Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

A Storm in Flanders

The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front

by Winston Groom

A reissue from the bestselling author of Forrest Gump, A Storm in Flanders is a fascinating history of the four-year battle of Ypres, the most notorious and dreaded place in all of World War I.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date May 21, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3998-6
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $20.00

About The Book

A Storm in Flanders is novelist and prizewinning historian Winston Groom’s gripping history of the four-year battle for Ypres in Belgian Flanders, the pivotal engagement of World War I that would forever change the way the world fought–and thought about–war. Groom’s account of what would become the most dreaded place on earth is “a moving and oddly inspiring chronicle. . . . A brilliantly written work that is a vital addition to twentieth-century history collections” (Jay Freeman, Booklist).

In 1914, Germany launched an invasion of France through neutral Belgium–and brought the wrath of the world upon itself. Ypres became a place of horror, heroism, and terrifying new tactics and technologies: poison gas, tanks, mines, air strikes, and the unspeakable misery of trench warfare. Drawing on the journals of the men and women who were there, Winston Groom has penned a breathtaking drama of politics, strategy, and human heart that, according to the Ft. Worth Morning Star-Telegram, “ought to compete for every writing prize in 2002. . . . [It] is everything nonfiction should be.”


“Groom joins distinguished company in giving us this armchair tour of duty and death.” –John Gamino, The Dallas Morning News

“Work[s] well in keeping this constantly retold tale fresh for students of the Great War without boring those who normally shun military history.” –Rob Stout, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Groom is ambitious in intent but modest in presentation. Rather than a lengthy annotated monograph, this is a storyteller’s narrative of handy size.” –Stephen Sears, The Boston Globe

“A fascinating, evenhanded, page-turning account of the events, strategies, leaders and soldiers’ accessible to war novitiates’ A dramtic, thoughtful and extremely humanistic treatment of this heartbreaking chapter in early 20th century history.” –Mark Luce, The San Francisco Chronicle

“[Groom] is writing for Americans who have heard that the Western Front was bad. He wants to tell them in vivid, grotesque detail how very, very bad it was. . . . He does this. . . with a daunting charm.” –Susan Hall-Balduf, The Detroit Free Press

“Groom reconstructs a forgotten military passage that serves as a cautionary tale about war’s consequences.” –Regis Behe, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

“Everything nonfiction should be. . . . Ghastly, unforgettable detail. . . . A fabulous historical account.” –Jeff Guinn, The Ft. Worth Morning Star-Telegram

“[Groom has] extraordinary storytelling abilities. . . . The description of troop movements and the terrain in which those troops fought is so crisp and full of detail, the reader is able to picture the surrounding s and understand how the armies were moving (or not moving) against one another. . . . In a time when patriotism is strong among Americans, it would be good to read the entertaining and instructive narrative of a brutal war that stemmed the tide of the Hun’s penchant for land acquisition by means other than negotiation.” –Michael Ramsey, The Roanoke Times

“Mr. Groom has an artist’s eye for detail. . . . Worthwhile for those who need to understand how wars too often get out of hand, demanding supreme sacrifice. ” –Alan Gropman, The Washington Times

“Fresh. . . . Unlike other historians, Winston Groom . . . sees the fighting not as a series of four separate conflicts . . . but as one protracted bloodletting. . . . A powerful conclusion for any study on World War I that seeks to draw in a new generation of readers, a physical testament to the destruction that took place between 1914 and 1918 and a constant reminder of a time when the word “Ypres’ was synonymous with slaughter and death.” –Rob Stout, Knoxville News-Sentinel

“Groom wades into the muck and hellishness that was the Western Front in the Great War with the foot soldier’s wide eyes and the poet’s sense of despair. . . . His descriptions of life and death in the trenches and ridges in and around the Ypres Salient evoke all the horrific images brought on by the dawn of modern warfare. . . . What makes A Storm in Flanders so readable is Groom’s expertise, honed by his work as a novelist, at moving the story along. . . . The result is a compelling book.” –Bruce A. Lowry, Anniston Star

“A riveting read. Storm moves smoothly from one epic battle to the next. . . . From his gut-wrenching accounts of life in the trenches to his thought-provoking discussions of new weapons. . . Groom brings World War I to life. . . . Storm is a perfect-sized narrative that gives the reader the tragic experience of human devastation and death.”
–Christopher Scott, Lowell Sun

“A somber portrait of modern war in one of its most hellish manifestations . . . Groom’s account, full of detail and the smell of gunsmoke, is expertly paced and free of dull stretches. . . . A fine narrative.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Insightful, compelling and tragic, [A Storm in Flanders] will leave readers baffled by the inhuman and inhumane fighting conditions that met the men who fought and died on the front lines.” –Michelle Rupe Eubanks, Times Daily

A Storm in Flanders is narrative history as it was meant to be written. . . . without simplifying the complexities of [its] subject.” –Max Childers, Creative Loafing

“A moving book. Beautifully written, it describes the men, the war, and the suffering and death at Ypres.” –J. W. Thacker, Bowling Green Daily News

“If you ever wondered why World War I had such a tremendous impact on those who fought in it, this book will tell you. . . . There are some books you just read, and there are those you read and pass on and recommend to others. A Storm in Flanders is one of those books that gets passed around. It is as interesting as any novel I’ve read lately – a compelling, fascinating . . . history – and, for this reader at least, brought World War I more into focus. Groom shows that he is as talented a historian as he is a novelist, producing one of this year’s must-read books.” –Tecumseh Review

“In this moving an oddly inspiring chronicle, Groom captures the absurd waste and sickening brutality of conflict that had no redeeming moral purpose. Groom pulls no punches as he conveys an atmosphere of hell on Earth” Yet Groom, a Vietnam veteran, finds true nobility in the ordinary soldiers who fought in Flanders’. This is an important and brilliantly written work that is a vital addition to twentieth-century history collections.” –Jay Freeman, Booklist

“[A] well-tailored history. . . . Groom depicts a conflict that has left an indelible mark upon the British national psyche. . . . With clarity and flourish, A Storm in Flanders is explicitly intended for the lay American audience that may not be familiar with the European tragedy.” –Bookmarks

“Groom ably tells the story of Ypres, a bloody centerpiece of the war.”  –Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard


The Detroit Free Press–Best Nonfiction 2002


Chapter One

Forests have been sawed down for the paper to explain the origins of the First World War; historians argue and debate it still. A precise truth can never be divined because of the fallibility of the human factor–in the tortuous process who, on which side, in their darkest thoughts, understood or believed what, and at which moment? It is almost as if mischievous gods dropped a gigantic jigsaw puzzle from the sky in which some of the pieces will always be missing and others do not exactly fit the places for which they were designed. One thing generally agreed on is that the long and terrible path began in 1870, when Germany united itself into a nation.

Prior to then, Germany had been a collection of twenty-five kingdoms and principalities loosely governed by the state of Prussia, which was presided over by Kaiser William (Wilhelm) I. In the 1860s, at the advice of Germany’s revered statesman, Prince Otto von Bismarck, the Prussians set about to gather up all these entities into a Greater Germany, thus becoming the largest and most powerful state in Europe.

She then quickly assailed and subdued her neighbors Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1871). It was the French conquest that caused the trouble. After encircling Paris and reducing the inhabitants to a diet of cat meat, the Germans demanded and received the two longtime French provinces that constituted Germany’s border with France: mineral-rich Alsace and Lorraine. This humiliation galled the French down to the last peasant, creating a bitter animosity that lasted generations and helped lead to the outbreak of the First World War.

Led by William I, who now became the kaiser (emperor), Germany suddenly became the most threatening state in Europe. With the exception of republican France, at that time Europe was ruled by monarchies. To the east of Germany lay the vastness of czarist Russia, which also controlled part of Poland as well as the Baltic states; to the south was the Hapsburg empire of Austria-Hungary, governed by Emperor Franz Joseph and including what is now Czechoslovakia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Galicia, and Transylvania. South of this were the turbulent, angry, and emerging states of Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Montenegro. To the north were the Scandinavian countries Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark. To the west along the Atlantic and North Sea coasts were France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Holland. And out in the ocean lay the island kingdom of Great Britain.

At the time of the German unification Great Britain was the most formidable industrial power in the world. Soon Germany began to challenge her, aided by an influx of iron and coal from the conquered French provinces. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, the industrious Germans made giant leaps in modern technologies and economics: steel production, mining, chemicals, education, finance, transportation, electronics, and, of course, the most up-to-date military armaments, while much of continental Europe, especially France, seemed content to languish as agricultural nations.

On a visit in 1878, the venerable Mark Twain described Germany this way: “What a paradise this land is! What clean clothes, what good faces, what tranquil contentment, what prosperity, what genuine freedom, what a superb government!” In a way it was true; the Germans were a proud people and within the space of a few years had created much to take pride in. By the end of the nineteenth century the German public school system had eliminated illiteracy, the German economy was booming, and, in terms of equipment and overall effectiveness, she had the mightiest army in the world.

On balance, the last quarter of the century was a time of world peace; the prosperous Gilded Age saw the development of the telephone, electric lights, automobiles, motion pictures, manufacturing advances, vast railway systems, and luxury transatlantic shipping–all products of the so-called Second Industrial Revolution. It was also a time that saw enormous improvements in weapons and weapons systems–the invention of high-explosive gunpowder, rapid-fire rifles, and, of course, the machine gun. Perhaps the most important–and certainly the most important during World War I–was the development of long-range artillery. In warfare until almost the close of the nineteenth century, the guns had to be fired basically by “line-of-sight,” which meant that the gunners had to actually ‘see” the target. But with the invention of high-tensile steel and the manufacture of larger and larger guns and howitzers, as well as the application of precise trigonomic calculations, artillery could be hidden away far from a battle area, protected by ridges or other terraine features, and preregister fire over almost every square yard of the field. The effect of this would prove to be devastating in the coming conflict.

Winston Churchill summed up thusly the great advances in technology during the latter part of the nineteenth century: “Every morning when the world woke up, some new machinery had started running. Every night while the world had supper, it was running still. It ran on while all men slept.”

Yet amid this new abundance roiled an undercurrent of unrest. There was a dramatic rise of nationalism among many European nations then dominated by the empires of others–particularly in that eternal volcano, the Balkan states. Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Romania, Bulgaria, and Montenegro all chafed under the harsh rule of Turkey’s crumbling Ottoman empire. Added to this were all the old religious fears and hatreds: Muslim versus Christian, Catholic versus Protestant–and everybody against the Jews. Disputes festered over trade and tariffs and envy over colonial possessions engendered an uncommon outbreak of pride, vanity, greed, mistrust, and shortsightedness among both rulers and ruled. Throw in the rising creed of socialism and one can see how the kettle had begun to heat. This was especially true in Russia, ruled by the iron-fisted czar Nicholas, who, quite naturally, had outlawed the preaching of socialism in all its various facets. Still the philosophy flourished among large numbers of workers in Russian cities. There they kept alive their utopian dream of a classless society where everyone got his fair share–a world without poverty or suffering or political oppression. Time was running out for the empire of the czars.

This was no less true in Germany. There, despite the rosy picture painted by Mark Twain and others, dissatisfaction among the laboring classes had produced the largest socialist party in the world, constantly plotting to overthrow the government and the capitalist system. The German right to vote was basically a sham, because the German constitution was so constructed as to leave the principal power in the hands of the kaiser and his cronies in the military. There was a federal parliament of sorts–a Reichstag. Its duties were limited to presiding over minor internal matters involving the various German states. Still, in all things of consequence, including the right to declare war, the kaiser had the last word.

Religious intolerance was pervasive. Most of the aristocracy and upper classes had joined the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, and even as the new century dawned Germany’s large Catholic population suffered widespread discrimination. Jews even more so. Despite the patina of happiness and prosperity, a good portion of German society seethed.

The continuing enmity of France toward Germany over her lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine led the Germans to become apprehensive. Fearing that France meditated a war of revenge, Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the German General Staff who had guided the victory over France in 1870–71, remarked, “What we have gained by arms in half a year, we must protect by arms for half a century.” Yet Bismarck, Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” desired no war and set about making alliances with other powerful empires to ensure Germany’s security against France, Russia, and to a lesser extent England. It must be understood that, unlike the United States, Germany did not have two huge seacoasts to protect her, nor friendly or weaker nations at her borders. She had been in conflict with her neighbors almost since time immemorial. The treaty with Russia was crucial because of her vast border on the eastern frontiers of Germany. England–which had been fighting with the French from the time of the Norman Conquest up through the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the century–was sought after as a hedge against French aggression. In 1879 Bismarck also forged an alliance with Austria-Hungary. In 1883 Italy was brought into the pact, which later included Romania under a secret agreement.

What chilled Bismarck’s bones was the notion that France would make her own alliance with behemoth Russia, hemming Germany in between the two of them. His apprehension was heightened in 1887 when Russia and Austria-Hungary (hereafter referred to as Austria) collided in a dispute over control in the Balkans, during which it seemed as if Russia and France might unite in a pact of their own. But in a brilliant piece of German diplomacy, Bismarck, playing off fears of external and internal threats, managed to cobble together the League of the Three Emperors: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. This was not only an insurance treaty but a ‘reinsurance Treaty,” under which Germany and Austria promised not to undermine Russia in the Balkans and Russia, for her part, agreed not to form an alliance against Germany-Austria with France. That stratagem more or less kept the European peace until old Kaiser William I died in 1888. His son Frederick succeeded him as kaiser but he died, of cancer, after only three months. Then his son took the throne as William II. The first thing this brash young autocrat did was to get rid of the venerable Bismarck and repudiate the latter’s carefully laid diplomacy.

The new kaiser had long had his own ideas about how Germany’s future in world affairs should progress. Kaiser William II was a strange figure; born with a withered arm, he grew up chafing while his grandfather and Bismarck dallied in the odd assortment of mutual defense treaties to ensure Germany’s security. Even before his ascension to the throne William was writing letters advocating a preventive war against France and Russia on the time-worn theory that they were conspiring against Germany. This was not altogether paranoia; France was, as ever, still furious over her humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, and Russian diplomats had made it clear that they were anxious about Germany’s intentions and military might. Neither wanted war with Germany, however, and in fact feared her.

One of the remarkable things about European diplomacy prior to World War I was the intimate family relationships between rulers who would ultimately become the belligerents. It all began with Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, granddaughter of King George III (ruler of England during the American Revolution). In 1837, at the age of eighteen, she became Queen of England.

Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, a German, had nine children, who married into practically all the royal houses of Europe. Her eldest son, Prince Albert Edward, married a princess of Denmark and became England’s King Edward VII when Victoria died in 1901. His son–Victoria’s grandson–George V, succeeded his father as king of England just in time for World War I.

One of Victoria’s daughters married a German prince and their daughter–Victoria’s granddaughter–became the wife of Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Not only that, but another of Victoria’s sons had married the czar’s aunt. Also, Queen Victoria’s firstborn daughter married the German kaiser Frederick and their eldest son became Kaiser William II, who ascended to the German throne in 1888.

Thus, England’s George V, Russia’s Nicholas II, and Germany’s William II were all cousins, either directly or through marriage, descendants of England’s Queen Victoria.

The new German kaiser was something of a military nut, especially with regard to the navy, at that point a relatively small part of the German armed forces establishment. He appointed himself a field marshal, as well as an admiral (a title that had also been bestowed on him by his cousins in England), and decreed that henceforth the regular dress at his court would be the military uniform. The kaiser, though he could be cranky, was not stupid. He was particularly impressed with a gift some years earlier by his cousin George, the future king of England, of a Gatling gun, and insisted that the German Army embrace with vigor this new automatic weapon. By the time World War I broke out, the German Army had not only mastered use of the Gatling’s successor, the machine gun, but incorporated nearly 12,000 of them into their fighting battalions–nearly triple the numbers the Allies possessed. (The British Army, on the other hand, was still talking about the advantages of the cavalry charge and the French, the ‘spirit of the Bayonet”).

In 1890 the League of the Three Emperors alliance lapsed. The kaiser made no move to renew it; instead, he virtually slammed the door in Russia’s face, refusing to continue financial loans to them and otherwise giving them the cold shoulder. As the historian Donald Kagan points out in On the Origins of War: “There was considerable pressure, especially among the younger elite surrounding the young Kaiser, for change, almost any change. From the Kaiser’s point of view, how could he rid himself of the dead hand of the past and establish his own place as leader of his people if he merely walked the paths paved by his predecessors. What was the point of dismissing Bismarck only to be ruled by his system and his policies?”

This “change for change’s sake,” or “I did it because I’m the kaiser and I could,” would prove to be a very big mistake.

Not surprisingly, the French instantly saw their opportunity and began courting the Russians, holding out, among other emoluments, the prospect of loans to them from the great House of Rothschild. In 1892, as Churchill put it, “The event against which the whole policy of Bismarck had been directed came to pass,” and, though they did not ratify it for two more years, France and Russia agreed to a dual alliance, under which each would come to the other’s aid if attacked by Germany or her allies. Thus, if hostilities broke out, Germany now faced the unhappy prospect of fighting a two-front war. Meanwhile, the kaiser had embarked on a foreign policy that some believe was deliberately meant to vex his perceived enemies–which now included Great Britain, even though England had devoted herself to remaining neutral within the increasingly sour disposition of continental affairs. The kaiser’s behavior toward England was rooted in one of the world’s worst motives for troublemaking: jealousy. William coveted Great Britain’s exalted position among the nations of the world. He coveted the great empire upon which “the sun never set.” He especially coveted England’s magnificent naval fleet’s complete dominance of the high seas. “Germany,” as the historian Martin Gilbert explains, “united only in 1870, had come too late, it seemed, into the race for power and influence, for empire and respect.” The kaiser, however, was determined to rectify this: with the most powerful military machine in the world, he did not intend to play second fiddle to a small island nation such as Great Britain. What he wanted, he said, was for Germany to have “a place in the sun.”

Some years earlier, in the mid-1880s, Bismarck–who had always believed that acquiring African colonies for Germany would become a liability–changed his mind, and so Germany began to move into Africa, colonizing Cameroon, Togoland, Tanganyika (East Africa), and German Southwest Africa. The main reason for Bismarck’s reversal was that it had become all too apparent that the German population was outgrowing Germany’s ability to assimilate them. Consequently, large numbers of young men were leaving the Fatherland to work in other nations and their colonies–in England this resulted in an unusually large number of German table waiters. Unfortunately for Germany, their colonial acquisitions were not particularly profitable. They were located mostly in equatorial Africa–a wild, fetid, unhealthy, and not very prosperous region, either for raw materials or for trade; they were also prone to native uprisings, as the Germans would soon find out. However, these were all that were left since Britain, France, and other countries had long since secured the more desirable northern and southern parts of the continent. Nevertheless the new kaiser persisted in keeping them, apparently on the premise that he could not rule over a German empire without possessing colonies, no matter how much of a liability they might be. This also led to trouble.

Meantime, tensions were heightened when, in the early 1900s, Great Britain began signing agreements with France and Russia over various colonial and trade issues. This was more significant than it appeared because it represented for the first time in centuries an official smoothing over of Anglo-French relations–a fact not lost on the Germans, who were all too aware of Britain’s formidable sea power. Thus, day by day, year by year, the sun inched its way across the horizon of the new century silently marking the grim inevitability of a world at war.

In time the Germans tried to muscle in on the more desirable colonies of North Africa, which might have led to an early outbreak of world war. In 1905 the French attempted to turn Morocco into what amounted to a French protectorate and the kaiser was convinced by his diplomats to appear at Tangier during his cruise of the Mediterranean and assert equal rights for Germany in Morocco. This set off the dangerous First Moroccan Crisis since it was implied that if Germany did not get what she wanted, she might go to war with France. Basically, it was just saber rattling on the kaiser’s part, but the situation did not simmer down without repercussions. Britain, smelling peril in Germany’s territorial aspirations, next formed an entente with Russia, which was already allied with France, posing a new and even more galling threat in the suspicious Teutonic mind. In The Scramble for Africa, Thomas Pakenham reminds us that ‘relations with Germany had cooled to ice since Britain had signed the entente with France.” Now that Russia, too, was in the picture, Germany trundled out her old complaint of being “encircled” by enemies, a claim she first had employed under Frederick the Great at the beginning of the Seven Years War.

As if this were not enough, another rub was in the offing. Determined to be second to none in naval power, the new kaiser authorized a series of fleet appropriations designed to bring his German navy into parity with Great Britain. This of course caused British alarm and consternation, since supremacy at sea was the bulwark not only of her national defense but of her position of worldwide power and empire. As Churchill remembered: “All sorts of sober-minded people in England began to be profoundly disquieted. What did Germany want this great navy for? Against whom, except us, could she measure it, match it, or use it?” Thus began the greatest and costliest ship-building race in the history of the world, which was to last until the outbreak of war. It has even been argued that this was a major cause of the world war since consequent army and navy bills caused the citizens of Germany to become so heavily taxed that conquest and expansion became almost a necessity.

Still not content, the kaiser also began to foster a foreign policy designed to harass and disturb his neighbors, possibly on the novel theory that if bullied and intimidated other nations might choose to become closer to Germany, instead of distancing themselves from her. Following a military action that was a prelude to the Boer War (1899–1902) the kaiser had inflamed British public opinion by intimating that Germany might challenge England and intervene in South Africa on the side of the Boers. During the war itself, the German press and public were exceedingly hostile to the British. Next came the First Moroccan Crisis, in 1905, and following that, in 1911, came the second.

In the spring of that year Germany again tried her hand in Morocco, asserting that one of its private companies was being denied by French and British interests the right to establish a port in the harbor of Agadir on the Atlantic coast. The French intended to negotiate, protesting that there were no German installations whatever in Agadir, but Germany forthwith announced it was sending a warship into Moroccan waters to “protect German interests.” As Churchill put it, “All the alarm bells throughout Europe began to quiver.” Basically, it was just more saber rattling on the part of the kaiser, and the warship finally left without firing a shot.

The barrage of German threats, warnings, and ultimatums had thoroughly energized the French to the likelihood of German aggression. France began to think on a war footing, bolstering her reserves and strengthening her regular army. Great Britain, too, was beginning to be drawn into the fracas, and issued a warning to Germany that England would side with France in the event of war. Meantime, Germany had begun to meddle in Afghanistan in an attempt to thwart the British from reinstalling a puppet caliph government.

During this time the English, and to a lesser extent the French, began to surmise that if Germany attacked France she would do so by invading northwestward through neutral Belgium and Holland, since the topography of the French frontier bordering Germany was not often conducive to invasion. After their defeat in 1871 the French had constructed a series of enormous and elaborate fortresses at places like Verdun and Belfort to bar any German advance along their common border. Belgium, however, was relatively flat and open, with few natural defenses.

Belgium maintained the theory that as a neutral, she must remain absolutely neutral, and even on the eve of war she refused assistance from France and England to help strengthen her defenses. The British had good reason to suspect German treachery in Belgium, owing to a conversation King Leopold had had with the kaiser more than a decade earlier. On that occasion the kaiser had asked the Belgian king politely whether, in the event of war, the German Army could use his country as a doormat into France. Just as politely, King Leopold refused, but then wasted little time telling the British about that remarkable request.

* * *

Not surprisingly, the invasion-through-Belgium strategy was precisely what the Germans had in mind. In 1905 the German chief of the General Staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, completed his scheme to win a German victory in the event war broke out with France and Russia. His plan assumed that because of the various alliances, if war came Germany and her ally Austria would be fighting on two fronts. Schlieffen determined that the prudent course of action was to attack France immediately and defeat her decisively before the Russians could fully mobilize–and only then turn east to meet the Russian threat. Schlieffen envisioned leaving a modest force along the French border to hold the French armies at bay, while the main thrust would come from the north on the German right flank to envelope any opposing forces in Belgium. In bypassing the heavily fortified French frontier, the German armies would deliberately violate Belgian–as well as Dutch–neutrality and sweep down into northern France, capturing Paris and bringing France to her knees. It was, in Schlieffen’s mind, to be another Cannae–or so the scheme went.

Donald Kagan explains that “By 1912 German policy had created the Entente [between Britain, France, and Russia] which pursued a policy we might call containment and the Germans called Einkreisung, encirclement.” Like the kaiser, Schlieffen was haunted by this perceived enclosure by hostile powers and declared, “We are surrounded by an enormous coalition, we are in the same position as Frederick the Great. Now we can escape from the noose.” In any case, his plan remained the linchpin of German war policy, with some modification, for nearly a decade–up to the outbreak of the war.

Meanwhile, the perpetual tinderbox in the turbulent southern regions was firing up. In 1912 the Balkan states erupted in war against their centuries-old oppressor, the Turks, and managed to free themselves from the remains of the Ottoman empire. Then they turned on one another in the Second Balkan War (1913) in a squabble for territory and hegemony–the spoils of the first Balkan War. This was where the trouble lay, since both the Austrian and Russian empires felt they had a claim on the Balkan states–Austria because she had always believed the countries below her southern borders were in her sphere of influence, and Russia because so many of the Balkan peoples were fellow Slavs with whom they shared common linguistic and cultural roots. This of course raised matters to the crisis level since any outbreak of war between Austria and Russia over the Balkans would, due to alliances, necessarily bring in France on the Russian side and Germany on the Austrian, and the Schlieffen plan would undoubtedly be set in motion. Even though the crisis finally abated, tensions remained high throughout the year.

In Germany, especially among the military hierarchy, there had been much talk of general war for more than a decade. In 1891 Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the General Staff, died at the age of ninety-one. His replacement, Schlieffen, reigned until 1905 and then this crucial post fell to Moltke’s nephew and namesake, fifty-six-year-old general Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke, an aide to the kaiser, who dabbled in mysticism and played the cello. At the same time that Bismarck, even in retirement, was warning that “The Great European war could come out of some damned foolishness in the Balkans,” the younger Moltke himself was declaring, “I believe war to be unavoidable and the sooner the better.” Moltke’s rationale for this intemperate declaration was that by his planner’s projections France and Russia by 1917 would have overtaken Germany in combined military might, and so Germany might just as well get on with it now while the getting was good. Otto Friedrich, biographer of the Moltke dynasty, has reported that Moltke “continue[d] to think that a European war must come in the end and that this will essentially be a struggle between the Germanic and the Slav races.” Kaiser William believed this too.

Thus, the pistol of war was now cocked and it remained only for someone to touch its hair trigger. This came soon enough, on June 28, 1914, when a fanatical eighteen-year-old Bosnian-Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the Austrian heir to the Hapsburg throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and his wife, who, against all good advice, had arranged to ride in a motorcade through the streets of Sarajevo. Worse, the parade had been set for St. Vitus’ Day, anniversary of the wretched 500-year-long subjugation of the Serbians by the Ottoman Turks following the Battle of Kosovo.

The furious Austrians (whom Churchill described as Germany’s “idiot ally”) immediately and correctly suspected that Bosnia’s militant neighbor Serbia had committed this act of ‘state-sponsored terrorism” in a bid to rid the Balkans of any and all Austrian rule. After a month of foot stomping, fist shaking, and throat clearing, Austria delivered a series of demands upon Serbia that amounted to an ultimatum. Before doing so, however, the Austrians had sought the counsel of Germany, and received not just the go ahead but outright pressure to declare war, even though the Germans expected that Russia would not take the matter lying down, and fully realized that this could bring the wrath of France, and England also, down upon their spiked helmets. For his part, the kaiser declared, “Finally, the famous encirclement of Germany has become an undeniable fact.”

Among other things, the Austrians demanded that Serbia suppress all anti-Austrian propaganda espoused by newspapers, military or civil officers, schools, and so forth. What was worse, and even more unacceptable–and the Austrians obviously knew this–the Austrians finally demanded they be permitted to use whatever means they wished to put down any ‘subversive” activities in Serbia. In other words, Austria would in effect be given authority over Serbia, which had only recently won a bloody fight for independence.

To the great surprise of everyone, Serbia acceded to all of the demands but the last and suggested that it be put to international arbitration. But minds had already been made up and Austria declared war on Serbia the day after receiving their reply; two days later they were bombarding the city of Belgrade from gunboats in the Danube.

The German press was of course full of news of impending war, managing in the process to convince the German people that they were about to be attacked from all sides. Despite record-breaking heat in Germany that summer, people anxiously hurried back from seashore or mountain resorts. German athletes in training for what would have been the 1916 Olympics in Berlin must have taken pause at the prospect of being ordered into the army. The German socialist party began organizing peace rallies; nervous investors lined up at banks and brokerage houses. A tense pall of uncertainty hovered over the country, broken frequently by mass rallies of enthusiastic flag-waving, anthem-singing, warmongering German patriots.

When Austria attacked Serbia, Nicholas II, czar of Russia and the kaiser’s cousin (they called each other “Nicky” and “Willie” in the telegrams they traded right up until the war), ordered a partial mobilization of his army. The Russians’ interest in their fellow Slavs was such that they were determined to prevent any Austrian conquest of the Serbian nation. In those times, mobilization, particularly full mobilization–at least in the mind of Germany–was the equivalent of declaring war. The day before Austrian shells began falling, a fatally belated fear of the prospect of Russian mobilization produced a sobering effect on the kaiser. Like a bully confronted with the possibility of a real fight, he tried at the last minute to dissuade Austria from declaring war on Serbia. When she did so anyway, the kaiser nevertheless bowed to his military and political advisers and delivered Russia an ultimatum to stop mobilizing or Germany itself would mobilize and war would inevitably follow.

The Russians did no such thing, however, and despite the frantic efforts of diplomats from many countries–particularly Great Britain–Germany declared war on Russia August 1, 1914; citing the Franco-Russian alliance, two days later she declared war on France. “Kaiser Bill” had become the ultimate tool of his military establishment.

The Schlieffen Plan was immediately set into motion. This same day, Germany invaded more or less neutral Luxembourg, and that evening delivered an ultimatum to neutral Belgium that war would be declared on them by the next morning unless they permitted the German Army to pass through their country unmolested. The Belgians refused.

On the afternoon of August 3, Great Britain delivered an ultimatum of its own. The British foreign secretary demanded that Germany respect Belgian neutrality, which, to protect the security of the east coast of the English Channel and the North Sea, England had guaranteed by an 1839 treaty to uphold. This of course was not the only reason for the ultimatum; protecting tiny Belgium sounded good for PR purposes, but British foreign policy has been remarked upon time and again over the centuries for its deviousness. Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey probably came much closer to the true English political position when he stated: “It could not be to England’s interest that France should be crushed by Germany. We should then be in a very diminished position with regard to Germany. In 1870 we made a great mistake in allowing an enormous increase of German strength; and we should not be repeating the mistake.”

All England, especially London, was thrown into a mood of expectant confusion. It was the long August Banking Holiday and many people had already left for trips to the shore or the countryside. The remaining inhabitants took to the streets where they could be the first to receive any news from the continuing stream of “extra” editions being hawked by newsboys. German waiters by the tens of thousands and other expatriate Germans packed their bags and boarded ships for home. Patriots waved the Union Jack and sang “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the King.” Peace marchers waved the red flag and sang “The Internationale.” Soon fights broke out between them, while England waited in nervous excitement.

When the Germans did not respond and the ultimatum expired at eleven next night, England declared war, prompting Sir Grey to make this melancholy observation: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”