CHAPTER FIFTEEN: THE FIRST WORLD WAR
Spirit of August
No Man’s Land
Battle of Marne
War of attrition
Unrestricted submarine warfare
Auxiliary Service Law of 1916
Shells and Fuses Agreement of 1915
What were some of the causes of the First World War? Which of the following causal statements is true?
What are some of the characteristics historians commonly identify in the First World War that cause them to consider it the first modern war?
What were some of the First World War's larger effects on European society?
Origins of World War I
Bismarck’s Alliance System
Bismarck’s Mindset and Diplomatic Strategy
Following Unification of Germany through “blood and iron,” Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck worked tirelessly for peace. Continued war would bring destruction; peace would allow Germany’s advanced industrial economy to prosper. Though Bismarck wanted to assure Europe of Germany’s peaceful intentions, he did keep a large, highly-trained military on standby, ready to use (or simply threaten to use) if needed to get his way in diplomatic negotiations. Indeed, this preference for peace through diplomacy helps to explain why Bismarck was reluctant to embrace the New Imperialism of the late 1800s. While it is true that Germany seized colonial possessions (see Chapter Fourteen), Bismarck only engaged in Imperialism so far as he could use colonies as bargaining chips with the other European powers in disputes over European matters. That is, Bismarck didn’t think colonies very practical for Germany.
To manage the uncertain potential for war, Bismarck engineered an elaborate alliance system to safeguard the peace of Europe, which would assure the stability of Germany. His main goal was the diplomatic isolation of France, meaning forcing France into a situation where it was unable to instigate a war of revenge against Germany without the assistance of allies. Bismarck’s absolute nightmare scenario was a war against a Franco-Russian alliance, since this would mean Germany would have to face adversaries on both its western- and eastern flanks, at the same time.
So, to manage the chaos and potential for impossibly difficult military scenarios, Bismarck set out to encourage a contradictory system of alliances, with some agreements overlapping, while other agreements undercutting agreements. For example, the Three Emperor’s League was an 1873 alliance between the Emperors of Austria, Germany, and Russia. The Austro-German Alliance was an 1879 agreement between Austria and Germany, exclusively. The Triple Alliance was an 1882 pact between Austria, Germany, and Italy. The Reinsurance Treaty was an 1887 agreement between Germany and Russia, following the collapse of Three Emperor’s League over disagreements in the Balkans (see below).
This may sound complicated and needlessly so, but the strength of alliance system was that Europe was not divided into two hostile camps. That is, no single country, not even Germany, could be assured of support for a war of aggression. Therefore, there were more reasons to maintain peace than jump to war.
Long-term Causes of World War I
Breakdown of the Bismarck Alliance System
William II’s Accession
The stability that Bismarck had overseen after 1871 vanished with the accession of William II as Kaiser in 1888. William II was a grandson of Queen Victoria of Britain and longed for Germany to be just as powerful as the British. He was especially envious of the Royal Navy and Britain’s colonial empire, so William embarks on a more active foreign policy, to try to position Germany as world-spanning empire, too. This led to frequent disputes with Bismarck, which ended with Bismarck’s dismissal in March of 1890. This was almost immediately followed by Germany dropping the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in late March of 1890, when opened the door for France and Russia to create their own alliance in August of 1892. (Recall that this – a Franco-Russian alliance – was considered the most threatening situation for Germany.)
William II and Weltpolitik (“Global Policy”)
Undeterred by the shifting alliance winds, William pursued his goals of expanding the German navy and triggers a naval arms race with Great Britain. The German plan was to build a navy 1/3 the size of Britain’s Royal Navy by 1918, which would make the British feel threatened, and thereby drive the British into an alliance with Germany in order to avoid war against Germany. The key to this plan was a large, strong German navy. However, once Germany starts building its fleet, Britain reacted differently than the Germans planned: Britain doubled its naval budget between 1888 and 1900, and introduced a new, larger, more heavily armored battleship, the Dreadnought class. The Germans respond with their own Dreadnought program, in addition to other capital ship (but also develop U-boats [“Unterseeboot” – “underwater boat” -- submarines]).
William II and Imperialism: Meddling in other’s affairs.
William not only reversed Bismarck’s approach to European policy, he also upended Bismarck’s ideas about colonies and imperialism. This amounted mostly to interfering in other European nations’ own imperial policies. In 1895, William sent the Kruger Telegram, a telegram to Paul Kruger, President of Transvaal (South African Dutch Boer colony that had recently been at war with Great Britain), congratulating him on defeating the Jameson Party (a group of British raiders who had tried to stir up trouble in the Transvaal to serve British colonial purposes), which infuriated the British.
Overall, William’s Weltpolitik was a complete reversal of Bismarck’s policies.
With Germany shifting into a more aggressive posture, the rest of the Great Powers made adjustments as they say necessary. The most important one to note here is the Triple Entente, an agreement between France, Russia, and Great Britain. The Triple Entente grew out of the Anglo-French Entente (or Entente Cordiale) of 1904, which was not an actual alliance, just a settlement of colonial differences in Egypt (for the British) and Morocco (for the French). The reason we do not consider this to be an actual alliance is that Britain was not obligated to help France in the event of actual war. The Triple Entente (which would make up part of the Allied Powers during the First World War) also grew from the Anglo-Russian Entente of August 1907. Again, this one was also not an actual alliance but rather a settlement of grievances between Russia and Great Britain, over Afghanistan and Persia (modern-day Iran). In this case, Britain was not locked into supporting Russia in the even Russia became involved in a European war.
If Germany was increasingly alienated from Great Britain, France, and Russia, it slowly became clear that, should war erupt, German was likely to face a two-front war. This was the context for the German General Staff’s creation of the Schlieffen Plan in 1891. This was a strategic plan developed by the German Army Chief of Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen, and it solved the problem of how Germany could solve the problem of the long-feared two-front war against France and Russia.
The solution was for the German Army to mobilize first against France and deal a decisive blow against its rival to the West. The Germans assumed that, in the event of war, the French would be able to mobilize their own forces much more quickly than the Russians, so the French could be dealt with while temporarily neglecting the Eastern flank (facing Russia). Once the French were neutralized, the German army would swing in one giant rotation to re-deploy onto the eastern frontier and face the (only then ready) Russians, striking with enough force to defeat them (because the French would, theoretically, already have surrendered by this point).
This was not a flawless plan. For starters, the Schlieffen Plan relied on absolutely perfect timing, in terms of troop movements, and railroad transportation. Any delay by one unit would hamper the success of the entire operations, since it would threaten to open gaps in the Germans lines and expose them to dangerous counter attacks. Another central weakness was that this plan made certain political gambits, namely it called for Germany to violate Belgian sovereignty and march its armies through Belgium en route to northern France. If Belgium was already in the war, and it was allied with France, this was no big deal. However, if Belgium was a neutral country, violating that neutrality might cost the Germans, in the form of bringing Britain into the war to protect Belgium (if they were not already committed to help France). This was because of a 19th century treaty obligation the British made to the Belgians, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars.
We should caution that the mere existence of a plan of attack might not, on its own, be enough to attribute causality for the eventual war. However, as we shall see, once the dominoes began to fall in the direction of a continent-wide conflagration in 1914, the Schlieffen Plan instructed the Germans to take certain decisions for granted, without considering alternatives, which only accelerated the war’s arrival. That is, the Germans were not as interested in maintaining peace as they were in winning an (expected) war.
Immediate Causes of World War I:
Balkan Power Politics:
If we turn from large, long-range causes of the war to smaller, short-range causes, the first cause we must note is the competition for influence in the Balkans (the area of southeastern Europe to the south of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This area had been, at different points in time, under Austrian, Russian, and/or Ottoman control. As the Ottoman Empire (centered in modern-day Turkey) was losing its influence during the latter years of the 19th century, Austria, Russia, and eventually the Kingdom of Serbia all wanted control over the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina (one of several provinces in the central part of the Balkan peninsula).
Austria had occupied Bosnia in1878 and annexed into its empire in 1908. Russia was interested in taking the territory due both to its own goals of expansion and influence but also because of the popularity of Panslavism, a form of nationalism that held that Slavic-speaking peoples (such as Serbs, Russians, Poles, Slovenes, etc…) were all truly part of one ethnic group and had been separated over time into different local variations, which needed to be reunited again. In this case, some Panslavs saw Russia as the leader while others looked to Austria for leadership but Russia selectively encouraged Panslavism as a vehicle for Russian expansion. An additional factor here was the wounded pride or blemished national prestige of the Russians, after having lost the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
The Assassination of Francis-Ferdinand (“The July Crisis”)
The competition over influence in the Balkans sets the stage for the (in)famous assassination that begins the drive to war. The Austrian Archduke (the duke who was first in line to inherit the throne), Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, were on a state visit to Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia) on June 28, 1914. Remember, this was a territory only recently annexed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and not all Slavic peoples were content at being ruled by the German Hapsburgs. While in Sarajevo, the Archduke and Archduchess were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the secret society, the Black Hand. (In 2020 parlance, we would probably call this a terrorist organization.)
The Austrian authorities did not treat this as a random act of violence, they instead read this (correctly) as a political assassination. The Black Hand was a nationalist group of Serbs who were hoping to stir up unrest and violence in Bosnia, which would allow Bosnia to secede from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and join the neighboring Kingdom of Serbia. More than just a ragtag group of radicals, the Austrian government suspected that even the Serbian government may have played a role in this attack (which they did but the Austrians could not prove this at the time). While the Austrians were trying to decide how to deal with the Serbs, the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, sends the famous “Blank Check” cable on July 6, 1914, where he gives the Austrian Emperor, Franz Josef, unconditional support, no matter what the Austrians decide to do.
Austrian Ultimatum to Serbia- (July 23rd, 1914)
Thus, ensued a period of uncertainty, waiting to see what the Austrians would do next and how the Serbs would respond. Finally, on July 23, 1914, the Austrians send the ultimatum to the Serbs. They choose to deal very harshly, even punitively, with the Serbs. The Austrians accused the Serb government of being complicit in the attack, they demand that the Serbs allow the Austrians to come into their (Serbia’s) country and conduct an investigation, they demand the Serbs fire officials in their government who are anti-Austrian – this is an ultimatum that was designed to be too much for Serbia to agree to; it was designed to fail, so that the Austrians would have a pretext to declare war on Serbia (and extract revenge).
Serbia was willing to entertain some of the demands but rejected the idea of Austrians coming in and running a criminal investigation on Serbian soil; the Austrians demanded unconditional acceptance of all requirements (within 48 hours of issuing the ultimatum), or there would be war. Thus the ultimatum that was designed to fail worked just as intended, with Serbia failing to accept and then Austria declaring war on Serbia on July 26, 1914.
Sliding towards war
It is important to note that the assassination, on its own, did not cause the war to take place as it did, or even to take place. This is not to excuse the murder of the Austrian royal family members, only to caution that Austria had any number of options before it concerning how to respond to the crisis. Once Austria decided to pursue war, the system of alliances (referenced above) was called into action, which set in motion a string of preparations for war and declarations for war. Yet here European leaders still chose the path of warfare, instead of trying to find a diplomatic method of keeping the peace.
Russia mobilized its army for war on July 29, 1914. At that point, the only declaration of war was from Austria, against Serbia. However, the Russians were prepared to go to war in defense of Serbia, if they Austrians did in fact invade. So, the Russians are mobilizing for war – meaning they are assembling troops and equipment, but not yet invading (or even declaring war).
Remember that Germany had issued the “Blank Check” to Austria, so Germany has already by this point promised to take whatever steps were necessary to assist Austria. So if Russia were to invade Austria, Germany would be obliged to assist and fight back against the Russians. Recall further that Germany’s Schlieffen Plan for war against Russia assumed Germany would also be fighting France. France, in fact, also began to mobilize for war on July 30 (but issued no formal declaration). Faced with enemies making preparations on both flanks, Germany declared war on Russia August 1, 1914 and on France August 3, 1914.
Germany then initiates the Schlieffen Plan, attacking France by first invading Belgium, which happens on August 4, 1914. With this move, the British declare war on Germany, due to the violation of Belgian neutrality.
Italy did not initially enter the war, because of the ways the alliance treaties were written. But Italy did negotiate the Treaty of London in 1915, which saw Italy join with the war to fight alongside the Triple Entente. Japan later joined the war for the Triple Entente, too. The Ottoman Empire would enter the war on the side of Germany and Austria.
Pause for 60-second Quiz #1. What were some of the causes of the First World War? Which of the following causal statements is true?
Bismarck's alliance/diplomatic policy was designed since the 1870s to draw Germany into one war after another.
Powerful European states entered a web of complex alliances, sometimes at odds with each other, which were activated in 1914 with the July Crisis.
The Schlieffen Plan called for the Austrians to go to war against both Serbia and Russia at the same time, in the event one of them invaded Austria.
The Blank Check sent by Germany to the Serbian government promised military assistance against the Austrians.
World War I as the transition to a new age
Bloodiest War in History
This war turned into the bloodiest war in history. After 4 ½ years, 10-13 million people were dead and Europe would be thoroughly changed in its wake. Due to all the death and destruction wrought by this war, known by many at the time as “the Great War,” most Europeans developed a great aversion to war. This helps to explain why (tragically), so many Europeans were hesitant to stop Hitler in the 1930s before he launched the Second World War.
“The Spirit of August”
However, this general trend towards pacifism was not the case at the outbreak of the war in 1914. On the contrary, the war was greeted with great jubilation throughout Europe. People throughout Europe were very enthusiastic and cheered their soldiers going off to war. This enthusiasm was later dubbed, “the spirit of August.” None of the countries had any problem at first recruiting soldiers to fight. Indeed, most of the young men of the countries involved were filled with ideas of chivalry and honor, and they thought that it was a way to win glory and fame and to have a great adventure. No one realized the horrors that this war would bring.
All were filled with patriotism and national pride and all countries involved felt that their country would prevail and win a quick and bloodless war. Nationalism was a motivating factor for most of Europe going into the war- to fight for the honor of their country. Most believed that the soldiers would be home again by Christmas.
Conception of “War”
In 1914 Europe, war was still considered a legitimate and honorable way to settle disagreements, although this attitude would change dramatically after World War I – mainly because this war was very different from any other that had ever taken place.
That is, all of the wars of the 19th century, from the Napoleonic wars to the wars of unification in Germany and Italy (including the Franco-Prussian War) were limited wars. Although many soldiers (and some civilians) died in these conflicts, the death and destruction was nothing like what Europe would see in the Great War. The technology of the times had limited the scope and destruction of the wars of the 19th century. However, new technology changed the face of war during World War I, allowing for much greater death and destruction than had ever been witnessed in Europe. For this reason, World War I is considered the first modern war.
It did not take long for all of the participants in the war to see the horrible new face of war. Before the end of 1914, most of the soldiers realized that war was no longer the heroic and chivalrous activity that they had pictured. Rather, it was just death and destruction.
A Closer Look: Technology
The main reason for this change in wars was due to the new technology that was available to the belligerents during World War I. We saw that during the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars that the Prussian army had begun to utilize new technology that greatly increased their military strength- such as the use of railroads, telegraph and the needle gun. This was also true of all major European powers when they were undertaking Imperialist wars outside of Europe. However, during World War I, there would be many new technological developments used on both sides that increased their destructive capability.
One new development during World War I was the advent of trench warfare. Trench warfare had been used to a lesser extent during the American Civil War but had never really been utilized in Europe. The Schlieffen plan had called for the German army to encircle the French army and drive them against the fortifications in Alsace-Lorraine where they would be destroyed. When the Germans failed to do this, the war in the West became a stalemate and both armies resorted to trench warfare.
Trenches were built by both sides that covered hundreds of miles—about four hundred miles worth in northern France. They had a whole network of trenches with forward trenches and then trenches that the army could fall back into if overrun, then supply trenches, etc. For the soldiers fighting in the trenches, there were very harsh conditions. They were surrounded by war and death and had horrible living conditions. The trenches were rat and lice infested and were often filled with water and mud. There were all sorts of disease as well since many times they could not keep up with the removal of the dead bodies. So, trench warfare was one of the new technological developments of World War I that made it so horrible. Trench warfare became a stalemate with neither side gaining an advantage.
Another technological development utilized during World War I was barbed wire. On the Western Front, after the trenches were dug, they created a barrier in front of the trenches made out of barbed wire to prevent attack. The area between the trenches of the opposing sides was known as the “No Man’s Land,” since no one could survive very long in it. That is, when soldiers from one side charged up the ladders and over the top of their trenches, they faced a more-or-less open field until they reached the enemy’s trench. And to cross this field, they had to also cut barbed wire and navigate other obstacles, all while enduring enemy artillery bombardment, machine gun fire, or both. (Also, small arms fire, possibly.) Therefore, relatively little land was exchanged on the Western front despite numerous attacks, yet hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in the stalemates.
Machine Gun nests.
Another technological development of World War I was the machine gun. Crude forms of the machine gun, like the Gatling gun, had been used during the wars of German unification, but the machine gun was really perfected during WW I. They were part of the overall trench warfare strategy. At certain intervals along the trenches, machine gun nests were placed that could be used to mow down advancing troops crossing “No Man’s Land.”
Artillery - Big Guns
One technological advancement that (like the machine gun) greatly increased the destructive force of war in World War I were the new heavy artillery pieces. Prior to World War I, artillery had changed very little since the time of Napoleon. During the war, however, huge cannon were utilized by both sides much larger and more powerful than anything seen in Europe before. The largest of these artillery pieces were moved by railcar.
Poison or mustard gas
One of the most heinous technological developments to come in World War I was poison gas or mustard gas. It was used by both sides to try and break the stalemate caused by trench warfare. Gas canisters were launched by the opposing sides into the trenches of the other where it would be inhaled by the soldiers. The gas would cause the soldiers to suffocate. Many who were not killed from the gas attacks would be permanently injured from it. Adolph Hitler was injured by mustard gas when he was serving for the German army in WWI.
Mass transport and mass killings
World War I was the first war in which automobiles, trucks, and railroads were effectively used by both sides for transportation. This also increased the death toll of the war because both sides were able to move more and more soldiers to the front
One invention that was experimented with during World War I but would have little effect on the outcome of the war, were tanks. Neither side had enough tanks during the war to make any big impact. However, their use was important because it was a sign of what was to come in later wars.
Aircraft and Zeppelins (blimp) as bombers
World War I also saw the use of the newly invented aircraft in war for the first time. Planes as well as zeppelins -- or blimps as we know them -- were used by both sides during the war as bombers. Due to the fact that the technology was not advanced enough to allow for mass bombing- the aircrafts were not terribly effective in World War I. Nevertheless, they caused terror and were an important sign of the way wars would be fought in the future.
World War I also saw the advent of submarines or U-boats on a large scale. Where were submarines used for the first time militarily? The American Civil War – The CSS Hunley. Throughout the War, the British maintained naval supremacy, meaning that Germany’s surface fleet was either destroyed or kept bottled up in port. The Germans used the U-boats, which could slip out of port undetected by the British, to destroy supplies being transported to England and France. Germany used its submarines to sink any boat that was headed toward England or France.
Propaganda and Secret Treaties:
The First World War saw the governments of the countries involved engage in mass propaganda for the first time in which they blamed the other side for starting the war. They did this to raise morale among their own people as well as to ensure the loyalty of their allies.
The governments on both sides engaged in diplomacy throughout the war to try and bring neutral states over to their side by promising them territory from the opposing side after the war. To the winner goes the spoils. All of this was formulated into secret treaties. Pretty much all the countries on both sides of the war had secret treaties in which they agreed to the division of the spoils after the war. An example of this is the Treaty of London by which the Italians came into the war on the side of Britain/France and Russia in 1915. In return for their participation, the Italians were promised the Southern Tyrol and the Dalmatian Islands in the Adriatic Sea both of which belonged to Austria.
Pause for 60-second Quiz #2. What are some of the characteristics historians commonly identify in the First World War that cause them to consider it the first modern war? Which of the following statements is NOT true?
Trench warfare was a new technology that appeared for the first time in the First World War, yet it was not used very often and not used on a large scale.
Poison gas or mustard gas was used by both sides in the First World War, which was a completely new weapon.
Aircraft (both airplanes and blimps) were used for military purposes but were not very effective at bombing.
Barbed wire was used to create obstacles in the "no man's land," to make it difficult for enemy soldiers to cross from their trenches to the other side.
Overview of the War
German offensive through Belgium and France: the Schlieffen Plan
As we talked about above, the plan that Schlieffen had come up with for the German army called for a quick assault through Belgium, to attack and encircle the French army, and then drive it against the fortifications in Alsace-Lorraine where it would be destroyed. Of course, the plan was flawed militarily because it relied too much on precise timing. It was also flawed politically, because it brought Britain into the war due to the invasion of Belgium.
Well, the German army, following the Schlieffen Plan, invaded Belgium on August 4, 1914. The same day Britain declared war on Germany. Quickly, several things happened that threw off the Germans and their plans. One was the resistance movement in Belgium. Although the Belgians were not able to stop the Germans from invading their country, they did hold them up for a while and disrupted their timetable. Another thing that threw off the Germans was the arrival of the BEF – The British Expeditionary Force -- August 25th, the Germans hadn’t expected the British to be able to mobilize their army and transport it to the continent so soon. A third factor that threw off the German plans was the fairly quick mobilization of the Russian army. Remember, we talked about the key to Schlieffen’s plan was that Russia had to be slow to mobilize so that the German army could have time to defeat France first and then turn their resources against the Russians.
Moltke the Younger’s Mistakes
When the Russians invaded East Prussia, the German Army Chief of Staff, Moltke the Younger (the son of the Prussian Chief of staff during the wars of unification), diverted four divisions from the Western Front to the Eastern Front to fight the Russians. Some historians think that this was the fatal flaw for the Germans because it weakened the army in the west so that it couldn’t crush the French army.
Battle of the Marne (September 5-12, 1914)
By September, the German troops had reached the Marne River, but they were exhausted and out of supplies and having accidentally exposed their flank, the Germans were attacked. The French, aided by the British, were able to defeat the Germans at the Battle of Marne and save Paris from German occupation. After the Battle of the Marne, the Germans withdrew to defensive positions, which was the beginning of the trench warfare. By the end of 1914, the western front and its networks of trenches stretched all the way from Switzerland to the North Sea. The war in the West was a virtual stalemate following the Battle of the Marne.
War in the East
The war in the East did not bog down like the war in the West did. The crucial point about the war in the East was that the Russians stayed in the war through 1918 and prevented the Germans from being able to concentrate their power in the west. As we shall talk about in the next chapter with the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks or Communists made peace with the Germans after they rose to power in 1918.
Blockade and U-Boots
In 1915, the Germans began their U-Boat campaign to try and destroy the supply lines to Britain and France. One of the victims of this U-boat campaign was the Lusitania, a British passenger liner. The Germans sank it claiming that it had armaments on board, which it did. However, the British denied that it was carrying arms. On board were 118 American passengers who were killed. This enraged the American public against the Germans who they saw as cruel and barbaric. The sinking of the Lusitania was a factor that attributed to the eventual US intervention on the side of the Entente powers.
War of Attrition (gradual wearing down)
By 1916, the war had become a war of attrition- meaning both sides were trying to wear down the other side. This is because neither side could gain a military advantage over the other, so all they could do was hope for the other side to surrender first. To break the stalemate of trench warfare, each side used massive artillery attacks and poison gas, without a real change in the military situation- except for the enormous numbers of dead and wounded.
By 1916, both sides began yearning for the end of the war. This was in part thanks to the two bloodiest battles of World War I occurring during 1916:
The Battle of Verdun (February – July 1916)
Around 350,000 French casualties, with the Germans losing only slightly less.
The Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916)
400,000 British, 200,000 French, and between 400,000 & 500,000 German casualties.
1917 proved to be the decisive year of the war, because it saw the entrance of the US into the war on the side of the Entente powers, which tilted the balance in their favor.
The reason for the entrance of the US was the unleashing by the Germans of unrestricted submarine warfare which meant that any ship- enemy or neutral- that was in the war zone would be sunk. The Kaiser and his advisers knew that this would most probably bring the US into the war, but they thought-wrongly- that by unleashing unrestricted submarine warfare- that Britain and France could be knocked out of the war before the US could come to their help.
US enters the war in April
Although the US had maintained its neutrality throughout the war and proclaimed the right to trade with any of the powers, because the British had successfully blockaded the Germans, the only side that the US was trading with was the Entente powers. Thus, when the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare, the US became one of the primary victims.
Another thing that helped to bring the US into the war was the Zimmerman Telegram. Three weeks after the US broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, Britain intercepted a Telegram from the German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman to the German ambassador in Mexico. The telegram proposed that Mexico ally with Germany in the event that Germany and the US went to war. In return for their support, Mexico would receive Texas, Arizona and New Mexico after the war.
April 6, 1917, the US declared war on Germany: So, on April 6th, 1917, the US declares war on Germany.
Great March Offensive
1918 saw the Germans led by General Ludendorff mount a great last-ditch offensive from March-July against the British and French. This was known as the Great March Offensive. Ludendorff’s plan was to try and crush the allies before American troops arrived in great force. The offensive failed at the second Battle of Marne in August of 1918.
Following the failure of the Great March Offensive, the British and French, now backed up by large numbers of Americans went on the offensive during the summer and fall of 1918. The arrival of the Fresh American troops tilted the balance in favor of the Entente Powers.
On November 7 and 8th, revolution broke out in Munich and Kaiser William II abdicated. On November 11th, the new German Republic signed an armistice with the Entente powers and ended the hostilities.
Overview of Home Front:
Impacts of a “total” war
Military historians commonly identify the First World War as a good example of the phenomenon, “total war.”1 “Total war” means that the impact(s) of the war reach far beyond the battlefield, that the war impacts the daily lives of the civilians at the home front (usually in more than one way). As we will see below, a serious discussion of the First World War cannot be restricted to the battlefields and the armies (or navies). Instead, we need to understand the larger impacts of the war on European societies, including some profound changes it brought.
One obvious effect was the casualty counts were astronomic. (See below.) The losses and casualties of WWI for Western Europe were larger than the losses suffered by many of the same countries in wars they had fought in the 19th century and before. Proportionately, France suffered more than any other country. In many of the countries like France an entire generation of young men were lost, which made a profound impact on the country. This is where the term “lost generation” comes from, and the years following the war’s end would see immense efforts dedicated to locating and burying the bodies but also adjusting economies, politics, and even future military planning to account for the loss of life at such a scale.
Another effect of the war was that all social classes were summoned to the front—conscription took place in most countries, even Britain. So wealthier families experienced the war in a personal way (whether their sons died or not) in the same way as middle class and poorer families. At the same time, women took on factory jobs as more men were sent to the front. Women saw the definition of their role in society expand, to include more tasks that could (and must) be performed, largely as a military necessity. And these factories producing equipment that was supplied to the front were in many cases doing so out of military necessity. That is, economies were reorganized, and firms were told what to produce, so a factory producing men’s dress shoes might not be making soldiers’ boots, and so forth. The role women played in maintaining production contributed much to women’s rights activists’ agendas of equal pay, equal right to even work outside the home, and equal access to voting rights. This was so because, during the war, everyone was expected to pull their weight to support the soldiers and the country.
A closer look: changes in politics and economies
Politically, meeting the demands of the war meant that governments took on much more responsibility to manage and direct their economies (to produce the uniforms, shells, and other materials needed for the war) than they had exercised previously. Remember that many states had by this time adopted liberal constitutions, limiting the powers of the monarchy (if it still existed) to govern with absolute authority, and that liberals usually prized property rights and laissez-faire economies. Even for more conservative governments, who already wielded more power over citizens’ daily lives, there was simply more to do.
Of course, not everyone liked these changes (certainly not the traditional free-trade and constitutional-monarchy-minded liberals) but during war time they made the calculation that their nation’s victory was the prime objective. So, any steps required for that victory had to be accepted. Perhaps surprisingly, at the same time socialist political parties in different European countries usually stopped criticizing their governments and instead agreed to instruct their party members (the workers) to support the war effort. In a way, you could argue that nationalism finally won out over all the other “-isms,” at least for now.
In Germany we call this phenomenon – of the parties all agreeing to join together and support whatever policy the government said was necessary to win the war -- the Burgfrieden (which mean, “peace inside the castle walls”). France witnessed a similar phenomenon with we call this the union sacree (which means “sacred alliance”) among the different classes of the nation to unite in fighting the external enemy. These political changes did not only affect peoples’ jobs and political attitudes, they also actually affected people’s everyday lives. In the case of men, men older than teenagers and younger than around 50 (this varies) usually faced conscription into the armed forces. But those men who were too old and many women in Germany faced conscription into the factories.
In order to most effectively marshal its resources, Germany’s military leadership pressured the civilian government to pass the Auxiliary Service Law of 1916, which outlined certain requirements by which the civilian population to be compelled to work in wartime industrial production industries. This law was amended over time but in short,
Many women who met certain requirements (usually younger, usually unmarried or without children, but not always) were required to work in plants producing guns, shells, and other wartime materials,
Men who could be drafted but who also possessed certain industrial skills were exempted from military service but were required to instead work in factories producing war material, too.
The Law set wages levels and working conditions, and outlined procedures limiting individual workers’ ability to quit their job and get a higher paying one elsewhere.
The law also usually outlawed the use of the strike to bargain for better pay and conditions.
The unions mostly went along with the law, refusing to authorize strikes for workers to demand higher wages or other concessions, which is what unions normally do. Remember, Marxist theory (which many of the trade unions and socialist parties adhered to) held that management and labor were in a constant struggle. Even if some of these unions and socialist parties were not revolutionary (i.e. they did not want to go all the way to violently overthrowing their capitalist, industrialist-friendly government, in order to usher in a utopian workers’ paradise), one might think that this war was a time when the workers had much more leverage than usual to demand better wages and other improvement, since the armies could not with without guns and shells.
However, since these unions found themselves in the position of having won certain rights and privileges over time, through the democratic process instead of a bloody revolution, they wanted to protect the rights they had won (even if they still thought workers needed more), which meant moderating their historical animosity towards the factory owners (who continued to make large profits). But if the war was lost, how would that benefit the workers?
Great Britain does something like Germany with the Shells and Fuses Agreement of 1915, which is also amended and broadened over time. Here also certain men with highly-needed skills were exempted from military service in order to work in the factories. But here the controversy centered more on the government’s ability to recruit semi-skilled and unskilled labor to do jobs that were traditionally performed by highly skilled (and highly-paid) workers. This was called “dilution” and the highly-paid workers felt very threatened. (Sounds familiar, right? Think of the Luddites.) But then again, what were the workers to do if they did not go along and their country lost the war?
Shortages and the black market
Of course, the war also had other social effects that magnified social class relations. Notably, wartime shortages made buying food and other essentials difficult. Probably the most extreme case here is Germany, under an English blockade. The Germans suffered shortages of meat, bread, sugar, to name a few. The winter of 1916-1917 was called the “turnip winter,” because Germans went out into the fields to find anything they could to eat, usually only turnips.
Such hardship, made worse by news of loved ones dead or missing at the front, did little to make ordinary people at home glad to be at war and hope for it to continue. In fact, complaining about food shortages or simply lining up to wait for groceries that will soon sell out could be easily lead to acts of political protest and criticism against the government, and Berlin especially saw riots and protests by workers and everyday people in 1917 and 1918 over the lack of food.
Overview of Casualties
These hardships were difficult enough for civilian populations to endure, without the added stress of the uncertainty of how the war would progress and when it would end. Add to that the ever-increasing numbers of dead, wounded, and missing, and it is easy to understand how the domestic order (if not military discipline, too) would come unwound by 1917 and 1918. We will explore the war’s end further in the next chapter, but the chart below offers an overview of casualties. While these are estimates and specialists may still revise them, they do suggest the war’s deadly effect: citizens mobilized into their nation’s armed forces had a slightly better chance of being killed, wounded, or going missing, than they did of returning home unscathed.
First World War Casualties
Total dead and wounded: 27,476,000
Total missing-in-action: 7,750,900
Total casualties: 35,226,900
Total number of soldiers mobilized by all countries combined: 65,038,800
Total casualties/Total number of mobilized (casualty rate): 54.16%
Pause for 60-second Quiz # 3. What were some of the First World War's larger effects on European society? Which statement below is correct?
Despite the need for more manufactured materials (for use in the war), women were forced to stay at home and not work in factories.
Despite their potential to use the strike to better their economic standing, labor unions usually refrained from striking and instead supported the war policies (and production needs) of their governments.
Despite the need for complex and different types of equipment for their armies, European governments were unable to convince parliaments friendly to laissez-faire economics to allow for more centralized direction to their industrial economies.
Despite the naval battles between countries at war, civilians' access to food and other imported goods was not interrupted during the war.
Key for 60-second quizzes:
b. Bismarck tried to avoid war. the Schlieffen Plan was the German plan against France and Russia. The Blank Check was sent from Germany to Austria.
a. Trench warfare was not completely new during the First World War, but it was used very extensively on the western Front.
b. Unions generally supported their wartime governments. Women did work in factories, economies were managed, blockades caused shortages.
Primary Source Exercise
Reading: World War One Poetry (1914-1918)
After you have read the primary source listed above (as well as Chapter 15), answer the following questions, based on what you have learned so far:
What do you think is important to know about the author of this text? What can you learn from the words he wrote on the page? What can you infer or piece together from the background information in the textbook chapter? Why is this important?
What was the author’s goal in writing this text? To whom did he address it? What purpose did it serve? Can you point to one or more examples to support this analysis?
What, if any, hidden assumptions can you detect in the text? That is, can you find word choices, phrasing, innuendo, or other examples of the authors s(explicit or implicit) bias with regard to the subject matter? Does this bias (or these assumptions) affect how you understand and react to the author’s words? Why or why not?
For a long time, the tendency was to identify the First World War as the first such “total war” but in recent years this conclusion has come under criticism, as more attention has been given to other conflicts at earlier moments in history.↩