World War I is the fundamental disaster of the twentieth century. Without it the bitterness and hatred that led to World War II is inconceivable. That is because the first war destroyed three things. First, it cracked what had been, to that point, a common European culture. For all of Europe’s nationalisms, there still was a common set of beliefs in how business in Europe ought to be done. Second, the war wrecked for a decade an economy that had been growing ever larger and more productive. Finally, it brutalized an entire generation of young men, whom Europe would need in the days to come, but who had little left to offer.
Our main question is then, how did it come to this? We have already discussed some of the big issues that led to this modern catastrophe. Economic and social factors pushed Europe out into the globe, making any competition between states a prelude to war. The arrival of two new states, Germany and Italy, upset the diplomatic balance that had existed since 1815. The temptation to use nationalism for domestic political reasons was too great, and too many European statesmen encouraged their peoples to believe in national political aggression.
At the center of this mix was William II, who had made the key blunder of firing Bismarck in 1890. Firing Bismarck was not, however, the issue. The problem was that William II was incapable of understanding Bismarck’s diplomacy. This was based on two principles. First, France and Russia must never join. Second, Great Britain must be cajoled into remaining independent. William II’s diplomacy after 1890 was, however, based on bluster and the eternal search for prestige victories, which unsettled Europe’s other great powers. Thus, by 1892, France and Russia had signed an alliance. By 1904, Britain and France also signed an alliance. By 1907, Bismarck’s nightmare scenario had appeared; France, Russia, and Great Britain were all allied. Germany had its own alliances, joining with Austria and the Ottoman Empire in the center. Thus, Europe descended into rigid alliance systems, in which both sides pledged to go to war, if the other side started it. When on June 28, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the alliance system pulled Europe into the maelstrom of war.
The first thing we must realize about the war is how destructive it was, by comparison to previous wars. When France and Prussia last went to war in 1871, the conflict was over quickly and with relatively few casualties. This was because armies, for all their technical improvements since the Napoleonic period in fire-power, were still weak by comparison to what would come. World War I was different. Buoyed by their powerful economies the combatants produced huge quantities of guns and cannon that could fire further and more rapidly than anything seen before. This led to a stunning historical result: for the first time in the history of warfare, more soldiers were killed by enemy fire than disease.
The development of machine guns and cannon and their proliferation was the focal point of to this process. Consider this fact: whereas British military doctrine in 1870 had called for 2 machine guns per battalion, by 1914 that number had increased to 50. And the war had yet to begin. More guns alone did not, however, mean more killing. Guns appeared in context with other innovations. One invention of great importance, though not often recognized, is the invention and mass production of barbed wire. It had been invented in the United States in 1874 to keep cattle in place, but then it spread around the world and found other uses. One of them was, of course, military. With sufficient guns and barbed wire, it became possible to hold down large swaths of territory by making it completely inhospitable to human life.
Even more important than guns and barbed wire were, however, the appearance of ever more sophisticated cannon. Cannon are what made WWI as destructive as it was. During the 1870s cannon had grown more sophisticated, developing greater range and accuracy. The most important aspect of these developments was the introduction of dampers to the guns themselves, which reduced the weapon’s recoil and made aiming better. (It should be noted at this time that the German cannon were generally better than anything the other side had to offer. This is one reason why French casualty figures were so horrible.) The appearance of these weapons also led to another stunning historical result. For the first time, more soldiers were killed in action by cannon than by gunfire. This was due in no small measure to the system of machine guns, barbed wire and trenches that kept the lines static. As a result, people did not move much. Nonetheless, thanks to better technology, each side’s cannon could reach and blow up those on the other side. There were, of course, other technical advances in weaponry, such as faster, more powerful ships, airplanes, tanks, and poison gas. They were important to the war and brought many deaths, but none of these weapons ended the stalemate that had been created by the combination of machine guns, cannon, and barbed wire.
The war began on the eastern front on August 1, as the Russians invaded eastern Germany. This was a surprising turn of events, since the Germans had felt that the Russians would not be able to move for months. It was also a crucial moment in the war, since it required the German Supreme Commander Helmuth von Moltke (1848-1916) to divert two divisions to the East, that is away from the intended attack in the West on France. The Russians advanced on this front until August 27, when their forces were shattered at the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes. The war in the East was not over, but the Germans now had the initiative.
The Germans began their attack on France on August 4, 1914. Sweeping through Belgium (an act that made certain Britain would fight the war), German troops rapidly defeated Belgian and British forces, before heading toward Paris. They were in sight of the city, being able to see the Eiffel Tower, when they were stopped at the Marne in a series of battles that decided the course of the war. Until that point Germany had advanced steadily and expected a rapid victory. After being stifled at the Marne, however, the Germans sacked von Moltke and replaced him with another General, Erich von Falkenhayn. He changed strategies slightly, deciding that if he could not get a rapid victory over opposing troops, he would try to get around them. The German army, thus, made a series of attacks in the Argonne forest, and in the cities of Lille and Antwerp, but was foiled at every turn. This is what has come to be called the “race to the sea.” Neither side could defeat the other head on, so both raced to the ocean to turn the enemy’s flank. Eventually, both sides ran out of territory and dug a complicated network of trenches that cut across northern Europe.
At the same time that the Germans entered Belgium, the French entered German territory in Alsace. The German attack plan had been predicated on this happening. In the late 19th century, a German Chief of Staff named Alfred von Schlieffen articulated the Schlieffen plan. It held that in a two front war, Germany must defeat France first and then turn on Russia, since that country would mobilize more slowly. We have already seen how the Russian prediction turned out. In France’s case, however, Schlieffen’s assessment turned out right. He felt that the French would be so preoccupied with regaining the territories in Alsace and Lorraine that they would attack there first. So the idea was to wait for them in Alsace and go around them through Belgium. Since the Germans were waiting for the French they were able to counter-attack fiercely to stop the advance. Thus, by the end of September this attack failed and both sides dug in. By the end of the year, Northern Europe was one big trench from the Atlantic to the Rhine.
Having reached the end of the calendar year, let’s take stock of the situation. Both sides had failed to gain a swift victory. Strategically, the situation was slightly better for the Germans than the French or Brits, since the German army was on foreign soil. But the human toll was awful to comprehend. By the end of 1914, France had lost 300,000 men, with Britain and Belgium losing another 25,000 together. Germany had lost 85,000. And this was only the beginning, since the trench warfare system encouraged further slaughter. To overcome the trench lines, it was felt that artillery bombardment and infantry charges were necessary to overwhelm the enemy. Thus, thousands of people were thrown into a meat grinder (the German’s called it a Wurstmachine) that produced moderate and ephemeral gains.
The situation in the East was a little different by the start of the New Year. The Russians had lost all their early gains and were being pushed eastward by the Germans. Things were going a little differently in the southeast, where the Russians were pushing into Austrian held territory. But even here no one struck a knockout blow, as the Austrians made good their losses and began to push back into Serbia. After the front had settled down in the west, the first military initiative came in March 1915 from the Brits in an attack on a town called Neuve Chapelle, but the attack failed and the Germans held the town. The German response came at the Belgian town of Ypres, and their artillery attack was so furious that the town became uninhabitable.
Looking for a way out of this stalemate and responding to calls for help from the Russians, the Brits decided to attack the Central Powers’ weakest link, the Ottomans. During the months of March and April, they attacked the Dardanelles with ships, but were repulsed. They then tried a landing at Gallipoli, which also failed. One of the leaders in the Turkish defense was a young Mustafa Kemal, who became the founder of modern Turkey. That attack finally failed in August. This is an important moment in the war, since it announced to the rest of Europe’s states that the Ottoman Empire was up for grabs. Italy, sensing that it could gain territory against its traditional rivals Austria and the Ottoman Empire cut a secret deal for territory and joined the war on the Entente powers’ side in 1915.
The Brits sought to gain the initiative in the West by attacking at the Belgian town of Loos in September. The Brits used poison gas for the first time at this battle, but it made no difference. German superiority in machine guns ended the attack. There was also an offensive in modern Iraq, but the stifling heat halted the advance. The Austrians did a little better in Serbia. By the end of 1915, Austrian troops were in Belgrade. Bulgaria, which had been neutral, entered the war at this point, hoping to steal territory from the Serbians. This invited a British-led invasion through Greece that brought mixed results, at best. By the end of 1915, therefore, little had been accomplished beyond killing more people. During the year the French had lost another 210,000 soldiers killed, the Brits 66,000, and the Germans 113,000.
As we turn to 1916, we see Austria going on the offensive, taking Montenegro and Albania. This was the high tide of the Central Powers. The Anglo-French invasion at Gallipoli had been a disaster and the evacuation was under way. An Anglo-British attack in Iraq was another disaster, as Turkish troops defeated the invaders and took 11,000 prisoners. And during this time Germany also began to overrun the Russian Empire. German troops moved into Poland and Lithuania, as anti-war strikes began to occur in various Russian cities. This empire was dying; three others would eventually join it. Also in 1916, the Germans began their offensive on the fortress at Verdun. The French had long held that they would never give up the fortress, and the German generals figured that they would use this to their advantage by bleeding France to death through their stubbornness. Since the French would hold onto this fort beyond reason, the idea was, they would lose many men and have to move reinforcements from other parts. This truly was a Wurstmachine. The battle lasted until the summer, when the Germans wound it down. At that point, the Germans had lost 71,000 men dead or missing and the French 160,000.
On July 1, 1916, the Brits made their contribution to the slaughter by attacking over the river Somme in northern France. Throughout the summer the Brits marched into German lines and were destroyed. The statistics are nauseating. On the first day, the Brits suffered 57,000 casualties, 19,000 of them dead. By the end of the year, in just this battle the Brits had suffered 500,000 casualties of all types and the French another 200,000. The Germans suffered 235,000 of their own. To give you a little more context on the bloodletting involved in this battle. During the year 1916 the Brits had lost a total of 150,000 people dead, the French 270,000, and the Germans 143,000. The total killed to that point in the war for the Germans, French and Brits reached 1.4 million. And there were still two years of war to go.
1917 is a crucial year in the war, because it brought the end of the Russian Empire and saw the US’s entry into the war. We’ll begin with the Russians. By 1917, the Russian army was finished. More than 1 million Russian soldiers had been killed in action, another 500,000 were wounded, and another million had deserted. Things had not been going well on the home front either. Already at the end of 1916, in October and November, there were almost 200 strikes by 200,000 working men against the war. Things steadily eroded from there. By March 3, 1917 there was a massive strike at the munitions plant in St. Petersburg. The strike spread and by March 9, 300,000 workers were on strike. The unrest spread to other areas and by March 15 the Czar had abdicated. A provisional government was set up under the Menshevik socialist Alexander Kerensky. This government made a crucial mistake, however, in that it decided to continue the war. (We can understand this decision a little, if we keep in mind that the Russian state was being kept alive by massive western aid. Not wishing to give up this aid, Kerensky decided to continue the war.) This only made matters worse and by November 1917 there was another revolution led by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin’s government ended the war with the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Signed ultimately on March 3, 1918, it was a punitive arrangement that took from Russia a third of its population and agricultural land, as well as all of its oil. We will pick up the Russian Revolution’s tale in another lecture. For now, we need only remember that Czarist Russia was gone and the Germans could turn their forces to the West.
The German defeat of Russia would have been a tremendous advantage to the Central Powers, except for the United State’s entry into the war in April, 1917. Germany had long had a fundamental problem. It could not challenge British naval supremacy, which meant that the Brits could strangle German trade, but the Germans could not do the same to the Brits. (We must also add to this the German navy’s unwillingness to put is precious battleships to the test. There was only one naval battle during the First World War, the battle of Jutland in 1916. The idea was to open the North Sea by defeating the British. The battle was inconclusive and both sides lost ships. The German navy’s response was to leave all its ships at anchor for the rest of the war.) After its great military push during 1916, Germany believed that it could finally knock out the Brits by strangling her trade. Since the German surface fleet was in dock, the way to do this was “unrestricted submarine warfare.” If the Germans could not defeat the Royal Navy on the surface, they could destroy the merchants delivering goods to Britain from below. Germany had used submarine warfare earlier in the war, but suspended attacks on Merchant fleets after the US protested the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania in 1915. In March of 1916, however, the German government changed radically in character, when Erich Falkenhayn was replaced by Paul von Hindenburg as Chief of General Staff. Hindenburg took as his deputy Erich von Ludendorff. These men were the heroes of the battle of Tannenberg and they immediately set about militarizing every aspect of German society, including wartime production and diplomacy. The Kaiser now no longer made policy, but was merely a figurehead.
In February 1917, under this new leadership, the Germans made the disastrous decision to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare. By April 6, the US declared war and soon ships and men began to head for Europe. Eventually, the US put 2 million men into Europe. (What the Germans inexplicably did not know is that the Brits were about to collapse financially. Their credit with the US had reached its limits and they would not have received new loans without the US’s entry into the war.) This marked the beginning of the end. Without US intervention, Germany would have won the war. With the additional resources, however, there was no way that Germany could win. Nonetheless, the fighting continued. By the end of 1917 another 500,000 German, French, and British soldiers had died.
On January 8, 1918, Woodrow Wilson, president of the US, issued his 14-point peace program, setting out a liberal democratic vision for Europe based on national self-determination. It fell on deaf ears. All countries were in so deeply now that the only conceivable end to the war was to make the other side pay its costs. (The Brits had, for example, rallied under the banner Hang the Kaiser!) Germany, for its part, decided to make one last offensive in 1918. It had signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March and was convinced that the US could not contribute greatly to the war before the summer of 1918. Thus, in their view a race to end the war quickly was now on. On March 21 the first of three great German offensives began. The first was an attack on British positions near Laon. They were initially quite successful, virtually obliterating two British armies and taking back all the territory that the Brits had gained at the Somme. Then the Germans unleashed another attack on the area around Ypres. Casualties were massive. In the five weeks since the start of the attack, the Brits had lost 150,000 dead or missing. (At the so-called third Battle of Ypres, which had been a British offensive, the Brits lost roughly the same amount, but that battle had lasted 5 months.) The French lost another 60,000, and the Germans 105,000. Then in May, 1918, the Germans turned south, taking Soissons and heading toward Paris once again. This advance was only stopped by the Americans. The Germans tried to attack again in July, but could not overcome the recent importation of American strength.
On July 18, the French were able to launch a counterattack that finally broke the German lines. 30,000 German prisoners were taken on that day. Among the soldiers who took part in the retreat was a young corporal named Adolf Hitler. On August 4th Hitler was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class for personal bravery. But this was merely the start of a general collapse. Entente powers attacked again on August 8. By August 14 Ludendorff recommended that the German government sue for peace. On August 17, the French attacked and took 10 miles of territory in a single day. On September 26, there was a new offensive near Cambrai. The Austrian Army was in freefall, too, and had begun to seek peace. By the end of September Bulgaria had signed an armistice and was out of the war. In mid-October, the Brits made another advance, during which young corporal Hitler was wounded again, this time blinded by a poison-gas artillery shell. On October 28, the Austrians asked for an armistice. On November 2, the Americans launched another offensive, using mustard gas for the first time. On November 11, the Germans signed an armistice as well. The most destructive war in history--to that point—came to an end at 11am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Through it all in four years of fighting the French lost a total of 1.2 million soldiers killed, the Brits 620,000, and the Germans 670,000. The complete death toll on the West for all combatants reached 2.5 million. This is the context against which you will need to consider next week’s lecture about culture between the wars.
Before we end, however, let us take a step back and try to put this war into a broader context. First, looking back, we can see that this was a great national war. Nation states and peoples clashed, in a way that had not been possible before, and a new series of nation states appeared in the war’s aftermath, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Second, this great national war finally destroyed the conservative powers in the eastern and central Europe. Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Ottoman Turkey all succumbed to the war. The map of Europe would be forever changed by these political upheavals. Third, the war revolutionized European economies, though whether it was for the better is disputed.
Thanks to the war’s enormous material needs governments intervened in their economies in ways never before seen. By 1915, governments were directing whole economies. First, they took over foreign exchange and investment. Then, since conscription affected the labor force, the state became involved in assigning labor. As supplies became ever scarcer during the war, the state entered the economy by rationing available materials, and soon it was directing what was to be produced. The Germans had their War and Raw Materials Board and instituted National Conscription early in the war. The English first set up a Ministry of Munitions, which was instituted only to guarantee the supply of artillery shells. Later, however, they created five new departments to run the entire economy. Wealthy property holders also saw the war take a bite of their wealth. The Brits increased their income taxes dramatically and the Germans finally instituted one. Landed property came under increasing regulation as all available land had to be used for growing crops. In many ways, these wartime governments were early experiments in state socialism, and they point us to a new interrelationship between the state and the economy that would run right through and beyond the Second World War.
Toward the end, the war had become something absolute, as all of society—willingly or unwillingly—was mobilized for victory, whether it was in the people’s, the government’s, or the autocrat’s name. Noncombatants became involved in the war in a way that was new. Civilians became the target of economic and psychological warfare. Home governments began to ration food in the name of the war. Germany began the trend in 1915, Italy followed suit in 1917. The great expansion of civil liberties under the post-1850 liberal tide turned back, as war-time government meant the suspension of constitutional liberties and parliaments. After 1916, Germany was under a military regime. In Austria, parliament did not meet until 1917. In Britain and France, elected officials still ruled, but in an increasingly autocratic manner, as policy became simply a means for finding victory. In addition, class hatreds were exacerbated, as people began to complain that the burdens of war were not being equally distributed. In the end, the War points us to a much more dangerous world than the one it destroyed. Liberalism had come under attack. Stable governments had fallen. The social resentments were never overcome. That is why, unfortunately, what contemporaries simply called the Great War is now called by us World War I.