World War I
| It never changes|
|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."
|—Captain Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) & Private Baldrick (Tony Robinson)|
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"., but 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 while the associated H1N1 pandemic (usually called the "Spanish Flu") killed another 50 million people. 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 estimates approximate 6 to 10 million civilians dead.
This continental clusterfuck was brought about by the general failure of the post-Napoleonic 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 had neatly divided themselves between two coalitions: the "Triple Entente" (consisting of France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and the "Triple Alliance" of the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. The failure of Germany's "Schlieffen Plan" in 1914 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 proved transformative to world history. The British Empire's colonial shenanigans in the Middle East permanently destabilized the region and helped pave the way for the rise of the current Wahhabi terrorist regime of Saudi Arabia. Social upheavals caused by the prolonged conflict helped usher in an ideology that saw violence as the beneficial and natural state of humanity. The devastation caused by the war birthed various totalitarian political manifestations such as Vladimir Lenin's Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles, meanwhile, utterly failed to maintain peace past ending the war. Its provisions were light and shoddily enforced; it was enough to radicalize the nations who were unhappy with the peace but not enough to stop them from starting the party all over again. 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.
- 1 Background
- 2 Getting the party started
- 3 The war
- 3.1 Opening hostilities
- 3.2 Settling down for the long haul
- 3.3 Beginning of the end
- 3.4 From bad to much worse
- 3.5 End of the war
- 4 Aftermath and legacy
- 4.1 Remaking the world map
- 4.2 The war's human cost
- 4.3 Tech and tactics
- 4.4 Curtailment of civil liberties
- 5 Myths about the war
- 6 World War I in popular culture
- 7 See also
- 8 External links
- 9 Further reading
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
“”I consider a war inevitable—the sooner, the better.
|—Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the Great German General Staff.|
The historiography as to why the war happened is — in comparison to the relatively simple explanations for WWII — hideously diverse, 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.
Balance of power
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. 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 German Empire. 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. The power vacuum in the region led the great powers to jockey for influence there, 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, and Kaiser Wilhelm II's firing of the brilliant Chancellor Bismarck and his subsequent alienation of Russia.
Nationalism and xenophobia
“”How sweet and honourable it is to die for one's country.
|—An old saying later denounced as a lie by veteran poet Wilfred Owen.|
It's pretty much impossible to have quality discussion about WWI without an acknowledgement of nationalism as its foundational cause. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, most citizens of the great European powers had convinced themselves that they lived in the apex of cultural, economic and military supremacy. Historian Lawrence Rosenthal describes the mood of the era as "a new and aggressive nationalism, different from its predecessors, engaged the fierce us-them group emotions – loyalty inwards, aggression outwards – that characterise human relations at simpler sociological levels, like the family or the tribe." Nationalists overestimated the strengths of their own nation while becoming simultaneously convinced of the weakness and scheming of their neighboring countries. The origins of European nationalism were myriad. It was the by-product of imperialist expansion, but it was also encouraged by elites to ensure loyalty.
In this kind of environment, it was probably inevitable that Europeans started to consider war to be a necessity and a good thing. An adventurous opportunity to die for one's country was an attractive idea to European militarists, especially if it helped spread the ideals of self-sacrifice, discipline, and obedience. Karl Pearson, a British proponent of eugenics, expressed this view by writing that nations need to maintain their position in the world "by contest, chiefly by way of war with inferior races, and with equal races by the struggle for trade routes and for the sources of raw materials and food supply."
Thus, when the war came, many people across Europe were thrilled by it. The old veterans remembered their glory in the relatively brief wars of the post-Napoleonic order and lived as the most prestigious members of society, while teachers and governments encouraged young men to sign up to serve their countries in a grand old adventure.
Racism was a major, albeit mostly ignored, source of the hatreds that exploded into war. After all, you need to remember that this was the era of eugenics and human zoos. French intellectuals loved to portray the Germans as an inferior culture and race, claiming that the Germans' bad smell made Frenchmen in Alsace-Lorraine miserable and that "barbarism" was an inherent quality of the German race. The French also tied some aspects of German culture to the Africans they scorned so much, like claiming that the German spiked helms were reminiscent of the "half-savage tribes of Central Africa." The Germans, meanwhile, considered all Slavic races to be their natural yet inferior enemies.
Social Darwinism also played its part, convincing European leaders that they needed to overcome their racial enemies in a victorious struggle for resources if their nations were to survive. Under Social Darwinist ideas, diplomacy and peace were pointless, simply risking national survival for the sake of reasoning with an inherently unreasonable enemy.
Naturally, Europe's colonial possessions and race for colonies played the biggest role in injecting racism into the continent's people. There was more than just a philosophical impact, though. All European powers, especially France, enthusiastically exploited their colonies for resources, labor forces, and even soldiers. Europeans appreciated that black soldiers fought for them, but they considered blacks to be "naturally warlike" and too stupid to be worthy of promotions or rewards.
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. 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 are 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. 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.
Forging the alliances
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. 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. 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. In the same year, the UK and France signed the "Entente Cordiale", an agreement of French support for British colonialism in Egypt and British support for French colonialism in Morocco. 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.
The Bosnian Crisis
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. 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.
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. 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
“”The next great European war will begin over some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.
|—Otto von Bismarck, 1888|
Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
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. 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. 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. 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. Also involved in the plan was the Black Hand, a terrorist group run by Serbian nationalists that also sought unification of all ethnic Serbs.
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. 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!" 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.
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." In Sarajevo, however, the Austrian government encouraged an anti-Serb pogrom that caused two deaths and the destruction of much property.
The July Crisis
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. This time, the Russian diplomats fucked up. They denied that Russia was mobilizing against Austria, hoping to defuse the situation. 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."
The dominoes quickly fell into place after that, as each of the great powers honored their alliances and joined the war.
“”The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.
|—British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, 3 August, 1914.|
The Central Powers opened the carnage with a disjointed, contradictory 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 straightforward: 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. 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 was 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. Serbia's defeat of Austria in 1914 has been called one of the greatest unexpected victories of the entire 20th Century. It was the first great wrench thrown into the Central Powers' plans.
The Schlieffen Plan
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 had been proposed in 1905 by Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German general staff. The Schlieffen Plan called for a rapid and overwhelming attack to 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, the Germans would advance through Belgium and turn south to catch France by surprise and capture Paris, forcing them to make peace. 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. 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
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. Despite the initial fuckups, the Germans managed to take Brussels by August 20th.
German soldiers acted with brutality against Belgian civilians during the occupation, shooting civilians, burning villages, and murdering priests. 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. 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". 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. The Belgian economy was further destroyed as the Germans looted industrial equipment and later started using Belgian civilians as forced labor.
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. Grey actually pledged naval assistance to France two days before the invasion of Belgium, which infuriated the pro-neutrality members of Cabinet and caused no less than four of them to resign. However, the German invasion of Belgium did play an important role in the war - the British, although resolved against Germany, were kind of divided about war, with the Liberal party in particular squeamish about it. What happens when a country fights a war half-heartedly is well known. Belgium played the part of decisively resolving Britain in favour of war. Lloyd George, for instance, said, "Up until last Sunday only two members of the Cabinet had been in favour of our intervention in the war, but the violation of Belgian territory had completely altered the situation".
Japan joins the war
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Japan had been the UK's sole ally since 1902. With the Brits having joined the effort against Germany, Japan proposed that it join the war and use the opportunity to seize Germany's Pacific island colonies. With apparent agreement all around, Japan declared war on Germany in August 1914.
Japan, however, was not about to waste the opportunities that a nice little war presented for them. Japan first tried to threaten Germany into relinquishing one of its ports in China, and then started focusing attacks on all of Germany's Chinese outposts. Japanese officers very quickly figured out the pattern that successful ground warfare would take in this conflict. The German port of Qingdao in China's Shandong province became the proving ground for their new tactics. First Japan blockaded Qingdao with its navy, then surrounded the area on land to begin bombarding the city with artillery and warships. Shelling continued for about a month until the Japanese figured that German supplies had run low enough to make an actual attack safe. Qingdao fell to Japan in early November 1914.
This victory gave Japan another opportunity in China. In January 1915, Japan issued to China the "21 Demands" ordering the Chinese government to recognize Japan's ownership of the former German concessions as well as granting Japan special economic privileges in China. The timing was genius. Japanese troops were already on Chinese soil in perfect position to threaten, and none of the Western powers could object since they were either fighting alongside Japan or already at war with Japan.
The Japanese navy also set about expanding the Pacific conflict against Germany by picking off Germany's islands. Control of Pacific islands had long been a key objective for Japanese war planners, as they had already identified the United States as their key rival for influence in the Pacific, and these islands would prove to be useful naval outposts in the event of conflict.
Hindenburg salvages the Eastern Front
While trashing Belgium and advancing into France, Germany realized that it had made a disastrous strategic mistake. They expected that Russia's huge size and low level of development would mean a lengthy mobilization time, therefore allowing Germany to defend its eastern border with only one army. Imagine their surprise when they received word that the Russians had already breached their borders in the summer of 1914. German military leaders hastily redeployed two divisions to the Eastern Front in order to stave off a complete disaster.
With Paul von Hindenburg in command of German forces on the Eastern Front, Germany halted the Russian advance into East Prussia during the first month of the war with the Battle of Allenstein. The victory was made possible by the German's rapid maneuvering skills as well as the Russians' failure to encrypt their messages. The end result was that the Russian Second Army was completely crushed.
This first great victory over the previously dreaded Russians greatly improved German morale. The event was immediately mythologized by German propagandists, even though the battle wasn't even close to being a decisive action. Although it allowed the Germans to go on the offensive, the Russians would not be expelled from German soil until the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, several months later. However, Hindenburg declared that the Battle of Allenstein would henceforth be known as the Battle of Tannenberg, the idea being that the Germans had avenged the historic defeat of the Teutonic Order at the hands of Poland and other Slavic peoples during the 1410 Battle of Tannenberg. The 1914 Tannenberg became a great propaganda tool for the Germans to use to bolster their troops' morale. Many Russians, on the other hand, became convinced that defeat was on the way and that they were only dying for the benefit of other countries. This darkening of outlook helped contribute to later events.
After mauling the Russians at the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, Germany fully went on the offensive. 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. Although these victories were great, Moltke had pulled troops from the Western Front, some of whom even arrived too late to have a significant impact at Tannenberg. Their absence arguably contributed to Germany's later failure to take Paris.
Settling down for the long haul
The Ottomans join the war
The Ottoman Empire had suffered a coup by military officers in 1908 and was dominated by War Minister Enver Pasha when the war began. 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. The British, meanwhile, alienated the Ottomans by
stealing requisitioning two battleships the Ottomans had bought from British shipyards. 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 belli, and the German squadron commander Wilhelm Souchon’s attempt to force the Ottomans 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. 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. The Russians immediately launched an attack against the Ottoman Empire through the Caucasus, which ended in failure due to a determined Turkish counterattack. Meanwhile, the British used troops pulled from their colony in India to launch an invasion of southern Iraq.
Trench warfare begins
The Germans entered northern France successfully, but the speed of their advance strained their troops and stretched their supplies. 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. The Schlieffen Plan having failed, the Germans and the Allies attempted to outflank each other during the so-called "Race to the Sea." 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. 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. The famous Christmas truce occurred during 1914, but don't feel too good about Christianity just yet because it ended immediately after Christmas Day and never happened again.
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. The impacts on the Central Powers were immediate, and civilians started to suffer food shortages as early as 1916. Germany also lacked the resources to make cordite, and the blockade only exacerbated the situation. Germany was not alone in its industrial suffering, though; 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. 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".
Both sides came to use submarines against each other's merchant shipping, as submarines were then undetectable but too fragile to compete with surface warships. 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, (which seemed to be) a passenger ship. 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. 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.
Colonial warfare in Africa
“”It was... a campaign of supreme ruthlessness where a small, well-trained force extorted supplies from civilians to whom it felt no responsibility.... It was the climax of Africa's exploitation: its use as a mere battlefield.
|—John Iliffe, British historian, describing German tactics in East Africa.|
With the Scramble for Africa having taken place in the late Nineteenth Century, most of the European combatants also occupied large amounts of territory in Africa. African goods, labor, and markets provided a great boost to the imperial powers' economies, and African coastlines provided space for so-called "coaling stations", which were necessary to refuel ships and extend the range of any country's navy. These considerations convinced all of the European powers that African land was definitely worth killing each other over. As for the Africans? Well, from their perspective one group of foreign occupiers simply replaced another. So it goes.
Most of the African Theatre resolved fairly quickly. Germany was a major power, but it had entered the world stage fairly late and thus was only able to make it out of the Nineteenth Century with four African colonies. These were the Togoland, encompassing modern-day Togo and part of Ghana, Kamerun, encompassing modern Cameroon along with parts of the Congo, German East Africa, which encompassed modern Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania, and finally German South West Africa, which is today Namibia. The British and French, meanwhile, controlled almost the entire African continent between them.
Surrounded by much larger enemy colonies, the Togoland was overrun in just three weeks by British and French forces. The German commander there had been forced to abandon the colony's capital and fight a delaying action in the wilderness, but this proved futile. The Entente had a much harder time dealing with Kamerun. The colony’s size gave the Germans room to move around while the tropical south and mountainous north created natural defenses against any outside invasion. Initially, the Entente benefited from the horribly racist way the Germans treated their African subjects. They took Kamerun's principal port with no objection from the natives, who had long been angry at the German's land expropriation policies. The Germans abandoned the port and holed up in the colony's interior, aided by more loyal African natives. French and Belgian forces were able to seize much of the colony, but the German commander secluded himself in an impregnable mountain fortress called Moraberg. Entente operations against the fort were forced to halt due to Kamerun's rainy season, but they managed to overrun the fort in early 1916.
The campaign against German South West Africa was even more complicated. Due to geography, the British decided to largely rely on their colonial dominion South Africa to conduct the invasion. Unfortunately for them, South Africa was split between white British colonials and the horribly racist white Boers, who had been conquered in the Boer War and favored their German cousins. When South Africa's government agreed to fight against Germany, about 12,000 Boers rose up in violent protest of the decision. This turned into an outright civil war between South African whites, as the Boers used guerrilla tactics to evade British troops. Although the rebellion was fairly quickly put down, it became a rallying cry for Boer nationalism that lasted for decades, contributing to the rise of the Boer-led National Party. The National Party would much later go on to dominate South African politics and implement the apartheid regime.
Despite the internal problems, South Africa eventually managed to successfully take over German South West Africa. The last of Germany's colonies, East Africa, managed to resist for the entire duration of the war under the leadership of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, later known as the "Lion of Africa."
Trouble in the Suez (and Gallipoli)
The entry of the Ottoman Empire saw the war expand even further throughout the Middle East. Much of the UK's military and economic strength came from India, so German and Ottoman planners devised a plan to cut them off. The objective was to seize the Suez Canal, which cut the Sinai peninsula and allowed for naval travel between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. To this end, the Ottomans put together a 25,000 man-expeditionary force to attack the canal. Realizing that the Ottomans would at some point make an attempt on the canal, the British hastily mustered 30,000 troops from India to defend the vital passage.
Unfortunately for the Ottomans, their plan fell apart quickly. First, it was problematic that the only realistic way to send a land force against the Suez Canal was on foot; there were no good roads or railroads between Palestine and Egypt. Second, that harsh march through the desert would have to have the element of surprise if it was to succeed. It was just too bad for the Ottoman's surprise plan that the British had remembered that airplanes were a thing that existed. Warned of the attack, the British Indian troops met the Ottomans in the field and dealt them a bloody defeat.
The Ottomans would not be the only power to suffer such a defeat. Later in 1915, Winston Churchill decided that the British ought to seize control of the Dardanelles Straits, which would prevent the Turkish navy from passing between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The Dardanelles were also close to Constantinople, which was at that point the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Churchill thus put together a plan to use "spare" obsolete battleships to bombard the Gallipoli peninsula before mounting a naval invasion with Australian and New Zealander soldiers. The attack was a horrific failure. ANZAC troops struggled against Turkish machine guns, high cliffs, steep ridges, deep gullies and thick scrub. Meanwhile, the commander of the Turkish defense, Mustafa Kemal, became a national hero for fending off the British.
Despite barely having a beachhead in Gallipoli, the ANZAC troops tried to launch a breakout several times. All attempts resulted in costly failures. Ultimately, Allied troops were forced to begin withdrawing by the end of the year. Gallipoli was a bloody and pointless failure.
Italy joins the war
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. In May 1915, Italy declared war on Austria. The Italian buildup and offensive were 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-million.
The Italian front was also notable for highlighting Italian Chief of Staff Luigi Cadorna as a strong contender for the worst commanding general of the war, showcasing his firmly held conviction that the only reason human wave attacks failed against strong defensive positions thoroughly sprinkled with heavy machine guns was that his men didn't have enough fighting spirit. His primary method to address this problem was to continuously fire subordinate officers who disagreed with him, 217 to be exact. Cadorna's military ability would be demonstrated by his army fighting 12 battles over the same river.
Trench warfare gets worse
The Germans introduced the modern flamethrower to the battlefield in February 1915. A few months later, the Germans, French and British began the Second Battle of Ypres in April 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 nitrogen-based fertilizers) had developed chlorine gas.
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. 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. They also discovered that not being able to communicate effectively with the forward elements of their attacking force after they've captured their objectives is not conducive to operational goals other than ending up right back where the attack started with nothing to show for it but casualties.
Bulgaria joins the war
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. 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. Serbia was outnumbered more than two-to-one and outgunned as well, and the Central Powers were advancing from multiple directions. Serbia was effectively finished by late 1915, and their armies retreated alongside starving civilians. The country was carved up by Austria and Bulgaria.
This was especially unfortunate for those parts of Serbia handed to Bulgaria. Authorities banned the Serbian language and burned books, publicly executing anyone who resisted them. In the Surdulica massacre, Bulgarian forces murdered some 3,000 Serbian civilians deemed to be a political threat.
Verdun and the Somme
“”At the start of the battle, there were trenches, but as the months went by with shells falling all the time in many places, there weren’t any trenches at all. The ground was just completely churned up. Any trees were smashed, and men took shelter where they could, in shell craters and in holes in the ground.
|—Christina Holstein, British historian, on the conditions soldiers faced at Verdun.|
The Western Front spent 1916 in 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 equalled the French losses (which was no surprise as the French were still carrying letters by hand and were practically wearing bright red and blue cardies). French General Philippe Pétain took command of the defenders, and he used a tactic of rotating troops to keep them fresh, an effective policy. 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. The Battle of the Somme lasted for five miserable months. Significantly, the British introduced tanks during this campaign. They were crude and ineffective, but they improved as the war continued.
Beginning of the end
Romania joins (and leaves) the war
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. The Russians, being Russians, paid a heavy butcher's bill for the offensive, suffering 1.4 million casualties.
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. The Romanians took Transylvania during their initial attack, but the Central Powers' counterattack conquered much of Romania itself, including their capital city. After Russia quit the war and left Romania holding the bag, they were stomped by the Central Powers, forced to stop fighting in 1917, and peaced out in 1918.
The Russian 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. The German Kaiser, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to further weaken the Russians. His government chartered a train that returned Vladimir Lenin to Russia.
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 eventually[note 1] 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.
The United States joins the war
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. Additionally, the US was already cheesed off at Germany for its previous misdeeds during the submarine war, such as sinking the Lusitania. America also had a large population of Germans, many of whom began supporting Germany once the Great War started. (This all changed later in the war when anti-German propaganda began spreading.) German-Americans were now less eager to stay neutral.
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. The German ambassador to the US frantically tried to prevent the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare, saying in a telegram to Berlin,
“”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. 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. 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. 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.
From bad to much worse
The Ottoman Empire long struggled with its religiously and ethnically diverse population. Although Turks were the primary culture of the state, there were significant minorities of Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, Assyrians, Circassians, Jews, and others. This problem reached a boiling point after the 1908 Young Turks Revolution established constitutionalism in the empire, and it exploded at the outset of WWI.
The Young Turks (not to be confused with those Young Turks) regime brought many radical thinkers to power, including some dangerous nationalists. Among them was Ziya Gökalp, an influential Turkish sociologist who considered ethnic minorities to be a negative influence and argued that the Ottoman state needed to promote "Turkification" of its diverse population in order to render it homogeneous. The Young Turks regime implemented a wide variety of social programs designed to forcibly assimilate minorities, including renaming children and requiring instruction in schools to be conducted only in Turkish.
This only worsened after the outbreak of WWI. The Young Turks were convinced that Armenians and other Christian groups would attempt to sabotage their war effort against Russia. The Ottomans went so far as to declare a jihad against "all enemies of the Ottoman Empire, except the Central Powers". Islamic fanaticism accelerated the Ottoman destruction of its minority groups, and outright genocide is thought to have begun around 1915 if not earlier.
Perhaps the most infamous of the Ottoman genocides, the Armenian Genocide, happened in two phases. First was the wholesale slaughter of able-bodied Armenian men, then the deportation of women, children, and the infirm via death marches into the Syrian desert in which they were deprived of food and water and subjected to rape and beatings. The Ottomans killed about 2 million Armenians. The Ottomans also committed the Greek Genocide using similar methods and destroyed Eastern Orthodox religious sites and artifacts. The death toll was between 450,000 and 750,000. Although less official and standardized, the Assyrian Genocide saw 150,000 to 300,000 people murdered by government and non-government forces.
The Spanish Flu
“”Global mobilization of millions of troops meant that the flu spread swiftly, carried from the New World to the old on troopships, and fanning out from ports as far apart as India, Africa and Russia. The war turned the world into a giant petri dish in which the virus could spread and evolve.
|—Catharine Arnold, author of the book Pandemic 1918.|
The last years of one of history's most devastating wars also brought about one of the worst pandemics in human history because God apparently didn't think that the situation was quite shitty enough. While the flu pandemic of 1918 is known commonly as the "Spanish Flu", it almost certainly did not originate in Spain. In fact, the earliest known reports of the disease came from Haskell County, Kansas before it quickly infected at least 500 soldiers at Fort Riley, a major US Army base. From there, the US' entry into the war brought millions of US soldiers to Europe, including many people infected with the virus. So, if it probably came from Kansas, like so many other great things, why is it called the Spanish Flu?
Answer: everybody lied about it. With most of the world embroiled in a struggle to the death, none of their newspapers were permitted by their governments to report on the outbreak, fearing that their enemies would perceive it as an exploitable weakness. The only major neutral power to get hit early on by the pandemic was Spain, and they were thus the first to acknowledge it. As a result, basically everyone in Europe and the US collectively decided to start calling it the "Spanish Flu."
This denial of reality, as well as the ongoing war, hampered the world's ability to deal with the flu. For example, British government official Sir Arthur Newsholme refused to take measures like instituting quarantine and shutting down public transport because he believed focusing on the war effort should claim top priority. While the world was limited to non-pharmaceutical means of controlling the spread of the flu, those engaged in wartime functions were exempt and told to "carry on". The Germans, by then losing the war, even briefly considered the pandemic to be a godsend as it ravaged American and French armies but then saw their soldiers fall victim to it as well.
As a result of these factors, the pandemic spread with horrifying speed. Within 18 months of the initial outbreak, about a third of the world's population was infected. The disease came with gruesome symptoms. Sufferers would develop a fever and become short of breath to the point of turning blue. Then hemorrhages filled the lungs with blood and caused catastrophic vomiting and nosebleeds, with victims drowning in their own fluids. This version of the flu was also peculiar in that it managed to kill off droves of healthy adults between 20 and 40, the cohort usually considered most resistant to the flu. Modern epidemiologists still aren't quite sure why that was the case.
By the last months of 1918, governments and local functions were inundated by the sick. Individual funerals were generally impossible, and many of the dead ended up in mass graves. There are stories of people being buried without coffins, as there were too many to be built. In the US, there are stories of public schools being used to hold mass funerals. By the time the illness petered out around 1920, between 50 and 100 million people worldwide had died. Estimates put British dead around 228,000, US dead around 675,000, Japanese dead around 400,000, and Indian dead around 12 or 17 million.
Famous people who fell ill from the Spanish flu included US president Woodrow Wilson, future US president Franklin Roosevelt, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Walt Disney, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, US General John Pershing, Spanish King Alfonso XIII, and Clementine Churchill. Notable fatalities included Donald Trump's grandfather, the Prince of Sweden, Mark Sykes (of Sykes-Picot infamy), Brazilian president Rodrigues Alves, Yakov Sverdlov (Stalin's predecessor as Secretary of the Russian Communist Party), and the eldest son and heir of Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia.
End of the war
“”The colored people have repeatedly proved their devotion to the high ideals of our country. They gave their services in the war with the same patriotism and readiness that other citizens did.
|—US President Calvin Coolidge, 1924.|
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. 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. 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.
Rapid collapse of the Central Powers
Mid-1918 saw the rapid desertion of Germany's allies, as they were all forced out of the war by various factors. Bulgaria went first, having been gruelingly defeated in northern Greece by an Allied army composed of French, Serbians, Russians, British, and Greeks, all fighting in extreme weather, disease-ridden conditions, and all far from home. That final campaign cost 70,000 lives, but it resulted in the capitulation of Bulgaria in late September. With Bulgaria out, Germany had to surrender an army also in the area while the Austrians weakened in Italy and the Ottomans were suddenly vulnerable.
With the Ottomans facing British incursions on every front, their army down to 15% of what it had been in 1916, and now cut off from their ally Germany, the Ottoman government had no choice but to approach the British for armistice in October. Much of Anatolia subsequently came under Entente occupation, most notably by the Greeks. Although the Entente planned to fully partition the Ottoman Empire, nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk fought and won the Turkish War of Independence against the occupiers, abolishing the Ottoman sultanate and establishing Turkey as a democratic republic.
After losing decisively against the Italians at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, the Austria-Hungarian Empire sued for an armistice as well. The empire was also buckling from the inside, as the war had inflamed separatists among all of its ethnic groups by convincing them to seek peace separately from Vienna. On the 3rd of November, the armistice was done, and Austria left all of the Italian nationalist lands and then expelled most German troops from their territory. The last real Hapsburg emperor, Charles I, refused to abdicate after Austria became a republic and went to exile in Switzerland.
The German Revolution
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.
Realizing that a domestic insurrection was imminent, military leader Erich von Ludendorff pushed to restructure the German Empire into a constitutional monarchy. 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.
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. 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. On November 9th, the new German Chancellor Max von Baden announced the Kaiser's abdication, entirely to the Kaiser's surprise. 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.
After the armistice, Max von Baden found himself unable to negotiate a lasting peace. He resigned and illegally handed the reins to Friedrich Ebert. 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.
“”At eleven o'clock this morning came to an end the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say that thus, this fateful morning, came to an end all wars.
|—British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, speech to Parliament.|
Realizing that the military and domestic situation was unsalvagable, the German Supreme Army Command collectively started encouraging Kaiser Wilhelm to accept peace on the basis of Wilson's Fourteen Points plan, which he had outlined earlier in 1918. The Germans bickered amongst themselves while the Entente suddenly faced the problem that the Germans actually expected peace to resemble the Fourteen Points. According to historian Ferdinand Czernin:
“”The Allied statesmen were faced with a problem: so far they had considered the "fourteen commandments" as a piece of clever and effective American propaganda, designed primarily to undermine the fighting spirit of the Central Powers, and to bolster the morale of the lesser Allies. Now, suddenly, the whole peace structure was supposed to be built up on that set of "vague principles", most of which seemed to them thoroughly unrealistic, and some of which, if they were to be seriously applied, were simply unacceptable.
Meanwhile, Germany only seriously decided to come to the table after being forced to by the onset of the German Revolution. The armistice negotiations were hurried, and Germany had very little input into what it actually entailed beyond correcting a few demands which were physically impossible. The Kaiser's abdication convinced the German delegation to simply sign whatever piece of paper was in front of them and be done with it. The armistice itself famously went into effect "on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."
Aftermath and legacy
“”This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.
|—Marshal Ferdinand Foch, 20 years and 65 days before World War Two began.|
Remaking the world map
There were a colossal number of peace treaties required to officially end the war, 16 in total, and they collectively reconfigured the political and territorial landscapes of not only Europe but also other parts of the world, especially the Middle East.
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918)
The first peace treaty came as a result of the Russian Revolution. After two months of negotiations, the Bolsheviks agreed to a harsh loss of territory from the Soviet Union, much of which was intended to have become a series of German satellite states. Among the areas ceded were the Baltic states, which would have become puppets of Germany, a chunk of the Caucasus, which would have gone to the Ottomans, and Ukraine. Although it was annulled by the armistice between Germany and the Entente, it did have some important implications for the future. It caused an angry increase in Polish nationalism, as Russian Poland was not mentioned in the treaty, and it was assumed that the region would either be annexed by Germany or become a puppet state. It also gave the Bolsheviks an important boost by both giving them credit for ending the war and giving them time to consolidate their hold over Russia. Lenin argued that the territorial losses would be temporary, as he assumed that the German Revolution would result in a socialist state there which would hand the territories back to Russia. Finally, when Germany protested that the later Treaty of Versailles was too harsh, the Entente rightly retorted that the Germans had enforced much harder terms on the Russians.
As for the reshuffled map of Eastern Europe, those borders were settled through a series of bloody wars.
Treaty of Versailles (1919)
Probably the most infamous of the postwar treaties, the Treaty of Versailles resulted from disagreement between the various Entente powers. Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points plan, favored by the Germans, was discarded by the other powers because most of the Entente not only demanded compensation from Germany for their wartime suffering but had also made secret treaties with other countries as to how Germany would be split up. As a result, the United States was sidelined while Britain, France, and Italy pecked at Germany's corpse. The Germans were shocked by the treaty's terms, as they had been assured a relatively soft peace in return for the armistice.
Germany was forced to cede Alsace-Lorraine back to France, allow the Saarland to be placed under military occupation, cede some areas to Belgium, cede northern Schleswig to Denmark, cede parts of Silesia and West Prussia to the resurrected Poland, and lose its colonial holdings to France, the UK, and Japan. Germany was then forced to demilitarize. There was also a "war guilt" clause that declared Germany as the primary aggressor in the war and made them responsible for paying reparations to the Entente powers. This last part caused much anger among the Germans, although the Entente powers subsequently agreed to lessen and then indefinitely postpone the payments.
In the end, the treaty was neither lenient enough nor harsh enough to prevent another war. Germany was not pacified by a light-handed peace, nor was it weakened enough by the territorial losses inflicted upon it. The Entente powers themselves realized that the agreement had problems. British representative John Maynard Keynes predicted that the treaty's reparations clause would inflame German revanchism, while French Marshal Ferdinand Foch criticized the treaty for treating Germany too leniently.
Treaty of Saint-Germain (1919)
Signed in 1919, this treaty dismantled the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Austria was forced to release Czechoslovakia and Hungary as independent states, cede Galicia to Poland, and cede various territories to Italy and Yugoslavia. Despite its relative obscurity, this became one of the more problematic of the post-WWI treaties. First, the Entente had an "uh-oh" moment when they realized that they had promised the same territories (Dalmatia and Istria) to both Italy and Yugoslavia. Wanting to contain Italy's imperial ambitions, the Entente only agreed to give them part of Dalmatia and the port of Trieste. Angry and unhappy with this result, Italy all but collapsed, and this created the perfect opportunity for Benito Mussolini to begin his political rise. Additionally, there was the problem that the Sudetenland went to Czechoslovakia, which would be one of the factors abused by Adolf Hitler during the lead-up to World War Two.
Austria itself saw the centuries-old Hapsburg monarchy abolished and its military limited. This new state was politically unstable, as well as being militarily weak, and it would be a source of stress between the Central European powers for most of the interwar period.
Treaty of Trianon (1920)
After tearing apart Austria, the Entente powers then set upon the newly-independent Hungary as well in 1920. Hungary was an absolute train wreck after its independence, spiraling from a republic into a communist state into a series of wars with Romania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, and then becoming an unstable republic again. Hoping to resolve the violence, the Entente decided to cut Hungary's territory by about two-thirds, forcing them to cede much of their southern territory to Yugoslavia, cede Transylvania to Romania, and recognize Czechoslovakia's ownership of Slovakia and part of Ruthenia.
The treaty inflamed ethnic resentment among Hungarians, as they had lost territories that had been Hungarian for centuries. Landlocked and surrounded by enemies, Hungary saw its economy collapse. This contributed to political radicalism in Hungary, and Hitler would subsequently return parts of Hungary's lost land as a means of bribing them into joining the Axis.
Treaty of Lausanne (1923)
Signed in 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne was the second attempt to resolve postwar Turkey, as the previous Treaty of Sèvres became null after republican revolutionaries took over Turkey and abolished the Ottoman sultanate. Although preserving Turkey's independence, the treaty forced it to lose almost all of its imperial territories. Cyprus went to the UK and most of the other Aegean islands to Greece. Meanwhile, most of the Middle East formerly constituting the Ottoman Empire, was carved up into a multitude of new states which became
colonies "mandates" of the victorious Entente powers, mainly Britain and France, under formal supervision of the League of Nations. Ottoman Arabia, meanwhile, became briefly independent before being swallowed up by the Saudis.
There were also guarantees of safety for Turkey's Christian minority, but that came far too late to prevent the various genocides committed by the Young Turks.
The war's human cost
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 (February 18 to December 21) and the Somme (July 1 to November) 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. During the largely concurrent Brusilov Offensive (early June to late September) nearly 1,600,000 men died, or approximately 9 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. 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 sixth and a quarter of its pre-war population, a rate at least double that of the second hardest hit population (Romania's).
Tech and tactics
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 Petersburg); however, during World WarI, it became the main method of fighting due to the effective stalemate of the war, 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] was 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. Airpower, 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 (even though both sides had agreed not to use chemical weapons before the war began), 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.
Curtailment of civil liberties
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.
In the United Kingdom
The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) 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 1915).
In the United States
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. 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.
Myths about the war
- 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.
- Opponents to war were isolationists — Many opponents were in fact peace supporters and/or internationalists.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
World War I in popular culture
“”In Flanders fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row
|—"In Flanders Fields", by John McCrae.|
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 Doughboy by sculptor E.M. Viquesney, is believed to have over 200 castings throughout 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, 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 bestsellers, 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 better known internationally, was Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (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 Steel (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 then led by German-born Carl Laemmle, Sr. 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 of whom did not need to be reminded) of the pointless waste of human life that accompanied much of the action in the war.
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.
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 Richard Attenborough (1969).
In 2016, EA DICE released Battlefield 1, an FPS based on 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 the utmost respect, particularly in the prologue.
- World War II
- World War III
- Scramble for Africa — African colonialism was a major expression of the 19-20th imperialism that led Europe to war.
- German Empire
- Iran-Iraq War — Trench warfare is back, baby!
- Yugoslav Wars — another damned foolish thing in the Balkans.
- Armenian Genocide denial
- The Great War, a video-based wealth of WWI information presented by historian Indy Neidell
- Remembering The Great War: The Outbreak, Popular Science
- A global guide to the first world war - interactive documentary, The Guardian
- Over There!
For an overview of the entire WWI, including its origins and aftermath, interspersed with thematic sections on various subtopics:
- Meyer, Gerald J (2006). A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918. Random House. ISBN 978-0-553-80354-9.
For works on the origins of WWI (the first being of the "slide towards war" school, the latter more middle of the road):
- Clark, Christopher (2013). The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-219922-5.
- MacMillan, Margaret (2013) The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War. London: Profile Books. ISBN 9781846682728.
- Possibly the best known work on the topic remains Barbara Tuchman’s 1962's The Guns of August, but while it is well written and entertaining it is both dated and contains problematic elements such as internal monologues and guesses at motives and obvious national and sexual stereotyping, rendering it less useful at a source of accurate information.
As for the aftermath of WWI with particular emphasis on the negotiations that resulted in the various peace treaties:
- MacMillan, Margaret (2001) Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War, John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5939-1 (republished in 2003 as: Paris 1919: Six months that changed the world. Random House. ISBN 9780375760525)
For WWI on the Eastern Front, Prit Buttar has written a series of four books that chronologically cover this theatre in detail:
- The Splintered Empires: The Eastern Front 1917-21. 2017. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781472819857
- Russia's Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916-17. 2016. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 147281276X
- Germany Ascendant: The Eastern Front 1915. 2015. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781472807953
- Collision of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914. 2014. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781782006480
The Italian front as well as its intertwined political and especially cultural developments are treated in depth (though mainly from an Italian perspective) by:
- Thompson, Mark (2008) The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915–1919. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-465-01329-5.
The Africa theatre of WWI is not particularly well covered in the more popular literature, but this book is worth a read:
- Gaudi, Robert (2017) African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918. C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd. ISBN 9781849048675
- The Bolsheviks could not agree on exactly how to end the war. Long story very short: Lenin wanted to immediately sign a peace treaty to get the best deal, but two other important Bolsheviks, Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, disagreed. They insisted that the Central Powers were about to have revolutions of their own and wanted to delay until that happened. While the Bolsheviks dithered, the Central Powers politely waited. In mid-February of 1918, the Germans and Austrians finally had enough and invaded. They quickly advanced hundreds of miles into Russia practically unopposed, until at the beginning of March 1918, when Trotsky and Bukharin finally gave up.
- Which puts all claims of French cowardice to bed, especially considering that America's bloodiest war was the one it spent fighting itself.
- While the slaughter at such meat grinders as Verdun or the Somme is rightly (in)famous, the early months 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 a percentage of forces committed (for the British).
- 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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