Supplemental Episode 4:
Militarism Run Stark Mad
Hooray! I was in fact able to get both this supplemental and the first episode on the war itself completed this week. Today’s episode will hopefully help you to visualize the battles we are about to talk about a little bit more clearly, and understand what kinds of weapons and tactics will be employed by the soldiers at the beginning of the Great War. Tomorrow, we finally, truly, will begin The Seminal Catastrophe. Now this episode is going to serve as kind of an update on our first supplemental episode: The Birth of The Modern Army, in which we discussed the structure, organization, weapons, and tactics of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. A lot has changed and been learned as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, and I’ll be building a lot on the groundwork we laid in that first supplemental episode today. So, it might not be the worst idea in the world to relisten to that episode. Also, echoing something I mentioned in that first supplemental, today’s episode is going to involve a lot of nitty gritty, nuts and bolts details about military tech, doctrine, and theory. So…if you’re not super interested in that stuff, and just want to finally get into the campaigns of the First World War (which I totally understand and sympathize with for the record), then feel free to skip this episode. All you really need to know is that armies of this period were mostly made up of conscript soldiers armed with multi-shot rifles, backed up behind them by newfangled machineguns and huge cannons firing at ranges of up to a dozen kilometers (or even more in some cases), and a few guys on horseback armed with sabers and lances because nobody had gotten the memo that cavalry was thoroughly obsolete by this point in history. If you want some more detail on this, then let’s go.
So what I’d like to do today is first, cover the development and utilization of weapons technology that will be used by all the belligerents in the First World War, and then cover the equipment, tactics, and organization of each specific army of our five Great Powers. In the forty or so years since the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the pace of innovation in weapons technology had only picked up speed. This is actually true for technology across the board, but we’re here today specifically focusing on weapons and how they were used.
So first, let’s talk about infantry weapons and equipment. As we know, during the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and 1871, soldiers in most European armies were armed with breech-loading, single shot rifles. One of the aspects of military weapons I did not touch on in our episodes on the Franco-Prussian War was the propellent used by all firearms, ie gunpowder. Since gunpowder was first developed and used in primitive firearms way back during the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, the gunpowder used was called black powder (if you look at a picture of it, you will see why it was called this, as it was quite literally a black powder). This basic formula, made up of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter, had barely changed at all for centuries, but in the 1870s and 1880s the chemical industry which was starting to come into its own started experimenting with new formulas for gunpowder. By the 1880s this formula was perfected, and a new gunpowder became available which we call “smokeless powder.”
Black powder, when first introduced, was a true revolution in military technology. It obviously enables the creation of weapons that could hurl projectiles at great distances with far greater force than any other projectile weapon previously used, which is why once introduced it was so quickly and universally adopted. But one of the problems with black powder is that, when ignited, it produces an enormous cloud of smoke. This isn’t so bad when it’s just one person firing one musket, but on a battlefield with tens or even hundreds of thousands of soldiers firing black powder muskets or rifles, to say nothing of enormous cannons in the background, this could quickly envelop the battlefield in smoke clouds so thick that within minutes nobody could see anything that was going on. As one general during the Napoleonic Wars wrote, “After a few shots, the whole body are closely enveloped in smoke, and the enemy totally invisible.”
During the 19th century, chemists had been experimenting with coming up with a propellant for firearms that was more powerful and produced less smoke when lit than black powder. This is a lot of what the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel was up to when he invented dynamite. In 1884 these experiments came to full fruition by a French chemist named Paul Vieille. I won’t go into the chemical mixture of the gunpowder he developed, which is A) not super interesting or important to our story and B) would be far above my paygrade anyway. The point is that the propellant Vieille developed in 1884 was about 3 times more powerful than black powder and only produced a tiny puff of smoke when ignited, rather than the huge clouds of smoke produced by black powder. This was a massive revolution in weapons technology. Not only could projectiles from basically any kind and size of firearm be hurled roughly three times farther, but now those rifles and pistols and cannons and whatever else would not create huge clouds of smoke that obscured everyone’s view. Such a massive change was this that when first patented in 1884, Vieille’s new powder compound was instantly declared a state secret by France. Not that this lasted too long; all you had to do was get your hands on a small amount of this new smokeless powder, which was super easy considering how much of it the French started producing, then give to your own chemists and have them reverse engineer it. By the 1890s all European countries (and most countries in the rest of the world) had access to some version of smokeless powder and were developing rifles and cannons that could take full use of this vastly more powerful propellant.
Another key innovation was the wide-spread adoption of magazine fed firearms. A magazine, in this context, is a term that refers to a mechanism inside of a firearm that allows multiple rounds to be loaded and ready to be used at the same time. Now, magazine fed guns had actually first appeared and been used (in a significant number anyway) during the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865. Weapons like the Spencer and Henry rifles allowed soldiers to load seven or even up to fifteen rounds respectively into their rifles, firing, and then cranking a simple lever back and forth to kick out the empty cartridge and load a new one into place before firing again. The rate of fire of rifles like the Spencer and the Henry varied a bit, but conservatively these rifles allowed soldiers to fire something like fifteen to twenty-five rounds per minute. In the hands of a particularly experienced and well-trained soldier, even faster. These weapons were pretty much exclusively used by the more industrialized Union side of the war, which led Confederate soldiers, armed pretty much exclusively with muzzle-loading rifled muskets that could be fired at best three times per minute (and usually even slower), to quip that Union soldiers armed with these fancy new rifles could, “load on Sunday, and shoot all week long.” But even by the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, these magazine-fed rifles were mostly a novelty, not yet universally adopted, and as we saw during the Franco-Prussian War five years later both sides during that conflict were armed with single-shot rifles. But around the same time that black powder was being replaced with smokeless powder, that is the 1880s and 1890s, single-shot rifles had mostly been replaced by multi-shot, magazine-fed rifles. There were a few different mechanical designs that were experimented with, but by the 1890s pretty much everyone, including all of our five Great Powers, had settled on some kind of bolt-action rifle as their standard infantry weapon.
Now a bolt action rifle does not necessarily have to be magazine-fed. In fact, both the Prussian Dreyse rifle and French Chassepot rifle of the Franco-Prussian War could arguably be described as bolt action, single shot rifles (though historians and gunsmiths will debate the technical points of this). But by the 1890s with the adoption of smokeless powder and the more widespread availability of magazine-fed rifles, the bolt action design had been settled on as the best design for military firearms. A bolt action rifle of this period worked by means of turning a bolt handle up and then back to open the rifle, and then loading in anywhere from five to ten rounds (depending on the rifle) into the magazine, then you would close the bolt by pushing it forward and turning it down to lock it into place. Now you were ready to fire. After each shot fired, you would crank the bolt back and forth to kick out the empty cartridge you had just fired and pushing the next one into place, and you were ready to fire again. As there were numerous designs of rifles used by all countries during the First World War, each of which with their own advantages and drawbacks, and rate of fire depended largely on the training and skill of the soldier, it is hard to say what an “average” rate of fire for these bolt action rifles was. But the British Army in particular, armed with the fantastic Lee-Enfield rifle during the war which we will discuss more in a bit, had a famous training test called “the mad minute,” whereby soldiers were expected to take fifteen aimed shots in one minute. Often much faster feats of marksmanship could be achieved, for example quite famously in 1908 when British Sergeant Major Jesse Wallingford managed to hit a four-foot-wide target at a range of 300 yards 36 times in one minute with his Lee-Enfield rifle.
That range should tell you something too, beyond Wallingford’s quite impressive marksmanship. The new smokeless powder these rifles (and cannons too) used not only meant that projectiles shot from firearms were far more powerful, but they could hit and kill enemy soldiers at vastly greater distances. This is something that was recognized by all armies during this period, and it was believed by most everyone that the wars in the future would be fought at far greater distances than the wars of the past. The sights, for example, of basically all rifles that would be used in the First World War, were graduated out to be able to shoot to one or even two thousand meters. And while it is true that soldiers would no longer be shooting at each other from just a stone’s throw away as they had during the Napoleonic Wars, the battles of the First World War were usually fought at just a couple of hundred meters away, and often quite closer. This is due to the simple fact that while, yes, it is true that these rifles were mechanically capable of shooting accurately at up to one or two thousand meters, it’s almost impossible for any human being to actually be able to see and aim at a man-sized target at that far a distance. Only soldiers equipped with scoped rifles, which were expensive, rare, and rather finicky during the First World War, could hope to be able to shoot at the enemy more than two or three hundred meters away.
Now, that’s all well in good; rather than soldiers having to pour smoke inducing black powder down the barrels of their rifles or, if they were lucky, having breechloading single shot rifles, now everybody was equipped with bolt action rifles that could fire an entire magazine of five to ten shots as quickly as you could turn the bolt handle. But we have yet to discuss what is probably the most iconic weapon system of the First World War. During the Franco-Prussian War we saw the French army sporadically use a new weapon they dubbed the mitrailleuse, what I referred to as a proto-machinegun. The term “machinegun” today is used somewhat generically as a firearm that could automatically fire multiple bullets in rapid succession. Now a gunsmith will tell you that this is not strictly speaking accurate, and that for example the mitrailleuse of the Franco-Prussian War or the famous Gatling guns of the U.S. Civil War were not “technically” machine guns. That is because those two weapons, the mitrailleuses of 1870 and the Gatling guns of the U.S. Civil War don’t work in exactly the same way as modern machine guns. The hair that is being split here is that those earlier guns fired by means of a crank handle that, when turned, fired individual barrels loaded with individual cartridges (and in the case of the Gatling gun, rotated those barrels to allow for fresh cartridges to be dropped into each barrel). The technical definition of a machine gun is a weapon that, with a single pull of the trigger or holding down of a button, fires a cartridge, ejects the empty cartridge, reloads a fresh cartridge, and then fires again all automatically. I bring this up just so any firearm tech nerds out there know that I at least mostly know what I’m talking about here (and for the record, I am a bit of a firearm tech nerd myself). But, really, when you are on the receiving end of one of these things, I think its fair to say that you probably aren’t too concerned about the mechanical functionality of what is shooting at you, all you care about is the fact that hundreds of bullets are being shot at you so you better get your head down and find some cover ASAP.
Yet understanding this technical distinction is actually important for the story of the First World War for a very particular reason. Though the Gatling guns of the U.S. Civil War and the mitrailleuse of the Franco-Prussian War are quite famous, they were actually not particularly effective on a tactical or a strategic level. When you got them set up and working perfectly, they were devastating, I mean you can imagine just how much a gun that can fire two to three hundred rounds per minute might come in handy in an era where at best most soldiers could only hope to fire a dozen or fewer rounds per minute. But, really, at the time, these weapons were more novelties or proof of concept designs than they were real kings of the battlefield. They were heavy, cumbersome, awkward to aim, slow to reload, and usually pretty finicky and often didn’t work right even when you had the time to set them up properly. But by 1914 this idea of a gun that could fire hundreds of shots rapidly by a single soldier had been perfected, and this design had been perfected most especially by a single man: Hiram Maxim.
Hiram Maxim was born in 1840 in what is today the state of Maine in the United States (but what was then still controlled by the state of Massachusetts). He was a precocious and curious tinkerer and inventor, and in the spirit of so many American tinkerers and inventors, he had a knack for selling his inventions for a tidy profit. In particular, he was really into the burgeoning world of electricity, and he was a contemporary (and competitor) of Thomas Edison in the marketing of lightbulb designs. By the early 1880s he was a successful and prominent businessman, though he was not yet a household name. Then, according to a probably apocryphal story he later told, “In 1882 I was in Vienna, where I met an American whom I had known in the States. He said: ‘Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.’” And that’s what he did.
I won’t get too into the mechanics of how Maxim’s design, dubbed by history the “Maxim gun,” worked. Though, if you’re interested in more detail on that subject, I highly recommend you check out the Forgotten Weapons YouTube channel hosted by Ian McCollum. It’s a great series that goes into the mechanics and history of various firearms from various time periods, and he has videos on not just the Maxim gun but also basically every rifle, pistol, and even a few of the cannons used during the First World War. I’ve got a link to his video on the Maxim gun attached to the show notes if you want to check it out, it’s really great and actually quite politically neutral, in case you’re turned off by the politics surrounding gun ownership in the United States. Basically, there were four things that made the Maxim gun far superior to any other machine gun (or proto-machine gun) that existed at the time. First was the fact that rather than having a cumbersome system of multiple barrels firing in succession by means of turning a crank, the Maxim gun had a single barrel that would fire a string of bullets in rapid succession, and all you had to do to fire it was to hold down the trigger. Second was the feeding mechanism; at the time there were a lot of different designs on how best to load cartridges into a gun that fired really quickly, as what good was it to have a gun that could shoot off twenty or thirty rounds in a few seconds if it took several minutes to reload the thing? What Maxim came up with was a system that is still widely used today, the belt system. Basically, this was a cloth belt with small pockets sewn into it at regular intervals each of which held a single cartridge. To load the gun you would have an assistant open up the feed tray, place the belt into position, lock the feed tray back down, and then the gun would automatically pull the belt to the side after each bullet was fired. In theory you could fire this system indefinitely, the only limitation was how long the belt was. And, while this is likely apocryphal, there is a legend that the old English saying about “giving them the whole nine yards” comes from the belt of the Maxim gun, the standard length of which was about nine yards holding 250 rounds of ammunition. Like I say it’s hard to source the origin of that saying, but the Maxim gun is the most commonly told originator of the saying. The third of Maxim’s innovations was the cooling system. One of the problems that came about with firearms being able to be fired much more rapidly than before was that the guns of all kinds would heat up really quickly. Maxim’s gun could fire and be reloaded so fast that after just a few minutes of continuous fire the gun would be so overheated that the metal parts would literally start to melt and cause the gun to malfunction. So what Maxim came up with was a water jacket. This was a big hollow metal cylinder that wrapped around the barrel of the machine gun that you could fill with water. The water cooled the gun, as now the internal parts of the gun would only ever heat up to the boiling point of water, which is cool enough to allow the gun to be fired basically indefinitely. Last was the simple fact that the Maxim gun was more efficiently designed and more finely machined than just about any other machinegun on the market at the time. The things just worked, and they basically never broke. A test performed by the British Army in 1963 involved taking an old Maxim Gun from the First World War that was about to be decommissioned and doing an endurance test upon it. What they did was had crews of soldiers taking shifts to fire the gun continuously 24 hours a day for seven days, only stopping to reload it, fill up the water jacket, and replacing the barrel every fifteen thousand rounds fired as after that time the barrel would have been worn out. In seven days and nights of continuous fire this one gun fired five million rounds of ammunition. After this, the gun was taken apart and inspected by a group of armorers who concluded that the gun was still in perfect working order. That is how durable these guns were.
By 1914, basically every country in Europe had adopted some version of the Maxim gun as their standard machine gun. The German MG 08, the Russian M1910, the British Vickers Gun, to say nothing of most of the models used by the other small countries in Europe, were all based on Maxim’s design. These guns could all fire at a rate of around 500-600 rounds per minute, which as you can imagine was simply devastating to oncoming infantry. The only exceptions to this were the French, who adopted the Hotchkiss gun which was air-cooled rather than water-cooled and which was fed by metallic strips rather than cloth belts, and the Austro-Hungarians, who used the Schwarzlose which was based on a slightly more simplified design than the Maxim. All of these machine guns had their advantages and disadvantages, but regardless now all the countries in Europe had integrated reliable machine gun designs into their armed forces. As we shall see ad nauseum throughout basically the entirety of this show, up until about 1918 there was no technological nor tactical answer to the machine gun. Again and again and again one side or the other would send waves of their forces to attack entrenched enemy positions, only to have these waves mowed down by entrenched machine gun emplacements, forced to fall back and have the whole bloody drama played out in reverse. This was the main reason why the Western Front in particular will barely move at all for years, as until just before the end of the war nobody was able to figure out an effective way to attack these static positions defended by machine guns.
Now as for infantry tactics, I won’t say too much to avoid getting lost in the weeds, and I’ll expound more upon this once we get into the initial battles of the war next week. But in general, while some advances had been made in tactical organization and deployment, in many ways all armies were woefully unprepared for the killing power of their new weapons. First of all, the days of line formations of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder and firing their rifles in mass volleys was long since over at this point. Soldiers were now encouraged to spread out and find what cover they could, and take individual shots from behind cover as much as possible. The Germans probably had the best integrated small unit tactics at this point of the war, which they had already shown a mastery of way back in 1870. But one key tactic that had not yet been developed that would become a key part of battle by the end of the war is one known as “fire and movement.” Basically, in 1914 (and indeed throughout most of the war), attacks took the form of mass charges over open ground presaged by artillery bombardments that were supposed to soften up the enemy. However, this meant that as soon as the artillery bombardment was over, the enemy need only peek out from behind cover and mow you down. Later in the war, tactics involving having smaller units (like companies and platoons) trading the job of firing and advancing, then firing again, then advancing again, will be developed. But at this point in history, the only way to overcome an enemy defensive position was to hope that enough of your guys made it to the enemy in time to charge them face to face with your bayonet. Usually, these attacks failed in the face of modern rifles, machine guns, and artillery.
So let’s now discus artillery a bit. Artillery will play a huge role in the battles of the First World War; in fact, most estimates of casualty figures during the war conclude that between 60-75% of all battlefield casualties were caused by artillery. Partly, this was due to the fact that artillery had undergone huge advances both technologically and in their deployment by the time 1914 rolled around. Far larger and deadlier shells, not just high explosive and shrapnel but armor piercing and, perhaps most famously, poison gas shells were used in enormous numbers, fired at far greater ranges and with far more accuracy than was ever before possible. However, and I haven’t found a source that exactly proves this conjecture, but I would guess that a large reason for the fact that artillery caused so many more casualties than any other weapon system, even the famous machine guns, was because of the very fact of the stalemate found on all fronts, especially the Western Front. By around 1915 pretty much everyone had figured out that mass bayonet charges against entrenched enemy positions were suicide. Not that this caused them to call off these charges, but now these charges would be prefaced with massive, massive artillery bombardments on enemy positions, sometimes firing millions of shells onto relatively tiny positions over the course of days. Basically, this meant that before an attack was carried out, millions of shells would be poured on enemy positions which obviously caused huge numbers of casualties. But when attacks weren’t being carried out and soldiers were tasked with merely staying in their trenches, the only way you could do any damage to an enemy position was to sporadically shell them from afar. Even on so-called quiet fronts of the war, hundreds or even thousands of men were killed and wounded every day by artillery.
So let’s discuss the makeup and utilization of this artillery. As with infantry rifles and machine guns, the development of smokeless powder basically tripled the range and power of all artillery shells practically overnight. But beyond that, far more accurate and advanced artillery pieces were developed in the late 19th and early 20th century firing far more advanced and deadly projectiles. In terms of the cannons themselves, I think the most indicative design of this period was the French 75mm model of 1897 more colloquially known as the French 75. For you cocktail connoisseurs out there, the French 75 cocktail is actually named after this cannon. This was an artillery piece that was, not surprisingly, introduced in 1897 and fired a shell of 75mm (or about 3 inches) in diameter. It was classified as a light artillery piece, and what made it so revolutionary was not its power nor its range, but rather in a new recoil absorption mechanism the French invented and used on this weapon. Before the French 75mm gun was introduced, when a cannon fired the recoil from the shell going off would push the cannon backwards several feet on its wheels, meaning that before you reloaded the cannon you had to push it back to where it was before and re-aim the thing. The French 75, and I’ll simplify this a bit, used a hydraulic compression pump that absorbed the recoil of the cannon being fired. What this meant in practice was that the cannon would stay fixed in place after every shot, rather than being pushed back several feet and having to be re-aimed for every shot. This system caused the barrel of the cannon to be pushed back on its hydraulic absorption system, giving the cannon a distinct “kick” when fired. This is supposedly where the name of the cocktail comes from, that both the cannon and the cocktail would kick like a mule. Soon enough, this technology (or some version of it) would be adopted in the artillery pieces of the other Great Powers. Beyond that, advances not only in the design and power of shells but also in mathematical calculations of aiming these guns (to say nothing of the burgeoning chemical industry who would soon be developing gas shells) made artillery vastly more deadly and effective than it had been in the past. We shall see this at great length throughout the war.
Finally, before we get into the specific loadouts of each individual army, let’s briefly discuss cavalry. As we saw during Episode 7, the age of the cavalry charge as a great weapon that would rout all opposition and finish off a weakened enemy was pretty well dead by the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. This was a lesson that had been evident for decades, taught by massacres of cavalry charges in, among other conflicts, the U.S. Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the recent Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Yet this was a lesson that was hard to absorb for many military high commands, and some learned it better than others by the time 1914 rolled around. The Prussians had pretty well decided by 1870 that, as the elder General von Moltke put it, cavalry was a “thoroughly useless drag on the army.” And while the German Army still did include tens of thousands of horsemen in its forces, these were mostly light cavalry whose job was to scout for the enemy army rather than try to drive it off the battlefield with a mass charge. The British, by contrast, basically refused to accept this obvious reality. There is a great story from before the First World War of a British cavalry officer in the 11th Hussars Regiment, Hussar being a type of light cavalry, that exemplifies this. This officer, Edward Spears, was young and somewhat brash and was fascinated and enamored with the new machineguns that were being introduced into the British Army. During a regular training exercise he was put in charge of the machinegun section of the regiment, given several belts of blank ammunition (which had no projectiles and would just make a loud bang when fired), and now quoting from Spears himself:
“I was told to ride off and see if I could put them to some intelligent use. Full of enthusiasm and finding a mound with a beautiful view of the brigade, moving about in a solid mass of horsemen less than a thousand yards away, I crept up and mounted my machineguns there…no one paid the least attention to us, so for ten minutes I fired away at the nominal rate of 600 rounds per minute per gun. Then, concluding that every one of the 2,000 men of the brigade would have been killed at least twice over, and it would have been a pure waste of ammunition to go on firing, I stopped. Exhilarated at this holocaust which perforce included most of my friends, I cantered up to the brigade commander. I said to him very happily, ‘you are all dead sir!’ telling him that his command has all been annihilated. The commander instead glowered at me. Expecting, in my innocence, some congratulation, I realized from this expression that something had gone wrong…‘never,’ he said, ‘never have I seen a lack of cavalry spirit more blatantly displayed…here is a young cavalry officer who has the impertinence to say that the infantry weapons that he is so inappropriately carting about has wiped out the First Cavalry Brigade, the finest mounted force in Europe. Get off your horse sir!’ he barked at me, ‘and hand it over and walk back to the barracks, the proper form of locomotion for you.’”
This sounds, pretty ludicrous, right? Like this brigade commander is offended that one of his officers would dare suggest that some plebian machine guns could wipe out his noble horsemen. This is an extreme example of the blindness and arrogance of cavalry officers of this period, but it shows that while these men were marching off to the first truly modern war in history, they did not quite realize it yet.
Alright, now that we have the general aspects of weaponry and tactics out of the way, let us move into some of the specifics of each individual army. I wasn’t sure what was the best order in which to do this, so I decided I would go in the order of mobilization during the July Crisis. So the order we will follow is first, the Austro-Hungarian Army, then the Russian Army, then the German, French, and finally British Armies.
In 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Army was, while not qualitatively much worse in terms of weaponry and doctrine than their counterparts, handicapped by many of the same problems facing the country at large. One of the difficulties that the Austro-Hungarian Army faced that basically nobody else had to deal with was the huge variety of languages spoken by their soldiers. The Austro-Hungarian Empire contained, conservatively, sixteen major spoken languages, which I won’t list here as that will probably confuse you more rather than less. Point being, that a new recruit into the Austro-Hungarian Army might speak any one of these languages, and while German and Hungarian were the most commonly spoken languages, fewer than half of the population spoke either of those languages as their first language. This meant that issuing orders to units larger than a regiment required translating those orders into numerous languages. In fact, a recruit in even a single regiment in the Austro-Hungarian Army might be required to speak three different languages – German, which was the standard so-called Kommandosprache, or Command Language; Hungarian, if the unit was raised within the Kingdom of Hungary and was referred to as the Dienstsprache, or Service Language; and whichever language was spoken by most of the rank and file, referred to as the Regimentsprache or Regiment Language. Beyond that, most officers in the army were either of German or Hungarian extraction, meaning that the officers and the rank and file of most large units did not speak one another’s language fluently, which led to all kinds of difficulties.
Making things even more confusing was that, technically, there was not so much a single “Austro-Hungarian Army,” but rather three armies: an Austrian Imperial Landwehr, recruited from lands controlled by Austria proper and controlled by the Austrian government; a Hungarian Honvéd, recruited from lands within the Kingdom of Hungary and controlled by the Hungarian government; and a Gemeinsame Armee or “common army,” recruited from throughout the empire and commanded by the Minister of War who was answerable directly to the Emperor. As you can imagine, this was an incredibly cumbersome and complicated command structure, and would handicap the Austro-Hungarian military forces throughout the war.
Because of all these varied units with varied command structures speaking such a wide variety of languages, there was no standardized equipment that applied to all soldiers universally. But, to generalize, the average Austro-Hungarian soldier was equipped with a either a dark blue uniform coat or, later on, a so-called “pike grey” uniform. Different units recruited from different parts of the empire had their own distinctive headgear, but the most common was a simple field cap, that looks vaguely like a baseball cap. There are pictures attached to today’s episode so you can take a look for yourself.
The standard issue infantry rifle was the Mannlicher model of 1895. This rifle fired an 8mm (roughly 1/3 of an inch) bullet, and was distinct from the other standard issue rifles of the day as, while it was a bolt action like everyone else’s rifles, it was of a straight pull design. All this meant is that rather than having to crank the bolt handle up to unlock it before pulling it back to chamber the next round, a soldier could simply yank the bolt backwards and push it forwards again, a much simpler motion and faster. This was, arguably, a great advantage, although it did not seem to give the Austro-Hungarian soldiers any real significant tactical advantage in battle. The main machinegun was, as mentioned before, the M1907/12 Schwarzlose, of a similar design and comparable performance to the more common Maxim guns. The Austro-Hungarian Army also placed a greater emphasis on artillery than many of its contemporaries; for example, besides Germany no other country in the world fielded guns as large as the Austro-Hungarian Skoda 305mm cannon, which could lob shells weighing anywhere from 600-800 pounds that could create craters eight yards in diameter and sending deadly shrapnel flying to up to a quarter mile away.
The organization of the Austro-Hungarian Army was similar to most other continental armies; in peacetime it maintained a standing force of 440,000 men. This Army was divided up into 16 corps, each of which was assigned to a specific geographic region of the Empire in peacetime, which were divided up into 40 divisions. When mobilization was completed, this force ballooned to, by some estimates, 3.3 million men (though I personally think this number is a bit inflated), so while the Austro-Hungarian Army had a lot of problems and would underperform throughout the war, that was nothing to sneeze at.
Next let’s look at the Russians. They were equipped in a not dissimilar way to other armies, and while they were in the process of modernizing their armed forces, as we shall see they still needed to make up with sheer size what they lacked in materiel in 1914. The Russian uniform was of a light green color, and they wore a field cap similar to their Austro-Hungarian counterparts. Their standard issue rifle was the simple but effective Mosin-Nagant model of 1891, which fired a 7.62mm bullet and had a five-round magazine. The standard Russian artillery pieces were the 76.2mm Pulitov, and the 122 and 152mm Schneider, and the standard Russian machine gun was the M1910 Maxim. Yet while all of these weapons were perfectly capable and up to the standards of their contemporaries in terms of quality, there were severe shortages of all types that plagued the Russian Army. For example, in theory a Russian regiment of 4,000 men was supposed to be equipped with eight machine guns, whereas their opponent the German Army had six machine guns per every 1,000 man battalion; I’ll do the math for you, that means there was one machine gun in the Russian Army for every five-hundred men, while in the German Army there was one machine gun for every 167 men. This general rule also applies to artillery. Yet even all of this was on paper, throughout the war the Russians dealt with crippling shortages of machine guns, artillery pieces, ammunition, and even just standard-issue rifles. There are stories, which may be exaggerated but do I think capture the spirit of the Russian Army in the First World War, that some units only had about 1 rifle for every two soldiers, so half of all soldiers in those units would be sent into battle unarmed and be told to simply pick up a rifle from someone in front of them who was killed.
In terms of size and organization, the Russian Army dwarfed all others in the world. Their standing peacetime army was made of 1.4 million men, and upon mobilization this number increased to a massive 5 million. It took longer than most for all of these men to be organized and sent to the front, but once they did so they posed a truly monstrous force to any who opposed them. Or so it was thought.
Next, let’s talk about what, in my opinion, was probably the finest single army in the world in 1914: the German Army. Not to get too war-gamey and alternate history on you, but if you ask me which army in 1914 could beat any other army in the world in a one on one matchup, I would say it was the German Army. Despite the fact that in terms of size the German Army was pretty well smack dab in the middle relative to the other Great Powers, it was better equipped and led than anyone else, and its training and discipline was unparalleled. I think this explains a lot about why the Central Powers were able to hold off the Entente for four full years, despite the fact that in 1914 the Central Powers had a combined population of around 100-110 million, the Entente had a combined population of 250 million, a strength which would only grow as more powers joined the Entente alliance over time.
The German army equipment actually varied a bit, as technically, each of the constituent Kingdoms of the German Empire (ie Bavaria and Baden and obviously Prussia) still retained some autonomy and control over military matters. But in general, German soldiers wore a field grey (aka feldgrau) uniform that provided pretty decent camouflage, especially in the foggy regions of northern Europe where they would do most of their fighting. Though I’m sure everyone is familiar with the famous spiked Pickelhaube helmets (trust me, you’ve seen pictures of them even if you’ve not heard the name before), two things to keep in mind about them: one, they were not worn all the time as a more practical and comfortable field cap was also issued, and two, though we call them “helmets” they were not made out of metal but rather hardened leather, so they provided little if any protection. This is actually true of all the armies; in 1914, no one had metal helmets for their soldiers, which will cost thousands and thousands of men their lives once the fighting breaks out.
Anyway, the standard issue German rifle was the fantastic Mauser Gewehr model of 1898 (Gewehr is just the German word for rifle), a bolt action rifle that fired a 7.92 mm bullet with a five-round magazine. This was arguably the best rifle of the war, not because it was more accurate or harder hitting than all the others (though it was more accurate and harder hitting than many), but because of its sheer durability. The Mauser Gewehr 98 was better designed and more finely machined and crafted then just about any other rifle of the era; indeed, many if not most rifles used around the world were based on its design, and even today most bolt-action rifles are based on the Mauser. In terms of other weapons, the standard German Machine Gun was the Maxim MG 08 (MG standing for Maschinengewehr or machine gun), and the standard artillery pieces were the lighter 77mm gun and the heavier 105 and 150mm howitzers. The Germans, as we shall soon enough see, also had a secret weapon, the truly massive 420mm mortar, which was larger and more powerful than any other land artillery gun in the world. In general, the German Army was not only composed of some of the most well-trained and equipped troops in the world, but wielded of artillery of size and quality that dwarfed basically everyone else in the world. And as noted above, artillery was arguably the most important weapon system of the war.
The Germans maintained a peacetime army of 750,000, which would increase to 2.3-2.5 million after mobilization, though many more would soon be drafted and volunteer for service once the war really gets going. These hundreds of thousands and then millions of soldiers were organized into 40 corps, which were in turn divided into 80 divisions. So as we can see, it’s not that the German Army was bigger than everyone else, but in terms of quality it was, I think, second to none. The strengths of tactics, strategy, and logistics that made the Prussians so dominant in 1870 would again be demonstrated in 1914, as we shall soon enough see.
The army that was probably the most comparable to the German Army was the French. In terms of raw numbers, they similarly maintained a peacetime force of 750,000 men which would increase to a little under 3 million upon mobilization. This is quite interesting to see as despite maintaining parity with the German Army, France as a whole had a population of only about 40 million compared to Germany’s 60-65 million. The only reason France was able to do this was because, having learned from the disaster of 1870, they conscripted a larger proportion of their population than anyone else in Europe, and those conscripts were required to serve longer terms of service than anyone.
Yet, as the eminent historian Peter Hart notes, quote, “the vast size of the French Army concealed some fundamental weaknesses.” The first and most obvious of these weaknesses was the French Army uniform. By this point in history, pretty much every army not just in Europe but around the world had moved away from brightly colored uniforms to more neutral covers that would offer some basic camouflage. The French, however, issued their soldiers with bright blue coats and bright red pants, that highlighted their soldiers starkly and clearly against the battlefield. Beyond that, though the French had moved away from the strictly defensive tactics that had allowed them to be overwhelmed by German attacks during the Franco-Prussian War, they both failed to incorporate the small unit mission tactics that made those attacks so successful, nor did they really make any tactical innovations to go along with technological innovations such as magazine fed rifles and machine guns. Throughout the early part of the war especially, whole French divisions would launch massive bayonet charges at German units who simply mowed the French down by the thousands, which very nearly cost the French everything during the first month of the conflict.
Onto more nitty gritty details, the French standard issue rifle was the Lebel model of 1886, introduced in, guess when. This was a rifle firing an 8mm bullet with an 8-round magazine. Now this might make you think that the French had one of the better rifles of the war, as that 8mm bullet sounds virtually identical to everyone else, and hey! An eight-round magazine rather than the more common five-round magazine, that sounds pretty good. But in reality, while the Lebel rifle was easily the most advanced infantry rifle in the world when introduced in 1886, by 1914 it was hopelessly obsolete, and was probably the worst standard infantry rifle of the war. That 8mm bullet was actually a lot less powerful than all other kinds of bullets used for ballistic reasons that are too nuanced to get into here, and the magazine, though holding a few more rounds than the German Mauser or Russian Mosin-Nagant, was a tubular magazine rather than the more practical box magazines of those rifles. Alright, stick with me here. A tubular magazine is basically a long metal tube that holds the cartridges underneath the barrel of the rifle, and in order to load up the magazine you have to push cartridges into the tube one at a time. A box magazine, on the other hand, stacks cartridges on top of each other. So to load a rifle with a box magazine, all you had to do was take a packet of five (or six) cartridges held together with a small metal clip called a “stripper clip,” and shove all the cartridges into the magazine in one easy motion. This meant that, despite a slightly larger magazine capacity, the French Lebel was much slower to reload.
In terms of other weapons there were similar deficiencies. The French standard machine gun, the Hotchkiss, was as mentioned before based on a different though pretty much equally good design as the Maxim, so that’s basically a wash. But in terms of artillery the French were severely lacking. The main French artillery piece was the aforementioned 75mm gun introduced in 1897, in which the French took great pride and was probably the best light field gun in the world at the time. But the French Army had virtually no heavy artillery, that is guns firing shells in the 100-150mm range. Again, this sounds like a small detail, but it meant that French artillery as a whole was both less powerful and had a much-reduced range than their German opponents. The French rationalized this by saying that, as they planned a lighting offensive against the Germans, the heavy guns wouldn’t matter because by the time they were set up and ready to go, the battle would be over. They wanted their army to be equipped solely with light artillery that could be moved around the battlefield quickly. That sounds nice in theory, but it was a severe handicap that would cost the French dearly in 1914.
Finally, we take a look at what was, quantitatively, the smallest army of the Great Powers, but which was qualitatively probably the most professional and experienced in the world. Britain, not surprisingly, being an island nation focused most of its military budget on the Royal Navy, and we’ll talk more about naval warfare in a later episode I promise. There is in fact a famous line uttered by our old friend Sir Edward Grey that sums up Britain’s military attitude during this period: “The British Army should be a projectile to be fired by the British Navy.” But as for the Army, Britain was unique among the Great Powers as they utilized a professional army of volunteers rather than a mass national army of conscripts. As we’ve seen, all of our Great Powers so far had peacetime armies in the hundreds of thousands and wartime armies in the millions. And these millions of men were all conscripts; in all of these countries most or all able-bodied men were required to serve at least a few years in the armed forces. The British Army, meanwhile, had a maximum strength in 1914 of just about 100,000 men, which was miniscule compared to the other Great Powers. But what the British Army lacked in terms of numbers, it made up for in training, expertise, experience, and esprit de corps. Great Britain, unique among the great powers, had no conscription system whatsoever. However, this meant that while small the British Army was made up of professionals, many of whom served for decades. They were highly well trained, highly well disciplined, and highly experienced and integrated into the military way of life. And this army of professionals had not simply sat idly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Throughout that period there had been numerous conflicts of varying scales in which many if not most of the men of the British Army in 1914 had taken part in personally. The most recent of these major conflicts was the Second Boer War of 1899-1902, which had produced thousands of highly experienced veterans who would fight in France and Belgium in 1914; though most of these men would be invalids or dead by the next year.
In terms of equipment, the British Army was also of exceptional quality. The British Army uniform was of a khaki color which they had first seen in clothing in their colony in India. Often described as looking like a dusty canary, these khaki uniforms provided a perfectly adequate camouflage for the era. The famous kettle hat helmet of the British Army has not yet been introduced, and all soldiers were still wearing field caps into battle.
The standard issue British rifle was one of the best in the world at the time, and in fact those historians who do not think the Mauser was the best rifle in the world almost all point to the British rifle. This was the SMLE, which stands for Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield, or simply the Lee-Enfield. Now, because the British had not adopted the metric system, they measured their munitions (and everything else) based on the old imperial system. So the cartridge for the Lee-Enfield was known as the .303, which referred to the fact that the bullet was point three-zero-three inches in diameter. Same idea with millimeters, just a different unit. Anyway, the .303 Lee-Enfield rifle was one of the best, if not the best, rifles of the war. And in my personal opinion, which though amateur is based not only on research but also on having handled some of these rifles, the Lee-Enfield was probably the best rifle of the war, and the one I most would have wanted if I had to be stuck in the trenches. It was accurate at incredible distances, had a bullet that was comparable (if very slightly less at long range) to the Mauser in terms of range and power, but it had four distinct advantages over the Mauser. First was that the Lee-Enfield had a ten-round magazine, rather than the more common five. Now this, for the record, may not have been as huge an advantage as it sounds. In battle, many soldiers noted that once the shooting started they tended to only load single five round stripper clips into their rifle before going back to shooting, for the simple reason that you wanted to spend as little time as possible fumbling around reloading. Second, and this one is debatable, is that the Lee-Enfield is purported by some to have a far smoother and easier to operate bolt action than the Mauser, or any other contemporary rifle. I don’t have enough personal experience with these rifles to definitively comment on that, but I figured I’d at least mention that many people do say that. The third was that the Lee-Enfield was significantly shorter than all other infantry rifles of the era. That designation, Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield, refers to the fact that the Lee-Enfield was technically designated as a short rifle. Most other rifles of the age were long, too long, often almost five feet in overall length. This made the rifles not only heavier than they needed to be, but also more cumbersome if they were, say, stuck in trenches for almost four years. The British Lee-Enfield meanwhile was more like three feet long, making it lighter and easier to carry around. And finally the fourth, and in my opinion biggest advantage, was in the sights. I won’t get too into how different sights on different rifles work, but having handled both the Lee-Enfield and the Mauser I can say definitively that the Lee-Enfield has much better and easier to use sights, which makes it far easier and faster to acquire a target.
For the machine gun, the British used the Vickers gun, which was just the name they gave to the Maxim design, named after the company that built the guns rather than the inventor. And finally, in terms of artillery, the main British light field gun was the Mark 1 18-pounder (firing a shell of about 84mm or 3.3 inches in diameter), while the most commonly used heavy gun was the 60-pounder, (firing a shell of about 127mm or 5 inches in diameter).
In all of this, hopefully you can start to understand just how heavily armed Europe was in 1914, even before the July Crisis began. Combined, even in peacetime, there were millions of soldiers in Europe, armed with weapons of incredible killing power, all poised to finally strike at their rivals. This tension is yet another reason why Europe was such a powder keg in 1914. And in fact, in May of that year, Colonel E.M. House was sent as a special emissary to Europe by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (and don’t worry, we’ll get into Woodrow Wilson one of these days). Colonel House attended numerous diplomatic gatherings and military maneuvers throughout the European continent, and he was astonished at not only how many soldiers the European countries could bring to bear, but at just how much the leaders of Europe were consumed by military thinking, down to the very fact that most of the monarchs of these countries regularly attended diplomatic summits and lavish banquets dressed in full dress military uniform. Just a few months before war broke out, Colonel House wrote, “The situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad. Unless someone acting for you can bring about a different understanding, there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. No one in Europe can do it. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies. Whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria. England does not want Germany wholly crushed, for she would then have to reckon alone with her ancient enemy, Russia; but if Germany insists upon an ever-increasing navy, then England will have no choice.” I don’t think I could have put it better myself, Colonel House.
Ok, so that’s…more than enough talk about weapons, army organization, and tactics I think. One quick thing before we go, is that I’d like to give a big thanks to the newest patron of the Seminal Catastrophe Podcast: Oren. So, thank you Oren, for your support of the show. Tomorrow, we will finally get into the opening campaigns of the First World War on the Western Front.
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