Chapter 25 - World War I

The War

FOCUS QUESTIONS: What did the belligerents expect at the beginning of World War I, and why did the course of the war turn out to be so different from their expectations? How did World War I affect the belligerents’ governmental and political institutions, economic affairs, and social life?

Before 1914, many political leaders had become convinced that war involved so many political and economic risks that it was not worth fighting. Others had believed that “rational” diplomats could control any situation and prevent the outbreak of war. At the beginning of August 1914, both of these prewar illusions were shattered, but the new illusions that replaced them soon proved to be equally foolish.

1914-1915: Illusions and Stalemate

Many Europeans went to war in 1914 with remarkable enthusiasm (see the box on p. 766). Government propaganda had been successful in stirring up national antagonisms before the war. Now, in August 1914, the urgent pleas of governments for defense against aggressors found many receptive ears in every belligerent nation. Middle-class crowds, often composed of young students, were especially enthusiastic, but workers in the cities and peasants in the countryside were considerably the less eager for war. Once the war began, however, most people seemed genuinely convinced that their nation’s cause was just.

Even domestic differences were temporarily shelved in the midst of war fever. Socialists had long derided “imperialist war” as a blow against the common interests that united the working classes of all countries. Nationalism, however, proved more powerful than working-class solidarity in summer of 1914 as socialist parties everywhere dropped plans for strikes and workers expressed their readiness to fight for their country. The German Social Democrats, for example, decided that it was imperative to “safeguard the culture and independence of our own country.”

A new set of illusions fed the enthusiasm for war. Almost everyone in August 1914 believed that the war would be over in a few weeks. People were reminded that the major battles of European wars since 1815 had in fact ended in a matter of weeks, conveniently overlooking the American Civil War (1861-1865), which was the true prototype for World War 1. The illusion of a short war was also bolstered by another illusion, the belief that in an age of modem industry, war could not be conducted for more than a few months without destroying a nation’s economy. Both the soldiers who exuberantly boarded the trains for the war front in August 1914 and the jubilant citizens who bombarded them with flowers as they departed believed that the warriors would be home by Christmas.

Then, too, war held a fatal attraction for many people. To some, war was an exhilarating release from humdrum bourgeois existence, from a “world grown old and cold and weary,” as one poet wrote. To some, war meant a glorious adventure, as a young German student wrote to his parents: “My dear ones, be proud that you live in such a time and in such a nation and that you ... have the privilege of sending those you love into so glorious a battle.” And finally, some believed that the war would have a redemptive effect, that millions would abandon their petty preoccupations with material life, ridding the nation of selfishness and sparking a national rebirth based on self-sacrifice, heroism, and nobility. All of these illusions died painful deaths on the battlefields of World War I.

WAR IN THE WEST German hopes for a quick end to the war rested on a military gamble. The Schlieffen Plan had called for the German army to proceed through Belgium into northern France with a vast encircling movement that would sweep around Paris and surround most of the French army. But the plan suffered a major defect from the beginning; it called for a strong right flank for the encircling of Paris, but German military leaders, concerned about a Russian invasion in the east, had moved forces from the right flank to strengthen the German army in the east.

On August 4, German troops crossed into Belgium. They encountered little resistance, but when they did, they responded with fierce measures, burning villages, killing civilians, and senselessly destroying a good part of the city of Louvain, including the university library.

By the first week of September, the Germans had reached the Marne River, only 20 miles from Paris. The Germans seemed on the verge of success but had underestimated the speed with which the British would be able to mobilize and put troops into battle in France. An unexpected counterattack by British and French forces under the French commander General Joseph Joffre (ZHUFF-ruh) stopped the Germans at the First Battle of the Marne (September 6-10) east of Paris (see Map 25.2). The German troops fell back, but the exhausted French army was unable to pursue its advantage. The war quickly turned into a stalemate as neither the Germans nor the French could dislodge the other from the trenches they had begun to dig for shelter. Two lines of trenches soon extended from the English Channel to the frontiers of Switzerland. The Western Front had become bogged down in trench warfare, which kept both sides in virtually the same positions for four years.

WAR IN THE EAST In contrast to the west, the war in the east was marked by much more mobility, although the cost in lives was equally enormous. At the beginning of the war, the Russian army moved into eastern Germany but was decisively defeated at the Battles of Tannenberg on August 30 and the Masurian Lakes on September 15 (see Map 25.3). These battles established the military reputations of the commanding general, Paul von Hindenburg (POWL fun HIN-den-boork), and his chief of staff, General Erich Ludendorff (AY-rikh LOO-dun-dorf). The Russians were no longer a threat to German territory.

The Austrians, Germany’s allies, fared less well initially. They had been defeated by the Russians in Galicia and thrown out of Serbia as well. To make matters worse, the Italians broke their alliance with the Germans and Austrians and entered the war on the Allied side by attacking Austria in May 1915. By this time, the Germans had come to the aid of the Austrians. A German-Austrian army defeated and routed the Russian army in Galicia and pushed the Russians back 300 miles into their own territory. Russian casualties stood at 2.5 million killed, captured, or wounded; the Russians had almost been knocked out of the war. Buoyed by their success, the Germans and Austrians, joined by the Bulgarians in September 1915, attacked and eliminated Serbia from the war.

1916-1917: The Great Slaughter

The successes in the east enabled the Germans to move back to the offensive in the west. The early trenches dug in 1914 had by now become elaborate systems of defense. Both lines of trenches were protected by barbed wire entanglements 3 to 5 feet high and 30 yards wide, concrete machine-gun nests, and mortar batteries, supported further back by heavy artillery. Troops lived in holes in the ground, separated from each other by a “no-man’s land.”

The unexpected development of trench warfare baffled military leaders, who had been trained to fight wars of movement and maneuver. But public outcries for action put them under heavy pressure. The only plan generals could devise was to attempt a breakthrough by throwing masses of men against enemy lines that had first been battered by artillery barrages. Once the decisive breakthrough had been achieved, they thought, they could then return to the war of movement that they knew best. Periodically, the high command on either side would order an offensive that would begin with an artillery barrage to flatten the enemy’s barbed wire and leave the enemy in a state of shock. After “softening up” the enemy in this fashion, a mass of soldiers would climb out of their trenches with fixed bayonets and try to work their way toward the enemy trenches. The attacks rarely worked; the machine gun put hordes of men advancing unprotected across open fields at a severe disadvantage. In 1916 and 1917, millions of young men were killed in the search for the elusive breakthrough. In the German offensive at Verdun (ver-DUN) in 1916, the British campaigns on the Somme (SUHM) in 1916 and at Ypres (EE-preh) in 1917, and the French attack in Champagne in 1917, the senselessness of trench warfare became all too obvious. In ten months at Verdun, 700,000 men lost their lives over a few square miles of terrain.

DAILY LIFE IN THE TRENCHES Warfare in the trenches of the Western Front produced unimaginable horrors (see the box on p. 771). Many participants commented on the cloud of confusion that covered the battlefields. When attacking soldiers entered “no-man’s land,” the noise, machine-gun fire, and exploding artillery shells often caused them to panic and lose their bearings; they went forward only because they were carried on by the momentum of the soldiers beside them. Rarely were battles as orderly as they were portrayed on military maps and in civilian newspapers.

Battlefields were hellish landscapes of barbed wire, shell holes, mud, and injured and dying men (see the Film & History feature on p. 772). The introduction of poison gas in 1915 produced new forms of injuries, as one British writer described:

I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war could see a case of mustard gas ... could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-colored suppurating blisters with blind eyes all sticky ... and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.

Soldiers in the trenches also lived with the persistent presence of death. Since combat went on for months, they had to carry on in the midst of countless bodies of dead men or the remains of men dismembered by artillery barrages. Many soldiers remembered the stench of decomposing bodies and the swarms of rats that grew fat in the trenches.

Soldiers on the Western Front did not spend all of their time on the front line or in combat when they were on the front line. An infantryman spent one week out of every month in the front-line trenches, one week in the reserve lines, and the remaining two weeks somewhere behind the lines. Daily life in the trenches was predictable. Thirty minutes before sunrise, troops had to “stand to,” ready to repel any attack. If no attack was forthcoming that day, the day’s routine consisted of breakfast followed by inspection, sentry duty, restoration of the trenches, care of personal items, or whiling away the time as best they could. Soldiers often recalled the boredom of life in the dreary, lice-ridden, muddy or dusty trenches (see Images of Everyday Life on p. 773).

At many places along the opposing lines of trenches, a “live and let live” system evolved based on the realization that neither side was going to drive out the other anyway. The “live and let live” system resulted in arrangements such as not shelling the latrines or attacking during breakfast. Some parties even worked out agreements to make noise before lesser raids so that the opposing soldiers could retreat to their bunkers.

On both sides, troops produced their own humorous magazines to help pass the time and fulfill the need to laugh in the midst of the daily madness. The British trench magazine, the B.E.F. Times, devoted one of its issues to defining military terms. A typical definition was “DUDS – These are of two kinds. A shell on impact failing to explode is called a dud. They are unhappily not as plentiful as the other kind, which often draws a big salary and explodes for no reason. These are plentiful away from the fighting areas.” Soldiers’ songs also captured a mixture of the sentimental and the frivolous (see the box on p. 774).


Next Reading: 25-2 The War: The Widening of the War