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HISTORY AS LITERATURE: The Diary of Charles Ponton The World WarIDiary of Charles Ponton THE DIARY OF CHARLES PONTON / Charles Ponton Introduction How the world fell into the catastrophe of World War I will always be something of a mystery. It was a war with neither clear issues nor simple villains. Perhaps the ultimate cause was the rulers themselves, and their greed and vanity as quaintly ludicrous as the gilded eagle sprouting from the top of the war-helmet crown of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The ambitious Kaiser and his government were more to blame than others, but the leadership cultures of Europe, and the behavior of European governments, had much in common in 1914. The Germans were hardly in a class by themselves. The twentieth century had dawned upon a fully industrial but only tentatively democratized Western world. Relatively small percentages of citizens, including no women, could vote. The governments of Europe were still overseen by a small class of aristocrats, who felt threatened from below by democratizing and socialist movements. Kaiser Wilhelm, Queen Victoria of England, and Czar Nicholas of Russia were all related to each other, and the governments they headed were in many ways similarly "run from the top" by aristocrats, plutocrats, and the military; yet between these similarly governed nations there was heated imperialistic competition. All over the globe, the major powers, covetous for new avenues of commerce, elbowed each other for world position. The assassination in Sarajevo, Bosnia, of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophia Chotek of Austria-Hungary by a rogue pack of Serbian nationalists appeared at first to be a manageable event. Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, was confident that the matter could be settled by a conference in London. While the fear of war had haunted Europe for some time, there had been little immediate expectation of it. When Austria-Hungary sent an ultimatum to Serbia, however, Russia, as the selfdesignated defender of Slav nationalism, began to mobilize against AustriaHungary . The mutual alliances of Europe that originally had been created to avoid war, became a house of cards ready to tumble. Germany had allied with Austria-Hungary and the old Ottoman Empire, while Russia made a pact with France, which was later joined by Britain. When Russia threatened Austria-Hungary, Germany suddenly unleashed three-quarters of her army in a gigantic westward march across Belgium and northern France. According to the minutely detailed "Schlieffen plan," it would take Germany exactly forty-two days to capture Paris. The illusion that the war would be over quickly was shared by the countries on both sides. But as is often the case, the preconceptions about a major war and the actual circumstances and technology of it radically The Missouri Review ยท 59 diverged. The forty-two day adventure of conquest turned into a drawnout and, on the Western Front, profoundly static bloodbath, in which the lines that were drawn in 1914 were basically unchanged after four years of carnage. The United States did not intend to enter the war, and it managed to avoid doing so until Germany was about to run out of steam, although that was not apparent at the time. Well before America's entry, throughout 1916, the two warring sides had conducted hesitant peace negotiations; however, the Germans refused to retreat to their prewar boundaries. MiUions had died for total victory, and politicians were afraid to present their nations with compromise solutions. The U.S. would probably have succeeded in staying uninvolved militarily if the Germans hadn't taken the desperate but calculated risk of trying to cut off her shipments to Britain by unrestricted submarine warfare. The second proximate cause for the United States' entry into the war was the Zimmerman telegram, Germany's proposal to Mexico that she join in war against the United States. The telegram was intercepted, Wilson was enraged, and the U.S. soon declared war. The principal tactic of World War I was massive frontal assaults, sent out after long artillery barrages. The dominant weapons were quickfiring bolt-action rifles, accurate field artillery with rifled barrels, and the unbelievably deadly machine gun. Tanks, airplanes, and field telephones were all introduced during the war...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
p. 57
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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