1914: Yet Another Cautionary Tale

February 26, 2016

For several years now many states and organizations in the Middle East and elsewhere have become involved in the situation in Syria. Though there are many players and overlapping interests, there is little evidence that they have established a common goal or common objectives, nor that common practical plans have been made to achieve them.

A striking example from history of what can happen when partners fail to define common goals and make common plans to combat a threat, and instead work independently to achieve their own objectives, can be found in the history of the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, the text of which is available in English thanks to Yale Law School.

The alliance was created in 1879 but not called into service until 1914. One might have expected that the two allies would have used the intervening 35 years to make and update contingency plans for war against Russia, the threat specifically identified in the treaty formalizing the alliance, but in fact they never did. True, there was intermittent communication between the staff chiefs beginning in 1882, but by 1896 German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen ended the personal contact and declined offers to meet with his Austrian colleague, General Friedrich von Beck-Rzikowsky. Schlieffen had concluded that the Austrians had nothing to offer that Germany needed. In 1906, General Helmuth von Moltke and General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf succeeded Schlieffen and Beck respectively. There was more personal contact and correspondence, but their exchanges were marked by a lack of precision and the use of vague formulations to dodge commitments.

The results of this failure to coordinate were dire. When war broke out in the late summer of 1914, the German military attaché in Vienna discovered that while the Russians were preparing to move west toward Germany and south toward Austria neither the German nor the Austrian armies were moving to seriously counter it. Instead, the German main force was deploying against France and a surprisingly large Austrian force was rolling south toward Serbia. The German military attaché’s  emotional intervention with both chiefs of staff awakened them to the possibility that the Russians would have a relatively easy time moving toward both enemy capitals unless somebody turned their trains around. Moltke sent strongly worded messages to Conrad urging him to deal with the the Russian threat, and German Kaiser Wilhelm II sent Austrian Kaiser Franz Josef a frank message to ensure that Conrad did so. Under this pressure Conrad adjusted the mobilization to send more Austrian forces to the north.

When the Austrians encountered the Russian advance just over the border they suffered heavy losses. Two significant reasons for this were the Austrian army’s lack of artillery and the tendency of its infantry to engage in undisciplined and unsupported rushes at the enemy. Both phenomena were among the hallmarks of the Austrian army about which successive German military attachés since the 1880s had warned Berlin. However, Berlin had never raised these issues in Vienna at any level.

The Germans and Austrians fought separately against the Russians until it became clear that the Austrian army was no longer able to manage its section of the divided front alone. Local German commanders were incensed at the poor showing of the Austrians. As the collaboration with the Austrians intensified, the Germans learned that the Austrian army was underfunded, that it lacked equipment of all kinds, and that Austrian officers had little confidence in the reliability of many of the units in the multi-ethnic army. Had the Germans learned of the real state of their ally a few weeks later than they did, it might well have been too late to stop the Russians from threatening Berlin or Vienna.

Moltke’s successor, General Erich von Falkenhayn, followed the reporting on Austrian performance, but his interest was limited to knowing whether the Austrians were on the point of collapse. As long as the answer was “No,” he kept his focus on the Western Front. The dramatically successful joint campaign against the Russians at Gorlice-Tarnow (May 1915) was an anomaly. Falkenhayn embraced the operation and supported it fully, but when it was completed he turned his attention back to the west.

The situation was not much different when Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff took over. Like Falkenhayn, they were more concerned with their own, German, parts of the war, and provided Austria only such assistance as they thought was necessary, when it was necessary. Their attitude is understandable given Conrad’s early performance as commander and ally, but they could have gotten past the personal discord, sharp as it was, and worked together. However, they did no such thing. Leaving the Austrians essentially alone in their sector afterward was a mistake that cost them both dearly. Absent a follow-up plan for Gorlice-Tarnow and with no close supervision, Conrad quietly withdrew many of his troops for a new campaign in Italy. The Russians sensed the weakness in the Austrian lines and launched the Brusilov Offensive the next year. Its success brought an end to the pretense of Austro-German collegial equality and Austria became the junior partner.

The mutual resentment that had prevented a good working relationship from the beginning now became routine. Communication slowed and few joint plans were approved without much time wasted in dealing with petty objections and unnecessary fine-tuning. New fronts and newly conquered territory merely brought new topics to quarrel about. Their governments died of exhaustion.

Fighting in a coalition requires close collaboration. The German and Austrian armies were burdened by many distractions that could have been managed or eliminated through better joint planning before the war began. The Dual Alliance treaty imposed no specific commitments or requirements beyond the duty of each party to defend its partner in the case of a Russian attack. So there were no joint staff talks during which the partners’ long-term goals and their strategies to achieve them could have been more closely coordinated and in which false assumptions or misunderstandings very likely would have been revealed and could have been corrected. Pre-war communications that were transparent and included frank exchanges could have made the Austrian forces more efficient and perhaps more effective. German funding certainly could have been useful. But unless there was unanimity in the views and plans of the two governments and unless they were committed to a joint victory for their joint interests they were bound to have trouble later on — if not with the enemy, then certainly with each other.

Several weeks ago, many of the players involved in the Syrian situation met  to try to identify common interests on which they could consider joint plans. The meeting ended prematurely and without success.  Since then a ceasefire has been arranged among the parties (not including the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda elements) .  An effort is also underway to re-start the earlier talks.  A Russian foreign ministry official said that the talks may begin as early as March 7.  The interests at stake are so diverse and the relationships among the parties so complex that the idea of unified action seems unlikely. Unlikely, but not impossible. The likelihood may increase if they consider the tale above and focus on what they all really need, not what each really wants.


Tim Hadley is adjunct professor at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.  He is also the author of Military Diplomacy in the Dual Alliance – German Military Attaché Reporting from Vienna, 1879-1914