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10-08-2015, 16:31

Illusions and Stalemate, 1914–1915

Europeans went to war in 1914 with remarkable enthusiasm. Government propaganda had been successful in stirring up national antagonisms before the war. Now, in August 1914, the urgent pleas of governments for defense against aggressors fell on receptive ears in every belligerent nation. Most people seemed genuinely convinced that their nation’s cause was just. A new set of illusions also fed the enthusiasm for war. In August 1914, almost everyone believed that because of the risk of damage to the regional economy, the war would be over in a few weeks. People were reminded that all European wars since 1815 had in fact ended in a matter of weeks. Both the soldiers who exuberantly boarded the trains for the war front in August 1914 and the jubilant citizens who bombarded them with flowers as they departed believed that the warriors would be home by Christmas. German hopes for a quick end to the war rested on a military gamble. The Schlieffen Plan had called for the German army to make a vast encircling movement through Belgium into northern France that would sweep around Paris and encircle most of the French army. But the high command had not heeded Schlieffen’s advice to place sufficient numbers of troops on the western salient to guarantee success, and the German advance was halted only 20 miles from Paris at the First Battle of the Marne (September 6 –10). The war quickly turned into a stalemate as neither the Germans nor the French could dislodge the other from the trenches they had begun to dig for shelter. Two lines of trenches soon extended from the English Channel to the frontiers of Switzerland (see Map 4.2). The Western Front had become bogged down in a trench warfare that kept both sides immobilized in virtually the same positions for four years. In contrast to the west, the war in the east was marked by much more mobility, although the cost in lives was equally enormous. At the beginning of the war, the Russian army moved into eastern Germany but was decisively defeated at the battles of Tannenberg on August 30 and the Masurian Lakes on September 15. The Russians were no longer a threat to German territory. The Austrians, Germany’s allies, fared less well initially. After they were defeated by the Russians in Galicia and thrown out of Serbia as well, the Germans came to their aid. A German-Austrian army defeated and routed the Russian army in Galicia and pushed the Russians back 300 miles into their own territory. Russian casualties stood at 2.5 million killed, captured, or wounded; the Russians had almost been knocked out of the war. Buoyed by their success, the Germans and Austrians, joined by the Bulgarians in September 1915, attacked and eliminated Serbia from the war.