World War One
The bloody trench warfare, the mustard gas, the stolid defence of allied lines under attack from German artillery: ‘The War To End All Wars’ all would seem futile when the Third Reich rearmed Germany and marched forth with bellicose expansionism in 1939. As the history of the following decades somewhat masked the gravitas of the Great War, with the fight against fascism taking on a more desperate gravitas, it is vitally important that we remember that the Great War killed more British, French and Italian troops than World War Two . This was the war where military technology had overtaken the military elite’s comprehension, bringing about a war in which young men’s lives were destroyed through the profligate tactics of their generals. Just as it devastated millions of families, the First World War changed the world as the Allies fought for ideology with the same tenacity as they did for territory.
Often slighted as being a battle fought with the most flimsy of pretexts, the First World War was the first global war to be fought on all theatres. On deserts and fields, at sea and on mountains, the conflict was anything but trivial. And far from lacking meaning, this was a war of ideology, as the autocratic Austria-Hungarian Empire tried to quell rebellious Slavic dissidence within its cosmopolitan empire. It was a war which redefined world politics, creating a new superpower: America. It created international law and witnessed the Ottoman Empire crumble and precipitated the Russian Empire’s capitulation to the Bolsheviks. The Second World War; democracy; modern Europe and the Cold War: the First World War’s DNA can be found in all.
On 28th June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of the the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was slain by Bosnian Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Saravejo. After years of growing geo-political tensions, with simmering Serbian nationalists irate against the power of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, wherein those of Slavic descent and of the myriad ethnicities of its populace held little political influence, the fuse had finally been lit. Furious, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire delivered ten demands to Serbia and the fragile alliances that once held a militarised Europe together all but shattered overnight. The bullet from Princip was unexpected – even more so given that he was a notoriously poor marksman – but there had been sabre rattling long before Ferdinand hit the floor. Great Britain and the German Empire, both industrialised, both growing in military might, were becoming increasingly polarised. Austria-Hungary’s demands were outrageous and demeaning; they would remain as demands. Serbia would not cede. The fading Ottoman Empire, lying between Austria-Hungary and Germany, and the Russians to the east skewed the dynamics of the politics of Central and Eastern Europe.
Britain had been more than aware of the dangers of the changing tide of European imperial power decades before the war started. Firmly of the opinion that no European power should be overly dominant, Britain has always nursed a fair degree of paranoia and suspicion when regarding her neighbours. The Battle Of Waterloo thwarted Britain’s last threat to her sovereignty but as the 19th Century came to its conclusion, it was Germany that had replaced France as the dominant, rapidly militarised nation at the heart of European politics. France, defeated by Prussia in the 1870s, was a warning shot to Britain: invasion and military superiority could be dismantled. Invasion paranoia was rife.
A network of alliances held Europe together. Britain and France, together with the Russians whose alliance with Germany was revoked under Kaiser Wilhelm II, formed the Entente Powers. Germany and Austria-Hungary formed the bulwark of the Central Powers. If ink on paper mapped the fissures that divided Europe, Germany’s aggression as Austria-Hungary went to war with Serbia, pulling the Russians and the French in on the side of the Serbs, was almost accidental. Germany was well aware that the cost of war would be huge. The Kaiser Wilhelm II was wrong in many instances, but the cost of Total War was one that he was unerring in predicting. Britain, thus far removed from the conflict, was forced to act.
Britain had to fight. Neutrality would threaten her Empire, her trade and sovereignty. Britain’s alliances with France and Russia needed to be respected to guarantee her security. The safety of Britain's colonial outposts depended on Russian support. British prime minister Herbert Asquith was wary that Britain needed France to stand strong, just as the Germans knew they had to dominate the French before the Russians could attack from the East. The slain Ferdinand had long opposed war in the Balkans, now his passing was proving catastrophic on a global scale. On 4th August 1914, mindful that France’s survival was key to Britain’s naval supremacy, Britain declared war on Germany. A generation was sentenced to a gruelling and uncertain fate. Countries that had been stockpiling arms, harvesting the age of industrialism, were to enlist young men to fire upon their counterparts on the opposite side of the Entente/Central Powers divide. The First World War redefined warfare en route to changing the world.
The early exchanges in the First World War witnessed the deaths of over 4,000 Serbian civilians at the hands of the Austrian-Hungarian troops. Modern warfare was brutally unkind to the innocent. Throughout the 20th Century, atrocities would be a leitmotif of war in Europe. Germany, disillusioned by Austria-Hungary’s preoccupation with the Serbians to the south, were left exposed to Russian attacks. Marching west, the Germans devastated France and Belgium. While the geography of Europe had began to change, a theatre of war was being opened that would see young men ensconced in trench warfare, knee-deep in mud and exposed to the greatest mortal threat. The British Expeditionary, numbering some 150,000, were sent to buttress the French defences against the German onslaught. Despite initially nursing a fear of conflict, the Germans were warming to the task – their invasion of Belgium, exposing the French, triggered those invasion fears long held in the British psyche.
Conquering Belgium with relative ease, it was not until the Russians arrived to Germany’s east that the Kaiser’s army would see their resources being overstretched. British and French troops took advantage, halting the Germans at the First Battle Of The Marne . Those in Germany who had thought the war would be over in flash were wrong. In Asia and the Pacific, all German territories were seized by the allies. How well the Germans would now rue their alliance with the Austria-Hungarian Empire; dragged to war, Germany were fighting on two fronts. The military tactics used by all nations would be heavily criticised in the years to come. Both sides used chemical weapons but despite the horror they meted out on the field, bombs loaded with mustard gas and chlorine didn’t turn the war, just as the anachronistic infantry charges of yore yielded before row upon row of barbed wire which marked both sides’ defences.
Marching infantry onto enemy positions has been a military tactic since man first fashioned weapons from stone. Now, in an era where German U-Boats and submarines – long considered ‘not cricket’ by the British – were destroying supply lines in the waters of the Atlantic, the North Sea and English Channel, and machine guns peppered the air with swarms of bullets, marching infantry tactics were obsolete. The French with their bayonets; the British and their overcrowded trenches: both contributed generously to Allied deaths in trying to open up the German’s Western Front. In 1916, France and Britain were both horrifically bloodied by military blunders: the Battle Of Verdun and The Battle Of The Somme exposed young men to bullets, gas and bombs, and the tactics of Sir Douglas Haig and his French counterpart Ferdinand Foch. Verdun and the Somme provided two Allies with their darkest military hours.
In February 1916, the French were in a jam. The Western Front saw fierce battles, but the Germans’ assault on Verdun-sur-Meuse painted the mud a deep shade of crimson. Never before and not since have more men died on a battlefield: a quarter of a million died defending Verdun. From the 21st February to the 15th December, 1916, the French defended the city with unstinting determination. Tens of millions of artillery shells bombarded both sides. Strategically, Verdun was of incalculable importance. For the Germans under General Erich Von Falkenhayn, it was their ticket to opening up the Western Front, and key to winning the war. The French emerged victorious, but hardly triumphant. For Britain’s desperate struggle in the Somme diverted German troops, ending the bloody attrition that saw thousands upon thousands fall to artillery and infantry fire as the Kaiser’s surge ended in a stalemate by Belleville Heights. But, crucially, Verdun failed to yield and the French could claw back their territory in the months that followed.
The Battle Of The Somme followed a similar pattern to Verdun, in that casualties and fatalities were the currency exchanged for eventual victory. Again, there could be little triumphalism from Britain’s military elite for ‘winning’ a battle in which over 400,000 British soldiers were wounded. Across a frontline, twelve miles long, there were over a million casualties in battle that lasted from the 1st July to the 18th November, 1916. Hostilities began with the bloodiest day in British military history. Hoping that German positions would have been weakened by a near week-long artillery bombardment, Haig advanced the British infantry upon the Germans, taking 19,240 men to their graves, over 50,000 were injured. This was the sort of tactical aberration which characterised the First World War. A lack of preparation and a failure to employ any tactical nous visited a tide of criticism upon Asquith’s government. Even in the early stages of the conflict Asquith’s temperament for ruling during wartime was questioned. In May 1915, with an army poorly equipped, under-gunned for protracted warfare, his government collapsed. Britain, ruled by a coalition government, was lacking an iron hand in Westminster . The Somme finished Asquith and sullied Haig’s reputation.
As the British troops marched on the Germans, expecting their enemy to be subjugated under the intense barrage of the previous week, they encountered an enemy who had bedded down for sustained trench warfare. The German defensive positions were solid, and when the British came within firing range, the counter attack caught Haig by surprise. At 07:30am, the march into No Man’s Land began. The men of Britain’s Fourth and Third could not have been aware that the Germans were hardly compromised by the Allied artillery. Dug in deep and facing British guns which were inadequate, the Germans were largely untroubled by day one of the Somme. Only at Montauban, did the Allies see some success as the French marched from South of the Somme River.
Not only were the Germans largely unharmed by the artillery barrage they were emboldened by its failure to destroy their bunkers. Facing Allied forces who were so troubled that even accurate communication was a trial beyond them, the Germans must have thought the Battle Of The Somme could help decide the battle for Western Front. They were wrong. It was a disaster for the British government. The Battle for Gallipoli all but discredited Asquith as the poorly equipped allies failed to bring down the Ottoman Empire’s war effort. David Lloyd George succeeded Asquith in December 1916 , and the country woke up to the real horror of war in Europe. The opening exchanges at the Somme saw whole British units wiped out. This was a volunteers’ war, and it was one which made Britain aware of the sacrifices of its troops. Towns and villages across the length and breadth of the country lost their sons. The Somme painted itself on the nation’s consciousness with the blood of young men who died too young. The events of the Somme led to conscription. Victory was vital. After failed attempts at securing more territory, Haig turned to Britain’s tanks. Again, there was little progress for a lot of quarrel and bloodshed. As summer turned to winter, the trenches turned to mud. By November and the battle’s end, the Allies had fought for over four months for just five miles. Verdun was relieved at the greatest price.
The price for any victory in the First World War was casualties. At every turn, moderate successes were countered against the brutal human cost. Thousands upon thousands would die over a period of months for what would just be miles of territory. As the war progressed, Haig’s leadership set the Allies into a familiar groove, a seemingly unending effort with obscene amounts of casualties would bring about just enough success for Haig to claim victory. Take the Battle Of Passchendaele, Haig wanted to tear through German positions in Flanders in an attempt to stop their U-Boats being launched: again, this was a battle fought in the mud for months on end, with over 300,000 British casualties to show for incremental progress.
On mainland Europe, soldiers were bedded down in trenches. At sea, the war was just as fierce. The British Navy blockaded the Germans, desperate to halt supplies. So too the Germans, whose continued attacks on the Merchant Navy by U-Boats and submarines dented the Allies’ supply routes. Ships coming from America were particularly vulnerable to the German Navy. Merchant fleets had to be escorted across the seas by destroyers. Control of the North Sea was vital to Naval supremacy, and at the end of May, 1916, Britain’s control of the waves was secured by Admiral Jellicoe at the Battle Of Jutland .
The war was taking its toll and as 1917 arrived momentum towards a conclusion began to build. Britain’s control of the seas amidst a diminishing U-Boat threat, meant that Britain could sustain its war effort. Crucially, America under president Woodrow Wilson would enter the war. The Central Powers, whilst bring about stalemate in mainland Europe as the Russian Empire began to heave under the pressure of internal strife and the punishing fight on the Eastern Front, had provoked the Americans into battle. The Zimmerman Telegram, intercepted by the Allies and presented before Wilson added to America’s case for joining the war. Wilson’s neutrality was betrayed somewhat by his tacit support for the British. But the Zimmerman Telegram outlined the Kaiser’s strategy for the war effort, should the States join the Allies. Against a backdrop of sinking US merchant ships, the Kaiser’s bold plan to count on Mexico and Japan to counter a US threat was too much for Wilson to bear. He mustered more troops. After fighting a war with the highest of costs, the European Allies welcomed an injection of numbers. The Final Push was near.
The Germans wanted to end the war with a cavalier offensive. Operation Michael, as it was known, was successful to a degree, driving forward on the Western Front. The Allies fought back. Victory at the Second Battle Of The Marne drove the Germans back. At home, Germany was crumbling; it could not sustain the war effort for much longer. US involvement swelled the Allies’ number on the battlefield, and secured the supply routes so crucial to victory. On the 8th August 1918 the Allies began the 100 Days Offensive and the Great War entered its endgame. Aided by tanks, French and British soldiers contested the Battle Of Amiens, scoring territorial gains in hours, the likes of which would have taken months before. The writing was on the wall for Germany. As its leaders became preoccupied with courting possible peace settlements the Allies had now forced the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line. In late September, 1918, the assault on the Hindenburg Line began. Germany were desperate as Belgium, the land they took so emphatically towards the beginning of the war, was being reclaimed by the Allies.
Autumn of 1918 saw the Central Powers topple. Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire signed within days of one another. Austria-Hungary surrendered on the 3rd November. As the war unravelled to its conclusion, so too did Europe’s empires. The Ottoman Empire was finished. Russia’s revolution would sow the seeds of the Soviet Union. And finally, defeated at sea and on the fields at Flanders, the German Empire became the Weimar Republic. Armistice was signed with Germany at the 11:00am on the 11th November 1918 : at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day, the First World War was all but concluded. The following year’s Treaty Of Versailles, where the Allies sought reparations against the Germans, brought an end of war to Germany. For the time being. Germany’s perceived humiliation in Versailles would be used by one of its Somme veterans, Adolf Hitler, as a pretext for a totalitarian regime which, once again, brought the world to the brink.
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