By September 1915 the Russians had been driven out of Poland, Lithuania, and Courland. Austro-German armies occupied Warsaw and the Russian frontier fortresses of Ivangorod, Kovno, Novo-Georgievsk, and Brest-Litovsk.
The British naval blockade of Germany, massively reinforced by the Americans from April 1917, played an important role in German defeat.
The obligations of coalition inhibited strategic independence. Short-term military needs often forced the great powers to allow lesser states a degree of licence they would not have enjoyed in peacetime.
Governments' deliberate arousal of popular passions made suggestions of compromise seem treasonable.
The ever-rising cost of the military means inflated the political ends. Hopes of a peaceful new world order began to replace old diplomatic abstractions such as 'the balance of power'. Rationality went out of season. War aims were obscured. Strategies were distorted.
Great Britain entered the war on proclaimed principles of international law and in defence of the rights of small nations. By 1918 the British government was pursuing a Middle Eastern policy of naked imperialism (in collaboration with the French), while simultaneously encouraging the aspirations of Arab nationalism and promising support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. It was truly a war of illusions.
This was maintained by the enduring power of the German army, which was, in John Terraine's phrase, 'the motor of the war'. The German army was a potent instrument. It had played a historic role in the emergence of the German state. It enjoyed enormous prestige. It was able to recruit men of talent and dedication as officers and NCOs. As a result it was well trained and well led. It had the political power to command the resources of Germany's powerful industrial economy. Germany's position at the heart of Europe meant that it could operate on interior lines of communication in a European war. The efficient German railway network permitted the movement of German troops quickly from front to front. The superior speed of the locomotive over the ship frustrated Allied attempts to use their command of the sea to operate effectively against the periphery of the Central Powers. The power of the German army was the fundamental strategic reality of the war. 'We cannot hope to win this war until we have defeated the German army,' wrote the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. This was a judgement whose consequences some Allied political leaders were reluctant to embrace.
Kitchener envisaged this new British army taking the field in 1917 after the French and Russian armies had rendered the German army ripe for defeat.
They would be 'the last million men'. They would win the war and decide the peace. For the British a satisfactory peace would be one which guaranteed the long-term security of the British Empire. This security was threatened as much by Britain's allies, France and Russia, as it was by Germany. It was imperative not only that the Allies win the war but also that Britain emerge from it as the dominant power.
|German soldier standing next to a giant rail gun shell.|
But the obligations of the French alliance were inescapable. The British could not afford to acquiesce in a French defeat. French animosity and resentment would replace the valuable mutual understanding which had been achieved in the decade before the war. The French had a great capacity for making imperial mischief. And so did the Russians. If they were abandoned they would have every reason for doing so. There seemed no choice.
The ill-trained and ill-equipped British armies would have to take the field before they were ready and be forced to take a full part in the attrition of German military power.
Improvements in agriculture reduced the numbers needed to work on the land and provided a surplus of males of military age. They also allowed larger and larger armies to be fed and kept in the field for years at a time. Changes in administrative practice brought about by the electric telegraph, the telephone, the typewriter, and the growth of railways allowed these armies to be assembled and deployed quickly. Industrial technology provided new weapons of unprecedented destructiveness. Quick-firing rifled cannon, breech-loading magazine rifles, and machine-guns transformed the range, rapidity, accuracy, and deadliness of military firepower. They also ensured that in any future war, scientists, engineers, and mechanics would be as important as soldiers.
But it did not begin as one. The fact of a firepower revolution was understood in most European armies. The consequences of it were not. The experience of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) appeared to offer a human solution to the problems of the technological battlefield. Victory would go to the side with the best-trained, most disciplined army, commanded by generals of iron resolution, prepared to maintain the offensive in the face of huge losses. As a result the opening battles of the war were closer in conception and execution to those of the Napoleonic era than to the battles of 1916 onwards.
Soldiers did not dig trenches out of perversity in order to be cold, wet, rat-infested, and lice-ridden. They dug them in order to survive.
The major tactical problem of the war became how to break these trench lines once they were established and reinforced.
Living and fighting in hellish conditions. For what?
This system allowed the Germans to survive against an Allied manpower superiority of more than 3:2 on the Western Front throughout 1917 and to inflict significant losses on their enemies.
A French tank. The first baby steps towards modern tank warfare
Not a scene from a horror flick. The millions who died during the Great War
Dead French soldiers in Argonne. Man became immune to such images. And became more brutish. When will it all end?
Four great empires, the Romanov, the Hohenzollern, the Habsburg, and the Ottoman, were defeated and collapsed. They were replaced by a number of weak and sometimes avaricious successor states. Russia underwent a bloody civil war before the establishment of a Communist Soviet Union which put it beyond the pale of European diplomacy for a generation. Germany became a republic branded at its birth with the stigma of defeat, increasingly weakened by the burden of Allied reparations and by inflation. France recovered the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, but continued to be haunted by fear and loathing of Germany. Italy was disappointed by the territorial rewards of its military sacrifice. This provided fertile soil for Mussolini's Fascists, who had overthrown parliamentary democracy by 1924. The British maintained the integrity and independence of Belgium. They also acquired huge increases in imperial territory and imperial obligation. But they did not achieve the security for the Empire which they sought. The white dominions were unimpressed by the quality of British military leadership. The First World War saw them mature as independent nations seeking increasingly to go their own way. The stirrings of revolt in India were apparent as soon as the war ended. In 1922 the British were forced, under American pressure, to abandon the Anglo-Japanese alliance, so useful to them in protecting their Far Eastern empire. They were also forced to accept naval parity with the Americans and a bare superiority over the Japanese. 'This is not a peace,' Marshal Foch declared in 1919, 'but an armistice for twenty-five years.'
Remains of German soldiers in Verdun. What did they die for?
THE FIRST WORLD WAR (DVD)
Superior DVD series covering WW1. After watching these, WW1 takes on a new perspective. I was amazed so much old motion picture existed from this time period. Highly recommended!