Failure of German War Plans; Central Powers Face Long War

Special to The Great War Project

(2-3 December) On this December 3rd a century ago, Belgrade, the Serbian capital, falls for the second time to the troops of Austria-Hungary. “Austrian troops staged a triumphal parade through the city,” reports historian Max Hastings, “and were soon reported to have advanced within forty-five miles of the Serbian army headquarters.”

For the Serbs, the situation is dire. Ammunition is almost exhausted. Hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees “fleeing for their lives” add to the chaos.

But also on December 3rd the Serbs find “a startling victory” at a village in Serbia called Arandjelovac. The Serbs receive emergency deliveries of ammunition, which strengthens their resistance.

“They were astonished to find the Austrian army crumbling,”

…Hastings reports.

By this time, the war is proving more devastating for the Central Powers than either Germany or Austria-Hungary expected.

German trench diggers, Belgium, date uncertain

German trench diggers, Belgium, date uncertain

Historians agree that as 1914 nears its end, this will be no short war, essentially because Germany’s war plans fail.

This one simple fact, according to historian Alexander Watson, has far-reaching consequences.

Between the beginning of the war in August and the arrival of December’s freezing temperatures, Germany launches a series of offensives – ending with the battle at Ypres — that fail to achieve their goals. As a result, the German army is struggling.

It suffers 80,000 casualties, Watson writes, “for no real gain before exhaustion and shell shortage forced an end to the battle.”

“With trench lines hardening along the entire front, it was now impossible to ignore the fact that the Central Powers [Germany and Austria] were committed to a very long war against enemies whose will and morale had been underestimated and who were materially far superior.”

At this time, the chief of the German general staff writes to the German chancellor, expressing this stunning conclusion: “If Russia, France, and England hold together, we cannot defeat them in such a way as to achieve acceptable peace terms. We are more likely to be slowly exhausted.”

Austria’s defeats are “ruinous for its army,” reports Watson. Between the terrible weather and its performance on the battlefield, Austria-Hungary loses 189,000 dead, 490,000 wounded, and 278,000 taken prisoner before the year is out.

Destroyed German trenches, date and place uncertain

Destroyed German trenches, date and place uncertain

As for the Germans, they fail to make this a short war, far from it. But they do ensure that on the Western Front, the war will be fought on French and Belgian territory. The devastation of this war will not be suffered on German soil by the German people.

Germany may not find victory, but in Watson’s view it deals “a catastrophic blow to France’s ability to wage a total war.”

Writes Watson of the big picture at this moment a century ago, “there was an even more pressing menace” for Germany and Austria.

“The German failure to grasp decisive victory in the west and the disaster suffered by the Habsburg army in Galicia left both vulnerable.”

Vulnerable? To a Russian invasion in the east.

There is one bright spot for the Germans. At this moment, according to historian Martin Gilbert, German aircraft are the first to be fitted with radio equipment “to enable them to fly over the front line and report back on the location of enemy artillery and troops. Such duties became a mainstay of the war in the skies.