WWI Centennial: The Arms Race Shifts into High Gear

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 59th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

March 6, 1913: The Arms Race Shifts into High Gear

In March 1913, amid the continuing crisis resulting from the First Balkan War, the European arms race shifted into high gear with three practically simultaneous moves by Germany, France, and Russia. 

On March 1, the German government presented a novelle (amendment to an existing law) to the Reichstag that would boost the effective strength of infantry and field artillery units, create new cavalry brigades and regiments, strengthen fortress artillery, and add more communications personnel, in addition to improving training and speeding up wartime mobilization. The artillery procurement included a secret order for several 42-centimeter mortars (pictured) specifically designed to destroy the fortifications around Liège, Belgium, as part of the Schlieffen Plan; nicknamed “Big Berthas” by designers at the Krupp armaments firm, these monstrous guns weighed 43 tons and fired shells weighing up to 1830 pounds.

The additions called for in the March 1913 novelle actually fell short of the three additional army corps originally requested by the German Army—but they still represented a sizeable increase in its peacetime strength from 790,000 in 1913 to 890,000 in 1914 (including officers, one-year volunteers, and auxiliary personnel). Some of the other measures, like new fortifications, wouldn’t be complete until 1915 or 1916. The price tag for all this included a one-time splurge of 895 million gold marks, plus a recurring annual outlay of 184 million marks, making it the biggest military spending bill in German history.


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Less than a week later, on March 6, 1913, Premier Aristide Briand presented the French Chamber of Deputies with a momentous request to increase the standard term of service from two years to three. The “Three Year Law,” as it became known, was supported by President Raymond Poincaré, army chief of staff Joseph Joffre, and the other members of the conseil superieur de la guerre, or Supreme War Council. By lengthening the term of service for conscripts by a year, the new law would increase the size of France’s standing army from 690,000 in 1913 to 827,000 in 1914, including officers and auxiliary personnel. For obvious reasons, this idea was unpopular with young Frenchmen liable to conscription (as well as their families) and probably wouldn’t have passed if not for public alarm over the new German military program, unveiled just days before; French officials warned that a strengthened German army might be able to launch a surprise attack without even waiting to mobilize reserves (a “standing start” attack).

While it signaled France’s determination to keep pace with Germany, in retrospect the Three Year Law was just as important for what it failed to do. For political reasons, the new law only applied to the 1913 (“freshmen”) conscript class, not previous classes, which were discharged as planned under the old schedule. This served to delay much of the law’s benefit as far as manpower was concerned, and also increased the proportion of untrained “green” recruits, meaning the army’s preparedness would actually decrease in the short term; the maximum benefits wouldn’t be felt until 1916.

Perhaps more importantly, the French government dragged its feet in procuring heavy artillery, which would prove crucial in trench warfare as the only means of breaking up enemy lines before advancing infantry. Although the war ministry asked the Chamber of Deputies to spend 400 million francs over seven years on howitzers and heavy artillery, the volatile French political environment prevented Parliament from agreeing to the request until June 1914—far too late to do any good in the opening stages of the war. The delay was partly due to complacency, as conventional wisdom held that France’s famous 75-millimeter cannons were the best field artillery in the world, as indeed they were—but these light guns, intended for a war of maneuver, were soon found to be inadequate in the face of a heavily entrenched enemy.

Last but certainly not least, in March 1913 the Russian government—eager to demonstrate solidarity with its French ally—began developing plans for a huge increase in armaments known as the “Great Military Program.” Although the details remained sketchy, on March 19, Tsar Nicholas II’s Council of Ministers agreed to a plan, outlined by Minister of War Vladimir Sukhomlinov, calling for a massive increase in the size of Russia’s standing army, procurement of new artillery, and construction of new strategic railroads to speed mobilization.

All this came on top of ambitious projects already underway. The current military bill, passed in 1912, was set to expand the Russian standing army from 1.2 million men in 1913 to 1.45 million men in 1914; the Great Military Program called for a further addition of half a million men by 1917, bringing Russia’s peacetime strength to nearly two million men. That alone would have been enough to trigger serious alarm in Germany and Austria-Hungary—but the program also promised to accelerate wartime mobilization with new military railroads, paid for in part by French loans. Remarkably, St. Petersburg was confident it could fund the rest of the program without having to resort to borrowing, thanks to Russia’s breathtaking economic growth: from 1910 to 1914, gross national product soared 25 percent to over 20 billion rubles, flooding government coffers with new tax revenues.


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But Russia’s autocratic government proved just as inefficient as the democratic regime of the French Republic: Final plans for the Great Military Program weren’t approved by Nicholas II until November 1913, and the bill wasn’t passed by the Russian Duma until July 1914—again, far too late to have much impact on Russia’s performance in the Great War. Indeed, the Great Military Program managed to induce panic in Berlin and Vienna without actually contributing to Russian military potential, and so ended up being counter-productive.

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March 6, 2013 - 9:00pm
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