Tuesday, March 17, 2015

World War I: Part II


World War I, or the Great War as participants came to call it, was a war of contrasts. From the beginning, reactions to the news of war were strong but sometimes opposite in character depending on where one stood. In the large cities of the Great Powers—cities such as Berlin, Munich, London, St. Petersburg, and Paris—there was great enthusiasm with spontaneous pro-war demonstrations in the streets that were almost completely unanticipated by the various governments. While it is true that there were some instances of protest marches against the war, these were dwarfed by the wave of pro-war demonstrations that came to be described as the “August Madness.” When the Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, son of Wilhelm I, came out onto his balcony to see the pro-war crowds gathered at his residence in Berlin, he declared that he could no longer see different interest groups, religions or parties. “I see only Germans,” he said. This August Madness was less pronounced, however, in the countryside, where farmers realized that it was going to be harder to make a living or produce a crop with all of the young men being drafted into the army. Feelings about the looming war were even more ambivalent in the smaller and occupied countries that had no stake in war and saw only the likelihood that their lands would be invaded, occupied and destroyed, their lives disrupted or taken away. Soldiers would be drafted from among these occupied peoples, especially by the Austro-Hungarians, and many of these peoples resented having to fight for a distant emperor they only wished would leave them alone. The problem of being a colonized people expected to fight for one of the Great Powers also troubled those who were occupied by Russiaand Germany, especially those, such as the Poles, who had relatives fighting for the other side. The situation in the dominions of Great Britain and France were only slightly different in that many citizens of their colonies held out the hope that if they distinguished themselves in the defense of the mother country, they might earn some degree of autonomy or even independence as a reward at the end of the war.

 

World War I was also full of surprises and ironies, to put it mildly. If you asked each combatant country what they were fighting for, initially, many of them would have claimed to be defending their country against aggression. Both Franceand Germany made this claim against each other, but if each side was defending against an aggressor, then who was that aggressor and how could that aggressor also claim to be fighting a war of self defense? Part of the explanation is that everyone subscribed to the theory that the best defense is a good offense. In fact, both Germany and France felt that if they did not attack first they might be destroyed; so, they both made preemptive invasions of each other. The French effort would have driven into the middle of Germany, precisely at the point of her strongest defenses. This strategy collapsed quickly. Meanwhile, the German plan, meant to invade Francethrough the neutral nation of Belgium, was at first successful. Based on a plan that had been originally designed by the late General Alfred von Schlieffen and thus called the Schlieffen Plan, the invasion of Belgium was supposed to lead to an invasion of northern France, and it did stun French and British troops, pushing them back, if only momentarily. Then the German plan collapsed in place, resulting in a stalemate that lasted for most of the rest of the war. From the North Sea to Switzerland, with the Germans on one side and the British and French on the other, the combatants faced each other across a nearly static “no man’s land” that shifted very little and very rarely from where it was toward the end of 1914. In the larger picture, Germanyhad hoped to defeat Francequickly so that Germanycould turn its full attention to Russia, which presumably would take a long time to mobilize for war. This did not work out as hoped. Russia mobilized faster than anticipated and invaded East Prussiabefore the Germans fully realized that the Schlieffen Plan had collapsed. It had been precisely the hope of the Schlieffen Plan that it would prevent Germany from having to fight simultaneously on Eastern and Western Fronts.

 

There has been a long debate over the Schlieffen Plan and its execution. Many came to believe that the plan itself was hopelessly flawed from the outset. General von Schlieffen had worked out precise timetables to move troops by train to where they had to be in order for the plan to work. Some think that the failing of the plan was that this timing did not allow any leeway. On the other hand, some military historians believe that this is not the problem. They might say that the original Schlieffen Plan did not need to be executed perfectly, only that it had to be executed in more or less the way Schlieffen designed it. Instead, the German commander, General Helmuth von Moltke, the Younger (His father and namesake had been the able general who defeated the French in 1871.) radically changed the Schlieffen Plan, turning what was supposed to be a feint into the main attack and what was supposed to be the main attack into a lesser maneuver. These critics say that he thereby weakened the plan and that, had he followed the original scheme, it might have worked. Part of Moltke’s change of the plan was understandable if strained in its logic. The original plan had called for the invasion of both Belgium and the Netherlands. The invasion of neutral countries without even a pretext was a violation of the gentlemen’s agreement that had helped keep the peace in Europefor so long. The only reason the Schlieffen Plan called for it was the convenience of invading northern Francethrough borders where there were few defenses and a swift path toward Paris. (Actually, the plan called for a wide encirclement of Paris.) Germany decided to leave the Netherlands out because they thought that invading the Netherlandsas well as Belgium went too far, but, as every other country saw it, invading Belgiumwas so great an infringement that sparing the Netherlandsearned Germanyno advantage or favor whatsoever.

 

An early expectation of the warring nations had been that this war would be like other wars before it with cavalry charges across open fields of battle, sabers flashing as horsemen in colorful uniforms and plumed hats rode into the enemies’ ranks. This expectation was cruelly crushed by reality. Artillery barrages—made by the cavalrymen’s own side—pocked the fields with craters in which their horses stumbled. Additionally, before the cavalry reached enemy lines, they would be mowed down not only by rifle fire but by machinegun fire. The machinegun had previously been used to put down colonial rebellions, but now, for the first time, Europeans used it against each other, and it helped to change war forever. With surprising speed, the combatant nations put aside their colorful and flashy uniforms in favor of drab gray and khaki. Helmets became less decorative and more practical (although, the new helmet designs often borrowed from the look of medieval headgear). Officers’ uniforms became more like those of their men so that snipers could less easily spot the commanders.

 

Nothing changed the look and feel of war on the Western Front as much as the stalemate of trench warfare. The trenches were so complex that it was necessary to have a map of your own trench network—or, alternatively, a guide—in order to navigate them. There would be several rows of trenches from the rear toward the front, and they would be cut into the earth in a saw-tooth pattern so that an explosion at one point might be prevented from sending fire and debris all the way down the line. Because large areas of the battlefield were below sea level, the bottom of the trench was apt to fill with water, which made it difficult for men to keep dry and led to health problems. (Diseases of various kinds killed soldiers more often than bombs or bullets.) Men’s hairstyles were profoundly affected by this type of warfare. In the previous century, wearing one’s hair in a military fashion could have meant somewhat long hair and, especially, a beard or long side whiskers; now, in order to protect against lice, soldiers cut their hair very short and limited any facial hair to a small “toothbrush” mustache. Hunkered in the warren-like complexes of troughs that were dug into the bomb-riddled, rain and blood-soaked fields of Belgium (often referred to as Flanders), soldiers on both sides were subjected to an alternating pattern of boring routine and terrifying slaughter.

 

The generals on both sides were devoted to what historians have called the “cult of the offensive,” to which I previously referred as the sentiment that the best defense is an offense. The goal was to break through the enemy’s lines by shear force. The two stages of the typical attack, used again and again by both sides on the Western Front, was to bomb the enemy trenches with artillery, using a rolling barrage that began in the empty field or no man’s land in front of the enemy trenches, and then moved into the trenches from front to rear (sometimes continuing into the rear headquarters area). When the barrage stopped—or even beginning before it stopped—the attacking side’s infantry would march forward across no man’s land and attack the enemy trenches that had supposedly been “softened up” by the barrage. This idea of assaulting an enemy who is dug into a fortified network of trenches failed to work for several reasons:

 

1) The bombed trenches were not softened up at all, being well fortified so that most of the defending soldiers simply hid themselves and survived the barrage. Afterward, they came out and laid down fire against the attacking troops. Machinegun posts were especially well fortified, and their return to operation after the barrage was most deadly to the attacking side.

 

2) The barrage announced exactly where the attackers were going to send troops, giving the defenders plenty of time to call for reinforcements. The defending side could use trains and trucks to get reinforcements to the trenches before the attackers could slog across no man’s land on foot.

 

3) The same barrage that had failed to soften up the enemy made a mess of the battlefield so that attacking infantrymen had difficulty making it across the bomb-cratered landscape, which was often turned into mud that additionally slowed their advance.

 

 

The hope and faith that a large enough attack would break through the enemy’s strong center enthralled German, French and British generals throughout most of the war. The idea of attacking an enemy at his strongest point has been recognized by the best military strategists throughout history as the opposite of a wise tactic; it is far better to attack where an enemy is already weak. Only belatedly did any of the military commanders of World War I understand this. As a result, many fierce battles were fought on the Western Front with enormous casualties in exchange for gains and losses of only a few miles or even yards. The advantage of the defensive position became obvious to anyone who faced the facts. Unfortunately, it was enlisted men and junior officers who recognized this before the general officers did.

 

The traumatic stalemate on the Western Front so captured the imaginations of the combatant nations both during and after the war, that it was sometimes imagined that all future wars would be characterized by the phenomenon of stalemate. It was less well appreciated that this type of stalemate rarely occurred in other theaters of the Great War. Especially on the Eastern Front, where Central Power and Russian forces clashed, there were sweeping battles that achieved definitive victories for one side or the other, but there was also a seesaw effect whereby one side’s sweeping victory would be followed within weeks by a sweeping victory by the other side. Although the Russians attacked Germany more quickly and with greater initial success than Germanyhad anticipated, the German’s achieved their first great victory of the war at Tannenberg at the end of August 1914. At first the Russians had driven deep into German territory, but Tannenberg turned the tide. In 1915, the Russians would win one more great victory, but it would be their last.

 

Meanwhile, Great Britain’s entry into the war was a factor that Germanyhad not anticipated, and this made the situation for Germany more dire. (Some historians think that the participation of Britaincombined with the collapse of the Schlieffen Plan made German defeat inevitable after the first month of the war; no matter how long it might take for the allied Powers to defeat her, Germanyultimately could not win.) Britain’s entry was also less easily justified to the British people. Why should an island nation get involved at all when Germanycould not invade it as easily as it could invade Franceor even Russia? Britain had an agreement to help Francebut it also resorted to extolling the ideal of the sovereignty and independence of smaller nations. This cause was often justified by pointing to Germany’s invasion and occupation of Belgium. The real reason for British involvement, however, was a fear that German domination of Europe would mean German rivalry on the high seas at a time when Britainhad enjoyed worldwide naval supremacy for generations.

The early developments of the war led to shifts in strategy and especially in personnel. Following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, General Moltke was replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn as Chief of the General Staff of the German army. Falkenhayn settled into the supervision of the Western stalemate although he authorized and led several attempts to break it, leading to high casualties but no further territorial gain. Although he also supervised the Eastern Front, his service there was little needed. German management of the Eastern Front was already in the able hands of the so-called "Siamese twins"--generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. (Later, Hindenburg and Ludendorff would play backroom politics within the German military and force the resignation of Falkenhayn, to be replaced by Hindenburg himself.) Early during the war a pattern developed in terms of the comparative strengths of the combatant countries. The opening of the war, with its unexpected wholesale slaughter on the early battlefields, hurt Austria-Hungary most of all. Her best professional army officers were killed in the first weeks of the war and were never replaced by men who were as good. The result was a dismal performance by the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russian forces. The only enemy forces against whom the Austrians did well were the Italians who entered the war in 1915. Even so, the Austrians were so weakened by the end of the war that even the Italians were able to defeat them. Time and again, especially against the Russians, the Austrians needed to be bailed out by the Germans. The Germans came to complain that they were "shackled to the corpse" of Austria-Hungary. Similarly, while the French army did well under the worst circumstances, facing perhaps its greatest crisis of the war during the ten-month-long battle of Verdun in 1916, the help of the British army was indispensable to France's survival. Consequently, the German predicament was that they might be able to fight the French alone, but not the British, too. German sentiment, which had held France in contempt for generations, turned its long-held distrust of Britain into an especially white-hot hatred.

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