Those who survived it called World War I “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars.” While they were, sadly, wrong about the latter, they were right that no war had ever been like it. It was the world’s first mechanized, “impersonal” war in which machines proved to be much stronger than human beings. It devastated enormous swaths of territory and it left the economies of the Western World either crippled or teetering. To make matters worse, the war utterly failed to resolve the issues that had caused it. The war began because of the culmination of nationalist rivalries, fears, and hatreds. It failed to resolve any of those rivalries, and furthermore it was such a traumatic experience for most Europeans that certain otherwise “normal” people were attracted to the messianic, violent rhetoric of fascism and Nazism.
Background to the War
The single most significant background factor to the war was the rivalry that existed between Europe’s “great powers” by the beginning of the twentieth century. The term “great power” meant something specific in this period of history: the great powers were those able to command large armies, to maintain significant economies and industrial bases, and to conquer and hold global empires. Their respective leaders, and many of their regular citizens, were fundamentally suspicious of one another, and the biggest worry of their political leadership was that one country would come to dominate the others. Long gone was the notion of the balance of power as a guarantor of peace. Now, the balance of power was a fragile thing, with each of the great powers seeking to supplant its rivals in the name of security and prosperity. As a result, there was an ongoing, elaborate diplomatic dance as each power tried to shore up alliances, seize territory around the globe, and outpace the others.
While no great power deliberately sought war out, all were willing to risk war in 1914. That was at least in part because no politician had an accurate idea of what a new war would actually be like. The only wars that had occurred in Europe between the great powers since the Napoleonic period were the Crimean War of the 1850s and the wars that resulted in the formation of Italy and Germany in the 1850s, 1860s, and early 1870s. While the Crimean War was quite bloody, it was limited to the Crimean region itself and it did not involve all of the great powers. Likewise, the wars of national unification were relatively short and did not involve a great deal of bloodshed (by the standards of both earlier and later wars). In other words, it had been over forty years since the great powers had any experience of a war on European soil, and as they learned all too soon, much had changed with the nature of warfare in the meantime.
In the summer of 1914, each of the great powers reached the conclusion that war was inevitable, and that trying to stay out of the immanent conflict would lead to national decline. Germany was surrounded by potential enemies in France and Russia. France had cultivated a desire for revenge against Germany ever since the Franco-Prussian War. Russia feared German power and resented Austria for threatening the interests of Slavs in the Balkans. Great Britain alone had no vested interest in war, but it was unable to stay out of the conflict once it began.
In turn, the thing that inflamed jingoism and resentment among the great powers had been imperialism. The British were determined to maintain their enormous empire at any cost, and the Germans now posed a threat to the empire since Germany had lavished attention on a naval arms race since the 1880s. There was constant bickering on the world stage between the great powers over their colonies, especially since those colonies butted up against each other in Africa and Asia. Violence in the colonies, however, was almost always directed at the native peoples in those colonies, and there the balance of power was squarely on the side of Europeans. Thus, even European soldiers overseas had no experience of facing foes armed with comparable weapons.
The nature of nationalism had changed significantly over the course of the nineteenth century as well. Not only had conservative elites appropriated nationalism to shore up their own power (as in Italy and Germany), but nationalistic patriotism came to be identified with rivalry and resentment among many citizens of various political persuasions. To be a good Englishman was to resent and fear the growth of Germany. Many Germans came to despise the Russians, in part thanks to the growth of anti-Slavic racism. The lesser powers of Europe, like Italy, resented their own status and wanted to somehow seize enough power to join the ranks of the great powers. Nationalism by 1914 was nothing like the optimistic, utopian movements of the nineteenth century; it was hostile, fearful, and aggressive.
Likewise, public opinion mattered in a way it had never mattered earlier for the simple fact that every one of the great powers had at least a limited electorate and parliaments with at least some real power to make law. Even Russia, after a semi-successful revolution in 1905, saw the creation of an elected parliament, the Duma, and an open press. The fact that all of the powers had representative governments mattered, because public opinion helped fan the flames of conflict. Newspapers in this era tended to deliberately inflame jingoistic passions rather than encourage rational calculation. A very recognizably modern kind of connection was made in the press between patriotic loyalty and a willingness to fight, kill, and die for one’s country. Since all of the great powers were now significantly (or somewhat, in the case of Russia) democratic, the opinions of the average citizen mattered in a way they never had before. Journalism whipped up those opinions and passions by stoking hatred, fear, and resentment, which led to a more widespread willingness to go to war.
Thanks to the nationalistic rivalry described above, the great powers sought to shore up their security and power through alliances. Those alliances were firmly in place by 1914, each of which obligated military action if any one power should be attacked. Each great power needed the support of its allies, and was thus willing to intercede even if its own interests were not directly threatened. That willingness to go to war for the sake of alliance meant that even a relatively minor event might spark the outbreak of total war. That is precisely what happened.
In 1914, two major sets of alliances set the stage for the war. German politicians, fearing the possibility of a two-front war against France and Russia simultaneously, concluded an alliance with the Austrian Empire in 1879, only a little over a decade after the Prusso-Austrian War. In turn, France and Russia created a strong alliance in 1893 in large part to contain the ambitions of Germany, whose territory lay between them. Great Britain was generally more friendly to France than Germany, but had not entered into a formal alliance with any other power. It was, however, the traditional ally and protector of Belgium, which British politicians considered a kind of toehold on the continent. Finally, Russia grew increasingly close to the new nation of Serbia, populated as it was by a Slavic people who were part of the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity. The relationships between Great Britain and Russia with Belgium and Serbia, respectively, would not have mattered but for the alliance obligations that tied the great powers together.
Those alliances were now poised to mobilize armies of unprecedented size. All of the great powers now fielded forces of a million men or more. Coordinating that many troops required detailed advanced planning and a permanent staff of high-ranking officers, normally referred to as the “general staff” of a given army. In the past, political leaders had often either led troops themselves or at least had significant influence in planning and tactics. By the early twentieth century, however, war plans and tactics were entirely in the hands of the general staff of each nation, meaning political leaders would be obliged to choose from a limited set of “pre-packaged” options given to them by their generals.
Thus, when the war started, what took all of the leaders of the great powers—from the Kaiser in Germany to the Tsar in Russia—by surprise was the ultimatums they received from their own generals. According to the members of each nation’s general staff, it was all or nothing: either commit all forces to a swift and decisive victory, or suffer certain defeat. There could be no small incremental build ups or tentative skirmishes; this was about a total commitment to a massive war. An old adage has it that “generals fight the last war,” basing their tactics on what worked in previous conflicts, and in 1914 the “last war” most generals looked to was the Franco-Prussian War, which Prussia had won through swift, decisive action and overwhelming force.
The Start of the War
The immediate cause of the war was the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Habsburg throne, a respected Austrian politician who also happened to be friends with the German Kaiser. Ironically, he was also the politician in the Austrian state with the most direct control of the Austrian military, and he tended to favor peaceful diplomacy over the potential outbreak of war – it is possible that he would have been a prominent voice for peace if he had survived. Instead, he was assassinated not by Austria’s rivals Russia or France, but by a young Serbian nationalist.
Serbia was a new nation. It had fought its way to independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, and its political leaders envisioned a role for Serbia like that Piedmont had played in Italy: one small kingdom that came to conquer and unite a nation. In this case, the Serbs hoped to conquer and unite the Balkans in one Serbian-dominated country. Austria, however, stood in the path of Serbian ambition since Austria controlled neighboring Bosnia (in which many Serbs lived as a significant minority of the population). Thus, the last thing Austrian politicians wanted was an anti-Austrian movement launched by the ambitious Serbs.
In 1903, a military coup in Serbia killed the king and installed a fiercely nationalistic leadership. Serbian nationalists were proud of their Slavic heritage, and Russia became a powerful ally in large part because of the Slavic connection between Russians and Serbs (i.e. they spoke related languages and the Russian and Serbian Orthodox churches were part of the same branch of Christianity). Russia also supported Serbia because of Russian rivalry with Austria. Serbian nationalists believed that, with Russian support, it would be possible to create an international crisis in Austrian-controlled Bosnia and ultimately seize Bosnia itself. The Serbs did not believe that Austria would risk a full-scale war with Russia in order to hold on to Bosnia.
Among the organizers of the coup that had murdered the king and queen were a group of Serbian officers who created a terrorist group, The Black Hand. In 1914, The Black Hand trained a group of (ethnically Serbian) college students in Bosnia to assassinate an Austrian politician when the opportunity presented itself. That happened in June of 1914, when Franz Ferdinand and his wife came to visit the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. In a fantastically bungled assassination, Franz Ferdinand survived a series of attacks, with some of his would-be killers getting cold feet and running off, others injuring bystanders but missing the Archduke, and others losing track of where the Archduke’s motorcade was. Finally, quite by accident, the Archduke’s driver became lost and stuck in traffic outside of a café in which one of the assassins was eating a sandwich. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, seized the opportunity to stride outside and shoot the Archduke and his wife to death.
Serbia’s assumption that Austria would not risk war proved to be completely wrong. The Austrian government demanded that Serbia allow Austrian agents to carry out a full-scale investigation of the assassination; Serbian honor would never allow such a thing. Austrian troops started massing near the Serbian border, and the great powers of Europe started calling up their troops. Germany, believing that its own military and industrial resources were such that it would be the victor in a war against France and Russia, promised to stand by Austria regardless of what happened. Russia warned that Austrian intervention in Serbia would cause war. France assured Russia of its loyalty. Only Britain was as-yet unaccounted for.
No one was completely certain that a war would actually happen (the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, left for his summer vacation as planned right in the middle of the crisis, believing no war would occur), but if it did, each of the great powers was confident that they would be victorious in the end. A desperate diplomatic scramble ensued as diplomats, parliaments, and heads of state tried at the last minute to preserve the peace, but in the end it was too late: on July 28, Austria declared war on Serbia, activating the pre-existing system of alliances, and by August 4 all of the great powers were involved.
Thanks to the fact that Germany invaded through Belgium, Great Britain declared war on Germany and its allies. In addition to Germany and the Austrian Empire, the Ottoman Empire soon joined their alliance, known as the Central Powers. Opposing them was the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France, and Russia. Smaller states like Italy and Portugal later joined the Triple Entente, as did, eventually, the United States.
The Early War
There was a mixture of apprehension and, in many cases, enthusiasm about the onset of war among civilians and soldiers alike. Many felt that the war would resolve nationalistic rivalries once and for all, and almost no one anticipated a lengthy war. Wilhelm II anticipated “a jolly little war” and it was widely thought in France and Germany that the war would be over by Christmas. 30,000 young men and women marched in Berlin before war was even declared, singing patriotic songs and gathering at the feet of statues of German and Prussian heroes. Everywhere, thousands of young men enlisted in the military of their own volition. There were some anti-war protests in July, mostly organized by the socialist parties in the name of socialist internationalism, but once the war was actually declared those protests abruptly stopped.
The most symptomatic moment of the defeat of socialism by nationalism as rival ideologies was the fact that 100% of the socialist parties of Europe supported their respective countries in the war, despite hard and fast promises before the war that, as socialists, they were committed to peace. Whereas pre-war socialists had argued vociferously that the working class of each country was a single, united class regardless of national differences, that internationalist rhetoric largely vanished once the war began. Wanting to be seen as patriots (whether French, German, or British), the major socialist parties voted to authorize the war and supported the sale of war bonds. In turn, the radical left of the socialist parties soon broke off and formed new parties that continued to oppose the war; these new parties were typically called “communists” whereas the old ones remained “socialists.”
War, for many people, represented a cathartic release. War did not represent real bloodshed and horror for the young men signing up – they had never fought in real wars, except for the veterans of colonial wars against much less well-armed “natives” in the colonies. War was an ideal of bravery and honor that many young men in Europe in 1914 longed for as a way to prove themselves, to prove their loyalty, and to purge their boredom and uncertainty about the future. A whole generation had absorbed tales of glory on the battlefield, of the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the conquests overseas. Depending on their nationality, they were either ashamed and angry or fiercely proud of their country’s performance in past wars. As a result, many saw a new war as a chance to settle accounts, to prove once and for all that they were citizens a great power, and to shame their opponents into conceding defeat. France would at last get even for the Franco-Prussian War. Germany would at least prove it was the most powerful nation in Europe. Russia would prove that it was a powerful modern nation…and so on.
The war itself began with the German invasion of France through Belgium. German tactics centered on the Schlieffen Plan, named after its author, Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, who had devised it in the first years of the twentieth century. The Schlieffen Plan called for a rapid advance into France to knock the French forces out of the war within six weeks. Subsequently, German troops would be whisked back east via railroads in time to engage Russia, as it was believed that it would take the Russians at least that long to mobilize their armies. It not only called for rapid mobilization, but it required the German military to defeat the French military at an even more rapid pace had the Prussian forces forty years earlier in the Franco-Prussian War.
The first taste of the horror of the war to come was the German invasion of Belgium. Belgium was a neutral country leading up to the war, and German planners had expected Belgium to surrender swiftly as German troops advanced rapidly toward France. Instead, Belgian soldiers fiercely resisted the German invasion. In turn, German troops deliberately massacred civilians, destroyed towns, and raped Belgian women. Thousands of Belgian refugees fled to Britain, where they were (to the credit of the British government and civilians) welcomed and housed. The bloodshed shocked the sensibilities of the French and British reading public and emphasized the fact that the war might go very differently than many had first imagined. Britain swiftly declared war on Germany.
While the first few weeks of the German invasion seemed to match the ambitions of the Schlieffen Plan, they soon ground to a halt. A fierce French counter-attack stopped the Germans in Belgium and Northeastern France in late September. Simultaneously, the Russians surprised everyone by mobilizing their forces much more quickly than expected, attacking both Germany and Austria in the east in late August. In the autumn of 1914 the scale of battles grew to exceed anything Europe had witnessed since the Napoleonic Wars (which they soon dwarfed). To their shock and horror, soldiers on all sides encountered for the first time the sheer destructive power of modern weaponry. To shield themselves from the clouds of bullets belched out by machine guns, desperate soldiers dove into the craters created by artillery shells. In the process, trench warfare was invented.
The weapons that had been developed in the decades leading up to the war, from enormous new battleships known as dreadnoughts to high-explosive artillery shells and machine guns, had all seemed to the nations of Europe like strengths. The early months of the war revealed that they were indeed strong, in a sense, being far more lethal than anything created before. Unfortunately, human bodies were pitifully weak by comparison, and as the death toll mounted, the human (and financial) costs associated with modern warfare shattered the image of national strength that politicians and generals continued to cling to. Those generals in particular stuck to their favored, and outdated, tactics, sending cavalry in bright uniforms to their deaths in hopeless charges, ordering offensives that were doomed to fail, and calling up every soldier available on reserve.
That Christmas, in a well-remembered symbolic moment, a brief and unauthorized truce held on the Western Front between Entente and German forces long enough for French and German soldiers to climb out of their respective trenches and meet in the “no man’s land” between the lines, with a German barber offering shaves and haircuts to all comers. By then, both sides were well aware that the conceit that the war would “be over by Christmas” had been a ridiculous fantasy. Never again in the war would a moment of voluntary peace re-emerge; while they did not know it for certain at the time, the soldiers faced four more years of carnage to come.
The Evolution of the War
On the Western Front of the war, it was the trenches that defined almost everything in the lives of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict. An English officer and poet later wrote that “when all is said and done, this war was a matter of holes and ditches.” While they began as improvised, hastily dug ditches, the trenches involved into vast networks of fortified rifts that stretched from the English Channel in the north to the Swiss Alps in the south. Behind the trenches lay the artillery batteries, capable of hurling enormous shells for miles, and farther back still lay the command posts of the high-ranking officers who fruitlessly conceived of new variations on a constant theme: hopeless charges against the impregnable enemy position.
The tactical problem facing both sides was due to the new technologies of war: whereas in past wars the offensive strategy was often superior to the defensive strategy, things were entirely reversed in World War I. Because of trenches, machine guns, mines, and modern rifles, it was far more effective to entrench oneself and defend a position than it was to charge and try to take the enemy’s position. It was nearly impossible to break through and gain territory or advantage; the British phrase for an attack was “going over the top,” which involved thousands of men climbing out of their trenches and charging across the no man’s land that separated them from the enemy. While they were charging, the enemy would simply open fire with impunity from their trenches, and without exception not a single offensive captured a significant amount of territory between 1915 and early 1917. As a single example, one British attack in 1915 temporarily gained 1,000 yards at the cost of 13,000 lives.
In turn, and in stark contrast to the early dreams of glory to be won on the battlefield, soldiers discovered that their own competence, even heroism, had been rendered irrelevant by the new technology of warfare. Because warfare was so heavily mechanized, the old ideal of brave, chivalric combat between equals was largely obsolete. Men regularly killed other men they never laid eyes on, and death often seemed completely arbitrary—in many cases, survival came down to sheer, dumb luck. No amount of skill or bravery mattered if an artillery shell hit the trench where a soldier happened to be standing. Likewise, if ordered to “go over the top,” all one could hope for was to survive long enough to be able to retreat.
Thus, the experience of war in the trenches for the next three years was a state of ongoing misery: men stood in mud, sometimes over a foot deep, in the cold and rain, as shells whistled overhead and occasionally blew them up. They lived in abject terror of the prospect of having to attack the enemy line, knowing that they would all almost certainly be slaughtered. Thousands of new recruits showed up on the lines every month, many of whom would be dead in the first attack. In 1915, in a vain attempt to break the stalemate, both sides started using poison gas, which was completely horrific, burning the lungs, eyes, and skin of combatants. The survivors of poison gas attacks were considered to be the unlucky ones. By 1917, both sides had been locked in place for three years, and the soldiers of both sides were known to remark that only the dead would ever escape the trenches in the end.
Individual battles in World War I sometimes claimed more lives than had entire wars in past centuries. The Battle of Verdun, an enormous German offensive that sought to break the stalemate in 1916, resulted in 540,000 casualties among the French and 430,000 among the Germans. It achieved nothing besides the carnage, with neither side winning significant territorial concessions. The most astonishing death count of the war was at the Battle of the Somme, a disastrous British offensive in 1916 in which 60,000 soldiers were killed or wounded on the first day alone – there were more British soldiers killed and wounded in the first three days of the battle of the Somme than there were Americans killed in World War I, The Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. Ultimately, the Battle of the Somme resulted in 420,000 British casualties (meaning either dead, missing, or wounded to the point of being unable to fight), 200,000 French casualties, and 650,000 German casualties. One British poet noted afterwards that “the war had won” the battle, not countries or people.
In this context of ongoing carnage, even the most stubborn commanders were forced to recognize that their dreams of a spectacular breakthrough were probably unachievable. Instead, by 1916 many of the war’s top strategists concluded that the only way to win was to outspend the enemy, churning out more munitions and supplies, drafting more men, committing more civilians to the war effort at home, and sacrificing more soldiers than could the other side. At its worst, commanders adopted an utterly ruthless perspective regarding their own casualties: tens or even hundreds of thousands of deaths were signs of “progress” in the war effort, because they implied that the other side must be running out of soldiers, too. This was a war of attrition on a new level, one that both soldiers and lower-ranking officers alike recognized was designed to kill them in the name of a possible eventual victory.
The Eastern Front and the Ottoman Empire
Things were different in the east, however. In contrast to the essentially static nature of trench warfare on the Western Front, the Russian, German, and Austrian armies in the east were highly mobile, sometimes crossing hundreds of miles in an attempt to outflank their enemies. The Russian army fought effectively in the early years of the war, especially against Austrian forces, which it consistently defeated. While Russian soldiers were also the match of Germans, however, Russia was hampered by its inadequate industrial base and by its lack of rail lines and cars. The Germans were able to outmaneuver the Russians, often surrounding Russian armies one by one and defeating them. A brilliant Russian general oversaw a major offensive in 1916 that crippled Austrian forces, but did not force Austria out of the war. In the aftermath, a lack of support and coordination from the other Russian generals ultimately checked the offensive.
By late 1916 the war had grown increasingly desperate for Russia. The Tsar’s government was teetering and morale was low. The home front was in dire straits, with serious food shortages, and there were inadequate munitions (especially for artillery) making it to the front. Thus, the German armies steadily pushed into Russian territory. A furious defense by the Russian forces checked the German advance in the winter of 1916– 1917, but the war was deeply unpopular on the home front and increasing numbers of soldiers deserted rather than face the Germans. It was in this context of imminent defeat that a popular revolution overthrew the Tsarist state. That revolution is described in the next chapter.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire, long considered the “sick man of Europe” by European politicians, proved a far more resilient enemy than expected. As described in the chapter on Imperialism, in 1909 a coup of army officers and political leaders known as the Committee of Union and Progress, but more often remembered as the Young Turks, seized control of the Ottoman state and embarked on a rapid program of Western-style reform (including a growing obsession with Turkish “racial” identity at the expense of the Empire’s other ethnicities). With war clouds gathering over Europe in 1914, the Young Turks threw in their lot with Germany, the one European power that had never menaced Ottoman territories and which promised significant territorial gains in the event of a German–Turkish victory.
In 1915 British forces staged a full-scale invasion of Ottoman territory which rapidly turned into an outright disaster. In a poorly planned assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula near Constantinople, hundreds of thousands of British Imperial troops (including tens of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders recruited to fight for “their” empire from half a world away) were gunned down by Turkish machine guns. In the months that followed, British forces failed to make headway against the Ottomans, with the Ottoman leadership rightly judging that the very survival of the Ottoman state was at stake in the war.
In 1916, however, British forces focused their strategy on capturing the eastern stretch of the Ottoman Empire: Mesopotamia, the site of the earliest civilization in human history (which became the country of Iraq in 1939). The British made steady progress moving west from Mesopotamia while also supporting an Arab nationalist insurgency against the Ottomans from within the Ottoman borders. By 1917 Ottoman forces were in disarray and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire looked all but certain.
Even as British and French politicians began plans to divide up the Ottoman territory into protectorates (dubbed “mandates” after the war) under their control, however, the Young Turk leader Mustafa Kemal launched a major military campaign to preserve not Ottoman but Turkish independence, with the other ethnicities that had lived under Ottoman rule either pushed aside or destroyed. In one of the greatest crimes of the war, Turkish forces drove hundreds of thousands of Armenians from their homes across deserts to die of abuse, exhaustion, hunger, and thirst when they were not slaughtered outright. To this day, the Turkish government (while admitting that many Armenians died) denies what historians have long since recognized: the Armenians were victims of a deliberate campaign of genocide, with over one million killed.
Women in the War (and Afterwards)
World War I transformed, at least during the war itself, gender roles. The total commitment to the war on the part of the belligerent nations left numerous professional positions vacant as men were dispatched to fight. Women responded by taking on jobs that they had been barred from in the past, as doctors, mid-level officials and executives in private enterprise, and in wartime production in factories. Suffrage movements temporarily suspended their agitation for the vote in favor of using their existing organizations to support the war effort in the name of patriotism. Thousands of women joined the war effort directly as nurses, in many cases serving near or even in the trenches on the Western Front. The famous scientist Marie Curie (the first women to win a Nobel Prize; she won a second a few years later) drove an ambulance near the front lines during the war.
In many cases, the labor shortage led to breakthroughs for women that simply could not be reversed at the war’s end. Having established the precedent that a woman could work perfectly well at a “man’s job” (as a competent streetcar conductor, for example) certain fields remained at least partially open to women after the war concluded in 1918. Other changes were cultural in nature rather than social. For example, the cumbersome, uncomfortable ankle-length dresses of the pre-war period vanished (along with corsets, the very model of impracticality and discomfort), replaced by sensible, comfortable dresses and skirts. Women cut their hair short in “bobs” for the first time both for fashion and because short hair was more practical while working full-time for the war effort. The war, in short, required gender roles to change primarily for economic reasons, but women embraced those changes as forms of liberation, not just side effects of their new jobs.
While it was not always a straightforward case of cause and effect, there is no doubt that women’s participation in the war effort did have a direct link to voting rights after the war. One by one, most European countries and the United States granted the vote to at least some women in the years that followed the war. One striking example is Belgium, where only women who were widowed, had lost sons, or had themselves been held captive during the war were granted the vote initially. Some countries stubbornly resisted this trend—France rejected women’s suffrage entirely until after the period of Nazi occupation in World War II—but there can be no doubt that, overall, the cause of women’s suffrage was aided immensely by the patriotic service of women during WWI.
The Late War
World War I was fought primarily in Europe, along the Western Front that stretched from the English Channel south along the French border to the Alps, and on the Eastern Front across Poland, Galicia (the region encompassing part of Hungary and the Ukraine) and Russia. It was a “world” war, however, for two reasons. First, hundreds of thousands of troops from around the world fought in it, the most numerous of which were citizens of the British Empire drawn from as far away as India and New Zealand. Second, military engagements occurred in the Ottoman territories of the Middle East, in Africa between European colonial armies, and in Asia (albeit at a much smaller scale). Japan even supported the Entente war effort by taking a German-controlled Chinese port, Tsingtao.
The other major power involved in the war, the United States, was a latecomer to the fighting. The United States was dominated by “isolationist” sentiment until late in the war. Most Americans believed that the war was a European affair that should not involve American troops. America, however, was an ally of Britain and provided both military and civilian supplies to the British, along with large amounts of low-interest loans to keep the British economy afloat. In 1917, as the war dragged on and the German military leadership under the Field Marshal Paul Von Hindenburg recognized that the nation could not sustain the war much longer, the German generals decided to use their new submarines, the U-Boats, to attack any vessel suspected of carrying military supplies to the British or French. When ships carrying American civilians were sunk in 1917, American public sentiment finally shifted and the US declared war on Germany in April of 1917.
The importance of the entrance of the United States in the war was not the superiority of American troops or technology—American soldiers were as horrified as anyone when they first encountered modern, mechanized warfare. Instead, the key factor was that the US had a gigantic industrial capacity, dwarfing all of the great powers of Europe put together, and millions of fresh troops that could be called up or drafted. Germany, meanwhile, had been totally committed to the war for almost three years, and its supplies (of money, fuel, munitions, food, and people) were running very thin. Most German civilians still believed that Germany was winning, but as the carnage continued on the Western Front, the German general staff knew that they had to achieve a strategic breakthrough.
By 1918, it was clear to the German command that they were at risk of losing, despite the military resources freed up when the Bolshevik Revolution ended Russia’s commitment to the war. The Germans had been able to fight the French and British to a standstill on the Western Front, but when the US entered on the side of the British and French, it became impossible to sustain the war in the long run. The only hope appeared to be one last desperate offensive that might bring the French and British to the negotiating table. Thus, German forces staged a major campaign in the spring of 1918 that succeeded in breaking through the western lines and coming within about 40 miles of Paris, but by then German troops had outpaced their supply lines, lost cover, and were now up against the combined reserves of the French, British, and Americans. Another attempted offensive in July failed, and the Entente (and American) powers began to push the German forces back.
Back in Germany, criticism of the Kaiser appeared for the first time in the mainstream press, and hundreds of thousands of workers protested the worsening economic conditions. In late September, the head of the German General Staff, Ludendorff, advised the Kaiser to sue for peace. A month later, the Reichstag passed laws making the government’s ministers responsible to it instead of the Kaiser. Protest movements spread across Germany and the rapidly collapsing Austro-Hungarian empire, as nationalist movements declared independence in Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkans.
On November 11 of 1918, a voluntary commission of German politicians led by the German Socialist Party (SPD) formally sued for peace. The Kaiser, blaming socialists and Jews for “stabbing Germany in the back,” snuck away in a train to Holland, where he abdicated. The top generals of the German General Staff, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, themselves the authors of the myth of the “stab in the back,” did their best to popularize the idea that Germany “would have won” if not for sabotage perpetrated by a sinister conspiracy of foreign agents, communists, and (as with practically every shadowy conspiracy theory of the twentieth century) Jews. In fact, if the commission of German politicians had not sued for peace when they did, French, British, and American troops would have simply invaded Germany and even more people would have died.
The aftermath of the war was horrendous. Over twenty million people, both soldiers and civilians, were dead. For Russia and France, of the twenty million men mobilized during the war, over 76% were casualties (either dead, wounded, or missing). A whole generation of young men was almost wiped out, which had lasting demographic consequences for both countries. For Germany, the figure was 65%, including 1.8 million dead. The British saw a casualty rate of “only” 39%, but that figure still represented the death of almost a million men, with far more wounded or missing. Even the smaller nations like Italy, which had fought fruitlessly to seize territory from Austria, lost over 450,000 men. A huge swath of Northeastern France and parts of Belgium were reduced to lifeless fields of mud and debris.
Politically, the war spelled the end of three of the most venerable, and historically powerful, empires of the early modern period: the Russian Empire, the Habsburg Empire of Austria, and the Ottoman Empire of the Middle East. The Austrian Empire was replaced by new independent nations, with Austria itself reduced to a “rump state”: the remnant of its former imperial glory. France and Great Britain busily divided up control of former Ottoman territories in new “mandates,” often creating new nations (such as Iraq) without the slightest concern for the identities of the people who actually lived there, but Turkey itself achieved independence thanks to the ferocious campaign led by Mustafa Kemal, or “Atatürk,” meaning “father of the Turks.” As noted above, revolution in Russia led to the collapse of the Tsarist state and, after a bloody civil war, the emergence of the world’s first communist nation: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. While Germany had not been a major imperial power, it also lost its overseas territories in the aftermath of the war.
The American president Woodrow Wilson, hoping to prevent future wars on the scale of World War I and, as importantly, to present an appealing anti-communist vision for a peaceful global order, helped to organize a new international body: the League of Nations. The idea behind the League was that it would work against reckless international aggression and war, coordinate diplomatic and economic relationships, and protect the “right of self-determination” of peoples around the world. Instead, the League was quickly revealed to be weak and ineffectual, consistently failing to act when nations launched wars of invasion (starting the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, in northern China, in 1931), handing out territories in Africa and the Middle East to European imperialists instead of to the people who actually lived there, and failing to attract the membership of the very country whose leader had proposed it in the first place: the United States. Instead of inspiring confidence and hope, the League appeared to many as the symbol of international dysfunction.
For surviving soldiers everywhere, the psychological damage from years of carnage and desperation left wounds as crippling as those inflicted by poison gas and artillery strikes. From the euphoria many felt at the start of the war, the survivors were left psychologically shattered. The British term for soldiers who survived but were unable to function in society was “shell shock,” a vague diagnosis for what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Whereas P.T.S.D. is now understood as a grave psychological issue that requires medical and therapeutic intervention, it was considered a form of “hysteria” at the time, a deeply gendered diagnosis that compared traumatized soldiers to “hysterical” middle class women suffering from depression. While the numbers of shell shock cases were so great that they could not be ignored by the medical community at the time, the focus of treatment revolved around trying to force former soldiers to somehow “tough” their way back to normal behavior (something that is now recognized to be impossible). Some progress was made in treating shell shock cases by applying the “talking cure,” an early form of therapy related to the practices of the great early psychologist Sigmund Freud, but most of the medical community held to the assumption that trauma was just a sign of weakness.
Likewise, there was no sympathy in European (or American) culture for psychological problems. To be unable to function because of trauma was to be “weak” or “insane,” with all of the social and cultural stigma those terms invoke. Any soldier diagnosed with a psychological issue, as opposed to a physical one, was automatically disqualified from receiving a disability pension as well. Thus, many of the veterans of World War I were both pitied and looked down on for not being able to re-adjust to civilian life, in circumstances in which the soldiers were suffering massive psychological trauma. The result was a profound sense of betrayal and disillusionment among veterans.
This was the context in which Europeans dubbed the conflict “The War to End All Wars.” It was inconceivable to most that it could happen again; the costs had simply been too great to bear. The European nations were left indebted and depopulated, the maps of Europe and the Middle East were redrawn as new nations emerged from old empires, and there was a profound uncertainty about what the future held. Most hoped that, at the very least, the bloodshed was over and that the process of rebuilding might begin. Some, however, saw the war’s conclusion as deeply unsatisfying and, in a sense, incomplete: there were still scores to be settled. It was from that sense of dissatisfaction and a longing for continued violence that the most destructive political philosophy of the twentieth century emerged: fascism.
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