The Guns Of August

90 Responses

  1. Carl says:

    If you had asked the British public in 1914 who had fought in, and what events precipitated, a famous naval engagement 99 years earlier, would they have done any better? Are people rally more ignorant today or are they, through the wonders of technology, simply more able to advertise their ignorance?

  2. I suspect that Horatio Nelson was better known to the British public in 1914 than he is today.

  3. Carl says:

    @Patrick, I *suspect* so too, but I would love to be able to prove it. (You might be amused by an old book called "1066 and All That", published in 1930, that made fun of how little history the average Briton knew.) The one thing that really bothers me about modern ignorance though is how inexcusable it is. It baffles me when somebody confidently asserts in an online comment something that is obviously, spectacularly wrong. I always think: "you are connected to the largest, most easily searchable collection of knowledge ever assembled in the history of mankind. You have at your fingertips a database that grows, every day, by an amount that dwarfs the library of Alexandria. And yet it doesn't occur you to spend two seconds to check a fact before calling somebody names?". Some people, sadly, cannot be helped. Happy Sunday.

  4. AlphaCentauri says:

    I'd be more concerned about the ignorance of WWI if there were any effort to educate people about conflicts that were avoided through effective diplomacy or economic policies.

    But at least in my experience in US history, kids are ignorant of the most recent events because the history courses always start at the beginning with Columbus and the class never gets farther than the civil war before the end of the year. I still remember the date Caesar Rodney made his ride from Philadelphia to Wilmington, but no history class I ever took in elementary or high school made it as far as the 20th century. The British kids are at a much greater disadvantage in that department, with so many more years of national history to learn.

  5. Carl:

    "It baffles me when somebody confidently asserts in an online comment something that is obviously, spectacularly wrong."

    and

    "And yet it doesn't occur you to spend two seconds to check a fact before calling somebody names?"

    What have I asserted that was obviously, spectacularly wrong? And who have I called names, you neck-bearded drunkard?

  6. mud man says:

    "Don't know" was a popular answer. That's a start, anyway, although I suspect that would be a cultural difference between England and Over Here. … I wonder how "Jeez, that was wrong, wasn't it?" would do??

  7. Careless says:

    no history class I ever took in elementary or high school made it as far as the 20th century

    Really? Not even WWI/The Depression/WWII? Mine generally faded after WWI or the Depression, and I don't recall if any got past Eisenhower/Korea, and I don't think I'm that much younger than you

  8. Damian P. says:

    I recommend that you Americans file these stories away, for next time the Brits laugh at Yanks for being unable to find [country X] on a map.

  9. It's of course inexcusable that a person can't find France on a map Damian, but that does bring to mind a pet peeve: the self-loathing American who looks down on her fellow Americans because they don't travel abroad often enough to suit her taste.

    The sort of person who displays this form of snobbery is often quite well off (or at least has parents who are well off), and can afford trans-atlantic or trans-pacific travel, which is rather expensive for most Americans. This sort of person also forgets that Americans have the better part of a continent to explore without leaving their borders, when they do wish to travel. For instance, the distance from my home, which is in the southern United States, to the nearest foreign border is greater than the distance from London to Minsk or Istanbul.

    And, for some reason I never quite get, travel to Mexico and Canada, which quite a few Americans do easily afford and enjoy, doesn't seem to count for these people.

  10. Alfred Spade says:

    John Q British 19th Century Public likely couldn't describe Napoleon's campaigns, the development of railroads, or the end of the slave trade either. Because he was working 80 hour weeks in a coalmine or a mill.

    This generation no more invented ignorance of the world than we did rebellious young people or music that gets worse every year.

    What's we did invent is keeping that ignorance of the world intact through a life of leisure with literally no task beyond full time, taxpayer funded schooling for the first twenty years or life.

    That's what's deplorable.

  11. Chris says:

    If you're going to do a post lamenting people's ignorance about World War I, you might not want to illustrate it using a poster from the World War II era.

  12. angstela says:

    "history courses always start at the beginning with Columbus and the class never gets farther than the civil war before the end of the year"

    Wow. I've never known one that didn't get, at least, to Viet Nam.

    Anecdotal evidence is fun :-)

  13. Xenocles says:

    The "many people" who believe the bit about Abraham Lincoln seem to comprise two percent of those polled. Frankly I'm not sure that's more troubling than the small but substantial portion who believe that Winston Churchill was PM (nine percent at the start, 13% at the end) or the tiny portion (one percent each) who thought George Bernard Shaw was ever PM. The same complaint goes for the Thatcher people (one percent for either end of the war).

  14. nlp says:

    I'm willing to bet that the number of people who can explain how the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire led to the German invasion of Belgium is miniscule.

  15. Sean C says:

    If you're going to do a post lamenting people's ignorance about World War I, you might not want to illustrate it using a poster from the World War II era.
    I thought that was part of the joke. It would have worked better with an illustration of the ironclad Monitor given the Lincoln joke though.

  16. Salty says:

    Frankly, I prefer my firearms to come from Brixton.

  17. Allo V Psycho says:

    Patrick,

    I can't help thinking that if some one else had written this post, you would have enjoyed taking it apart. 2% of responses cited the assasination of Abe as the cause, and 2% listed Thatcher as PM. But of course, people do give spurious answers to polls, for their own amusement – 390,000 people (about 0.8%) gave their religion as 'Jedi' in the 2011 UK census, perhaps through a sense of fun. And what in the source's three jokey references to Blackadder could justify your assertion that it is a major source of knowledge? To centre your comments on this tiny proportion of responses is just – bizarre.

  18. whheydt says:

    My high school history didn't address Viet Nam. That was a "current event" at the time.

  19. Dan Weber says:

    There is the old joke that an American who thinks 100 years is a long time and an Englishman is someone who thinks 100 miles is a long distance.

    Apparently 100 years is a long time for either of them.

  20. Harrow says:

    My high school history didn't address Viet Nam. That conflict hadn't happened yet.

  21. Tam says:

    1914: The year we broke history.

    If Putin would just come out and declare himself Tsar of all the Russias*, we'd at least be steering back into the antebellum mainstream, although I don't know that the European psyche will ever really recover from the kicking it took for those thirty-odd years…

    *His claim is no less solid than Ivan IV's…

  22. Mark says:

    The "X% of people believe Y ridiculous historical fact" story is a British media staple (particularly the Daily Fail and the Telegraph, although the BBC frequently indulge as well), so this is not much of a story to me.

    I'd be interested to know if this is a slow-news staple in the US as well, though?

  23. Cat G says:

    @nlp – Actually, I'm pretty sure my cohort of fellow students from the 5th grade could probably give it a decent shot. Our history teacher for that year was quite into the beginnings of WWI, the various ententes, and how Archduke Ferdinand fit into all of it. (I mean, c'mon. Making us draw maps? At least it gave us an excuse to whip out colored pencils.) A lot of my history classes did overlap in a way, but we had a history class every year for about 4 years and they did give us quite a good spread.

  24. Thad says:

    (Not that Thad, the other Thad)

    Please. 1066 and All That>/i> is not an "old book" it is part of our British spiritual heritage!

  25. Thad says:

    I hate HTML!

  26. Zack says:

    Well…

    TECHNICALLY… it was King George V who declared war, on the advice of H.H. Asquith. The King of England/Queen of England has the sole authority over troops and troop deployments, and the sole authority to declare war.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_prerogative_in_the_United_Kingdom#Foreign_affairs

    The powers of the monarch are quite extensive in theory; they however have been judicious and cautious in their exercise in the past two centuries or so.

  27. cyberpenguin says:

    I have an Android app called American Civil War gazette that "replays" Northern and Southern papers on their 150th anniversary.

    I've been thinking hard about doing the same for the WWI centennial, since I already have the code written to work other time periods.

    I'd probably use the New York Times and the Washington (D.C.) Herald. Preferably I'd include an American paper and a British paper, but I don't have access to any full archives of British papers.

  28. Zack says:

    @Cyberpenguin: That'd be an awesome way to teach History…to have a time-compressed replay of the events using our records of old newspapers, magazines, and journals; transcribe the old texts and layouts to a websiteish layout that would allow students to experience the news as someone in New York or Atlanta would have seen it.

    Do that for all the major wars and you're onto something…. :)

    But that's always one of the big problems I- and I feel safe to say, a lot of people- have had with learning history; a lot of it gets mixed up into a single clump and we rarely get the feel or understanding of the roller coaster that it actually was; the ebb and flow of the wars and how that made specific events vastly more important than they may otherwise have been.

  29. Rich Rostrom says:

    I've been re-reading George MacDonald Fraser's "McAuslan" stories.

    They are loosely based on Fraser's service as a very junior officer in a Highland infantry battalion just after WW II. (Which followed his combat service in Burma during the war.)

    The title character, one of the narrator's platoon, is the dirtiest, dumbest soldier in the British Army, illiterate and profoundly ignorant. Which did not keep him from fighting the Germans as best he could, or from being the one man who could answer the final tie-breaking question in the inter-battalion quiz-contest with the Fusiliers.

    And in fact McAuslan isn't that much more ignorant than a lot of his comrades. Aside from Sergeant McCaw, the Clydeside Communist, all they know of history and politics is the label on a bottle of "H.P. Sauce" (illustrated with a picture of the Houses of Parliament).

    Or some of the actual soldiers I've read of. Major Vladimir "Popski" Peniakoff encountered a driver in the Libyan Desert for whom the concepts of "north", "south", "east", and "west" were arcane mysteries.

    Roughly 20% of the population is, well, dumb, and ignorant of anything beyond their immediate concerns. That's true now, and was true 100 years ago.

  30. Roscoe says:

    Zack – I had the same idea in college, reading archived copies of newspapers to get a better idea of what the Vietnam War and WW II were all about. What I learned was something quite different, that the journalists back then had no idea what was going on around them. I subsequently learned that the journalists of today are no better.

    nlp – I suspect that the percentage would be significantly higher for commentators here. The title of Patrick's post suggests that he knows what went down.

  31. cyberpenguin says:

    @Zack: I'd do it the same way as I did with the American Civil War Gazette… in real-time. Part of what I wanted to experiment with the ACW Gazette was following the events day to day.

    My biggest hesitation is that it takes a huge amount of time to rework the articles into a readable form, even when starting with decent OCR, although most WWI newspapers are in considerably better condition that Civil War era papers.

    @Roscoe: It's funny how many times certain Generals were killed. IIRC Kirby Smith (CSA) was killed four or five times. Ulysses S. Grant died in 1861 at the Battle of Belmont. Davis was in Pennsylvania to lead the Confederate troops at Gettysburg.

    But, I also think there's a certain benefit to reading the erroneous reports, especially if the reader recognizes or questions the report. Since they're historical events, most casual readers would look up Gettysburg and see that Lee commanded. But, that might lead to the question, "Why was it of such great concern to the contemporary reporters that Davis might be leading the Army of Northern Virginia?"

  32. Steven H. says:

    @cyberpenguin:

    "But, that might lead to the question, "Why was it of such great concern to the contemporary reporters that Davis might be leading the Army of Northern Virginia?""

    Because it suggested that the South was getting desperate?
    Which is frankly insane, but they'd lost their greatest general recently, so I can see some people thinking that.

  33. Zack says:

    @Steven H.: I think he meant that rhetorically, as an example of one of the questions you could ask students to guide them through the material and help them process it.

  34. barry says:

    The powers of the monarch are quite extensive in theory; they however have been judicious and cautious in their exercise in the past two centuries or so.

    They remember what happened to Charles I, even if nobody else does.
    People remember the history that is relevant to them, and the chemistry and mathematics and geography.

  35. SKT says:

    Blackadder?? Pfft. Everyone knows Dr. Who initiated the call for England to enter WWI.

    Where do these people get their info? The NSA??

  36. Trebuchet says:

    @Chris:

    If you're going to do a post lamenting people's ignorance about World War I, you might not want to illustrate it using a poster from the World War II era.

    Thank you. That was the first thing I noticed. Appears to be something like the original conception of the KGV class, with 3×4 gun turrets instead of the actual 2×4,1×2 configuration.

  37. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    My favorite "Kids these days don't know any history" story was one I read in the 1980's about a test that showed that 50% of British schoolchildren didn't know which half of the 19th Century the Indian Mutiny happened in.

    Frankly, it occurred to me that a perfectly reasonable way to teach history concentrates on sequence rather than dates. And I tend to think that the Mutiny (1857) would divide the 19th Century for the British as the Civil War divides it for Americans. So students taught sequence would have a 50% chance to guess which half of the century they thought of it as dividing, the Mutiny actually took place in.

    Not that this applies to the issues here. But I have noted that Progressive Education tends to skimp on Military History in favor of Social History. I wonder if the people quizzed about WWI might know a little more about when the Labor Movement got started, when the Fabian Society was founded, and various significant dates for the Women's Suffrage movement.

  38. Palimpsest says:

    In a 2004 survey of school children 6% thought that Gandalf defeated the Spanish Armada.

    http://www.theguardian.com/education/2004/aug/05/schools.highereducation

  39. Incongruent says:

    Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. Which is perfectly fine, "the devil you know" and all that. I mean, let's face it, most of history was pretty good to humanity.

  40. Incongruent says:

    How do these sorts of things happen?

    "Class, we're taking a quiz today for national reasons."
    "Does it count towards our grade?"
    "No."
    "Effin' awesome, I'm answering Metallica for everything."

  41. melK says:

    Well, gee. If we're going to talk about classes not covering things… My high school current events class never got much past the Iran Hostage Crisis…

  42. Dave B says:

    @AlphaCentauri

    Your history classes start with Columbus?

    You mean there is no history taught/happening before Columbus stumbled upon the shore?

    Wow. Thats quite baffling.

    Here we start at prehistoric times, first cultures and societies, the classical period and high cultures (eqypt, india, persia, greece), the roman empire,… i.e. most of the history that happend right up till current times.

    Just about 500 years of history? Wow!

  43. Born01930 says:

    Bypassing the point Pat Rick is wanting to make…2 great reads on the build up to WW1 "Dreadnought" and "Castles of Steel" by Robert Massie. Follow them with "A World Undone" by G J Meyer.

    I know this ain't no book club but what the heck.

    Back to the point our off color host is making…I made (well tried to) a joke today and referred to Pavlovs dog. Blank stares all around.

  44. Virgilstar says:

    The following quote from Captain Slack Bladder is on of my favorites… "a war which would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week"

  45. AlphaCentauri says:

    @DaveB: There was an alternate year schedule: American History, World History (that started at prehistoric times but never got past the Renaissance), and Geography. You got the same history courses later when you could go into more depth, but we still started at the same point and still ran out of time before finishing the textbook.

    Thinking about it, our school's textbooks were pretty old, so they wouldn't ever have gotten us up to the present in any case. And trying to discuss controversial events that people's parents lived through would have been a headache for a teacher — the pro New Deal and anti New Deal people would have made her want to retire early.

  46. R R Clark says:

    Anecdotally, U.S. History was split up over two years with the first going from Discovery to the Civil War and the second going from the assassination of Lincoln to the end of the Vietnam era. There was also World History, which compressed the history of Western civilization down into about 150 dates and places you had to remember. I had very good and engaging teachers for all three and I still felt as though we didn't cover enough.

    I was fortunate that our school offered a strange hybrid AP course that was current events and composition mashed into a double class taught by two of our very good social studies department teachers who had no problem "breaking" the rules of the course and letting us write about whatever. There were 15 kids in that class and I think over the course of the year we wrote a combined total of like 300 essays and actually learned how to conduct research at a collegiate level, so it was an incredibly strong introduction to the rigors of collegiate life. That I was also taking British literature and physics at the same time meant that I had virtually no time for anything besides my sports commitments (one of which I dropped due to needing more time for study).

    Tough experience, but utterly worthwhile. I think American history is overemphasized in our public schools, but I'm not sure there's a fix for that that does not involve less history study for the kids.

  47. Dave B says:

    @AlphaCentauri

    In germany we got several tracks of secondary education: the main ones are "Realschule" for ages 10-16 and "Gymnasium" for 10-18.

    The history syllabus is nearly the same for those common 6 grades, the 2 additional years in "Gymnasium" consist of history and its effects on society,…

    As in the US every federal state handles its education affairs differntly.
    I don't know how google translate handles these so i link to 2 sample syllabi:
    Realschule Federal State of Saxony-Anhalt pp. 12ff
    http://www.bildung-lsa.de/pool/RRL_Lehrplaene/Endfassungen/lp_sks_gesch.pdf

    Gymnasium Federal State of Saxony pp. 29ff
    http://www.bildung-lsa.de/pool/RRL_Lehrplaene/geschgyma.pdf

    That means every german student who completes his secondary education should know the common facts of human history.
    Prehistoric times up to German Unification and the following years.

    Textbooks can't be very old as the publishers want to make money and there were a lot of changes in central europe, ww1+2, cold war, reunification, euro-zone.
    It makes no sense to have books teaching with math problems using old currency deutschmarks or how many tanks it takes to repel the commies/capitalists

  48. mcinsand says:

    We won't say how many years have passed, but I took one year of US History and one year of World History in high school. Although I remember a bit of the world history, there is only one memory I have remaining from US history. One of my female classmates was fairly brash and talkative, and one of the guys reached a point of having heard enough; 'Amy, you'd better shut your mouth before I put something in it!' The funniest part is that the teacher simply could not maintain his composure, and he retreated to the hall for a few minutes to laugh it off.

  49. En Passant says:

    AlphaCentauri wrote Aug 5, 2013 @5:56 am:

    @DaveB: There was an alternate year schedule: American History, World History (that started at prehistoric times but never got past the Renaissance), and Geography. …

    Similar alternating year HS schedule here, with a state history course thrown in, but no geography course. Geography was in JHS ("middle school they say these days), and more or less implicit in world history course. All courses were broad, thin and misshapen, like those pennies we put on the RR tracks for trains to flatten.[1]

    I probably learned more about Texas history than my own state's though. For reasons I never understood or asked, the elementary school library had some beat-up 9×12 inch hardback copies of Texas History Movies. The cover said "For Young and Old", and that book was — a damn fine "educational" comic book for kids of all ages, published in the 1920s.

    FN 1: These days we would have been busted on suspicion of terrorism, or something.

  50. James Pollock says:

    I think your math is off. Everyone knows that WWI started with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1916.

  51. mcinsand says:

    @En Passant,

    Your footnote really got me to think about some of the books that I remember on middle school and high school shelves. I have little doubt that DHS has purged the shelves of some of these, such as one that I remember reading in the eighth grade: '1000 years of explosives.' Although it was a very interesting history book, it also provided more than enough details for the technically-inclined to get into trouble. In high school, there were also some books that gave very detailed procedures for making things that, even if not intending to cause trouble for others, are an easy path to losing digits or limbs.

  52. R R Clark says:

    @James Pollock

    I'm 99% certain it was started when Hitler assassinated Arch Spaceduke Ferdinand in 2614 and then traveled back in time to 1914.

    There, I've Godwined the thread AND made you want to read a book about Hitler all in one stroke.

  53. Rich Rostrom says:

    Trebuchet • Aug 4, 2013 @8:21 pmAppears to be something like the original conception of the KGV class, with 3×4 gun turrets instead of the actual 2×4,1×2 configuration.

    Good catch!

    And if you look carefully, you can see the twin-turret mountings of the secondary guns – which is absolutely WW II.

  54. Joe Blow says:

    Hey, could somebody please tell my why WWI started and was fought? I've actually studied it pretty extensively and the more I study it the less certain I am. To the extent I've been able to identify causes they are (1) modernity does a good job of propagating wrong beliefs, and the people and many European leaders were grasped of a lot of wrong beliefs about military and cultural superiority, and how short and easy a war would be (totally not getting the significance of industrialization; (2) the most pernicious belief was that interlocking peace treaties would prevent war; (3) society has a momentum of its own and when the momentum (and railroad timetables) are moving toward war, that's where you will arrive, inevitably – there was a zeitgeist at work here; (4) it offered a good excuse for both lucrative colonialist power and resource grabs and a chance to exorcise various recurrent religious and ethnic grievances; and, (5) WWI was conducted on a pretense of an intra-familial Russian/Austrian struggle over the Balkans, when it was really a continuation of the Franco-Prussian war, with the Prussians (always ready for a fight) trying to finish a longstanding grievance with the French, who invented the (latterly useful to the Nazis) stab-in-the-back narrative about the defeat at Sedan.

    That's as simple as I can boil it down and I can't help but think I'm missing some major causal elements. BTW, I do like the idea of an app that features the daily headlines, that would be wonderful. It would be important to remember, though, that all the major powers heavily and intentionally manipulated the news coverage, so it will be wrong or ludicrous at points. Still interesting to read though, and to compare the headlines to the significant events the powers were trying to cover up or downplay (e.g. French mutiny, various German collapses, slaughter at Gallipoli). Perhaps that's a causal theme that I've missed which is the utter failure of the social institutions, their collapse under the weight of their own dishonesty and hypocrisy…

  55. Xenocles says:

    @James-

    I thought it started when George Zimmerman sent a telegram to the police about a suspicious youth in Sarajevo.

  56. En Passant says:

    mcinsand wrote Aug 5, 2013 @9:44 am:

    Although it was a very interesting history book, it also provided more than enough details for the technically-inclined to get into trouble.

    Some of the stuff I and my friends read and did in the 1950s I'm reluctant to discuss publicly. DOJ would probably figure out a way to toll the statutes of limitations and prosecute for running a terrorist training camp.

    In the 1950s we were just doing the things that developed into going to college and getting engineering and science degrees.

    But kids today get prosecuted as felons for far less.

  57. Cat says:

    @mcinsand I dunno about the DHS scrubbing school libraries – the local parents "thinking of the children" usually does that well enough with such things, although there are probably hidden treasures enough still on shelves. Also, kids these days don't need to look that hard – google can lead them to DoJ hosted copies of several terrorist instruction manuals. (To say nothing of one of my favorite sites, the High Energy Weapons Archive.)
    Explosives just really aren't all that tough to create – you don't even need a 3D printer.

  58. AlphaCentauri says:

    I attended a Catholic school that was run on a tight budget, and their attitude toward textbooks was that they'd better be returned in the condition you got them in, and the school was going to continue to use them as long as the binding hadn't fallen apart. I remember the section in our geography text that described North Korea as industrialized and South Korea as agrarian. That was already absurd in the 60s.

  59. Trebuchet says:

    @Rich Rostrom:

    Good catch!

    And if you look carefully, you can see the twin-turret mountings of the secondary guns – which is absolutely WW II.

    Always nice to encounter a fellow battleship nerd!

  60. barry says:

    @Joe Blow

    Hey, could somebody please tell my why WWI started and was fought? I've actually studied it pretty extensively and the more I study it the less certain I am.

    I know the second part; it was fought because it had started.
    We 'covered' the causes of WWI in a week or two in highschool. None of the reasons we were given explained it with much actual reason, so I just stopped worrying about it and 'learned' what the book said for the exam (I think there were about six reasons given) .
    Now I put it down to "one of those things that was going to happen, and one day it just happened".
    Much like the most recent Iraq war. In the months before it started there was a different 'reason' for invading every week. I can imagine in a hundred years people sitting around asking "does anyone know why that happened?" (and a disturbing percentage saying it was because Nixon carpet-bombed Dresden)

  61. Dion starfire says:

    @nlp I'd make a pretty decent stab at it, though I freely admit I'm missing a few key points that would constitute a few weeks of news if it were current events.

    @Mark Not really. It's sort of "common knowledge" that some of our countrymen are clueless about history and science.

    Our favorite slow news story is the x% believe y was a hoax/conspiracy (e.g. "1 in 4 americans believe the moon landing was a hoax" Mythbusters, episode 104).

    That, and stories about people abusing public welfare programs.

  62. En Passant says:

    barry wrote Aug 5, 2013 @5:08 pm:

    I can imagine in a hundred years people sitting around asking "does anyone know why that happened?" (and a disturbing percentage saying it was because Nixon carpet-bombed Dresden)

    Yeah, everybody knows he had to defend America after the German surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

  63. Steven H. says:

    @Joe Blow:

    "Hey, could somebody please tell my why WWI started and was fought?"

    Ultimately, it reduced to train schedules.

    It seems that the German General Staff has a perfectly good plan for mobilizing the Imperial Army to fight France.
    And another perfectly good plan for mobilizing the Imperial Army to fight Russia.
    And still a THIRD plan for fighting both.

    Alas, what they didn't have was any way to do more than ONE of those plans – if they mobilized against Russia (as their treaties with Austria pretty much required), they could NOT defend themselves against an attack by France.

    So, long story short, they mobilized against both, then following the "Mobilization means War" policy (again, train schedules to keep both Armies in the field were a limiting factor here), they attacked in both directions.

    Original objective (very quickly modified by reality) was to beat the crap out of France while holding Russia's attention. Note that beating the crap out of France was assumed to be easy since they had done so a generation earlier in Franco-Prussian War.
    Alas, that didn't work out, so they switched to holding the Western Front while beating the crap out of Russia (which they did, over the next few years).

    During that period, the Western Front was a stalemate of French/British attacks on German defenses which were bleeding France and Britain to death.

    Then, Russia surrendered, the Germans started moving men from the Eastern Front to the Western Front, and the German General Staff made its fundamental blunder – it decided that it could now attack in the West.

    So, it tried, and gutted its own Army in the process (just as the French and British had done earlier in the war).

    So the Germans asked for peace, the Allies said "sure", then the Peace Talks produced the Versailles Treaty, which pretty much guaranteed WW2 in a generation or two (21 years later, in fact).

    So now you know the awful truth – the two bloodiest wars in the history of the planet happened because of inadequacies of the German rail system in 1914….

  64. barry says:

    @Stephen H.

    So, long story short, they mobilized against both, then following the "Mobilization means War" policy..

    That was interesting, but I don't think it got to the 'why' of the previous question.

  65. Ken Hamer says:

    @Patrick Non-white
    "For instance, the distance from my home, which is in the southern United States, to the nearest foreign border is greater than the distance from London to Minsk or Istanbul."

    Really? Where do you live? (State at least.)

  66. Ashlyn says:

    So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and green and blue and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

    Took the woman eight hours to write that paragraph. Hats off, Barbara. I am completely hatless.

  67. Malc says:

    @Ken Hamer,

    Your instincts are spot on: London to Istanbul is 1565 miles. If you draw a circle of radius 1565 miles centered on, say, the Brownville, TX on the US/Mexican border you would include every southern state — in fact it draws an arc starting a little north of Vandenberg AFB on the Pacific, curving up to near the Canadian border a little north Grand Forks, ND, and ending near Dover AFB on the Atlantic coast. Basically, at least a part of every continental US state except WA, OR, ID, and New England.

    So is Patrick mistaken?

    Or just demonstrating a quirk of geography… aloha!

    (I believe the distance from his home to a foreign border is of the order of 2300 miles…)

  68. Malc says:

    @barry,

    There really is no good answer to the "why", because the causes were mostly a succession of bluffs, preventative posturing, and pre-emptive maneuvers. I tend to lean towards the camp that believes the biggest single factor was the prospect of Russia developing an effective modern military, which would have squeezed Germany's influence, so Germany was looking for an excuse to attack Russia before Russia became too strong to be attacked (which actually didn't happen until about 1944). So the events in Sarajevo were feared (by Berlin) to be the opening that Moscow needed to exert influence in the Balkans, which they (Russia) needed because their only year-round ice-free ports are in the Balkan's backyard…

    And, of course, the position of Sir John French's drinks cabinet played an important role in it all…

  69. Carl says:

    @Patrick, the "you" there wasn't directed at you, it was directed at the hypothetical correspondent I was addressing in quotes. It's a rhetorical flourish. Sorry for the confusion.

  70. mcinsand says:

    @Cat, You could not be more correct. That I still have all ten fingers after my teenage years is nothing short of a miracle. At 14, I had a small still in the basement specifically for making nitric acid. By the time I was 19 or 20, though, I matured enough… or at least became sufficiently less immature… to realize that there was going to be an accident sooner or later, if I didn't stop. The idea of making your own rockets, etc. might seem cool, but there is a lot of energy stored per gram of some of these compounds.

    Even without today's security concerns, I would not go for that kind of chemistry again. Now, my day-to-day reactions are far more boring, and I work hard to keep it that way.

    On a tangent, though, I did grow up in a time when that sort of experimentation was more encouraged than discouraged. Somewhere, there is a balance, and we've drifted. As I may have said here before, some of the toys that can be somewhat risky might be a good thing for teaching caution. Mattel had an injection molder that would not give more than a first degree burn, but it did teach a ten-year-old me some care about heat and molten plastic.

  71. Joe Blow says:

    @Stephen H – yeah, I get the railroad timetables point and also the point you didn't mention, about the mobilization schedules and how far west (or east) a soldier could march in a day, and the physics of it (and consequently the military and social momentum toward war once the first soldier is mobilized). I don't think this is causal. I think it's contributory in the question of why the 11th hour telegram diplomacy failed, but it's no more causal than knowing the range of a Panzer tank in WWII. The range of the tanks and their gas consumption contributed to the Germans' defeat, but the destruction of the Farben plants and the Ploesti oil fields were the proximate cause, at least of the industrial failure underlying the German loss.

    @Malc – who is Germany in your theory? Prussia/German Empire? Or the shaky Austro-Hungarian Empire? Two different countries, two very different sets of motives for entering the war, I think, and Austro-Hungary's rationale (punitive, and to quell resistance in its Balkan possessions) was at least rational.

  72. Xenocles says:

    Based on previous posts I believe Patrick is from North Carolina. Of course, that would put him quite close to what the courts have ruled is a "border zone" that permits the CBP to set up checkpoints. Also Bermuda isn't too far off from there.

  73. Steven H. says:

    @Joe Blow:

    "I don't think this is causal. I think it's contributory in the question of why the 11th hour telegram diplomacy failed, but it's no more causal than knowing the range of a Panzer tank in WWII."

    Nah, it's more important than that. Fundamentally, the Germans were stuck with the problem that once they started mobilizing/demobilizing, they couldn't stop.

    By the time that the last minute diplomacy was ongoing, they were mobilized. And at that point, if they started to DE-mobilize, then they'd be stuck in that posture (troops moving home, tracks clogged with trains TO Germany) if the last-minute diplomacy failed.

    Ultimately, the failure was one of imagination – the Germans industrialized to support their notion of what their country needed to be SAFE. They never considered the possibility that backing out of war at the very last second might be the "safe" thing to do, so they didn't build/train/plan for it, so it couldn't happen when the rubber met the road.

  74. En Passant says:

    mcinsand wrote Aug 6, 2013 @5:50 am:

    @Cat, You could not be more correct. That I still have all ten fingers after my teenage years is nothing short of a miracle. At 14, I had a small still in the basement specifically for making nitric acid.

    The difference between today and the 1950s is not that information is less readily available now than then, or vice versa. The difference is the reaction of government authorities to children (or adults for that matter) who act upon available information, or sometimes who merely seek information.

    Today, if your basement still came to attention of authorities, a goon squad, intentionally badgeless and faceless, armed with automatic weapons, shouting contradictory orders in hope of an excuse to fire them, would raid your home, thoroughly trash it, kill your pets, and take you away. A prosecutor would ask a compliant judge to deny bail and to try you as an adult. You would be tried on a list of charges ranging from creating a dangerous nuisance to engaging in terrorism. You would face sentences that would put you away most of your life.

    In the 1950s, a local cop might, if sufficiently pestered by local busybodies, ask your parents what was going on. If your parents expressed confidence in your scientific experimentation, that would end the matter.

    The idea of making your own rockets, etc. might seem cool, but there is a lot of energy stored per gram of some of these compounds.

    Of which I, my friends, and our parents were very aware when we (primarily my friends because I was a few years younger) made and launched rockets powered by powdered mumbleum and mumblefoo permumbleate. In fact, parents oversaw the exercise, and we had the gumption to use available blockhouses at a decommissioned weapons test range. At least one rocket exploded on the launch pad. That brought home nicely the point about energy content.

    But today our autodidactic exercise would be prosecuted harshly despite parental oversight, and our parents would be prosecuted as well.

    On a tangent, though, I did grow up in a time when that sort of experimentation was more encouraged than discouraged. Somewhere, there is a balance, and we've drifted.

    We've more than drifted, and the authorities' "concerns" are not with actual public safety, but with building internal government empires. They make mountains from molehills to pander to the fears of a public they intentionally make skittish with their official propaganda puffing up fears of terrorism.

    We haven't just drifted. We've run headlong like lemmings over a known cliff at the edge of democracy, where the solid ground of an informed electorate ends and the free fall phantasmagoria of imaginary threats, promulgated by ambitious bureaucrats and their 'roid raging goons, begins.

  75. Malc says:

    @Joe Blow: the Germany referred to was Germany, not the Austro-Hungrarian dual monarchy, nor Spain, Australia, Canada, Argentina or any other country that could be referred to as "Germany" if there wasn't a better alternative named "Germany" near Germany with its capital in Berlin.

    The relevant point was that the assassination added to the instability in the Austro-Hungarian empire/sphere of influence, which (you'll doubtless recall) included both the Balkans but also what was to become Czechoslovakia and parts of Poland and Ukraine. You may recall that Germany had a "thing" about Czechoslovakia leading to a certain amount of irony on 1938 ("peace in our time", etc.).

    Anyway, as I said, the "why" is pretty confused, but it's undeniable that one significant element was the obvious political instability of this large chunk of land that sat between Germany and Russia. If one believed that the fairly loose group of countries that made up the empire were vulnerable to falling apart/being annexed or dominated by Russia, then (if one were nationalist, paranoid and suffering from an inferiority complex) one might choose a pre-emptive strategy to defeat Russia before they became undefeatable.

  76. mcinsand says:

    @En Passant, You're dead on, and I did understate the current state. Thinking back, I remember my mother signing a blanket permission slip because she was tired of signing individual slips authorizing that she approved of various purchases at the pharmacy. Early on, I learned to frequent the older drug stores, since their store-rooms still contained a lot of raw chemicals. When I was buying some of the milder chemicals, no permission was needed, but the pharmacists started asking for signatures when buying things like aluminum powder or per_X_ates.

    Please forgive me if I have told this story here before, but, as an example of how times have changed, here is a story from my 3rd-grade 1971-1972 class. We had show-and-tell, and one of my classmates brought a .22 bolt-action rifle with ammunition. The teacher was cautious, and she kept it under her control until show-and-tell, as well as after. I still remember Vance (the classmate's first name) walking home with the rifle at the end of the day.

  77. NickPheas says:

    @StevenH
    "Fundamentally, the Germans were stuck with the problem that once they started mobilizing/demobilizing, they couldn't stop."

    One of the books, quite likely The Guns of August, mentioned this and reported that the guy in charge of the rail networks was deeply offended by the suggestion that he wasn't in control and published a book in 1923 (or thereabouts) explaining exactly how the troops could have been halted if anyone had thought to ask him.

  78. James Pollock says:

    ""For instance, the distance from my home, which is in the southern United States, to the nearest foreign border is greater than the distance from London to Minsk or Istanbul."

    Any state with an international airport is a border state.

  79. Ken Hamer says:

    "Any state with an international airport is a border state."

    I'm not sure a "border" state has any relationship to distance to foreign border.

    But if Patrick does live in North Carolina, then I still don't get it. Let's use Norfolk, VA as a stand-in for the (farthest) north east "corner" of NC, and Brownsville, TX as the nearest "foreign border". Thanks to Great Circle Mapper, we can see that that distance is 1460 statue miles, which is more than 100 miles short of London to Istanbul.

    Check for yourself:

    http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?P=orf-brolhr-ist&MS=wls&DU=mi

    Perhaps he meant driving distance, but if that's the case, then Calais to Istanbul ('cause you can't drive from London) is still 1760 miles. Add in another ~140 miles or so to London (as the crow flies), and you're now at 1900 miles.

    But Google Maps shows the driving distance from Norfolk to Brownsville to be as little at 1810 miles.

    So, given the constraints (i.e. southern state, nearest foreign border) I don't think it is possible to be farther from the nearest border than the distance from London to Istanbul.

    Unless by "southern state" he means Hawaii.

  80. Ken Hamer says:

    Gaaaa!!!!

    That should be 1710 miles, not 1810.

    At the link didn't work as expected. Therefore:

    http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?P=lhr-ist
    and
    http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?P=orf-bro&DU=mi

    Notwithstanding the above the distance from Norfolk to Windsor, Ontario is only about 530 miles.

  81. Dave B says:

    Or Puerto-Rico or American Samoa…oh wait, they are not states yet.

  82. Steven H. says:

    @Ken Hamer:

    "('cause you can't drive from London)"

    Did they shutdown the Chunnel while I wasn't looking?

  83. Ken Hamer says:

    The Chunnel is a train tunnel.

  84. digitaurus says:

    The "British Future" think-tank (!) pamphlet doesn't take into account the Brit sense of humour which usually kicks into gear when some earnest-looking person with a clipboard rugby tackles you in the shopping arcade and starts plying you with questions about the causes of the First World War.

    Unfortunately their questions were multiple-choice only which limits the chances for the British sense of humour to get into full swing. The older po-faced Guardian piece reporting that people though Gandalf defeated the Spanish Armada gives a better insight into what the great British public can do when they get a proper chance to take the piss out of tame-wasting pollsters.

  85. hanmeng says:

    On a related note, I'm simply appalled at how many people think it was the Duke of Zhou who conquered the Shang.

  86. jackdaw says:

    Ahem. British Navy? Do you perchance mean the Royal Navy (aka the Andrew)?

  87. WhangoTango says:

    Everyone likes to say they'd go back in time and kill Hitler.

    But if someone went back in time and killed Wilhelm II, then you wouldn't need to kill Hitler, because none of the things that made Hitler a big deal would have happened.