Chapter 22 World War I

Section 3 The Course of the War

World War I lasted more than four years. For more than two years, both sides sustained massive casualties without any decisive progress toward victory. In France, Belgium, and Italy the fighting quickly turned to stalemate. In Russia and the Middle East the fighting proved more fluid but equally costly. The course of the war changed in 1917. The exit of Russia from the war in that year seemed to improve Germany's situation. America's entry combined with Allied control of maritime trade, however, proved decisive in producing Allied victory in the war.

The War in the West

Germany's attack on France, launched in 1914 through neutral Belgium, nearly succeeded. In early September, German troops reached the Marne River near Paris. They could see the famous Eiffel Tower. On September 5, however, the retreating French troops under General Joffre counterattacked against the German line. The battle raged for three days, while the citizens of Paris listened to the guns in the distance. At the height of the fighting, the French Army rushed reinforcements to the front by rail. Desperate for even more transportation, the French government even commandeered all the taxicabs in Paris to get the maximum number of troops possible to the front lines.

            This burst of French resistance on the Marne finally halted the German advance. By mid-September the Schlieffen Plan had failed. The opposing armies entrenched themselves along a front stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea. The war in the West became a war of attrition—each side trying to wear down and outlast the other.

            In February 1916, the German high command tried to punch a hole through the Allied lines at Verdun, a fortified city on the Meuse River that commanded one of the main routes to Paris. The Germans moved huge cannons in range of the city, hoping to blast it into surrender. For three hundred days the French endured relentless bombardment. The French commander, General Petain, stubbornly refused to yield. “Ils ne passeront pas,” he declared, “they shall not pass.” 400,000 Frenchmen died to make his statement true. One French colonel told his men “you have a mission of is your duty to fall.” In December the Germans gave up. They had lost 350,000 men, and gained no ground.

            In July 1916, the British too tried a breakthrough. They struck along the Somme River in northwest France. Once again, each side sustained huge numbers of killed and wounded. On the first day alone the British lost 60,000 men. When the battle finally ended in November the British had suffered over 400,000 casualties. Other Allied forces lost a further 200,000 men. German losses were also great. One soldier wrote home about the situation.

“We have had dreadful losses again. I shall not get leave I suppose until we have left the Somme, but with our losses what they are, this cannot be long or there will not be a single man left in the regiment.”

In fact, the German army never fully recovered from its losses on the Somme. After the war, German generals claimed that the Somme had marked the turning point of the war in the Allies favor, even though they had gained no ground.

            The Italians fared no better in the Alps than had the Germans at Verdun or the British at the Somme. The rugged terrain of Austria's frontier produced one of the war's bloodiest campaigns. Italy lost a million men along the Isonzo River. A German observer summed up the situation in December 1916:

“The campaign of 1916 ended in bitter disillusionment all round. We and our enemies had shed our best blood in streams, and neither we nor they had come one step nearer to victory.” 

The stalemate persisted. “The word 'deadlock',” wrote one German official “was on every lip.”

The War in the East

Although very costly, the war in the eastern theaters tended to be more fluid than the war of attrition in the west. The terrain was more open with hilly plains of grassland in eastern Europe and deserts in the Middle East. Consequently, mobile forces, such as cavalry, played a more important role in the eastern theaters.

The eastern front. In late August 1914, the Russians struck against Germany, sending two armies across the German border into East Prussia. Concentrating their forces against the first Russian army at the city of Tannenberg, the Germans inflicted a crushing defeat and captured some 100,000 enemy troops. Further east, around the Masurian Lakes, they defeated the second Russian force, taking another 125,000 prisoners. The two actions had taken only 4 days and proved decisive. Russia was never again able to invade Germany during the war.

            In the south, Russian forces initially fared better. Austria had not expected a full-fledged war, and had mobilized only against Serbia. As the Austrians frantically tried to switch from partial to full mobilization, confusion reigned. Russian troops overran Galicia and captured some 400,000 Austrians. The arrival of German reinforcements, however, allowed Austria to push the Russians back.

            In fact, the overall Russian war effort went badly from the beginning. There were severe shortages of food and war materials. Russian commanders often bickered among themselves. The German victory at Tannenberg was due in part to the failure of quarrelsome Russian comanders to support each other. Such incompetence led to tremendous battlefield losses. In the first month of the war, Russian casualties in East Prussia alone numbered 300,000 men. By 1915 they had lost about 2 million. 

The Gallipoli campaign. Recognizing Russia's predicament, Allied leaders decided on a daring plan to re-supply Russia and possibly introduce fresh troops into Eastern Europe through the Black Sea. The target was Istanbul and the Turkish Straits. In January 1915 a British fleet reinforced with French ships tried to force a passage through the Straits under the guns of the shore fortifications. The attempt failed. Lord Fisher, Britain's senior admiral, resigned declaring “Damn the Dardanelles! They will be our grave.” Next the British decided to land an army on the Gallipoli peninsula and take the heights commanding the Straits by storm.

            On April 25, 1915, an Allied force composed largely of Anzacs (Australians, New Zealanders, and Canadians) landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula. They encountered fierce resistance from Turkish troops. Never able to get off the beach, after eight months of fighting the Allied force abandoned the effort. On the night before the British withdrawal, a soldier summed up the failure of the campaign: 

“We laughed and yarned and jested, waiting, waiting for God knows what, but for something to break the silence that oppressed that vast empty graveyard, not only the graveyard of thousands of good men, but of England's hope in the Daradanelles. The hills seemed to tower in silent might in the pale misty moonlight, and the few lights upon them flickered like the ghosts of the army that had gone.” 

Each side had suffered about 250,000 casualties. Although strategically sound, the invasion had failed largely due to mismanagement and bad timing. 

The War in the Middle East

The Gallipoli campaign was not the first action the Allies fought against the Turks. In November 1914, Turkish authorities had allowed two German warships to enter the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits, claiming that they had purchased the ships for their own navy. When the two ships shelled Russian ports in the Crimea, the fiction of Ottoman neutrality ended. Ottoman forces next attacked the Russians in Transcaucasia, but were repulsed with heavy losses. The Turks retreated to Erzerum in eastern Turkey. The Russians counterattacked, and in early 1916 captured Erzerum inflicting further heavy casualties. When Russia collapsed in 1917, however, Turkish forces occupied Azerbaijan. 

Mesopotamia. The main war between the Ottomans and the Allies, however, took place in the Arab lands of the Middle East. In November 1914, an Anglo-Indian force captured Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf and began to move north. The terrain was forbidding—deserts, swamps along the rivers, and crawling with sand-flies, mosquitoes, and fleas. One British soldier expressed the general Allied opinion in a short poem: 

“Is this the land of dear old Adam

And beautiful mother Eve?

If so dear reader small blame to them

For sinning and having to leave.” 

After some initial successes, the campaign ended in disaster. Having pushed too far forward, the Allies were besieged in the town of Kut al-Amara, and forced to surrender in April 1916. The Turks captured some 10,000 men, nearly half of whom later died from mistreatment. In 1917, however, the British reentered Mesopotamia and retook Kut. This time they advanced steadily. By the war's end, Britain had full control of Mesopotamia. 

Syria. Meanwhile, further west, British forces had also made little headway at first against Ottoman positions along the Mediterranean. Britain's first priority was to safeguard the Suez Canal in Egypt, and keep open the lines of communication with India and Australia. As soon as the Ottomans declared war, Britain announced a full protectorate over Egypt, still nominally an Ottoman possession. In February 1915 and again in August 1916, Ottoman forces attacked the Suez Canal, but were repulsed.

            In 1915 and early 1916, the British were hoping for help from Arabs within the Ottoman Empire. Since before the war, in early 1914, they had been negotiating with the Sharif Hussain, the local ruler of Mecca and the Hijaz. To secure his cooperation, the British made vague promises of support for Arab independence after the war. In June 1916 Hussain raised the standard of revolt in Arabia and attacked Turkish forces in Arabia. By December, the British too had begun to advance north from Egypt. The Arab Revolt became a flanking action for the main British attack against Palestine and Syria.[6]

            In June 1917 General Sir Edmund Allenby took command of British forces, which had become bogged down around the Turkish stronghold of Gaza. By December, Allenby's forces had captured Jerusalem. A diversion of forces to Europe slowed him down but Allenby refused to be deterred. Using what units of cavalry he had left, he continued to push the Turks northward through 1918. In September, his forces captured Damascus. A month later, the Turks sued for peace. Combined with the Mesopotamian campaign, Allenby's operations left Britain the dominant power in the Middle East.

The War at Sea

Although the bulk of the fighting occurred on land, ultimate victory in World War I hinged on the ability to control vital sea lanes. Across these sea lanes, ships transported the food, raw materials, munitions, and people necessary to the functioning of a wartime economy. During the war, both Britain and Germany tried to blockade each other. The object of their blockades was to starve the other country and ruin its economy. Navies held the key to imposing and to lifting the blockades. “Sea power,” as Britain's Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond wrote, “did not win the war; it enabled it to be won.”

            Britain relied for its blockade on surface ships. Yet, only one major surface engagement occurred between large fleets of capital ships—battleships and battlecruisers. On May 31, 1916, Britain's Grand Fleet engaged Germany's High Seas Fleet in the North Sea off the coast of Jutland. The British had the superior force, but the Germans managed to escape and return to port. The battle proved indecisive, each side sustaining roughly similar losses. Nonetheless, historians usually consider Jutland a British victory because the German fleet remained in port for the rest of the war. Another threat, however, remained.

            The Germans based their blockade on the use of U-Boats, or submarines, a strategy that nearly brought Britain to its knees. Submarine warfare was not only efficient, but its swiftness and unpredictability also had a strong psychological impact on the enemy’s morale. One German submarine officer described the effect in an attack on a British ship: 

“I saw that the bubble-track of the torpedoe had been discovered on the bridge of the steamer, as frightened arms pointed towards the water and the captain put his hands in front of his eyes and waited. . . . Then a frightful explosion followed.” 

Eventually, the British successfully combatted the submarine threat through the use of convoys—grouping merchant ships together for escort by warships. The convoy system greatly improved the safety of shipping. In the Atlantic, for example, losses of ships sailing alone were 12 times[7] higher than for those sailing in convoy. Meanwhile, however, German submarine warfare contributed directly to bringing the United States into the war.

United States Entry into the War

The events of 1917 signaled the beginning of the end of World War I. As the year began, Germany faced critical shortages of food and other vital materials. German leaders concluded victory had to come soon or not at all. In February, they decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. They realized such an action would probably bring the United States into the war, but they hoped to defeat the Allies before the U.S. could mobilize. 

U. S. neutrality. Since 1914 the United States had tried to stay out of the war, which many Americans saw as a European affair in which they had no interest. The country had declared its neutrality when the war began in 1914. President Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to remain neutral “in thought as in deed.” Yet as the war progressed this attitude became increasingly difficult for many Americans to maintain, including the President.

            Wilson himself sympathized with Britain and France. He believed they formed the front line in the defense of democracy, which he thought Germany threatened. In addition, the United States had a heavier economic stake in an Allied victory than in a German victory. The Allies obtained goods on credit and borrowed money to finance the war from American companies and banks. Unable to break the British blockade, Germany’s access to such resources was more limited. Britain also largely controlled the flow of news about the war to the United States, and used this advantage to influence American public opinion. Moreover, many Americans felt closer to Britain, whose language and legal tradition they shared.

            The greatest difficulty came in the area of neutral rights. Although the United States insisted on the right of Americans to trade freely with either side, they also acknowledged the right of a belligerent to seize contraband, or war material, being supplied to its enemy. Even so, the American government demanded that Americans be ensured safe passage on the high seas. The Royal Navy's surface ships allowed Britain to board American ships, seize any contraband, and return the crew safely. Germany's navy had to rely instead on submarines, which could only sink ships thought to be carrying contraband, often with considerable loss of life.

The Lusitania. In May 1915, a German submarine torpedoed and sunk the British passenger liner, Lusitania, on its way from New York to Liverpool. The Germans claimed to have intelligence that the Lusitania was carrying contraband war material, which in fact it was. More than 100 Americans died in the sinking, however, and an outraged Woodrow Wilson warned Germany that the United States would not tolerate another such incident. 

The Zimmerman Note. The events of early 1917 settled whether the United States would enter the war. In January, the British, who had illegally tapped into the diplomatic telegraph cable between the United States and Mexico, intercepted a telegram from the German Foreign Minister, Alfred Zimmerman, to the German ambassador in Mexico. The ambassador was to urge Mexico to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers. In return, Germany would help Mexico regain its “lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.” The telegram also suggested that Germany was encouraging Japan to abandon the Allies and attack the United States. The British sent the telegram to Washington, where it helped turn public opinion against Germany.

            Then, in February, Germany announced its resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. The announcement brought Woodrow Wilson to the end of his patience. On April 2, the president finally asked Congress for a declaration of war. “The world,” he told them, “must be made safe for democracy.” Congress declared war on April 6. 

The Russian Collapse

Events in Russia had contributed to Wilson's willingness to ask for a declaration of war. The democratically-minded president had objected to joining the Allied side so long as it included the autocratic Russian Empire. This obstacle disappeared in mid-March, however, when a popular revolution drove Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate his throne.

            Russia's internal situation had grown steadily worse since the failure of the Gallipoli campaign. The Russian people became increasingly depressed by their appalling casualty rates. By early 1917, they had lost all faith in their government and in the Tsar. Strikes and street demonstrations broke out in the capital. Soldiers sent to restore order instead joined the protests. Having lost the support of the army, on March 15, Nicholas abdicated. By November, radical socialists of the Bolshevik Party had seized control of the government. They promised the Russian people “Peace, bread, and land”, and soon renamed themselves the Communist Party.

            The Communists acted quickly on the promise of peace. In December they opened negotiations with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk. The Germans’ price for peace was high: they demanded Poland, the Baltic provinces, the Ukraine, Finland, and the Caucasus. Hoping that their revolution might spread to Germany and Austria, the Communists delayed for nine weeks. In mid-February, the Germans, growing increasingly irritated, advanced deep into Russian territory. On February 28, 1918, the Communists accepted the terms of Brest-Litovsk, taking Russia out of the war. 

The End of the War and the Armistice

Russia’s exit from the war enabled the German High Command to move several experienced divisions from the eastern to the western front for one last offensive. Under the command of General Erich Ludendorf, the celebrated hero of Tannenberg, in late March 1918 the German Army struck. British and French forces suffered heavy casualties. By June, German forces threatened Paris. By the end of July, however, Ludendorf had to concede, “The enemy’s resistance was beyond our strength.” Ludendorf had exhausted the German army, using up most of its reserves between March and July.

            Meanwhile, American troops finally began to arrive in significant numbers on the western front. The American arrival ensured Allied victory. In addition to boosting Allied morale and shoring up Allied lines, American troops provided the Allied High Command, under France's Marshal Ferdinand Foch, with the extra manpower necessary to mount a war-ending campaign across Germany's borders. In September Foch attacked German positions in France and Belgium in preparation for a final assault against Germany in 1919. The preparatory offensive itself, however, sealed Germany's fate in the fall of 1918.

            Germany's position had completely unraveled by mid-autumn. The German High Command knew that the war was lost militarily. Germany's own allies had faded fast. Bulgaria and Turkey had both sued for peace. Early in October, a revolution toppled the Austrian government, and the German government itself faced the same prospect.

            The new German Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, tried his best to salvage the situation. He approached Woodrow Wilson, who had publicly expressed hope for a peace that would prevent any one power having to suffer humiliation. Wilson replied that he would only deal with a government truly representative of the German people—a clear invitation to revolution in Germany. Meanwhile, popular discontent continued to grow in Germany. Finally, the army turned against the monarchy. On November 9, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated.

            On November 11, the leaders of the new German republic agreed to Allied terms for an armistice, a cessation of hostilities until a formal treaty can be completed. The terms practically amounted to unconditional surrender. In a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne, the German chancellor grimly signed the armistice agreement while the Allies looked on. World War I had ended.