The Call to Arms in Europe

By Major John Bigelow, U.S.A., Retired

[The Century Magazine, October 1914]

Some fifteen millions of men transformed in a few days from peaceful citizens or subjects into belligerent soldiers, contending in two opposing groups of armies on territories of five or more separate nations—that is the spectacle presented to us. Nothing like it is recorded in history. In the Old World people are somewhat prepared for the spectacle. For generations the public of France, Germany, Russia, and Austria has been used to the sight of military uniforms, to officers and soldiers sauntering on the sidewalks, sitting and coming and going in cafés, restaurants, or hotels; or with quick-resounding footfall swinging down the street to a diapason of drum and fife or trumpet, or wrapped in the soft cadences or inspiring strains and clashings of a military band. In no walk of life can a Frenchman or a German lose sight of the fact that his country is an armed camp. But we of the Western Hemisphere stand astounded, aghast, at the grandeur, some say the enormity, of the present contest.

We are bewildered by the complexity of it. Contradictory views as to its origin, conflicting reports of what is happening in the various theaters of operation, make it hard to coordinate one's impressions and draw from them any conclusion as to what the fighting is about and how it is progressing. The cause of a war is a political or racial matter; the course of it is a military one. But neither is independent of the other. The cause determines the object, and this is a factor in the operations. The object suggests the plans of the commander, and has much to do with the inspiration, the morale, of his troops. To follow a war intelligently one must have at least a working idea as to its cause and object.

The present war may be traced back to an antagonism which was the natural consequence of long-continued rivalry and competition between the Slav and Teutonic peoples. This antagonism was locally intensified by the national aspirations of Servia, a Slav country, which under the influence of Russia made herself champion of Slavism, with the apparent object of creating defections in Austria that would cripple that country as an opponent of Russia. As an incident or consequence, perhaps, of this policy, the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated on the twenty-eighth of June at Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, an Austrian province.

Austria called upon Servia for reparation and for guaranties that her anti-Austrian agitation would be abandoned. Servia's reply was not accepted as satisfactory. It was considered as evasive, as calculated to reserve the privilege of resuming the objectionable policy if it should be abandoned; in other words, as a virtual refusal to give the guaranties called for.

In our Civil War, in the Austro-Prussian War, in the Franco-German War, and in the present Russo-German War, there was a fundamental, or original, cause to be distinguished from the immediate cause. In our Civil War the original cause was slavery, the immediate cause was secession; in the Austro-Prussian: War the original cause was the rivalry between the Austrian House of Hapsburg- Lorraine and the Prussian House of Hohenzollern, the immediate cause was the disagreement between Austria and Prussia over the spoils of their joint dismemberment of Denmark in 1864; in the Franco-German War the original cause was German unification, the immediate cause was the Ems incident; in this Russo-German War the original cause may be considered as Slav-Teuton rivalry, the immediate cause as the Austro-Servian embroglio. These past wars attained their ultimate as well as the immediate ends. Will it be so with this war? Assuming that the German arms prevail, will they merely establish a modus vivendi between Austria and Servia, or will they settle the question of Teutonic versus Slav predominance in Europe? The main issue is between Russia and Germany. The other powers are only allies of one or the other of these. The final decision must take place on Russian or on German soil.

By the time this writing is read, the military situation will be so changed that it is not worth while to discuss it in any detail. All that will be attempted is to present as realistic an image as possible of the gathering of the forces, their disposition on the strategic chess-board at the beginning of the war, and a few of the earlier movements on both sides.


Putting a modern army like that of Germany in the field involves two separate processes, mobilization and concentration. Mobilization consists not only in fitting out the men already with the colors, or the standing army, but, more particularly, of reenlisting and equipping the additional men that are necessary to bring the standing army to war strength, which is, roughly speaking, about twice its peace strength. The military forces of an invasion may be divided into three general classes:

1. Active armies, forming the first army line.

2. Forces in the enemy's country in rear of the active armies, either on the communications or occupying adjacent country, forming the second army line.

3. Troops in the home country, garrisoning its defenses, guarding prisoners, depots, arsenals, etc., drilling other men, or otherwise employed and available, forming the third army line.

The great problem of mobilization is to apportion the military population to these three army lines without reducing the industrial population to the point of enfeebling rather than strengthening the military establishment. The portion of the military population not already incorporated in the army may be resolved into three divisions: the reserve, the landwehr, the landsturm.

Men in the reserve and in the landwehr are classified according to date of graduation, or temporary exemption, from service with the colors. The latest graduates are taken to fill up the units of the peace army, and together with older men to make up the depot units for the training of recruits and of men returning to the service. A German regiment comprises three mobile battalions and one depot battalion. The three mobile battalions go to the front as part of an active army. The depot battalion remains at home to prepare reservists for active service and to forward them as they are called for. When an active battalion has lost about ten per cent, of its strength it calls upon the depot battalion for a corresponding contingent of reservists. In this way the depletion of active units to a half or a quarter of their original strength, as commonly happened in our Civil War, is effectively prevented. The landwehr is used to replace the reserve, should that be necessary. A portion of it is formed in battalions, regiments, and larger units for service either at home or in the enemy's country. The landsturm consists in general of the men fit for military service who have not been required to render any or who have been graduated from the landwehr. They are not organized, except as a last extremity, to repel or prevent an invasion. Some of them are exempted from military service to discharge important civil or industrial functions. Under ideal conditions the reserve would furnish all the men necessary to fill up the units on the outbreak of war and to keep them full 'during the war. But such conditions are rarely realized. In the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-German War (1870-71) the Germans had to call out their landwehr. In neither of these wars did they draw on their landsturm. It is significant of the intensity of the present conflict that Austria called out her landsturm simultaneously with her mobilization, and Germany hers a few days thereafter.

The details of mobilization are very simple. Every reservist or landwehrman has a soldier's pocket-book containing explicit instructions as to what he has to do when called to the colors. He is moreover practised in doing it at manoeuvers in time of peace. Various means are employed for transmitting the call to individual men, but it is usually spread by rumor or by the press and anticipated in execution. The young clerk, artisan, student, or teacher drops his vocation and betakes himself by a prescribed route to the depot, where he is furnished a brand-new uniform and set of equipments. Here he has perhaps a few hours in which to renew his military acquaintanceship and to linger with his civilian friends, his parents, brothers, sisters, or sweetheart, if any of them have followed or joined him there. As a reservist of the first class, he is not likely to have a wife.


The mobilization being completed, the next step is the concentration. The assembly is sounded; the roll called, the last time on that ground for many a loyal name; the battalion is formed. It breaks into column, and, following the band to the strains of some foreign equivalent of "The Girl I Left behind Me," escorted by throngs of youths and maidens, cheered and saluted with voice, flags, and handkerchiefs from doorsteps, windows, and housetops, tramps impressively, aye, how impressively to many a heavy-hearted witness, through the town or city to the railway station. A few minutes for parting words, looks, embraces, and then the embarkation begins. In perhaps twenty minutes more it is completed; the interval between trains is attained; a whistle; the train moves, is off, is out of sight.

This process is repeated, until the whole field army is under way or at its destination. The unit of embarkation is what one engine will draw, which, expressed in infantry, is about a thousand men. The distance between trains that is necessary to safety and efficiency may be taken as ten minutes. Under favorable conditions trains follow one another at this interval, with only necessary halts for refreshment and rest or exercise. The officers and some of the men ride in passenger-coaches. The rest have to put up with improvised seats in freight-cars—board benches built across the cars, without backs. Both the point, of debarkation and the zone of concentration must be at a safe distance within one's own territory, and protected by troops which in peace as well as in war are on the frontier in full war strength. These are called covering troops.

At the end of the railway journey comes the debarkation. If this does not take place as fast as the trains arrive, and it is not likely to when they follow one another at intervals of ten minutes, allowance must be made for it in calculating the number of trains to be despatched per line of railroad per day, or the rate of concentration. In Germany, in 1870, a single-track road could forward twelve, a double-track road eighteen, trains per day. In the present war a German double-track road may forward as many as twenty-three trains a day.

On debarking, the troops, or many of them, are stiff and sore from long cramping on a hard seat, and in poor condition for marching. So only after a rest they are moved by short marches to the zone of concentration. It is apparent from these general considerations that the railroads are a factor of capital importance in seeking the advantage of the initiative, of determining the general course of operations, for the enemy as well as for one's self. To secure and to keep this advantage both in strategy and in tactics has long been a first principle of good generalship.


In the Franco-German War the French estimated the army to be encountered at about 550,000 men and their own at about 300,000. They expected to compensate for the German preponderance by rapidity of movement. Their plan was to dash across the upper Rhine, separate northern from southern Germany, securing incidentally the alliance of Austria and Italy, and throw their main force against isolated Prussia, the armed force of which they reckoned at 350,000 men. The French had virtually only four lines of railroad; the Germans had nine. As a consequence, the French forces, instead of mobilizing first and then concentrating, concentrated first and undertook to mobilize afterward. They failed partly from want of experience in such an operation and partly from interference by the advancing Germans. For while the French began their preparation before the Germans, the latter completed theirs and began operations before the French. The German plan, based upon a project of Moltke's made in the winter of 1868 and 1869, was a simpler one than that of Napoleon III, who commanded the French army. It was to push westward into France, and, by manceuvering around the French right, force it northward against the neutral territory of Belgium, where it would have to surrender, or drive it into that territory, where it would have to lay down its arms or suffer such losses as the Germans suffered in this war in forcing their way through Belgium.

If the French evaded this by moving southward, the Germans would direct their march upon Paris. On account of the centralization of the French Government, the command of Paris meant the control of France.

In the Franco-German War the order to mobilize was issued in Berlin on the fifteenth of July, 1870; the mobilization of 856,000 men and the concentration of 450,000 of them were completed by the second of August. This was the day settled upon in the French army for a reconnaissance at Saarbrücken, on the German border east of Metz. MacMahon's command which was to have split northern and southern Germany apart, was not ready for active operations. On the second the Germans met the French forces in an affair at Saarbrücken; on the fourth and sixth they attacked and defeated them at Weissenburg and Worth, driving MacMahon in the direction of Châlon, and on the sixteenth and eighteenth, at Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte, throwing Bazaine back upon Metz, where he was later invested. MacMahon undertook, with the main French army, to go to the relief of Bazaine. He was intercepted, and surrounded at Sedan; the emperor, being with the army, was compelled to surrender with it on the second of September, two months to a day after the first encounter. This caused the fall of his dynasty, terminating the war against the empire. The war against the republic consisted mainly in the siege of Paris, and may be considered as ending with the conclusion of the preliminaries of peace on the twenty-sixth of February, 1871. But it was not until the sixteenth of September, 1873, that the last German soldier was withdrawn from French territory. The fighting had been followed by two and a half years of occupation as a guaranty for the collection of the war indemnity of five milliards of francs.

In the present war, the contending coalitions are composed of Russia, France, Servia, Montenegro, Great Britain, Belgium, and Japan, against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Other things being equal, a single nation is more formidable as a military power than a coalition, and a coalition of two or three powers more formidable than one of six or seven. This should be borne in mind in comparing the German army with the joint force of France and Belgium or of France, Belgium, and Great Britain, or the German coalition with the Russian. But the advantage of the German coalition lies not wholly in its relatively small membership. It consists also in its comparative homogeneity of population, similarity of language, government, traditions, etc.; in its geographical compactness, the countries adjoining each other; in its lying between its two strongest opponents, thus hindering their cooperation and commanding interior lines for operation against them. It may be assumed that the German coalition has an advantage over the Russian which the South had over the North in our Civil War, of having for a longer time foreseen and anticipated the irrepressible conflict, of being better prepared with plans, methods, and resources to meet the novel, unprecedented contingencies as they arise. All this points to better leadership and greater endurance. The French have been credited with superior armament, especially in their artillery, and better aviation, but history has shown that success in war is due less to military technology than to leadership and endurance. The great advantage of the Russian coalition lies in its command of the sea. Will the British and allied navies, acting on the precedent set by Germany in Belgium and Luxemburg, violate the rights of neutrals so far as that may be necessary, and effectually blockade the German coalition? And if they do, will that prove decisive of the war? In our Civil War it was the blockade that broke the strength of the Confederacy, but it took us two years to make the blockade effective, and two years more to overcome the starving, ragged armies of the South. The forces which each of the European coalitions is capable of putting in the field cannot be stated with accuracy, and at this stage of the war are immaterial. It may be assumed that the Russian side can muster about twice as many men as the German. But the important thing to know is what forces are in or near the principal theater of war for the time being. This we shall rarely learn.

In the Franco-German War the German field army was divided into three minor armies, the first, second, and third, commanded respectively by General Von Steinmetz, Prince Frederick Charles, and the Crown Prince Frederick William. These armies were marshaled from north to south in the order named, all under command of King William of Prussia.

So in the present war the German army is fractioned apparently in three masses, one moving through Belgium, one through Luxemburg, and one through Alsace. Liège corresponds in this war to Metz in the Franco-German War. Even its unexpected resistance, if it was unexpected, may be paralleled by the unlooked for tenacity of General Bazaine for Metz. The Germans expected Metz to be abandoned, as it should have been, when the Germans maneuvered to cut it off from Paris. They had a special force ready to garrison it. But they had to lay siege to it and construct a railroad to turn it. Will they do something like this at Liège?

The Franco-German campaign is likely to be short and sharp, but may not decide the war, and in that case may be followed by a comparatively long tussle on Russian or German territory or both.

The advance of Austria into Servia is apparently abandoned, Austria giving her attention to France and Russia. How different from the conditions in 1870, when Austria, far from being a help, was a cause of anxiety to Germany? Her neutrality then was due to three causes: the early successes of the German arms in France; the consideration shown by Prussia to Austria in 1866 in abstaining after Sadowa from marching upon Vienna; an understanding between Russia and Prussia that, in case Austria violated her neutrality, Russia would immediately proceed to paralyze her by moving an army of 300,000 men into Galicia, where she is now operating against Germany.

Russia, the best friend that Germany had in 1870, is her most formidable enemy in 1914.


Predictions that the war will be a short one are apparently based on expectations of lack of food or lack of money. It is hard to see how either side can suffer greatly from lack of food if it has command of the sea or communicates through neutral territory with over-sea countries. The Russian coalition has both, the German coalition has the latter means of supply. As long as the rights of neutral nations under so-called international law are respected, food supplies may go to Germany and Austria through Holland, Italy, Albania, Greece, and Bulgaria.

The lack of money will not be felt while there is credit, and whether there is credit will depend largely on the fortune of war: it will be a matter mainly of military success or failure. As a sinew of war, money is not of such importance as is commonly thought. The financing of a modern war takes place before and after rather than during its occurrence, especially if it is a short one. But assuming this to be a long one and that funds and credit run low or give out, does an army stop fighting from lack of money, of equipment, of transportation, even of ammunition, as it does from lack of food? Nothing will take the fight out of it as that does, except lack of success, hopelessness, which comes only from conscious inferiority to the enemy. Despite a dearth of money, the war will go on, provided the dearth is not all on one side, or that both sides are about equally straitened.

As friends of both, having on one side our mother-country in alliance with the country that sent us Lafayette and fought by land and sea for our independence and the one that befriended us in our struggle against disunion; and on the other side the people that gave us Steuben, Kalb, and the thousands of kindred spirits that have helped to make and preserve our nation and to furnish it ideals of art, literature, trade, and citizenship, we cannot afford to identify ourselves with either.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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A Novel of World War One
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