HS-102 Readings

Nature of World War I


    Known as the Great War at the time, World War I was, indeed, the most disastrous war ever fought in history. Words are totally inadequate to describe the slaughter, and statistics too cold to convey the human cost.

    13 million are estimated to have died on the battlefronts of Europe, about 1-1/2 million on the western front alone in the year 1916. The Russians lost 2-1/2 million killed, wounded , or taken prisoner in the year 1915. In one battle, Verdun, 700,000 lost their lives. That is 100.000  more than the total losses in the entire four years of the U.S. Civil War.

    This was the war that began with patriotic fervor on the part of both the soldiers marching off, and their loved-ones cheering them on.

    Some believed that the economic inter-dependency of European nations would compel governments to call  off the war if it threatened to last more than 6 months. That was an assumption based on the belief that human beings were rational. Instead, as the costs of the war mounted, governments increased their demands upon the enemy with the thought
that they had to compensate for the losses.

    The German Emperor promised his soldiers that they would be home "before the leaves fell."

    The Schlieffen Plan called for the defeat of France in 4 weeks, but, instead, German armies were stopped just short of Paris at the Battle of the Marne River.

    Meanwhile, the Germans defeated and threw back the Russian offensive in the east at the Battle of Tannenberg, without the help of army units transferred from the west.

    On the western front, both sides dug in, building lines of trenches that extended from the Channel coast to the Swiss border. Unlike any other war, there would be no possiblity of outflanking the enemy. Artillery and machine guns gave the advantage to the defense. Offense was suicidal because it exposed flesh and blood to the deadly weapons.

    On the eastern front, although the Russians had huge reserves of manpower and generally overwhelmed Austro-Hungarian armies, the Germans invariably defeated the Russians. The Russians lacked the industrial base to be able to provide their armies with the huge quantities of weapons needed in modern warfare.

    The Turkish military government, which had received military aid from the Germans prior to the war, joined the Central Powers in November, 1914.

    Italy, though a part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, did not enter the war on the side of the Central Powers. England and France promised the Italians territorial acquisitions after the war and persuaded them to join on their side in June, 1915.

    The United States remained out of the war until April, 1917. President Woodrow Wilson had popular support in the determination to remain neutral.

    The British put a naval blockade into place as soon as the war began. The Germans retaliated with the use of a new weapon, the submarine.

    The British blockade interfered with neutral shipping, and the United States was the largest neutral. The U.S. protested confiscations of U. S. cargoes, but the British were careful to compensate for loss of property, and there was no loss of life.

    The German submarine, however, could only stop a merchant vessel by sinking it. Loss of lives and property was unavoidable. The U.S. protested and the Germans put restraints on their U-Boat commanders.

    Repeated sinkings of vessels carrying U.S. cargoes occurred, and loss of American lives was involved. But even the sinking of the passenger liner, the Lusitania, in May, 1915, in spite of all the outrage it created at the time, did not change the U.S. policy. President Wilson was re-elected in November, 1916 after pledging to keep the U.S. out of the war.

    Wilson sought to act as an intermediary between the two belligerents, hoping to bring an end to the war. But as the war continued, and war aims were increased, Wilson realized that peace was not possible so long as each side expected victory. He said as much  in a speech he gave in December, 1916; a speech known as the "peace without victory" speech.

    Even as he said this, the German military command was deciding upon a military solution to the war. They decided to launch an unrestricted submarine warfare which no longer exercised restraint to spare neutral shipping. They were willing to take the risk that the U.S. might intervene against them based on the calculation that the English and French could be subdued before U.S. power could make any appreciable difference.

    It was unrestricted submarine warfare, and the heavy loss of American lives and property that, more than anything else, changed American public opinion and persuaded Wilson to declare war.

    Wilson thought in ideological terms, and already strongly favored the two democratic nations, England and France. When the Russian Revolution broke ut in March, 1917, and it appeared that Russia was establishing a liberal government, he could think of  the war as a struggle between the democracies and the autocratic governments of the Central Powers.

    Furthermore, Wilson had been giving thought to a new approach to preserving peace in the future. He saw the balance of power method as having failed to keep the peace and he looked to a principle of collective security as a means to do so in the future. That is, democratic nations would form an international organization to concert collective action
against any aggressor.

    This vision led Wilson to coin the phrases that this was a "war to save the world for democracy" and this was a "war to end all wars."

    U.S intervention could not affect the land war for almost a year because of  the time required to train large numbers of American soldiers and send them across the ocean. But it did immediately affect the war at sea as the U.S. Navy joined with the British Navy to combat the submarine. Introduction of the convoy system in the summer of 1917 slowed the heavy loss of shipping, while increased shipbuilding provided replacements.

    Following the revolution in Russia, the Russian war effort collapsed, making it possible for the Germans to transfer troops from the Russian to the western front.

    The Germans realized that time was against them, and that they had to break through in the west before large numbers of U.S. troops could reinforce the French and the English. They, therefore, carried out a great offensive beginnning in February, 1918.

    The offensive gained more ground than the Germans had done since the first month of the war. But in the end it bogged down, and the Germans were thrown on the defensive, facing a renewed and reinforced enemy whose forces grew with every passing day.

    In September, 1918, the German army command recognized that they were reaching the limits of their endurance and asked the emperor to sue for peace.

    In January, 1918, President Wilson had laid out a 14-point basis for peace which called for recognizing the self-determination of peoples, among other principles. To the Germans, this appeared to be a much more reasonable basis for peace than any terms they were likely to receive from the French and the English. Therefore, the Germans made their peace overtures to the United States government.

    President Wilson, however, was not willing to negotiate with the existing German government which he considered to be autocratic and not representative of the German people. This delayed negotiations even while the German war effort, particularly on the home front, was collapsing.

    As workers in the Ruhr rebelled and sailors in the navy mutinied, and street protests erupted in Berlin and other German cities, the leading German general (General Ludendorf) fled, and finally, at the end of October, 1918, the emperor abdicated and fled into exile in Holland.

    In the midst of street demonstrations in Berlin, leaders of the German Social Democratic Party, Ebert in particular, were persuaded by their followers to assume power. It was this government that signed the Armistice Agreement that ended the war.

    This had been a war unlike any other in history. Whole nations had mobilized. The workers in the factory on the home front were as important as the soldiers at the front in manufacturing the weapons, equipment and supplies that were so rapidly consumed by the war.

`    Governments took control of national economies to an unprecented degree in order to plan and allocate resources for the war effort.

    Every able-bodied person was involved, unemployment was wiped out, class distinctions became less important, workers incomes increased. Women were employed in large numbers in the factories.

    Loss of life, and destruction of property were so immense that no side could declare victory. All lost.