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A Review of The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War

Updated on January 2, 2018

In reading The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War, the closest book which I have had to compare it to myself was March to the Marne, a book which dealt specifically with the development of the French army up to the First World War. The two books are of course, dealing with different subjects and have different styles and emphasis (The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War is explicitly international, while by contrast March to the Marne dealt primarily with French domestic military affairs), but in a key way (besides the tremendous amount of archival research which went into them) they are alike : neither is a military study for the sake of military studies, only aiming to look at the nature of the armies they studied, but were instead interested in their connection to, and influence on, wider society. March to the Marne did an excellent job of reflecting the relationship of the army to the state, but I felt was not so proficient with covering the relationship of the state to the army, how the army influenced and served as a political feature for the French state and to a broader level the French nation. The Arming of Europe by contrast, aims to discuss the relationship of technological and political developments to the build up of European land armaments (and how European armies utilized these new technological features, something I felt it did well), and how these build ups then consequently impacted European politics. It tracks and follows the size, structures, and capabilities of European armies well, but this is above all else with an eye towards their effect on the international political scene.

In general, these technical details are covered well. Elements like the creation of quick-firing artillery, and machine guns, are covered with a good level of detail, both illustrating the changes they brought about, and why they (in particular, machine guns), were not previously utilized. Quick-firing artillery is of course easy to grasp in some regards - faster rate of fire - but other aspects of the revolution, such as greater accuracy, and for the first time the capability for long range fire, indirect fire are brought to light. The problems confronting machine guns, such as their weight, their ammunition, and reliability, are revealed, instead of the simplistic belief that European armies simply rejected machine gun, and the book details as well the difficulties in figuring out an effective doctrine for them. This makes it easier to combine the rest of the book and why certain technologies became important : without quick-firing artillery indirect fire was largely impractical, thus why certain armies utilized their artillery in different ways depending on when they received their artillery. The same regarding aviation, laying out the relative advantages of aeroplanes and dirigibles, and their progress and development in the various countries.

Aviation before the Great War is often forgotten, but this book does an excellent job of portraying the military interest in and development of aircraft and dirigibles.
Aviation before the Great War is often forgotten, but this book does an excellent job of portraying the military interest in and development of aircraft and dirigibles.

This comparison between armies I something which is also superb. One of the best chapters in the book covers national stereotypes and representations of armies : the French brilliant and impulsive but lacking in discipline, the Germans methodical and brilliantly ordered but unimaginative, the Russians hardy but (amazingly given the current perspective of Russians) un-warlike, unmilitaristic, and slow preferring its comforts to war, the Austro-Hungarian military constantly on the brink of a predicted disaster but somehow surviving nevertheless, and the Italian military which seemed to have nothing going for it. This depiction of national characterizations was not the limit of army comparisons, and throughout the book there was an excellent comparison of armies and their respective chances of victory or defeat at the major crises, such as 1905, 1908, and 1912, aided by tables at the end reflecting national spending and standing army strength.This was always linked well to how these effected changes upon the attitudes of diplomats and politicians on each side, or conversely did not : the book makes a convincing argument in how the development of an arms race made war from being a negotiating tool to ultimately be avoided at all cost, to instead being a necessary, if undesirable, option, ultimately leading to the crisis of 1914 where neither side was willing to see itself attain anything less than complete victory. Since this was naturally unachievable, war thus came as the second best option. In the previous crises, one side had always believed that its existence was not at stake in backing down : the Austro-Germans due to being on the losing side of a long-terms arm race where their chances for victory was the highest in 1914, and the Entente due to military capability to resist the Germans and that the removal of the Serbians as an ally would effectively undermine their long-term military chances.

Some things I feel, are missing or less well portrayed than might have been otherwise hoped. Since my principal interest falls into France, it seems like the book was missing critical elements about the change to French offensive doctrines in 1913. L'Offense à outrance has been much castigated behind French casualties at the outbreak of the war. The fact that there is little discussion of this in regards to the balance of power, asides from an off-sentence concerning it, is very strange. Without a knowledge of this change in the French army, it would seem that the tactics that it went to war with were essentially the same as those portrayed at the beginning, when there had been a dramatic evolution. It brings up the question of whether there were other significant changes and doctrinal developments in other nations which are not mentioned. Indeed, while the coverage of the Russian army is decent, it seems like for such a hugely important scenario in regards to the Central Powers attitude towards them, the focus is much more on the reaction from the Central Powers than their actual constitution.

The book makes a fascinating introducing of national characterizations of other militaries, but fails to follow up on this. Outside of aviation, where the perception of French brilliance and German methodicalness is easily graspable, it is rarely mentioned afterwards how these perceptions of national character interacted with actual troop numbers and capabilities. March to the Marne made substantial notes about the social composition of the French officer corps, but this is lacking to the same extent in The arming of Europe, something which might have portrayed different perspectives and views among the various armies, as well as providing for an additional qualitative understanding of them. Indeed, how did the standards of officer training and competence factor into evolving depictions of military strength? While the book starts out valiantly in such regards, covering the general depiction of all of the armies, it falters and this is increasingly limited throughout the rest of the book.

These quibbles aside, I think that the book is ultimately a tremendous tool for military depictions of the European armies. It connects this well to diplomatic affairs, and generally does a good job of integrating together its components, with the occasional omission such as its promising initial interest in national stereotypes. There are I feel, broadly two types of people who would be interested in this book : those interested in diplomacy and international relations, and those interested in military affairs. Both would be well served, although the second may take greater advantage with this comprehensive examination of the European armies before the Great War. It does so in a way which is enriching to the expert, yet still accessible to the layman, making for a well crafted book useful to anyone learning about the military and international relations of the twilight years of the belle époque.

5 stars for The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World W

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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