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9-08-2015, 21:33

THE END OF WAR IN THE WEST, 1917–18

If the war had come to an end in 1917, if the conflict had been decisively won by either the Allies or the central powers eighteen months earlier, then for certain the history of the world would have been very different. Instead the war went on. Neither a compromise peace nor a decision on the western front could be attained. European society had withstood the strains of war for more than two and a half years much better than anyone thought likely in the beginning. In the third year, the toll of destruction finally began to crack the political and social cohesion of Russia, the largest of the European powers; nor could even the militarily stronger Western countries escape the consequences of the conflict. The year 1917 marked a great change in the direction of world history. From the start the war had not been entirely European. With the entry of Turkey into the war in 1914 the destiny of the Middle East was bound up in the war’s outcome. In what, from the point of view of the war itself, was a sideshow, the British launched offensives in 1916, 1917 and 1918 against the Turks and at the end of the war became the predominant military power in this region of the world. They were now bound to agreements and promises to the French (the Sykes–Picot agreement) to divide influence with them after the war; to the Arabs they had held out prospects of independence; and to the Zionists, who under Chaim Weizmann’s leadership were working for a Jewish state, ‘a National Home of the Jewish People’ in Palestine. From these origins in the First World War developed the Middle East conflicts that have continued down to the present day. From the start, too, eastern Asia was involved in the war. On the pretext of pursuing the war against Germany, Japan began by occupying the German colonial sphere in China in 1914, and went on to attempt to gain predominance over a much greater part of China while the European powers were locked in devastating conflict thousands of miles away. On the continent of Africa the war seemed only to result in a rearrangement of colonies: a further chapter in the history of imperialism. Yet the new ‘mandates’ of the League of Nations over former German colonies held out eventual promise of independence for the African people. Peace treaties did not end these worldwide repercussions of the war. National aspirations which were intensified during the war continued to ferment when the war was over. Nineteen-seventeen was a momentous year in world history. Two events almost coincided: the Russian Revolution and the entry of the US into the war. By becoming a belligerent and assuming world commitments, the US was in decisive breach of the advice of the Founding Fathers of the republic. After the war, the American people tried to treat this as an aberration and return to normalcy and ‘isolation’. But Americans could not escape involvement in global affairs in the twentieth century as they perceived their security and prosperity threatened by events elsewhere in the world. Because of the realities of American politics, the decision for war rested on the shoulders of one man, President Wilson. Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, was a convinced interventionist on the Allied side long before Wilson reached the same conclusion. He saw the war in Europe as a fight for democracy against the warlike Prussian Junker spirit; Lansing’s views did not much affect the president one way or the other. He listened more to his friend and personal emissary, Colonel Edward M. House. But Wilson was very much his own man, supremely confident of his good judgement at a time when in questions of foreign policy, of peace and of war, the presidency was virtually supreme. There can be no doubt that his personal sympathies lay with the democracies. The overthrow of the tsar in March 1917 therefore removed one obstacle to the US siding with the Allies. Nor can there be any doubt that from the start of the war in Europe the actual interpretation of American neutrality enormously favoured the Allied cause in providing financial credit and war supplies, even though Germany managed to secure some American imports through the neutral Scandinavian ports and Holland. Still, US policy was not evenhanded and did not exemplify Wilson’s own call to the American people to ‘act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality’. In November 1916, Wilson narrowly won a second term as president, using such slogans as ‘He kept us out of war’. Was Wilson cynically playing politics when during the campaign he declared, ‘I am not expecting this country to get into war’, although five months later he led the US into just that? Wilson’s change of stance in April 1917, his public enthusiasm for the rightness and justice of the noble cause of war, was not what he felt; he hated war, and his efforts to keep the US out of the war before February 1917 were genuine. To claim that the US did not behave as a proper neutral from 1914 to 1917, that Wilson hoped to frustrate a German victory by assisting the Allies, that he legalistically stretched the concept of America’s neutral rights, condoning British infractions and harshly condemning German violations of these rights, does not prove that Wilson desired or expected the US to enter the war and was willing to sacrifice American lives for the Allied cause. Wilson knew there was a risk of war. From the outset the Germans had been left in no doubt, and were indeed themselves in no doubt, that to resume unrestricted submarine warfare against American ships supplying the Allies would lead to war with the US. Expecting to win the war before America could carry military weight in Europe, the kaiser, urged by the German military, nevertheless on 9 January 1917 finally chose to use this weapon. Wilson had wished to save America’s strength so as to ensure a just and permanent peace after war was over. The war, he believed, would leave the world exhausted, ready to listen to his words of reason. To gain his end, he had attempted as a first step to lead the warring nations to a compromise peace through his personal mediation. But war was, nevertheless, eventually forced on him by the German military leaders. On 22 January 1917, after the failure of his last effort to mediate, Wilson still proclaimed a vision of a ‘peace without victory’ and a new world order or League of Nations to ensure that peace would prevail. Nine days later the Germans publicly announced their intention to attack all neutral shipping. Wilson could not ignore the challenge, but his reaction stopped short of war. The next blow to his attempt to keep out of war was the revelation of the so-called Zimmermann telegram, a message from the German foreign minister to the Mexicans encouraging them to go to war with the US and to recover their lost territories in alliance with Germany. The telegram had been intercepted by British intelligence and published on 1 March. Anger and indignation swept America. A few days later American cargo ships were sunk without warning by German submarines. Still Wilson hesitated. In the confidential documents and private papers of this time there is no hint of enthusiasm for war on Wilson’s part, though his Cabinet were now unanimously in favour. But on 2 April 1917 Wilson submitted to Congress a request to recognise that Germany had made war on the US, which both Houses of Congress approved on 6 April 1917. Even so, President Wilson still maintained a separate status on behalf of the US. He did not simply join the alliance; the US became an ‘associated power’, Wilson thereby retaining a free diplomatic hand. He would pursue his goal of arriving at a just peace by other means. The American people were not making war on the German people but on their militarily crazed rulers. Wilson’s faith in American democracy made him believe rather naively that he could appeal to the peoples to follow his ideals if the governments of the Allies or former enemies should place obstacles in the way of the just peace he envisioned. The US was not ready for war in April 1917. Its military preparations, especially its great naval expansion, as well as its war plans, had been designed to secure American safety against the eventual victors of the First World War, whether led by Britain or Germany. Some military men believed the Germans could land more than a million men in the US should they decide to invade it; the navy estimate was a more sober 200,000. The US navy thus built a great battleship fleet ‘second to none’ – that is, equal in size to the British – to protect the US from invasion after the First World War had ended. America’s military preparations were particularly ill-suited for the war it now joined. The Allies did not need any more battleships, but they were desperately short of troops on the western front. Wilson had forbidden war plans of intervention in the First World War before April 1917; now everything had to be improvised. The impact of American military intervention in Europe was not felt for a year. Not until May 1918 were American forces, under General John Pershing’s command, strong enough to affect the fighting on the western front. It was just such a breathing space the German high command had counted on to force Britain and France to their knees. Along the battlefields of France the year 1917 again brought no result but continued to grind up hundreds of thousands of men and their weapons. General Robert Georges Nivelle, who had replaced Joffre in all but name as French commander-in-chief, planned a great spring offensive to be coordinated with Russian and Italian offensives. The British army had now grown to 1,200,000 men and the French to 2,000,000; together with the Belgians the Allies now enjoyed a superiority of 3,900,000 over 2,500,000 Germans. The Germans stood on the defensive in the west but frustrated the French and British efforts in the spring and summer of 1917 to break through their lines and rout their armies. Nivelle’s failure resulted in widespread demoralisation among the French troops. The French nation, which had withstood so much in two and a half years of war, appeared, during the spring of 1917, to lose its cohesion and unity of purpose. Soldiers mutinied, bitter at the spectacle of Paris, with its cafés and boulevards and smart ladies untroubled by war. Bitterness and despair, fear of mutilation and death, reopened old wounds of social schism. The collapse of French morale was localised and General Henri Philippe Pétain’s skilful handling of the situation, and the belief he instilled that the war would in future be fought with more consideration for the value of human life, brought the mutinies under control. Of the 30,000 to 40,000 mutineers forty-nine were shot to serve as an example. In the summer of 1917 the ‘sacred union’, the French political truce, ended. Following the lead of Russian Bolsheviks, French socialists now spoke of compromise peace. At this critical juncture President Raymond Poincaré chose as head of government, hated though he was by the socialists, the 76-year-old veteran politician Georges Clemenceau, who embodied the spirit of fighting the war to victory. The country responded once more. For the British and Canadians who bore the brunt of the fighting during the summer and autumn of 1917 it was a bitter year, and their commander Field Marshal Lord Haig was criticised for the unprecedented losses sustained in the offensives in Flanders. In November he reached the deserted village of Passchendaele less than ten miles from his starting point. Passchendaele came to symbolise the apparently pointless slaughter. Romance in war had long ago vanished in the sodden, rat-infested trenches, death was a daily expectation. By the autumn of 1917 three of the now six great powers at war were on the point of military and economic collapse. The Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy was desperately short of food; the Habsburg army could not without German help sustain the war on all fronts. The new emperor, Charles I, was secretly seeking a way out of the war. On the other side, the Italians were also soon in desperate plight. Suffering 340,000 casualties, the Italian army was defeated at the battle of Caporetto in October 1917, but with some British and French help recovered to man a new line of defence. One of the great powers, Russia, did collapse. The revolution that overthrew the tsar in March 1917 had not taken it out of the war immediately. The new provisional government intended to fight it more energetically and successfully than before. But Alexander Kerensky, war minister of the government and later its leader, could not with fine speeches make up for Russia’s exhaustion and the mismanagement of the ‘home front’. The Russian summer offensive which he ordered turned into a rout. In November 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power and called for peace immediately ‘without annexations and without indemnities’. Russia was out of the war, a stunning blow for the Allies. Nineteen-seventeen was a disastrous year for the Allies. Only on the oceans did they win what for Britain and France was a battle for survival. The Germans only once seriously challenged the battleship might of the British navy. The resulting battle of Jutland in May 1916 was claimed by both sides as a victory, but the German fleet did not again challenge the British navy whereas Britain continued to rule above the waves and maintain its blockade of Germany. The real danger to the Allies was the ‘blockade’ imposed below the water’s surface by German submarines. At first it looked as though the Germans would sink enough ships to knock Britain and France out of the war by cutting the Atlantic supply line, for they sank 212 ships in February 1917 and a record 335 ships, totalling 847,000 tons, in April. By convoying, ships losses were reduced to 107 ships by December. This was the damage that some 100 German submarines inflicted. What would have happened if the Germans had concentrated on this effective offensive weapon before the war instead of wasting resources on the prestigious German battleship fleet? They were to repeat the error in the Second World War. During the grim winter of 1917 and 1918, widespread disaffection and doubts whether the war could ever be won, led to new calls for peace from all sides. Lenin had nothing to lose by calling the labouring masses in Europe to revolution and to bring to an end the capitalist imperialist war of their masters. Lloyd George, determined to fight until the German rulers were defeated, responded, to still the doubts in Britain, by delivering a speech in January 1918 to the British Trades Union Congress. Its keynote was moderation and an insistence that the central powers give up all their conquests so that the sanctity of treaties be upheld. Lloyd George’s speech was overshadowed a few days later, on 8 January 1918, by President Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points setting out in a similar way the basis of peace. The worldwide appeal of the Fourteen Points lay in their lofty design for a new era of international relations. The world led by the US and Wilson’s ‘new diplomacy’ would ‘be made fit and safe to live in’; every nation would ‘determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression’. But the specific Russian, British and American peace proclamations, with their insistence on the restoration of conquered territory, all presupposed the defeat of Germany. No German could regard as a ‘compromise’ giving up all the territory still firmly occupied. In 1918 it appeared likely that the Allies would be defeated rather than Germany. The generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff had established a virtual dictatorship in Germany and marshalled all resources in a country exhausted by war. In March 1918 Ludendorff mounted a powerful offensive in the west; during April, May and June German troops broke through and once more came close to Paris. The cost in casualties was again huge: 800,000 Germans and more than a million Allied troops. This turned out to be imper- ial Germany’s last bid for victory, though the Allies, commanded now by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, did not know it. The Allied counter-offensives found a weakened enemy losing the will to fight. The greatest defeatism was not, however, to be found on the battlefront but among the so recently revered German generals, Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Germany’s allies were collapsing in September 1918. The Turkish army was defeated in Palestine. The Bulgarians could not resist an Allied advance from Greece and requested an armistice. Though Austrian troops were still stoutly defending the Italian front, the Dual Monarchy was disintegrating and its various nationalities were proclaiming their independence. In France, the arrival of new masses of fresh American troops had not only blunted Germany’s earlier thrust against Paris, but filled the German high command with a sense of hopelessness. Successful Allied offensives broke their last will to resist. Ludendorff, towards the close of September 1918, demanded that the government in Berlin should secure an immediate armistice to save the army. In Berlin the politicians tried to win a little time. Later, Ludendorff propagated the lie, so useful to the Nazis, that the army had been ‘stabbed in the back’. The truth is that Ludendorff wished to end a war that was militarily lost while the army still preserved its discipline and cohesion. He got his way. On 11 November 1918 the last shot was fired in France.

 

 

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