The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 80th installment in the series.
Beneath all the diplomatic maneuvering and bellicose blustering, Franco-German relations in the pre-war period were dominated by a single, inescapable fact: Germany’s larger population, the product of its higher birth rate. In 1913, Germany had a population of 67 million, compared to 41.5 million for France; that same year, 27.6 children were born for every thousand people in Germany, compared to 19.1 per thousand in France.
Germany’s higher birth rate powered faster economic growth, and also meant Germany had a larger pool of young men of military age to draw on for its armed forces. When Germany launched a massive expansion of its ground forces in the spring of 1913, France had no other option but to extend the term of service for conscripts from two years to three to bolster its own standing army.
On March 6, 1913, Premier Aristide Briand presented the “Three-Year Law” to the French Chamber of Deputies. Unsurprisingly the law was not popular with young Frenchmen liable to conscription, or their families: On March 29, 1913, huge demonstrations were held across France to protest the law, and in May soldiers rioted when they found out they were to be retained for another year.
Officials tried to pin the blame for these unpatriotic disturbances on communist agitators in the ranks, but the law was clearly unpopular outside the radical left. Of course German military planners noted this opposition with glee; at a meeting in Berlin in May 1913, Kaiser Wilhelm II tried to pry Tsar Nicholas II of Russia away from his French allies, asking, “How can you ally with the French? Don’t you see the Frenchman is no longer capable of becoming a soldier?”
Nonetheless, on August 7, 1913 the Three-Year Law was finally approved and adopted by the French Senate. By lengthening the term of service for conscripts, it added around 170,000 troops to the standing army, bringing it to a projected peacetime strength of around 827,000 in 1914 (when auxiliaries were included), versus 890,000 for the German army.
Although it increased the size of the French standing army, the Three-Year Law couldn’t redress the basic imbalance between the French and German populations: Germany would still be able to draft much larger numbers of untrained young men into the armed forces in the event of a long war of attrition. The Three-Year Law also did nothing to equip French forces with heavy artillery, which would prove indispensable for breaking up enemy trenches, leaving France at a serious disadvantage in the first year of the coming Great War.