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thinking timetables

Going to have a go at my intellectual highlight for 2013 now.  (Itʼs that time of year.)

AJP Taylor famously wrote that the cause of the First World War was train timetables.  I will paraphrase the argument from memory:  The large armies of the major belligerent powers had had their manoeuvring potential worked out in great detail, and their attack plans accordingly.  A critical element was the relatively new one of train transport of troops and materials.  As trains run on tracks they require timetables, schedules.  Even a slight failure to keep to the schedule could be catastrophic to the orderly attack plans.  So once the decision to attack was made, nothing could be done to stop it (without risking defeat).

I donʼt quite recall whether Taylor also covered the point that in advance of the nominal decision to attack, various circumstances conspired to make it more or less inevitable – once you accept the thinking of the politicians of the time.  (It all looked a bit different a few short years later.)  Amongst these circumstances would be knowing the difficulty of changing plans.  (Kaiser Wilhelm apparently asked for a less potentially catastrophic set of plans but was told that it could not be done in time.)  Part of which is the difficulty of recalculating train timetables.  In other words it is the major powersʼ inflexibility, brought on by political and territorial complexity exceeding communications and computational power, which was the issue.

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