Made You Think Podcast

Jun 24, 2024
What Was It All For? WWI by Martin Gilbert
Part of

“If the war was to be over by Christmas, as many believed, or at the latest by Easter 1915, tens of thousands of soldiers might be killed or wounded before the guns fell silent. Every army believed that it could crush its opponents within a few months.”

Welcome back to another episode of Made You Think! Join us as we dive into The First World War by Martin Gilbert. We'll explore the intricate details of WW1, from the seemingly pointless triggers to the significant aftermath that reshaped the world. We'll also touch on intriguing historical anecdotes, like Germany's return in WW2, and the far-reaching consequences of redrawing borders. History lovers, buckle up for this one!

We cover a wide range of topics including:

  • Technological advancements from cavalry to tanks and planes
  • How WW1 redrew the map and ended empires
  • The concept of 'war guilt' and its impact
  • America's pivotal role and the intercepted telegram
  • The seemingly unnecessary triggers of the first World War

And much more. Please enjoy, and make sure to follow NatNeil, and Adil on Twitter and share your thoughts on the episode.

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(0:00) Today, we’re covering The First World War by Martin Gilbert. While the book offers a detailed play-by-play of WW1, it wasn't the most enjoyable read. However, we gained significant insights into the war.

(4:53) The war’s triggers and conflicts felt somewhat pointless. Despite this, WW1 felt more significant than WW2 as it redrew maps and ended four empires. Unlike WW2's clear-cut good vs. evil narrative, WW1 began with cavalry and ended with advanced technology like planes, tanks, gas, and submarines.

(8:02) Numerous underlying tensions grew and eventually exploded in unpredictable ways. One of the triggers was Germany’s insecurity about its geographical position. We delve into the circumstances that led to the start of the war.

(11:10) A major theme was the widespread belief that the war would end quickly, without long-term consequences. We discuss what wars were like before WW1, typically regional with smaller armies and less impact on civilian populations.

(13:57) What was the aftermath of the war like? You might belong to a different town or region, but it may not have affected your daily life much.

(18:00) Nat, Neil, and Adil talk about the multiple empires that collapsed during this time. 

(20:10) War guilt was a new concept, unlike previous wars where the winning side simply negotiated their gains. The sheer number of deaths and the devastation of this war was shocking. 

(25:35) How did the Ottoman Empire get involved and what was their involvement in the war?

(27:05) The Germans came back much stronger in WWII, despite being devastated in WWI. They put up a bigger fight just 20 years later. It leads us to wonder, from where did they find the resources?

(31:38) How the war marked a complete era shift. Would communism have had as much impact in the 20th century without WWI? Would the Soviet Union have emerged?

(34:42) We take a look at a map of empires before WW1 and how the territories looked before then, which leads into our first tangent of this episode!

(37:52) Though Mexico wasn't involved in the war, Germany sent them a telegram promising several U.S. states in exchange for support. The British intercepted this message and informed the U.S.

(40:34) America's entry into the war truly tipped the scales and accelerated the conflict. They joined gradually, but their involvement turned the tide. We discuss the telegram that prompted America's entry into WWI.

(43:58) We were surprised by the advanced use of submarines in WWI. It's fascinating to consider how much the world has changed, especially thinking about the Ottoman Empire, which lasted over 600 years.

(47:49) WWI was the first time oil played a significant role, and the Ottoman Empire had some of the largest oil reserves. Had they survived, they could have controlled one of the 20th century's most crucial resources. From the four dissolved empires, 40 new countries emerged.

(50:12) While book wasn't the most entertaining and it felt repetitive, its importance lies in how it made people rethink the norms and rules of engagement. If a major war broke out next year, for example, there would likely be a similar period of figuring out new ground rules.

(57:15) The Russian Revolution. Two generations of European leaders were responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people. With two major world wars only 20 years apart, the loss of life was staggering.

(1:02:11) In the last 6 months of the war, everyone believed they were losing. The Germans were preparing to surrender, and the British doubted they would make it. After the war, the US never ratified the Treaty of Versailles and chose not to get involved in the aftermath.

(1:06:31) The redrawing of borders after the war marked the end of colonialism, profoundly impacting various parts of the world. Much of the end of colonialism stemmed from the end of WW1 and the dissolution of empires. The poorly executed division of territories led to cascading conflicts in the aftermath.

(1:11:25) The Hapsburg empire isn't extensively covered in the book, yet it was a very old empire, with its dynasty dating back to the 11th century. The exact beginnings are unclear since it follows a family rather than a defined state, making the timeline a bit blurry.

(1:13:34) We talk about the Marshall Plan. Would the Marshall Plan be effective in a kingdom-era setup? Plus, we talk about the idea of 'collective insanity' and how it can be seen as a form of self-governance, where a group loses its rationality as opposed to just an individual.

(1:20:25) There were many overarching themes of the book and the war as a whole: From the end of the old European system to the transition from kingdoms to states.

(1:24:01) Geographical positioning and how that plays a huge impact where you sit on the map. Much of the war is a downstream of geography. Some European countries were at a disadvantage based off of where they are on the map. 

(1:30:25) How lives changed drastically because of the war. One day you’re working your normal job and the next you’re on the front lines of the war.

(1:35:59) Neil and Adil give their final thoughts on the book, Gilbert’s writing style, and what they took away from reading the book. 

(1:38:47) That wraps up this episode! Stay tuned for our next episode where we'll be reading Endurance by Alfred Lansing. Make sure to pick up a copy of the book and head on over to our website to see what's next.

If you enjoyed this episode, let us know by leaving a review on iTunes and tell a friend. As always, let us know if you have any book recommendations! You can say hi to us on Twitter @TheRealNeilS@adilmajid@nateliason and share your thoughts on this episode.

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Thanks for listening. See you next time!