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9-08-2015, 21:31

WAR WITHOUT DECISION, 1914–16

The shape of the future world after August 1914 would now be decided by force. At the outset of the war all the major nations launched offensives to knock out the enemy quickly, and every one of these offensives had failed by the autumn of 1914 with great loss of life. War ended four years later not by defeat of the armies in the field alone, as in the wars of the nineteenth century, but with the breakdown of the political and economic structure of the defeated, their societies weakened or shattered. On the eastern war-front in August 1914 the two Russian armies assigned to invade East Prussia were badly led. Fulfilling their undertaking to the French, the Russian armies, superior in numbers, invaded East Prussia. After some initial Russian success General von Hindenburg was called from retirement to take command of the German defence and he selected General Ludendorff as his chief of staff. The myth of Hindenburg the heroic war leader was born. At the battle of Tannenberg on 28 and 29 August one Russian army was practically destroyed; the other was mauled in a subsequent engagement – the battle of the Masurian Lakes – but was able to withdraw to Russia in good order. Tannenberg is celebrated by the Germans in the tradition of the ancient Teutonic knights defeating hordes of Slavs. What followed was as important as the battle itself and is less heroically Wagnerian. The pursuing German army of the second Russian army was, in its turn, thrown back by the Russians. The end result of the year’s fighting was heavy casualties on both sides and neither a German nor a Russian decisive victory but a stalemate. Farther south, the Russians more than balanced their defeat in Prussia by proving their military superiority over the Habsburg armies. Austria-Hungary had launched an offensive into Polish Russia and in September suffered a crushing defeat; almost half (400,000) of the Austro- Hungarian army was lost and the Russians occupied Galicia. Russia also suffered heavy casualties, a quarter of a million men. The ‘forgotten’ war in the east for three long years from 1915 to 1917 sapped Germany’s military strength by forcing a division of Germany’s armies between the two major fronts, east and west. German victory in the east came too late to save it. Another military campaign which is forgotten, though it cost France 300,000 casualties, was the 1914 French offensive into Lorraine. The French initiative came to be overshadowed by the German breakthrough in north-west France. In accordance with the (modified) Schlieffen Plan the German armies attacked Belgium and were pouring into France in a great enveloping move. At the frontier the French armies were beaten and the small British army, right in the path of the Germans, withdrew from Mons having suffered heavy casualties. The French commander-in-chief, General Joffre, did not lose his nerve despite these almost overwhelming reverses. The French armies withdrew in good order and escaped encirclement. As the Germans rapidly advanced, their offensive ran out of steam. General Gallieni, appointed to defend Paris, now conceived of a counterstroke. The Germans had wheeled in before Paris. Joffre and Gallieni halted the retreat and counterattacked. The outcome was the battle of the Marne, won by the French during the period 6 to 13 September. Now it was the Germans’ turn to withdraw; they halted 100 kilometres from Paris having established a firm defence. The battles spread and raged to the west, all the way to Flanders, in a ‘race to the sea’ as the armies attempted to outflank each other. The British, French and Germans suffered heavy casualties in these epic struggles around Ypres. By the end of November 1914, the machine gun, the trenches and barbed wire finally proved the strength of the defensive. The western front was now deadlocked. The French had already suffered heavy casualties in the fighting in north-west France, with 380,000 killed and 600,000 wounded. This was matched by casualties on the German side. Yet it was only the beginning. The war in the west would from now on be won not by superior strategy, nor by movement and rapid encirclement, but by the slow process of attrition. The Great War had turned into the first ‘industrial war’ to be won as decisively on the home front producing ever vaster quantities of guns and munitions, as in the field. In Britain the Liberal government of Asquith at first preserved most civic freedoms. There was no conscription. Two million men volunteered in response to Kitchener’s appeal for a New Army. But soon there were doubts whether the war could be won by peacetime-style government. In the spring of 1915 the government was being blamed for a shortage of munitions. Asquith strengthened the government by bringing in the Conservatives; Labour, too, was found a place. A small War Committee took over a tighter direction. Lloyd George, the new minister of munitions, built up a network of control over raw materials and manufacturing industry. War supplies improved and national economic planning was seen to work, which after the war boosted the claims of the socialists. The war could not be fought in the traditions of previous victorious struggles. That became clear when conscription for military service was introduced early in 1916. Even so 1916 did not bring the expected victory. The politicians sought a new leader to direct the war with more ruthless purpose and energy. In December 1916 the fiery and charismatic Welshman, Lloyd George, replaced Asquith and headed a coalition government for the remainder of the war. During the years of the war the individual lost many rights as hope of a quick victory vanished. In accepting state direction, organised labour cooperated with the national government, and a political ‘truce’ was proclaimed in Britain as in other belligerent countries. Due in no small measure to Lloyd George’s skill, the dominant style was that of cooperation rather than coercion, of preserving constitutional parliamentary government rather than resorting to authoritarian rule. In France President Poincaré called for a ‘sacred union’ in defence of the fatherland. Patriotism for the anti-clerical republic was sanctified. Political and social issues which had rent the republic before were now subordinated in face of the common enemy invading France for a second time. Symbolically the veteran socialist leader, Jean Jaurès, who had so fervently denounced militarism and had worked for Franco-German reconciliation, was assassinated by a nationalist fanatic on the very eve of the war. He, too, would have joined with his fellow socialists in the defence of France. For France, invaded and losing large tracts of the country right at the beginning of the war, it could not be ‘business as usual’ – the inappropriate words of calm coined by Winston Churchill across the Channel – because from the start France was in imminent danger of defeat. That is why the French were the first to establish a government of national unity representing all parties from left to right. Although the war was fought on French soil, and the loss of industrial north-western France was serious, the French improvised war production and relied on financial and material aid from Britain and the US. Shortages of food and of necessities sent prices soaring. Increasingly authoritarian control of production, allocation of labour and distribution had to be undertaken by the state. The first of the belligerents to organise their production and manpower, however, were the Germans. The British naval blockade reducing essential supplies from overseas – though war materials continued to pass through neutral Scandinavian and Dutch ports – made careful planning all the more essential. Substitute (Ersatz) materials were invented with scientific skill and ingenuity. As the general staff, with an almost characteristic lack of prudence, had made no plans for a long-drawn-out war, the war the Germans had to fight, it was a ‘civilian’, Walter Rathenau, in August 1914, who was responsible for setting up a centralised organisation to ensure the supply of essential raw materials. In Germany, too, the political parties closed ranks to support the nation at war. Only a small minority of socialists continued to oppose the war. The kaiser responded emotionally, declaring that: ‘I do not know parties any more, only Germans.’ He actually received the Social Democratic leaders in his palace and they were happy to shake hands with their kaiser. Who would have believed a year earlier such a thing would happen? Until 1916 the Burgfrieden (literally ‘Courtpeace’, another typically Wagnerian phrase) held, but then tensions began to appear and a larger group of socialists began to oppose the war. The Reichstag, unfettered, debated war aims and the conduct of government, culminating in the famous peace resolution of July 1917: ‘The Reichstag strives for a peace of understanding and lasting reconciliation of nations. Such a peace is not in keeping with forcible annexations of territory . . . .’ But it turned out that, if German armies were to prove victorious, the Reichstag did not expect its resolution to be taken too literally. In any case, the chancellor was dependent not on the Reichstag but increasingly on the high command. The kaiser, too, became more and more of a shadow. After Hindenburg and Ludendorff had been appointed to the high command, they demanded in 1917 the dismissal of the Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg. He was too independent. His successors were nonentities and Germany practically fell under a Hindenburg– Ludendorff military dictatorship during the last year and a half of the war. If Austria-Hungary had been on the verge of dissolution through the disaffection of the Habsburgs’ Slav subjects this would certainly have shown itself when the Monarchy’s Slav neighbours – the Russians and Serbs – went to war. In Vienna and Budapest there was much concern. The Serb, Ruthene and Czech populations were lukewarm in their war effort. Some Czechs and Poles formed their own Legions, which fought for the Allies. But there were no large-scale defections, let alone national uprisings. Croats, Slovenes, Italians, Romanians fought bravely side by side with Germans, Austrians and Magyars, and so did many Poles and Czechs. The Austro-Hungarian army was a unique multinational force. But in one respect it was not unique: the incompetence of its leadership. The ordinary soldiers suffered appalling hardships, and casualties during the first nine months of the war exceeded 2 million. Even so, new conscripts allowed fresh armies to be formed. In 1915, facing war on three fronts with Russia, Romania and Italy, the Monarchy was too weak to meet all its enemies, and substantial German armies were needed to sustain the ally. The ‘national’ division between Austria and Hungary also impeded the war effort. The Hungarians refused to go short of grain and profited by raising prices to the Austrian half of the Monarchy, which went hungry. War production, concentrated in Bohemia, was inefficient. But the multinational army fought on doggedly, though new recruits failed to maintain its strength, sapped by the losses in the field. In 1916 the aged Emperor Franz Josef died. His successor, Charles, believed the Monarchy was close to collapse, having overtaxed its strength, and he was soon secretly trying to make peace. The army remained loyal to the dynasty virtually to the end. New weapons killed in new ways: attacks from Zeppelins from the air and poison gas on land. Far more serious in its effect of spreading war to non-combatants was the conflict on the oceans. In 1915 Germany attempted to break the effects of the British-imposed blockade by ordering its submarines to sink all belligerent and neutral ships which entered a ‘war zone’ around the British Isles. To avoid capture the submarines torpedoed, without warning, boats bound for Britain. On 7 May 1915 the Germans sank the British passenger liner Lusitania; almost 2,000 crew and passengers, including women and children, lost their lives. World opinion, especially in the US, was outraged: 128 Americans had been among those who had lost their lives. Germany’s excuse that starving women and children in Germany were victims of Britain’s food blockade was always flimsy. The submarine campaign failed completely in its objective. It failed to cut off vital supplies from reaching France and Britain and it failed to frighten the neutral countries from continuing to expand their trade with the Allies. Germany launched a propaganda campaign of hatred directed especially against Britain. This had little effect on those actually engaged on the battlefronts. Much to the embarrassment of the generals on both sides, the German and Allied troops on the western front spontaneously stopped fighting on Christmas Day 1914, exchanged gifts and even played football between the trenches. There was little hatred, even a good deal of fellow feeling. The soldiers knew that there was no way out of the war except through death or injury or victory. The Great War differed from the Second World War in one very important respect. There were no planned atrocities committed by the military on prisoners of war or on civilians. Wartime propaganda was, for the most part, lies. There were no savage Huns killing Belgian priests, nuns and babies, nor Belgian civilians behind the lines gouging out the eyes of wounded Germans. The Red Cross was respected in all countries, including tsarist Russia. Brutalities no doubt occurred but they were isolated. The blot on this record was the forced deportation of some 60,000 Belgians in 1916 to work in German factories. Though it was wartime, the socialists in the Reichstag loudly protested; the deportations ceased, and by the summer of 1917 the great majority of the Belgians had been sent home again. In Belgium itself no coercion was exercised to force Belgian industry to work for the German war effort, though factories were dismantled. Only the miners, with the permission of the Belgian government, continued to produce coal. Both among the Belgians and in occupied Russian Poland, the Germans and Austrians attempted to win over the population to their cause. The Poles were promised an independent state at least in form, though in practice such an independent Poland would have become a German satellite. There was no maltreatment. The Poles of Prussia and of the Habsburg Monarchy fought with much loyalty for Germany and the Habsburgs, seeing tsarist Russia as the oppressor. Unquestionably the worst atrocity against defenceless civilians occurred in Turkey against the Christian Armenian people in 1915 and 1916. When the war went badly for the Turks in 1915 and the Russians were pushing into Anatolia, the Russians attempted to inflame and exploit Armenian nationalism against the Turks. An Armenian Legion fought for the Russians and an Armenian puppet government was set up. The Turks, uncertain of the loyalty of the Armenian population in Asia Minor committed the worst atrocity of the war by ordering the wholesale deportation of the Armenians from the lands adjoining the battlefront to Syria. Armenian historians accuse the Turks of genocide against their people. Turkish historians admit that large massacres took place but deny that the Turkish government intended them to happen. Sporadic massacres had already taken place before 1914, shocking Western Europe. What is certain is that the tragedy of 1915 and 1916 was on an even greater scale. The forced deportation of men, women and children caused the deaths of tens of thousands through starvation and disease. Some (by no means all) of the Turks reverted to outright massacres on the spot. There are no reliable figures for those who perished. They vary, according to whether the sources are Turkish or Armenian, from 200,000 to more than 2 million. Of the 1.6 million Armenians between a half and three-quarters of a million perished. The five great nations of Europe went to war in 1914 not for any specific territorial gains. It was not a ‘limited’ war in the post-Napoleonic nineteenth-century manner. The war was a gigantic contest between them to determine their power in Europe and the wider world. It belongs with the wars of international insanity of the first half of the twentieth century. When that contest was decided, it was widely believed, it would inevitably bring about also the ruin of the imperial world ambitions of the defeated and provide new imperial prospects of conquest and influence for the victors. The illusion was fostered that this contest would settle the power struggle for ever. Hence the phrase ‘the war to end wars’. For two small nations there was no choice. Serbia was guilty of provoking Austria-Hungary and then in 1914, when faced with the Austrian ultimatum, fought for its independence. The Belgians were guilty of nothing. Their misfortune was their strategic position between France and Germany. Both French and German military planners wanted to march through Belgian territory, but Britain had prevented France from taking the initiative. Belgium wished to preserve its neutrality. The king of the Belgians, even after the invasion of his country, remained suspicious of both sides. He claimed he was defending the little bit of Belgium still free from German occupation as a neutral and not as an ally of Britain and France. In the Balkans another small nation, Greece, was finally brought into the war in 1917 by France and Britain against the wishes of the king of Greece. Britain and France sent a military expedition to Salonika in October 1915 and then attempted to coerce the pro-German King Constantine into war on the Allied side. Although not as blatant as German aggression in Belgium, it was another violation of the rights of a small nation. A number of European countries chose and were able to remain neutral throughout the war: the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and Spain. Their sympathies between the contestants were divided. Some industries in neutral countries experienced a great boom. The Spanish coal mines in Asturias and textile mills in Catalonia supplied the French. Dutch industry developed; the Swiss found a ready market for clocks, machines and textiles. The shortage of food made farming highly profitable. But in the last two years of the war, while the farmers and some industrialists continued to do well, the standard of living of the mass of the workers in the neutral countries of Europe fell due to soaring food prices. The US was by far the most important and powerful of the neutrals from 1914 to 1917, the only great power in the world not at war. The feeling of most Americans was that the war in Europe was but one further chapter in the history of the folly of European nations; it reinforced in their view the wisdom of the Founding Fathers in establishing the American republic and separating its destiny from the rivalries of Europe. In Europe, the French, the English, Italians and Russians were fighting the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians. During the Easter rising in Dublin in 1916 some Irish were fighting the English too; in the US their descendants lived at peace with each other. Americans were convinced that they were building a higher civilisation and from this stemmed a genuine desire to help its neighbours on the American continent and in the world to attain the blessings of liberty. This, too, was the faith of President Wilson. It helps to explain the missionary style of American diplomacy. Wilson’s moralising certainly led to some decidedly contradictory behaviour. The US intervened on its own continent, sending troops to the countries of weaker neighbours in Mexico, Haiti, Santo Domingo and Nicaragua to establish American supremacy and naval bases in the Caribbean. But this was not seen as anything at all like European ‘imperialism’. The purpose of the US was ‘pure’: to teach its badly governed neighbours the benefits of American democracy. If people were enlightened and were given a free choice then Americans believed they would choose the American way. In August 1914 Wilson issued a neutrality proclamation. Both Allied and German propaganda sought to persuade the American people that right and justice were on their side. The Germans emphasised that they were fighting a despotic and cruel regime in Russia, whose persecution of the Jews had already led to a great exodus of immigrants to the US. The British dwelt on the rights of small nations and the dangers to a peaceful Europe if the kaiser and Prussian militarism were to get away with breaking treaties and attacking weaker neighbours. The behaviour of the countries at war made a deep impression on the US and nothing more so than Germany’s warfare against defenceless merchant vessels and even passenger liners. The president took his stand legalistically on ‘neutral rights’, the right of Americans to travel the oceans safely and of American merchant ships to trade with Europe. Wilson protested at Britain’s conduct of the blockade and Germany’s ruthless submarine warfare designed to cut off the British Isles from the world’s arteries of trade essential to its war effort. Wilson’s protests were effective. Rather than risk an American declaration of war, the German government desisted from attacking American ships in 1915 and on 1 September also pledged not to sink any more Allied passenger liners, which had also led to the loss of American lives. Meanwhile, the loss of American lives and the ruthlessness of German warfare had swung the majority of American opinion in favour of the Allied cause. But this was sentiment, not action; the Americans also stood behind their president in wishing to keep out of the war. The American people, at the same time, saw no reason why they should not profit from the huge increase of trade brought about by the war. While Germany was just about able to maintain its trade with the US through neutrals, US trade with the Allies increased fourfold. By 1916 that trade was calculated at a staggering $3,214 million, whereas trade with Germany and the neutrals amounted to a little over $280 million. The war resulted in a great expansion of American industry. During the war years Ford developed a mass market for motor cars and trucks. It was the beginning of the motor revolution, which matched in importance the earlier railway revolution in transport. Free from the burdens of war, the US developed new technologies and more efficient methods of industrial manufacture, outdistancing the European nations more and more. As the Allies used up their capital to purchase from the US, America itself replaced Britain as the principal source of capital to other nations. American prosperity came to depend on Allied purchases and, when these could no longer be met by payment, the prohibition against loans to the belligerents was relaxed. However, Britain’s command of the sea prevented the Germans importing goods directly through their ports from overseas, though supplies did reach them through neutral ports. America’s response to Allied needs meant that its economic strength was thrown predominantly behind the Allied cause long before it formally abandoned neutrality. There was no reason for the US to go to war. It was still safe from European attack and was constructing a navy designed to be as powerful as any in the world to guarantee that safety in the future. It coveted no more territory. But already Americans perceived weaknesses in their position. The growth of Japanese power in Asia, no longer checked by the Europeans, threatened American interests in Asia. Even more worrying appeared to be the prospect of the European conflict ending in the complete victory of one side or the other. That would destroy the global balance of power. Would not the US then be faced with the threat of a European superpower? American naval war plans before April 1917 were intended to meet that danger and not the possibility of joining on the Allied side. It made sense that Wilson would attempt to preserve the European balance by attempting to persuade the belligerents to conclude a compromise peace. But all his efforts in 1915 and 1916 failed. They failed for a simple reason. As long as the Germans occupied Belgium and northern France they felt themselves at least partially victorious, but the Allies would contemplate no peace unless Germany gave up all its conquests. This would have made the sacrifices of Germany all in vain. In truth, neither side was ready to conclude a peace that might prove merely temporary. The only way they could conceive of ensuring a durable peace was through total defeat of the enemy. When the first two months of the war did not lead to the expected decision, France, Britain and Russia and Germany and Austria-Hungary hoped to strengthen their position by winning new allies and opening up new war-fronts to threaten their enemies. The Germans were the first to be successful in this respect, persuading the Turks to attack Russia and enter the war in October 1914. The Turkish decision not only widened the area of conflict but also profoundly changed the history of the Middle East. The future of the Middle East became a bargaining counter between the powers at war. Britain invaded Mesopotamia to secure the oilfields, and supported an Arab revolt. Less successful was a British and French naval attack on the Dardanelles repelled by the Turks in February and March 1915. However, an attack on Turkey was still seen by Churchill and Lloyd George as the best way of striking a decisive blow in a war deadlocked in the west but immensely costly in human life. In April 1915 British and French troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula with the object of capturing Constantinople. But the Turks defended resolutely, and the Anglo-French campaign was a failure. Turkish and Allied losses were heavy before the Allies finally decided on evacuation, which they completed in January 1916. The Ottoman Empire did not play a decisive role in the war: the Turkish participation on the losing side resulted in its dismemberment and the dramatic growth of Arab nationalism. Ottoman territory was held out as bait during the war in order to keep one ally, Russia, involved. In the famous ‘secret treaties’, Britain and France in 1915 promised Constantinople and the Straits to Russia. Other portions of the empire were promised to Italy as colonies by the Treaty of London (April 1915) to induce the Italians to join the Allies and attack Austria-Hungary to the north. Though nominally partners of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Italians had declared their neutrality in August 1914. For the next nine months they were wooed by both sides. The Italian government in the end chose war for territorial gain alone, though the politicians were divided whether or not to go to war. The government blatantly sought to extract the best bid, an attitude dignified by Prime Minister Salandra as conforming to sacro egoismo. What was decisive for Italy was a determination to complete its ‘liberation’ and to wrest from Austria-Hungary the Italian-speaking lands of the Trentino and Trieste. But its appetite was larger than this; the Italian government hoped also to acquire the German-speaking South Tyrol as well as influence and territory in the Balkans and Ottoman territory in Asia Minor. The Austrians felt they were being blackmailed. ‘Against brigands such as the Italians are now, no diplomatic swindle would be excessive’, secretly wrote the Austrian prime minister. The Allies offered the most. In May 1915 the Italians declared war on Austria-Hungary and so quite unnecessarily entered a war that was to prove for the Italians immensely costly in human life and material resources. For the Balkan states the Great War provided an opportunity to start a third Balkan war for the satisfaction of Balkan territorial ambitions. Bulgaria in September 1915 joined the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary with the promise of large territorial gains, including Serbian Macedonia. A year later, in August 1916, Romania was promised by the Allies Romanianspeaking Transylvania and part of the Austro- Hungarian Empire as well as other territories, and it declared war to secure them. In eastern Asia, Japan’s chosen policy was to strengthen its position in China. It declared war on Germany in August 1914, captured Germany’s Chinese colonial sphere and then presented to China the Twenty-one Demands to assure itself a predominant position. The war begun by Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France and Britain for one set of reasons widened to include other nations, all of whom, with the exception of the US, saw in it an opportunity for extending their territorial empires. In each of the belligerent countries there were some politicians who, after the failure to win the war in 1914, looked towards the conclusion of a compromise peace. But, despite President Wilson’s efforts to build a bridge between the combatants through mediation, the generals and the governments conceived only of a peace ended on the victor’s terms. This attitude, as much as the outbreak of the war itself, changed the course of world history. In Berlin, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg at times viewed the unfolding drama in terms of Greek tragedy; it would be disastrous for civilisation whether Germany won or lost. In victory, would he be able to keep in check crude concepts of military conquest? In the plans for a peace following a German victory which Bethmann Hollweg drew up in September 1914, he tried to create a new Europe, at least a new continental Europe, because he could not conceive of defeating Britain, only of isolating it through the defeat of Russia and France. He said he wished to conclude a so-called ‘Bismarckian’ peace of limited annexation. On the other hand he was convinced that France and Russia must be so weakened that they would never be able to threaten Germany again. Belgium, and even a coastal strip of northern France, would have to fall under direct or indirect German control. Through the creation of autonomous states, carved out of the Russian Empire, but made dependent on Germany, Russia would be pushed far to the east. A continental economic custom union would bring prosperity to all, and reconcile continental Europe to German hegemony while excluding Britain. All this he called ‘Middle Europe’. To satisfy imperial ambitions, the German African colonies would be augmented with French and Belgian colonial possessions to form German ‘Middle Africa’. The base of Germany’s political and economic power would, however, have lain in its domination of continental Europe. There was to be no return to the balance of power. This meant in practice the destruction of Russia and France as great powers and a compromise peace with Britain which would acknowledge Germany’s continental domination – hardly a limited Bismarckian peace! Russian aims were both specifically territorial and absolute. The Russian government wished to fulfil what it regarded as Russia’s ‘historic mission’ of acquiring Constantinople and control of the Straits. What this involved was the final destruction of Ottoman power and its replacement by a Russian domination of the Balkans, Asia Minor and as much of the Middle East as France and Britain would allow. All Allied war aims were dependent on defeating Germany. With Germany eliminated as a great power, the reduced Habsburg Empire and the smaller Balkan states presented no problem to Russia. The rivalry of allies would be more serious than the ambitions of former enemies. We can gain a glimpse of Russian aims. According to the French ambassador’s memoirs, the Russian foreign minister, Sazonov, told him on 20 August 1914 that the ‘present war is not the kind of war that ends with a political treaty after a battle of Solferino or Sadowa’; Germany must be completely defeated. My formula is a simple one, we must destroy German imperialism. We can only do that by a series of military victories so that we have a long and very stubborn war before us . . . But great political changes are essential if . . . the Hohenzollern are never again to be in a position to aspire to universal dominion. In addition to the restitution of Alsace-Lorraine to France, Poland must be restored, Belgium enlarged, Hanover reconstituted, Slesvig returned to Denmark, Bohemia freed, and all the German colonies given to France, England and Belgium, etc. It is a gigantic programme. But I agree with you that we ought to do our utmost to realise it if we want our work to be lasting. It is a commonplace to compare the peace of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918, which the Germans imposed on the hapless Russians, with Versailles, and to conclude that the Germans only justly received what they had meted out to others. The reverse is also true. The Russians had every intention of treating the Germans as harshly as the Germans treated Russia in defeat. When we compare the ‘war aims’, it becomes rather hazardous to pass comparative moral judgements on them. The French government also wanted to impose conditions on the defeated so that they would remain victors for all foreseeable time. The French, alone among the great powers, were fighting the same enemy for the second time for national survival. French territorial demands were limited to Alsace-Lorraine and colonies. But French requirements went far beyond that, beyond the restoration of Belgium, to the imposition of terms that as Viviani, the French prime minister, declared to the Chamber of Deputies in December 1914 would destroy Prussian militarism. The economic imbalance between Germany and France was to be righted by territorial cessions and by forcing the Germans to transfer wealth – gold – to France under the heading of ‘reparations’. Germany would be made to ‘pay for the war’, to weaken it and to strengthen its neighbours. The British approach was more pragmatic, avoiding commitments as far as possible. There was no desire whatever to reconstitute Hanover. Indeed, there were no war aims formulated at all during the first two years of the war, except for the restoration of Belgian independence, since this had been the principal ostensible reason for going to war. Little thought was given to the terms to be imposed on defeated Germany, far more on what favourable inducements might entice Germany’s allies to abandon it. There was no desire to break up the Habsburg Empire. But the one recurring theme, the destruction of the war spirit of the principal enemy, was frequently proclaimed. General Sir William Robertson, chief of the imperial general staff, in a speech to munition workers in April 1917, summed up this uncompromising outlook: ‘Our aim is, as I understand it, to deal German despotism such a blow as will for generations to come prevent a recurrence of the horrors of the last two and a half years.’ But this did not mean exactly what the Russians and French had in mind. Britain’s prime minister, Lloyd George, as well as Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary, were convinced that Germany’s great power on the continent could not be permanently diminished. The best hope for peace was the emergence of a peaceful democratic post-war Germany. Thus, Germany should not be driven to seek revenge to recover territory won from it. Unjust and harsh treatment of defeated Germany would only sow the seeds of future conflict. Britain’s leaders looked to a close alliance with the US to guarantee the maintenance of peace. Later differences which emerged with France over the right policy to adopt are clearly foreshadowed in British war aims. These were only ‘absolute’ on one point: the security of the British Empire from any future German challenge. Germany would not be permitted again to compete with Britain’s naval supremacy. As for other war aims, they were to be formulated by Britain during the war in response to the demands of allies, or would-be allies, or in pursuit of military objectives. The latter led to the encouragement of the Arab revolts against the Turks, for instance, and so to the post-war transformation of the Middle East. The attempts of the belligerent nations to win a decision in 1915 and 1916 all failed at a cost in human life never before experienced. Both sides on the western front attempted to break through the other’s carefully prepared defences. For the soldiers this meant leaving the security of their own trench and advancing across a ‘noman’s land’ raked by machine-gun fire to the enemy trench protected by barbed wire and bayonets. If you were lucky, artillery had cleared something of a path before you and disorganised the defence, but it was rarely totally effective. If good fortune favoured you, you actually reached the enemy trench; others only moved a few yards beyond their own trench before falling to the enemy fire. French and British offensives were launched by Joffre and Haig in the spring of 1915. No breakthrough was achieved; the little territory gained was no compensation for the appalling losses. In the autumn of 1915 the Allies renewed their offensive, ending again without any worthwhile gain; 242,000 men were lost by the Allies in that autumn offensive alone. New recruits were nevertheless still increasing the size of the armies. On the eastern front German troops in 1915 were now essential to sustain the Austro- Hungarian front as well as their own. In successive Austrian and German offensives from January to September 1915 the Russians suffered heavy defeats, were driven from all German territory as well as Habsburg Galicia and gave up a large area of the Russian Empire including Russian Poland. The Russian retreat demoralised the army. The Germans and Austrians captured more than a million prisoners and the Russians had lost another million men. But the Russian war effort was not broken. By enormous effort on the home industrial front and by the raising of new troops the Russian front-line strength reached 2 million once again in 1916. Some 4 million men had by then been lost. The tsarist government, despite the vast reserve of population, was incapable of doing more than making good the losses. The Russian armies that would by sheer numbers steamroller over Germany and Austria-Hungary never materialised in the First World War as they would in the Second. That nightmare vision for the Germans, which had been so powerful an influence on them in deciding for war in 1914, was illusory. Before 1915 was ended the first of the nations to have gone to war in August 1914 was crushed. Serbia was overwhelmed by a joint Bulgarian, German and Austrian attack. The new front created by Italy’s entry into the war in May 1915 resembled the fighting in France rather than in Russia. Although the Italians enjoyed superiority over the Austrians, they suffered heavy casualties in a series of offensives during the course of 1915 without coming near to winning any decisive battles or achieving a breakthrough. Here, too, the short glorious war that was expected proved an illusion and Italy was locked in costly battles of attrition. It was easier to enter the war than to leave it with profit. The central powers (Germany, Austria- Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria) planned to carry on the war in 1916 so that through attrition the enemy would be exhausted. The German commander in the west, General Falkenhayn, calculated that if the Germans attacked the fortress of Verdun, then the French would sacrifice their manpower to hold on to it. This would break France’s morale. Verdun became associated with the doggedness of its French hero defender Pétain, who, like Hindenburg, was to play a critical political role, for which he was unsuited, in post-war Europe. Falkenhayn failed to take Verdun or to limit German casualties by the use of artillery as he had planned. By the year’s end German casualties – a third of a million men – were almost as heavy as the French losses of 362,000 men. During the summer months until the autumn of 1916 the British and French armies not committed to Verdun launched their great offensive on the Somme intending to bring victory. The casualties suffered in hurling men against wellprepared positions were horrifying. The German army was not beaten but, refusing to yield territory in tactical withdrawals, also suffered enormous casualties. The French, British and Germans sacrificed more than a million men. British casualties alone exceeded 400,000, French 190,000 men, and the Germans around 500,000. Still there was no decision. The Somme offensive in the west was part of a co-ordinated inter-Allied plan to attack the central powers. Only the Russians in 1916 gained a great victory. General Brusilov’s summer offensive was an overwhelming success, destroying the independent Austro-Hungarian war effort. The Austro-Hungarian army lost more than 600,000 men in casualties or as prisoners, the Germans 150,000. But Russia, too, failed to defeat Germany in the east. Russian casualties were heavy and multiplied during the fighting from August to September. As it turned out, though no one expected it at the time, the Brusilov offensive was to be the last major Russian military effort before the outbreak of the revolution in Russia. The central powers did score one easy military success in the east in 1916 after the halting of the Russian offensive: the defeat of Romania. Its supplies of foodstuffs and oil now became available to the central powers. While the war was being fought, during the winter of 1916 and the following spring of 1917, new forces were at work which changed its course fundamentally: the intervention of the US and the Russian Revolution.

 

 

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