WW1: The costliest vanity project in history?
How the military preparation of European leaders meant that war in the early 20th century was inevitable
When the powers of Europe went to war in 1914, it was a surprise to few within the continent. The prospect of a continental, and then a global, war had been on the cards for decades; there just needed to be the right set of circumstances under which the tinderbox could be lit.
The first movement of the pre-WW1 arms race took place in the late 1890s. The race would intensify in the new century, however, as the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy squared off against the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Britain.
Germany’s fears of increases in Russian armaments, and British fears of the German naval buildup, contributed heavily to the outbreak and spread of the First World War in 1914. Huge warships, deadlier artillery guns and more investment into manpower had some of the most powerful nations on the planet primed and ready for war.
By the time war was declared, the European powerhouses were primed and ready.
The war which did break out was the type which gave these powers the chance to test their new weapons. The vanity project which was the First World War had begun.
The open warfare of the opening weeks and months of the war was what these powers were accustomed to. Cavalry charges and swift movement of the front-line gave the war a somewhat familiar feel to the colonial conflicts nations such as Britain, Germany and France had fought in the years leading up to 1914.
The First World War boiled down to who had the most of the deadly new weapons to inflict the most human damage on the opposition. For the first time in history, soldiers were gassed, blown up by artillery and cut to pieces by machine gun fire. There would be new ways to die on the battlefield, and all of them would be gruesome.
In many ways, the vanity of those in charge of the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente was their downfall. An undeserved confidence to treat this mechanical war with the same approach as a colonial conflict led to the deaths of millions. It was a case of ‘my weapons are bigger and better than yours’ over human life, and the cost was horrendous.
One estimate is that the war cost the combatant nations over $200 billion when the US dollar of 1913 is the measurement. This was money which came after the initial peacocking of the arms race, when the true financial and human cost of the war started to be realised.
The First World War gave the opportunity for the most powerful European nations to flex their militaristic muscle. It was treated as an opportunity to safeguard colonial interests around the world, and most believed it would be over by Christmas 1914. However, none of the powers could have predicted the mechanised slaughter which would take place in the following years.
When peace was restored in November 1918 Europe had changed, but likely not in the way which pre-war leaders had predicted and/or hoped.