The Great War

*Throughout the 19th Century, Europe, although increasingly powerful and militarised, managed to avoid continent-wide wars for 99 years after the defeat of Napoleon (although there were a few small, but important wars).  Partly Europe’s energy was focused outwards, for this was the great era of imperialism, when Europe conquered almost the entire world.  Unfortunately, Germany and Italy got into the race for colonies late, and did not get many compared to Britain or France, and were jealous as a result.

*In the process of conquering the world, Europe developed its old traditions of militarism, a glorification of the military and a focus on military power.  Britain had, by law, a navy larger than the second (Germany's) and third (America's) largest navies on Earth combined, while Germany had the world's largest army.  This was useful during the period of colonisation, but with Africa and Asia divided among the nations of Europe, the armies began to grow restless, and a generation grew up weeping like Alexander because there were no more worlds left to conquer.


*Europe also experienced a wave of nationalism in the 19th Century.  Nationalism came in two forms.  In established countries, it was a great pride in one’s country and its traditions, sometimes to the point of chauvinism and arrogance towards other lands.  Other nations—that is, ethnic groups with common languages and cultures but not a common government—wanted to be able to become states as well as nations.  This was a serious problem in some of Europe’s empires, which contained peoples from several of these ethnic nations. 

*The worst of these was the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled by Kaiser Franz Joseph, which encompassed about a dozen different ethnic groups, of whom only two (the Germans and the Hungarians) had much power.  German nationalism was also an issue, because in 1871 Germany had taken over an area in France called Alsace-Lorraine, and France wanted it back, both to have the land and to get revenge for losing the Franco-Prussian War.

*Finally, Europe had kept the peace for so long through what was called the balance of power.  This was a series of alliances so that each country, if attacked, would be defended by several others.  With each country having a series of these alliances, any attack on anyone was liable to draw most of Europe into a war, so no-one dared attack his neighbour.

*The balance of power was upset, however, by the actions of one rash man.  Gavrilo Princip was a student in Sarajevo, capital of the province of Bosnia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of many uneasy ethnic areas that wanted independence.  Princip learned that the heir to the throne of Austria was coming to town on a state visit.  This was Archduke Franz Ferdinand who, with his wife whom he dearly loved, rode through town in an open car.  Princip and some fellow nationalists plotted to kill the Archduke who, as luck would have it, ran into Princip while taking a shortcut through a back street in Sarajevo.  Princip shot the Archduke’s wife, Sofia, who died instantly, then shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand near the heart. 

*Austria accused neighbouring Serbia of arranging the assassination.  Serbia was an independent country that shared historical and ethnic ties with Bosnia, and wanted to see Bosnia leave Austria and be added to Serbia so all these Slavic peoples could be in one nation-state together.  After making demands Serbia could not meet, Austria declared war on Serbia in July, 1914.  Then all the alliances began to operate.

*Russia was a Slavic nation like Serbia, and prepared to move troops against Austria.  Germany, ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II and an ally of Austria, began to mobilise her troops.

*Germany had long had a plan for a war in Europe.  It was called the Schlieffen Plan after Count Alfred von Schlieffen who devised it.  In this plan, Germany would attack France and defeat her quickly.  Before Russia could move (because it was assumed Russia would take a long time to get ready) Germany would have beaten France and could then attack Russia.  The problem was, Germany could not just do half of it and only attack Russia, so, when Russia began to threaten Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary, Germany declared war on Russia’s ally, France, and invaded.

*When the Germans invaded France, they did so through the small country of Belgium.  Great Britain, an ally of France and Russia anyway, but reluctantly so, had also promised years ago to protect Belgium from any invaders.  Furthermore, when the invasion began, rumours, mostly false, began to spread that the Germans were treating the Belgians terribly.  Although they were not the kindest of occupiers, the most unbelievable claims (such as the roasting and eating of Belgian babies) were unbelievable because they were, in fact, untrue.  Nonetheless, they were viscerally very moving.  Consequently, when the Germans invaded Belgium, the British had to come to their aid and to that of France.

*The Ottoman Empire also joined the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, who became known as the Central Powers, opposed to the Allied powers of France, Britain, Russia, and others.  Italy was supposed to ally with Germany and Austria, but decided to sit back and see who was going to win.  When things started looking good for the Allies, Italy switched sides.  Japan also joined the Allies hoping to take over German territory in the Pacific and maintain its friendship with Britain, a country it admired for being an island kingdom that had come to rule the world through industrialisation and naval supremacy.

*At the time the war was seen as a great adventure.  This generation that had thought it had no great task remaining before itself suddenly rushed into the streets to dance and cheer and celebrate.  Their time had come when they could fight for the glory of their country, as their ancestors had done.  Thousands of young men volunteered for the armies of their nations, and Europe went to war cheering.

*The Great War, as it was called at the time, was characterised by the use of new technology.  The most important were machine guns (some of which could fire up to 600 rounds per minute), poison gas, U-boats, and, to a much lesser extent, tanks, aircraft, and the flamethrower.


*Machine guns made it difficult for armies to attack one another.  Instead, troops pinned down by machine gun fire dug personal foxholes, then connected these foxholes with ditches that they expanded into trenches.  These in turn they made deeper and better and more extensive, with communications trenches connected them, bombproof shelters off the side of them, and twists and turns designed to isolate any invading enemy soldiers.  The trenches of the Western Front eventually stretched for hundreds of miles across the French countryside, which was completely cratered by shells until it looked like the surface of the moon.

*The war, at least in the West, devolved into a stalemate, with two vast armies sitting in trenches facing each other across no-man’s-land, and occasionally attacking one another and being mowed down by machine guns.  In 1916 over two million French, British, and German soldiers were killed in the battles at Verdun and the Somme.  Almost an entire generation of men was wiped out in the European nations that took part in the War.

*The East, being too large for static trench warfare was a more mobile front, but just as horrible.  The Russians had so few supplies that the army sent three out of four soldiers into battle unarmed, telling them to pick up weapons from the dead.  The decisive battle is often considered to be Tannenberg in 1914.  The Russians split their army, hoping to trap and destroy the German army, but the Germans distracted one Russian army and defeated the other, so that the first had to retreat.


*President Wilson did not want the United States to get involved in the Great War.  He said America should maintain strict neutrality in both thought and deed.  After all, war would be expensive and deadly, and it was not really any of America's business.  The quid pro quo of the Monroe Doctrine was that while the USA would keep Europe out of the Americas, the US would also keep out of Europe.  Many Americans agreed; they were called isolationists.

*Those Americans who did have sympathies for one or another foreign country were divided between those who preferred the Allies or the Central Powers, as many Americans were of British descent, but others were from German, Italian, Russian, Irish, or other backgrounds, and some felt loyalty to their homelands (although TR decried these 'hyphenated-Americans').


*Most Americans preferred the Allies, though.  America remained an English nation, and furthermore, Americans heard and largely believed the propaganda Britain promulgated about the Germans, including tales of baby-eating (which would later backfire when people accused Hitler of killing millions of Jews--no-one would believe it or trust propaganda from Europe). 


*German-Americans (and there were many) were harassed, and eventually prejudice (sometimes including violence) against them grew so strong that many German-Americans changed their names and many German things were given new ‘American’ names:  Sauerkraut became Liberty Cabbage, Hamburgers became Liberty Sandwiches, and Dachshunds became ‘Liberty Pups’ (in Britain, King George V had already changed the royal family’s name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor).


*The US wanted to trade with both sides in the war, but the British navy stopped most shipments to Germany, and in response, Germany began a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, and in 1915 U-Boats began attacking all ships bound for Britain without warning.

*One of these ships was a British passenger ship that was also carrying weapons called the Lusitania.  A German U-Boat sank it off the coast of Ireland in 1915, and 1,200 passengers, including 128 Americans (who had been warned not to board the ship by the German consul in New York), died.  This (and the sinking of other civilians ships, including an Italian ship flying an Austrian flag) led to the abandonment of unrestricted submarine warfare in March, 1916.

*After the sinking of the Lusitania, many Americans now wanted to go to war, but Wilson refused, saying ‘There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight.  There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.’  However, Wilson did say that Germany had been wrong to do what it did, without criticising Britain for keeping Americans ships out of Germany, and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned in protest.


*In 1916 Wilson was re-elected, defeating Charles Evans Hughes, with the slogan ‘He Kept Us out of War,’ while TR condemned him as a molly-coddle.

*In January 1917, the British intercepted and decoded a German telegram from Arthur Zimmerman, the foreign secretary, making an offer to Mexico, where American troops on their punitive expedition against Pancho Villa still occupied Mexican soil.  If Mexico would help Germany and attack the United States, Germany would return to Mexico some of the land that Polk took from them during the Mexican War seventy years before (specifically Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona).  Wilson and America were angry about the Zimmermann Note, but still Wilson counselled peace.

*In March, the Germans sank even more American ships as part of their blockade of Britain, violating America's Freedom of the Seas, and Wilson finally felt compelled to ask for a declaration of war, which he got on 6 April, 1917, although there was some dissent. 


*One of the pacifists who voted against the war resolution was Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman in Congress.  She was not re-elected the next time around, and would only return to Congress in 1941, when she would vote against going to war with Japan. 


*At Wilson’s behest, America went to war, but not for conquest or power or prestige, but to defeat the tyrants who began the war, and make the world safe for democracy.  This Great War, Wilson said, would be the last war:  it was a war to end war.


*By 1917, though, Germany had a plan to win the war before it bled them dry or they starved to death behind the British blockade.  The plan had three steps:

1.  Take Russia out of the War.

2.  Take Britain out of the War.

3.  Capture Paris.


*To knock out Russia, the Germans found an exiled Communist agitator named Vladimir Lenin and sneaked him into Moscow.  With German money and support, he organised the people, who were opposed to the war and the harsh rule of Tsar Nicholas II Romanov.  The Russian Revolution succeeded in 1917, and soon the Communists, led by the Bolshevik faction, came to power.  They killed the entire Romanov family, including Jimmy the Spaniel.  More importantly from Germany’s point of view, Lenin, and the new communist government he led, negotiated a separate peace through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in early 1918.


*Germany also resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 and blockaded Britain with U-boats, preventing food being imported from the rest of the Empire.  They also bombed Britain with zeppelins.  This nearly starved Britain, so that some politicians there considered ending the war. 


*Although this ended up bringing America into the war, most members of the German government felt it was worth it.  Besides, they thought that even if America was capable of getting enough troops to Europe to matter (which the German High Command doubted), it would take so long that it would be too late (which was nearly true). 


*To get past the blockade, all ships to Britain travelled in convoys, just as they had done in late 1915.  A convoy was a group of troop ships or merchant ships surrounded by destroyers, torpedo boats, and other ships built to fight submarines.


*With Russia out of the war, troops from the Eastern Front were moved to the Western Front in 1918 and thrown into an all-out attack on Paris, led by storm-troopers carrying sacks of grenades, submachine guns, flamethrowers, and other weapons meant for shock tactics.  The French Army, worn out after Verdun and years of war, suffered massive mutinies and many units--sometimes whole divisions--would not fight back.


*In 1918 it looked as if Paris would fall and the Central Powers would win.


*At this point, the American Expeditionary Force arrived to repay France for allying with America during the Revolution 140 years before.  The General of the Armies, ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, said ‘Lafayette, we are here.’


*The AEF was not especially well-trained or well-equipped, and the Americans were not significantly better soldiers than their enemies.  However, they were ready to fight, not worn out by three years of war and bitterness.


*Re-enforced by the AEF, the Allies stopped the attack on Paris.  The AEF was involved in three major battles:  Château-Thierry, the first major battle for Americans, Belleau Wood, where the US Marine Corps fought so hard and lost so many men that afterwards the French government gave the land to the United States, and along the Marne River, where the Germans were stopped for good.


*The allies counter-attacked along the Meuse River and in the Argonne Forest.  This offensive began on 26 September, 1918, and would be the last of the War.


*The Meuse-Argonne Offensive is famous for its heroism among the eager American troops.  The most decorated soldier of the war was Sergeant Alvin York, a backwoodsman from Fentress County, Tennessee.  His family’s farm was poor, and he had to supplement their diet by hunting, and became a crack shot.  A devout Christian after a changing his ways following the death of a friend in a bar fight, he opposed the war and did not want to go, but was drafted and not let out as a conscientious objector.  On 8 October, 1918, his patrol was ordered to destroy a machine gun nest.  Unable to do so, most of the unit hid, but York, the sharpshooter, picked off 25 machine-gunners at 50 or 60 yards, and then captured 132 other Germans.  He received, among other decorations, the Medal of Honor.


*In another instance, one American battalion was ordered to take a German position and hold it with two other units.  This battalion took its objective, but the units with it did not, and the battalion was trapped.  Their communication lines were cut, and no-one knew where they were.  The allied artillery even began to accidentally bombard them.  The only way they had to communicate with headquarters with was the battalion’s carrier pigeons.  The only way they had to communicate with headquarters with was the battalion’s carrier pigeons.  Many of those they sent were shot down by the Germans, until they were down to the last pigeon, Cher Ami, who was also shot, but survived to fly home to stop the Allied bombardment.  Most of the battalion was killed, but it never surrendered and was rescued after six days on 8 October.  More important, it distracted the Germans long enough for the allies to push farther through the German lines in the Meuse-Argonne offensive.  Many of the men involved received the Medal of Honor, and Cher Ami received the French Croix de Guerre.


*As the German army was pushed back, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire made separate peaces with the Allies.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire finally collapsed, as Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, and other ethnic groups declared themselves independent from Vienna, and shortly afterwards, Karl I, a great-nephew of Franz Joseph (who had died in 1916) abdicated.  In Germany, the High Seas Fleet was ordered out of Kiel for one final battle against the Royal Navy, but the sailors, knowing it was hopeless, revolted, seizing the city.  The Kaiser fled to the Netherlands, and a provisional government took charge in early November.


*Germany signed an armistice at 11:11, 11 November, 1918, ending the fighting and effectively the war.  This was not due to a crushing military defeat (almost all the battle line were outside Germany when fighting ended), but to exhaustion and internal rebellion.


*November 11th has been celebrated as Armistice Day, and later Veterans Day, in America ever since, and in many other countries as well.


This page last updated 24 October, 2018.
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