The Wireless First World War
On instant information and slippery slopes
Let us imagine the outbreak of the Great War as a series of signaling episodes, a play in three acts.
Information does not necessarily lead to action. Indeed, high volumes of information can also account for inaction. In the middle of the “July Crisis,” when all of Europe teetered on the brink of apocalypse, the new prime minister of France was unable to tear his mind away from Paris long enough to take action on anything. René Viviani feared that the ongoing trial of Madame Cailloux would reveal some sort of secret information that could bring down his government. As the newly-commissioned battleship MN La France (seen above) entered Stockholm harbor on a diplomatic tour, Viviani remained in his stateroom to receive press reports coming from the trial in wireless format. Similar to tweets transmitted in Morse code, this stream of information had him transfixed. Politicians of later eras would be glued to television sets, watching history unfold on live satellite feeds. End of scene one.
Meanwhile, the radio room on La France was busy. A German battlecruiser exiting the harbor had sighted the French battleship coming in. Before the invention of radio, all such sightings were reported upon arrival in a home port, or a port with a telegraph. Now, they were reported home immediately by radio. Naval engineers on La France likewise overheard this German transmission and reported the interception to Le Deuxième Bureau, where the Bureau du chiffre (“cipher bureau”) at the Eiffel Tower station cracked the code like an egg. End of scene two.
This was a brand-new routine in the world. France had developed SIGINT capabilities since 1911, while the Kaiser’s naval priorities had emphasized radio capability for every vessel, right down to the garbage scows. Everyone was talking, and listening to everyone else talk. For centuries, cryptology had primarily been a diplomatic activity, but the making and breaking of codes was already transforming into a mostly-military domain.
Let us end Act One here.
After cutting his trip short to attend the rapid breakdown of European peace in late July, Viviani returned to Paris and pressed London for a commitment to his country’s security. This business could be handled by secure cables rather than radio. However, the larger plan for war against Germany also required Russian support, and the fastest means of both partners communicating with their own embassies was through coded transmissions between Paris and the large Russian transmitter at Bobruysk. End of scene one.
However, this spike in traffic was observed by the German radio station at Königsberg on the coast of what was then called East Prussia. Unable to decrypt the transmissions, the unusual activity itself raised concerns in Berlin — a perfect example of decision-makers inventing traffic analysis through sheer reason. So-called “tension officers,” German soldiers in plainclothes, were dispatched to cross the Russian border and report their observations. One of them responded in plain text from a wireless office in a Warsaw suburb that he had found a mobilization poster. A sample of these posters was shortly brought back across the border, confirming the information. End of scene two.
Knowing that war was now inevitable, the German high command broadcast a transmission of its own at midnight on the morning of August 1. It was an instruction to the colonies, and to all German ships at sea, that the empire was “threatened with danger of war. Enter no English, French, or Russian harbors.” In turn, this transmission was captured at the Eiffel Tower station. Encoded in the standard German merchant marine cipher, the message was decrypted with ease. End of scene three.
We end Act Two here.
The next morning, Field Marshall Joseph Joffre was adamant that Viviani and his cabinet must pull the trigger immediately, enacting the infamous Plan XVII. Mobilization takes precious time, Joffre argued, and his armies needed to be on the move already. Every wasted hour meant more of France would be occupied by the German invader. Italy shows no sign of moving, indeed Rome seemed to have very cold feet about its Triple Alliance with Vienna and Berlin. The clincher, however, was that midnight message: Germany has practically announced that peace is over, haven’t they? There was no excuse for inaction. And so ends Act Three, in a single long scene where Viviani agonizes while Joffre demands, screams, pleads for action.
In one radio play, we re-contextualize the Great War. Electromagnetic communication remained an immature technology, yet it was already shaping decisions in a feedback loop. Activity raised alarms, leading to more activity, raising more alarms, leading to even more activity and alarums. We may choose to see all of this through the modernist lens, in which the personal is the political. Or we may choose a postmodernist perspective and view this series of events as a study in the hollowness of institutions, for example. All of these potential interpretations have merit.
For the conflict historian, however, what matters here is that from the moment electromagnetism became a technology, it was a means of both peaceful and hostile action, and that every state actor involved in the outbreak of war understood this. In his 2012 book The Sleepwalkers, historian Christopher Clarke notes that hundreds of books had already been written explaining the war, and he was merely adding one more to the pile. Yet until now, no one has ever approached the First World War as a story about wireless transmission in the age of Marconi even though it is stitched right into the historiography, showing up everywhere. Academics call this a lacuna. Really, though, it needs to be an episode in a cable miniseries about the First World War.