The First World War may have have featured static battlefields and attritional strategies, but that doesn't mean the course of events from 1914 to 1918 couldn't have unfolded differently. Here are 11 events that could have changed the outcome of the Great War.
Top image: A French solider is shot during the Battle of Verdun, 1916 (Alamy).
Listed in roughly chronological order.
1. No Russian Mobilization in 1914
Russian troops prepare for war. The Great War/BBC
Had it not been for the Russian mobilization of July 1914, the Great War might not have ever happened. By rushing to the defense of its Slavic ally, Serbia, Russia set German plans into motion. Earlier, Germany had issued a "blank cheque" to Austria-Hungary, promising to come to its aid should Russia interfere with its efforts to tame Serbia. But after relations between Russia and Germany soured, and as Russian troops scrambled along the Austrian border, Germany believed it had no choice to but to roll out its Schlieffen Plan — a strategy wherein France, an ally of Russia, was to be defeated prior to launching an all-out assault on Russia; the idea was to prevent a war on two fronts, which is precisely what ended up happening anyway.
Russia mobilized for several reasons. It was looking to re-assert itself after an embarrassing defeat to Japan in 1905. It was also the era of pan-Slavism, in which dreams of independent slavic states fueled aggressive foreign policies. But from a purely strategic perspective, there was no critical reason for Russia to come to Serbia's defense. The Tsar's actions turned a regional Balkan conflict into a global conflagration. But perhaps intentionally, it thwarted the plans of Austria-Hungary to expand its aging Empire into a tripartite state — the never-achieved Austro-Hungarian-Balkan League.
2. Britain Stays Out of the War
As Europe prepared for war during the July Crisis, it was not immediately obvious that Britain was going to join in. But when the million-strong German army ploughed through neutral Belgium, Britain sprang into action, officially entering into the fray. Though it was scarcely ready at the time, Britain's contribution to the Western Front and the ensuing naval blockade on Germany proved to be decisive; France would have very likely fallen without Britain's help.
British citizens cheer upon hearing the declaration of war.
There are two scenarios under which Britain could have stayed out of the war. First, Germany could have avoided provoking Britain by not sending its army through Belgium and invading France directly (though Britain would have likely declared war anyway to protect its ally and critical northern ports). Alternately, Britain could have stayed out of the war simply for the sake of staying out of it. As historian Niall Ferguson argues, the intervention was "the biggest error in modern history." He concedes that Britain would have reneged on its commitments to uphold Belgian neutrality, but that realism in foreign policy has a "long and distinguished tradition, not least of which in Britain."
3. The Schlieffen Plan Results in German Victory
The Schlieffen Plan as Schlieffen intended. The Great War/BBC
This is one of the big "what ifs" of history: What if Helmuth von Moltke and his general staff had succeeded in reaching Paris in September 1914? Indeed, such an assertion is not altogether unreasonable. Some historians contend that the Schlieffen plan would have worked if Moltke had followed Schlieffen's original plan. Had the right flank not been depleted, Germany's 1st Army would not have been forced away from the sea, the British Expeditionary Force would have been overwhelmed, and the French armies would have been trapped between Paris and the French eastern frontier.
With France fallen and the British routed, it's difficult to say what would have happened next, but it's safe to assume Germany would have given Russia hell out in the East. Unlike the situation 27 years later, Germany would have likely defeated Russia given the sorry state of its military. Together with Austria-Hungary, the two nations would have ruled over a massive European empire. What's more, a quick victory by the Central powers would have presented a terrible blow to democracy, while reaffirming autocratic political values. Indeed, the First World War was more ideological than many people realize.
4. Italy Joins the Central Powers
When war broke out in August 1914, Italy declared a policy of neutrality — this despite its previous alignment with Germany. Over the ensuing months, both the Entente and the Central Powers desperately tried to get Italy on their side, offering sweet rewards for victory. Italy bided its time, waiting for the best offer — and to get a better sense of who might actually win the conflict. Italy decided to join the Entente under the terms of the secret 1915 Treaty of London under which it was promised huge territorial gains at the expense of Austria-Hungary. Unabashedly, the Salandra government admitted that its decision arose from pure self-interest, or "sacred egoism."
Italian troops head to war.
But let's assume for a moment that the Central Powers were able to make a better offer, or that the Italian government honored its commitment to the Triple Alliance. With Italy on the side of the Central Powers, the war would have unfolded quite differently. Rather than having Italy fight against Austria-Hungary, the two nations could have joined together to clean up the Balkans and then launch coordinated campaigns against Russia on the Eastern Front. Some Italian troops could have also been sent to the Western Front, or help out the Turks. It's difficult to know if the war would have ended differently (probably not); Italian troops were plagued by poor generals, lack of experience, and a dearth of heavy equipment. One thing's for certain, though, the war would have dragged on considerably longer — perhaps long enough for the belligerent countries of Europe to suffer complete social and political collapse.
5. The Allies Invade Normandy — World War II Style
In their rush to open a third front and quickly knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war, Allied planners launched a naval campaign in 1915 in the Dardanelles that, after failing to meet its initial objectives, regressed into the catastrophic Gallipoli Campaign, an eight month ordeal that resulted in 252,000 casualties on the Allied side — and for absolutely no gain. It was a military and political disaster that cost Winston Churchill his job as the First Lord of the Admiralty. Historians regard Gallipoli as a precursor to the Normandy Campaign of June 1944. But unlike Operation Overlord, the amphibious landing at Gallipoli was a haphazardly planned and ill-equipped venture. In his book, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth, historian Robin Prior makes the case that the campaign would have failed in any incarnation.
ANZAC troops prepare to land at Gallipoli.
But what if they had landed in Normandy instead? Like the invasion rolled out by Allied forces in the subsequent war? It's certainly a plausible suggestion. With the war stalemated along the Western Front, the Entente could have caused the Germans considerable problems by opening up a new theatre of operations in northern France. The British Navy maintained sea dominance during the war, and could have easily transported masses of men to the Normandy (or Callais) coast. The Germans, barring sufficient intelligence, would have been caught completely off guard.
Admittedly, this is highly speculative stuff. Given the primitive state of technologies at this point in military history, and given what happened at Gallipoli, it's no guarantee this campaign would have worked. The logistical demands alone would have precluded such an invasion from happening until 1916 or later. Moreover, it would have been very difficult — if not impossible — to justify the diversion of resources away from the main theatre, and for the Allies to contend with Germany's superior internal line of communications (in this war of attrition, Germany would have been able to supply its troops at a considerably quicker rate).
6. Germany Doesn't Declare Unrestricted Submarine Warfare
The sinking of the Lusitania. The Great War/BBC
Yes, it was the Zimmerman Telegram that ultimately pushed the United States into the First World War — but a strong case can be made that, if it wasn't for Germany's U-boat campaign against its merchant shipping fleet, the U.S. might not have entered into the fray.
Things were looking very bleak for Germany in 1917. With victory on land doubtful, Kaiser Wilhelm renewed his push for unrestricted submarine warfare — an effort to crush the flow of merchant shipping to its enemies. As it retained a defensive posture on the Western Front, the supreme army command endorsed the German navy's opinion that unrestricted U-boat warfare against the British and Americans at sea could result in a German victory on land by the fall of 1917. Germany's prime minister, Bethmann Hollweg, feared that such action would antagonize the United States. He was right.
If the U.S. hadn't joined the war, it would have dragged on for at least another year or two — or even more. There would have been no Michael campaign in 1918 — a last ditch effort by Germany to end the war before U.S. troops could make a difference — thus preserving Germany's fighting power.
7. Peace is Negotiated
Peace could have happened at virtually any time during the war. In fact, it would have been prudent for Germany to push for peace terms after the First Battle of the Marne in 1914 — a truly decisive battle that ultimately set the stage for Germany's defeat. Molke himself knew Germany was finished even at this early stage, telling the Kaiser, "Your Majesty, we have lost the war."