Historical maps probably helped cause World War I

Historical maps probably helped cause World War I




You’ll never guess what happens next.


I just knew those cartographers were a sketchy bunch. But did any of you listen to me?



> Keeping that in mind, return to the map above and take note of Portugal and Brazil.

I took note: Brazil is absent from the map, which doesn't show the Americas.


Look again, it isn’t to scale, but the americas are there!


Oh my, so it is! The Americas is that little island off Japan.


I mean, I wouldn't say that it CAUSED world war I. World War I was caused by political effects and the powderkeg that was European diplomacy at the time. Did it influence how World War I was fought? I'd say ... maybe, kinda, if you squint at it enough. The Schlieffen plan at its core was a classic envelopment. And, to be clear, that isn't a bad strategy. Enveloping the enemy is actually the cornerstone of modern warfare. Sure, it didn't go as expected in this case, but given the technology and doctrine of the time it was probably the most likely route to success. Or rather, it's very hard to imagine any plan for invasion by the Germans that didn't lead to the stalemate we saw, barring some massive blunder on the French side.


Wars since the age of Napoleon have been caused by bankers, not maps. Let's be real.


causes proposed in lenin's book make more sense [0]

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperialism,_the_Highest_Sta...


Ugh the first paragraph kicks off with a missing bit of information. Min Nan has at least 5 subvarieties. In my spouse's it's pronounced "de" not "te" (and she is Min Nan as a first language). She laughed and said there's no way the people in Xiamen said "te", or any of the subvarieties she is familiar with within coastal fujian where she spent the first 25 years of her life.

So failed look at archaic miss transliterations, kind of reminiscent of the entire theme of the article. The example map being built on an argument from a bad assumption (a historical error as a pretext for argument).

Perfect irony.


The "te" transliteration for 茶 in Min Nan comes from the Pe̍h-ōe-jī romanization system (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pe%CC%8Dh-%C5%8De-j%C4%AB), which doesn't use the letter 'd' at all.

As was common for Chinese romanization systems from before the 20th century, it used 't' for unaspirated /t/ (which we would use use 'd' for today in systems like Pinyin for Mandarin or Peng'im for Teochew), and used 'th' for aspirated /tʰ/ (which we sould use 't' for today in systems like Pinyin or Peng'im).

This isn't an archaic miss transliteration, it's just an alternative transliteration strategy. In many languages that primarily use the latin alphabet, the phonemes associated with 't' and 'd' are /t/ and /d/, primarily distinguished by voice instead of aspiration (where aspiration is allophonic), so it's logical that the creators of earlier romanization systems focused on preserving that voice distinction, even if it's less common today for a variety of reasons.


de/te as in English or de/te as in pinyin? She and the article could well be both right if she's talking about pinyin pronunciation and the article not.


While I do not doubt that your spouse, this is besides the point, the point is that Min Nan pronounces the first phoneme of the word for “tea” with a dental stop, other chinese variants/languages realize the same phoneme with a dental affricate.

I do not know if the article author/cartographer ever studied linguistics or phonetics, but this is the main takeaway from the map for me, a linguist, the pattern is the message, not the somewhat imprecise data points.


Battle of annihilation became the fetish of the German army well before WWI. As the Germans already did it successfully in 1870 by encircling two French armies leading to what was - at the time - somewhat of a surprise victory. Why would one credit this obsession to a 2000 year old tactical victory (Cannae) and not the 40 year old strategic victories of Metz and Sedan?

Schlieffen plan had the same aim but shifted northward to deal with the fact that after the annexations of 1871 any offensive through the south (now guarded by the Vosges) was unlikely to be successful.


This comment should really be higher


It's curious how people are responding to the title, rather than the post, which touches on the title but is mostly about another thing:

>> There’s something beguiling about the thought that a simple arrangement of lines might explain the world — like seeing human history as an enormous game of Civilization 6. But of course, that’s also the problem with using maps as a way of understanding history. If you’re not careful, they go from being helpful tools to misleading simplifications.

To which I think the blog post makes an interesting argument.

I've always thought about maps from a Tufte perspective:

(1) They are abstractions from reality. (2) Consequently, they simplify and omit select details. (3) Consequently, they are created with an inherent and specific purpose in mind: details necessary for that purpose are included, those unneeded are omitted.(4) Ergo, we must be careful to understand a map's original purpose and ask whether its abstractions are likely to remain valid if we choose to employ it for another.

F.ex. the tactical drawing of Cannae's double envelopment likely doesn't generalize to the strategic realm


I'm reminded of how all models are wrong...


All models are wrong, some are useful. The map is not the territory.


That isn’t limited to maps, but applies to all models of reality, such as Newtonian physics, spherical cows, models of the economy that are used to guide policy or large language models.

Also, oftentimes creators of models do not know what details are necessary for a model’s purpose, and may omit ones they aren’t aware of.


In fact it's almost always the case, since the world is so complex with so many competing and overlapping models.

[deleted by user]

The intentions don't just affect the way the data is presented, but can affect the underlying data itself. For example, the "German Claims in Africa" shows vast areas as "German claims" on what must be very shaky justification. The presentation is very clear, but the data is misleading.


The justification to the European "scramble to Africa" is that they could. Claims were also starting points for negotiations among European countries based on relative power and perhaps give and take in other domains or geographical areas.

Historically, and to a point up to this day, territorial claims are a power play. Either you're powerful enough to enforce them (through possession, defence, threats) or you are not. And the justification to seeking territory is of course to increase power and resources.


Intentions absolutely affect both the data and presentation! Because one cannot summarize without editorializing.

F.ex. the "German Claims in Africa according to Professor Delbruck" map appears to originate in a British publication [0], in the context of a "German aims in Africa" section [1]...

>> [Beginning with] "It might be thought that even the rapacity of Prussia could hardly fail to be satisfied with such wholesale spoliation of territory such as this, but the foregoing [European territorial] terms by no means exhaust the demands which are to be made of the striken foe."

>> "The idea that at the end of the war Germany would make enormous acquisitions in Africa was just as popularly believed and lingered just as tenaciously in the Teuton mind as the delusions with regards to the European settlement. As late as the Summer of 1917 the well-known German historian, Professor Delbruck, gives the following interesting account of German's aims in this directions [... Prof Delbruck's quote...] [...] I have therefore reduced it to map form in order that a comparison may be made between these two pathetic tributes to the tenacity of German hopes (See Map 13)."

So the map that we're looking at is a British graphical depiction of something a German military historian said, provided in the context of demonstrating that German colonial claims in Africa are over-optimistic and -broad with regard to their military performance by the end of WWI.

And yet the intent behind the creation of that map is largely lost by viewers.

The blog post captions it as "Putative German claims in Africa amounted to nearly half the continent" which is more or less accurate, albeit leaving out the fact that the map is apparently a British creation.

The British component possibly affected the precise boundaries as drawn, as well as the decision to make British and German colors similar, so as to decrease the obviousness of British colonies and emphasize the monolithic nature of desired German African colonies.

[0] Maps 12 and 13 from "The British Dominions Year Book 1918" https://maps.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/history_dominion...

[1] "The British Dominions Year Book 1918" https://books.google.com/books?id=wiI0AAAAMAAJ&vq=africa&pg=...


Incredibly relevant commentary today, in regards to the Ukraine conflict


And to the Chinese map including new territory.


And Russian and Japanese maps of the Kuril Islands.

Pakistani and Indian maps of Jammu and Kashmir and the Siachen. "thence north to the glaciers"


>words for tea that sound like chai reflect a historical spread via overland routes, the argument goes, while words like tea are a legacy of maritime trade

>A 2018 viral article by the data journalist Nikhil Sonad in Quartz first put this idea on the world’s radar

It was common knowledge for decades. At least among linguists.


Any new form of communication usually provokes misunderstanding and often abuse by powers that be.

To this day, people still believe things on the internet...


Cannae is undoubtedly the ur battle of annihilation in the western world (particularly in the relevant period). I think it's reasonable to argue that Schlieffen was heavily influenced and motivated by it, and that perhaps the schematic simplicity by which it was portraited may have led Schlieffen and other German planners astray.

But to lean completely on Tuchman to characterize the military planning of the Germans is completely negligent. Simply saying that it's imperfect scholarship does not excuse you from lifting your main thesis straight from the book.

It's clear that Schlieffen drew on Cannae as a model, but the argument presented in this article is just... missing a lot of stuff?

First, the Tuchman quote: "Under Schlieffen, envelopment became the fetish and frontal attack the anathema of the German General Staff.". I don't think this is a fair characterization ('fetish'). Why WOULD Germany -want- to perform frontal attacks when envelopment was an option? In nearly all scenarios, envelopment is strictly better than frontal attack when possible! And the Germans were hardly afraid of frontal assaults even at the start of WW1. They straight up face-tanked the Belgium fortresses!

And beyond Cannae, the Germans had plenty of recent military history where envelopment/flanking carried the day. In the Austro-Prussian War at the Battle of Koniggratz (arguably one of the major stepping stones to the foundation of the German Empire), an operational flanking maneuver carried the day. In the Franco-Prussian war (the actual founding war of the German Empire), the Battle of Sedan was a battle of encirclement (the Prussians basically totally enveloped the French).

Perhaps Cannae was the archetype they were chasing, but they also had recent (and nationally significant) examples to draw on. They were not 'just' chasing a 2000 year old mirage - they were trying to live up to their own recent traditions and history.

So when the author says, "Doubt never seemed to enter the minds of these military strategists of pre-war Germany. It did not seem to trouble them, for instance, that they were drawing world-changing lessons from a map of a battle of two thousand years earlier about which surprisingly little is known" - well, I'd argue that they weren't troubled because they weren't drawing world changing lessons from 2000 years ago. They were drawing world-changing lessons from recent world-changing events (they UNIFIED GERMANY! They MADE the GERMAN EMPIRE!) that their parents and grandparents just partook in.


I agree but it's notable that Schlieffen, like many German officers who worked on war plans leading up to the Great War, wasn't even drawing lessons from his parent's experience - he partook in the Franco-Prussian War himself.


Love it. The core point that I actually took away is driving home the fact that maps are not infallible and this goes against common sense for most people. I don't know if it truly led to WWI, but faulty maps have definitely caused endless problems throughout history. Look at Bermuda - the lack of this island on maps (or inprecise positioning) from the 14th-19th century has directly caused 350+ shipwrecks littering its shores. And countries didn't share updated positioning data/maps for centuries because it was a strategic advantage to horde it. Cool now, horrifying back then.

Even today, official US govn topo maps are constantly rectified and reprinted as new surveys and aerials are taken into account and we realize errors were made. You can actually explore the differences in the reprints via https://pastmaps.com/explore if you're curious about it (for full transparency, Pastmaps is my own project)


> It is said to prove a point about the globalization of tea: words for tea that sound like chai reflect a historical spread via overland routes, the argument goes, while words like tea are a legacy of maritime trade. A 2018 viral article by the data journalist Nikhil Sonad in Quartz first put this idea on the world’s radar.

This “idea” was on wikipedia since at least 2015: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Etymology_of_tea&...


For anyone who finds the sequence from Cannae to WW1 tenuous or hard to follow:

- Alfred von Schlieffen, chief military planner for the German Empire during a crucial period (1891-1906), was obsessed with the battle of Cannae.

- A Cannae-style battle seemed impossible in the east, as the Russians had plenty of space to fall back and had done so during Napoleon's time.

- So Schlieffen focused all German planning on a decisive blow in the west. The Germans would encircle the French army and annihilate it Cannae-style.

- When, in August 1914, the Kaiser wanted to mobilize solely against Russia, the generals told him it was impossible to do so and they had to attack France instead.

- Schlieffen's Cannae-inspired plan had the further consequence of flanking the French through Belgium. This drew in Britain and made it a world war.


I remember crossing from France into Spain and back again somewhere in the early 80's, when Europe definitely still had physical borders and not realizing I had done so until it had happened. My surprise stemmed in part from the fact that on the map there was a clear line and in real life there was absolutely nothing at all. It really helped me to understand once and for all that maps are just pieces of paper and that it's the real world that counts. Of course a days walk further where the highway entered Spain you'd have been stopped and asked for your passport. But high up in the countryside nobody really cared about where precisely that border was, the path is then on this side of the border and a little while later on the other. And this was at a time when the Basque separatist movement was very active with regular bombings. So the lack of a border and associated controls was in a way something that you wouldn't expect at all.

Now, with Schengen in full effect all over Europe crossing a border is something that usually involves seeing some buildings without a purpose in the middle of a highway. The only time I have been stopped inside the Schengen area for document checks was during the COVID era and it felt pretty weird not to be able to just go from Amsterdam to Riga without such checks.


I'm not sure what the profound insight is supposed to be here. Everyone knows that borders are established by convention and agreement. That doesn't mean they don't matter.

Borders exist for the sake of the common good, in a way that's analogous to private property, which also exists for the sake of the common good. I realize this must be a strange notion for those of us raised in a culture that's been shot through with liberalism and liberal/radically individualist ideas (I have here in mind the philosophical stance, not liberal institutions), where private property is understood as prior to the common good and where the common good is conceived as something that's grudgingly ceded from private property. But traditionally, the common good was taken to be prior to private property, and private property to be something the exists for the sake of the common good because it enables human flourishing. (Incidentally, this understanding resolves ethical problems concerning the use of what would otherwise be taken to be private property during times of crisis, such as whether the taking of food from a privately owned stockpile, by starving people, during a famine would constitute theft.)

Now, how particular borders are enforced or respected or treated is a matter of prudential political judgement. Schengen is not borderless. It is itself defined by a border that is enforced by Frontex! It is precisely the Schengen border that enables free movement within Schengen. Member states have determined that free movement between them and them only is for the common good of these member states. Furthermore, just because free movement is now possible doesn't mean borders have ceased to exist. Administrative borders still exist because they circumscribe legal jurisdictions, and these may or may not coincide with ethnic boundaries or cultural regions. States have simply become more permissive about enforcing movement because of their membership in Schengen. But if a crisis were to occur, such as a flood of migrants that threatens the good of a nation's population, you can be sure that member states would control the flow of people over their borders again, if only temporarily, to contain the crisis and protect the common good of the population. Protecting the common good is, after all, the job of the state.


Almost certainly did not cause WWI.

May have influenced German overconfidence and some of their tactics.


The argument laid out in this post and in the title around maps, specifically the battle of cannae, leading to world war one is pretty weak. I buy that German generals were obsessed with the battle, but I don't see any evidence here that this caused the war. Going to war is first and foremost a political act even if it is followed by a military response. There's no mention of the complex politics of europe at the time with it's web of alliances, nor any talk of arch duke ferdinand. Sure German generals thought they could easily win the war following the teachings of Cannae, but they no more caused the war than the US military did with the invasion of Iraq


So a couple of points of clarifications

> specifically the battle of cannae, leading to world war one is pretty weak. I buy that German generals were obsessed with the battle,

So not just the German generals specifically Schlieffen. The Schlieffen plan developed by it's namesake general was the governing document for the German plan of battle at the beginning of WW1. Schlieffen spent his entire life trying to figure out the plan that would eventually be his namesake, and he was also obsessed with Canne, so I could see an argument that was a contributing factor. If schlifen wasn't obsessed with the double envelopment he is less likely to send troops through Belgium and no Belgium means no UK involvement leading to a very different war.

> Going to war is first and foremost a political act

That is one of the fascinating things about WW1 is there are times where it seems as if forces more than men were dictating things. At one point after mobilization and but prior to the actual invasion of Belgium the Kaiser wanted to stop things as he believed a peace deal was reached and was told no, not only no but that such a thing was fundamentally impossible at that point because the military plans laid out by the generals many years ago had dictated so precisely how things had to happen that any change to the plans was close to impossible once they were set in motion. The same thing happened in the Russian side the Czar issued orders for mobilisation then stand down then mobilization again and then one general smashed his telephone so that it could not be rescinded. I think they is part of what made WW1 the war it was, it was one ran primarily by and for the generals (until the later years) with the political officials deferring all power and authority to them.


> The Schlieffen plan developed by it's namesake general

The Schlieefen plan didn't exist.

> The Schlieffen memorandum of 1905, with its 1906 supplement, was not a plan. It was not operational. It did not go into details or issue orders

David Frmokin's Europe's Last Summer

Terence Zuber's Inventing the Schlieefen Plan shows that the "plan" was written in a memorandum at his retirement, which his daughter kept in her family photos (even in August 1914). The memorandum also involved 20 divisions which never existed - 48 corps should have attacked France instead of the actual 34...

The actual plan as described was a one front war against France... From Schlieefen's other writings were Germany at war with France and Russia, he suggested using interior rail lines to lure enemy forces inside, and then counteract by taking their supply lines (the move through Belgium and Northern France), quickly winning the war, which bears only the most superficial resemblance to the war as started.

Mark Humphries and John Maker have gone into more detail on where the actual war plan (as followed) came from, von Moltke's beliefs etc. Even e.g. Gross who has strongly debated Zuber about this agrees that there was no official plan as such, instead arguing that Schlieffen's influence, staff rides etc. planted the seeds of seeing potential victory through such an approach.


My friend, I have been eagerly gobbling up all the good literature I can get my hands on recently, do you have any suggestions on books that you feel do a decent job of examining the Shlieefen Plan?

Besides The Guns of August which I just finished last month.


You'll want "Inventing the Schlieffen Plan" and especially GJ Meyer's "The World Undone".

The second deals with prewar military strategy, showing that European militaries expected trench warfare and ineffective offensive, until the Ruso-Japanese war, which made them switch gears, believing a strong offensive and bayonets could overcome machine guns.

One interesting point is bayonet designs in the 1870s and 1880s were wide, meant to be used for digging, entrenching. But by the 1910s, they were suddenly long and thin to give soldiers "more reach" akin to spears!


> forces more than men were dictating things

> one general smashed his telephone so that it could not be rescinded

Seems like your "forces more than men" are actually just "more men."

Arguably, though, you're describing ideology or mythos, eg "Der tag!"[0]

0. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anecdotes-from-the-arch...


To an extant yes, but another example where it seemed forces more than men moved things was Verdun. Halfway through the battle both the Germans and the French generals commanding the armies wanted to pull out because it was so horrible, but the Germans were so close to a victory they couldn't pull out after all the blood that had been spilt being so close to victory, meanwhile the French couldn't give a single inch of ground for doing so would mean the loss of Verdun, which was a monument of national pride, and so for three hundred and three days below the sun the battle carried, father and son fell one by one.

The war is replete with similar examples, and sure we can call it mythos or ideology or something like that, but it is clear there were times in the war that even had the generals and the populace wanted things to be different it was near impossible to change and men continued thrown into the meat grinder.


From what I've been able to find, the importance of invading Belgium had more to do with capturing it's rail network for logistics, than recreating the battle of cannae


I'd argue against that interpretation, the importance of invading Belgium had more to do with avoiding the French line of fortresses and hoping that the Belgians would just roll over than capturing rail networks that they wouldn't be able to use without a protracted war, which they had no anticipation of as they expected to be marching into Paris 900 hours after mobilization was declared.


That also makes sense, and has nothing to do with the battle of cannae? Like that seems like a logical tactical decision. Offensive maneuvers are costly for the attacker against well fortified positions, so avoiding them by going around them makes sense as well as using the element of surprise. It also has nothing to do with the 2000 year old battle


> It also has nothing to do with the 2000 year old battle

It has a little bit to do with it, I think, but only in two sense 1. It involved a decisive victory by envelopment which, completely unrelated to Cannae, Germany needed to avoid a two-front war. 2. It's just the go-to military general's example to refer to their own "masterpiece". aka. Schlieffen's Cannae.

I'll agree, though, that it would be equally relevant had Schlieffen called it, "Pulling my goalie to put an extra man on the ice".


"Convinced that Germany, surrounded by powerful enemies, would have to fight outnumbered and win, Schlieffen believed the key to victory could be discovered in an account of the Battle of Cannae, written by the German military historian Hans Delbrtick. Therefore, Schlieffen ordered the historical section of the General Staff to produce a set of Cannae Studies that would demonstrate that the principle of double envelopment practiced by Hannibal at Cannae was the master key to victory in battle."



The German military prior to WWI had far, far more political power than the US military in 2003. Voltaire's famous line "Where some states have an army, the Prussian Army has a state" didn't change in the intervening centuries, except that they acquired a whole empire in the meantime.


I agree with this assessment; the words "probably helped" are doing a lot of work here. Maybe a better way to put it would be, "probably were a factor in the timing of WWI". The German general staff was indeed very focused on the operational art of war and their working assumptions at the time of the war's outset (i.e., that they had an edge over the French via the Schlieffen plan) were certainly factors in Germany's overall calculus....maybe one of the proximate causeS, but not the underlying cause, which was the cumulative history of intense great power competition in the decades leading up to 1914.


> Going to war is first and foremost a political act even if it is followed by a military response.

Yeah I think we can safely assume that the German general staff were familiar with Clausewitz.


I'm not an expert, but I think for World War I the military strategy questions - and in particular the misconceptions - were very relevant to the decision to go to war. My understanding is that the various combatant powers believed that the war would be quick and decisive in the way that prior wars had been; none expected or prepared for a four-year slog of trench warfare, defensive supremacy, or total depletion of whole demographics of the population. I've read that the American Civil War pioneered many of the technologies and strategies used in World War I, and if European military strategists had paid attention they would have had a better idea of what they were in for.


Author here - yes, this is what I was getting at. The false promise of a rapid victory over the French via encirclement from the right flank (in the style of Hannibal) really was a major factor in justifying the risks of war for the German General Staff. And because Schlieffen was preoccupied with the idea that an ancient battle could be a model for that approach, it distracted from the now-obvious technological changes of the period (machine guns=defensive warfare) that made the approach impossible.



How does machine guns = defensive warfare make the "Schlieffen Plan" impossible?

The Germans were able to advance to the doorstep of Paris. They continuously tried to engage the Entente in a decisive battle (from the Frontier all the way to the Marne). They were unable to do so because the Entente refused to be engaged that way, and because the Entente had superior strategic/operational mobility (they were retreating onto their own logistics and infrastructure (railroads)). At the Marne (Paris), Germany was at or near it's logistical limits. Germany also transferred 200,000 troops to the Eastern front.

The Battle of the Marne itself was not "Germany face tanks into prepared defensive positions and is stopped cold by Entente machine guns and fortifications". The battle was a retreating Entente force, bolstered by re-inforcements, turning around and attacking into the pursuing Germans.

The "Schlieffen Plan" failed before the whole 'static warfare' thing started. In fact, it was the failure of the plan that induced the conditions for the race to the sea, and the whole western front shitshow.

The "Schlieffen Plan" failed because Germany outran it's logistics, because Germany panicked when Russia mobilized faster than anticipated and transferred over a sizeable body of men, because France was able to use it's position (retreating onto its infrastructure) effectively (and they weren't dumb enough to try to engage the Germans at every opportunity), and I'm sure for many other reasons as well. Machine guns may play a part, but I think it's overly reductive to claim that "machine guns - defensive warfare" made the plan impossible.


The Germans had the right plan at the wrong time. It worked when they had meth and trucks in 1940.


I agree with everything, except that I would not call the German reaction to Russia's fast mobilization "panicking". The German war planning was very aware of the meager prospects of a two-front war and that in order for a fast victory it was mandatory to beat France before Russia was (supposedly) ready. The fast Russian advance into Germany was just unexpected, and there existed simply no developed plan for such a situation. And of course no one would have wanted to simply let the Russians march through to Berlin.

To add to the debate about Cannae: Talking strategy is talking about abstract principles. The abstract patterns are here "frontal assault" vs. "flank movement" with the aim of encirclement. This is the only relevant and quite vage analogy of the Schlieffen plan and Cannae. However, the Schlieffen plan as it was adopted (and modified) by the German army was a plan of an assault with a very strong and fast right wing, but at Cannae, the battle began with a frontal attack by both armies, with Hannibal subsequently having his centre retreat and later advancing both flanks and finally his cavalry into the back of the Romans to complete the encirclement. So the analogy between Cannae and the so-called Schlieffen plan is not very far-reaching.

If we are looking for a better analogy to Cannae, the German invasion of the Low Countries and France in May 1940 comes surprisingly close. Here the advancing Belgian, English and French armies failed to cover their right flank sufficiently. A hazardous, rapid German tank advance on this flank cut them off from possible lines of retreat and threatened to envelop them from behind. Only the beach at Dunkirk remained as a way of escape for some.

The German plan of May 1940 has been described by some historians such as Antony Beevor as a variant of the Schlieffen plan. Beevor writes in "The Second World War" (2012): "Manstein's [the author of the plan] left-hook Sichelschnitt was thus a reversal of the version of the right-hook Schlieffen plan attempted 1914, which the French now expected them to try a second-time." (p. 97) -- In other words: The French expected another attempt like 1914, they operated accordingly, for that very reason walked into a trap and were defeated by an exactly opposite flanking manoeuvre.


Right, "panicked" was a bad word. I think their choice was sound (or at least very defensible). I meant "panicked" as even greater degree of "unexpected" (beyond even surprised).


Were machine guns really the cause of 'defensive' warfare?

Rolling artillery barrages would send the front-line machinegunners hiding in the trenches. The wave of attackers behind the artillery barrage, when moving quickly had a very good chance of capturing the front line of trenches.

The problem that they would face is that rail-deployed reinforcements on the defender side would pour in as a counter-attack... And those recently-captured front-line trenches were, by design, indefensible from an attack from the rear.

So you'd get lots of bloody attacks, with horrific loss of life, where all the territorial gains made in them would be lost in an equally bloody counter-attack. As a net result, the front is frozen, despite both sides taking turns attacking (And making brief territorial gains, that are immediately reversed).

Artillery and railroads, not machineguns seem to be the major influences, there.


Hmmm. I doubt it was Cannae, it was more of the 1870 Franco Prussian war. The Franco Prussian war lasted only six months. That war destroyed the myth of France's military might (from Napoleon)and created modern Germany. Moltke the Elder became a warrior god in Germany. Schlieffen was tasked on how to solve the problem with a war on two fronts; he expected to knockout France in a quick blow just like in 1870 and turn around and fight the Russians.



Not to mention that Cannae was famously a double pincer and the Schlieffen plan was not.


I think this is the key point. Sending columns through Belgium to try to envelop Paris from the north wasn't a particularly faithful recreation of Hannibal's battlefield-scale double envelopment

It was however the logical way to attack France from Germany given the geography. WWII generals, who weren't as obsessed with Cannae as Schlieffen, but were well aware the "Schlieffen Plan" was a failure, took the same route with better mobility and logistics and succeeded.


If that's the case you're trying to present, your article should be clearer about that. That wikipedia entry also doesn't seem to bolster your case. It doesn't even mention the battle of Cannae, but it does talk extensively about the importance of capturing the Belgian rail network for the German logistics in fighting France


>That wikipedia entry also doesn't seem to bolster your case. It doesn't even mention the battle of Cannae

In his defense, the Britannica entry does mention it. https://www.britannica.com/event/Schlieffen-Plan In your defense, you are right.


I'd argue against Schlieffen wanting to recreate the battle of Canne, and say that was much more the result of Moltke giving the Crown Prince permission to advance. After all the original Schlieffen plan was to have the Alsace region slowly retreat and give ground enticing the French further in, whereas the right flank that was to wheel through Belgium and strike at Paris was to do all the work. If anyone was going trying to recreate Canne I would argue it was Moltke, as he was the one that allowed the left flank to start moving forward.


> After all the original Schlieffen plan was to have the Alsace region slowly retreat and give ground enticing the French further in

That actually would be a much better analogy to Cannae. Enticing them to break your center, not realizing until they're surrounded that the victory they've charged into is actually an epic defeat.

I still don't understand why they'd assume French generals would do that, though. It really assumes a hopeless level of ineptitude on their part for it to work. Seems obvious to me they're better off stalling till Russians are mobilized, no matter how enticing the bait is.


I think there's something there, and I did enjoy your article. WW I had a lot of causes, at the head of which I'd put the Kaiser's stupidity and weakness.

But yeah, Cannae did (and still does) exert a big influence on military planners.

As others have pointed out, Schlieffen depended on massive luck and adherence to The Plan, neither of which obtained. It was not machine guns that made it fail.


it's a fascinating topic, but how can one person's stupidity and weakness cause millions and millions to go die far away from their homes in dirt? I could never understand that. surely there must have been some massive underlying reasons why a self-respecting burgher would suddenly leave his cozy family to die a terrible miserable ugly death in a faraway foreign land?


That's not how it was sold to them.

Different times than we live in, for sure.


This is basically true of most wars. The war in Iraq was supposed to be quick and decisive. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/rumsfeld-it-would-be-a-short-wa...


The war in Iraq was quick and decisive. The occupation afterwards was a mess in every way possible, but the organized war between states went exactly as planned.


Absolutely, and so different from Ukraine, where I think pundits expected an Iraq-like situation. Initial rapid capture followed by years of instability. American advisors at the beginning looked like they were interested in mainly supplying Ukraine with guerilla warfare tools, etc. expecting that kind of situation.

... but reality went another way and now the west is sending in cruise missiles tanks and cluster artillery.


The Iraq War ended in 2011. The initial invasion that toppled Sadam was quick


"none expected or prepared for a four-year slog of trench warfare"

Yet another parallel with what's happening in Ukraine right now. Both Russia (and some in NATO) I think expected this to end in days with an ugly military defeat, capture of the capital, and then years of guerilla and political battles.

We appear to be at a similar juncture as WWI in geopolitics and military organization/technology, where the relative capabilities of various forces are not well understood.

(And similar to WWI this seems to be primarily about imperial economics, within which smaller nations get caught up as battle sites and pawns and the issue of the self-determination of smaller ethnic nation states becomes one of the defining issues. At least that's how Lenin and others analyzed WWI, and it's notable that Putin went out of his way to namecheck and attack Lenin in particular at the start of the conflict...)

Coffee brainfarts, sorry. :-)


Both Russia and who?


The american civil war was a full 50 years before WWI.


Yeah, but during the later stages of the American Civil war, machine guns mowed downs entire cavalry regiments. Many European officers didn't realize that made cavalry shocks useless and thus rapid advances would not be possible. Only infantry advances were possible and only under slower moving artillery cover. That made shock tactics mostly impossible until mechanized warfare became a thing in world war ii.


The germans used Calvary units in WW2 as part of of the blitzkrieg.


...I guess, yeah? Although the article does a fantastically terrible job talking about which maps, specifically, caused WWI. Very little substance.


> the article does a fantastically terrible job talking about which maps, specifically, caused WWI.

They argue (unconvincingly) that the map of the battle of Cannae caused it.


One of issues about WWI was German ressentment towards having so few colonies.

If on these maps Africa, India and Americas would look larger, of course they will be super eager to start WWI and get their piece of now-visibly-even-bigger pie.


This blogpost seemed tenuous to me.

    - cannae is a famous historical battle
    - the map of the battle was drawn sixty years after the battle
    - a german military leader studied the battle
    - germany was in ww1

The argument is a little bit stronger than that if your familiar with the specifics. Which goes more like

- Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen is obssesed with the battle of Canne

- Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen's entire life's work is to figure out how to beat France and Russia.

- Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen writes a plan which becomes the sacred text of how the German army is to conduct a two front war against France and Russia. One of the critical parts of that plan is marching a truly massive German army through neutral Belgium.

- When France Germany and Russia go to war Germany following the Schlieffen plan marches through Belgium triggering UK involvement in the war.

Ergo if Schliffen isn't so obbssesed with Canne it doesn't end up being reflected in the Schliffen plan, if a double envelopment isn't the end goal of the Schliffen plan it's possible they don't go through Belgium, thus not triggering UK involvement and thus we have a very different war occurring.

I don't agree but the theory is more plausible when you understand a lot of the details.


> - Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen writes a plan which becomes the sacred text of how the German army is to conduct a two front war against France and Russia. One of the critical parts of that plan is marching a truly massive German army through neutral Belgium.

> - When France Germany and Russia go to war Germany following the Schlieffen plan marches through Belgium triggering UK involvement in the war.

Neither of these points are true. Schlieffen produced several different war plans for different potential scenarios and in WW1 Germany wound up following a very heavily modified version of one of those plans. While Britain officially gave the violation of Belgian neutrality as its reason for entering the war, and it certainly swayed public opinion in favor of the conflict, they had signed a treaty with France in 1911 pledging military support in the event of a German invasion regardless; and more generally had been in an increasingly antagonistic relationship with Germany for years.

Perhaps had Schlieffen not been so obsessed with Cannae he would have made different recomendations, but the fact is that the rest of the German general staff generally agreed with the logic behind those recomendations. Then when their plans were put into action, they were largely vindicated as the invasion through Belgium did allow Germany to gain a massive advantage in the opening weeks of the war and sieze territory from which it would take years and millions of men to dislodge them. Indeed the main issue was that the plan assumed Russia would be slow to mobilize, giving the German army time to defeat France before they would have to reposition forces to the eastern front, but to everyone's surprise Russia instead mobilized quickly. A generation later, when the men who were boots on the ground at the time now led the German military, and had decades to study the previous conflict, they decided on attempting a plan that was broadly similar and again had great initial success.

It's possible that Germany employs a totally different strategy in WW1 if Schlieffen isn't obsessed with Cannae, but there's no real evidence that they would.


It's remarkable how little of what Putin and Russian state median say internally to Russians is covered in Western media.

They are obsessed with old maps.

A few months ago Putin flaunted a map from the 1700s without Ukraine as proof as that Ukraine has always belonged to Russia and that "Russians" live in all regions of Ukraine (beyond Crimea and Donbas).