When, in August 1914, Europe’s diplomats handed her fate over to the soldiers the consequent shift of authority out of the hands of civilians was for some of the participants an alteration in the ordering of national affairs which was scarcely detectable. East of the Rhine, Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg were already military courts whose monarchs rarely appeared out of uniform and who regarded themselves as ruling over military fiefs, though all were plagued to varying degrees by mounting pressures for political reform. The soldier had played a central role in preserving both the social and the political order from its internal and external enemies for many decades, and the practice of the chiefs of the general staff of communicating directly with their sovereigns without first passing through intermediaries was both a symbol and an instrument of military dominance. Even in the more democratic climate which prevailed west of the Rhine the military had been gaining in importance and independence as international tension mounted, so that Britain and France were not entirely unprepared for military domination by the time that the assassination at Sarajevo precipitated the last in a series of international crises and one which resulted in general war. On 28 October 1913 the French government had published a decree regu lating the political control of the army which clearly
outlined the respective spheres of influence of politician and soldier:1
Inherent in this regulation was the assumption that once war broke out politicians would take a back seat, leaving the direction of the nation’s war efforts to their military experts. In England, acting without the benefit of any such clear directive, Sir Henry Wilson effectively gained the same position by virtue of the depth and extent of the co-operation with the French which he achieved. Once war broke out, even democratic regimes were prepared to reinforce the authority possessed by the military experts by virtue of their capacity to win the contest of arms — a capacity they did not in fact possess — and hand over governmental power. In all cases such attitudes were predicated upon the belief that such an abnormal state of affairs would be merely temporary, since the war would be short.