"All the horrors of
all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations
were thrust into the midst of them. The mighty educated States involved
conceived - not without reasons - that their very existence was at stake.
Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought
could help them to win.
Germany, having let Hell loose, kept well in the forefront of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals - often of a greater scale and of longer duration.
No truce or parley mitigated the strife of the armies. The wounded died between the lines; the dead mouldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas and all on board left to their fate, or killed as they swam. Every effort was made to starve whole nations into submission without regard to age or sex. Cities and monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smothered often slowly in the dark recesses of the sea.
The fighting strength of armies was limited only by the manhood of their countries. Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and they were of doubtful utility."
- Winston Churchill, 1920.
00 Prologue - A
01 The Crisis of 1914
02 The Battle of the Frontiers
03 Victory and Defeat in the East
04 Stalemate (1915)
05 Beyond the Western Front
06 The Year of Battles (1916)
07 The Breaking of Armies (1917)
08 America and Armageddon (1918)
# PROLOGUE: A EUROPEAN TRAGEDY
The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots. The Second World War, five times more destructive of human life and incalculably more costly in material terms, was the direct outcome of the First. On 18 September 1922, Adolf Hitler, the demobilised front fighter, threw down a challenge to defeated Germany that he would realise seventeen years later: "It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain... No, we do not pardon, we demand - vengeance!"
Over half those who died in the Great War were lost as corpses to the wilderness of the battlefield. So numerous were those missing bodies that, in the war's immediate aftermath, it was proposed that the most fitting of all the memorials to the War dead would be a disinternment and reburial of one of those unidentified in a place of honour. A body was chosen, brought to Westminster Abbey and placed at the entrance under a tablet bearing the inscription, 'They buried him among the Kings because he had done good toward God and toward His house'.
It is true that the
Great War, by comparison with that of 1939-45, did little material damage.
Yet it damaged civilization, the rational and liberal civilization of the
European enlightenment, permanently for the worse and, through the damage
done, world civilization also. Pre-war Europe, imperial though it was in
its relations with most of the world beyond the continent, offered respect
to the principles of constitutionalism, the rule of law and representative
government. Post-war Europe rapidly relinquished confidence in such principles.
They were lost altogether in Russia after 1917, in Italy after 1922, in
Germany in 1933 and in Spain in 1936.
Within fifteen years of the war's end, totalitarianism, a new word for a system that rejected the liberalism and constitutionalism which had inspired European politics since the eclipse of monarchy in 1789, was almost everywhere on the rise.
Less than twenty years after the end of the Great War, the 'war to end wars', Europe was once again gripped by the fear of a new war, provoked by the actions and ambitions of war lords more aggressive than any known to the old world of the long 19th century peace. It was also in the full flood of rearmament, with weapons - tanks, bombers, submarines - known only in embryo form in the First World War and threatening to make a Second an even greater catastrophe.
The Second World War was unquestionably the outcome of the First, and in large measure its continuation. Its circumstances - the dissatisfaction of the German speaking peoples with their standing among other nations - were the same, and so were its immediate causes, a dispute between a German-speaking ruler and a Slav naeighbour.
The states of Europe proceeded, as if in a dead march and a dialogue of the deaf, to the destruction of their continent and its civilization.
[Full text of this chapter available at The New York Times ]
#1 THE CRISIS OF 1914
Secret military plans determined that any crisis not settled by sensible diplomacy would, in the circumstances prevailing in Europe in 1914, lead to general war. Sensible diplomacy had settled crises before, notably during the powers' quarrels over position in Africa. Such crises, however, had touched matters of national interest only, not matters of national honour or prestige. In June 1914, the honour of Austria-Hungary, most sensitive because most weakest of European powers, was touched to the quick by the murder of the heir to the throne at the hands of an assassin.
It was as if, 60 years later, the United States Strategic Air Command had enjoyed the freedom to write plans for nuclear war against Russia without reference to the State Department, Navy or Army and to leave the President to circulate within government such details of it as he saw fit.
Statesmen were filled with foreboding by the coming of war but its declaration was greeted with enormous popular enthusiasm in the capitals of all combatant countries. Crowds thronged the streets, shouting, cheering, and singing patriotic songs.
#2 THE BATTLE OF THE FRONTIERS
The Prince de Ligne, one of the leading generals of the 18th century fortress age, had written, 'The more I see and the more I read, the more I am convinced that the best fortress is an army, and the best rampart a rampart of men.' Ramparts of men, not steel or concrete, would indeed form the fronts of the First World War.
The 'rape of Belgium'
served no military purpose whatsoever and did Germany untold harm, particularly
in the United States, where the reputation of the Kaiser and his government
were blackened from the outset by reports of massacare and cultural
Innocent civilians were shot and villages burnt. At Andenne there were 211 dead, at Dinant 612. The victims included children, women and priests.
At Mons, the British, if only for a moment, were to be cast into the role of opposing both the concept and the substance of the Schlieffen Plan - 'Keep the right wing strong' were allegedly Schlieffen's dying words - at the crucial point. The British Expeditionary Force was equal to the task. Alone among those of Europe, the British army was an all-regular force, composed of professional soldiers whom the small wars of empire had hardened to the realities of combat. The Germans, who outnumbered them by six divisions to four, were unprepared for the storm of fire that would sweep their ranks.
'The British had converted
every house, every wall into a little fortress; the experience, no doubt,
of old soldiers gained in a dozen colonial wars.'
- Captain Walter Bloem, 12th Brandenburg Grenadiers
The Allies began in optimstic mood. Wilson, British Deputy Chief of Staff thought their armies would be on the Belgian frontier with Germany within a month. They were shortly to discover that the days of 'open warfare' were over.
#3 VICTORY AND DEFEAT IN THE EAST
The Russians repeated the mistake, so often made before by armies apparently enjoying an incontestable superiority in numbers, the mistake made by the Spartans at Leuctra, by Darius at Guagemala, by Hooker at Chanellorsville, of exposing themselves to defeat in detail; that is, of allowing a weaker enemy to concentrate at first against one part of the army, then against another, and so beat both.
The opening months of the war marked the termination of 200 years of a style of infantry fighting which, with decreasing logic, taught that drill and discipline was the best defence against missile weapons, however much improved. Within a few months, most armies will have adopted the steel helmet, the first reversion to armour since its disappearance in the 17th century.
The 1914 battles on the Eastern Front therefore closely resembled those fought by Napoleon a 100 years earlier, as indeed did those of the Marne campaign, with the difference that infantry lay down rather than stood up to fire and that the fronts of engagement extended up to widths a hundred times greater.
The plans of the Russian Supreme Command characterise a distinctively Russian style of warmaking, that of using space rather than force as a medium of strategy. No French general would have proposed surrendering the cherished soil of his country to gain military advantage; ther German generals in East Prussia had taken the defence of its frontier to be a sacred duty. In their war with Napoleon, whole provinces had been lost, only to be regained when distance and the durability of the peasant soldier defeated the enemy.
The exhaustion of all
the combatants' armies offensive force during the winter of 1914 brought
Europe by the spring of 1915 a new frontier. It was quite different in
character from the old, lazy, permeable frontier of pew-war days. The new
frontier resembled the limes of the Roman legions, an earthwork barrier
separating a vast military empire from the outside world. Nothing, indeed,
had been seen like it in Europe since Rome - nor would it be seen again
until the outbreak of the Cold War thirty years later.
Unlike the limes and the Iron Curtain, however, the new frontier marked neither a social nor ideological border. It was quite simply a fortification separating warring states. The line of earthworks stretched for 1,300 miles. In the west, no man's land was usually two to three hundred yards wide.
On 1 May, when the soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the Dorset regiment clung to the firestep of their trenches as gas seized their throats and the German infantry pounded towards them across no man's land, the scene must have been as near to hell as this earth can show.
#5 BEYOND THE WESTERN FRONT
By the end of 1915, none of the original combatants was fighting the war that had been wanted or expected. Hopes of quick victory had been dashed, new enemies had appeared, new fronts had opened. The war that men were already beginning to call the Great War was becoming a world war and its bounds were being set wider with every month that passed.
New Zealanders' settler independence and skills with rifle and spade would win them a reputation as the best soldiers in the world during the 20th century.
Yet of all the contingents which went to Gallipolli, it was the Australians who were most marked by the experience and who remembered it most deeply, remember it indeed to this day. Citizens of an only recently federated country in 1915, they went as soldiers of the forces of six separate states. They came back, it is so often said, members of one nation. The ANZAC ordeal began to be commemorated at home in the following year. Today the dawn ceremony on 25 April has become a sacred event, observed by all Australians of every age, and ANZAC cove has become a shrine.
Most poignant of all Gallipolli memorials, perhaps, is that of the white marble column on the Cape Helles headland, glimpsed across the water from the walls of Troy on a bright April morning. Troy and Gaillipoli make two separate but connected epics, as so many of the classically educated volunteer officers of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force had recognised and recorded. It is difficult to say which epic Homer might have thought the more heroic.
#6 THE YEAR OF BATTLES
'Even if we cannot
perhaps expect a revolution in the grand style, we are entitled to believe
that Russia's internal troubles will compel her to give in within a relatively
short period... The strain on France has reached breaking point - though
it is certainly borne with remarkable devotion. If we succeed in opening
the eyes of her people to the fact that in a military sense they have nothing
more to hope for, that breaking point would be reached and England's best
sword knocked out of her hand... attack at a vital point that would compel
the French to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of
France will bleed to death.'
- General Erich von Falkenhayn, German Chief of Staff, Christmas Day 1915.
The coming year of 1916, all parties to the war recognised, would bring crisis on land, east and west, and at sea also. It would be a year of great battles between armies and navies.
If the war of 1914
was not a war which the armies of Europe were ready to fight, that was
not so with Europe's great navies.
19th century admirals are commonly thought to have opposed transition from sail to steam as fiercely as generals opposed the abolition of scarlet coats. Nothing could be further from the truth. When the admirals of the Royal Navy were persuaded that sail had had its day, they displayed a ruthless lack of sentimentality for the beauty of pyramids of canvas. Warrior, the Royal Navy's first steam ironclad of 1861, was not an experimental but a revolutionary ship, which surpassed several intermediate stages of naval design in a single leap.
Dreadnought, launched in 1906, the brainchild of Admiral Sir John Fisher, was as revolutionary as Warrior had been and the decision to build her brave, for, like Warrior, she made all contemporary battleships obsolete, including the Royal Navy's own. Only a nation as rich, as fiscally efficient and as committed to its maintenance of maritime predominance as Britain could have taken such a risk and only a navy as technically adaptable as the Royal Navy could have seen a need to do so.
The armies of 1914 may not have been very efficient battle-winning organisations; the Dreadnought fleets were as efficient as they could be made within the constraints of available technology.
The Dreadnought in those years became a symbol of a state's international standing, whether or not it served an objective national purpose.
Jutland, as the impending battle would be called promised not only to be the largest naval encounter of the war but of naval history thus far. No sea had ever seen such a large concentration of ships or of ships so large, so fast and so heavily armoured. The German High Seas Fleet consisted of 16 Dreadnoughts, 6 pre-Dreadnoughts, 5 battlecruisers, 11 light-cruisers and 61 destroyers. The British Grand Fleet included 28 Dreadnoughts, 9 battlecruisers, 8 armoured cruisers, 26 light-cruisers, and 78 destroyers. Jutland was to be both the biggest and the last purely surface encounter of main fleets in naval history.
Jutland falls into 5 phases: in the first Beatty's Battle Cruiser Fleet made a 'run to the south' on encountering the weaker German battlecruiser force; then a 'run to the north' when, on meeting the German Dreadnoughts, it turned back to draw them into Jellicoe's Grand Fleet; then two encounters between the Dreadnoughts, broken by a German 'turning away' as heavier British firepower told; and finally, after the German Dreadnoughts had sought escape from destruction, a night action in which the light forces of both sides sought to inflict crippling damage by torpedo attack.
Jutland was not a German victory. Though the High Seas fleet had lost fewer ships than the Grand Fleet, it had suffered more damage to those that survived. It could not risk challenging the Grand Fleet for several months. It had accepted the verdict of Jutland, pithily summarised by a German journalist as an assault on the gaoler, followed by a return to gaol.
The simple truth of 1914-18 trench warfare is that the massing of large numbers of soldiers unprotected by anything but cloth uniforms, however they were trained, however equipped, against large masses of other soldiers, protected by earthworks and barbed wire and provided with rapid-fire weapons, was bound to result in very heavy casualties among the attackers. The effect of artillery added to the slaughter, as did that of bayonets and grenades when fighting came to close quarters in the trench labyrinths. The basic and stark fact, nevertheless, was that the conditions of warfare between 1914 and 1918 predisposed towards slaughter and that only an entirely different technology, one not available until a generation later, could have averted such an outcome.
The holocaust of the Somme was subsumed for the French in that of Verdun. To the British, it was and would remain their greatest military tragedy in their national military history. A nation that goes to war must expect deaths among the young men it sends and there was a willingness for sacrifice before and during the Somme that explains, in part at least, its horror. Whatever harm Kitchener's volunteers wished the Germans, it is the harm they thereby suffered that remains in British memory, collectively, but also among the families of those who did not return. There is nothing more poignant in British life than to visit the ribbon of cemeteries that marks the front line of 1 July 1916 and to find, on gravestone after gravestone, the fresh wreath, the pinned poppy and the inscription to 'a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather'. The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.
#7 THE BREAKING OF ARMIES
Is destruction of life ever bearable? By the beginning of 1917, that was a question that lurked beneath the surface in every combatant country. Soldiers at the front, subject to discipline, bound together by the comradesgip of combat, had means of their own to resist the relentless erosion. Behind the lines, the ordeal of war attacked senses and sensibilities in a different way, through anxiety and depravation. The individual soldier knows, from day to day, minute to minute, whether he is in danger or not. Those he leaves behind - wife and mother above all - bear a burden of anxious uncertainty he does not.
The fundamental truth underlying dissatisfaction with systems and with personalities in all countries was that the search for anything or anyone better was vain. The problem of command in the circumstances of the First World War was insoluble. Generals were like men without eyes, without ears and without voices, unable to watch the operations they set in progress, unable to hear reports of their development and unable to speak to those whom they had originally given orders once action was joined. The war had become bigger than those who fought it.
They were men presented by an almost insuperable problem - how to break a strong fortified front with weak, indeed inadequate means - and none was any much worse a general than another.
All armies have a breaking point. It may come when those in the fighting units are brought to calculate, accurately or not, that the odds of survival have passed the dividing line between possibility and probability, between the random chance of death and its apparent statistical likelihood. That dividing line had been crossed for the French at the beginning of 1917, when the number of deaths suffered already equalled that of the infantry in the front-line divisions. A survivor might therefore compute that chance - the 'stochastic' factor - had turned aginst him, and that, in the British Tommy's phrase, his 'number was up'.
Day 1 of Operation Michael had undoubtedly been a German victory... The loss of 10 infantry lt. colonels killed testifies to the desperate fight put up some some British units; but it ais also evidence of the degree of disorganisation that it required commanding officers to place themselves in the front line, and by setting an example to their stricken soldiers, pay the supreme sacrifice. Well-prepared units do not lose senior officers in such numbers, even in the circumstances of a whirlwind enemy offensive, unless there has been a collapse of morale at the lower level or the failure to provide support by higher authority. Both conditions were present in the British 5th Army on 21 March 1917... they may simply have passed beyond the point of what was bearable by flesh and blood.
#8 AMERICA AND ARMAGEDDON
'Retreat? Hell, we
just got there.'
- Captain Lloyd Williams, US Marine Corps
It was immaterial whether the Americans fought well or not, the critical issue was the effect of their arrival on the enemy. It was deeply depressing. After 4 years of a war in which they had destroyed the Tsar's enemy, trounced the Italians and Romanians, demoralised the French, and, at the very least, denied the British clear-cut victory, they were now confronted with an army whose soldiers sprang, in uncountable numbers, as if from soil sown with dragons' teeth. Past hopes of victory had been predicated on calculable ratios of force to force. The intervention of the United States Army had robbed calculation of point.
A German army unable to make good its losses was now confronted by a new enemy, the US Army, with 4 million fresh troops in action or training. More pertinently, its old enemies, the British and French, now had a new technical arm, their tank forces, with which to alter the engagement. Germany's failure to match the Allies in tank development must be judged one of their worst military miscalculations of the war.
During July, Foch and Haig were concentrating an enormous force of armour, 530 British tanks, 70 French, in front of Amiens, with the intention of breaking back into the old Somme battlefield. The blow was struck on 8 August, with the Canadian and Australian Corps providing the infantry support for the tank assault. Within four days most of the old battlefield had been retaken and by the end of August the Allies had advanced as far as the outworks of the Hindenburg Line.
On 26 September, in response to Foch's inspiring cry, 'Everyone to battle', the British, French, Belgian and American armies attacked the Hindenburg Line with 123 divisions, and 57 in reserve, against 197 German divisions of which only 51 were classed by Allied intelligence as fully battleworthy.
Ludendorff had called 8 August, when the British and French tank armada had overwhelmed the front at Amiens, the 'black day of the Germany army'. It was 28 September, however, that was his own black day. He told Hindenburg that there was no alternative but to seek an armistice. The position in the west was penetrated, the army would not fight, the civilian population had lost heart, the politicians wanted peace.
On 21 June 1919, the
German High Seas Fleet, interned at the British anchorage at Scapa Flow,
had been scuttled by its crews. There was historic irony in the Kaiser's
naval officers choosing a watery grave for his magnificient battleships
in a British harbour. Had he not embarked upon a strategically unnecessary
attempt to match Britain's maritime strength, fatal hostility between the
two countries would have been avoided; so, too, in all possibility, the
neurotic climate of suspicision and insecurity from which the First World
War was born.
The unmarked graveyard of his squadrons inside the remotest islands of the British archipelago, guarding the exit from the narrow seas his fleet would have had to penetrate to achieve true oceanic status, remains as a memoral to selfish and ultimately pointless military ambition.
The chronicle of the
Great War's battles provides the dreariest literature in military history;
no brave trumpets sound in memory for thr drab millions who perished from
Picardy to Poland; no litanies are sung for the leaders who coaxed them
to slaughter. The legacy of the war's political outcome scarecly bears
contemplation: Europe ruined as a centre of world civilization, Christian
kingdoms transformed through defeat into godless tyrannies, Bolshevik or
Nazi, the superificial difference between their ideologies counting not
at all in their cruelty to common and decent folk.
All that was worst in the century which the First World War had opened, the deliberate starvation of peasant enemies of the people by provinces, the extermination of racial outcasts, the persecution of ideology's intellectual and cultural hate-objects, the massacare of ethnic minorities, the extinction of small national sovereignties, the destruction of parliaments and the elevation of commissars and warlords to power over voiceless millions, had its origins in the chaos left behind. Of that, at the end of the century, little thankfully is left. Europe is once again, as it was in 1900, prosperous, peaceful and a power for good in the world.
The First World War
is a mystery. Its origins are mysterious, so is its course. Why did a prosperous
continent, at the height of its success as a source and agent of global
wealth and power and at one of the peaks of its intellectual and cultural
achievement, choose to risk all it had for itself and all it offered to
the world in the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?
How did the anonymous millions, indistinguishably drab, undifferentially deprived of any scrap of the glories that by tradition made the life of the man-at-arms tolerable, find the resolution to sustain the struggle and to believe in its purpose? That they did is one of the undeniabilities of the Great War. Comradeship flourished in the earthwork cities of the Western and Eastern fronts. Men whom the trenches cast into intimacy entered into bonds of mutual dependency and sacrifice of self stronger than any of the friendships made in peace and better times.
That is the ultimate mystery of the First World War. If we could understand its loves, as well as its hates, we would be nearer understanding the mystery of human life.
# BEYOND THE BOOK
The cemeteries were
originally laid out and planted by British gardeners, trained at Kew, who
then settled in the vicinity of their work in France and Belgium. As might
have been expected, these exiles often married local girls, thus setting
up what have become gardening dynasties. Their descendants, now sometimes
in the fourth generation, speak a distinctive form of "Commission English",
perfectly fluent but in an accent that is neither quite English nor quite
local. In Egypt, Burma and India, commission gardening jobs, valued because
of the regular pay and pensions they attract, have become virtually hereditary.
The gardeners display extraordinary loyalty, as was recently discovered
by British troops in Baghdad, where the head gardener, though unpaid for
many years, had defended the Great War cemetery against vandalism and kept
it as tidy as possible. The almost autonomous and self-governing status
of the war cemeteries abroad is likely to diminish as families now opt
to repatriate the remains of servicemen killed overseas. The practice,
authorised by Margaret Thatcher, is likely to become universal, as it is
in America, because of the growing desecration of foreign soldiers' graves
in the new battlegrounds of the "war on terror". That is entirely understandable.
Something will be lost, however, from British culture in the process. The
overseas cemeteries are islands of something distinctively British in the
countries where they exist. They plant replicas of British country churchyards
in foreign climes and reproduce the style of British cottage gardening
in places far from home. The French call the lawns which surround the graves
"English grass". No British visitor easily stifles the catch in the throat
that entering a commission cemetery provokes. Brooke's "corner of some
foreign field that is forever England" palpably exists inside the trim
stone walls that the Commonwealth maintains in places as far apart as Crete,
Zimbabwe, the former Soviet Union and Central America.
- John Keegan, on the work of the War Graves Commission, "The Telegraph"
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