhead Aristocrats" does make a nice soundbite, I agree that it's a bit oversimplified.
posted by fatbird at 12:59 PM on October 31, 2013

How reputable is Tuchman considered as an historian of WWI? I know she makes a big deal in Guns of August that the powers that be initially believed it would be a short war in which some border territories got swapped. No one planned for the meat grinder it would become.
posted by fatbird at 1:05 PM on October 31, 2013

fatbird: "and then rely on runners to keep him updated in his headquarters"

Who would then, as the documentary explains, be pretty both obvious and desirable targets. Radio had been around for longer than powered flight - so it seems strange that battlefield communication methods that would have been familiar to the ancient Greeks were still considered the norm.
posted by rongorongo at 1:09 PM on October 31, 2013

George_Spiggott, try this.

WWI: Market Crash for Diplomacy
posted by Navelgazer at 1:13 PM on October 31, 2013

Frivolity aside, "the disparity between real and perceived power had gone long untested" is a great start. Add in the crumbling of old orders to the southeast, the growing power vacuum that implied, and the fact that nobody quite understood what major war meant anymore and it actually starts to make a broad kind of sense. You may not need precision, just a sense of what was afoot.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:14 PM on October 31, 2013

Radio had been around for longer than powered flight

But effective man-portable radios were still not available in WWI, meaning something that one man in the squad could carry on the front lines so that HQ could know that the left flank had reached their goal and were unopposed--and so HQ should send reserves to exploit a breakthrough. Radios existed at the line of departure and couldn't be moved forward.

In the context of fluid trench warfare, what would happen is that the creeping barrage would clear the enemy trenches, your line would advance and get down into the enemy trench and fortify, and then you'd send a runner, and hours later more troops might move up to reinforce you or to continue the attack, or your runner might return with orders to hold. But by then, the enemy had counterattacked (because they prepared to do so as soon as the barrage lifted), and either driven you back to your own lines or blocked your advance, making further advance impossible, and HQs response to your success was stale.

It cannot be overstated, I think, just how hamstrung battle management was in WWI.
posted by fatbird at 1:19 PM on October 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

"How reputable is Tuchman considered as an historian of WWI? ..."
posted by fatbird at 4:05 PM on October 31

As researcher, she did her work in consulting original correspondence, other histories of the period and interview sources to reasonable, if not exhaustive academic standards, as far as I've ever been able to determine. But I think she saw her role as a popularizer of the period's history, and of some strategic viewpoints that others were reluctant to debate in academic press. To that extent, she didn't much mind if her original viewpoints overlapped into the arguable, as long as she had some basis in research to support them, even if her views had little support in majority historical academic opinion.
posted by paulsc at 1:39 PM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

[expletive deleted]: "To my surprise, I was attacked for dishonoring the sacrifices of our ancestors by claiming they died for nothing."

The reasons for fighting in the Great War are largely forgotten, but they were very real, halting German Imperialism was very much not pointless. For a taste of what that really meant to people in the small countries of Europe check out the remarkably gripping Judicial Report on the Sacking of Louvain by the Flemish Professor Leon van der Essen, which is written with remarkable neutrality and conspicuous respect for truth. For the 'other side' of the story, this is the official German statement on what happened and a telegram to Wilson by the Kaiser that mentions it.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:11 PM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been finding that this is a good read on WW1. Having each post be on the centenary of some pre-war event helps to give a sense of the pace of things, as well as filling me in on some of the background international stresses.
posted by frodisaur at 12:57 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

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