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In the spring of 1914 President Woodrow Wilson sent his chief adviser, Colonel E. M. House, on a fact-finding mission to Europe. Greatly disturbed by the obvious escalating tension generated by international rivalries House reported: “The situation is extraordinary. . . . It only needs a spark to set the whole thing off.” The incident that triggered the explosion was the assassination of the heir apparent to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife on June 28, 1914, as they drove in an open car through the streets of Sarajevo, the sleepy capital of Bosnia.
The assassin was Gavrilo Princep, a young Bosnian Serb who belonged to a secret terrorist Serbian society pledged to the overthrow of Habsburg control in south Slav territories. Austrian statesmen assumed erroneously that the Serbian government was involved in the murderous deed. Here was an opportunity to settle accounts with the Serbs, who had long fanned political unrest among the Slavic population within the Austrian Empire. Assured of German support, Vienna fired off a harsh ultimatum to the Serbian government. Belgrade’s reply was conciliatory; it accepted all but one of the demands. The Austrian government deemed the reply unsatisfactory, broke off diplomatic relations, and on July 28 declared war on Serbia.
Austria’s hope that the conflict could be localized was dashed when the rival alliances, which had divided Europe since 1907, immediately came into play. Within a week Austria and Germany were pitted against Serbia, Russia, France, Belgium, and Britain. The former belligerents came to be known as the Central powers and the latter as the Allies. From the beginning both sides tried to enlist allies. In November 1914 the Ottoman Empire cast its lot with the Central powers, as did Bulgaria in October of the following year. The Allies enticed many more nations, with Italy, Romania, Greece, and the United States as the chief ones.
German strategy, devised by Count Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905, was intended to avoid a war on two fronts. It called for a holding action against the slowly mobilizing Russians in the east while striving for a quick knockout victory over France. Swinging through Belgium to outflank French border defenses, German forces would encircle Paris and destroy the French army by falling upon its rear. Once France was eliminated, the Germans would unite their troops and deal with the Russians at their leisure. In executing their plan the Germans had no compunctions about violating their pledge to respect Belgian neutrality, contemptuously referring to it as “a scrap of paper.”
All went well for the Germans in the beginning. Their armies overran southern Belgium and by early September had reached the Marne River, 40 miles from Paris. The Allied forces rallied and counterattacked, forcing the Germans to retreat and dig in along the Aisne River. The opposing armies now tried to outflank one another in what came to be called “the race to the sea.” By the end of 1914, the conflict had entered a new phase. The war of movement had become one of position as hundreds of thousands of men faced each other in two long lines of trenches that stretched from the English Channel across northeastern France to the Swiss border. None of the commanders understood that modern weapons, particularly the machine gun and fast-firing artillery, gave the defenders a decided advantage over the attackers. Massive assaults by both sides resulted in terrible loss of life without shifting the trench lines more than a few miles.
The war on the eastern front was mobile, in contrast to its western counterpart, with considerable gain and loss of territory. The Russian army fought on two fronts in the early months of the conflict, one against Germany and the other against Austria. In responding to their French ally’s plea for help, the Russians mobilized faster than German planners had thought possible and invaded East Prussia. Although the Russian army was the largest among all the combatants, it suffered from overhasty preparation, inadequate logistical support and war materiel, and poor leadership. The small German army, reinforced by divisions from the west, destroyed a Russian army at Tannenberg and routed another one two weeks later at the Masurian Lakes. Despite suffering horrendous losses, the Russians had upheld their end of the bargain, forcing the Germans to divert troops to the eastern front and thus easing the pressure on their allies in the west.
The Russian moves began auspiciously against the Austrians in the fall of 1914. They overran Galicia, inflicted heavy casualties, and threatened to break across the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary. Reeling, and with the Czechs and other Slavic conscripts deserting in droves, Austria seemed almost on the verge of collapse. But the Russians were unable to administer the coup de grace because of overextended supply lines and because the Germans sent reinforcements to stiffen the demoralized Austrian armies. During the spring of 1915, a combined German-Austrian force launched a surprise attack against the Russian front and broke through between Tarnov and Gorlice. By the end of the summer, the Central powers had recaptured Galicia, conquered nearly all of Poland, and inflicted on the underequipped Russians severe losses from which they never fully recovered.
Heavily involved in operations in the east, the Germans were forced to remain on the defensive in the west throughout 1915. This gave the British and the French the opportunity to seize the initiative and mount a series of attacks in the spring and summer. Each operation began with a preliminary bombardment designed to break up wire entanglements and flatten the trenches. But German fortifications were solidly built and able to withstand the bombardment, so when it stopped, machine gunners returned to their posts and raked the attacking troops with an incessant deadly fire, cutting down wave after wave. For all their suicidal courage, the British and French armies had nothing to show except a massive casualty list.
In 1915 the British, with French assistance, sought to get around the deadlock in the west by attacking the Dardanelles. Successful action here would knock Turkey out of the war, open a southern sea route to Russia, and wreak havoc in Austria’s backyard. An Anglo-French fleet was sent to force the strait, but the attempt in March was abandoned when six ships were sunk or disabled by undiscovered mines. Toward the end of April, French troops landed on the Asiatic side of the strait, while the main thrust was carried out by British and empire forces on Gallipoli. As the element of surprise had been compromised by the naval attack, the landing forces on the peninsula met fierce Turkish resistance and were pinned down on the beaches. A long, bloody, and inconclusive campaign developed and drew in more and more Allied troops with no end in sight. Finally, in December 1915 the Allies began the process of withdrawal after suffering a quarter of a million casualties. The operation had been poorly planned and executed, and Winston Churchill, the moving spirit behind it, was ousted as first lord of the admiralty.
Both sides turned back to the west in 1916. The Germans struck first. In February General Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German General Staff, picked Verdun for the site of a great offensive that he calculated would bleed the already weakened French army to death in a war of attrition. The fortress had no real strategic value, but the battle turned into a test of will, with great losses on both sides. After months of bitter fighting, the French line held. In July the British army, under the command of General Douglas Haig, opened its greatest offensive of the war along the Somme. The week-long bombardment that had preceded the assault had little effect on the German defenders, who were sheltered in meticulously constructed dugouts some 40 feet below the surface. As the British went “over the top” and raced across no man’s land, the Germans scrambled from their dugouts, set up their machine guns, and cut them down as they approached.
On the first day alone the British sustained slightly over 57,000 casualties, of whom some 19,000 were killed—the highest daily casualty rate of any battle in history. Despite mounting losses, Haig persisted in pushing his men in the face of murderous fire until the November rains compelled him to terminate the operation. The Battles of Verdun and the Somme had attained a level of horror and destructiveness that were matched the following year by the French failure in Champagne and especially the British defeat at Passchendaele. There was no science to these battles of attrition, the object of which was to exhaust the enemy’s human and material resources. Commanders felt justified in feeding their men into the mincing machine as long as they were convinced they were inflicting greater casualties on the enemy.
While the Anglo-French armies continued to hammer away in vain at the enemy’s impregnable position in the west, the Russians achieved a breakthrough in 1916. Although stunned and staggering after the blows of 1915, they pulled things together and had stabilized the line by the latter part of the year. Eager to profit from Russia’s inexhaustible reservoir of manpower, the western Allies drove their high command to undertake an offensive to draw German troops away from the western front.
Unable to make progress against the Germans, the Russians turned against the Austrian army. Beginning in 1916 four Russian armies under the newly appointed commander of the southwest sector, General Alexei Brusilov, achieved instant and spectacular success. The Austrian army, caught by surprise, dispirited, and weakened by withdrawals for operations against Italy in the Trentino, “broke like a piecrust” along a 200-mile front. Throughout July and August and into September, Brusilov’s offensive rolled forward with little resistance, bagging 450,000 Austrian prisoners and inflicting losses of 600,000. It was the greatest victory scored by any of the Allied armies since the onset of trench warfare two years earlier. Had Brusilov possessed the means to bring up reinforcements and supplies at top speed to exploit his gains, he might have driven Austria from the war. As it was, the enforced delay allowed the Germans, with their superior communications, to come to the rescue of their beleaguered ally. Transferring massive reinforcements from France to the east, they halted Brusilov and restored the Austrian front by October. The Brusilov offensive had the effect of compelling both the Germans to abandon the siege of Verdun and the Austrians to divert troops from the Italian front. But the cost had been heavy. Brusilov’s forces had sustained an estimated 1 million casualties. It was the last great Russian effort in the war. The following year the Russian army began to disintegrate, opening the way for the Bolsheviks to seize control of the government in the Russian Revolution and carry out their promise to make peace. By the end of 1917, Russia was out of the war.
If victory eluded the Allies on land, their control of the seas would prove decisive in the long run. At the outset Britain’s Royal Navy drove German shipping from the ocean, making it possible to isolate and later occupy its overseas colonies. Sea power, moreover, allowed the Allies to stop and search neutral ships and confiscate any goods that they judged to be of value to the enemy. It may have violated the principles of international law in naval warfare, but it was highly effective. The Allied naval blockade shut off Germany from badly needed overseas resources, not just military supplies for its armies but also food for its civilian population.
The most surprising element in the naval war during the first two years was the absence of a major confrontation between the British and German fleets. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the Royal Navy, was content to maintain a blockade from afar and pursue a cautious policy, unwilling to risk a defeat that could endanger Britain’s security. As Churchill once remarked, “Jellicoe was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” On the other hand, the German High Seas Fleet remained stationed in home ports, although occasionally conducting night raids on British ports. Single-minded and aggressive, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, who replaced Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz as the naval commander early in 1916, was no more anxious than his predecessor to provoke the larger Royal Navy in an all-out battle.
Instead, Scheer hoped to weaken the British blockade by luring a portion of the Royal Navy into the main body of the High Seas Fleet, where it could be destroyed. But owing to poor scouting, the greater part of the Royal Navy was at sea when the Germans tried one such sortie at the end of May 1916. What followed was the one great naval battle of the war, fought in the North Sea off Jutland. When it was all over after a day and night of furious action, the British had suffered somewhat heavier losses in terms of tonnage and casualties, but the relative strength of the two navies remained much the same. From the point of view of gunnery and seamanship, the Germans had shown themselves to be superior, but their ships were outclassed by the heavier guns of and inferior in numbers to the British dreadnoughts. Sensing impending disaster, Scheer turned and made for home, escaping practically unscathed under the cover of darkness. The German High Seas Fleet would not venture out of its home ports again for the rest of the war.
The Germans next pinned their hopes on the submarine to evade Britain’s control of the sea’s surface. Early in the war German submarines, cruising undetected, had attacked unarmed ships carrying cargoes vital to Britain’s war effort. In May 1915 a British liner, Lusitania, was sunk off the coast of Ireland with the loss of 1,200 lives, many of them Americans. Although the ship was carrying munitions and other contraband goods, the shocking toll of lives among women and children caused a storm of indignation in the United States. Further sinkings of unarmed ships led to stronger protests by President Wilson, who threatened to rupture relations with Berlin.
To mollify the Americans, the Germans agreed to suspend attacks against liners and neutral merchant ships. But by the end of 1916, the effect of the Allied blockade was beginning to cause serious food shortages in Germany and Austria. The new military leaders in Germany, General Paul von Hindenburg and his brilliant chief of staff, General Erich Ludendorff, were convinced that defeat was inevitable if the war lasted much longer. Their solution was to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, even though they knew that such a policy was likely to bring the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. They reasoned, however, that it would take the United States many months to train and transport its military forces to the battlefront, by which time they expected to have starved the British into submission.
On February 1, 1917, a new phase of unrestricted submarine warfare went into effect after Berlin announced that all ships, including those of neutral nations, sighted within a specified zone around Great Britain or in the Mediterranean would be sunk without warning. Since the U.S. government could not stand idly by and accept the wanton destruction of U.S. property, it declared war on Germany on April 6. At first the submarine campaign met and exceeded the expectations of its planners. In February U-boats sank 540,000 tons of Allied shipping; in March 594,000 tons; and in April a whopping 881,000 tons. Thereafter the toll of tonnage began to subside but remained sufficiently high in the summer to cause British statesmen considerable anxiety. Faced with a new and destructive offensive weapon, the British gradually developed countermeasures in the form of detection devices, depth charges, mines, and especially the convoy system. Collectively, they brought the submarine menace under control by the end of 1917.
Since the submarine had failed to break the blockade, the Germans were confronted with the necessity of forcing a decision on the western front. By then Germany’s population was war weary and starving, and its allies were dispirited and largely spent. Ludendorff, who was really in full charge of the German war effort, decided to stake everything on a final drive for victory before the United States could reach the front in large numbers. Russia’s withdrawal from the war the preceding winter had enabled the Germans to transfer large forces from the eastern to the western front. Between March 21 and July 15 Ludendorff delivered five massive blows, which brought the war to a climax. The first (March 21–April 5) fell upon the British in the Somme sector, close to where their lines joined the French army. Ludendorff aimed to isolate the British army from the French and then drive it into the sea.
Using effective tactics pioneered by General Oskar von Hutier, the Germans overwhelmed the badly outnumbered British forces, inflicting an estimated 178,000 casualties and advancing up to 40 miles. The British line bent ominously but did not break. In the midst of the crisis British and French political leaders met and decided to entrust at once control of all forces in the west to General Ferdinand Foch, the most able of the French generals. At the same time, the British government strained every nerve to reinforce its badly depleted forces. By diverting units from other theaters, sending boys 18? instead of 19 into combat, and returning 88,000 men on leave to their units, a total of 170,000 men were sent immediately to France with others to follow.
Having narrowly failed to capture Amiens and divide the two allies, Ludendorff again struck at the British, this time at Lys, south of Ypres (April 9–April 29), where there seemed a possibility of breaking through to the channel ports to cut off their evacuation route. Although the British were driven back 15 to 20 miles in places, the Germans lacked the reserves to convert their initial success into a major victory. Ludendorff’s next attack was directed at the French between Soissons and Reims and, like the other two, got off to a fast start (May 27–June 3).
The Germans sent the French reeling back and advanced a record 12 miles in a day. By May 31 they had fought their way to the Marne and were less than 40 miles from Paris. But the offensive stalled because of the exhaustion of the German troops and the timely arrival of U.S. forces, who proved their mettle in their baptism of fire. Ludendorff’s fourth drive (June 9–June 14) on a 22-mile front between Montdidier and Noyon was intended to convert the two German salients threatening Paris into one. Foch had anticipated the strategy, and the French army, ready and reinforced, resisted firmly and limited the advance to only six miles. Time was running out for Ludendorff. His final drive (July 15–July 18), more a measure of desperation than a bid for victory, succeeded in crossing the Marne but soon bogged down. Ludendorff’s gamble had failed, and in the process he had broken the morale and exhausted the manpower of the German army. The initiative now passed to the Allies.
Thanks to the ever-increasing number of U.S. divisions, Foch was in a position to undertake a counteroffensive. Beginning on July 18, Foch allowed the Germans no respite, hitting different parts of their line in succession and forcing them back on a broad front. On August 8, which Ludendorff called “the black day of the German army,” the British Fourth Army, backed by 430 tanks, pierced the line east of Amiens. What troubled Ludendorff was not the ground lost but the large number of German soldiers who offered only token resistance before surrendering. As the fighting ability of the German army had clearly collapsed, Ludendorff recognized that the war could no longer be won. His only option was to continue to fight a defensive action to keep Allied soldiers off German soil until an armistice could be arranged. Germany’s allies were in an even worse predicament. Bulgaria capitulated on September 30, Turkey on October 30, and Austria on November 3. After some negotiation an Allied commission presented German leaders armistice terms that fell little short of unconditional surrender.
The Germans were in no position to hold out for better terms. Their army was rapidly disintegrating; many citizens were suffering from malnutrition, and the death rate among children and the elderly was soaring; a full-fledged revolution had broken out in Munich; and the kaiser had abdicated and sought refuge in the Netherlands. The armistice was signed at 5:00 a.m. on November 11 and went into effect at 11:00 a.m. After four years and three months the guns fell silent in Europe.
The effects of the war on the political, economic, and social fabric of Europe were devastating. Not since the Black Death in the 14th century had so many people perished in such a brief period of time. About 10 million of the most able-bodied people of the belligerent nations died in battle, and at least twice that number were wounded, many maimed permanently. Moreover, the loss of civilian life due directly to the war equaled or may even have surpassed the number of soldiers who died in the field. The direct cost of the war, when added to the indirect cost of property damage, diverted production, and trade interruption was incalculable, not only dissipating the national wealth of the European belligerents but leaving them deeply in debt.
The war led to the overthrow of the German, Austrian, and Russian Empires, where the substitution of Bolshevism for the rotting czarist regime would have profound consequences, affecting the world for the next 75 years. The conflict deprived Europe of the primacy it had enjoyed in the 19th century. Never again would it be able to decide the fate of distant countries or, for that matter, be master of its own destiny. Finally, from the tensions and economic dislocation caused by the events of 1914–18 emerged the Nazi state, which provoked the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
- Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Knopf, 1999;
- Prior, Robin, and Trevor Wilson. The First World War. London: Cassell, 1999;
- Simkins, Peter, Geoffrey Jukes, and Michael Hickey. The First World War.
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