World War I Centennial: France Lays Out the Best-Case Scenario


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 34th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

September 2, 1912: France Hopes Austria-Hungary Will Get Embroiled in Balkans

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By September 1912, Europe was divided into two alliance blocs, knit together by treaties both secret and public: on one side there was the alliance between France and Russia, which was augmented by the increasingly friendly entente cordiale between France and Britain (further cemented in the summer of 1912 by the Anglo-French Naval Convention, negotiated in July and finally signed on August 29). On the other side were Germany and its ailing sidekick Austria-Hungary, drawing ever closer together amid fears of diplomatic isolation and “encirclement” by the opposing alliance bloc. Italy, nominally allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Triple Alliance, was in fact basically undecided, keeping its options open in the event of war.

That event was more and more on the minds of European leaders, as the continent-wide arms race heated up following the Second Moroccan Crisis, and more trouble brewed in the Balkans. In every European capital, the general staff considered innumerable scenarios which might bring the alliance blocs into conflict, war-gaming different strategies in the hopes of entering the fight on terms most favorable to themselves – or at least avoiding disaster.

War Games

For example, Germany’s nightmare scenario was a simultaneous war with France, Russia, and Britain; even with Austria-Hungary at its side, this was a formidable combination that even the Kaiser’s most bellicose generals hoped to avoid. Alfred von Schlieffen, the architect of Germany’s plan for a surprise flank attack on France through Belgium, simply assumed that Britain would stay out of a war between France and Germany, or arrive too late to help the French, allowing Germany to dispose of France before hurrying east to confront Russia. The optimal scenario for Germany was confrontation with France or Russia alone, with help from Austria-Hungary, Italy, and maybe even the Ottoman Empire.

For France, the worst-case scenario was to be left in the lurch by both Russia and Britain, forcing outnumbered French armies to face the Germans alone – a possibility French generals and diplomats tirelessly worked to avert by demonstrating their good faith to the skeptical Russians and wooing the skittish British. Meanwhile the best-case scenario for France (Germany’s nightmare) would see France supported by both Russia and Britain in a war with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The optimal conditions for France involved the Balkans as well. As the weakest of the Great Powers, Austria-Hungary’s participation in support of Germany was taken for granted: it had no other friends, and if Germany went down, Austria-Hungary was going down too. At the same time, it was generally recognized that Austria-Hungary might in fact be the cause of the war, given its entanglements in the Balkans, where neighboring Slavic states, especially Serbia, hoped to liberate their ethnic kinsmen under Hapsburg rule.

On September 2, 1912, the French general staff submitted a top-secret memorandum to the French premier, Raymond Poincaré, advising him that, if war had to come, the most advantageous scenario would be to have it begin with Austria-Hungary getting drawn into a conflict with one or more Balkan states – almost certainly including Serbia.

The French military planners reasoned that a Balkan war would tie down Austro-Hungarian armies, freeing Russia to concentrate its forces against Germany – the main threat to France. While this called for a fair amount of flexibility on the part of their Russian allies, the French knew this would probably be possible because they were privy to the latest Russian military plans, which called for concentrating the bulk of Russian forces closer to the center of European Russia and then sending them north or south, against Germany or Austria-Hungary, as needed.

In fact on July 13, 1912, the Russians had committed to attacking Germany by M+15, or the fifteenth day after mobilization – soon enough, the French hoped, to seriously disrupt the Schlieffen plan by forcing the Germans to withdraw troops from the attack on France. However, the French were too optimistic about the size of the forces Russia would send against Germany for a number of reasons.

For one thing, the Russians had no way of knowing for sure where the Austro-Hungarian armies would be deployed, due to limited intelligence-gathering capabilities. Second, if the war were triggered by Austro-Hungarian aggression in the Balkans, it only made sense for the thrust of the Russian response to fall against Austria-Hungary. Finally, even if they realized the Austro-Hungarian armies were concentrated elsewhere, the Russians still had their own fish to fry: while it was important to help France, their main long-term goal in the event of war with Germany and Austria-Hungary was conquering the northeastern Austrian province of Galicia, whose Ruthenian inhabitants were ethnically similar to Russians and Ukrainians; one secret internal memo actually described Galicia as part of the historic Russian heartland.

With this ambition firmly in mind, the Russians were less likely to oblige the French by concentrating the bulk of their forces against Germany, and more likely to remain focused on Austria-Hungary. Indeed, Austria-Hungary’s Balkan preoccupations would simply be an added invitation to invade Galicia in force, thus securing a major war aim at the beginning of the conflict. When war finally came in August 1914, the Russians did just that – sending the bulk of their forces against the Austrian front, while leaving enough troops to attack Germany in fulfillment of Russia’s treaty obligations to France. As a result, the Russian sally against east Prussia was sufficient to get the Germans’ attention – but not nearly strong enough to be decisive.

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