Thursday, June 26, 2014

13 The Armistice

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

By October 1918 things were looking pretty rough for the Germans. The Allies had launched a series of offensives in France that were driving the German forces ever closer to the border. The German forces were increasingly close to breaking point, though some units were still capable of dogged resistance. Elsewhere, Germany's allies were beginning to collapse. Turkish forces in the Middle East had been shattered in a series of battles that left British forces advancing towards Anatolia. Allied advances against Austria-Hungary were hastening the end of that ancient empire, which opened up the prospect of Germany being invaded from the south.

When the German fleet was ordered to sea to stage a suicidal attack on the superior British, the sailors mutinied. This triggered an outbreak of strikes and insurrection throughout Germany that overthrew the monarchy and brought a civilian regime to power. Civilian politicians went to sign a ceasefire deal with the allies, though it was the General von Hindenburg who ultimately ordered them to sign, which they did at 5.00 am the 11th of November. Fighting was to end at 11.00 am that day. By this point Germany's allies had all thrown in the towel.

The armistice was notionally just a ceasefire rather than a permanent end to the war, but its terms left the German armed forces in an impossibly weakened position. Germany was to hand over aircraft, submarines and artillery pieces to the allies and the German fleet was to be interred at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. German soldiers withdrew from France and Belgium; the Allies occupied the west bank or the Rhine and bridgeheads across that mighty river. The allies were now in a position to dictate peace terms to Germany, which they did at Versailles in 1919.

image source

This is the end of my blitz through some key events of the First World War. If you fancy a more drawn out approach to the Great War, why not check out my live blog of the war's events. You can see it here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

12 Der Kaiserschlacht

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

The Russian revolution and Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with the Bolsheviks meant that the Germans could transfer a huge number of troops from the eastern front to France. Erich Ludendorff, the German commander, used these to launch a spring offensive, which he hoped would end the war before American forces arrived in strength. Spearheaded by highly trained stormtroopers using infiltration tactics, the offensive was named der Kaiserschlacht - the Kaiser's Battle. German soldiers were promised that this was the offensive that would end the war with German victory.

The attack began on the 21st of March 1918, preceded by a short but intense bombardment. The British defenders were shattered and fell back. The Germans made the kind of gains not seen by either side since 1914 and for a brief moment it looked like they were winning a decisive victory. But the Kaiserschlacht ran out of steam and the offensive ground to a halt.

Ludendorff launched follow-up offensives, capturing more territory but suffering increasing casualties and failing to achieve a decisive victory. With the failure of the last offensive in July, the jig was clearly up for the Germans. Their army was not the force it was and American soldiers were now arriving in increasing numbers. The greater resources of the Allies meant that they could easily replace losses in a way unimaginable for the Germans. At this point Germany should have sued for peace, but the war would continue to November.

image source (Wikipedia)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

11 The French army mutinies

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

In 1917 the French had a new commander, one Robert Nivelle. He had led counter-attacks at Verdun and now he hoped to end the war in one bold stroke. He had the French army attack the Germans along the Chemin des Dames ridge, beginning on the 16th of April, expecting that his soldiers would smash through the German lines and win a decisive victory.

The Germans however had got wind of Nivelle's plans and were able to inflict heavy casualties on the French attackers. When Nivelle tried to order further attacks, disorder erupted in the French army. French soldiers had given their all in the defence of Verdun, but they were not going to throw away their lives on Nivelle's futile offensive. Units refused to move to the front and there was some circulation of pacifist and socialist anti-war propaganda. The mutiny was nevertheless limited, as soldiers did not assault their officers or desert en masse. Frontline units continued to hold their positions but refused to attack. The mutiny was more like a strike than an insurrection.

The military authorities tried to repress the mutinies by force, arresting and trying ring-leaders and carrying out of summary executions. There were rumours, probably false, of mutinous regiments being shelled by their own artillery. But ultimately the French army turned to the one man the ordinary soldiers trusted to lead them - General Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun. He replaced Nivelle as commander in chief and quickly introduced reforms to improve conditions for French soldiers (including an increase in the quantity and quality of the wine ration) and promised an end to large-scale bloodbath offensives.

Monday, June 23, 2014

10 The USA enters the war

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

The USA declared war on Germany on the 6th of April 1917. America was brought into the war by Germany's declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in January of that year. This meant that German submarines were authorised to sink any ship without warning if they thought it might be carrying goods to one of Germany's enemies (previously the quaint rules of war meant that submarines had to surface and send boarding parties to search ships for war goods); Germany's hope was that unrestricted submarine warfare could knock Britain out of the war. US opinion was also turned against Germany by the revelation that it was attempting to build an anti-American alliance with Mexico.

When America declared war on Germany it had a tiny army and it would clearly be some time before it could raise and train forces that could be sent to fight in Europe. But the German leaders would have known that the USA's declaration of war had set the clock ticking. The Americans had a bottomless reservoir of manpower and it was just a matter of time before the USA was ready to send a vast force to France. If Germany was to have any chance of winning the war, it had to do so before the American armies arrived. And when it became apparent that unrestricted submarine warfare was not bringing Britain to its knees, Germany's leaders realised that they would have to win the war on land.

The declaration of war on Germany also marked the moment when the USA became a world power.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

09 The Russian Revolution

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

The Russian Revolution was a long process that began on the 8th of March 1917 when Petrograd, the Russian capital, erupted in strikes, demonstrations and riots. The Czarist regime was overthrown and replaced by a provisional government. That tried to keep Russia in the war against German and Austria but its army began to disintegrate. Domestically the provisional government saw its authority ebb away and in November 1917 it was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, who eventually negotiated a humiliating peace with Germany.

Aside from being an event of world historical significance, the Russian revolution is important in the First World War because it shows the price of defeat on the regimes of the belligerent nations. The Kaiser may have chortled as they watched the Czar being hustled out of power in 1917, but they must have realised that if Germany did not prevail then he would be next. In the short term, thought, the Russian revolution was a godsend for the Germans, as the removal of Russia from the war allowed Germany to transfer huge numbers of troops to France.

image source (Wikipedia)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

08 The Somme

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

If you are an English-speaker and know anything about the First World War you have probably heard of the Battle of the Somme. This began on the 1st of August 1916. It was a huge offensive by British and some French troops against the German army in France. In part it was intended to draw German forces away from Verdun but it was also hoped that the onslaught would smash through the German lines. Unfortunately, the fighting on the first day went disastrously for the British, who suffered 57,470 casualties (of whom 19,240 were killed).

The fighting continued sporadically until November, with the allies giving up on their plan to break through the German lines. Instead the focus was on attrition, trying to fight a bloody battle that would exhaust German manpower before the British and French well of blood would run dry.

Friday, June 20, 2014

07 The Brusilov Offensive

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

By 1916 the Russians had endured two years of battering at the hand of the Germans (whose Austrian allies were more of a hindrance than a help). But in 1916 the Russians went back on the offensive, with General Alexei Brusilov leading a broad front attack on the Austrians. The attack began on the 4th of June and shattered the Austrians. Brusilov's forces used innovative tactics — short artillery barrages followed up with attacks by shock troops rather than the human wave assaults favoured elsewhere.

The Brusilov Offensive brought the Austrians to the brink of collapse and the front line could only be stabilised by the infusion of German reinforcements. But ultimately the offensive achieved nothing. Brusilov had wanted it to be followed by more offensives elsewhere in the east, to keep the Germans and Austrians reeling, but the Russian commanders instead kept sending more reinforcements to Brusilov after his offensive had run its course. Russian soldiers were left feeling that they had suffered for nothing. Still, the offensive showed that it was possible to stage a successful attack against entrenched defenders, if the right tactics were used.

Despite his impeccably aristocratic and conservative credentials, Brusilov himself would go on to serve in the Bolshevik army during the Russian Civil War.

image source (Wikipedia)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

06 Verdun

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

In February 1916 the Germans launched an offensive against the fortified French town of Verdun. The aim was not to take the town but to inflict such terrible casualties on the French that they would not be able to continue with the war. The French did come close to cracking, but the Germans themselves also suffered nigh unendurable casualty levels. The battle continued until December 1916. It made the name of Philippe Pétain, the French commander during the battle's most desperate phase; he would go onto become a Marshal of France, though he would end his life in ignominy.

In the anglophone world this battle is less well known than the Somme or Passchendaele, but for the French Verdun is the quintessential meat-grinder battle of the First World War. As a horror that could never be repeated it would haunt the imaginations of French decision-makers in the 1930s, as they faced a resurgent Germany.

image source (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

05 The Armenian Genocide

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

People usually think of the First World War as being about soldiers standing in mud filled trenches or being machine-gunned as they advance across French fields. But the war affected civilians too. When Turkey joined in the war on the German side, they launched an offensive against Russia in the Caucasus. This offensive failed badly and soon the Russians were advancing into eastern Anatolia. The Turkish leaders blamed their Armenian minority for these reverses and in 1915 set about dealing with them. Armenian notables in Constantinople were rounded up and killed. Armenians elsewhere in Anatolia were deported to remote desert regions in the south. Many Armenians were murdered on the death marches to Syria while others succumbed to exhaustion. On reaching their destination more were murdered and others left to die of hunger and thirst. The numbers who died have never been definitively established but 1,500,000 is a good ballpark figure.

As far as I know, no one was ever brought to justice for this terrible crime. To this day the Turkish government seeks to downplay these events and deny that they constituted an attempt to exterminate the Armenians of Anatolia.

image source (Wikipedia)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

04 Gallipoli

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

The Turkish Ottoman Empire joined in the war on side of the Germans in late 1914. The Turks closed the straits of Constantinople, blocking access to Russia's Russia's Black Sea ports. Allied forces (French and British, and from the colonies of each of these) landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on the 25th of April 1915, intending to march overland to Constantinople and force open the straits so that Russia could be resupplied with the fruits of British and French industry. The Turks had performed badly in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and the allies assumed that they would be able to easily defeat them.

The Turks had other ideas. Their army had greatly improved its capacity since 1913 and its soldiers proved resolute defenders of their homeland. The Turks were able to contain the allied beachheads and prevent any march on Constantinople. The straits remained closed and eventually, on the 9th of January 1916, the allies evacuated their expeditionary force. Both sides had suffered enormous casualties, from disease as well as from combat.

The allied failure at Gallipoli contributed to Russia's defeat. The fighting there also made the name of the local Turkish commander, Mustafa Kemal, who would go on to rule his country under the adopted title Ataturk, father of the Turks.

Monday, June 16, 2014

03 The Battle of the Marne

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

The German commanders concentrated their forces in the west and invaded France by marching through Belgium. Efforts by the French and their British allies to attack or even to stand and fight against the German onslaught were of no avail, and so the allied forces fell back. As the German army romped on, their victory looked in sight.

But the German armies overreached themselves and became separated from each other. At the Battle of the Marne, the allies counterattacked, hoping to surround and destroy the two armies on the German right flank. They failed in this, but the German advance was blocked. The Germans withdrew to the Aisne river and began to dig defensive trenches.

The fighting in France had not yet stalemated, but Germany's best chance of winning a decisive victory in 1914 was gone. Instead of a short victorious war of movement, they now looked doomed to fight a long war against enemies with far more resources to throw into the fray. Germany had lost the war, but it would be four more years before it realised this.

The Marne saw the bloodiest fighting of the war. 500,000 men were killed or wounded in little over a week's fighting, split evenly between both sides.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

02 Tannenberg

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

When the First World War started, the Germans hoped to win a quick victory against the French and then transfer their forces east against the Russians before the latter had fully mobilised. But in August 1914 the Russians mobilised faster than expected. And they launched an early invasion of East Prussia while most of Germany's forces were deployed in the west. For a few weeks it looked like the unstoppable Russian juggernaut would soon roll into Berlin.

But it was not to be. The Russians were advancing too quickly and the two Russian armies were not coordinating their movements. German commanders in the east concentrated their forces against one of the Russian armies and launched a devastating counterattack on the 26th of August. By the 30th that Russian army had been destroyed, with 92,000 soldiers captured, 78,000 killed and only 10,000 Russian soldiers escaping. The Germans were now free to take on the other invading army at their leisure.

The victory was given the name Tannenberg, after the nearby site of a mediaeval battle where Slavic forces had defeated the Teutonic knights. The Germany victory meant that the war did not end in September 1914 with an allied victory.

Friday, June 13, 2014

01 The July Crisis

As you know, I am working on an Important Project: the creation of a First World War live blog. As an appetiser for this I will over the next few days present here what I consider to be thirteen key episodes in the Great War. If you are already very familiar with that struggle then these might be rather obvious to you, but you might still find it interesting to consider what crucial events I have forgotten to include.

The July Crisis was the period from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the 28th June 1914 to the outbreak of war at the end of July. Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and Gavrilo Princip, his assassin, was a Bosnian Serb with links to secret societies in Serbia proper. On the 23rd of July Austria-Hungary issued an unacceptably harsh ultimatum to Serbia. It was only at this point that most people in Europe realised they were on the brink of war. Russia backed Serbia and France backed Russia while Germany backed Austria and the continent slid towards armageddon.

The July Crisis is interesting because you can observe events and see how they mesh with your ideas of what caused the war and who was responsible for it. Was it a series of miscalculation by various actors that brought about the terrible war? Was it German and Austrian bellicosity that brought about the disaster? Or was Europe in 1914 a powder keg to which Princip merely supplied the spark?


Franz Ferdinand (Wikipedia)

Gavrilo Princip (Wikipedia)