Saturday, December 17, 2005

The empires strike back

An imperial war
Expanding ambition
Those nations that became industrialised first found great advantage, as their manufacturing industries, transport networks and economies became stronger than those who were slow to adopt the methods of mass production.
Large imposing naval fleets and expanding armies were used in a race to claim parts of the world and colonise them in the name of empire, while natural resources such as minerals and exotic produce were traded internationally.
This large-scale expansion of international interests took place for two main reasons – power and influence. The old interests and alliances, many of which were remnants of medieval campaigns and royal marriages, were now propelled by commerce and industry. Yet while individual nations aggressively built their own empires, they also related to one another through a variety of trade agreements – reciprocal arrangements that allowed for international communications networks – and ultimately through finance, as the different banks of the world traded wealth.
Annexation and treaties
Not all nations expanded by force. Many absorbed external countries by way of annexation and treaty, usually with the general consensus of leaders, but often over a background of native protest. Colonisation – or the settling in a newly acquired country by the people of the empire, whilst retaining their motherland's culture, laws and values – was a popular method of expansion, but settlements overseas were costly to maintain.
This gave birth to a further method of expanding empire – commercial imperialism, whereby countries were absorbed into the empire and tied with strict trade agreements, yet were able to retain their own governments and laws under certain restrictions. The British Empire used this expansionist technique, overseen by regional governors, to great effect. When combined with a network of supporting colonies in neighbouring lands for security, Britain found that large areas could be controlled at an acceptable cost. Indeed, many of them returned extremely lucrative profits.
Defending the realm
As empires grew, so did their military resources. Most nations had massive reserves of troops, which were trained by programmes of national service. In a similar fashion to the Cold War arms race, nations constructed gargantuan forces of infantry, cavalry and artillery, which could easily be mobilised with only a few weeks' notice. These acted as huge deterrents for any prospective enemy.
Initially, some of these armies were considerably antiquated. The Russian and Austro-Hungarian cavalry units, for example, still wore brightly coloured tunics and metal breastplates, and charged into battle with sabres drawn. Hardly any modernisation had taken place in these armies and the advent of the motor vehicle had been largely ignored as a military machine. Their tactical considerations were always aimed at massive sweeping set pieces, the likes of which would cease shortly after the First World War began.
Only Britain and Germany had made any major changes to their military. Britain held a small professional army, which wore olive coloured battle dress, and even relied on a number of petrol driven trucks and tractors. Germany had their grey-green battle dress, yet still retained their old spiked , albeit under canvas covers, until the familiar M1916 Stahlhelm (the forefather of the well-known Second World War design) was issued.
War plans and timetables
Unlike the Cold War, however, these huge armies of imperial deterrent didn't wOnce the equipping of the nation was started, the took over.
The war could have been stopped had the combatant nations considered diplomacy and arbitration, but, as the momentum gathered for war, it appeared that the empires were destined to clash head-on in the prevailing fever of empire building, pride and arrogance.
Unstoppable forces
Austria-Hungary certainly never expected Russia to intervene when they declared war on Serbia in 1914 (an act they considered a local affair), but the chain reaction that followed caused an imperial war like no other.
Germany mobilised in sympathy with her Austrian cousins, sending her plans into action, which included a sweeping wheel through Belgium into France. On invading Belgium (a neutral country) the British Empire declared war on Germany, and within a matter of months the world was turned upside down by these European powers that held the majority of the world in their hands.
From the trenches of western Europe to the Russian steppe, from the Alpine mountains to the sands of the Near East and Africa, and from the surface to the depths of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, war gripped the world on a previously unknown scale.ork as tools to keep the peace. In a complicated world of alliances and national egos, once mobilised these colossal forces were almost impossible to stop. Each empire naturally held war plans for how to defend against or attack their competitors. These were often constructed in the finest detail, including estimated wear on marching boots and highly elaborate train timetables.


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