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World War I

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The machine gun: just one reason why it wasn't a good idea to use 19th century tactics in 1917.
It never changes
War
Icon war2.svg
A view to kill

"The real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort not to have a war. You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way there could never be a war."
"But, this is a sort of a war, isn't it, sir?"
"Yes, that's right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan."
"What was that, sir?"
"It was bollocks."

—Captain Blackadder (Rowan AtkinsonWikipedia's W.svg) & Private Baldrick (Tony RobinsonWikipedia's W.svg)[1]

World War One (usually abbreviated as WWI or WW1), was a global conflict that originated in Europe and lasted from the 28th of July. 1914 to the 11th of November, 1918. It is also known by its contemporary name, the Great War. Some idealists of the era infamously described it as "The War to End War".[2] Subsequent generations have realized that this was hopelessly naive.

One of the deadliest conflicts in human history, the war saw about 8.5 million soldiers die from various causes[3] while the associated H1N1 pandemic (usually called the "Spanish Flu") killed another 50 million people.[4] The civilian death toll is difficult to determine due to the era's lack of record-keeping as well as various other factors such as the Spanish Flu, general starvation resulting from blockades, and concurrent genocides. The best estimate seems to be about 6 to 10 million civilians dead.[5]

This continental clusterfuck was brought about by the general failure of the post-Napoleon world order to keep peace. The system of massive alliances, which should have served to deter any massive war, actually resulted in a regional conflict becoming a global one. The great powers of Europe were divided into two coalitions: the "Triple Entente" (consisting of France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and the "Triple Alliance" of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. The failure of Germany's "Schlieffen Plan" infamously saw the Western Front of the war stagnate into bloody and pointless trench warfare. Ultimately, the war became a test of which team would be too exhausted to continue.

The war was transformative to world history. The British Empire's colonial shenanigans in the Middle East permanently destabilized the region[6] and helped pave the way for the rise of the current Wahhabi terrorist regime of Saudi Arabia.[7] Social upheavals caused by the prolonged conflict helped usher in an ideology that saw war as the beneficial and natural state of humanity. The devastation caused by the war birthed various totalitarian political movements such as Vladimir Lenin's Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The Treaty of Versailles, meanwhile, utterly failed to maintain peace past ending the war. Its provisions were light and were shoddily enforced; it was enough to radicalize the nations who were unhappy with it but not enough to stop them from starting the party all over again.[8] Ultimately, while the end of World War One saw many nations liberated, they would all be forced to endure another, even worse war as a result of which many of them would lose their sovereignty.

Background[edit]

The historiography as to why the war happened are — in comparison to the relatively simple explanations for WWII — hideously diverse,[9] but most emphasize the rampant nationalism, imperialism and Social Darwinism bubbling throughout the whole continent (leading to an unstoppable arms-race), with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia ultimately pushing things over the edge.[10]

Balance of power[edit]

The European alliances before the war. Italy later had a change of heart and sided with the Entente, so the Ottomans filled their slot.

The political map of Europe looked very different 100 years ago. There were far fewer countries than now — with most of Central and Eastern Europe controlled by large multi-ethnic empires. Many European countries — even small ones like the Netherlands and Belgium — operated colonial empires. Peace was, and had been since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, maintained through "balance of power theory." The idea here was that so long as every nation or alliance of nations was roughly equal in strength, no nation would seek a potentially ruinous conflict.[11] If one nation became significantly stronger than the rest, then it was feared that it would take advantage of this strength and start attacking its neighbors.

Although balance of power theory (mostly) kept the peace during the 19th Century, even weathering the tumultuous Scramble for Africa, there were a number of challenges to it that eventually caused the theory to fail. From 1848 onwards, the Kingdom of Prussia consolidated its hold over central Europe, defeated France in a brief war in 1870, and created for the first time a unified Germany.[12] The rise of this behemoth was a shock to the European order, and much of the latter 19th Century was defined by Germany's attempts to gain power and isolate France. The Ottoman Empire, meanwhile, had entered the final phase of its prolonged, lingering death. The loss of its holdings in southern Europe led to the independence of the Balkan states: Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Albania. Each of these nations had territorial claims on both the Ottoman Empire and each other, and this resulted in the First and Second Balkan Wars.[13] The power-vacuum in the region led the great powers to jockey for influence there,[14] worsening the situation and causing Bulgaria to break up with its historical pal Russia. Other unforeseen complications for the continental system were the UK's "splendid isolation" philosophy of foreign policy whereupon it refused to forge any lasting alliances,[15] and Kaiser Wilhelm II's firing of the brilliant Chancellor Bismarck and his subsequent alienation of Russia.[16]

Militarism[edit]

The HMS Dreadnought, the first in a new age of battleships.

Following the successful Prussian model of "an army with a state", the monarchies of Europe shifted their priorities and internal structures in order to become more powerful militarily. This resulted in an atmosphere where many of Europe's politics were dominated by military figures who were themselves lionized by state press.[17] Press and public opinion also increasingly viewed foreign nations as either targets or threats, and denounced them all accordingly. Politics and military power became intrinsically linked in the same way politics and economics is linked in our modern world. Although militarism didn't start the world war, it created a climate in which much of Europe's population saw war as a more effective means of resolving disputes than diplomacy. Surrender and the corresponding hit to national pride was unthinkable.

A specific crisis brought about by militarization was the Anglo-German naval arms race. In the 19th Century, naval power was seen as a direct measure of a nation's overall strength. German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz with the approval of Kaiser Wilhelm II began a massive naval buildup for the German Empire designed to compete with the British Empire and establish Germany as a world-class power.[18] The British responded to the German plans with a feverish buildup of their own. This naval arms race further added to the atmosphere of fear and distrust in Europe, and it helped push the British into siding with the French against the Germans.

The legacy of the naval arms race loomed large over postwar geopolitics as well. It resulted in the London Naval Conference, which limited naval tonnage among the great naval powers in order to prevent another arms race.[19]

Forging the alliances[edit]

French soldiers in Morocco, 1911.

Facing French hostility after the Franco-Prussian war, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck sought a network of alliances that would deter the French from attacking. Thus, even after fighting a war against Austria during the 1860's, Bismarck successfully negotiated the Dual Alliance with them, giving Germany its first ever friend on the international stage.[20] In 1882, this grew into the Triple Alliance with the addition of Italy, but this bloc was permanently unstable due to Italy's territorial claims against the Austrians.[21] Nonetheless, the alliance had the outward appearance of strength, and that's what counted.

In 1904, the colonial competition between Germany and France made its way to Morocco, where Germany fought to keep the Berber nation independent just to fuck with France. Ultimately, Germany extracted some small concessions from France in the region, but the Morocco Crisis only really served to begin pushing the British towards friendship with France.[22] In the same year, the UK and France signed the "Entente Cordiale", an agreement French support for British colonialism in Egypt and British support for French colonialism in Morocco.[23] Although a relatively minor agreement, the Entente Cordiale was motivated by mutual suspicion toward Kaiser Wilhelm II's increasingly dangerous foreign policy and ended more than a thousand years of almost constant Anglo-French hostility. This agreement along with France's longstanding alliance with Russia, evolved into the "Triple Entente" as the three nations sought to counterbalance Germany's (seemingly) powerful Triple Alliance.[24]

The Bosnian Crisis[edit]

Bosnians learn that they now live in Austria, 1908.

The most direct seeds of the coming storm were laid in 1908 in the Balkans. All the way back in 1878, the Congress of Berlin had been called among the great powers to address the ongoing decline of the Ottoman Empire, and one of its provisions allowed Austria-Hungary to occupy and administer the Ottoman province of Bosnia.[25] The Hapsburgs spent the next decades building their administration in the region and investing in its infrastructure. In 1908, Austria-Hungary formally announced that it was annexing Bosnia, partially to expand its own holdings and partially to guard against the southern Slavs of the Balkans.[26]

The annexation sparked immediate outrage in Serbia, as its citizens were nationalists who wanted to reunite with the ethnic Serbs who lived in Bosnia. Although Russia had previously agreed to the annexation, the angry public reaction there forced the government to demand that Austria cede a portion of Bosnia to Serbia.[25] Austria threatened war over the issue, backed up by its ally Germany, and Russia backed down.

Although the issue was resolved without warfare, it enraged and humiliated Russia and ensured that it would no longer back down from a threat of war. The people of Serbia, meanwhile, were also angry with Austria, and the harsh feelings on both sides would eventually result in the event that kicked off the war.

Getting the party started[edit]

The next great European war will begin over some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.
—Otto von Bismarck, 1888[27]

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand[edit]

A 1914 illustration of the assassination.

Things went pear-shaped after the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia) on June 28, 1914. Ferdinand was visiting the city in conjunction with Austrian troop exercises there.[28] Austria and Serbia had spent the years after the annexation of Bosnia grappling for diplomatic and economic control over the Balkans. Austria placed a German prince in charge of Albania to block Serbia's access to the sea, but Serbia responded by forming a customs union with Montenegro.[29] So it went, with hatreds between the two nations increasing in intensity.

Just before the visit, a group of radical young Bosnian Serbs received word of the Archduke's arrival and decided that it must be an insult to the Serbs, as his visit fell near the anniversary of a historic Serbian defeat.[29] Among them was Gavrilo Princip, and they were all members of "Young Bosnia", a political activist group that sought the creation of a Serb-led Yugoslav nation.[30] Also involved in the plan was the Black Hand, was a terrorist group run by Serbian nationalists that also sought unification of all ethnic Serbs.[31]

Driving in a car amidst low security and an enthusiastically supportive populace, the Archduke was suddenly attacked by one of the conspirators, who failed to kill him with a bomb.[32] Sarajevo's mayor, who was unaware that someone had just chucked a bomb at his guest, began delivering a speech to the horrified Archduke, who remarked, "Lord Mayor, what is the good of your speeches? I come to Sarajevo on a friendly visit and someone throws a bomb at me. This is outrageous!"[32] Ferdinand eventually regained his composure while continuing his tour of the city and even started joking about the incident, but he and his wife were then shot in his car by Gavrilo Princip after his convoy took a wrong turn onto the street right in front of the assassin.[32]

Ferdinand's death made surprisingly little impact in Austria; as one historian remarked "The event almost failed to make any impression whatsoever. On Sunday and Monday (the day of and the day after), the crowds in Vienna listened to music and drank wine, as if nothing had happened."[33] In Sarajevo, however, the Austrian government encouraged an anti-Serb pogrom that caused two deaths and the destruction of much property.[34]

The July Crisis[edit]

Princip and his co-conspirators on trial in Sarajevo.

The assassination set off a chain reaction of diplomatic maneuvering among the great powers that continued throughout July 1914. Although the Serbian prime minister was initially conciliatory, Austria discovered by interrogating the captured conspirators that multiple officials in the Serbian government had been involved in the plot.[35] Austrian military officials, even before ascertaining for certain that Serbia was responsible, had decided on war against Serbia. They reasoned that Serbia had been a thorn in their side for far too long and that a quick little war would settle accounts for good. The Germans agreed to back the Austrians in whatever action they decided to take, also reasoning that Balkan peace could only be achieved through Serbia's destruction.[36] The Germans also expected the Austrians to strike rapidly before any of the other great powers could set their own plans into motion, thus keeping the war a limited affair. Instead, the Austrians hesitated.

Fearing that an immediate attack would provoke the Russians, the Austrians decided to use diplomacy to manufacture a casus belli. This led to the creation of the "ultimatum plan", in which Austria would deliver an intentionally harsh set of terms and then attack once Serbia had refused. The Austrians and Germans tried to reason that the Russians, if given enough reason to stay put, would not come to Serbia's rescue. All of their assumptions to this end were wrong. The Tsar decided that his nation was ready enough for war with the West, while he also sought to be more aggressive in foreign affairs both due to France's urgings and the still recent memory of his embarrassing cave during the Bosnian Crisis.[37]

The New York Times reports on Austria's declaration of war.

Serbia ended up agreeing to nine of Austria's eleven demands, including that they censor anti-Austrian publications and crack down on Serbian nationalist groups working against Austria.[38] The Germans, meanwhile set about trying to convince France and the UK to stay out of it. However, their diplomats used intentionally soft language to describe Germany's plans, fooling the French and British into thinking that the Germans also hoped to keep the peace in the Balkans.[38] The British and French thus replied with ambiguous statements that the Germans interpreted as meaning that they would not aid Russia and Serbia. This was a fatal miscalculation on all sides.

Austria rejected Serbia's response (as they were always planning to) and started mobilizing for war on July 25th.[38] This time, the Russian diplomats fucked up. They denied that Russia was mobilizing against Austria, hoping to defuse the situation.[38] Instead, that news only encouraged the Germans and Austrians that war would be easy and limited. In reality, the Germans and Austrians had, through their own trickery and double-dealing, falsely convinced themselves that Russia, Britain, and France would not try to bail out Serbia. This was far from the case. The Russians were intent on not backing down, and they wanted to save their only ally in the Balkans. The French were perfectly happy to come to the aid of Russia and still hoped for a chance to avenge their loss in the Franco-Prussian War. The British, meanwhile, had been taught a harsh lesson by Napoleon in what happens when they allow matters in Europe to spiral out of control. Thus, all three members of the Triple Entente were ready for war.

Austria declared war on Serbia on the 28th of July. Germany immediately backed them, and it became apparent that the Germans' talk of trying to keep the peace and restrain its ally had all been a sham to intentionally muddy the waters. Germany had never intended to stop the war; it only hoped to sow enough doubt to stop the other great powers from intervening. The German ambassador to Russia recounted that the Russian Foreign Minister "now saw through our whole deceitful policy, he no longer doubted that we had known the Austro-Hungarian plans and that it was all a well-laid scheme between us and the Vienna Cabinet."[39]

The dominos quickly fell into place after that, as each of the great powers honored their alliances and joined the war.

The war[edit]

Opening hostilities[edit]

Serbian infantry in defensive positions.

Serbian Campaign[edit]

The Central Powers opened the carnage with a disjointed, contradictive series of offensives that set out the basic pattern of pretty much the entire German/Austrian (lack of) coordination that would last until Austria-Hungary had been so worn down that it would basically become a German satellite in constant need of propping up during the later stages of the war.

Germany's plan was ambitious but fairly straight forward: To hit France with most of their army (more on that later) while Austria held off the Russian hordes in a delaying effort until the expected victorious German forces could be shifted from west to east. Austria, on the other hand, assumed that Germany would hold off the Russians while they swept in and crushed Serbia.[40] Austria-Hungary, and especially its supreme commander, Conrad Von Hötzendorf, vacillated between a vengeful strike at Serbia (i.e. the limited war of punishment they wanted) and a great power war with Russia (i.e. the war they actually faced).

The Austro-Hungarian ambiguity and indecisiveness led to some rather farcical shifting of troops back and forth between the Serbian and Russian fronts that mainly resulted in tiring out the Austrian-Hungarian soldiers before the fighting had even started, including having them march distances in the sweltering late summer heat that they could easily have covered by train (due to misplaced fears of a rapid Russian cavalry strike against the forward railheads). The other main result was to ensure that the Serbian front would not see a strong, all out offensive, while the defence on the Russian front would be weakened as well. One reason was a derisive attitude towards the Serbs, leading to a belief that Serbia would be quickly defeated, even by a weakened offensive, the other being unrealistic optimism about the ability of the weakened Austro-Hungarian defence in Galicia to hold off the Russians until the Germans had won in the west.

While the Austrians were understrength, the Serbians placed their army under the command of the capable Radomir Putnik, a veteran of the turbulent Balkan Wars. Putnik took advantage of Serbia's mountains and rivers to rout the Austrians twice, resulting in the failure of Austria's invasion.[41] Serbia's defeat of Austria in 1914 has been called one of the greatest unexpected victories of the entire 20th Century.[42] It was the first great wrench thrown into the Central Powers' plans.

The Schlieffen Plan[edit]

German soldiers who will surely be home by Christmas.

German leaders were quite aware that they were in danger of being caught in a two-front war between France and Russia. Their plan to avoid this was proposed in 1905 by Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German general staff.[43] The Schlieffen Plan called for a rapid attack against and defeat France while token forces held the line against Russia. Once France was out of the picture, the Germans could turn east. Instead of invading across the German-French border, German advance through Belgium and turn south to catch France by surprise and capture Paris, forcing them to make peace.[44] With the benefit of hindsight, it's now apparent in modern times that Russia was the softer target due to its lack of industry and fragile political situation. The German general staff, however, had a healthy respect for Russia's size and manpower, and they had easily defeated France in 1870.

Almost ten years after the creation of the Schlieffen Plan, it fell on Helmuth von Moltke to revise it for a more modern war. He was not up to the task. Moltke allowed the units on the French border to attack, then took manpower from the crucial invasion force against Belgium to strengthen it.[45] Moltke then robbed the western forces of even more strength to defend East Prussia from a faster-than-expected assault by the Russians. The final result was that the invasion force against Belgium and northern France was weaker than it should have been.

Invasion of Belgium[edit]

German troops parading in Brussels.

The Germans invaded Belgium in August 1914, despite the fact that Belgium had been a recognized neutral country for most of a century. Not expecting a real fight, German soldiers marched parade ground-style towards the Belgian positions only to be cut down by machine gun fire.[46] Despite the initial fuckups, the Germans managed to take Brussels by August 20th.[47]

German soldiers acted with brutality against Belgian civilians during the occupation, shooting civilians, burning villages, and murdering priests.[48] The Germans were frustrated by the determined Belgian resistance, and they often took it out on the normal people of Belgium, sometimes after baselessly accusing them of being covert snipers.[49] It's estimated that about 6,000 Belgians were murdered outright, while more than 17,000 died during the subsequent occupation, now called the "Rape of Belgium".[50] Fearing that the Belgian civilians escaping into the Netherlands could be spies, the Germans built and guarded a 2,000-volt electric fence complex across the border which is estimated to have led to the deaths of at least 1,000 people.[51] The Belgian economy was further destroyed as the Germans looted industrial equipment and later started using Belgian civilians as forced labor.[52]

The usual narrative is that the British joined the fray to protect Belgian neutrality. That is only part of the story. In reality, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and Foreign Secretary Edward Grey had decided even before then, and without Parliament's knowledge, that Britain was at some point going to intervene against Germany.[53] Grey actually pledged naval assistance to France two days before the invasion of Belgium, which infuriated the pro-neutrality members of Cabinet and caused four of them to resign.[53] Germany's invasion of Belgium was less the cause of British entry so much as it was an excuse.

Saving the Eastern Front[edit]

Germany halted the Russian advance into East Prussia during the first month of the war with the Battle of Tannenberg. The victory was made possible by the German's rapid maneuvering skills as well as the Russians' failure to encrypt their messages.[54] The end result was that the Russian Second Army was completely crushed. The Germans went on the offensive during the fall of 1914, mauling the Russian First Army and driving them off of German soil.[55] In 1915, what was intended to be a limited strike towards Russia's Polish territories resulted in a complete breakthrough into the region and Germany's advance far into Russia.[56]

Although these victories were great, Moltke had pulled troops from the Western Front, some of which even arrived too late to have a significant impact at Tannenberg.[45] Their absence arguably contributed to Germany's later failure to take Paris.

Settling down for the long haul[edit]

Burning oil tankers in the Black Sea.

The Ottomans join the war[edit]

The Ottoman Empire had suffered a coup by military officers in 1908 and was dominated by War Minister Enver Pasha when the war began.[57] Pasha hoped to reconquer the Caucasus, which had been taken by the Russian Empire. The seeds of Ottoman intervention were laid shortly after the outbreak of the war, when the Ottomans signed an agreement with Germany exchanging military access through their lands for German assistance in modernizing their military.[58] The British meanwhile, alienated the Ottomans by stealing requisitioning two battleships the Ottomans had bought from British shipyards.[59] Increasing Ottoman cooperation with Germany led the British to blockade the Ottomans.

The Ottomans finally entered the war in late October 1914 by launching a surprise attack against the Russian Black Sea coastline, with background politicking involving anti-war forces in the Turkish parliament, Enver Pasha’s wish to arrange for a casus Nelli and the German squadron commander Wilhelm Souchon’s attempt to force the Ottoman to enter the war as a German ally all competing with each other, though Souchon’s provocative direct attack on Russian ports would be the final outcome.[60] This overt act of hostility was done without a formal declaration of war, which the Ottomans only got around to in mid-November.

Ottoman participation in the war successfully diverted much of the Entente's efforts, especially with the disastrous Gallipolli landings overseen by Winston Churchill,[61] as well as the even more disastrous early British defeat by the Ottomans in and around modern-day Iraq.[62] In addition, the British were forced to defend Egypt and the Suez Canal as the lifeline to India[63] and subsequently raise new forces for a reinvigorated invasion of Mesopotamia and the Levant to avenge the earlier catastrophes.

Trench warfare begins[edit]

French infantry charge during the First Battle of the Marne.

The Germans entered northern France successfully, but the speed of their advance strained their troops and stretched their supplies.[64] The French and British also mobilized with greater speed than the Germans had anticipated. They halted the German advance outside Paris during the First Battle of the Marne, the first great confrontation of the Western Front.[65] The Schlieffen Plan having failed, the Germans and the allies attempted to outflank each other during the so-called "Race to the Sea."[66] This was unsuccessful on both sides, and it left everybody sort of staring at each other over a line of fortifications. You know where this is going.

The advent of the machine gun and modern artillery meant that attacking an enemy formation with conventional 19th Century tactics (like everybody had been doing) was tantamount to suicide. Soldiers dug into the ground for safety against each others' deadly firepower, and this rapidly developed into the infamous system of trench warfare.[67] By October 1914, none of the armies was able to make any meaningful advances, and by the end of the year, about 475 miles of trenches had been built across the entire length of the Western Front.[68] The famous Christmas truce occurred during 1914, although don't feel too good about Christianity just yet because it ended immediately after Christmas Day and never happened again.[69]

The naval war[edit]

HMS Queen Mary destroyed at Jutland.

From late 1914 onwards, the British Royal Navy blockaded the entrances to the English Channel and the North Sea, hoping to starve Germany and Austria into submission.[70] The impacts on the Central Powers were immediate, and civilians started to suffer food shortages as early as 1916. Germany lacked the resources to make cordite, and the blockade only exacerbated the situation.[71] Germany was not alone in its industrial suffering. France had lost much of its industrial heartland to the German advance, and the British also had trouble manufacturing shells.

British tactics during the blockade violated international law. For one example, the British placed mines in international waters which threatened neutral shipping.[72] Since there was no great international outcry over this, Germany anticipated that there would similarly be no great consequences for its policy of "unrestricted submarine warfare".[73]

Both sides came to use submarines against each other's merchant shipping, as submarines were then undetectable but were too fragile to compete with surface warships.[74] British shipping defended itself by flying the flags of neutral countries, which caused Germany to declare its policy of allowing its submarines to sink neutral shipping. Foreign reaction to German unrestricted warfare was very negative, especially after the Germans sank the RMS Lusitania, (what seemed to be) a passenger ship.[75] Anger from the United States convinced Germany to cut it out.

The German surface fleet was formidable, and it inflicted heavier casualties than it took during the Battle of Jutland in 1916.[76] Nonetheless, the British won a strategic victory there, as Germany's surface ships were largely confined to port for the rest of the war. This, and other concerns, led to the later resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare.

Italy joins the war[edit]

Europe's strategic situation in late 1915.

Long hostile to Austria despite being a member of the Triple Alliance, Italy initially stayed neutral and refused to join the war on behalf of its two alleged allies, citing the terms of the alliance that only committed Italy to join Germany and Austria in the case of a defensive war. Instead, Italy would meet with the Entente and negotiate the Treaty of London, where the Entente powers promised it all of the so-called "Italia Irredenta", lands Italy claimed for historical reasons.[77] In May 1915, Italy declared war on Austria. The Italian build up and offensive was slow, however, giving the Austrians much needed time to scrape together and shift forces to the new front, which halted the Italians, taking full advantage of the mountainous terrain. The Italian Front settled into a stalemate that cost the Italians upwards of 300,000 men, and over the course of 1916, the Italians would lose another half-a-million.[78]

Trench warfare gets worse[edit]

Training soldiers to deal with poison gas.
See the main article on this topic: Weapons of mass destruction

The Germans and French fought the Second Battle of Ypres during spring 1915. It was a relatively small operation that ended inconclusively, but it was intended as a testing ground for Germany's newest weapon: poison gas. Having sought a way to break the stalemate of trench warfare, German chemist Fritz Haber (previously famous for inventing mass producible fertilizers) had developed chlorine gas.[79]

German soldiers popped the gas canisters by hand and relied on the wind to carry it over to the French; this was obviously very stupid, and it caused horrific casualties among their own men.[80] Although the gas attack came as a great surprise to the allies, the Germans failed to take advantage of it, and the Second Battle of Ypres ended inconclusively.

The British debuted their own chlorine gas at the Battle of Loos later in the year, but they also inflicted casualties on their own men for little advantage.[81]

Bulgaria joins the war[edit]

Although Bulgaria was a historical Russian friend as well as a neutral nation at the war's outset, the Central Powers had much to offer them. Specifically, they promised Bulgarian territorial expansion largely at the expense of Greece and Serbia.[82] Bulgaria joined the war during the summer of 1915 and participated in the renewed assault on Serbia.

Attacking from the east, Bulgaria smashed the Serbian army during the Kosovo Offensive.[83] Serbia was outnumbered more than two-to-one and outgunned as well, and the Central powers were advancing from multiple directions.[84] Serbia was effectively finished by late 1915, and their armies retreated alongside starving civilians. The country was carved up by Austria and Bulgaria.

Verdun and the Somme[edit]

British Mark I tank at the Somme.

The Western Front spent 1916 in a state of deadlock. The longest battle of the war (and of modern history), the Battle of Verdun, began early in the year. The Germans hoped to crush the French army before the British had a chance to commit more troops to the Front. Although the battle began auspiciously for the Germans, their increasing focus on offensive action resulted in a quickly rising death rate that equaled the French losses.[85] French General Philippe Pétain took command of the defenders, and he used a tactic of rotating troops to keep them fresh, an effective policy.[85] He also increased the number of French artillery pieces. The battle degraded to the point where the Germans had lost all idea of what they were supposed to be doing beyond a simple-minded fixation on capturing Verdun. The battle ended in December when winter conditions made it impossible to fight any longer.

To relieve the French fighting at Verdun, the British launched an offensive that became the Battle of the Somme. The British bombarded German trenches with artillery, then rushed them. Unfortunately, they were mowed down by German machine guns, losing 19,240 British soldiers in the bloodiest day in the nation's history.[86] The Battle of the Somme lasted for five miserable months. Significantly, the British introduced tanks during this campaign.[87] They were crude and ineffective, but they improved as the war continued.

Beginning of the end[edit]

Romania joins (and leaves) the war[edit]

Using combined arms tactics, the Russian armies under the brilliant General Alexei Brusilov launched an offensive in summer 1916 that smashed the Austrian armies, forced the Germans to pull troops from the trenches at Verdun, and convinced the Romanians that it might be a good idea to pounce on the Austrians while they were in their death throes.[88] The Russians, being Russians, paid a heavy butcher's bill for the offensive, suffering 1.4 million casualties.[88]

Romania, like Italy, had previously been considered a friend of the Triple Alliance. Romania, like Italy, had territorial ambitions against Austria-Hungary. In this case, Romania hoped to annex the Romanian-speaking lands of Transylvania. Too bad for them, then, that they declared war on Austria after the Brusilov Offensive had been halted by the Germans. Their army was also under-supplied and ill-prepared for the conditions they were about to face.[89] The Romanians took Transylvania during their initial attack, but the Central Powers' counterattack conquered much of Romania itself including their capital city.[90] After Russia quit the war and left Romania holding the bag, they were stomped on by the Central Powers, forced to stop fighting in 1917, and peaced out in 1918.[91]

The Russian Revolution[edit]

Protesters during the February Revolution

Facing high casualties combined with shortages of food and basic supplies, the Russian people had enough of the war. They rose up in early 1917 in the February Revolution, which the Tsar's army was too weak to stop. With the Tsar forced to abdicate, Russia came under the control of a "Provisional Government". They did not quit the war, but their eight months of rule saw the Russian army fall into disorganization.[92] The German Kaiser, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to further weaken the Russians. His government chartered a train that returned Vladimir Lenin to Russia.[93]

Lenin's Bolshevik Party demanded an immediate end to the war, which was popular with the Russian people. The Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government in the October Revolution and began to build their perfect socialist utopia. Lenin's government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers, abandoning Russia's obligations to its allies and liberating countries such as Finland, the Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine.[94]

The United States joins the war[edit]

Wilson announces the severing of diplomatic ties with Germany.

American entry into the war happened gradually, as President Woodrow Wilson had previously promised to stay neutral. American businesses sold materiel to the Entente for much of the war, and the American government handed out loans.[95] Additionally, the US was already cheesed off at Germany for its previous misdeeds during the submarine war, such as sinking the Lusitania.

In 1917, with the domestic situation in Germany growing more desperate and the British blockade still unbreakable, its leaders resumed their policy of unlimited submarine war in which U-boats would sink all shipping, neutral or otherwise, in a German-designated zone around the British Isles without warning. Naturally, American vessels trading with Britain and France were caught and sunk.[96] The German ambassador to the US frantically tried to prevent the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare, saying in a telegram to Berlin,[97]

If the U-boat campaign is opened now with any further ado, the President will regard this as a smack in the face, and war with the United States will be inevitable. The war party here will gain the upper hand, and the end of the war will be quite out of sight, as, whatever people may say to the contrary, the resources of the United States are enormous… At present, therefore, it is only a matter of postponing the declaration for a little while so that we may improve our diplomatic position.

The American government responded to the German war policy with the expected fury. Secretary of State Robert Lansing wrote to Wilson that the US had no real choice but to punish Germany, as the other option was to cave to Germany's demands by severing trade relations with the Entente.[97] In February of 1917, Woodrow Wilson officially severed diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany.

The final straw was the Zimmerman Telegram. This was a coded communication sent by the German foreign minister to the German ambassador to Mexico which discussed Germany's plan to ally with Mexico against the United States.[98] In classic World War One style, the Germans tried to play to Mexico's irredentism, specifically promising to help them regain the territory they lost during the Mexican-American War. The British intercepted the message and leaked it to the Americans hoping that it would be the push they needed to declare war.[99] While Germany's submarine warfare brought the government behind the war, the Zimmerman Telegram helped create the public support.

Thus in April 1917 the United States finally declared war on Germany, providing a much needed infusion of manpower for the Entente.

End of the war[edit]

Final offensives[edit]

Hoping to defeat the Entente before the Americans arrived to aid them, the Germans launched the Spring Offensive in early 1918. Their leaders lacked clear objectives, and their soldiers lacked supplies.[100] As a result, while the Spring Offensive led the Germans to capture a relatively large amount of territory, it ultimately led to their downfall as a Pyrrhic victory. The Germans had exhausted themselves right before the arrival of the Americans.

Fueled by American manpower, the Entente then launched the Hundred Days Offensive, which pushed the Germans back and almost out of France.[101] This offensive is considered to have ended the war, as after this, Germany sued for peace. The Entente signed an armistice with Germany on November 11th, 1918, ending hostilities.[102]

The German Revolution[edit]

Revolutionaries take over Bremen.

The real factor that broke Germany's back came during the final days. Although Germany's military was effective and remained so, its civilians were suffering due to chronic shortages and a rapidly collapsing economy. The winter of 1916-1917 was horrific; German civilians called it the "Turnip Winter" as the potato crop had failed and they were forced to eat rutabagas instead.[103]

Realizing that a domestic insurrection was imminent, military leader Erich von Ludendorff pushed to restructure the German Empire into a constitutional monarchy.[104] Ludendorff reasoned that the democratic members of the Entente would be kinder to a more democratic Germany, and he also reasoned that if it was a civilian government that surrendered, then the people would blame the politicians rather than the military. That last part was sadly quite effective.

As Germany's new government opened dialogue with Woodrow Wilson to begin peace talks based on his lenient Fourteen Points plan. Refusing to accept this, German naval commanders planned for one last massive strike against the Royal Navy in hopes of revitalizing the nation's hopes.[105] Instead, sailors at the Kiel naval base mutinied and refused to take part. When the mutineers were arrested, this spiraled into a massive protest involving both sailors and civilians. Protests quickly spread across the country. By November, the revolutionaries had bagged themselves a monarch, forcing the king of Bavaria to flee Germany and proclaiming a "People's State" in his absence.[106] On November 9th, the new German Chancellor Max von Baden announced the Kaiser's abdication, entirely to the kaiser's surprise.[107] On the advice of Paul von Hindenburg, however, the kaiser accepted that the loss of his crown was inevitable, and he left for exile in the Netherlands.[107]

After the armistice, Max von Baden found himself unable to negotiate a lasting peace. He resigned and illegally handed the reigns to Friedrich Ebert.[107] Ebert's colleague from the German Social Democratic Party, Philipp Scheidemann, went behind his back to declare Germany a republic. Meanwhile, the more radical elements of the Social Democratic Party created the "Spartacus League", led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg. This kicked off about a year of communist uprisings in Germany, which were eventually put down by the new Republic.

Civil liberties[edit]

An absolutely 100% accurate representation of an average German soldier.

The initial enthusiasm for war (at least in certain segments of the populations) had at first put some of the internal tensions in the warring states to rest. Regardless, civil liberties were quickly curtailed, even before the grinding war effort produced widespread dissatisfaction.

United Kingdom[edit]

The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA)Wikipedia's W.svg curtailed freedom of speech and extended the government's ability to confiscate or control resources and property it regarded as necessary for the war effort (further strengthened by the Munitions of War Act 1915Wikipedia's W.svg).

United States[edit]

World War I saw a massive propaganda campaign (run by the grandaddy of PR, Edward Bernays) and an all-out government attack on civil liberties by Woodrow Wilson. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 made it illegal to speak out against the war in any significant way.[108] Citizen groups carried out vigilante actions against those considered "un-American", including Americans of German descent such as Hutterites, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Yiddish-speaking Jews. People were forced to support the war vocally and financially by various "citizens groups" who could report others for disloyalty for not buying war bonds and giving other material support. Among those who were sent to jail for opposing the war and/or conscription were Eugene V. Debs (10 year sentence) and Emma Goldman (2 year sentence). The Supreme Court also upheld the government's ability to curtail speech during wartime with the Schenck v. United States case.

Aftermath and legacy[edit]

Territorial changes as decided by the Treaty of Versailles.

Remaking the world map[edit]

WWI reconfigured the political and territorial landscapes of not only Europe but also other parts of the world, especially the Middle East:

  • Several dynasties, notably the House of Hohenzollern in Germany, the House of Habsburg in Austria-Hungary, the House of Osman in the Ottoman Empire and the House of Romanov in Russia, were toppled and several of the leading members of the latter were executed by the Bolsheviks.
  • The Soviet Union, the world's first avowedly communist state, arose out of the war's ashes after a ferocious civil war, as did the Weimar Republic in Germany after a briefer and far less bloody civil war; this short-lived republican experiment was followed by the even briefer Third Reich.[note 1]
  • The Austro-Hungarian Empire split up into or divided between several independent states, including Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia (initially known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes). Italy took several German-speaking areas in the Alpine region and some important Northern Dalmatian ports and islands along with one-third of the Slovene lands.
  • The rise of nationalism, already present prior to the war, received a great boost (at least in Europe) with the creation of a host of new states in line with Woodrow Wilson's ideal of self-determination. However, these all contained large ethnic minorities and the regime of minority rights set up by the newly formed League of Nations (another Wilsonian project) proved a weak guarantee against first discrimination and later ethnic cleansing and genocide in WWII, the latter prefigured and possibly inspired by the Armenian Genocide of WWI (which, according to the Turks, never actually happened until quite recently, when it apparently did [3]).
  • Most of the Middle East (Iran and Egypt being among the notable exceptions), formerly constituting the Ottoman Empire, was carved up into a multitude of new states which became colonies "mandates"Wikipedia's W.svg of the victorious Entente powers, mainly Britain and France, under formal supervision of the League of Nations. The borders of these new countries were largely arbitrarily drawn and owed more to the interest of the imperial mandate powers than to local cultural or historical context. Some of these new Middle Eastern states (e.g. Iraq and Jordan) were created as kingdoms to be ruled by Arab leaders who had sided with Britain against the Ottoman Empire during the war. After World War II, with Britain unable to stop the fighting between Jews and Arabs in MandatoryWikipedia's W.svg Palestine and a United Nations partition planWikipedia's W.svg getting nowhere, Israel was proclaimed as a sovereign Jewish state by David Ben-Gurion. With the deposition of the Ottomans as both sultans and caliphs in 1922, WWI also ended even the pretence of a unitary Sunni Islam, leaving various competing dynasties (particularly the Houses of Saud and the Hashemites) and ideologies (especially pan-Arabism, various versions of socialism, Arab and other forms of nationalism, as well as religious fundamentalism) competing to take up the mantle. Repercussions of all of these actions are still felt to this day.
British soldiers blinded by gas.

Human cost[edit]

German soldiers were killed at the rate of one every 45 seconds, and French death rates were even higher. In the five months during which the battles of Verdun and the Somme were waged in 1916, nearly a million men died, an average of 6,600 every day, more than 277 every hour, nearly 5 every minute. This was not exceptional. As Martin Gilbert pointed out, the 20,000 British soldiers killed on the first day of the Somme are often recalled with horror, yet on average, a similar number of soldiers died during every four-day period of the entire war.[109] French casualties from the First World War were greater than US casualties from every war that the US has ever taken part in.[note 2] Russia and Germany each suffered even greater casualties. However, the greatest losses per capita were those of Serbia which lost somewhere between a sixthWikipedia's W.svg and a quarterWikipedia's W.svg of its pre-war population, a rate at least double that of the second hardest hit population (Romania's).

Tech and tactics[edit]

German aircraft inspection.

The war also introduced or honed many different kinds of military technologies and tactics. During the American Civil War both sides had occasionally gotten bogged down in trench warfare (e.g. the Siege of PetersburgWikipedia's W.svg); however, during World War I it became the main method of fighting and while it did reduce casualty rates,[note 3] it also meant that the war became one of attrition and effectively a race to (avoid) collapse. Horse cavalry began its long decline to be replaced by tanks. Machine guns, previously employed mainly in colonial warfare to multiply the firepower of comparatively small numbers of colonial troops,[note 4] were used prolifically by all sides in the Great War. Indirect fire artillery, the main casualty generator in both this and future major conventional wars, came of age and was mostly perfected. Air power, initially for reconnaissance, later for bombing and aerial combat, was first brought to bear on a large scale. Submarines also demonstrated their effectiveness and ushered in a new dimension in naval warfare. Finally, both sides began experimenting with chemical warfare, initially chlorine, later the more lethal phosgene, as well as mustard gas which, though less immediately lethal, caused terrible chemical burns and often meant a lingering and painful death for soldiers.

From bad to worse - the Spanish Flu[edit]

*cough, cough*

While many thought when the war was winding down that at least now they could mourn their dead, rebuild their country, and vow revenge for the next war, a small virus of the H1N1 variety had other plans. While the flu pandemic of 1918 is known commonly as the "Spanish Flu", it almost certainly did not originate in Spain. However, Spain was a neutral country and as such it did not employ strict press censorship about matters even tangentially related to the war. The major belligerent powers, however, each at least keeping in mind the possibility of the flu being some sort of new weapon of the other side, kept the story under wraps, making effective countermeasures of any kind very difficult. While there is still no scientific consensus as to the ultimate origin of the "Spanish Flu", we now know that the earliest cases that were without a doubt H1N1 of this epidemic occurred in a US Army camp in Kansas. Hence the spread was probably aided by hundreds of thousands of Americans entering Europe after having been in close proximity to each other for weeks on end. Unlike "regular" flu epidemics, this one was also peculiar in that healthy men in early or mid adulthood died disproportionately often from it, whereas the elderly, children and overall weakened people had a somewhat higher rate of survival. This indicates that some part of the immunological response to the Spanish Flu made its effects even worse for people with a healthy and intact immune system. While thankfully no pandemic - flu or otherwise - has reached the levels of the Spanish Flu since, it is a good case study how censorship, lack of efficient response (due to most governments being preoccupied with the war) and the specific characteristics of a pathogen can contribute to a particularly lethal pandemic. Whether the right lessons have been learned will unfortunately only become clear once the next pandemic hits. The mixture of panic, censorship and breakdown of (some) government functions during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa 2014 seems to indicate otherwise.

Incidentally, its extinction in 1957 (when H2N2 replaced it as the only Type A influenza virus in circulation) somewhat diminished H1N1's original lethality, which extinction will often do. In 1967, H3N2 replaced H2N2, driving the latter to extinction, a natural process that had been the typical lifecycle of Type A influenza for several millennia. Indeed, until 1977, when H1N1 mysteriously popped up again. It now circulates globally with H3N2, perhaps the first time two serotypes of Type A have circulated together in the history of that virus. Here's where the story gets interesting and returns to the subject of war and biological weaponry. It turns out, H1N1 escaped during an episode of drunken careless mishandling within a laboratory situated in the Soviet Union (or possibly China, so perhaps it was an opium-related error instead, though it might have actually been released in the USA or UK (possibly making it a beer-related accident), for all anybody REALLY knows).[110] Curiously enough, genomic evidence indicates a continuous serial passage of the virus in a HUMAN host,[111] and probably not an animal host, as has been posited most often within politically-correct scientific discussions. Whatever its source, clearly at least one (and probably multiple) state-run laboratories had kept the H1N1 strain viable during its decades-long "extinction", which can only be explained in terms of interest in its properties as a best example of a (somewhat) controllable biological warfare agent. Given this provenance with all its not-so-subtle association with state cover-up and misinformation, one wonders why conspiracy types would rather prattle on about a Moon landing hoax with this oh-so-juicy tidbit on the serving table.

Myths about the war[edit]

  1. The US was entirely neutral until 1917 — Woodrow Wilson privately supported the Allies from the onset of the war. US businesses supported the Allies with materiel, but not Germany, due to a naval blockade.[95][112]
  2. Opponents to war were isolationists — Many opponents were in fact peace supporters and/or internationalists.[95][112]
  3. Opposition dissolved once the US declared war — A rally of 15,000 in New York city opposed the war in 1917 despite police intimidation. The precursor of the ACLU was formed at this time to defend opponents of the war who were exercising their free speech rights.[95][112]
  4. African Americans eagerly supported the war — While some prominent African American leaders did support the war, the support was far from universal, particularly because of troop segregation and the lack of full democracy for African Americans.[95][112]
  5. The new conscription law was widely obeyed — Resistance to conscription was strong: 3 million of 27 million eligible men did not register, and 338,000 of the registered either failed to obey induction orders or deserted.[95][112]

World War I in popular culture[edit]

The years following the end of the war were marked by an almost unparalleled number of monuments being erected in both Europe and the United States to those who fought and those who died in the carnage. In America perhaps only the Civil War has produced more memorials than the First World War. One particular statue, The DoughboyWikipedia's W.svg by sculptor E.M. Viquesney, is believed to have over 200 castings through out the US, though he claimed to have produced around 300 of them.

The legendary football match said to have taken place in 1914 during a Christmas truce between German and British forces is one of the most iconic images of World War I,[113] and later used as the basis of the video for Paul McCartney's song "Pipes of Peace" as well as John McCutcheon's ballad "Christmas in the Trenches". The War also remained alive through the Rock n' Roll era in songs such as The Zombies' "The Butcher's Tale (Western Front, 1914)."

In Germany, the war produced two rather different best sellers, one fictional and anti-war, the other (somewhat) autobiographical and with an emphasis on the "ennobling" aspects of the war experience. The former, and the best known internationally, was Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western FrontWikipedia's W.svg (1929) which, unsurprisingly, was not well received by the Nazis and other right-wing groups. The book was in fact among those the Nazis burned upon coming into power in 1933. The latter was Ernst Jünger's Storm of SteelWikipedia's W.svg (1920) which was far more suited to Nazi tastes (although it should be noted that Jünger published some quite different versions of the book and was no admirer of Nazism, despite being a radical right winger). Both books were written by men with personal but quite divergent experiences of WWI: Remarque had spent 1½ months at the Western Front as an 18-year old conscript in 1917 before being wounded and spending the rest of the war in a hospital. Jünger, by contrast, had volunteered aged 19 in 1914 (after having briefly served in the French Foreign Legion prior to the war), advanced from private to lieutenant, was wounded 14 times during the war and finally received the highest award for bravery in the German Empire, the Pour le Mérite. All Quiet on the Western Front was adapted for the big screen several times, the first time in 1930 by Universal which was than led by German born Carl Laemmle senior. This version won two Academy Awards, among them the one for best director and was nominated for two more.

The 1981 film Gallipoli, named after the campaign of the same name, reminded many people (many did not need to be reminded) of the pointless waste of human life that accompanied much of the action in the war.[114]

The main character in Charles Todd's series (1996–2008) of British village murder mysteries, Inspector Ian Rutledge, is a shell shocked veteran of the trenches, who is always accompanied (at least in his mind) by a Scottish soldier that he was compelled to execute.

The fourth and final series of the BBC One sitcom Blackadder was set in a trench during World War I. Though a comedy show, it featured many truths and poignant moments regarding life in the trenches. It has also become something of a punching bag/straw man for those, such as Michael Gove who prefer a more “glorious” British WWI narrative.[115]

The comedy Oh! What a Lovely War tells the story of the war, very loosely, using British Army songs and fanciful scenes of recruiting. It originated as a radio script by Charles Chilton in 1961, was adapted for the stage by Theatre Workshop in 1963, then became a very successful film directed by David Attenborough (1969.)

In 2016, EA DICE released Battlefield 1, a FPS based off the first war. The game was very well-received, a surprise for both developer and gamer. The plot, unlike the rest of the series, is told in a series of personal vignettes, with the deaths of soldiers treated with utmost respect, particularly in the prologue.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. Consider that the reviled "intermezzo", as Weimar is often depicted, lasted about 14 years, whereas the Third Reich, aka the "1000 year Reich", lasted exactly 12 years, 3 months and 8 days.
  2. Which puts all claims of French cowardice to bed, especially considering that America's bloodiest war was the one it spent fighting itself
  3. While the slaughter at such meat grinders as VerdunWikipedia's W.svg or the SommeWikipedia's W.svg is rightly (in)famous, the early monthsWikipedia's W.svg of mobile warfare on the WWI Western Front were actually deadlier in terms of casualties per month (for the French and the Germans) and casualties as percentage of forces committed (for the British).
  4. A pithy summary can be found in Hillaire Belloc's rhymed and rather sarcastic children's book The Modern Traveller (1898): "Whatever happens, we have got; The Maxim gun, and they have not."

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