Joseph Joffre, generalissimo of the French army from 1914 to 1916. Remembered today for engineering the ‘Miracle on the Marne’ where the defeated and demoralized Allied armies repulsed the German invaders less than 30 miles from Paris. Beyond the patriotic legends, one cannot forget that it was Joffre’s failure or refusal to recognize the size and scope of the German thrust through Belgium and his insistence on executing Plan XVII that caused the disaster of the Battles of the Frontiers; or that just as much as the general’s patient resolve, German strategic blunders, specifically overestimating the scale of their triumph and pivoting eastward, away from Paris, in the first days of September, contributed to the Allied victory. Joffre continued as Chief of the General Staff for 2 more years before being replaced after the twin tragedies of the Somme and Verdun. Indeed, he was the man of the moment in 1914 but a moment that quickly passed in an era of mechanized, industrial warfare.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria. He saw his kingdom conquered by Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War just two years after he acceded to the throne in 1864 and then ultimately absorbed into the new German Empire in 1871. His response to this radical diminution of his position and power seems to have been to escape into fantasy, spending his vast fortune as the personal patron of composer Richard Wagner and building the famous Neuschwanstein Castle. He is still known in Germany as “der marchenkönig” or the “fairy tale king.” His mysterious death in 1886 at the age of 40 had never been adequately explained and only adds to historical cult of personality which has grown up around him.
The abject poverty and absolute horror of life on the Western Front during the First World War is often clouded by so many tired cliches and easily forgotten. This is so, in part, because the grim reality far surpasses any of the depictions in fiction or on film but completely shorn of any notion of heroism or glory. A British soldier wrote to the Times back home saying, “Sitting here, and reading the English papers that arrive, one cannot help feeling that England had not yet succeeded in banishing the spectacular and romantic conceptions of war which no longer bear any relation to the actuality… The bravery of our men, and they are splendidly brave, consists of sitting, often for days and nights, sodden in trenches, with the terrifying noises and earth-shaking concussions of shells…I read of the Sportsman’s battalions, all athletes. All very nice, if individual prowess were in question, but it is not. What is needed is ordinary men, trained in discipline and trained to shoot, and plenty of them.” Many of the men who believed in August 1914 that the war would only last a couple of months because their army would so easily vanquish the enemy by December believed that it couldn’t last more than a year because humanity could not possibly survive a year of a conflict so unimaginably terrible.
A French infantryman remembered that men fell right in front of his trench “lined up as on a manoeuvre. The rain falls on them inexorably and bullets scatter their bleached bones. One evening, Jacques, on patrol saw enormous rats fleeing from under their faded coats. They were fat from human meat. His heart pounding, he crawled towards a dead man. His helmet had rolled away. He was showing a grimacing face, with no flesh; his skull bare, his eyes eaten. A denture had slid onto his rotting shirt, and out of his gaping mouth a foul animal jumped.” Experiences like his were common, every day, along a front that stretched from the Swiss border to the North Sea and, in some sectors, didn’t change even by a few meters for four whole years.
Much has been made by scholars and historians of the so-called “blank cheque”, or promise of diplomatic and, ultimately, military support, given by Germany to Austria-Hungary during the July crisis of 1914. Indeed, many have argued for Germany’s” war guilt”, primary if not sole responsibility for starting the Great War, and cited this as crucial, irrefutable evidence.
Never mind that the guarantee given in early July to the Austrian envoy, Count Hoyos, by Kaiser Wilhelm II and his advisors supposed that Vienna would move against Serbia quickly, before the Russians even realized what was afoot, and while European opinion was still sympathetic after the assassinations in Sarajevo. In the event, the Austrians didn’t even deliver their ultimatum to Belgrade until 23 July, almost three whole weeks later. More importantly, the decision makers in Berlin anticipated and planned for a localized conflict in the Balkans. After the fateful council meeting of 6 July the Kaiser departed for his annual North Sea cruise not to return until 27 July, while his ministers, both civilian and military, also went on holiday, leaving the capital. After the Serbian response to the Austrian note on 25 July, a partial acceptance of the demands levied, Wilhelm enthusiastically declared that as far as he could see there existed “no more reason for war.” Germany was, in fact, the last of the Great Powers to mobilize, almost a whole week after Russia began to implement mobilization procedures (the Period Preparatory to War). Even the most Germanaphobe historians must agree that Austria-Hungary had a legitimate right to respond to such an egregious act of terrorism, plotted on Serbian soil and with the fill support of the Serbian army and many elements within the government itself. German support for Austrian policy is Southeastern Europe was actually strikingly unusual and atypical; for the previous thirty five years, since the conclusion of the Dual Alliance in 1879, Berlin had always sought to restrain Habsburg ambitions in the Balkans so as not to alienate Russia. That sort of caution was not, however, exercised by Russia and her ally, France.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazanov and war minister Sukhomlinov inaugurated the Period Preparatory to War, an essential partial mobilization, in a Council of Ministers meeting, on 25 July, before Austria had mobilized or even declared war on Serbia. Five days later, when Tsar Nicholas II decreed full mobilization, he did so in the full knowledge that such an action would necessarily and inevitably provoke a reciprocal German mobilization, not just to protect her Austrian ally but her own territory in East Prussia. The Russians would have never acted so boldly aggressive had it not been for the explicit support of France for their belligerant, expansionist policy on the Balkan peninsula. Unlike the Austro-German Alliance, which was primarily defensive, the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, by contrast, had been converted since the turn of the century into an offensive pact; indeed German cries of “Einreisung!” were not by nature baseless. Following the two Morrocan crises of 1905 and 1911, the rival armed political and military blocs in Europe had hardened. Unsure of British support in the event of a general conflagration and dependent upon Russian cooperation, French politicians such as President of the Republic Raymond Poincarè, former prime minister Theophile Déclassé and ambassador to St Petersburg Maurice Paleologue made a Faustian bargain, binding French security against Germany to Russian pan-slavist policy in Southern Europe. Bismarck was correct, as always, when he remarked that the next Great War would begin over “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” And just as dangerous and disastrous for Europe as the “blank cheque” supposedly given by Germany to Austria was the one given to Russia by France.
It’s easy for us now to assume that the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 must have immediately seized the interest of Europe, knowing now the grave consequences that stemmed from that event. In fact, press comment across the continent was rather subdued in the early days of July. Even the bellicose Parisian papers limited themselves to sympathetic comment for the Habsburg Emperor, Franz Josef. All of France was absorbed, and would remain so until the very final days of the crisis, with murder trial of Madame Caillaux. The wife of former prime minister Joseph Caillaux, who was himself disgraced after his handling of the Agadir affair of 1911 but looking for a comeback, had murdered the editor of the Figaro newspaper after he published scandalous love letters written between the couple while they were still married to other people. Caillaux had championed a policy of conciliation towards Germany and been forced out of office because of it as nationalist and belligerent attitudes hardened throughout the country. He was replaced in the premiership by Raymond Poincarè, whose support of Russian Balkan policy as President did much to exacerbate the international situation and it is perhaps fitting that his final public humiliation took place on the eve of the Great War he worked so had worked so hard to avoid 3 years earlier.
The mood of distraction was very similar in Britain. In May of 1914 the House of Commons had passed a Home Rule bill for Ireland which the Liberal cabinet was threatening to enact by Royal Assent over the rejection of the House of Lords. The resulting furor was one that cut across every strata of British society. It was not until the 26th of July, the day after the expiration of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia that there was any cabinet discussion about the crisis in Central Europe. As First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill later wrote about those heady days: “The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland and a strange light began by perceptible gradations to fall on the map of Europe.” This was especially significant because, unlike in France or Germany or Russia, the British public was completely ignorant of their country’s commitments on the continent and the extent of her alliances. Only the London Times was in favor of intervention in the coming European war, all other press commentary, both Liberal and Tory, was unanimous in its resolve to remain neutral. Even the government, the cabinet itself, was unaware of Foreign Minister Edward Grey’s pro-Entente policy. Since 1905 and the first Morrocan Crisis, British foreign policy had been controlled in secret by Grey and a small clique of Liberal Imperialist ministers and their allies in the army and navy to the exclusion of the rest of the cabinet, parliament and the public.
Even Kaiser Wilhelm II, often accused of militarist and expansionist ambitions, didn’t envisage the conflict resulting from the Sarajevo murders to be anything more than a limited, local war in the Balkans. He saw no reason to cut short or cancel his North Sea cruise in early July. The war that had so long been planned for by the Great Powers, the war which had almost exploded two or three times in the last two years, tool all of the policy makers, not to mention the general populace, by surprise.
A Great War Imperial German Ersatz Bayern Filzhelm, typical one piece construction, (the rear visor split) with gilt brass fittings, including helmet plate, visor trim and fixed spike, complete with liner
In Aug 1914 the declaration of war resulted in the mobilization of the armies of the German-speaking contingents fighting together as the Imperial German Army. With mobilization for a modern war, the German Armies found themselves unable to quickly equip millions of soldiers. A shortage of cow hide from Argentina combined with the excessive draw upon German industry to outfit the massive army being mobilised, resulted in a severe shortage of leather for manufacturing Pickelhauben. To meet with this immediate shortage, the Germans began in 1914 manufacturing helmets from Ersatz (substitute) materials.
As the felt hat manufacturing industry was well established in Germany for hundreds of years, the hat industry stepped in to fill the void by producing Pickelhaube out of pressed and blocked felt manufactured from rabbit fur or shredded wool. One advantage to the Filzhelme (felt helmets) was that they were normally pressed from one-piece of felt which significantly reduced production time. Other industries met the challenge by producing helmets from Eisenblech (tin plate), Stahlblech (steel), Vulcanfibre (pressed fibre), cork, pressed paper, and other materials. Helmets can be found with brass or silver fittings and eventually M1915 grey steel fittings as the M1915 Pickelhaube was introduced. Surviving examples of Ersatz Pickelhauben can be found with or without front visor trims, rear spines, or Kokarden