World War I




The start of World War I was a complex affair of interlinked loyalties and treaty obligations which, if not explained at the outset, make much of the early part of the war difficult to understand. On the face of it there seems no good reason that Britain and the United States should have been dragged into what appears to have been a minor squabble between Austria and Serbia. In order to understand the tying of the knot which only war could cut, it is necessary to begin somewhat earlier than August 1914.

Mackensen horseback

The Balkan Problem

The Europe of the 1900s was a good deal different from the Europe of the 1990s. One major fact was that the Turkish Empire stretched across the Balkan Peninsula to the Adriatic Sea, taking in what is today northern Greece, Macedonia, Albania, parts of Serbia and most of Romania. In the summer of 1912 the Balkan states of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro formed themselves into the Balkan League, their object being to liberate the inhabitants of “Turkey in Europe,” Bulgars, Serbs and Greeks who had long been promised reforms by the Turks, none of which ever materialized. In addition to this declared aim, though, each member of the League had his own undeclared reasons; the Serbs, for example, looked for an Adriatic seaport at the expense of Albania and the others all had some territorial gain in mind.

A declaration of war by Montenegro on 8 October 1912 set the war in motion. On 17 October the Turks declared war on the League, and on the following day Bulgars, Serbs and Greeks invaded Turkish territory at various points. It is not within our design to look at this war in detail, so we may now move rapidly to December 1912. By this time the League had scored considerable successes over the Turks and the Serbs had marched across Albania to the Adriatic and occupied the northern half of that country. This upset the Austrians, who regarded that area as being in their “sphere of influence,” and it led to Albania being established as an independent country by the Great Powers—Austria, Germany, France and Russia—who then put pressure on Serbia to relinquish their occupation. The Serbs and Bulgars now arranged an armistice with the Turks, but the Greeks elected to continue the war on their own until February 1913, by which time the Serbs and Bulgars, having received no satisfactory peace suggestions from Turkey, canceled the armistice and began the war afresh. Eventually, in late March, the Turks admitted defeat and on 30 May a treaty was signed whereby the Turks retained a strip of country to the west of the Bosporus, but the remainder of Turkey in Europe was divided up between Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria.

No sooner was the treaty signed than the Balkan League dissolved in bitter animosities as the victors squabbled over the spoils. The Second Balkan War began in June 1913 and saw the Bulgarians arrayed against a Greek-Serbian coalition. The Bulgarians got the worst of it, because the Romanians stepped in as peacemakers in order to seize a useful slice of territory while the Bulgars were looking elsewhere. The Turks also took their opportunity to reoccupy a part of the area they had just given up to Bulgaria. Bulgaria was rapidly defeated in a series of battles and surrendered on 31 July, signing the Treaty of Bucharest with Romania, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro, and then following it with another treaty with Turkey.

Brief as this exposition is, it serves to show that there were some very high passions flowing in the Balkan States, where alliances could cluster and dissolve overnight and ethnic fervor tended to overshadow questions of nationality which were based solely upon geographical considerations. None of the League particularly trusted any other member, and Austria was apprehensive that Serbia, which had emerged the most successful from the wars, would now begin fomenting trouble among the Serbian nationals in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and attempt to expand north and west into Hungary and Herzegovina. Bulgaria was full of discontent against Romania and Turkey, the Greeks felt that they should have had more of Macedonia, Russia made noises of sympathy to her fellow-Slavs in the region . . . the whole area was a powder keg waiting for a match.



Throughout the 1900s also, the major nations of Europe had been putting together a series of alliances and treaties which, they felt, would act as insurance policies in the event of any nation contemplating war. As far back as 1872 Germany and Austria signed a defensive agreement, joined in 1888 by Italy. Confronted with this “Triple Alliance,” France joined Russia in a defensive “Dual Alliance” in 1892, then negotiated a similar alliance with Britain in 1904, and Britain signed an alliance with Russia in 1907. Britain, France, Prussia and Austria had guaranteed the neutrality and “permanent inviolability” of Belgium in the Treaty of London as far back as 1831, and Britain and France also stood as guarantors for the neutrality of Luxembourg. And finally, on 2 August 1914 the Germans and Turks signed a defensive alliance. It thus seemed that all eventualities had been taken care of, and any move towards conflict would be rapidly extinguished by the possible retaliation from many different directions. But in simple terms, the whole of Europe resembled a schoolroom with a class of unruly pupils; within this collection, there was rivalry to be the leader. In order to be the leader, one had to impress the others, with a larger army or a more powerful navy. And once you have a large army or a powerful navy, there is the temptation that should the others not be sufficiently impressed by its appearance, then perhaps its performance might impress them. In order that this should be possible, military staffs made plans; what to do if this or that country invades, or if we invade them. And, as the Franco-Prussian and other 19th-century wars had demonstrated, the key to a successful campaign was the rapid mobilization and concentration of troops at the point of combat. All the continental European armies relied upon conscripted military service; on attaining the age of 18 or thereabouts, the man was taken into the army, given military training for two years, and then sent back to civil life but with an obligation to return to the armed forces when recalled. This, over a period of years, gave the European nations immense reserves of trained men who could be called back into service, equipped and directed to the nearest war, and each nation drew up complex timetables for recalling these men, equipping them, and dispatching them to various areas according to the nature of the threat or operation. These plans had taken years to develop and perfect, and they all had two things in common; in the first place, they were all-or-nothing, in that it was not possible to partly augment them and call up a limited number of men; and in the second place, they were so far-reaching in their effect on national transport systems and supply systems that once started they could not be stopped until they had run their course.


The Provocation

On 28 June 1914 the match was struck; Gavrilo Princip, an Austrian-born Serbian student, shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his morganatic wife Sophia in Sarajevo.

Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the crown of Austria-Hungary, was also inspector general of the Army and had been visiting his troops on their annual maneuvers close to the Serbian border. On this fateful day he had gone with his wife to Sarajevo to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, many Serbs disagreed with Ferdinand’s political policy of giving Serbs a greater part in the government of the Austro-Hungarian empire; what they wanted was “Greater Serbia,” and the assassination was their way of making their point to Austria. A half-dozen young hotheads were provided with pistols and bombs by the Serbian “Black Hand” secret society, urged on by the Serbian Army, and directed to Sarajevo. After the murder, most of them were arrested, but the investigation of the plot was inept, and the higher political guidance and influence were not known until some years later.

The Austrian Foreign Office and Army had, for a long time, been studying the prospect of a short, sharp war against Serbia; all they lacked was a suitable cause, and now the Serbs had presented them with one. Count Berchtold, Austrian foreign minister, drew up an ultimatum to the Serbs which, inter alia, demanded free access in Serbian territory for Austrian investigators to root out the collaborators in the assassination and to suppress anti-Austrian propaganda. Where it was possible to yield, the Serbs did, but on these two points they demanded arbitration by the International Court at The Hague. That was all the excuse that Berchtold required; he spurned the Serbian reply and, arguing that failure to mobilize in the face of Serbian intransigence would imply weakness and thus probably encourage Russia to act in support of the Serbs, he persuaded Emperor Franz Josef to sign the mobilization order.

Germany, for its part, had long contemplated a war against Russia; they were of the opinion that Russia was fomenting unrest in the Balkans, notably in Serbia, and von Moltke had urged, in 1912, that a preventive war against Russia ought to be considered, and before the Russian reorganization of their army was completed, an event scheduled for some time in 1917. Against this was the fact that France was allied with Russia; attack on one meant war with the other. This, too, had long been foreseen and the essence of the famous “Schlieffen Plan” was its solution of this dilemma: how to contain one opponent while dealing with the other. This hinged upon the mobilization problem and upon the supposition that the inefficient Russians would require two months or even three in which to mobilize, assemble, equip and march their armies. This would give the Germans a clear period in which to fling the bulk of their forces against France, leaving only a screening force on their eastern frontier to keep an eye on the Russians while they struggled to prepare. The German mobilization plan, therefore, was fine-tuned to deliver massive armies to the French and Belgian borders in record time. After the subjugation of France the plan would then go into reverse and transport the victorious forces eastward in time to deal with the Russians when they finally arrived.

France and Britain had no particular ax to grind. The French, it was true, would welcome any opportunity to regain their lost province of Alsace-Lorraine, ceded to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and thus the source of a considerable “spirit of revenge” among the French nation, but they were not prepared to start a war about it. They were, of course, allied to the Russians, and would move if Russia was struck. The British, similarly, had no special interest in Europe but had allied themselves loosely with France and promised a British Army presence should France be attacked, and they were also guarantors of Belgian neutrality.



What upset all this finely balanced power was the Serbian decision to mobilize their army on 23 July 1914 when they received the Austrian ultimatum. Austria responded by mobilizing on 28 July (some units were secretly mobilized on 25 July) and immediately moving to the Serbian border and bombarding Belgrade. Russia responded by mobilizing on 29 July; this led to the Germans presenting the Russians with an ultimatum on 31 July: cancel mobilization within 12 hours or we will mobilize. On 1 August France proclaimed a general mobilization, Germany followed suit a few hours later and then declared war on Russia. Late on that same day German troops invaded Luxembourg (whose neutrality was guaranteed by France and Britain) and also made some minor border raids against France. On 2 August Germany presented Belgium with a demand for permission to move troops through Belgium, claiming that the French were planning to invade Belgium and therefore Belgium would need military assistance. And at 6:45 p.m. on 3 August, Germany declared war on France. On 4 August the British presented an ultimatum to Germany, requiring her to respect Belgian neutrality; no answer being received in the stipulated 12 hours, Britain declared war at 11 p.m.

Traditionally, the invasion route into France was through the northwest corner of that country, for which reason the French had heavily fortified the area. The German plan was simply to drive their armies through southern Belgium and then swing south to enter France from the less well-guarded northeast, cutting off the ports on the English Channel from the rest of the country and then sweeping down to envelop Paris and capture it. To the French, Paris was France, and it contained all the administrative and governmental machinery. Cut off this head, and the body would lie helpless. A small occupation force would then take control, while the bulk of the armies would be moved across to the Eastern Front. While this sweeping maneuver took place, a small holding force would demonstrate on the Alsace-Lorraine border and thus draw French attention to the expected route.

No plan survives the first impact of battle, and the vaunted Schlieffen Plan was no exception. What upset it was first that the Belgians elected to fight rather than yield, and second that the Russians, with a large standing army, were able to launch two armies on an invasion of East Prussia within two weeks of the declaration of war. The delay in Belgium allowed time for the British to send across two army corps and assemble them at Maubeuge, while the French concentrated five armies across the length of their border.

Prewar French plans assumed there would be no threat from the area of Belgium and that the Germans would not mobilize their reserves; as a result the French spread 1,200,000 men across the length of their frontier and left another million reservists behind without equipment. The Germans, who had mobilized their reserves, were piling 1,750,000 well-equipped men against their northwestern border, a hundred miles of which were virtually unguarded.

The opening “Battle of the Frontiers” was, therefore, a scrambled affair during which the British and French only gradually realized the extent of the threat and the weight of forces arrayed against them. They initially assumed that there might be 20 divisions advancing through Belgium; in fact there were 36. The French sidestepped two armies to get into the path of the oncoming Germans, the British moved up alongside them, but gaps were left through which unsuspected German formations made their way and outflanked the French. They fell back, exposing the British flank, leading to the famous Retreat from Mons.

At this point, the German resolve faltered. Instead of driving due south to sweep around the western edges of Paris and then drive the French eastward against the Swiss border, as The Plan laid down, Kluck, the commander of the German 1st Army, decided to move eastward so as to move across the north of Paris in response to a plea from von Bulow’s 2nd German Army who wanted assistance to crush the 5th French Army. Kluck’s change of direction exposed his flank to the 6th French Army, assembled northwest of Paris for just this chance, and also to the 9th French Army, a force hurriedly collected close by. They moved, and the Battle of the Marne was the result. At this crucial moment news from the east announced that the Russians were invading East Prussia with two armies. Moltke, the German chief of staff, lost his nerve and pulled out two army corps from his western force and sent them hot-foot to the east. This was enough to tip the scales in the French favor; the Germans were stopped at the Marne and then driven back.


The Eastern Front

German plans in the east were thus going awry before the war had half started. Their original plans were predicated, as we have seen, on slow Russian mobilization; they also relied upon the performance of their Austrian allies, which, to say the least, was oversold by the Austrians. In the event the Austrians chose to fight on two fronts, against Serbia to the south and against Russia to the north, and in both cases they were slow in assembling their forces and making a move. It was 22 August before two Austrian armies began moving against Lublin and Cholm in Russian Poland, and their third army settled down to cover Lemberg against a possible Russian attack. The Russians had moved into East Prussia, somewhat unwillingly, their generals claiming they were not ready but were moving solely in response to a French plea for help. In fact, their initial performance was quite good, Rennenkampf’s 1st Russian Army sweeping the Germans aside in a sharp and bloody engagement at Gumbinnen as they headed for Königsberg. But Samsonov’s 2nd Army, further south and headed towards Danzig, was neatly diverted northwards by unexpected resistance. Hindenburg, the German theater commander, knew the area well from prewar training days, and extended his army so as to encircle Samsonov on three sides and isolate him from Rennenkampf. He then destroyed Samsonov’s army. Rennenkampf promptly retired into Russia. Disaster in the East had been averted.

Further south the Austrian campaign had also gone awry. The march into Serbia had been strongly resisted, and the 2nd Austrian Army had been taken from the Serbian front and sent to strengthen the defense of Lemberg. It arrived too late: the Russians, with two armies, took it on 3 September. The Austrians retreated, the Russians followed and delivered another defeat at Rawa Russka, whereupon the Austrians retreated and gave up most of Galicia, leaving behind 64,000 as prisoners. This threatened the flank of the other Austrian armies in Poland and they, too, had to retreat. The Russians besieged Przemysl, headed towards Cracow, and seized vital passes in the Carpathian Mountains. The Germans, looking at this debacle, feared for the safety of Austria and, more to the point, for the safety of their own province of Silesia, a vital manufacturing center.

In an endeavor to take the pressure off Austria, five German corps, one recalled from the Western Front, were launched into Poland, but the Russians had foreseen this move and prepared for it, with the result that the Germans were forced into a general retreat by the end of October. The Russians pressed on, raiding into Silesia and cutting vital rail links, but by now they were dangerously overstretched and simultaneous flank attacks by Germans, taking Lodz, and Austrians in front of Cracow, compelled them to retire for some distance.

In the West, the “Race to the Sea” had taken place, as the opposing lines of German and Allied troops endeavored to outflank each other and extended their positions until there was a virtually unbroken line of trenches from the Swiss border to the North Sea. After the Battle of the Marne the Germans had fallen back northward and established a line north of the Aisne River and entrenched there. The British occupied the area around Ypres, close to the North Sea, in order to block an attempted outflanking movement by the Germans. French troops came up on the British right, and thus the line was rapidly extended to meet the Aisne position. Similarly, attempts by the French to break into Germany through Alsace and Lorraine in the eastern edge of France had been frustrated by a strong defense, and here again trench lines were struck. Eventually there was a 500-mile front line with flanks which could not be turned, leading to a number of indecisive frontal assaults. Until one side or other obtained a considerable numerical superiority, and until the combination of machine guns and barbed wire could be defeated, there appeared to be little hope of a decision.



As a result there was a period of relative inactivity while the combatants reviewed the situation and made plans; first to increase the size of their armies, and second to inaugurate massive munitions programs in order to supply those armies with arms and ammunition. Britain, for example, planned for an army of 84 divisions, about 1,750,000 men, and established a Ministry of Munitions to oversee the supply problem. One thing which had become apparent to all the combatants was that modern war demanded enormous amounts of ammunition, far more than had been dreamed of in peacetime planning. The French, for example, planned for a stock of 1,700 shells per field gun, of which 400 were in reserve and were, in fact, merely components available to be assembled in arsenals when required. That was the plan; the fact was that only 1,400 rounds per gun existed, of which 200 were in components. Mobilization plans called for government arsenals to commence manufacturing shells at a rate of 3,600 per day. But German inroads into France put several arsenals out of business, and the actual production was only 700 rounds per day. And the French army had 1,011 field batteries of four guns, plus a reserve of 756 guns. So 700 shells per day were being produced to feed 4,044 first-line guns.

The Germans were faced with the same sort of problem. In an endeavor to speed production of shells they began to use cast iron instead of forged steel, but these were found to be lacking in effect; the explosive simply blew them into dust, instead of into the jagged fragments required as an antipersonnel weapon. Suggestions were requested, and one was that the shells should be filled with some irritant substance which would reduce the enemy to sneezing and weeping and so reduce his fighting efficiency. Such a shell was produced, filled with what is today called tear gas, and fired against the Russians in February 1915 during the German advance into Poland. It had no effect; the planners overlooked the meteorological factor. The weather was so cold that the chemical froze solid and was not dispersed as a gas, and thus the first gas attack was a failure.

But Professor Haber, a prominent German chemist, saw a more effective way to use gas; simply place large cylinders of it in the front-line trenches and, when the wind was favorable, open the nozzles and allow the gas to float on the wind across the Allied lines. The army took some persuading, but after some trials and demonstrations, they accepted the idea and Haber set about organizing it. The field commanders were less enthusiastic, but grudgingly allowed that it might help break the deadlock on the Western Front, and perhaps the Professor might care to try his scheme out in the neighborhood of Ypres, where a sharp attack against the British might open up an outflanking movement.

Haber moved in with 5,730 cylinders containing 168 tons of chlorine gas, distributed these along nearly four miles of front, positioned men at the nozzles, and waited for the wind. He had to wait a week, by which time the German infantry poised for the follow-up had gone “off the boil” and lost their edge. The gas cloud was released, it took the British and French completely by surprise, a massive gap opened up in the Allied lines, but the Germans, not expecting such a decisive result, were not prepared to take advantage of it. The gap was hastily plugged, the opportunity lost. But gas had been proven to work, and it gradually became a common feature of the war.


The Indirect Approach

Before this, however, the Allies had looked around to see if there was some way around the Western Front dilemma, some other line of approach. Since Turkey was now in the war on the side of Germany, a strike against her might change her mind and remove a German ally. If the Dardanelles, that narrow channel leading from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, was in Allied hands, a supply route to the Russians would be opened up, which would be a useful bonus. And so with little planning the Allied navies set out to bombard their way into the Black Sea. They failed; for, in the words of the British Admiral Fisher, “No sailor but a fool attacks a fortress.” Land artillery will always defeat floating artillery, and when augmented by minefields, as in the Dardanelles, it is impregnable. The Allied fleet suffered considerable losses and retired, severely wounded. All they had done was alert the Turks to the probability of invasion, whereupon the Turks promptly attended to their defenses and moved in troops. As a result, when, a few months later, the Allies landed troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula, they were roughly handled from the start, made no progress, suffered enormous casualties, and eventually had to evacuate.

Turkey still offered possibilities, however, and a two-pronged attack was mounted by the British, one in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and the other through Palestine (now Israel). But immense distances, limited troops and a long supply line meant that progress was slow in both areas.

Although there was stalemate in the west, in the east the Allies came within a measurable distance of winning the war in 1915 but for two strokes of ill-luck. In March the Russian advance reached its zenith with the collapse of the Austrian fortress of Przemysl, which surrendered with 126,000 prisoners. Had the Russians then pressed on, there is every likelihood they would have captured Budapest and the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have collapsed. But one whole Russian Corps had been placed in readiness to attack Turkey when the Allied landings in Gallipoli succeeded, and they were thus not available to add their weight to the thrust against Budapest. Had the Gallipoli landings not taken place . . .

The second near-miss came with the Italian declaration of war in May; although the Italians were badly equipped and scarcely prepared, they began operations in the mountains on the Austrian border and immediately caused the withdrawal of about half a million Austrian troops from the Eastern Front. Had the Italians made their move earlier, weakening the Austrians as the Russians thrust down from Przemysl . . .

But these are suppositions. What actually happened was that Hindenburg amassed a large body of troops and at the end of April broke through the Russian lines, took Warsaw on 5 August, overran all of Poland, took all the Polish fortresses, captured over a million prisoners and drove the Russians, who had neglected to prepare any defense in depth, all the way back to a line running roughly from Riga through Dvinsk to Tarnopol. The Russians only escaped complete destruction because the Germans and Austrians could not move fast enough and their cooperative staff work was defective.

Having thus placed Russia in check, the Central Powers now turned on Serbia. In September 1915 Bulgaria made a treaty of alliance with Germany, pledging itself to an attack on Serbia. The Serbs had resisted three attempts to invade by Austria, and although they had rebuffed the Austrians each time, the Serbian losses were considerable and there was not sufficient available manpower to make them up. They now had to face a combined German, Austrian and Bulgarian attack with no more than 300,000 men, roughly half the strength of the invaders. Defeat was inevitable; the Germans crossed the Danube in force and moved south, the Austrians crossed the Drina and moved southeast, while the Bulgarians crossed the Timok and moved southwest. Encircled on three sides, the Serbs were herded into the Plain of Kossovo, from which they managed to fight their way out to the southwest, crossing the North Albanian Alps in the dead of winter to Scutari, where the survivors were rescued by Allied naval ships and transported to safety in Corfu. By 7 December 1915 Serbia was entirely in Austrian hands.


Battles of Attrition

Although 1915 had seen a number of sharp and bloody battles on the Western Front, these were entirely local affairs and the Allies had been content to wait and build up their strength, intending to mount a major offensive in 1916. The Germans were alert to this possibility and decided to get their blow in first. Falkenhayn, the German chief of staff, decided to make an attack on Verdun, a historic town which the French were sure to defend to the utmost for reasons of national pride and morale. His objective was not simply to secure Verdun, but to keep a relentless and threatening pressure which would ensure a constant stream of French troops being thrown into the battle. Firepower would then cut these down and more would be fed in; it was to be a battle of attrition, to bleed the French Army to death. The attack was duly launched in February. It lasted until December, and cost the French about 350,000 men; but it eventually cost the Germans about 325,000 and bled the German Army almost as much as it had the French.

Joffre, the French commander, and Haig, the British, had in 1915 agreed to mount a major offensive across the river Somme in 1916, with 42 French and 28 British divisions. The Verdun battle spoiled this plan, reducing the number of available French divisions to 16 and bringing the battle forward in order to relieve the pressure on Verdun. The Battle of the Somme opened on 1 July 1916 and resolved itself into a number of frontal assaults on strongly defended villages. The “First Day of the Somme”, in which some 60,000 British troops fell, has gone down in British history as one of the greatest disasters of the war, although in comparison with some of the battles on the Eastern Front, and indeed with Verdun, the butcher’s bill was nothing extraordinary. It was, though, for most of the British public, the first intimation of the price which had to be paid for fighting a major continental war.

German losses on the Somme were also severe; and this, coupled with the carnage at Verdun, led to Falkenhayn being relieved of his post and replaced by Hindenburg, brought from the Eastern Front, on 29 August 1916. Prior to this, Hindenburg had, once again, been hard at work shoring up the Austrians. Without advising the German High Command, in May the Austrians had opened a powerful offensive against Italy in the Trentino area, making considerable gains and threatening the entire Italian line. Two weeks after this offensive had opened, the Russian General Brusilov launched an attack on a 200-mile front and broke through the Austrian defenses, necessitating a curtailment of the offensive against Italy and the recall of troops from the Italian to the Russian front. The Allies now urged Romania to join with them and add their troops to those of Brusilov, but they declined; had they done so, it is possible that Austria could have been defeated and occupied. As it was, Hindenburg drew reinforcements from the west and threw them against Brusilov to relieve the pressure on the Austrians, who were surrendering in their thousands. Brusilov’s advanced guard reached Stanislau (now Ivano-Frankovsk, Ukraine), but by that time his supply lines were overstretched, ammunition was running low, and the discipline of his troops was beginning to fail. The arrival of fresh German troops who entrenched ahead of the Russians brought the Brusilov Offensive to a halt, though not before Brusilov had taken some 350,000 Austrian prisoners.

Now, when it was too late, the Romanians decided, after all, to join the Allies, but very much on their own terms. The Russians wanted them to attack Austria; they preferred to occupy Transylvania, and demanded an Allied attack from Salonika before they would do anything else. Salonika was another “sideshow” which had absorbed numbers of troops and had little effect on the course of the war. A combined British-French force had been placed in Salonika in October 1915 at Greek request, but no sooner had they formed up on the Greek/Bulgarian border than a change of Greek government brought in a German-inclined regime. The Allied force was therefore restricted to guarding the Greek border and ensuring their neutrality was not broached.


Nivelle Takes Command

On the Western Front, 1916 came to a close with some success for the Allies. The Somme battle had been brought to an untidy conclusion by heavy rain which turned the battlefield into a morass. The British gained some useful positions from the Battle of the Ancre, in October, and the French rallied, brought in fresh troops, and began retaking ground from the Germans at Verdun. But by this time the French government had lost faith in Joffre and, mesmerized by a silver tongue and promises of success, replaced him with Nivelle. Nivelle now began planning a massive offensive for 1917, and the British were compelled to extend their area of the front so as to release French troops for the forthcoming battle. The British also kept up their pressure on the Germans who, in March, suddenly fell back to the Hindenburg Line, a prepared position of considerable strength which, by shortening and straightening the German front line, considerably increased its resistance.

Nivelle’s Grand Plan involved first an attack by the British against Vimy Ridge, followed immediately by another against Messines. These would place the British in commanding positions from which to launch an offensive designed to clear the French and Belgian coast and disrupt the submarine campaign being carried on from German-held ports. After the attack on Vimy had begun, the French would make an assault on the German positions on the Aisne River, southeast of Laon. The British operations went quite well, and would have done better had not the usual heavy rain flooded the area and brought all action to a standstill. The French operation was a total disaster; noisy boasting and poor security had alerted the Germans to the forthcoming attack. In April the French advanced in snow and rain into a well-prepared German position of considerable depth and they were slaughtered by the thousands. Nivelle was removed and replaced by Pétain, who was confronted by several thousand troops in a state of mutiny. Pétain was no great strategist but he was a good commander, and by improving rations, mail services, furloughs and living conditions generally, he was able to gradually rebuild the morale of the French Army during the rest of 1917; but it was an army with absolutely no potential for offensive operation for several anxious months. The result was that the British had to assume a greater area of the front and a greater proportion of battle, while their planned offensive into Flanders and against the Channel ports had to be abandoned.


America Joins In

At the height of this furious activity on the Western Front, America finally abandoned its neutrality on 17 April 1917 and joined the Allies. Submarine warfare, which had taken its toll of American citizens; the general threat of war and the parlous state into which the Allies were headed due to a shortage of manpower; the German territorial ambitions disclosed in the Zimmerman Telegram; these and other things led to a declaration of war. To the Allies in France it meant that if they could withstand the German pressure for a little longer, then American forces would arrive and add their weight to the scales, after which victory was certain.

True enough; but it would take longer than most people expected. In the first place, the U.S. Army as it stood at the beginning of 1917 was, in European terms, a negligible force. Its total strength was 287,000 officers and men, its artillery strength, excluding fixed seacoast defense artillery, was less than 1,000 guns of all calibers. This had to be expanded to over a million men, the new recruits had to be trained, and, most of all, they had to be clothed and equipped. And after that they had to be shipped to Europe. All of which was going to take time. In the event, it was to be over a year before the impact of the Americans would be felt on the Western Front.


Russia Opts Out

The other significant event in the spring of 1917 was the first Russian Revolution. This took place on 11 March and was the culmination of a period of riots and civil disorder brought about by starvation, the immense casualty lists from the Eastern Front, and the general inefficiency of the Russian administration. Many senior army officers joined with the constitutional reformers to make demands for reform, and, in brief, the Tsar was forced to abdicate. The constitutionalists tried to govern, but they had no experience and were out of touch with the people; they were swept aside by Kerensky, an orator of great appeal but no practical ability, and eventually, in October 1917, a second revolution threw the Bolsheviks into power.

The first revolution demoralized the Russian Army, and discipline was entirely destroyed by a spate of orders from Kerensky abolishing most forms of punishment and abolishing the saluting of officers. The navy mutinied, and vast numbers of sailors and soldiers deserted. An unofficial truce applied for some time between German and Russian forces, and all the Allied plans for 1917 which depended upon Russian cooperation were simply torn up. On 1 July only one group of Russian armies, that of Brusilov, could be induced to open an offensive in Galicia, and as soon as they encountered German resistance the Russian soldiers threw down their arms and walked off the battlefield, heading for home. They left behind vast quantities of guns and munitions, and the Germans simply walked forward and occupied the whole of Galicia. By the last days of July 1917 German troops had entered the Russian province of Podolia and proclaimed the independence of the area as a new state, Ukraine.

Among the first acts of the Bolsheviks when they took power was to approach Germany for an armistice, to be followed by peace proposals. The Germans agreed, and an armistice was declared on 15 December, though in fact an unofficial truce had held for some time. At about the same time, however, the Germans gave formal recognition to the new independent state of Ukraine; the Bolsheviks, having declared war on the Ukraine, objected to the German recognition and, without making any peace treaty, simply announced that Russia forthwith was withdrawing from the war. Germany abrogated the armistice, warning that hostilities would be resumed on 18 February 1918 unless the Bolsheviks signed a peace treaty. With no reply from the Bolsheviks, Germany opened an offensive on 18 February from the Baltic to Volhynia, while Austrian troops marched into the Ukraine to assist them against the Bolsheviks. On 19 February the Bolshevik government announced acceptance of the German peace treaty terms, but the Germans, now wise to the revolutionary mind, replied that their advance would continue until a peace treaty was actually signed. The German advance continued, their front moving forward some 25 miles a day, until by early March 1918 they rested on the Dniepr River, having taken Kiev and reached within easy marching distance of Petrograd (Leningrad/St. Petersburg). This brought the Bolsheviks to their senses; the peace treaty was signed on 3 March 1918, and the war on the Eastern Front was closed down.


Palestine and the East

In August 1916 the Turkish army mounted an invasion of Egypt but was defeated at Romani, after which the British began a slow advance into Palestine; slow because it was necessary to lay a railroad and water pipeline across the desert in order to keep the army supplied. By March 1917 they had reached Gaza, where a strong Turkish defensive line halted them. Two attacks failed, and a fresh commander, Allenby, was installed. Having had many of his more experienced troops removed to reinforce the Western Front, Allenby was forced to halt while fresh troops were brought in and trained, after which he took Beersheba in October 1917, then broke the Gaza line in November and worked his way around Jerusalem, taking the city on 9 December.

The Salonika front also revived in June 1917 after the deposing of King Constantine of Greece in favor of a pro-Allied government. Greece joined the Allies, and the forces in Salonika were augmented by the rebuilt Serbian Army, recovered and reequipped after the Kossovo disaster.

The campaign in Mesopotamia began well but then fell apart. After their initial landing and capture of Basra in November 1914, a Turkish counter-attack was beaten off and the British eventually took Amara in June 1915. This meant that the stated aim of the expedition was achieved; the oil installations at Basra were made safe. Political considerations now arose, and the force was ordered to advance towards Baghdad. Townshend and his division advanced, captured Kutal-Imara and then Ctesiphon, within 18 miles of the capital city, but there they were held by the Turks, the division having been thinned by casualties to an ineffectual strength. Townshend retreated to Kut, was besieged and a relief force under Aylmer set out from Basra. The Turks took up an almost impregnable position between the river Tigris and a marsh, which prevented their being flanked, and held up the relief. Kut fell, and 9,000 troops went into captivity in April 1916.

General Maude was given command, fresh troops and a competent supply column, hitherto lacking, were provided, and the advance on Baghdad recommenced in December 1916. Bitter fighting ensued but Baghdad fell on 11 March 1917.


The Italian Front

In August 1917 the Italians so completely defeated the Austrians on the Isonzo River front that the German general staff, reluctantly, had to send seven divisions to the Italian front to bolster up the Austrians. They reorganized the Austrians, and in October mounted a sudden attack at Caporetto which broke the Italian line and, by danger of outflanking the remainder, caused the entire Italian front on the coastal plain to fall back almost 70 miles. To cope with this sudden danger, French and British troops were hurriedly sent from France to stiffen the Italian line.

The year 1917 also saw the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly called Passchendaele, which proved to be one of the most destructive battles ever fought by the British. The object was to force the Germans away from the Channel coast ports and thus facilitate operations against the German U-boat fleet. The object was not attained; the attack began at the end of July and the weather broke almost immediately. Heavy, almost continuous, rain inundated the area and turned the ground into a slippery morass in which tanks could not operate, artillery sank and men drowned. In addition, the Germans used mustard gas for the first time in this battle, and its effect on exposed skin was entirely unexpected by the British. It also had the property of contaminating the mud and water and thus remained a danger for weeks. In all, the British suffered some 400,000 casualties in this battle, which came to an indecisive end in early November.

British generalship appeared to improve on 20 November with the Battle of Cambrai. This venue had been selected since it provided unbroken ground over which tanks could maneuver easily, and it introduced a fresh tactical concept. Instead of pulverizing week-long bombardments which merely broke up the ground and advertised the forthcoming attack, the assault was simply a mass of almost 400 tanks, supported by artillery firing at selected targets and followed by infantry. It was a startling success; so startling that the reserves which should have come up to consolidate the gains failed to appear on time. The result was a German counter-attack and the British back on their start line within a week, but at least it pointed the way to new methods of warfare.


The German Spring Offensive

Once Russia had finally collapsed, the Germans could move all their fighting troops to the west; during the winter of 1917–1918, 34 divisions arrived, raising the German strength to 197 divisions, about 1,500,000 men and 16,000 guns, against an Allied strength of 169 divisions with 1,400,000 men and 16,400 guns. The German High Command now decided that a decisive low must be launched before the strength of the Americans made itself felt, and the weakest point in the Allied front was the British 5th Army, holding an area which they had just taken over from the French who had taken it from the Germans late in 1917. As a result, its rear defensive zone was virtually nonexistent.

The blow fell on 21 March 1918 and became the Second Battle of the Somme. The Germans used their new tactic—the storm troops. These were highly trained and well-armed soldiers who, in small parties and covered by artillery, gas and smoke, probed for weak spots in the front, exploited them and thus opened the door for the line infantry to follow. The attack on the 5th Army was followed by a second attack near Armentières on 9 April which broke through a weak Portuguese division and drove a deep and steadily widening wedge into the British area. The German advance took the Messines ridge and came close to taking Ypres before the British were able to throw in reserves. This, together with the lengthening German supply line, brought the offensive to a stop.

But during this fighting another German attack had been thrown against Amiens, which also came close to succeeding in its aim before being halted, and more attacks in late May threatened the Marne positions and Château-Thierry. In this advance they reached to within 45 miles of Paris, which they had been bombarding for some weeks with the “Paris Gun” at a range of 70 miles and which they were also subjecting to a punishing series of air raids. The German offensive finally ended on 14 June when the Allies were able to bring mustard gas into play.

The result was that the German front now bulged into the Allied positions in a manner which gave the Germans a wide choice of possible offensive maneuvers. Moreover, on 2 July the American government announced that one million U.S. soldiers had now sailed for Europe, so that the Germans knew that they had little time in which to make their decisive push.

The German plan was to throw 35 divisions across the Marne and take Amiens. By this time, though, a steady trickle of desertions from the German front was taking place, and the French were able to piece together the German intentions. As a result the attack was met, stopped and defeated, and on 16 July the German High Command accepted the fact that their plan had failed.


The Hundred Days

The Allied riposte was swift; on 18 July a combined French and American force, well supported by tanks, delivered a sudden attack near Château-Thierry and took over 20,000 prisoners. Foch pressed the Germans closely, giving them little rest, and on 8 August the British under Haig and the 1st French Army, supported by 400 tanks, made a decisive attack near Amiens, destroying some seven German divisions and causing the “Black Day of the German Army.”

The German position was now becoming desperate, and Hindenburg called upon Austria and Bulgaria to send reinforcements. Bulgaria flatly declined, while Austria could only find some artillery and a few divisions, all of which was rapidly consumed in the conflagration—for the French had struck between Noyon and Soissons, culling a huge crop of prisoners and a large area of ground, while the British had walked across their old Somme battlefield and taken Albert. The outposts of the Hindenburg Line were stormed by Australian and Canadian troops on 2 September, and the Germans were flung back on to their main Hindenburg Line positions.

Now one of the quiet sectors of the front burst into activity as the Americans under Pershing began their first large-scale operation on 12 September and took the St. Mihiel salient from the Germans, together with 15,000 prisoners and some 200 guns. This was followed by another major American offensive in the Argonne and a simultaneous attack farther west by the French. While these two blows pinned down a large proportion of the German strength, the British began the storming of the Hindenburg Line. Under the support of 4,200 guns, the Canal du Nord was crossed on 27 September and the Hindenburg Line was pierced.

On 29 September the Hindenburg Line was breached again, this time in the Cambrai area, and on 1 October the fighting front was lengthened by a major Allied advance in Flanders, pushing the Germans away from Ypres. On the same day Hindenburg went to his government and suggested they should open negotiations for peace as soon as possible; most of the civil government thought he had lost his nerve.

But by now the German Army was in retreat. The Allies were pushing them forward along the entire front, and regaining more ground every day. On 27 October Ludendorff resigned; on 7 November Bolshevism reared its head, and revolutionaries attempted to seize power in Kiel and Hamburg; and a German delegation left for the French headquarters to ask what conditions for surrender were on offer. When informed of the conditions—immediate cessation of hostilities, withdrawal within 15 days from Belgium, France, Alsace-Lorraine and Luxembourg, return of all prisoners and surrender of a large amount of military equipment—they protested loudly, but the German government accepted by radio and the armistice was signed at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918.

By that time there had been radical changes in the German government; the kaiser abdicated, protesting, on 9 November. He had been reluctant to go, but mutinous demonstrations convinced him in the end and he crossed the border to internment in neutral Holland, where he was to spend the rest of his life. An interim government took office, their first task being to organize the armistice, their second to try and impose some order on the interior of Germany.


The Other Armistices

On the other fronts too, the war had finally reached its close. In Salonika, on 15 September, the Allies had launched an attack against Bulgaria; the British and French pinned down the Bulgarians in front of them while a revitalized Serbian Army swung round and fell on their flank. The Bulgarians were routed and on 29 September signed an armistice. This, of course, did no good at all to German morale, since it cut the lines of communication between Germany and Turkey, and hence Turkey’s days were numbered.

By the summer of 1918 the Austrians were also in a desperate condition; shortages of food and fuel affected the entire population, and German military support was no longer available—they were all busy shoring up the Western Front. On 15 August the emperor made a tentative offer of peace, which the Allies promptly rejected and, in response, launched a major offensive in Italy, leading to the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. That ended Austrian resistance, and on 3 November Austria signed an armistice.

Turkey, cut off from, and virtually abandoned by, Germany, had been hard-pressed by simultaneous advances by British forces in Palestine and Mesopotamia. There was no chance of a riposte northwards, since the situation in southern Russia was one of total chaos with Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik parties of various political shades fighting each other in every direction. As a result the Turks sued for peace and obtained their armistice on 30 October.



Germany held four colonies in Africa in 1914: Togoland (now Togo), Kamerun (Cameroun), German South-West Africa (Namibia) and German East Africa (Tanzania). Togoland was rapidly conquered by a combined British and French force in 1914. Kamerun was dealt with in similar fashion in 1916. German South-West Africa started out as the base of operations for a German-backed rebellion of disaffected Boers, but this was rapidly dealt with by South African forces under generals Botha and Smuts, both of Boer extraction, in a sharp campaign which ended in July 1915. But German East Africa was an entirely different matter, principally because the German commander, von Lettow-Vorbeck, was a brilliant tactician and an inspired leader. Although he and his small force were driven out of the country by the end of 1916, he moved into adjacent countries, concealed himself in the jungle and continued to conduct a highly effective guerrilla campaign, not finally surrendering until the war was over everywhere else.


The War at Sea

It was widely expected that the war would quickly bring about a major sea battle between the British and German main fleets of battleships, but this was deferred until 1916 and, when it did occur, was something of an anticlimax. The day-to-day sea war was a matter of the Allies blockading the Central Powers and the Central Powers, principally Germany, attempting to capture or sink Allied supply ships, each side aiming at starving out the other. Periodically the British would send a squadron across the North Sea to “sweep” the Heligoland Bight, and one of the first of these turned into a fairly serious affair in late August 1914. The Germans sent a few raids across the same sea to bombard English coastal towns in late 1914, but the damage done to the towns was not worth the damage done to the German ships and the practice died out.

The principal naval innovation was submarine warfare, and particularly the U-boat campaign against Allied and neutral shipping carrying supplies to the United Kingdom. The submarine had originally been considered as the nautical equivalent of cavalry, useful for scouting and skirmishing in advance of the main fleet, but experience soon showed that when submerged they could not keep up with a surface fleet, and thus the submarine became an individual hunter. Since Britain was entirely reliant upon overseas supply, she became the principal sufferer from the U-boats, eventually adopting the convoy system of shepherding merchant ships in groups surrounded by naval escort and pioneering the ASDIC (Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) system of sound detection which is today more commonly known as sonar.

The major naval battles were first Coronel, in which the German squadron of von Spee vanquished his British opponent Sturdee; followed by the Falkland Islands, where the British trapped and utterly destroyed von Spee; and finally Jutland, where the two great fleets should have met and decided the issue but, as is the way of battles, things did not work out the way that was intended and the result was an inconclusive draw. However, the poor showing of the German fleet, in the kaiser’s eyes at least, led to it spending the remainder of the war at anchor, although lighter German warships were still capable of making a nuisance of themselves.


War in the Air

World War I introduced aircraft into warfare. Like the submarine, prewar opinion held that it might, just, be a useful reconnaissance device, but little other purpose could be seen. Indeed it proved an excellent scouting instrument, and aviation was to play a major role in detecting the movements of German columns in 1914. Reports from pilots and observers were instrumental in aiding the Allies to plan and execute the Battle of the Marne. Bombing and ground attack roles then came into use, and finally the “pure” fighter aircraft, designed simply to attack its enemy counterparts, came into existence in order, originally to protect reconnaissance, bombing, and artillery observation machines. Then came the concept of “air superiority” and the fighters simply attacked each other without necessarily having any slower machines to protect or destroy; their object was simply to establish their primacy over an area of the front so that the ground troops could prepare an offensive or build defenses without being observed by the other side.

Air raiding, the dropping of bombs upon military and then civil targets, improved in its efficiency as the war progressed. Early raids were simply a handful of aircraft flinging handheld bombs over the side at a sizable target, such as the early British raids against Zeppelin sheds. The German Zeppelin raids allowed heavier bomb loads to be carried and also developed a more scientific system of aiming bombs, but the size, slowness and extreme vulnerability of the hydrogen-filled Zeppelin led to its abandonment as a raiding machine in 1917 and replacement by heavy, winged multiengined bombing aircraft.

The final step was the British establishment of an Independent Air Force, the sole purpose of which was strategic bombing of targets well behind the front line. This was not set up until the spring of 1918 and thus had very little effect upon the ultimate course of the war. But it was the nucleus of a considerable postwar industry which was to build up the bomber as the decisive war-winning weapon, a view which led to the enormous and costly strategic bombing offensives of World War II.


The Legacy

As we have seen, the nations of 1914 blundered into war without much thought of the consequences; much the same can be said of the victors of 1918 and the subsequent peace. The Peace Conference of 1919 was an acrimonious affair in which the British tried to moderate between the French desire for revenge and the American desire for a solution agreeable to everybody. Many nations, hitherto vassals of one or other of the European empires, now achieved independence—for a time. The Balkans were welded together into a somewhat fissile whole which managed to hold together for about 70 years before it exploded once more. The map of the Middle East was redrawn to give several Arab states their independence from Turkey. The French regained their lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, while the Germans were separated from their province of East Prussia. The League of Nations was formed, but proved to be an entirely ineffectual talking shop when confronted with war in the 1930s. The immense casualty lists led to a fervor for disarmament during the 1920s which merely had the effect of crippling the will of Britain and France when they were, eventually, confronted with German militarism for the second time in the 1930s. The Germans were presented with enough grievances—reparations, loss of colonies, economic disasters, regulation of their army and navy—to provide fringe political parties with popular ammunition for years to come. Russia’s troubles were largely of its own making, though its western provinces were racked with dissention as a result of German influence and “liberation” during the period prior to the peace treaty with Germany, which led to violent internal conflict and a brief Russian campaign against Poland in 1919–20 in an attempt to regain the prewar territory.

Poland found independence, but the isolation of East Prussia was bound to lead to German demands for free access, which eventually proved to be the match which ignited World War II.

France, nominally the greatest victor, proved to be the greatest victim; her immense losses left a scar on the public conscience and inhibited political thinking. The result was the Maginot Line, the trenches of the war perpetuated in concrete to furnish an impregnable line of defense against which German militarism would beat in vain. But, as in the years before 1914, the defensive line was not continued across the Belgian frontier so as not to offend the Belgians. And in 1940 the German Army replayed the Schlieffen Plan with a few minor variations; this time, with Russia out of the picture, they made it work.