Causes, Practice and Effects of the Great War

European Society and the New 20th Century

At the start of the century, European countries were part of a self-confident civilisation. Organised into separate nation-states and empires, Europeans nonetheless in many ways shared a common worldview- Sir John Keegan stresses this in his book I showed you last class. Within Western civilisation, some states (known as Great Powers) played dominant roles in international affairs, whereas other states aspired to such a role.

Great Powers

Great Britain

i) An industrial and commercial power that had spearheaded the Industrial Revolution, Britain also possessed a world empire that encompassed 20 percent of the world’s land mass.

ii)  Britain’s own population was 45 million.

iii) Dependent on trade, it had made itself the preeminent naval power and preferred to maintain “splendid isolation” from the affairs of the European continent.

iv) A constitutional monarchy, Britain had a liberal government.

v) London was the banking capital of the world as it precariously remains today.


i) Imperial Germany had been created by war in 1870–1871, when the German kingdom of Prussia had led German armies to victory against France.

ii) The “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, peerless practitioner of Realpolitik (power politics), had engineered German unification around the hard Prussian militarist core by wars against Austria (1866) and against France.

iii) Germany became the strongest power on the continent, with proud Prussian militarist traditions. Its population was 65 million, while its booming economy likewise made it a powerhouse.

iv) The creation of the German Empire was of such importance to international affairs that it was called the “German Revolution.” The “German Question” I referred to last time concerned what role Germany would play in European affairs: Would it be a source of stability or instability? Think of China today.

v) Bismarck pursued policies that aimed to reassure the other Great Powers of Germany’s peaceful intentions.

vi) When the young Kaiser Wilhelm II of the House of Hohenzollern ascended to the throne in 1888, he soon dismissed Bismarck in 1890.

vii) Determined to win respect and status for Germany, Wilhelm II sanctioned an aggressive foreign policy that shortly alienated many powers. All this forms the basis of Fall of Eagles.

viii) Though it had a parliament called the Reichstag, the empire was an uneasy mix of constitutionalism and authoritarianism.

ix) German domestic politics were fragmented along class, regional, and religious lines. Rapid and late industrialisation, however, would also bring social disruption.

x) A new political force was the S.P.D., the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Founded in 1875, the S.P.D. adhered to Marxist ideas and was so well organised that it was a model for other socialists worldwide (like the SDLP we mentioned with Russia). To the horror of German elites, the S.P.D. became the largest party in Germany in 1912.

xi) Nationalist leagues (the Navy League, the Army League, the Colonial League, and the Pan-German League) agitated for more assertive foreign policy, as a way of escaping internal woes.

xii) A mood of crisis and pessimism about the future pervaded German elites.


i)  Once the dominant power in Europe in the 18th century, France had suffered a crucial defeat in its 1870–1871 war with Germany, downgrading its power status.

ii) France remained anxious about Germany, whose population overshadowed its own of 35 million, and also longed to regain Alsace and Lorraine annexed by Germany (Treaty of Frankfurt).

iii) France was a republic, beset by serious internal divisions among conservatives, republicans, and socialists.

iv)  France also had a colonial empire, through which it sought prestige to compensate for its losses in Europe.

v) France sought allies with which to oppose Germany.


i) Russia was an enormous multinational empire under the Romanov dynasty, spanning Europe and Asia. With a population of 164 million, it was vast in potential but still backward in development, compared with Central and Western Europe.

ii) Tsar Nicholas II ruled over a traditional autocratic system that was already under strain.

iii) In 1905, two disasters overtook the empire. It was defeated in the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War, and the Revolution of 1905 within its own borders nearly brought the regime down.

iv) Russia sought to develop its potential economically and militarily, with ambitious reform plans. As the serfs had only been freed as recently as 1861, there was much ground to make up.

v) A varied revolutionary movement within Russia envisioned the overthrow of the state and the establishment of a new system, by terrorism if necessary.

vi) Dissatisfied nationalities (Poles, Lithuanians, Finns, and others) saw Russia as a “gaoler of nations.”

vii) The nationalist ideology of Pan-Slavism promoted support for other Slavic nations and a leading role for Russia.


1. Also a venerable old empire under the Habsburg ruling house, this multinational state of 50 million was presided over by the aged Emperor Franz Josef, who had ruled since 1848.

2. The empire consisted of twelve major ethnic groups held together by dynastic tradition and power, not nationalism, a force that Austrian leaders had feared.

3. The older empire had been reorganised into a “Dual Monarchy” of shared rule between the German- speaking Austrians and the Hungarian elites in 1867, after defeat by Prussia in 1866.

4. The demands of dissatisfied ethnic groups, underdeveloped industrialisation, and anxieties as to the survival of the empire beset its leadership.

5. The Balkans were an area of special concern to the empire, both as a field of activity and potential threat.

6. Austria-Hungary’s precarious position forced it into closer and closer partnership with Germany.

Other Countries

Ottoman Empire (Turkey)

i) Called the “Sick Man of Europe,” its decline contrasted with its glorious past as the Islamic sultanate, ruling from North Africa to Persia.

ii) Its lagging development, nationalist revolts in remaining Balkan territories, as well as the ambitions of European powers, made its future uncertain. How to deal with its expected demise was called the “Eastern Question” and occupied European diplomats.

iii) In 1908, the Young Turk nationalist revolutionary movement came to power with the aim of reviving the empire.

iv) Turkey came increasingly under German influence, with military advisors, railway projects, and counsel.


i) Italian lands were unified under the House of Savoy from 1860.

ii) With a population of 36 millions, Italy had ambitions for Great Power status but faced internal problems of underdevelopment and political disunity.

iii) Italian nationalists still longed for territories they called Irredenta (unredeemed lands) at the expense of Austria-Hungary. Colonial rivalries with France also created international animosity.


i) The kingdom of Serbia was a proud state that had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire.

ii) Its aimed lead a Balkan league uniting South Slavs under Serbia.

iii) Russia supported Serbia and signed an alliance in 1903.


i) In a remarkable self-willed transformation, Japan adopted Western technology after the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

ii) Determined to become an imperialist contender, Japan went to war with China in 1894 and Russia in 1904, and annexed Korea in 1910.

United States

i) Separated by the Atlantic Ocean, the United States did not figure prominently in European affairs.

ii) Its industrial development was striking, having overtaken both Great Britain and Germany in steel production by the start of the century.

iii) In military terms, its power was potential.

Balance of Power

The balance of power is the name given to the dynamic interrelation of the Great Powers.

i) It signifies a balance among powers with none able to dominate the others as a hegemon. Other powers unite in coalitions to resist such a hegemon.

ii) Such a balance was inaugurated after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and the recognition of sovereign states. THIRTY YEARS WAR.

iii) The Congress of Vienna of 1815 institutionalised the balance of power as a principle of harmony and conservative solidarity, under the guidance of Prince Clemens von Metternich. Remember HOBSBAWM

iv) This system, the Concert of Europe, broke down with the Crimean War, 1854–1856, and the wars that followed.

v) The result was now a looser and more competitive scene. Whether equilibrium could be maintained depended to a great extent on the new Germany’s role.

A wave of “High Imperialism” from the 1880s led to a scramble for colonies, carving up Africa and Asia.

i) Britain and France were particular colonial rivals, and Britain and Russia also mistrusted one another in Central Asia.

ii) Germany had not participated actively in this colonial competition under Bismarck, a reflection of his policy of restraint in international politics, soon to be reversed by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

With growing tensions in imperial contests and with a more aggressive German foreign policy from 1890, arms races resulted.

i) On the seas, Germany built the world’s second largest fleet, touching off a naval arms race with the largest fleet, Britain’s. At vast expense, a new generation of Dreadnought battleships was launched.

ii) On land, mass armies were built up by France, Germany, and Russia. From 1890 to 1914, European armies doubled in size.

iii) Hand in hand with increased numbers of men and equipment went carefully calibrated, minute planning for military operations in anticipation of the next war. Railway timetables and speed were emphasised.

Essential Reading:

John Keegan, The First World War, pp. 1−23. (In my classroom and school library- remember to compare his first sentence with Strachan)

Questions to Consider:

1. Was the balance of power a good thing or a bad thing? Why?

2. Could the tensions leading up to 1914 have been settled by negotiation? Why or why not?

The Great War Begins—1914–16

Scope:       Germany had long realised that its geographic and diplomatic position would necessitate a war on two fronts. The Schlieffen Plan had been designed years before to knock France and Britain out of the war quickly to enable the German army to concentrate on Russia. But the unexpectedly rapid mobilisation of Russia in 1914, combined with the determined resistance of French forces at the Battle of the Marne, resulted in the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, dooming Europe to a bloody stalemate. The new inventions of the second Industrial Revolution, in particular the machine gun, gave the defensive side all the advantages in the Great War. Because most commanders had no understanding of the new technology, they repeatedly ordered their men “over the top” into a hail of machine gun bullets. The result was a bloody stalemate in which the armies of Europe rotted in the trenches between futile attacks.



The Schlieffen Plan, which had its roots in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s failed diplomacy, was the German plan to win the war quickly.

A.      Once Kaiser Wilhelm II had alienated the Russians in the 1890s, the German general staff realised that it would be fighting a two-front war.

1.      The Germans knew that the Russian military machine was antiquated and inefficient and, therefore, anticipated that it would take about six weeks to mobilise.

2.      Based on these realities, General Alfred von Schlieffen devised the Schlieffen Plan between 1891 and 1905.

a.      Its first step would be to marshal 90 percent of the German forces on the Western Front to attack France.

b.      Because the French would probably expect the Germans to attack along their mutual border in the Ardennes, Schlieffen ordered a feint at this point.

c.       The main German column—34 divisions—would attack France through neutral Belgium and Luxembourg.

d.      Once Paris surrendered, France would fall.

e.      This fall would make possible the transfer of the German army to the Eastern Front, just in time to

meet the slowly mobilised Russians.

f.       The Russian army would prove no match for the Germans.

g.      The kaiser would then dictate peace terms to the whole of Europe.

B.      Immediately following the commencement of hostilities on 2 August 1914, everything seemed to go well.  
1.           Belgium and Luxembourg were easily overrun by the German army.

In mentioning the Rape of Belgium by the German army during the lecture, I indicated that stories of German atrocities were overblown. It is true that the most outrageous stories—German soldiers using Belgian babies for bayonet practice, gouging out eyes, chopping off limbs and even women's breasts and crucifying captured soldiers—have never been substantiated. But Germany did plunder Belgian resources, German troops did fire on civilians (in part because they feared enemy troops in civilian dress known as franc-tireurs), and Belgians were rounded up and shipped back to the Reich to provide labour.]

2.      The German southern army cut through the Ardennes.

3.      By the end of August, German field artillery was shelling Paris.

4.      But at this point, two things went wrong:

a.      Because the Ardennes offensive was going so well, the Germans strengthened their southern army at the expense of the northern army.

b.      The Russians mobilised far faster than anyone anticipated and invaded Prussia, forcing the Germans to pull men from the Western Front to shore up the East.

5.      As a result, both Western offensives bogged down.

6.      On 6–9 September 1914, French and British forces stopped the German advance on Paris at the Battle of the Marne.

II.      Within two months, the German army in the West had been forced to retreat to a front running from Switzerland to the North Sea.

A.      Both sides dug in.

1.      Over the next four years, commanders on both sides of the Western Front launched offensive after offensive, hurling millions of men against enemy lines at tremendous loss of life at Champagne, Ypres, and Artois in 1915; Verdun and the Somme in 1916; Arras, Champagne again, and Ypres again in 1917; and the Marne again, the Argonne, and Ypres again in 1918.

2.      Yet the Western Front would budge no more than 10 miles in either direction during all that time.

3. Why?  The technology of early-20th-century warfare favoured the defensive side thanks to the concrete pill box,

barbed wire, and above all, the machine gun.

1.      This technology was mounted at the front of an elaborate network of trenches that, over time, stretched back several miles.

2.      The two sets of trenches were separated from each other by about 300–600 yards of “open” ground, churned-up mud that had been devastated by shells and grenades and was littered with human bodies—“No Man’s Land.”

3.      Given these formidable obstacles, why did the commanders on both sides repeatedly order their men over the top?

C.     The commanders were professional soldiers, thoroughly trained in the art of 19th-century warfare.

D.     The Somme Campaign of 1916 was, perhaps, the most disastrous of all the repeated offensives of the war.

1.      Leaders on both sides had mostly attended military academies, where they had studied the great wars and battles of the 18th and 19th centuries.

2.      If they had any experience of war at all, it was of colonial war, in which well-armed European forces had mown down tribal warriors armed with spears.

3.      Above all, most of the great commanders lacked the scientific and practical training to comprehend how the second Industrial Revolution had changed their profession.

4.      Instead, war was seen as a kind of game, a great national sporting match with rules of play that gentlemen would, of course, follow, with victory coming through team spirit and a redoubling of effort.

1.      That summer, the French, who had just taken a terrible beating from the failed German offensive at Verdun, asked the British to take some pressure off their positions by undertaking to break the German lines at the River Somme in northern France.

2.      During the last week of June 1916, the British unleashed a massive artillery bombardment.  

3.          At 7:30 a.m. on 1 July 1916, a million men of the British Expeditionary Force went over the top.  
4.     The British “Tommy” faced tremendous obstacles as he ran across No Man’s Land toward the enemy.
a.      He carried a rifle and a 60-pound pack. 

b.         He had to cross 600 yards over has own side’s barbed wire, then across ground ploughed into a thick soup of heavy mud by rain and shellfire. c.      He did so in the face of withering fire from German machine gunners.
5.      As a result, in one morning and one afternoon of fighting, the British army lost a total of 57,740 casualties and gained only an average of 100 yards across a 16-mile front.

6.      Over the next two months, the Somme offensive gained a total of 2–3 miles—at a cost of 420,000 total casualties.

7.      Sir Douglas Haig (1861–1928), far from being removed for incompetence, remained Commander-in- Chief of the British Expeditionary Force to the end of the war, emerging after the war a much decorated figure who was given the title of Earl Haig by King George V in 1919.

8.      Little was learned from this fiasco. In the summer of 1917, the British tried again at Ypres, losing 31,000 on the first day and 340,000 for the whole campaign.

9.      The Germans were no more intelligent: They killed 377, 000 Frenchmen at Verdun, but at the loss of 337,000 Germans!

III. With the failure of these various offensives, Europe settled down to a cold-blooded war of attrition in the trenches.

A.      Life in the trenches was a nightmare.

1.      The trenches had mud everywhere, were cold and smelly, and bred influenza, bacterial infections, and, above all, trench foot.

2.      Dead men and horses lay where they fell, often only a few feet away, just over the top of a trench, or actually in the trench with the soldiers.

3.      The constant rounds of shellfire whistling overhead, making impact only a few yards away, had a devastating psychological effect, giving rise to a new psychological condition: shellshock.

4.      At one point in 1917, the life expectancy of a soldier at the Western Front was two weeks, as graphically portrayed in the novel Death of a Hero (1929) by Richard Aldington (1892–1962).

B.      For many Europeans, World War I (the “Great War”)—not the French Revolution—represented the true end of the ancien régime and, indeed, of Western civilisation.

1.      World War I was, for Europeans, their Vietnam, but because of its greater scale, it had an even more pronounced effect in Europe than Vietnam did in the United States.

2.      Ordinary men, not just intellectuals, ceased to believe in what they had been told, in their leaders, in their countries, even in God.

3.      In many ways, the remainder of the 20th century would, for Europeans, be a search for the kind of certainty and a sense of belonging and purpose lost on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918.

4.      This can be seen in the art produced after the war.  
a.         The writers of the Lost Generation (Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Yeats,

Woolf, Joyce, Brecht, Kafka, and others) all depict, in one way or another, a kind of Waste Land devoid of divine purpose. 
b.    Painting became even more abstract and fragmented. 
c.    Music became more atonal and dissonant.

5.      For the troops in the trenches, the only relief was the occasional leave home (which, as the poet Siegfried Sassoon depicted, produced its own problems), sex with town prostitutes (subject of a famous World War I song, “Mademoiselle from Armentières”), and black humour.

C.     Quite naturally, both sides sought a way to break out of this morass and win the war away from the Western Front: in the Mediterranean, at sea, and in the East.

Breaking the Deadlock—1915–17     Both the Allies and the Central Powers sought to break the deadlock of the Great War by opening up new fronts. Britain and France tried first, with an abortive attempt to invade the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) at Gallipoli in 1915. Germany sought to break the stalemate at sea in 1915 and 1917 by starving Britain out with unrestricted submarine warfare, but the inevitable consequence of sinking merchant shipping on the Atlantic would be the deaths of heretofore neutral Americans and the entry of the U.S. into the war on the side of the Allies. The Germans had one more trick up their sleeves. In 1917, they attempted to foment revolution in Russia.

I.       By 1915, with the war deadlocked in both France and Poland, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, devised a plan to attack Germany and Austria—the Central Powers—from the south. This would be the Dardanelles Campaign.

A.      In the opening days of the war, Germany and Austria were joined by the Ottoman Empire (Turkey).

1.      For the Ottoman Empire, this meant allies in the fight to hang onto its Middle Eastern Empire against Russian ambitions.

2.      From the Allied point of view, the Ottoman Empire was dangerously close to the Suez Canal.

3.      As the leader of the Muslim world, the Ottoman Empire’s sultan proclaimed a jihad against the empire’s enemies.

4.      But many Arabs hoped that the British and French would free them from Ottoman domination.

Churchill’s plan was to open up a third front by sending a British-French naval expedition and amphibious force into the Black Sea.

1.      This plan would knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

2.      It would create a supply line to Russia while taking pressure off the Eastern Front and the Suez Canal.

3.      It would enable the Allies to invade Austria and Germany through “Europe’s soft underbelly.”

To accomplish all this, the Allies would have to get past the gateway into the Black Sea, the Dardanelles, and, in particular, a series of forts on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

1.      Churchill advocated a naval bombardment, beginning early in 1915.

2.      But after a number of Allied ships were sunk by mines, Horatio, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, ordered an amphibious assault on the heights of Gallipoli Peninsula.

Gallipoli was a logistical and executional disaster.

1.      The Germans supplied the Turks with machine guns, allowing them to rake the beach with a constant barrage.

2.      The Allied supply lines were long and tortuous, stretching all across the Mediterranean.

3.      Above all, the Allies had no notion of what would later be called landing craft; nor had they engaged in any amphibious training.

4.      Combined Allied casualties came to 250,000 men.

The failure of the Gallipoli campaign had wide-ranging effects.

1.      There would be no third front, at least not for a while.

2.      Russia continued to face Germany and Austria without British and French help.

3.      The Ottoman Empire’s relations with the Central Powers were strengthened.

4.      In 1915, while fighting the Russians in Armenia, the Ottoman Empire decided to retaliate against Christian Armenians who fought on Russia’s side. As many as 1.5 million Armenians died of disease or starvation or at the hands of Turkish soldiers.

 5.     In October 1915, Bulgaria joined the Central Powers in hopes of gaining Balkan territory. The Bulgarians eventually overran the Serbs, cutting Russia off from any help via the Mediterranean.

6.      Churchill was made the scapegoat and fell from office.

7.      Australians and New Zealanders never forgot that the British sent them into the Gallipoli campaign with such poor preparation.

Both Britain and Germany had long prepared for a great naval battle to settle the mastery of the seas.

Churchill ordered an early mobilisation of the Grand Fleet so that, from the very beginning of the war, German ports were blockaded.

But despite superior odds, the British did not want to risk a great fleet action, because they had nothing to gain.

This led the Germans to try to starve Britain out via unrestricted submarine warfare.

1.      Britain, an archipelago, was, in 1914, heavily dependent on shipments of food, fuel, and munitions from America and the empire.

2.      The United States, though technically and militarily neutral, was happy to supply both sides. Yet with the British blockade preventing trade with Germany, American firms traded ever greater amounts of goods and loaned ever greater amounts of money to the Allies, especially Britain.

3.      This Atlantic trade became the crucial lifeline that kept Britain in the war.  
4. By the same token, the Germans could win if they could cut Britain’s lifeline.

a.      At first, the Germans tried to cut American supplies with surface raiders, but these were too easy for the Royal Navy to hunt down.

b.      Submarines or U-boats were far more effective.

c.       Early in the war, the German U-boat commanders tried to minimize loss of life by warning their victims to abandon ship.

d.      This warning gave the crew time to radio the Royal Navy and sink the U-boat.

5.      In the spring of 1915, the German Admiralty announced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. All ships travelling in an area around Britain were subject to sinking.

6.      On 15 May 1915, the U-20 sighted and sank the British luxury liner R.M.S. Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Of the passengers and crew, 1,198 died, including 128 American citizens. The Germans claimed—correctly, as it turned out—that the Lusitania was carrying war materiel. Many Americans called for America to join the war.

7.      Reluctant to add the American industrial giant to its list of enemies, the Germans revoked their policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.

8.      As a result, Germany’s U-boat offensive stalled, and Britain continued to be supplied from America.

This led the Germans to attempt another surface-ship action.

1.      On 31 May 1916, the British and German fleets met while out on patrol off the Jutland Peninsula, Denmark.

2.      Involving 250 ships and 100,000 men, Jutland was the largest naval battle in history up to that time.

At first, everything went according to the German plan. The German battlecruisers lured those of the British into battle and, in quick succession, dispatched three ships. But instead of the Germans trapping the small British squadron, the main German battlefleet was drawn into the range of the whole British Grand Fleet. Moreover, the British commander, Sir John Jellicoe, had crossed the German Admiral Reinhard Scheer’s T: He was facing the German Fleet broadsides to bows. At this point, knowing that he was outnumbered and just minutes from destruction, Scheer ordered his destroyers and torpedo boats to run interference against the combined firepower of the Royal Navy, while the High Seas Fleet retreated behind a smokescreen.

         Instead of giving chase, Admiral Jellicoe turned his ships away from the German torpedoes, thus allowing the High Seas Fleet to escape.

         Both commanders seem to have felt that, in the end, their primary mission was not so much to engage and defeat the enemy as to bring their expensive battlewagons back intact.

3.      Though the Germans claimed victory, the kaiser’s High Seas Fleet spent most of the rest of the war in harbour. Thanks to the British blockade, the German situation grew desperate by early 1917.

Germany was carrying a number of weaker allies, including the Austrians and the Turks. Further, in 1916, Arab peoples began a revolt against the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled them for centuries. The British finally had their third front.

a.      Lawrence of Arabia organised and led the Arabs. They entered Damascus in triumph—ahead of the British—in 1918.

b.      To open this third front, Lawrence had promised the Arab peoples national self-determination— independence—after the war.

c.       But in Palestine, this would conflict with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a British promise to support a national homeland for the Jews.

d.      Here, as in so many other places, World War I set the course for the rest of the century.

3.      The German army was being worn down by superior numbers in the East and West. 4.        At home, Germany was running out of fuel oil and food stuffs.

5.      Something had to be done quickly or Germany would lose the war. Early in 1917, the German government decided on two terrific gambles.

First, the German Admiralty reinstated unrestricted submarine warfare.

1.      They knew that, sooner or later, an American ship would be sunk, and American lives would be lost.

2.      They gambled that they could sink enough ships to starve Britain out before the Americans declared war.

3.      On February 3, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany after the sinking of an American ship, the S.S. Housatonic This strategy almost worked. By April 1917, the U-boats were sinking 600,000 tons of shipping per month. British domestic food stocks were down to six weeks. But then, two things happened:

a.      In April 1917, America entered the war, partly because German U-boats had attacked American ships. In addition, the Americans learned via the Zimmerman telegram that Germany had offered Mexico the prizes of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas if it joined in a war against the United States.

b.      In May, the British and American navies implemented a convoy system, and U-boat losses began to rise.

         The U.S. Army—inexperienced but fresh—was gearing up to join the fray.

The war in Russia before the Americans mobilized, perhaps he could concentrate all his resources on breaking open the Western Front. The first German gamble had failed, but the kaiser still had one last card up his sleeve: If he could end the

The Russian strategy in World War I was the same as against Napoleon: Give ground, retreat into the vast expanses of Mother Russia, and wait for the German and Austrian armies to freeze or burn themselves out.

Because of the backwardness of Russian industry, though, many of the Russian troops had no rifles, bullets, uniforms, or food.

Luckily for Russia, the Germans concentrated on the Western Front, but in the spring of 1915, the Germans launched a successful offensive in southern Poland.

Stymied in Poland, in 1916 the Russians launched an offensive against Austria.

1.      The Austrians were weakened because they had had to divert troops to the Italian frontier in the south.

2.      The Russians broke through and gained 60 miles, but their offensive stalled when the Russian railway

system was unable to bring more troops up to the front.

3.      Still, this offensive diverted German troops away from Verdun.

With both sides so evenly matched, World War I was a zero-sum game.

1.      Troops massed for a decisive offensive on one front meant that their army would be too weak to maintain another front.

2.      The only way to break the deadlock would be to bring in a big ally, such as the United States, or eliminate one, such as Russia. This would be the next German strategy.

By 1917, the Russian war effort was in chaos.

1.      In that year, more than a million men deserted.

2.      Civilians at home suffered food shortages, workers went on strike, and peasants began to seize the holdings of their landlords.

3.      In March 1917 (February by the Russian calendar), a series of street demonstrations broke out in Petrograd.

a.      Regular troops refused to fire on the starving demonstrators.

b.      Revolt spread through the countryside, and mutiny, through the army.

c.       On 12 March, Russia’s legislature, the Duma, established a provisional government.

d.      On 15 March, Czar Nicholas II abdicated.

e.      From this point, real power rested with the defence minister, Alexander Kerensky.

i.       He was a moderate democrat who passed a series of reforms.

ii.      He fatally, though, decided to continue the war. 4.    The position of the Kerensky government worsened daily as it and the war grew more and more

unpopular. 5.      Russia was ripe for a more violent revolution. 6.       Germany was only too happy to help by putting the exiled Vladimir Lenin on a train for Russia.

Supplementary Reading:

Chambers, chapter 27, section II. A. Moorehead, Gallipoli. R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea.

Questions to Consider:

If Churchill’s southern Europe strategy had succeeded, how would it have changed the course of 20th-century history?

Why was the British blockade of Germany more successful than the German blockade of Britain?

Last Wager

In the spring of 1918, the German command took its last gamble. According to their calculations, time was of the essence:

   i) Victory in the East meant that German troops could be massed on the Western Front.

   ii) The breakthrough needed to be achieved before American troops arrived in numbers sufficient to tip the balance.

   iii) As with the Schlieffen Plan, Verdun, and unrestricted submarine warfare, the German Empire gambled again, but this time put all its bets on this last throw of the dice.

Eastern Triumph: The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

   i) After their ceasefire in December 1917, the Bolsheviks and the Germans met to negotiate a peace treaty but had irreconcilable aims. Both sides argued about the meaning of self-determination for the peoples of Eastern Europe, although it was a concept about which neither side cared.  In reality, the Germans sought control of huge expanses of territory, whereas the Bolsheviks aimed to turn negotiations into a platform for a global propaganda event.

   ii) Appealing to world public opinion, the Bolsheviks publicised the secret treaties of the Allies found in the Russian foreign ministry.  Trotsky was brilliant in stalling for time. When negotiations reached a deadlock, Trotsky announced a new tactic of “neither peace nor war” and simply left. The German army responded by attacking, meeting almost no resistance. The armies came within a hundred miles of Petrograd. Because the revolution was in peril, Lenin narrowly convinced his comrades to sign the treaty.

   iii) On March 3, 1918, they signed the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which stripped vast territories from the former Russian Empire. By some estimates, Russia lost a third of its territory, a quarter of its population, and three-quarters of its coal and iron. Russia ceded control of Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Finland, and the Baltic provinces.

Despite these reverses and impending civil war within Russia, Lenin breathlessly awaited news of the outbreak of international revolution.

Germans exulted at this victory. The wildest hopes of annexationists had been realized. Many felt that half the war had been won. I tried to mention in class (for use in the section on Hitler's aims) that changed perceptions of Eastern Europe and fantasies of a German colonial empire there would later be taken up and radicalised by the Nazis.

BUT the harshness of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk produced liabilities, hence my argument that supposed success produced disaster:

    i) The Allies’ resolve was strengthened by this brutal performance.

   ii) The one million German soldiers, who had to hold down the occupied territories in the East, might otherwise have been used in the spring offensive in the West.

   iii) The Treaty of Bucharest of May 7, 1918, with defeated Romania was also harsh and required the vanquished to provide food resources and oil to the Central Powers.

Spring Offensive

This last German offensive of spring 1918 also was called “The Kaiser’s Battle” and “Operation Michael.” It was a conscious wager because, if it failed, there would be no reserves left. With the transfer of some German troops from the East, the Germans achieved a 10 percent superiority over Western forces.

The attack began March 21, 1918.

    i) Over the course of the next four months of attacks and storm troop tactics, the Germans pushed Allied lines back 40 miles.

   ii) In this crisis, the French general, Ferdinand Foch, was at last given unified command of Allied forces.

   iii) German attacks finally petered out. The material abundance of supplies in captured Allied trenches discouraged German soldiers.

   iv) The Germans were halted 56 miles from Paris.

   v) To spread panic, Paris was bombarded by long-range German guns, including the Big Bertha (yes, and the so-called 'Paris Gun'). Around 250 Parisians were killed by the shelling.

   vi) The gamble had failed.

Beginning of the German Collapse

   i) Decisive reverses came for the Germans.

   ii) An Allied counterattack at Amiens in August broke their lines. The use of tanks overwhelmed discouraged German troops.

   iii) This breakdown in morale came to be called the “Black Day,” as soldiers lost the will to fight. I think it's interesting it's also the date of Nagasaki, another ‘black day.'

   iv) As German armies retreated, the Allies took the initiative and retained it for the rest of the war.

   v) The U.S. army went into action independently for the first time and overran the salient at St. Mihiel.

   vi) Simultaneously, Allied troops launched an attack from their long inactive camp in Salonika in August 1918.

   vii) In September 1918, a massive Allied offensive was launched at St. Mihiel in the Meuse-Argonne sector and on the Saint-Quentin–Cambrai sector.

   viii) By the middle of the month, the Germans had retreated back to the Hindenburg Line, whence they had launched their spring offensive.

Despite these successes, the Allies assumed that the war would continue into 1919.

Breakdown of the Central Powers

On September 29, 1918, Ludendorff informed the Kaiser that the war had been lost and that only an armistice could save them now. A desperate attempt at revolution from above was undertaken but came too late to satisfy the Allies or even attract much notice. Prince Max von Baden became chancellor and started internal reforms.

The German government appealed to Wilson for peace on the basis of his Fourteen Points on October 4, 1918, but the American President responded by demanding internal change first.

Germany’s allies fell away.

   i) On September 29, 1918, Bulgarian representatives signed an armistice in Salonika. Bulgaria was the first of the Central Powers to leave the war.

   ii) Turkey followed in October.

   iii) Allied troops began to move up through the Balkans from Salonika.

Austria-Hungary was next on the list. On the Italian front, from October 24–November 2, the Austro-Hungarian army began to dissolve. In trying to go home, many were captured by Italian forces at Vittorio Veneto. On November 3, 1918, Austria-Hungary signed an armistice with the Allies but was already disintegrating.

Fall of Germany

Revolution broke out in Germany, provoked by futile gestures at the war’s end.

On November 3, 1918, news of orders for a naval “deathride” against the Allies touched off mutinies in the base at Kiel and spread to other port cities.

On November 7, revolt broke out here in Munich.

Ludendorff was fired and escaped abroad in disguise. The scientist Fritz Haber, fearing trial by the Allies, also escaped.

Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated when told that the German army no longer stood behind him and went into exile in Holland (fortunately for him, they ignored the Netherlands when carrying out the Schlieffen Plan).

Turmoil reigned in the capital, Berlin. On November 9, a German democratic republic was declared.

On November 8, a German armistice delegation met with the Allied commander, General Foch, and heard the terms.

On November 11, 1918, at 11 A.M., the armistice signed at Compiègne in France came into effect. The guns fell silent on the Western Front.

Essential Reading:    Hew Strachan, The First World War, pp. 267−300.  (You can also watch the documentary based on it)

2004—Paper III      Why did Germany and her allies lose the First World War?


I.       Following Brest-Litovsk, the Germans transferred the bulk of their eastern army to the west for an all-out assault on the Allied lines. This would be Kaiserschlacht, the “kaiser’s battle.”  The three months that it took to work out the peace had enabled the Allies to get fresh American troops under General John Pershing  to the front. In fact, the German plan, devised by General Erich Ludendorff was to aim right for those troops, stationed in the Argonne Forest. The campaign began with an artillery barrage in late March 1918.

1.      The German troops broke through the Allied lines and came within 50 miles of Paris.

2.      The American forces before Paris stiffened and held.

3.      By late May, the German offensive had stalled. The Allied counteroffensive began on 18 July 1918. The exhausted Germans soon fell back, giving up 8 miles on 8 August, a day that would be known as Schwarztag (Schwartzer Tag), the “Black Day.” By late September 1918, German losses were a million men in six months.
1.      Morale was low; desertion was mounting.
2.      At home, the population suffered food shortages.
3.      Communists, demanding an end to the war, attracted large crowds.
4.      Nationalist groups in the Austro-Hungarian Empire rose up and began to form armies of their own.
5.      When ordered on one last suicidal sortie, the Imperial German Navy mutinied.
 By early November, the command structure of the German and Austrian Empires began to fall apart.
1.      On 7 November, revolts broke out in Bavaria (We'll discuss this at length later).
2.      On 9 November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands. 3. Two days later, Kaiser Karl, the last Austro-Hungarian emperor, gave up his constitutional powers. German and Austrian provisional governments immediately sued the Allies for an armistice.  The armistice was agreed to begin at 11 AM on 11 November 1918.
The Great War had involved 34 nations at its height. Eleven million soldiers had died. Four great empires fell: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. Europeans lost faith in authority and even, perhaps, in God. Great War clearly changed the balance of power. The United States was now a world power of the first rank. The Soviet Union clearly had the potential to be one, as well.
3.      Out of the old empires, numerous independent nation-states, many of them democracies, would be created, including Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and from 1922, a semi-independent Ireland.
4.      After 1918, Germany and Austria would also be democracies.
D.     Many of these changes were enacted or confirmed at the peace conference that assembled at Versailles in 1919.

IV. The Versailles Conference was convened not only to put Europe back together but also to find a way to prevent future wars.
A.     Despite—or perhaps because of—the terrible experience of the war, the Versailles conference convened amid great optimism.
1.      There was a widespread conviction that the Allied leaders had a plan to make war a thing of the past: President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.
2.      Wilson had drawn up the Fourteen Points in January 1918 to bring Germany to the negotiating table and establish a basis for a permanent peace.
3.      The Fourteen Points was a rational and moderate attempt to reduce or eliminate many of the tensions that had led to the war initially, in part by not blaming one side or the other for the conflict.
a.      The 1st point was open covenants of peace; that is, there were to be no more secret treaties, à la Bismarck and Napoleon III.
 b.     The 2nd point was freedom of the seas, no more unrestricted warfare or even blockades.
c.      The 3rd point was that there would be no tariff barriers among nations.
d.      The 4th point was disarmament “to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety,” and the 5th called for the impartial arbitration of colonial disputes.
e.      The 6th through 13th points addressed individual issues in Europe, including self-determination for Russia and Belgium, the withdrawal of German troops from France, and so on.
f.       Finally, the 14th point was the proposal of the formation of a general association of nations.
4.      Georges Clemenceau, president of France, and, to a lesser extent, David Lloyd-George, prime minister of Great Britain, were not interested in rational or moderate treatment of Germany.
 a.     The French still harboured bitter and humiliating memories from their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871.
b.      A good third of France had been occupied and turned into wasteland by the imperial German army.
c.      Britain had nearly been starved out by German U-boats.
d.      Both politicians promised their respective peoples a harsh peace.
5.      In the end, Wilson, the idealist, was outmanoeuvred by Clemenceau and Lloyd George, the realists.
 6.     Germany was not invited to be part of the negotiations at Versailles. Germany diplomats would be summoned only to accept or reject the final document. Germany later charged that the Treaty of Versailles was a diktat—a “dictated peace.”
1.      Germany lost significant amounts of territory, in part to give neighbors a buffer.
a.      Alsace-Lorraine reverted to France.
b.      The Rhineland, including the Saar Valley, heart of the German coal industry, was to be demilitarized for 15 years, and the French were allowed to exploit its coal deposits.
c.      Much of East Prussia went to help form Poland, though Danzig (Gdansk) remained in German hands—a sore point for both sides.
d.      In effect, Germany lost 13 percent of its population, 15 percent of its coal, 50 percent of its iron ore, and 20 percent of its iron and steel industry.
e.      Its overseas possessions were distributed to Britain, Japan, and the United States.
Later treaties broke up the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, awarded territory to Poland and Italy, and confirmed the independent existence of Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (lumping together Czechs and Slovaks), and Yugoslavia (Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims).

3.         Bulgaria lost territory on the Aegean.
4.         The Ottoman Empire lost all its overseas possessions.
a.      Lawrence of Arabia had promised self-determination to Arabs in Palestine, Iraq, and Syria who rebelled against the Ottoman Empire.
b.      But Versailles made Iraq and Palestine protectorates of Great Britain and Syria a protectorate of France.
5.      The territorial settlement of Versailles and associated treaties only partly fulfilled the goals set for it by the Fourteen Points.
a.      Old, defeated empires were broken up.
b.      Victorious empires (Britain, France) were strengthened.
c.      Some peoples (Poles, Baltic peoples) achieved statehood.
d.      Other peoples were lumped together in uneasy states: Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
6.      The old principle of balance of power outweighed the newer one of national self-determination.
7.      Germany and the Soviet Union had to be counterbalanced, even if that meant lumping together Czechs and Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims.

8.      Imperialism remained very much alive.
The military settlement was mainly intended to “de-fang” Germany, rather than to disarm the whole world.
1.      The Rhineland was to be occupied by Allied troops for 15 years.
2.      The German army was to be reduced to 100,000 men.
3.      Germany was forbidden to have an air force.
4.      The German navy was forbidden to have U-boats.
The economic provisions of Versailles were likewise intended to stifle German militarism but also to punish and avenge.
1.      Germany’s coal was to be shipped to France.
2.      Germany’s merchant ships, foreign assets, and patents were awarded to the Allies.
3.      Germany was to pay an indemnity of $5 billion and reparations of $32 billion to the Allies, by which the Allies hoped to pay off their war debt.
The War Guilt Clause, Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty, was the ultimate humiliation; it blamed Germany for “causing all the loss and damage...of the war imposed upon them [the Allies] by the aggression of Germany and her Allies.”
1.      The assignment of national blame for war was something new in diplomacy.
2.      In fact, although Germany clearly bore a heavy responsibility, all the great powers had some share in starting the war.
3.      The War Guilt Clause would only exacerbate German resentment of the diktat of Versailles.
Versailles was, at best, an incomplete solution to the problems that had led to the Great War.
1.      It largely ignored what had happened in Russia, establishing a policy among Western governments of simply shunning the new communist regime.
2.      It only partly solved the problem of nationalism and did not address colonialism.
3.      The economic provisions of the treaty were unworkable. The League of Nations was the one real glimmer of hope to emerge from the Versailles Conference. It was chartered in 1919 “to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security.” It had four specific functions: international disarmament, arbitration of international disputes, economic sanctions against aggression, and treaty revision.
But it suffered from two fundamental flaws.
1.      The charter contained no provision for the use of military force against recalcitrant aggressor nations.
2.      Three major powers were not members: Russia was not invited to join; Germany was excluded; and the United States chose not to join.
a.      Wilson campaigned hard to convince Congress to ratify the Versailles Treaty and the league charter.
b.      But Republican senators and congressmen opposed further involvement in European affairs.
The league first convened in Geneva on November 5, 1920.
1.         The first matter on the agenda was international disarmament.
a.      In naval disarmament conferences held in 1921 and 1936, the British, Americans, and Japanese agreed to a ratio of 5:5:3 in capital ships.
b.      The naval conferences also agreed on a moratorium on building new ships until 1931, but they did not address submarines or aircraft.
c.      A 1932 conference on military disarmament could not identify a reasonable formula for determining a country’s land force needs.
a.      This was accomplished with some success when the countries were small and relatively powerless, but larger and more powerful countries tended to simply ignore the international community.
b.      The only recourse for the league was economic sanctions, which were applied unevenly and failed to solve international disagreements.
3.      Finally, the League of Nations offered the possibility of treaty revision, which was used to ease the German situation somewhat in the 1920s and 1930s.
E.      The League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles have been viewed as failures, but the treaty enabled the reconstruction of Europe.
1.      Further, the League of Nations brought about naval disarmament, attacked international traffic in narcotics and prostitution, assisted war refugees, and addressed health and labour conditions.
2.      The league also brought Germany and the Soviet Union back into the brotherhood of nations and set a precedent for global cooperation.
3.      Both the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, however, would be overwhelmed by the economic, social, and political tensions of the 1920s and 1930s.

Questions to Consider:
1.      How should Germany have been dealt with after World War I?
2.         Why did the United States opt out of the League of Nations?