Course of the War

With the outbreak of hostilities, both sides expected a brief war. The common assumption was that urban society depended upon the world economy for food and raw materials, and a long war would disrupt the vital flow of supplies. The common assumption was that "the boys will be home by Christmas;" Wilhelm II told his troops they would be home "before the leaves fall from the trees." Sadly, everyone was wrong. When German troops invaded Belgium, the Belgian army put up a heroic defense. It eventually fell back in an orderly fashion and joined a British army corps near the French border. The combined forces stopped the German advance toward Paris, and threw the Schlieffen plan into disarray. The German plan also called for the left wing to fall back, and thereby suck French troops into Germany and annihilate them. The left wing did not fall back, however, and by the end of August, German troops, dead tired from heat and exhaustion, were advancing along a long front toward Paris. The French army, totaling one million men, was reinforced with 100,000 British troops retreated orderly before 1.5 million German troops. French General Joseph Joffre attacked a gap in the German lines at the Battle of the Marne on September 6, throwing everything they had into the attack. The French government even requisitioned taxicabs to rush reserves to troops in the front. After three days of desperate fighting, the German troops fell back; Paris and France were saved.

The British and French troops hoped to turn the German retreat into a rout. However, the Germans remained in good order, and both sides tried to outflank the other. The result was that both sides dug long trenches to protect themselves from machine gun fire. By November, 1914, trenches extended from Belgium through France to the Swiss border. The result was stalemate and slaughter. Both sides dug in behind trenches mines and barbed wire. The area between the trenches heavily mined and under constant machine gun fire, was appropriately named "no man’s land." Often, each side shelled the other’s position constantly in an attempt to "soften up" enemy lines. Young draftees were then sent "over the top" in frontal attacks in an attempt to rout the enemy from his trenches.

The result was a staggering slaughter and insignificant territorial gains. French and British offensives in 1915 never gained more than three miles. In the Battle of the Somme, British and French troops gained 125 square miles, an insignificant accomplishment, at a cost of 600,000 dead or wounded. The Germans lost 500, 000 men. Mathematically, that is almost ten thousand men per square mile. An unsuccessful German campaign against Verdun resulted in losses on both sides of 700,000 men. The British poet, Siegfried Sasson wrote of the Somme offensive, "I am staring at a sunlit picture of hell." In 1917, General Robert Nivelle’s French army was almost destroyed in an attack on Champagne, and at Passchendacle, the British gained 50 square miles at a cost of 400,000 casualties.

Erich Remarque commented in All Quiet on the Western Front:

We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with two feet cut off…Still the little piece of convulsed earth in which we lie is held. We have yielded no more than a few hundred yards of it as a prize to the enemy. But on every yard there lies a dead man.

An entire generation of young European men was destroyed. Those who might have provided leadership after the war, entered professions, or raised families were gone. Those who lived through the experience were maimed, shell-shocked, embittered, and disillusioned. Many went to war believing in the world of their leaders and elders, the world of progress and patriotism, but in the words of Remarque, the "first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they taught it to us broke in pieces." Veterans of the war became a hardened core which the "soft" civilians did not understand. As a result, the reconstruction efforts after the war were especially difficult.

The War in the East: War on the east did not degenerate into trench warfare, although losses were equally staggering. The Russian army had moved into eastern Germany, but was badly damaged by the Germans under Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff at the Battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes. The Russian forces were forced to retreat, and never threatened Germany again. In the campaign of 1918, 2.3 Russians were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.

Previously neutral countries suddenly entered the war. Italy had declared its neutrality in 1914 even though it had been a member of the Triple Alliance, claiming that Austria had launched a war of aggression. In May 1915, it joined the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia in return for promises of Austrian territory. Bulgaria sided with Austria against Serbia in September, 1915. Turkey, which had remained neutral, was outraged when a group of military vessels it had ordered from British naval yards were countermanded by the British Naval Secretary, Winston Churchill, because the British needed the vessels. The Turks might not have been so offended had they not already paid for the vessels, and Churchill refused to return their payment. The Turks thus entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria, that side now being known as the Central Powers. German forces defeated and destroyed an Australian unit on the Gallipoli peninsula. Gallipoli became known as the Australian Alamo.

Arab nationalists revolted against their Turkish overlords under a British Colonel who became known as Lawrence of Arabia. In 1918, British armies fro Egypt destroyed the remainder of the Ottoman Empire forever. Britain, France, and Japan seized German colonies. The Germans had hoped that subjects of British colonies in Africa and Asia would revolt against their British overlords; to their surprise and disappointment, the colonials fought valiantly for and with the British. The once European war was now a World War.

At the beginning of the war, Britain and France had imposed a total naval blockade on Germany. The plan was to prevent deliveries of food and raw materials from overseas, and thereby strangle the Central powers. No neutral ship was allowed to sail to Germany with any cargo. The blockade was annoying to American shippers; however British propaganda about German atrocities in Belgium as well as substantial profits earned from selling war supplies to Britain and France brought Americans around to the British position.

In early 1915, Germany returned the favor and blockaded the British Isles. Rather than using warships the Germans used submarines, the infamous unterseeboot. Since submarines sank ships without warning, this was considered a violation of international law. By May, 1915, German U-Boats had sunk over ninety ships in the British war zone. It was in that month that a U-Boat sank RMS Lusitania, technically a passenger ship, but which was also carrying arms and munitions. More than 1,000 people went down with the Lusitania, including 139 Americans. A vigorous protest from President Woodrow Wilson led Germany to issue its famous Sussex Pledge, also known as the Arabic Pledge, whereby the German navy promised not to sink ships by U-Boat attack without fair warning. Germany wished to avoid war with the U.S. if at all possible.

Problems arose, however as the British often sailed their ships under the flags of neutral countries. Also, when accosted by U-Boats, many British ships gave way until the submarine surfaced, then rammed the sub. In 1917 Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, confident that a new blockade would starve Great Britain into submission before the U.S. could come to its rescue. British shipping losses were staggering; however the British devised a convoy system which lessened losses. Additionally, the British intercepted the famous Zimmerman Telegram in which Germany promised territory lost by Mexico in the Mexican War should Mexico come into the war against the U.S. In April, 1917, President Wilson delivered a war message to Congress stating that "German submarine warfare against commerce is a war against mankind." The U.S. thus entered the war on the side of the Allied Powers; three years after the war had begun, when both sides in Europe were almost exhausted.

The Home Front: When war broke out in 1914, it was accompanied by a tremendous outburst of nationalism, with people on both sides convinced that their side was right, and that was defending itself against aggression. Even the socialists, with the exception of a few extreme left wingers, supported the war. In Germany, trade unions voted not to strike and socialists in the Reichstag voted money for war credits. Said one socialist who volunteered to fight, "to shed one’s blood for the fatherland is not difficult; it is enveloped in romantic heroism."

Patriotism alone was not enough to win the war, however. There was a desperate, relentless need for men and materials on both sides for a war that seemed to have no end. The French needed 100,000 heavy artillery shells every day, as opposed to the 12,000 they had anticipated needing. The steel and iron for the shells had to be produced by an industry that had lost three quarters of its iron resources in the first day of the war when Germany seized French mines. There were shortages on both sides, and each country had to change fast to keep the war machine operating.

Government planning boards established priorities and decided what would be produced and consumed. Rationing, price and wage controls were imposed, and even freedom of movement was restricted. Free market capitalism was abandoned for the duration of the war. The old distinction between soldiers on the battlefield and civilians at home was soon blurred. President Wilson told Americans that there were no armies in the traditional sense, rather "there are entire nations armed. Thus the men [and women] who remain to till the soil and man the factories are not less a part of the army than the men beneath the battle flags." It was something of a game of chicken involving entire nations: the loser would be that nation which cracked first.

The ability of governments to manage and control complicated economies during the war actually encouraged the cause of socialism. State socialism became a realistic blueprint rather than an idealistic utopia. IN Germany which went furthest in developing a planned economy, Walter Rathenau, a Jewish industrialist in charge of Germany’s largest electrical company, convinced the government to set up the War Raw Materials Board to ration and distribute raw materials. Every useful scrap of material, down to barnyard manure, was inventoried and rationed. The board instituted development of synthetic rubber and nitrates, which allowed production of explosives to continue. Food was also rationed according to physical need. Those doing manual labor were given extra rations and rung the last two years of the war, children and expectant mothers received milk rations. When the government did not tax the war profits of private firms heavily enough, a massive deficit developed along with a black market and the re-emergence of class conflict.

At times, mistakes were made which would seem funny if the results had not been so tragic. German authorities determined that pigs were eating food that hungry people needed and ordered a mass slaughter of pigs. Too late they discovered that the pigs had been needed to consume an abundant potato crop which now rotted in the fields. The potatoes would have fed the pigs and the pigs the people, had they thought it through.

Following the battle of Verdun, Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg became the real rulers of Germany, and ordered the ultimate mobilization for total war. Hindenburg said Germany could win the war only "if all the treasures of our soil that agriculture and industry can produce are used exclusively for the conduct of war…All other considerations must come second." In December, 1916, they rammed through the Reichstag the Auxiliary Service Law which required all males between seventeen and sixty to work only at jobs considered crucial to the war effort. Women worked in factories, and children were organized by school teachers to collect every scrap of useful material, grease drained from dishwater, coffee grounds, tin cans, bottles, bones, acorns, chestnuts and rotting leaves. People in Germany began eating turnips rather than potatoes, with the average person consuming less than 1,000 calories per day. (Turnips had previously been grown only as feed for livestock.) Germany thus became the first truly totalitarian society, and while war production increased, some people starved.

Great Britain also rationed food and materials as part of the mobilization for total war; however its people did not suffer to the extent the German people suffered, because they were able to import foodstuffs and other materials from the United States.

The tremendous need for labor created changes not seen before in Europe, as demand for workers was everywhere. Labor Unions gained greater power and prestige. They cooperated with governments on work rules, wages, and production schedules in exchange for participation in decisions about production. The role of women also changed, as more and more went to work in industry and offices. By 1917, women were 43 per cent of the work force in Russia. The number of women driving busses and streetcars in Britain increased 1000 %. Women also worked as factory workers, bank tellers, mail carriers, even as police officers. The importance of women to the economy and the war effort increased their status in society. As a direct result of their participation in the war effort, Britain, Germany and Austria granted women the right to vote immediately after the war. Additionally, women became more independent, shorting their skirts and smoking in public.

Political Tension and the Beginning of the End: During the first years of the war, soldiers and civilians collectively supported their governments, even those with competing nationalities, such as Austria-Hungary. Each government managed to control public opinion to bolster morals. Newspapers, letters, and public addresses were censored vigorously, good news was played up and bad news played down or completely repressed. Propaganda, both crude and subtle, was also employed to bolster national support. German propaganda posters pictured black French soldiers from Africa raping German women; German atrocities in Belgium were exaggerated and replayed constantly by the French and British. Posters, slogans, biased editorials inflamed national hatred of the enemy and sustained the war effort. But this super effort began to show signs of weakening by the spring of 1916. Irish nationalists in Dublin rose up against Britain in the great Easter Rebellion, resulting in the execution of several leaders of the uprising. On May 1, 1916, (May Day is the traditional Communist Revolutionary Holiday) demonstrators in Berlin heard socialist leader Karl Liebknecht shout "Down with the government! Down with the war!" He was arrested and. Imprisoned, but his action roused the far left. Strikes and protests over inadequate food began to flare up everywhere.

The morale of troops also suffered. Italian troops mutinied. French units refused to fight after a disastrous offensive in May, 1917, and discipline was only returned after the leaders of the insurrection were punished severely and a tacit agreement worked out that there would be no more grand offenses. The French civilian population also began to show signs of war weariness before Georges Clemenceau became leader in 197. Clemenceau established a virtual dictatorship, jailing journalists and politicians who opposed him without trial.

The situation was worse for the Central powers. The Austrian chief minister was assassinated in October 1916 by a socialist who cried "Down with Absolutism! We want peace!" When Emperor Francis Joseph died in November, 1916, there was no longer a symbol of national unity around whom the people could unite. Leaders realized that the Central powers could not maintain the war, as their governments would fall apart and their people rise up in rebellion. Said one Austrian minister, "If the monarchs of the Central Powers cannot make peace in the coming months, it will be made for them by their peoples."

The tightening blockade meant people were starving and Czech and Yugoslav leaders were demanding autonomous democratic states for their peoples. Germany’s military situation appeared increasingly desperate, which led to the military’s insistence on the all-or-nothing gamble of unrestricted submarine warfare, this after the Triple Entente (the Allied Powers) had refused an offer of peace on terms favorable to the Central Powers.

A growing number of socialists in the Reichstag began to vote against war credits, and began calling for a compromise "peace without annexations or reparations." A resolution was passed by a coalition of socialists and Catholics in July, 1917, demanding peace. In April, the Bread ration was reduced further, and 200,000 workers in Berlin struck for a week. They returned to work only under the threat of prison or military discipline. Germany and Austria Hungary were beginning to crack. Strangely, Russia cracked first, and gave the Central Powers a brief second wind.