The Course of WWI

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There are three key questions:

1. What is the best explanation for the defeat of Germany/the Central Powers?
2. How far are Generals to blame for high casualty rates?
3. Which front was the most decisive?

There are many resources for WWI – here are just a few:

History Today
100 Years On – The History Today armistice centenary ebook.

What is the best explanation for the defeat of Germany/the Central Powers?

  1. The Central Powers began with a disadvantage that forced them to rely on gambles
    The allies had significant advantages in terms of material and human resources over the Central Powers. As a result, Germany and its allies were forced to take gambles, but this does not mean that the outcome of WWI was in any way inevitable. Germany’s gambles almost paid off on at least two occasions. Allied strategic and tactical decisions were crucial in maximizing the material advantage and making it count.
  2. The first gamble failed
    The first great disadvantage to be overcome by Germany was to avoid a war on two fronts. The gamble involved bringing France immediately into the war in the hope of defeating her before turning to face the Russians.

    Once the Schlieffen Plan was defeated and a stalemate was established, the material advantages of the three allies could play a significant role. Key to Germany’s defeat therefore was the failure of the Schlieffen Plan.

    The Schlieffen Plan failed in part because most of the assumptions on which it was based turned out to be false and because of decisions made on the ground – particularly by Moltke himself and by von Kluck, during the Battle of the Frontiers.

    The failure of the Schlieffen Plan can be viewed in this interactive map from the BBC

    The war on the western front therefore ceased to be a war of movement and became instead a war of stalemate and attrition. In addition, the great battles of attrition in 1915-17 would hurt the French, the British and the Germans, but it would hurt the Germans more because of their lower capacity for re-supply.

    Germany’s new strategy was to try to eliminate one of the two allies on the Western Frontier. This was attempted in the ‘race to the Sea’ in 1914 and eventually at Verdun in 1916 and again during the Spring Offensive of 1918.

    In the course of the attritional battles of 1916-17, generals like Haig and Ludendorff learned how to fight modern warfare. In the end, however, the allies possessed the resources to apply those tactical lessons most effectively.

  3. The great gambles at sea also failed
    Allied control of the sea was critical to maintaining the allied material advantages and in forcing Germany into a war of attrition on the Western Front. Much like the Schlieffen Plan, the Tirpitz plan – designed to prevent a British blockade – was defeated because its key assumption turned out to be false. Britain could still impose an effective ‘loose’ blockade even if it could not risk a ‘tight’ blockade close German ports. The result of the British blockade for the Germany economy was severe and was made more devastating by the potato blight of 1916, leading to the infamous ‘turnip winter’. Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who had taken command of the army from Falkenhayn in 1916 (and by this point imposed a silent dictatorship upon Germany itself) decided to take another gamble that resembled the Schlieffen Plan. Warned by America not to continue with unrestricted submarine warfare following the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, Germany renewed the policy in Spring 1917 knowing full well the risks it ran. The plan was to take Britain out of the war before America could enter it. German experts estimated that sinking 600,000 tons of British shipping per month would strangle Britain, and during the first months the plan seemed to be working. The poor harvest of 1916 meant that by April 1917, only one month’s grain reserves were left in Great Britain and a quarter of her ships had been sunk. David Lloyd George’s solution was to introduce the convoy system against the advice of key naval personnel. By the summer of 1917, shipping losses had been reduced to just one per cent. Moreover, the United States entered the war against Germany on April 6th 1917. Other elements in allied success included the recovery of a code book and encryption key from a sunken German vessel, the Magdeburg . This meant that admiral John Jellicoe was able to avoid the ambush of German admiral Spee at Jutland. Jellicoe’s refusal to pursue the German fleet back to port – despite pressure from David Beatty – meant that Britain was able to maintain its own blockade on Germany and keep the channel open to re-supply its own troops and remain in the war. The blockade on Germany had a serious effect on morale and materiel in Germany, deleting the country’s capacity to wage war. Once again, Germany’s gambles failed to pay off, but the decisions of individuals, like Admiral John Jellicoe, for example, were crucial to the maintenance of allied material advantage.
  4. Germany’s allies were rather poor
    Germanys allies were perhaps more a liability than a help. Constantly having to bail out Austria-Hungry and the Ottoman Empire prevented Germany from concentrating her forces on the Western Front. The Turkish Sultan’s proclamation of Jihad against the godless allies in 1914 largely fell on deaf ears. But it wasn’t all bad news. Germany’s sea power had been important in bringing the Turks into the war on their side, and despite being the ‘sick man of Europe’ was perhaps the most important of Germany’s allies. Her ability to close the Dardanelles, meant that a similar blockade situation could be mounted against Russia as had been mounted against Germany herself. The Galipoli campaign was a major British tactical failure even if it was the result of genuine and valid strategic thinking. The Turks kept the Dardanelles closed and it remained very difficult if not impossible for the allies to offer help to Russia whose experience of war was resulting in economic catastrophe, less because of the Dardanelles and more because of the loss of peasant labour from the countryside and the transfer of transport and foodstuffs away from the cities and towards the front line. Nonetheless, Russia had contributed to the eventual allied victory more than either Turkey or Austria contributed to Germany’s efforts. By its invasion of East Prussia, Russia had distracted Moltke from the western front and caused him to give up valuable resources that were perhaps critical to the plan’s hopes of success, even if Russia’s defeats at Tannenberg (immortalized in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914) and at the Battles of the Masurian Lakes were to inflict terrible losses on Russia and turn General Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff into military heroes in Germany. Similarly, the Brusilov offensive of 1916 not only distracted Germany from Verdun (and thus offered relief to France), but also laid down a blue print for future engagements by the ingenious use of tunnels and a brief and extremely accurate bombardment of enemy positions. This proved to be the last of Russia’s successful advances, however, and the disorder of the Kerensky offensive the following summer led eventually to the Bolshevik revolution and Russia’s eventual withdrawal from the war to its own great cost. Similarly, Italy proved to be no more effective as an ally, and was roundly beaten by the Austrian troops at the twelfth battle of the Isonzo (the retreat from Caporetto was immortalized in Ernst Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, even if Hemingway himself only arrived on the scene six months after the retreat). It would be a mistake therefore to suppose that Germany was alone in having weak allies or that her defeat was principally due to the weakness of those allies. Like the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Turkish empire fragmented as Arab nations believed British promises to support their bid for nationhood after the war. The defeat of Russia in 1917 meant that Austro-Hungarian ad Ottoman decline was less of a threat to German interests than it might have been. By the same token, the defeat of Russia meant that the decisive front remained in the West.
  5. The last gamble also failed
    Having failed to win at Sea but having succeeded in overcoming the most significant enemy in the East (even if managing such a vast conquest remained a drain on her resources), Germany was in a position to mount one last gamble to secure a breakthrough on the Western Front before American troops arrived en masse. As with the Schlieffen Plan, Verdun and unrestricted submarine warfare, Germany gambled once again, and lost for the last time. The reasons for that failure are explained well here. Failure was a result of strategic and tactical mistakes, the heavy casualties that were sustained as a result of renewing the war of movement (last seen on the Western Front in 1914) and because of the lack of resources that starved the army of fuel and equipment as well as soldiers themselves of food. In response, the allies launched what has come to be known as the ‘100 Days’ offensive. By the middle of September, the Germans had retreated back to the Hindenburg Line, from whence they had launched their Spring Offensive. Advancing allied troops were met with German soldiers spontaneously surrendering and on 29th September, as the allies were breaking through the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg line, Ludendorff informed the Kaiser that the war was lost and that only an armistice could save Germany now. Ludendorff turned out to be a far greater politician than he was a general, managing to deflect blame for the defeat from his own shoulders and those of military leadership to the politicians who were about to take over in Weimar. ‘Let them eat the broth they have prepared for us’, he said cynically, when in reality it was the German leadership that had done the cooking all along.
  6. The allies got the big decisions right
    • Decision to go for total war; and the organiation of the economy: see the articles on 1914-1918 Online: The Organisation of the War Economies and Labour movements, Trade Unions, Strikes and Sea Transport and Supply
    • Organisation of the home front and the wartime economy
    • Role of Women
    • Decision to fight on land;
    • Loose blockade – and the war at sea generally – see Sea Transport and Supply on the 1914-1918 Online website
    • Jutland
    • Convoy system introduced from April 1917
    • Gallipoli – right idea badly executed; still useful … why?
    • Somme – strategically necessary
    • Passchendaele/Third Ypres (July 31st-November 6, 1917 – strategically necessary
    • French decision to carry on;
    • Unified command –
    • Pursuing the war in the Middle East prevents Turkey playing a bigger part in
      Western front – from 1915 –
    • Attrition
    • The Learning Curve – not the quantity but the integration of resources on the front line and the application of tactical lessons…. Esp. in the 100 days offensive.

How far are Generals to blame for high casualty rates?

See the article on Jan or Ivan Bloch in History Today (link to follow)
or listen to the Podcast

Here is the article about Jan or Ivan Bloch

  • France 24 article
  • And here is the book that he published in 1899, entitled Is War Now Impossible that was largely ignored by the military when he lectured to them in 1901.

    The point made in the podcast is that it is not that the Generals ignored Bloch it is that they thought they could overcome the problems he predicted of the advantages enjoyed by the defenders by use of artillery. It was only later that they realized that the answer to the problem posed by Bloch was not attacking the defenders but defending the attackers – providing creeping barrage, tanks, reconnaissance aircraft etc.

    Extra resources
    There are a few good documentary series on WWI – below is a link to one episode of WWI in Colour (but don’t get excited about the quality of the picture, even if the commentary is good).

    The War that made the Nazis – useful documentary showing Hitler’s idea of a nation forged in battle emerged from the horror of WWI. As Ian Kershaw wrote – ‘the First World War made Hitler possible.’

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