WORLD WAR I: CHRONOLOGY
“The most terrible and disastrous of all wars”—Woodrow Wilson
The world was wound very tight in the summer of 1914. Ever since the demise of Bismarck and the rising recklessness of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, Europe had been growing increasingly tense. When King Edward VII of England, Kaiser Wilhelm's uncle, died in 1910, Wilhelm celebrated. He felt that Great Britain had stood between Germany and the sun, and had been furious upon learning that Great Britain had aligned herself with France and Russia. Wilhelm was spoiling for a fight. France was anxious to reclaim territory lost in the Franco-Prussian War, and Great Britain had guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium.
When Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo in June of 1914, the system of alliances, connections and conflicting interests was stretched to the breaking point. After more than a month of futile negotiations, the “damned foolishness in the Balkans” which had been predicted by Bismarck finally blew up. Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia; Serbia was supported of Russia, and Germany had offered a “blank check” to its ally, Austria. When the declarations of war began the fragile peace unraveled quickly.
Following are the declarations of war that continued into its final year. Although some of the declarations may appear foolish given international realities, the point of those declarations was that when the war was over, there would be a division of spoils. Industries belonging to the great powers which had been developed in small nations, particularly those of Latin America, would be nationalized if owned by the losers in the contest. But to be able to participate in a division of the confiscated assets, one had to be at the negotiation table, and the price of the entry ticket was a declaration of war. Thus:
Summary of the Conflict:
Soldiers had to endure the horrors of the trenches. Technology outstrips tactics as new weapons make old practices irrelevant. Artillery, poison gas, barbed wire, machine guns, hand grenades, airplanes. Trench warfare. Mud, disease, rats, cold, stench, gas, fear, shell shock.
Mass is the chief factor: Big battalions ala Napoleon. 5 million Germans mobilized, 4 million Frenchmen available. Russia has more than any, but mobilization is slow. The military gospel of mass was at the fore. Armies numbered in the millions, and new weapons cut them down by the thousands.
The Schlieffen Plan: (See background section on Germany) Hold in the East, strike in the west, allow the left front to be weak, put maximum effort in right. "Make the right strong!"
French Marshall Foch: An attack with sufficient ardor will carry everything.
Battlefield realities were unpredictable and inconceivable to officers planning the war from a distance.
The invasion of France. The Germans needed 10 days to reduce forts at Liege, Belgium on their march to France; meanwhile the French fell into trap in Lorraine and failed to see threat on their left. The French soon discovered that the "Will to conquer" was not enough to defeat modern weapons. But the Germans counterattacked too soon and allowed French to fall back. French General Joffre pulled troops out of the line to reinforce against main attack.
The Germans on right flank were hesitant at first because they lacked intelligence about the British, but they soon began to roll back all the French armies and the British Expeditionary Force. German General Moltke weakened the right flank of the German army, keeping back some to guard Belgium. Then, thinking that a victory was won and worrying over Russia, Moltke ordered six German army corps to be transferred to the Russian front. Thus at a crucial time in the war a major portion of the German army was crossing Central Europe on railroad trains.
By September 1st both sides were exhausted, drained from the great military and logistic effort. Enormous quantities of supplies had been consumed and more were needed; Belgian engineers destroyed the bridges behind the Germans, severely hampering German re-supply efforts. German generals made things worse by outrunning their supplies. Telegraph lines destroyed by the advancing Germans also hurt command and control, and communication.
September 5-12: BATTLE of the MARNE. The Allies were unable to turn the German flank and began a “race for the sea.” Four German armies, three French armies and the British Expeditionary Force faced off along the Marne River. About 1,000,000 participated on each side.
Marshall Foch: "My center cedes, my right recoils. Situation excellent. I attack!"
The Allies did well, but failed to turn their advance into a victory. The Allies lost 250,000 men, the Germans more. This was the most decisive battle since Waterloo. Afterwards the trenches extended from Switzerland to the North Sea/English Channel, and for the next four years neither side was able to break the other.
The Naval War in 1914. Sea power, unappreciated by French, soon began to make itself felt. The British and German navies fought it out on just about every ocean of the world—colonies would become bargaining chips later. By the end of 1914 Great Britain was in command of the seas, and a naval blockade soon began to pinch the Central Powers; the German submarine, “U-Boat” was the only effective weapon left to the Germans.
1914: The Eastern Front: The Russians advanced rapidly westward to assist their French allies, but they ran into the Austrians at Lemberg and the Germans at Tannenberg. The Germans defeated the Russian army decisively, taking 90,000 prisoners; the results could have been worse for the Russians, who were poorly led and equipped. German General Ludendorff took command, with Field Marshall Hindenburg as the nominal head, and cut off the Russian “steamroller.” The Russians had terrible counterintelligence, sent teletype messages in the clear so they could be intercepted, etc. The German General Staff had greatly overestimated the military power of the Russians, whose vast numbers proved ineffective in modern war.
By end of 1914 it was apparent that huge economic resources had been expended, and much more would be required. It had become a war of money and supplies, which affected, among other things, the position of America. Prewar economists were “dumbfounded,” according to Liddell hart
German strategy: Hold in the West, get a decisive victory in East and knock Russia out of the war. The Kaiser agrees with Hindenburg on strategy.
Renewed Allied offensives in West: Battles of Ypres, Artois. Poison gas was used for first time by both sides, but it is hard to use effectively because of wind shifts, etc. Still, it is a horrifying weapon, and soldiers cough out their lives. The French mounted major offensives in the summer and fall. There were huge costs, but no results, except recriminations among the British and French generals who blamed each other for the failures.
The invasion of Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, the Strait between Greece and Turkey, was Winston Churchill's brainchild. His idea was to assist Russia, open a second front, and use the “indirect approach” getting at the “soft underbelly” of Europe. There was much resistance to the plan, but it was overcome. A huge expeditionary force landed in the Dardanelles, but it got stranded and eventually had to withdraw. Many thought Churchill was finished.
In 1915 Italy turned sides and declared war on Austria. Italy wanted territory, and to regain “historic traditions.” The Italian commander lost over 250,000 men by December to the Austrians in the mountains with their machine guns. By August 1917 the Italians had fought 11 “Battles of the Isonzo"—and were still on the Isonzo.
Eastern Front in 1915: The Russians defended against an early German offensive, January-March. The Germans reinforced and won a major battle, taking another 90,000 prisoners, at Masurian Lakes. The Russians advanced against the Austrians, but from June though September the Germans broke through, and the whole Russian front was soon in a state of collapse. Autumn rains stalled the German advance, but the Russians lost 2 million men, half of them captured. Facing critical shortages of supply, the Russian army was no longer a serious threat. At the same time, the coming Communist revolution was undermining Russian unity and demoralizing the Russian army.
Fighting also occurred in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia. The British needed to protect their source of oil supplies in the Persian Gulf region. In 1916 Colonel Thomas E. Lawrence (of Arabia) emerged as a spectacular war hero. Serbia was also conquered by Germany and Austria in 1915-16. (See the film “Lawrence of Arabia” with Peter O'Toole.)
May 1915: H.M.S. Lusitania is sunk off Irish coast with a loss of over 1,00 lives, including 128 Americans.
Net results of 1915 fighting: 600,000 German casualties, 1,300,000 French, 279,000 British with “no appreciable shift in the lines.”
Allied “Western School” of thought believes that the Western Front is the crucial location and that the Allied effort should be concentrated there.
The Germans reverse their 1915 strategy, try to crack the Western Front, thinking that the French have suffered huge losses and might crack under a strong blow. The Allies plan mutual, coordinated attacks. This year marks the first appearance of tanks—mobile pillboxes—as a countermeasure to the machine gun and barbed wire, which had been chewing up men by the thousands.
February: Germans attack on 8-mile front around VERDUN. Lines break, Petain sent to reinforce: “Ils ne passeront pas!” (“They shall not pass!”) French begin counterattack under Nivelle.
July-November. BATTLE OF THE SOMME, mostly a British effort. 7 day artillery bombardment by 1500 cannon followed by attack on 14-mile front. British do well, but machine gun too deadly; British lose 60,000 (19,000 KIA) in one day. Total in campaign about 600,000 losses on each side.
In fall the French counterattack to retake ground lost in Verdun offensive, with about 500,000 losses on each side.
NAVAL WAR: May 31-June 1. BATTLE of JUTLAND. Scheer vs. Jellicoe. Great Britain has 151 ships, Germans 99. Germans do well on first day, but British Grand Fleet stronger. Fighting continues through night. British lose 6700 tons, 14 ships, Germans 3000 tons, 11 ships. Overall results are negligible in impact on war effort.
As U.S. enters war, situation of Allies growing worse. French offensive in April disastrous; mutinies follow.
June-July. British offensive on Flanders gains foothold for main offensive in July-November. PASSCHENDAELE. Mud hampered advance, but British crawl forward 5 miles at cost of 300,000 casualties.
November-December. CAMBRAI. First mass use of tanks; attack begins with no bombardment.
RESULTS OF 1917 on Western Front: British attacks saved France, but that's all.
Germans provide safe passage for Lenin from Switzerland to Russia in the hope that a revolution will permanently remove Russia from the war.
U.S. Army grows from 200,000 to 4 million. One half get to Europe with no casualties. U.S.N. has 800,000 men. 42 Army Divisions of 26,000 each arrive in France--total of 1 million combat soldiers.
January: Wilson's 14 point peace plan announced.
Ludendorff wants to end war with massive campaign before Americans get into the fight. Germans launch Great March Offensive, break through in places. Paris bombarded by artillery from a distance of 65 miles; over 800 killed.
Americans enter fight at Chateau-Thierry. 2nd Marne counteroffensive; 9 American divisions take part in Meuse-Argonne campaign. Allies begin to advance across entire front. Ludendorff panics, Germans sue for peace under 14 points. Kaiser abdicates, flees to Holland (dies there 1941.)
11:00 A.M. November 11: Hostilities cease.
During the war soldiers died at a rate of about 6,000 per day for 4 years, 3 months, There were also nearly 10 million prisoners.
TOTAL: 10,000,000 Killed, 20,000,000 wounded + several million civilians. Total dead = 14,6677,443. COST: $180 BILLION direct, 151 BILLION indirect.
This war made massive economic planning necessary; massive industrial mobilization to support war effort. Rapid inflation and severe economic impact were results--huge national debts caused higher taxes for years. Severe morale problems among civilians. Psychological damage immeasurable. SHOCK!!!