World War I (1914–1919)
Kaiser Wilhelm II
Friedrich Wilhelm Hohenzollern ruled Germany as Kaiser Wilhelm II, from 1888 until his abdication in 1918.
A Child of Privilege
Friedrich Wilhelm Hohenzollern (1859–1941) ruled Germany as Kaiser Wilhelm II, from 1888 until his abdication in 1918. Wilhelm was born to royalty, the son of Friedrich Wilhelm, crown prince of Prussia, and grandson of Wilhelm I, ruler of the German empire, and Queen Victoria of England. His mother, Victoria, daughter of the English queen, never shook off her obsession with what she considered the superiority of all things British, and her son grew to resent her controlling, critical, and domineering role in his life. His rebellion against her political teachings, all based on the comparatively liberal British system of government, drove him to pursue a pure authoritarianism during his own rule. The future kaiser’s lack of personal insight, social skills, intellect, and foresight combined with a considerable narcissism to lead Germany into a war that eventually ensnared most of the Western world.
At his birth, attended by the British doctors beloved of his mother, the infant Wilhelm suffered an injury that resulted in a paralyzed, shortened left arm and hearing loss. Wilhelm forever blamed his mother and the British doctors for this disability, a resentment fed by Victoria’s continual criticisms of the handicap. Wilhelm admirably overcame these physical obstacles and forced himself to become a good marksman, horseman, and swimmer.
Bitterness against the British
His anger at British doctors was in no way diminished when they were brought in to attend to his father on his sickbed. Wilhelm’s father had become king of Prussia on the death of Wilhelm’s grandfather, Wilhelm I, but he survived only ninety-nine days as emperor. The disease that killed him was throat cancer, misdiagnosed by the English physicians as a lesser malady treatable with rest and proper diet. When Wilhelm’s father succumbed after spending most of his time as ruler infirm in his bed, Wilhelm became kaiser and nursed in his heart a loathing for the British. This loathing extended to his own family, from his grandmother, Queen Victoria, to his many British cousins, with whom he had spent his childhood summers. His mother, the younger Victoria, fed this bitterness with frequent unfavorable comparisons between Wilhelm and his cousins.
Thus, the man who stepped up to the throne of the Hohenzollerns, a line of rulers that included Frederick the Great, was an unfortunate combination of internalized resentment, limited skills, and a powerful sense of entitlement. His strongest interest was the military, but even at these pursuits he was essentially mediocre, placing more emphasis on and deriving more delight from uniforms and parades than from military strategizing or drills.
Clashing with Bismarck
Ready at hand when Kaiser Wilhelm took the throne was Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor who had served for decades as Germany’s chief policy maker. Part of Bismarck’s policy was maintaining friendly relations with Russia, but for Wilhelm, his Russian relatives were only second in line to the British as targets of his dislike. He disdained Czar Alexander and his successor, Czar Nicholas, both of whom considered Wilhelm mentally unstable. When it came time to renew Bismarck’s secret nonaggression pact with Russia, Wilhelm, after consulting with his toadies, decided to let it lapse. A furious Bismarck, who considered this decision a fatal error, tendered his resignation as a mark of his disapproval, not actually intending for Wilhelm to accept it. But Wilhelm did accept it, and the intelligent, guiding mastermind of German international policy was chancellor no more.
One reason Wilhelm argued against renewing the pact was a concern that news of it would leak to Germany’s ally in the “Dual Monarchy,” the Austro-Hungarian empire. His loyalty to this other European empire would eventually set into motion the events that would build into World War I.
Attracting British Attention
Wilhelm, while not necessarily desiring military engagement with the other European powers, had an eye on England when he began building up the German navy. His goal was to make Germany a great naval power in European waters, and he succeeded in making it second only to England’s legendary navy in size. The English warily watched this buildup, certainly with little trust in Wilhelm’s motives, an attitude reinforced by the kaiser’s unwanted interference in international matters. He often stumbled and bumbled his way into situations that did not involve or concern his empire, such as when he sent the infamous “Kruger Telegram,” congratulating South African President Paul Kruger for his defeat of several hundred British raiders in 1895. To paraphrase Queen Victoria on another occasion, the British government was not amused.
Assassination of Franz Ferdinand
Wilhelm’s lacking sense of propriety led him to errors such as the Kruger Telegram and to making dangerous public remarks, such as referring to Serbia as a nation with “her murderers and bandits” that deserved punishment. This latter comment was particularly incendiary because Serbia was an ally of the Russians, which had supported Serbia’s agitation of the Slavs for freedom from Germany’s partner in the Dual Monarchy, the Austro-Hungarians. When the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the first domino of war fell. Even though Serbia itself had nothing to do with the assassination, the Austro-Hungarians saw an opening that would allow them to subdue Serbia and possibly prevent their alliance with Russia to create a Slavic empire.
Acting on their hopes, the Austro-Hungarians delivered to the Serbs an ultimatum containing a list of demands. What Austria-Hungary really seemed to want was an excuse to go to war, and they grasped at the slimmest straw when Serbia accepted the ultimatum with the exception of a single condition: a provision allowing Austro-Hungarian officials to enter Serbia to find and punish the archduke’s killer or killers. This lone equivocation was evidence enough for Austria-Hungary of Serbia’s devious intentions, and not discouraged by Wilhelm himself, the Austro-Hungarians promptly declared war on Serbia. Wilhelm, the other part of the Dual Monarchy, in a fit of self-exoneration, said, “I can do no more.” The second domino had fallen.
With the reality of war practically in his lap, Wilhelm recoiled from the idea of actual military conflict. It was one thing to encourage his ally in the Dual Monarchy from behind the scenes, or to withhold his advice and opinions, but something else entirely to join forces with that ally as it angered half of Europe. He immediately moved to keep the fighting limited only to Austria and Serbia, but he was too late. Russia, on the watch for just such an affront, had already mobilized on the eastern frontier. Wilhelm, unable to talk Russia into halting, was forced to declare war on the Czar as part of his agreement with his Austro-Hungarian allies.
The dominoes now fell apace. Russia had a pact with France that drew the French into the conflict, something the two countries had agreed on in an 1894 alliance. Flanked on the eastern and western fronts by hostile armies, Wilhelm sought to deal a swift blow to at least one of them. His strategy was to avoid a slog over the mountains and instead march directly through the flatter plains of Belgium to the western front and defeat the French. The only problem with this plan was that after the Belgian Revolution in 1830, European countries had recognized Belgium’s long-standing neutrality and barring entry of any foreign army into the country. Wilhelm elected to ignore the treaty and sent his troops marching through Belgium.
With the Treaty of London in 1839, Britain and Prussia, together with other main European powers, made their recognition of Belgium’s sovereignty official. Wilhelm’s aggression was exactly what Britain had been waiting for. They now declared war on their German cousin for his blatant violation of international law. World War I had begun in earnest.
Failure, Armistice, and Exile
As the fighting dragged on through bitter and agonizing trench warfare, Germany did not fare well. The much-vaunted navy could not leave the harbor, because it was trapped there by the British. The heavy losses wore on the German people, who grew disenchanted and fatigued from the hardships the war imposed. When the United States finally entered the war in April 1917 in response to German U-boat attacks, the war was near its end. Germany finally asked for an armistice, ending the fighting, and Wilhelm was forced to abdicate his throne. He was the last of the German emperors.
The deposed monarch fled to the Netherlands and was granted exile by Queen Wilhelmina (1880–1962). The Dutch refused to turn the exiled emperor over to international authorities for trial, and the former kaiser spent the remaining twenty years of his life in the Netherlands, a pathetic figure unable to acknowledge his personal role in any of the tragic events of his life. His wife, a German princess whom he married in 1881 and with whom he fathered seven children, died there in 1921. He wrote a memoir that focused only on the years preceding the war and blamed his defeat on Russian socialists, Jews, or his own relatives in Britain, but never on himself. When Hitler took France, the ex-emperor expressed his pleasure at the success, but Wilhelm did not live to see the outcome of World War II, dying at age eighty-two in the summer of 1941 in Holland.
Ferdinand Foch (1851–1929) was a French marshall and the commander in chief of the Allied armies in World War I. Foch was born on October 2, 1851, in the area of the Pyrenees where his family had lived for centuries. He was the sixth of seven children.
Obviously a bright young man, Foch attended college in Metz, a city in Lorraine. It was there, during a test on May 11, 1871, that he and his classmates learned that France had signed the Treaty of Frankfurt, which ended the Franco-Prussian War and ceded the very ground on which the students sat to Germany. Northeastern Lorraine, including Metz, and Alsace now belonged to the Prussians. Undoubtedly, the sorrowful and angry students wanted to see the Germans someday be forced to return their territory, and Ferdinand Foch eventually became leader of the forces that would ensure that return and see France triumph, for a time, over the Germans.
Inspired by the cause of the Franco-Prussian War, Foch had enlisted in the army, but he never engaged in battle in that short conflict. Instead, he went on to the military École Polytechnique in Nancy, another German-occupied French town. After a year, he entered training school for artillery, graduating third in his class in 1872. He then received cavalry training and returned to a career as an artilleryman when he was promoted to captain in 1878. He was married in 1883 to Louise-Ursule-Julie Bienvenue.
An Officer and a Scholar
In 1885, Foch attended the École Superieure de Guerre, a school intended especially for the most promising officers. He continued his streak of successes there, graduating fourth in his class and returning to the school as a professor. Even though he was physically unimposing at five feet, five inches tall, barrel-chested, and bow-legged, his square jaw and fiery way of speaking left a strong impression on anyone who met him. He was very much a student of war and all things military, approaching the execution of war with a scholarly, yet extremely practical, attitude. He argued that fighting was more important than strategy; that a leader must be more stubborn than his enemy; that offense, not defense, brings victory; and that shock is the tactic that wins battles.
His teachings were misinterpreted by some, leading to distortions that had disastrous consequences. In 1914, his followers twisted his ideas about offense before defense and used it as a guiding principle in their conduct of the early part of World War I. Ironically, defense won battles in that war far more frequently than offensive tactics did, and the offenses were often horrific bloodbaths rather than triumphant, shocking victories.
In 1901, Foch’s familial connection to the Jesuits (his brother, Germain, was a Jesuit priest) proved to be a disadvantage. He suddenly stopped teaching at the École Superieure when the government became increasingly anticlerical. Adherence to Catholicism came to be viewed as disloyalty to the Republican government, and Foch was packed off under suspicion to various outposts in the provinces. To add insult to this unwarranted injury, he also saw his promotion to colonel delayed by two years. Through it all, he retained his glass-half-full view of things, telling other disgruntled officers that they would have to put up with a lot worse than that in a war.
Always busy, Foch managed to publish two books while he was banished, and waited for his country to realize how much they needed him. That realization came in 1907 when he was promoted to brigadier general and returned to the École Superieure as commandant, all by the order of a most unlikely comrade: Republican, Protestant, radical Georges Clemenceau, by then premier of France. By the time World War I began in August 1914, Foch had been promoted to division general and had taken leadership of the Twentieth Corps, the French Army’s elite. He was close to retirement when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, which brought the long-simmering global conflict to a boil.
The Right Man at the Right Time
Foch led his corps in Lorraine with relative success, fighting back the Germans, only to have them strike back. Foch was named to command the Ninth Army shortly after this engagement, and he and his regiment distinguished themselves at the first battle of the Marne, which lasted from September 6 through September 9, 1914. Foch never let up, pushing and pushing against the German onslaught. Four days after this triumph, however, he received the crushing news that his only son and his son-in-law had both been killed.
In October, the French commander in chief, General Joseph Joffre (1852–1951), appointed Foch leader of all of France’s troops in the north. Joffre’s intent was for Foch and his men to keep the Germans away from the ports so that they could not cut the British off from their home base. Foch actually found himself organizing all of the Allied forces—the British, French, and Belgian armies—bolstering demoralized commanders with his own fire and will and, without the actual authority to do so, leading this multinational force to victory in horrendous battles that kept the Germans back and stalled out action on the western front.
Although he was appointed commander of the Northern Army Group in January 1915, Foch found himself relieved of that command in December 1916, just days after Joffre himself was fired. The firings were based on Foch’s efforts to break the stalled action on the western front, where his forces had endured huge numbers of casualties during the battles of Artois and the Somme. After these catastrophic losses, Foch spent some time serving as an advisor until General Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) appointed him chief of the general staff on May 15, 1917, a post in which he served as the government’s chief military advisor. He also proved his skills with multinational forces when he went to Italy with some British and French troops to slow down the Austro-German incursion at Caporetto. But the allies were officially on the defensive, and Foch, true to his philosophy, wanted to see them execute an offensive. His French superior and the British leader, Douglas Haig (1861–1928), were both doubtful about Foch’s plans for an offensive, however, and refused to commit any men to it.
Commander of the Allied Forces
The Germans launched their own offensive on March 21, 1918, ending any theoretical discussion about whether or not the Allies should plan one. Now, forced to maintain a defense to keep the Germans from splitting up the western front, the Allied leaders selected Foch to lead the multinational force, appointing him commander in chief of the Allied forces. After a narrowly won victory in a bloody battle at Chemin des Dames that involved the American forces as well, Foch saw the course of the war improve in France’s favor with a subsequent defense against the Germans at Champagne and then his “shock,” a counterattack that he and Pétain had carefully planned. This offensive led to a series of many more targeting Germany’s supply routes, which pushed the German army further and further back toward the frontier. The beleaguered Germans finally asked for an armistice.
Foch was not enthusiastic about peace with the Germans, and at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, he argued for a permanent military presence in the country and for drawing Germany’s boundary at the Rhine River. Clemenceau, however, was forced by the United States and Britain to accept an unsatisfactory compromise that many felt made too many concessions to Germany. Foch lamented the outcome, commenting that the agreement “is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” As subsequent events attest, his observation was remarkably prescient.
Foch himself did not live long enough to see World War II. He died of a heart attack in Paris at the age of seventy-seven on March 20, 1929. He lies entombed at Les Invalides, the final resting place of many of France’s famous military leaders.
Czar Nicholas II
Nicholas II of Russia (1868–1918) was the last of the Russian czars and the last of the Romanov line, which had ruled the Russian empire for almost three hundred years. The dynasty collapsed under Nicholas in 1918, ending with his murder and those of his wife, their five children, two servants, and the family doctor.
Nicholas was born in Russia to Czar Alexander III (1845–1894), a powerful ruler who had suppressed rising discontent among his subjects during his reign. Twenty-six-year-old Nicholas came to the throne of a society with a rigid social structure and a chasm between the haves (the nobility) and the have-nots. He lit the differences in sharp relief by making several autocratic pronouncements, disdaining the idea that the people could at least to some extent rule themselves, and being intractable with the Duma, or Russian parliament, which he had reluctantly allowed to form. His autocratic approach to governing combined with some serious bad luck, a sick heir, and revolts from labor that shook governments across Europe and ultimately ended the rule of the Romanovs.
When his father died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1894, Nicholas came to rule the largest country in the world. Soon after, he fell in love with and married the German princess Alix Victoria Helene Luise Beatrix (1972–1918), granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Through her grandmother, she inherited the genetic mutation for hemophilia, which she would tragically pass to the only son she and Czar Nicholas would have. Alix converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, taking the name Alexandra. The two had been in the course of planning a huge, festive wedding when Czar Alexander died. The couple then had to marry quickly following the funeral. The coronation itself, intended to be a grand and gilded ceremony, ended in horror when thirteen thousand of the half million peasants in attendance were trampled to death in a rush for food stalls. Nicholas was blamed for not having the manpower for crowd control, and his reputation from that point forward with his commoner subjects was unfavorable.
Although Nicholas was a friendly fellow who loved his wife and family—which eventually consisted of four daughters (Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga, and Marie) and his son and heir, Alexis—he was not prepared for his new position. Most of his 130 million subjects were peasants laboring in rural villages, only recently freed from institutionalized serfdom. In spite of their newfound freedoms and small parcels of land to call their own, the peasant class remained constrained by the monarchy and forced to pay heavy taxes. In addition, the Russian population itself was booming.
A Nation in Transition
Russia had fallen behind in the first half of the nineteenth century in terms of industrialization. Government-run efforts to catch up and industrialize led to the growth of large slums filled with underpaid factory workers who were supported by taxes paid by peasants—both the urban and rural working classes were angry about their predicament. The peasants themselves were receptive to the words of revolutionaries who were trying hard to foment rebellion and overthrow the aristocracy. When Czar Alexander died in 1894 at only forty-nine years of age, he left his son a nation made up of one hundred separate nationalities and increasingly open to the efforts of Marxist revolutionaries. Faced with this daunting prospect and the shock of his father’s premature death, a worried Nicholas commented, “I know nothing of the business of ruling.”
The Debacle with Japan
On a visit to Japan two years before the death of his father, Nicholas had been attacked by a would-be assassin. The attempt to kill Nicholas was foiled by a cousin of the future czar, who happened to be with him, but the attacker left a scar across Nicholas’s forehead, one that would always remind him of his hatred of the Japanese, against whom he harbored racist bitterness. His dislike of the Japanese led him to enter into war with Japan in 1904 over territories in the Korean peninsula and Manchuria. This ill-advised venture was a disaster. The Russians were overconfident and eventually lost the center of their power in the Pacific. They also suffered an embarrassing and devastating defeat at the hands of the Japanese fleet at the Straits of Tsushima. The Japanese had defeated the great Russian military.
This humiliating loss did nothing for Nicholas’s reputation at home. Popular unrest intensified, leading to the “Bloody Sunday” in January 1905 when hundreds of the 200,000 Russians trying to peacefully petition for civil rights were shot down in front of the Czar’s Winter Palace. Following this carnage, Nicholas and his family hunkered down in a palace outside St. Petersburg while unrest grew throughout the nation.
Tension over the Duma
In an effort to appease the masses, Nicholas offered to set up a Duma, or parliament, but his terms were unacceptable. Rather than legislating as representatives of the people, this Duma would instead simply serve as advisors to the Czar. The half-hearted effort to appease his people failed miserably. Opposition arose on all sides and was followed by a general strike, in which workers from all levels, industries, and areas refused to work. Nicholas at first sought a military dictator to force the nation into submission. He then gave in and issued the “October Manifesto,” granting the Duma legislative power and a constitution. Yet Nicholas himself insisted on keeping his traditional title of “autocrat,” and was constantly at odds with the Duma, trying to restrict its powers and threatening to get rid of it completely. This attitude, of course, did nothing to improve relationships between the royal family and the people of Russia.
Czarina Alexandra supported her husband’s belief in the monarchy, reminding him of his ancestor, Peter the Great (1672–1725), a powerful monarch who ruled his people with an iron hand. Further undermining trust in the czar was the presence of one of her favorites at court, Grigori Rasputin (1869–1916), who arrived from Siberia in 1903. Rasputin had gained favor with Alexandra through his apparent success in treating Alexis’s hemophilia. This blood-clotting disorder makes even the most minor wounds mortally dangerous, threatening not only the boy’s life but the succession to the throne. As an autocrat, Nicholas could have overturned ancestral law disallowing a female ruler and ensured a Romanov sucession, given that he had four daughters and only one ailing son. But he never did, and Rasputin’s powers over the couple only seemed to grow.
By 1913, the Russian public had had enough of Rasputin, who had gained considerable power as a result of his proximity to the throne. That year, celebrations of the three-hundredth anniversary of the Romanov dynasty were met with silence from the populace rather than with cheers.
When World War I broke out in 1914, in part due to bumbling diplomacy on the part of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Nicholas was no better placed than he had been during his disastrous war with Japan. His army suffered defeat after defeat, and Nicholas himself deemed it right for him to go to the front lines and command his troops. This decision meant, of course, that the army’s failures were now directly his, as well. Remaining behind in St. Petersburg, Alexandra ruled in her husband’s place and was guided by the mysterious and strange Rasputin, disliked by many. Alexandra became the focus of rumors that, being German born, she was a traitor to the Russian people. Eventually, Rasputin was murdered by men tired of the influence he wielded over the royal family.
Downfall of the Romanovs
Disruption and failure on the front lines translated into riots and strikes at home. Revolution was officially underway by March 1917. After even his military commanders refused to help him, Nicholas desperately cast around for a successor, someone who might appease the people. His own son, Alexis, was far too ill. His brother, Grand Duke Michael (1878–1918) refused. In the end, Nicholas was forced to abdicate on March 15, 1917, ending the three-century rule of the Romanov line.
The former Czar had nowhere to go. He could not go to his wife’s family in Britain without causing an international crisis and jeopardizing Britain’s own need to maintain friendly relations with Russia, regardless of who was in charge. In the end, Nicholas and Alexandra and their children were placed under house arrest in Ekaterinburg. In the spring of 1918, the Russian Civil War broke out. The former czar and his family were kept in increasingly less comfortable surroundings. Finally, in the early hours of July 17, 1918, the family and their servants were awakened and marched into the cellar of the house. A firing squad awaited them. Nicholas was the first to be executed, requiring several bullets. His daughters had to be bayoneted after shots failed to kill them; the bullets were somewhat deflected by the jewelry they had hidden under their clothing. After the family, the servants, and the family’s doctor had been executed, most of the bodies were burned with acid and thrown into a well. They later were moved to unmarked graves, where they remained until they were discovered in 1991.
David Lloyd George
David Lloyd George (1863–1945) was an English Liberal Party statesman and the prime minister from 1916 to 1922. He was instrumental in the formation of the Versailles Treaty. Welsh by ancestry, Lloyd George was born in Manchester, England, on January 17, 1863. His father, David George, was a school headmaster who became ill with tuberculosis and died in 1864, leaving Lloyd George’s Welsh mother, Elizabeth, daughter of a Baptist minister, penniless. Her brother, Richard Lloyd, took in his sister and her three children in Wales. This uncle of Lloyd George’s was a politically active Liberal and a Baptist preacher. Thus, early childhood influences molded Lloyd George into a political radical and fervent evangelical.
Lloyd George learned French and Latin from his preacher/shoemaker uncle, a passionate Welsh nationalist who spoke only Welsh at home, and he also attended the village school. Lloyd George most enjoyed geography, history, and Latin. Before he turned sixteen, he had passed the preliminary law examination. In July 1878, he began an apprenticeship in law; writing and speaking on temperance, land reform, and religion; and following in the footsteps of his grandfather and uncle by preaching in the church. He passed the Law Society exam in 1884, qualifying as a solicitor and at the young age of twenty-two, he set up his legal practice in Criccieth in North Wales, eventually opening branches in other villages. Much of his law business focused on defending accused poachers. He also worked to organize a farmers’ union and campaigned against tithing, the practice of supporting the church by giving a portion of one’s wages regularly. He became a growing force in the Liberal Party because of his legal skill and his public-speaking ability.
He married Margaret Owen, daughter of a Methodist farmer, in 1888, but they had an unhappy marriage because of Lloyd George’s numerous affairs. In spite of this, they had five children, but lost a daughter to appendicitis in 1907.
As a Welshman brought up in Wales, Lloyd George felt strongly about the movement for Welsh home rule. He founded a newspaper he called the Trumpet of Freedom and hoped it would help him in his election to Parliament. He was selected to run for his borough in 1888, three years before the next general election. In spite of the time gap, he took the helm of the district party organization and kicked off his campaign. Within months he was rewarded with an appointment as alderman of his borough, Caernarfon.
The conservative incumbent of the borough died in 1890, leading to a by-election, which Lloyd George won, squeaking by with an eighteen- or nineteen-vote lead. The moment was historic for him—he held the seat for the borough until he left the House of Commons in 1945.
His focus in the House was his homeland. He emphasized Welsh home rule, land reform, and disestablishmentarianism. He soon became leader of the radical faction of his own party, earning a reputation as an independent beholden to no platform. He gained a national profile by stumping as a pacifist against the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) in South Africa, asserting that Britain’s involvement arose only from greed. This stance resulted in several serious threats on his life.
The Liberals took power in the 1905 election, and Lloyd George’s high profile earned him an appointment as president of the Board of Trade. He served his prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836–1908), well in this appointment, creating the Port of London Authority, averting a major railway strike, and passing important reform legislation. Campbell-Bannerman died in 1908 and was succeeded by Lloyd George’s future rival, Herbert H. Asquith (1852–1928), who promptly made Lloyd George chancellor of the exchequer, a powerful position.
As chancellor of the exchequer, Lloyd George found an ally in Winston Churchill (1874–1965). The two men drew up the “People’s Budget,” a plan for unemployment and health insurance modeled after a program Lloyd George had studied in Germany. After an initial defeat, this budget met with approval by the House of Lords in 1910, instituting duties on tobacco, gasoline, beer, and land. The passage of two acts initiated by Lloyd George—the National Health Insurance Act and the National Unemployment Insurance Act—formed the basis of the welfare state in Britain and cast Lloyd George to history as a social reformer.
Putting Pacifism Aside
Because of his domestic focus, Lloyd George had very little time for foreign concerns, an exception being his passionate pacifism during the Anglo-Boer War. He broke with both his distance from foreign policy and his pacifism during the Agadir Crisis in 1911. Germany sent a warship into French-controlled territory in Morocco, triggering Lloyd George to warn the Germans that Britain had every intention of protecting its national interests. Nevertheless, he continued as an advocate of disarmament until as late as January 1914. By August 1914, World War I had broken out, and Lloyd George, driven by Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality, aligned himself against the kaiser.
In May 1915, the man who had thundered about pacifism was placed in charge of the new Ministry of Munitions, where he pushed for a massive output of munitions and an increase in conscription. A catastrophic loss at the Battle of the Somme, combined with other losses, undermined the people’s faith in Asquith’s government. After the death of Lord Kitchener (1850–1916), the secretary of state for war, Lloyd George was chosen to take his place. He immediately formed a coalition with conservative leaders. Asquith refused, however, to work with the coalition and resigned his office in protest in 1916. Some say that Lloyd George and his coalition pushed him out. Lloyd George reached the pinnacle of his rapid rise by taking Asquith’s place, becoming prime minister on December 7, 1916, even though he was not even the leader of his own party. His accession relied instead on the support he received from the Conservative, and to a lesser extent, the Labor parties. His goal was to streamline the government, and he began by reducing the War Cabinet from twenty-three to five members. In addition, he applied his apparently inexhaustible energy, motivation, and courage to keep the nation inspired in the face of food shortages, military losses, and troubles among the Allies. His attitude differed significantly from that of his predecessor, who had come to be viewed as lacking drive and initiative in fighting the war.
After the war, Lloyd George tried to maintain the Liberal-Conservative coalition he had forged, and he and his coalition members scored a significant victory in the 1918 election. Lloyd George was present at the Versailles Peace Conference, where he helped frame the treaty. But his overwhelming popularity of 1918 gave way to an erosion of support from 1919 to 1921, although he did fulfill some of his goals, including passage of the Housing Act of 1919 and establishing the Irish Free State. In spite of these successes, his administration also bore the repercussions of growing labor unrest, recession, and allegations of corruption. His coalition with Conservatives could not save him from Conservative ire at his spending, while radicals in his party rebelled against his austerity. The British populace and the coalition alike did not like his concessions to the rebellious Irish.
Lloyd George soldiered on through these trials, but he finally met defeat over yet another foreign policy problem: the Turkish crisis of 1922. He again found himself in disagreement with the coalition, and his pro-Greek stance almost resulted in another war for his country, this time with Turkey. Lloyd George, as a result, resigned his office on October 19, 1922, and was succeeded by Andrew Bonar Law (1858–1923). His Liberal party experienced a resounding defeat in the general election that same year.
An Elder Statesman
The former prime minister remained a member of the House of Commons but failed to wield any particular influence for the remainder of his time there. For a short while, he also fell for Hitler’s personal propaganda after meeting with the Nazi dictator in Germany in 1936. He obviously had changed his mind when, in 1938, he joined with Winston Churchill in decrying the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940), lambasting Chamberlain in May 1940. Chamberlain resigned as prime minister three days after Lloyd George’s verbal attack, and Winston Churchill, Lloyd George’s old ally, became prime minister. Irascible and unpredictable as ever, Lloyd George then proceeded to criticize many of Churchill’s policies and refused two offers of a position in the War Cabinet.
In 1941, Lloyd George’s wife died, and he was reportedly devastated at losing her, in spite of their tumultuous relationship. In 1943, the aging statesman married the woman who had been his personal secretary (and mistress) for thirty years, Frances Louise Stevenson. In 1944, he retired from the House of Commons and was elevated to the peerage, becoming the First Earl of Dwyfor, named for a mountain stream near his farm in Wales. The proud Welshman fittingly spent his final days in Wales, dying on March 26, 1945, at Ty Newydd.
Manfred von Richthofen
Manfred von Richthofen (1892–1918) was the top German aviator in WW I. Von Richthofen, more commonly known as the Red Baron, was credited with shooting down eighty enemy aircraft before being killed in action.
Von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892 in Breslau, Germany, to an aristocratic family. His father was a major in the military, and he decided that his oldest son and second child would also be brought up to a military career. Von Richthofen was schooled at home, learning from tutors and enjoying hunting and horseback riding, before going to military school at age eleven.
Von Richthofen the Horseman
Von Richthofen continued his athletic pursuits as a cadet but did not shine academically. He made few friends, disliked class work, and did only enough to scrape by. In 1909, when he entered the Royal Prussian Military Academy near Berlin, he settled in and began enjoying military life, still excelling in athletics and enjoying the companionship of his comrades. In 1911, he graduated and entered the cavalry, becoming a lieutenant in 1912.
Although his excellence as a horseman made him a natural for the cavalry, his first engagement in the Battle of Verdun showed him and the German commanders that horses were not going to be viable in modern warfare. The riders found themselves hunkered in trenches rather than on horseback, and soon von Richthofen had had enough. He requested transfer to the air service, or Fliegertruppe. He did not intend to become a pilot, because he thought the training would take too long.
Von Richthofen the Flying Ace
Soon, von Richthofen could not resist the impulse to fly and moved from being an observer to flying his own missions, piloting the lightweight fighter planes. After only twenty-four hours of flight training, he took his first solo turn, crashing on landing but emerging unhurt and completely inspired. In 1916, he was assigned to a fighter squadron, making his first kill on September 17, 1916.
Within months, his kill tally had expanded to ten enemy planes shot down, qualifying him as an “ace” in the fighter-pilot lexicon. He loved the flying and the thrill of battle so much that for each plane shot down, he collected a souvenir and bought an engraved trophy to commemorate the event. After witnessing the deaths of many of the other pilots, his arrogance tempered only somewhat.
He earned greater fame in November 1916 for shooting down a famous British ace, Major Lanoe Hawker (1890–1916). In 1917, he took command of his own fighter squadron, which he immediately began to train in his own style. His squad’s air victories escalated, and von Richthofen, still keeping score, had more kills than anyone. At about this time, he decided to paint his plane bright red. Although it seems like an invitation to trouble, his real reason was to let ground troops know not to fire on him. He also wanted any people watching from the ground to know who he was when he shot a plane down. Others in his squadron followed suit, painting their planes in signature designs. The colorful squadron became known as the “Flying Circus.” Von Richthofen himself earned a nickname from the British, the “Red Baron,” while the French called him “le petit rouge,” or “the little red one.” He achieved several kills almost every day.
Admiration in Life and Death
Von Richthofen received a promotion to captain in April 1917. He was a valuable asset to his country both for his skill as a fighter pilot and for his image as a German hero. The German propaganda machine paraded him before crowds, threw parties for him, and urged him to write his life story. In spite of his thirst for fame and his obvious delight in his success, von Richthofen was not comfortable with all of the fawning and the other trappings of celebrity.
He returned to battle, and on July 6, 1917, just after he killed his fifty-seventh pilot, he himself was shot down. He was taken to the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head, which later was blamed for his uncharacteristic behavior when he returned to battle in August. His wound probably never truly healed, but he became known to history as an ace of aces by shooting down an overall total of eighty enemy planes. He did finally write his memoirs, calling them The Red Fighter Pilot (Der Rote Kampflieger).
On April 21, 1918, he was in pursuit of a British pilot, dipping and swooping his plane to keep the quarry locked on target. He broke his own rules in tailing the pilot, going too low and too fast, and his plane was shot down over the Somme River. Von Richthofen died in the crash—someone on the scene reported that his final utterance was the word, “kaput,” German for “broken.” British troops recovered his body and buried him like the warrior he was in a military funeral with honors.
A Rapid Rise
Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) was the twenty-eighth president of the United States, serving from 1913 to 1921. He was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Versailles Treaty.
Wilson was born on December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia. His father, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was a Presbyterian minister and founder of the Southern Presbyterian Church. Wilson’s career trajectory was rapid and impressive. He graduated from Princeton University in 1879. A scholar before he became a politician, the future president then went on to earn a doctorate at Johns Hopkins in 1886, studying political science, history, and economics. Earlier in the 1880s, he studied law at the University of Virginia, a trade he practiced in Atlanta. His postdoctoral curriculum vita reads like an East Coast college guide; he taught history and political science at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and Princeton. By 1902, Wilson took over leadership of Princeton at the age of forty-five. In 1910, Wilson became governor of New Jersey, running as a Democrat. He stunned some of his critics by actually fulfilling all of the pledges made as part of the Democratic platform for that election. By 1912, he was the U.S. president and was elected a second time to the office in 1916.
A Scholarly Approach to the Presidency
Wilson came into the presidency intent on establishing progressive domestic programs and reforms, but he found himself embroiled in a world war and gearing up the U.S. military for that and the other conflicts that marked his time in office. He considered himself a “liberal internationalist,” one who believes that diplomacy, international law, and moral arguments should be brought to bear on a problem in order to achieve a peaceful solution. If that approach failed, then one could apply military force. He had come to his conclusions about the role of the president through his analysis of Theodore Roosevelt’s (1858–1919) time in office. In 1908, Wilson wrote Constitutional Government in the United States, a book that presents what some scholars perceive as the classic view of the modern presidency. In it, he argues for the president as the nation’s lone spokesman, representing the “people as a whole.”
In the presidential election of 1912, Wilson beat Roosevelt, William Howard Taft (1857–1930), and Eugene Victor Debs (1855–1926). His first move as president was to demonstrate his role as spokesperson by holding the first in a series of regularly scheduled press conferences, setting a precedent that most presidents have followed. He employed various outlets to shape public discourse, in addition to the press conferences, turning to newspapers and public statements, and he often claimed to speak not for himself, but for the people he led.
His parliamentary skills became as legendary as his use of words, the news media, and the “bully pulpit” supplied by his office. He used the principle of mutual respect between the executive office and the houses of Congress to reduce the barriers between the two branches of government while keeping himself the spokesperson for both, fulfilling his ideal of the president as representative of all.
Peace Without Victory
Wilson believed, on moral and religious grounds, that his nation existed to serve all of humankind. His initiatives and proposals, such as his “Peace Without Victory” plan, exemplified his belief that the strong and ruthless should never move to crush or exploit the helpless and weak, and he worked to avoid using violence abroad. In a speech to Congress, even as he asked for the authority to occupy Mexico to stop the attacks of Pancho Villa (1878–1923) on American interests, he thundered, “Do you think the glory of America would be enhanced by a war of conquest? Do you think that any act of violence by a powerful nation like this against a weak distracted neighbor would reflect distinction upon the annals of the United States?” He also, however, believed that sometimes force was required, and he turned to it often during his eight years in office.
Wilson’s first use of U.S. armed forces occurred in 1914, when he sent troops to the Mexican port of Veracruz. They occupied the city for seven months in order to restore order and protect American economic interests while Mexican political factions fought one another. The president would most frequently use the armed forces in this way and for this purpose in Latin America, including another occupation in Mexico in which U.S. troops stopped Pancho Villa from continuing his attacks on towns on the New Mexico border. U.S. troops also occupied Haiti in July 1915 to restore order after the murder of its president, and they were deployed in the Dominican Republic in May 1916, again to restore order amid political upheaval.
Diplomacy with Germany
Despite his willingness to use force in the first years of his presidency, Wilson was reluctant to engage militarily when World War I broke out in 1914. For two years, he insisted on declaring U.S. neutrality, but economic factors and German aggression caused him to change his response in 1916. In May 1915, a German U-boat sank the British passenger liner Lusitania, which went down with 1,198 people, including 124 Americans. Wilson initially attempted personal intervention to stop the U-boat attacks, and his efforts had been effective by 1916. But 1916 was also an election year, and the pressures of politics led Wilson to expand the army and national guard, including establishing the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, which still exists today.
Wilson still held out hope for a compromise and for keeping his country out of the war. In May 1916, a year after the Lusitania sank, he came out in support of a postwar league that would ensure peace among nations. When he won reelection that November, he again looked for ways to end the war through diplomacy. His efforts failed, and in January 1917, he put forward his “Peace Without Victory” plan, his vision of achieving peace unaccompanied by national gain of land or claims of victory. The Germans were now intent on victory, however, convinced that with some well-applied force, they could overcome the British before any U.S. support could arrive from across the Atlantic. In their hubris, they rejected Wilson’s overtures and accepted the probability that war with the United States would result.
Aggression against the Germans
The Germans announced they would launch open submarine warfare on January 31, 1917. Wilson thus had to choose between continued, well-reasoned neutrality and all-out aggression. The people of the United States were similarly divided. Ultimately, Wilson chose the route of aggression, delivering a message of war in April lambasting the Germans for violating the rights of neutral nations and arguing for his vision of spreading democracy. His draft plan resulted in the rapid mobilization of the army. General John J. Pershing (1860–1948) led U.S. troops in Paris, engaging in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918, and near the German frontier by September of that year, he led a force of 1.2 million men. Throughout U.S. participation in World War I, Wilson maintained that his nation was an associate power, not a member of the Allies, and that the United States could and would negotiate a separate peace if necessary.
Achievements and Failures
Wilson’s zeal in achieving his goals gave rise to outcomes both positive and negative. The institution of the draft became the model that the U.S. would use to constitute an army for many subsequent wars. Wilson used conscription to raise an army and war bonds to pay for it, tactics that would be used again during World War II. One of his greatest legislative achievements was the passage of the Federal Reserve Act, which he signed into law in 1913. This act, which combined private initiative with public oversight, established the Federal Reserve System, the most important economic institution in the United States. But Wilson never lost sight of his ultimate postwar goal: the creation of an international peace organization focused on cooperation and collective security.
What his administration did lose sight of was the necessity to maintain a nation’s civil liberties, even in times of war. The wartime violations of civil liberties under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, some of them extensive, triggered a reaction that ended in the postwar establishment of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Wilson and the Fourteen Points
As a wartime president, Wilson was a forceful commander-in-chief, but he relied on the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing, to make decisions on the ground about America’s army in France. Pershing was stopped by Wilson in 1918 when the Germans both begged for an armistice after the tide turned against them and cited Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” which he had delivered as a presidential address in January 1918. The Fourteen Points included calls to end secret diplomacy, ensure freedom of the seas, reduce armaments, and create an independent Poland. In response to Germany’s pleas, Wilson put a halt to Pershing’s plans to invade Germany. He accepted Germany’s request for an armistice and used his Fourteen Points as a starting point for the negotiations.
After the War
President Wilson traveled to Europe in 1919, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to do so. At the peace talks in Paris, Wilson found himself giving up a number of his fourteen points in an effort to achieve his overarching goal of the creation of the League of Nations. The peace talk participants hammered out the Treaty of Versailles, but Wilson did not get a positive reception to it from home. The Republican-controlled Senate refused to ratify the treaty in July 1919 for reasons that included partisanship, fears that the United States would lose power, and concern over the concessions Wilson had made. Wilson’s nemesis, Henry Cabot Lodge (1850–1924), happened to be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he and his allies deplored the heavy international responsibilities the treaty would impose on the nation. In addition, Wilson, who had spent his terms in office emphasizing diplomacy, proved an intractable opponent.
Wilson suffered a massive stroke in October 1919. The stroke left Wilson paralyzed on his left side and was actually the largest of a series of small strokes and other vascular problems. He had suffered these problems so long that even as he was preparing to take office his first term, a prominent neurologist examined him and predicted that the new president would not survive to the end of the four years. He obviously did survive, even to complete a second term, but the large stroke left him unable to negotiate and use diplomacy in the old, familiar ways. In fact, through the remainder of his second term, the president did not function completely in mind, body, reason, or spirit. His second wife, Edith Bolting Wilson, whom Wilson had married after the death in 1914 of his first wife, Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, served as the conduit of all information in or out of the president’s office. She blocked efforts to reveal the truth about the president’s health and also refused to allow her husband to resign his office, even after he had agreed to do so at the behest of the doctors.
It was during this period of incapacity at the end of his term that the greatest social achievement of his administration occurred. The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on August 26, 1920, conferring on women the right to vote. The outgoing president rode with his successor, Warren Harding (1865–1923), to Harding’s inauguration on March 4, 1921. In spite of Wilson’s physical frailty, however, he outlived the new president and attended Harding’s funeral. Wilson died at home in Washington on February 3, 1924.
Early Life and Career
Erich Ludendorff (1865–1937) was a German general and directed Germany’s total war effort during the last two years of World War I.
Ludendorff was born on April 9, 1865, in Prussia, in an area that was primarily Polish. His mother was descended from aristocrats, and his father was a cavalry officer. In spite of his mother’s connections, Ludendorff’s family was not rich, although he is reported to have had a comfortable and pleasant childhood. He did well in school, earning a scholarship to a state military academy, and entered the army after he graduated in 1882. Ludendorff showed an aptitude for mathematics and was consistently first in his class, but he always knew that the military would be his career and intended to follow in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather.
Although his mother was of noble lineage, only men who were paternally noble could traditionally be promoted to general. He was taunted at school, where students made fun of him because he was a commoner. Ludendorff, known throughout his life for his dour severity, may have developed some of his personality traits because of this experience. At any rate, he excelled in the face of such obstacles and was appointed to the German general staff, a prestigious post, when he was only twenty-nine. One reason he climbed the career ladder so rapidly was that he disdained friendships, preferring to focus instead on forming himself into the best soldier he could be.
Ludendorff continued to exhibit this singular obsession with all things military. He read only books on military subjects and for two decades after his appointment to the general staff, where he spent most of his career, he closely studied all aspects of the German military. In spite of his almost religious military fervor, he was generally disliked even among the stereotypically arrogant and rude German officers for his unpleasantness. He is reported to have been filled with rage—he banged on tables, offended his superiors with his tactlessness, and was inflexible in thought. In spite of his obvious social deficiencies, he did marry, and his wife described him as “a man of iron principles.”
Not surprisingly, Ludendorff actually looked forward to the onset of World War I, seeing it as his chance to finally earn the leadership position he had worked so hard to achieve—to the exclusion of almost everything else. At first, he was quartermaster general, ensuring food, clothing, transportation, and supplies got to the troops in Belgium. When a general died in battle at the Belgian line, Ludendorff quickly stepped in at the front to take his place. His first act was to drive a car up to a small tower that his army had been unable to capture. Reports state that he jumped from the vehicle, drew his sword, and banged on the door, yelling, “Surrender in the name of Kaiser Wilhelm!” It seemed like a foolish thing to do, but it had the effect of firing up the German troops, who surged against the outnumbered Belgians and defeated them. Ludendorff earned a medal from the kaiser himself for his audacity and became known as the “Hero of Liege,” after the town where he earned his honor. He also earned himself a place on the eastern front.
On the Eastern Front
The only problem was that Ludendorff was not a noble and therefore could not command the troops on the front. To solve this problem, the general staff put the retired General Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) in charge with Ludendorff as second in command as chief of staff. In spite of what must have been a frustration to Ludendorff, the two men dovetailed their duties nicely, with Ludendorff planning and making decisions that von Hindenburg passed along as orders.
Ludendorff’s decisions ended in a rout of the previously immovable Russian army at the Battle of Tannenberg. After this decisive victory, the two German leaders moved on, pushing the Russian forces all the way back across the front, in contrast to the stalemate that lingered on the western front. Ludendorff and von Hindenburg made such a great team that people started calling them simply, “The Duo.”
Given their effectiveness at the eastern front, it was no surprise when they were moved to the western front in August 1916, where von Hindenburg became chief of the general staff, and Ludendorff his first quartermaster general. They planned together to remove from their path any military or political leader who disagreed with their plans, which included renewed, unrestricted submarine warfare. After they forced out Wilhelm’s chancellor, who wanted to sue for peace, the two generals were essentially in charge of the country, which was now a military dictatorship with a figurehead kaiser.
On the Western Front
Ludendorff and von Hindenburg now took up residence in comfortable headquarters while directing movements at the front. They got rid of any concerns about Russia by helping Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) return from exile to lead the socialist revolution, a move that effectively removed Russia from the war equation for the moment. With the eastern front resolved for the time being, they began planning a huge German offensive on the western front. Their attacks starting in March 1918 leading to battles at Somme, Ypres, and Chemin des Dames were successes, sending the Allies into retreat, but those successes came with tremendous losses. The German Army lost more than 600,000 men in those three months of fighting.
In spite of the horrific losses, the two generals pushed forward with their offensive, launching two assaults that summer that were disastrous. Not only did they fail to push the Allies back any further, but they also saw many of their men desert, unwilling to again walk into a slaughter. The result was a massive midsummer German retreat, and Ludendorff and von Hindenburg knew the end was near—at least von Hindenburg did. Reportedly, when Ludendorff asked him what Germany ought to do, the military nobleman replied, “Make peace, you idiot!”
Ludendorff agreed but knew that Germany had to position itself better on the battlefield before beginning negotiations. They did not want to enter armistice talks at a huge disadvantage and wanted Germany to appear as strong as it could. They attempted to achieve this by a slow retreat, but the Americans turned the slow retreat into a total defeat. Ludendorff was so distraught that those around him worried about his health. Some reported that when word came about Germany’s complete loss, Ludendorff actually fell to the floor of his office, foaming at the mouth. It would have been a powerful emotional display from a man who had prided himself for his intractable strength.
Ludendorff’s strategy of entering peace negotiations from a position of strength failed utterly, and Ludendorff himself was forced to resign in October 1918. The resignation of von Hindenburg followed in the next month, and the kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland. Germany had lost.
After the War
The raging, unloved general ended up fleeing the country as well, ignominiously disguising himself with a wig and colored glasses and taking refuge in Sweden. While there, he engaged in the usual postwar pastime of writing his memoirs, which in his case laid the blame for Germany’s loss on unpatriotic Germans. His argument attracted a certain nationalistic element in Germany, and he returned to his homeland in the 1920s, believing himself to be the living embodiment of Nordic virtues. There, he joined Hitler’s National Socialist Party, was elected to Parliament as a Nazi, and even ran for president. Ironically, he lost the latter contest to the very man he had accused of being an unpatriotic German: Paul von Hindenburg. Ludendorff resigned from Parliament in 1928.
His tendency toward mental instability appeared to reemerge toward the end of his life. His second wife engaged in pseudo-religious, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian mystical teachings, and Ludendorff espoused beliefs that the Jews, socialists, Freemasons, Jesuits—anyone but him—were at fault for Germany’s failure on the world stage. His essays and bizarre behavior eventually became so extreme that even Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) could no longer support him. Ludendorff died on December 20, 1937.
John Joseph Pershing (1860–1948) was a general in the Armies of the United States and went on to be commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I.
Pershing was born on September 13, 1860 near Laclede, Missouri. Pershing was born almost on the eve of the Civil War, and his early memories of that conflict actually led him away from an interest in a military career. He planned instead to become a lawyer. His plans were put on hold, however, with the economic depression of the 1870s, and when his father’s businesses (a store, lumberyard, and real estate) began to falter, he had to look for work. Pershing worked on his family’s farm and attended public school. In 1878, he found a job teaching, and he studied for his degree during vacation, officially earning his teaching credentials in 1880. His first job was teaching at the school for the black children in his hometown. Racial tensions arose on both sides around his appointment, but Pershing handled them with calm, pointing out to one hostile former friend that Abraham Lincoln had given rights to black people, and it was his—Pershing’s—job to teach these children.
In spite of his aspirations to the law, Pershing applied to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1881. He was not suddenly interested in a military career, but he had realized that he could obtain a free college education via this route, one that might help him realize his dream of attending law school. Pershing flourished at West Point, achieving the highest student position possible at the academy and serving as class president, although public speaking made him uncomfortable. His reputation at West Point set the tone for his future—that of a strong leader and strict disciplinarian. He had developed his interest in strict discipline as a child. He and his brothers had a near-fatal accident with a gun they were playing with, and since that incident, Pershing took guns and the details pertaining to them very seriously.
On the Western Frontier
He left West Point in 1886 to go to New Mexico as a second lieutenant. In what would be a repeated scenario in Pershing’s life, he just missed the main action in New Mexico; the Sixth Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army had just captured the elusive Geronimo, the Apache chief who had evaded army patrols for years. But after Pershing arrived, the Sixth simply engaged in routine patrols in New Mexico.
Pershing served with the Sixth in New Mexico for four years, until the regiment traveled to South Dakota to deal with another Native American leader, Sitting Bull, and with the Ghost Dance Rebellion of the Sioux tribe. Pershing arrived after the massacre at Wounded Knee and the shooting of Sitting Bull. His only involvement in the action was a short skirmish at Little Grass Creek on January 1, 1891.
Turning again to a teaching life, Pershing went to the University of Nebraska in the fall of 1891 to serve as a military instructor and to teach remedial math. While he was there, he finally achieved his lifetime dream of earning a law degree, an accomplishment that left him with the difficult choice of pursuing a legal career or continuing with the military. He decided to stick with the military.
While at the University of Nebraska, Pershing made a name for himself by whipping a group of undisciplined, uninterested students into a superior cadet corps. It was at this time that the future general first had his name associated with weaponry: his cadets became known as the Pershing Rifles, and they were good enough to win a national drill competition in Nebraska.
Pershing then moved on to Montana, where he commanded a unit of black soldiers with the Tenth Cavalry. Pershing spent only a year in Montana and then spent an unsuccessful year at West Point with the derisive cadets who resented Pershing for his strict attention to details about marching, saluting, standing at attention, and dress. This response to Pershing’s close attention to military form would bring him criticism in later years, as well. It was at West Point that a group of white cadets he taught gave him the nickname “Black Jack,” a reference to his command of the Tenth, meant to insult him.
The lieutenant finally got his chance to catch some of the action when he went to Cuba as the officer in charge of supplies (quartermaster) for the Tenth. Spain and the United States were at war over Cuba, and Pershing earned kudos for his bravery during the attack on San Juan Hill, the signature event of that war in Cuba. The colonel of his regiment even said to Pershing that the lieutenant was “cool as a bowl of cracked ice” under fire.
Pershing continued his success in the Philippines, where he made captain and distinguished himself for suppressing uprisings. During an assignment in Washington, D.C., he met the daughter of a powerful Wyoming senator and told a friend that he had met the girl he was going to marry. After two years, he did marry Frances Warren, in 1905, and the two spent their honeymoon in Tokyo, where Pershing served at the American embassy.
His star was on a swift rise from then on, and in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt chose Pershing over 862 officers with more seniority to become the youngest brigadier general in the U.S. Army. After his brief stint as an observer in the Russo-Japanese War, the new brigadier general returned to the Philippines, where he became, in addition to his military command, governor of the Moro province, which he and his forces had captured during his previous duty there. While the provincial governor, Pershing oversaw introduction of the minimum wage and initiated the building of new schools and medical facilities while still quelling the occasional rebellion.
After four years in the Philippines, the general found himself ordered to El Paso, Texas, to help battle the Mexicans, who were making border raids. Pancho Villa, the Mexican leader, led one raid in March 1916 that killed seventeen Americans. In response, Pershing led what President Woodrow Wilson referred to as a “punitive expedition” into Mexico on Villa’s trail. Villa proved as elusive as Geronimo, and even after eleven months, Pershing still had not managed to capture or kill the Mexican rebel, although he did scatter the rebel army.
While he was in El Paso, Pershing’s wife and three of his children died in a fire in their home in San Francisco; only his son, Warren, survived. The loss so devastated him that at his promotion to major general in 1916, he commented, “All the promotion in the world would make no difference now.”
Command in Europe
War in Europe pulled Pershing from the Mexican border to Paris, France. The United States finally declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, after final attempts at diplomacy with the kaiser failed. Wilson, evidently still impressed with Pershing, selected the fifty-seven-year-old experienced general to command U.S. forces on the European continent. It was something the British and French had anticipated and had hoped for, but they soon became frustrated with Pershing’s delay in engaging in battle. Pershing’s reason for the delay was that he wanted his troops trained and fighting together as an American—not an Allied—army, and he forcefully refused to place them under Allied command. The United States insisted on remaining a separate party from the Allies, retaining its right to negotiate a separate peace, if necessary.
For almost a year after his appointment as commander, Pershing did not lead his troops into battle. He spent this time laying the groundwork carefully and completely for a full-scale invasion of Germany, including troop training and buildup, supply flow, intelligence gathering, and strategizing. He also spent much of his time inspecting his ever-improving soldiers, ruthlessly attending to the smallest details of their uniform and riding the division commanders without mercy.
In spite of the U.S. intention to maintain a separate presence, Pershing did allow some of his troops to fight alongside the British and French forces as the Germans began a major offensive in March 1918. Eventually, in August 1918, Pershing unleashed his forces, the First American Army, on the Germans, rooting them out of Saint-Mihiel in September and launching a major U.S. offensive later that month that drew German divisions away from other parts of the front where beleaguered Allied forces were faltering. In spite of American firepower, the U.S. force experienced a large number of casualties, but after an unsuccessful start, they finally began pressing down the German army as November began. Ten days after the tide turned in favor of the United States, on November 11, 1918, the Germans conceded and signed the armistice.
Pershing did not want the peace of the armistice; he wanted war, and hoped to continue the fighting and to force the Germans into unconditional surrender. His reason for wanting to avoid concessions to Germany was not a thirst for blood. With considerable farsightedness, Pershing worried that the Germans would rise again to threaten the world. In 1944, during World War II, the general commented, “If we had gone to Berlin then, we would not be going there now.”
With his European aspirations thwarted, Pershing turned to politics. He did not, however, make a great politician and did not make it past the primaries in his two efforts to run for president. Eventually, he became the first possessor of a rank revived from the time of General Washington, General of the Armies, and became the Army’s chief of staff, which he remained until 1924. Pershing published his memoirs in 1931, which although lacking in verbal flair, won the Pulitzer Prize in history. Ailing during his final years, he lived from 1941 until his death on July 15, 1948, at Walter Reed Hospital. General Pershing was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929) was a French journalist and statesman. He was twice premier of France, in 1906–1909 and 1917–1919, leading his country through the critical days of World War I and heading the French delegation to the Paris Peace Conference.
A Study in Contrasts
Clemenceau (1841–1929) was was born on September 28, 1841, in Mouilleron-en-Pareds, a village on the French coast. Clemenceau was a man of contrasts and overwhelming energy who became the most famous political figure of his time in France. He was known for being strong-willed, tough, hard, and even cruel, and his rapier wit spared no one. As an able and wily politician, Clemenceau was renowned and feared as one of the greatest public speakers of his time, and as a newspaper columnist through much of his career, his wit gained him a wide audience.
On the outside, his roughness and cruelty earned him the nickname “The Tiger,” but inside, as one friend once said, he had the “soul of an artist.” A contradiction of a man, he was extremely well educated and highly cultured, a man who appreciated the liquid delicacy of the Impressionist artists, and exhibited enormous generosity, easily making and keeping friendships. But he also had a facility with making enemies, and he made many. In spite of his power and position, he never indulged in pretentiousness of person or lifestyle, living in a modest Parisian apartment even when he was France’s premier.
Education and Early Career
Gifted with a brilliant mind, Clemenceau was educated at home, the oldest son and second of six children. His father Benjamin ceased his medical practice and retired to the family land. Clemenceau followed in his father’s footsteps, earning a medical degree by studying at the school of medicine in Nantes, near the family home. He completed his studies at the University of Paris in 1865, a bright student but difficult to keep focused. Among his distractions were political activities, which at one point landed him in jail for two months for organizing a Republican demonstration.
Ultimately rejected by the leader of the Republican rebellion, however, and also by the lady of his heart, Hortense Kestner, Clemenceau made for the United States. He intended to settle there but remained only from 1865 until 1869, working as both a physician and as a political writer for French-language newspapers. Supplementing his income by teaching French at a girls’ school, Clemenceau met the orphaned daughter of a dentist, Mary Elizabeth Plummer, who was one of his students. After overcoming reluctance on the part of her wealthy guardian, Mary finally married Clemenceau in 1869. The couple returned to France, where Clemenceau eventually found himself in Paris, participating in the overthrow of Napoleon III.
After establishment of the Third Republic in 1870, Clemenceau was elected to the National Assembly. He almost died at the hands of a lynch mob during a rebellion that broke out in his home district of Montmartre, in which radicals hanged two generals on behalf of the Paris Commune, which briefly governed Paris in 1871. According to Clemenceau, as he attempted to rescue the generals, he almost fell into the hands of the murderous crowd. He ended up resigning his office and failed to win reelection the following July.
Clemenceau then served on the Paris City Council after Paris returned to French governmental jurisdiction, where he became council president in 1875. In addition, he continued practicing medicine and fought a duel with a man who had insulted him over the revolt in Montmartre. It was not his first duel. His fame grew as a result of his tending to the poor and his more dramatic exploits, and he returned to national politics as a representative in the Chamber of Deputies for Montmartre in Paris. After a few more reelections, he established a newspaper, La Justice, and became a leader of the Radical Republicans, a party with a distinct socialist bent.
In keeping with his socialist nature, Clemenceau became politically quite like his future British counterpart, David Lloyd George. Like Lloyd George, Clemenceau argued for old age and unemployment insurance, nationalization of railroads, religious reform, and separation of church and state. His debating skills could reduce an opponent to his rhetorical knees, and he used his verbal fencing to knock out several successive moderate ministries. Yet he was consistently considered too radical to take the lead himself.
In the Private Sector
Clemenceau had a bad few years as he weathered unsubstantiated charges of bribery over the failure of the Panama Canal Company, and he suffered an electoral defeat in 1893. A year earlier he had divorced his wife for adultery, although he was not faithful himself. To take refuge from his problems, he turned to writing for his and other papers, writing enough to combine his several thousand columns into sixteen books. Most of his writing was political, but some of it addressed art and literature. He also indulged in his love of the arts by writing a novel and a play.
He used his writing as a way to advocate for Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer accused on forged evidence of spying for Germany. Dreyfus was convicted but retried, due to Clemenceau’s efforts. He was then reconvicted, and then finally declared innocent in 1906.
A Return to the Political Stage
Clemenceau returned to politics in 1902 as a senator, and by 1906, he was a leading power in the Senate. At age sixty-five, he finally had begun to advance in politics, becoming a minister of the interior and then premier. In office from 1906 to 1909, he instituted a number of reforms and strengthened ties with Great Britain and Russia, a mark of foresight given future events. He suddenly lost a vote of confidence in 1909 and turned again to his writing, also doing a lecture tour.
War broke out in 1914, and Clemenceau hoped to be recalled to lead his country, but not being offered the top post, he declined any other appointment. He began politicking for a better conduct of the war through a new paper, L’Homme Enchaine, “The Chained Man,” and as chairman of the Senate committees on foreign affairs and the army. Then came the darkest days of World War I in 1917, with the Allies failing on all fronts, and Clemenceau stepped to the forefront again. The French president, Raymond Poincaré (1860–1934), turned to him, and Clemenceau worked for his country with inspiring zeal. He toured the front dozens of times, negotiated improved cooperation among the Allies, named Ferdinand Foch commander of the allied forces, and generally proved himself, although a dictator of sorts, an effective wartime leader.
Forced to Compromise
After the armistice, Clemenceau presided at the Paris Peace Conference that began in January 1919 and survived an assassination attempt the next month. In spite of his efforts with Great Britain and the United States at the conference, the legislative bodies of these two nations refused to ratify the treaty the Allies had hammered out. Some accused Clemenceau of being too easy on the Germans. In answer, he pointed out that regardless of personal feelings, Germany had sixty million men with whom the other European powers must try to get along.
His past and perceived compromising with the Germans caught up with him in his run for the presidency in 1920. He was defeated, and soon after, he retired from the premiership and the Senate. In his final years, he traveled and lectured, arguing powerfully against the increasing isolationism of the United States. As an octogenarian, he authored several more books, one of which he completed four days before he died, on November 24, 1929, of complications of diabetes. At his own request, he lies buried next to his father in a nameless grave in his home province of Vendée.
Battle of the Marne
The Battle of the Marne was one of the first major confrontations in World War I on the Western Front. This horrific encounter between the allies of France and Britain against Germany took place in early September 1914 in France on the Marne River, east of Paris and west of the German border. The French Army and the British Expeditionary Forces proved strong enough to drive the Germans back, which signaled that the war would last longer than the German aggressors had planned.
The battle resulted from a long-standing German contingency plan for war known as the Schlieffen Plan. General Alfred von Schlieffen (1833–1913) had served as chief of staff to the German Army until 1906. Long before World War I began in August 1914, as alliances were developing between Britain, Russia, and France—Germany’s adversaries at the turn of the century—the Germans saw a need for a war plan, and they began creating it. The Schlieffen Plan simply dictated that Germany would fiercely attack France, encircling Paris and the entire region with seven of the eight German armies. Then, once Paris was defeated, the German Army would quickly head across Germany on the country’s advanced rails and roads to stop the Russian Army before it could get to Germany.
Soon after war was declared, Germany began to carry out this scheme with the Battle of the Marne near Paris. German General Helmuth von Moltke (1848–1916) succeeded Schlieffen and modified his plan somewhat. Moltke strengthened the left flank and sent thirty-two out of the seventy-eight German infantry divisions through Belgium. The French met the advancing Germans. From August 20 to 24, bloody battles between the two sides occurred along the border between Belgium and France. By August 25, French commander Joseph Jacques Cesaire Joffre ordered a retreat, and the Germans followed closely behind.
The French and their British allies soon regrouped. Within days, the British Expeditionary Force, under Field Marshall John French (1852–1925), landed in mainland Europe and began to assist the French forces. Also, a new French Army was organized under Paris Military Governor General Joseph Simon Gallieni (1849–1916). Meanwhile, the Germans advanced toward Paris. General Alexander von Kluck (1846–1934) and General Karl von Bulow (1846–1921) were now both to the east of Paris but miles away from each other. When General Joffre got word of this separation, he ordered a counterattack and sought more support from the British. On the afternoon of September 5, the beginnings of this great battle began when the advancing French collided with Kluck’s left flank north of the town of Meaux. By the next day, the Allies were waging an all-out assault. Kluck shifted his army to the west to begin a stern counterattack, which slowed the French advance for two days. But when Gallieni arrived with the newly formed Sixth Army, some of whom were in commandeered taxi cabs from Paris, the German advance was halted.
The gap between the two German forces had been enlarged, and it was now some thirty miles. The British forces and another French division marched right into this opening. General Molkte, disappointed and bewildered, had reached a point of mental collapse. By the afternoon of September 9, the Battle of the Marne was over and the Germans were headed back toward the Aisne River.
The battle resulted in heavy casualties on both sides. The German death toll is unknown, but fifteen thousand men were taken prisoner. The French losses over several days of fighting around this battle reached eighty thousand. It was also a reality check for the Germans. The Schlieffen Plan essentially failed for several reasons. Poor communication among the different German army divisions confused the attack. The French, with Paris close to their backs, were able to supply themselves during the onslaught. Moltke, who had become frantic during the conflict, was relieved of his command. Kaiser Wilhelm II fired him on September 14.
Though the Allies had successfully driven the Germans back, the impact of their victory is questionable. None of the generals on either side proved to be great leaders. The German army reorganized, and a stalemate of trench warfare followed on the Western Front.
Sinking of the Lusitania
On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat sank the Lusitania, a British passenger liner traveling from New York to Great Britain. Attacked off the coast of Ireland without warning, the ship sank in eighteen minutes, and 1,198 people were lost, including 124 Americans. Such tactics, essential to German submarine warfare, outraged the American public. While the incident did not cause the United States to declare war, it strained American-German relations and set the stage for America’s eventual entry into the conflict.
President Woodrow Wilson firmly believed that the United States should remain neutral in the European conflict. His attitude on this question perfectly reflected the prevailing mood of his country in 1915. It is true that a great many Americans, particularly on the East Coast, felt sympathy for the English. However, most Americans were disinclined to embroil their sons and brothers in a distant war.
Wilson also shared the average American’s distaste for the rapidly developing field of underwater warfare. On the whole, Americans found ambush on the high seas (the submarine’s entire raison-d’être) particularly dishonorable. On February 10, 1915, the American government declared unannounced U-boat attacks to be inhumane and illegal and vowed that the German government would face “a strict accountability” should it impede America’s freedom on the water.
America’s attitude left the Germans in a predicament. England’s naval blockade had a stranglehold on their country. Germany had retaliated with a U-boat cordon around Great Britain. However, Germany’s strategy was frustrated by neutral American merchant ships (and British passenger liners carrying American citizens), which brought foodstuffs and military supplies into Great Britain. The Germans dared not come down too hard on these leaks, for fear of bringing the United States into the war.
Nevertheless, on May 1, 1915, a German submarine attacked an American tanker, the Gulflight, on its way to the French coast. Three Americans were killed. The same day, New York newspapers ran an advertisement from the German Embassy in Washington that said: “Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and Great Britain and its allies.” Americans were warned that any ships flying Allied colors were “liable to destruction in those waters and that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships to Great Britain or its allies do so at their own risk.”
The commander of the Lusitania, Captain William Turner (1856–1933), was more than aware of the risks he ran. The British would later deny it, but the Lusitania was carrying small arms ammunition into England. The British Admiralty had issued strict guidelines for all their national ships—they were to avoid headlands, around which submarines found their best hunting, they were to steam at full speed, and they were to follow a zig-zag course in the middle of the channel. For some unknown reason, Turner ignored all of these recommendations as he cruised past Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, on May 7, 1915.
As it happened, the German U-boat U-20 had been hunting in those very waters. Commanded by Captain Walther Schwieger (1885–1917), the U-20 had sunk the British Candidate and the Centurion just the day before.
Around noon on May 7, Schwieger unsuccessfully chased the cruiser Juno. An hour and a half later, the Lusitania (traveling in a straight line at reduced speed) bore directly down on the submarine. The U-20 fired a single torpedo into the hull of the Lusitania. The ship sank rapidly, and nearly twelve hundred passengers—including more than one hundred Americans—drowned.
The British and the American public reacted with predictable fury. Even if the Lusitania had been smuggling ammunition, they argued, that did not justify such wholesale slaughter of civilians. At the very least, tradition demanded that civilians should be given time to board the lifeboats.
Six days later, Wilson reprimanded the Germany embassy for their newspaper “warning” of May 1. He vigorously denied that the advertisement in any way absolved them of responsibility. Despite British hopes, however, Wilson declined to be pushed into a declaration of war. In a May 10 address to newly naturalized Americans at Convention Hall in Philadelphia, he reaffirmed American neutrality: “There is such a thing as being too proud to fight.”
Nevertheless, Wilson continued to hound the Germans on the issue. The Reich reluctantly agreed to pay compensation for the lives lost on the Lusitania, and the kaiser ordered that passenger ships no longer be targeted.
Germany refused, however, to apologize for the sinking itself, pointing out that the Lusitania had been illegally carrying weapons into England. Schwieger’s U-20 was welcomed back into port with cheers, and the government even struck a celebratory medal to commemorate his attack. The Kölnische Volkszeitung newspaper proclaimed that “the sinking of the giant English steamship is a success of moral significance which is still greater than material success. With joyful pride we contemplate this latest deed of our Navy.”
In the meantime, the Allies were disgusted by Wilson’s reserve, as were some Americans. Former president Theodore Roosevelt launched his own propaganda campaign, calling stridently for immediate entry into the war.
On July 21, Wilson again condemned unannounced attacks, saying that they “must be regarded by the Government of the United States, when they affect American citizens, as deliberately unfriendly.” Considering this last statement to be too strongly worded, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) resigned his post.
On August 19, the unarmed British Arabic sank with forty-four passengers, three of them American. In revenge, that same day the British Baralong approached the German U-27, flying American colors. When she came close enough, the Baralong lowered the Stars and Stripes, raised the Union Jack, and fired on the U-27 and sank it.
While deploring this use of the American flag, Wilson pressured Germany into promising that “liners would not be sunk without warning and without safety of the lives of non-combatants, provided the liners do not try to escape or offer resistance.”
Nevertheless, the issue continued to dog U.S.-German relations for the next two years. In 1917, Germany declared that its navy would resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Shortly afterwards, the United States officially entered World War I.
The Battle of Gallipoli in 1915 resulted from a British plan to attack Turkey, an ally of Germany and the Central Powers. This strategic plan was developed and promoted largely by Winston Churchill, Britain’s first lord of the admiralty at the time and prime minister during World War II. The Western Front had proven to be a stalemate, so Churchill and the British War Council decided to make use of Britain’s strong navy to take the Dardanelles, the strategic straits connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The straits are also where Europe and Asia meet within Turkey. If successful, this strategy would have given the Allies a valuable link to Russian ports on the Black Sea. It was also planned to drive Turkey into submission and encourage the neighboring neutral nations of Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece to enter the war against the Central Powers.
The Allies began with a combined British and French naval attack on Turkey on February 19, 1915. The goal was to sail their fleets up the narrow straits, shelling Turkish forces and landing at the city of Gallipoli. The Allies, however, ran into some unexpected problems. Bad weather and a delay of the support from Australian and New Zealand forces arriving from Egypt postponed or canceled some of the plans. By March 18, another attack was planned. The Turks in many ways were ready for such attack. A series of underwater Turkish mines had been planted in the straits and were successful in damaging the Allied warships. One French ship, the Bouvet, was sunk, killing seven hundred men. Three others were partially destroyed and rendered useless.
Eventually, the combined forces decided to land on unoccupied beaches on Turkey’s shore and then head uphill to take Turkish strongholds inland. The Allies never expected the fierce resistance they got from the Turks. Commander Mustafa Kemal (1881–1938), who would become Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, led the defense of his nation. Under his direction, the Turks dug machine-gun nests and bunkers atop the mountains and awaited the advancing British and French ground forces. The attackers landed on April 25, some on the open and unfortified beaches. But as many of these Allied soldiers charged uphill, carnage followed. Some waited quietly until their attackers charged the hill. At other beachheads, Turkish machine guns and artillery fired into British boats as they hit land but before the soldiers ever departed. Soon these barges were filled with the dead and the water around the boats turned red from the spilled blood.
The British plan to take Turkey was far more difficult than they expected. They found themselves digging trenches not far inland and holding only what was open when they arrived. The stalemate near Gallipoli paralleled the one on the Western Front. Throughout May and June, the Allies tried to advance several times but were continually repulsed by the Turks. A war of attrition had developed. The final Allied assault on Gallipoli started on August 6, which resulted in small gains. Within three days, this attempt also failed. With no sign of change in sight, the allies withdrew from Gallipoli Peninsula in late 1915, and by January 9, 1916, the last Allied troops departed the area. The plan to divide and conquer had failed.
The Battle of the Somme, fought from July 1 to November 18, 1916, was one of the costliest battles of the First World War. Long held up as a prime example of the futility of attritional warfare and the inability of the Allied leadership to capitalize on the rapidly shifting fortunes of battle, the battle did achieve some positive ends, but at an outrageous price in human life and misery.
1916 Battle Plans
In December 1915, the Allies met in Chantilly, France, to decide on the general strategy for the coming year. They decided that simultaneous attacks would be launched on every front in order to overwhelm the German defenses—the British and French would attack in the west, the Italians in the south, and the Russians in the east.
For the British contribution to this plan, Douglas Haig, the newly appointed commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), favored an attack in northern Flanders along the Channel Coast, due to its proximity to British supply points and the chance it offered of driving the Germans from the Belgian ports from which they waged their devastating U-boat campaign.
At that time, however, the British were still unofficially considered the junior members of the Anglo-French alliance, and when General Joseph Joffre decided to shift the planned British offensive south to the point where the BEF joined up with the French army, there was little Haig could do about it.
On February 21, as preparations were being made for three large Anglo-French offensives, the Germans launched their Verdun offensive. The French were suddenly committed to a major battle, one that would last the remainder of the year. They were in no position to participate in the planned Allied attack in any major capacity.
The promised French contribution to the British offensive (thirty-nine divisions attacking along a twenty-five-mile front) was reduced in April to thirty divisions along a fifteen-mile front. In the end, the actual French contribution at the opening of the battle was a mere twelve divisions attacking along ten miles of front. On the positive side, however, this reduced front allowed the French to more effectively concentrate their artillery.
Such small contributions were of little comfort to the British, who, after centuries of relying on their navy and an elite army to win wars, found themselves for the first time in history committing a huge army to war on the Continent.
The Battle of the Somme would mark the debut of what was called the New Army, or Kitchener’s Army, after Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the secretary of state for war who pushed through the policy to build the New Army. Thought laughable at the outset of the war, that policy was based on the idea that the Allies could only win by bringing overwhelming force to bear on the Germans. Thus, starting in August 1914, a massive army had been recruited and trained in England.
As more and more French units were pulled into the “meat-grinder” at Verdun, General Joffre began insisting that the British launch their planned offensive. The goal was no longer to put pressure on Germany and force a breakthrough but rather to pin down German reserves, preventing reinforcement elsewhere. Haig, however, was optimistic that a breakthrough could be achieved, especially in light of the German commitments at Verdun, and so he ordered the offensive planned accordingly.
The BEF committed 400,000 troops to the Somme sector, along with 1,400 guns, more than the Germans had deployed for their Verdun offensive. The attack, however, was to be carried out over a wider front, reducing the overall effectiveness of such a concentration.
Worse still, the terrain chosen for the offensive was not supportive of a major offensive. It was a quiet, rural sector that had seen little action so far and did not have the infrastructure that modern armies required. New railways, seventeen miles in all, had to be laid; unpaved gravel roads had to be shored up for the massive amounts of traffic they would soon be forced to bear; and British engineers even had to sink several dozen wells because the area was lacking in readily available sources of water. These preparations occupied the army’s time and attention for three months, taking away from time that might have been spent in training and operational planning.
The First Day
On June 24, the preliminary bombardment of the Battle of the Somme began. It lasted a week and lobbed 1.5 million shells at the German lines. Simultaneously, four mines packed with TNT at the terminal points were dug from the British lines to positions directly under the German front line trenches.
The mines were detonated at 7:30 a.m. on July 1 as the artillery barrage lifted off the front lines and bombarded positions in the German rear. With those tremendous blasts, the signal was given to go “over the top.” Thirteen British and eleven French divisions left their trenches and moved forward.
Some British units actually had already done so. Tactics had been left up to individual regimental commanders, and some had ordered their troops to infiltrate “No Man’s Land”—the area between the two forces’s front lines—under the cover of darkness. Other commanders had their troops march forward from the trenches in waves, moving across hundreds of yards of shell-pocked earth at a walking pace.
The Germans, who had largely weathered the barrage in concrete-reinforced underground bunkers, quickly returned to their posts. At some points, where the British had been able to sneak up close enough during the night, the Germans were quickly overwhelmed. Elsewhere along the line, however, the advancing waves were mowed down by machine-gun fire. Those units that made it to the German positions were decimated and alone, and were quickly overwhelmed.
Communication with the rear areas was ineffective and confusing. German artillery, ignored by the preliminary bombardment, quickly sealed off No Man’s Land with a curtain of fire, preventing reinforcements from moving up. Units were dispatched to reinforce nonexistent breakthroughs, and there were cases of some of these units, such as the First Newfoundland Regiment, being mowed down by German machine-gun fire before they even crossed their own front line.
The French, meanwhile, were meeting with considerably more success. Their concentrated artillery had battle-hardened crews and were much more effective. By the end of the day, they had met or even surpassed their objectives. But because they had outpaced their allies, they were forced to stop.
The setting sun marked the end of the bloodiest single day in British military history. Total BEF casualties were 57,740. Of that number, 19,240 were dead.
Haig ordered continued attacks over the next ten days. With many units still in disarray after the massive casualties of July 1, these attacks were launched sporadically and with little planning. A total of forty-six of these localized attacks took place over a ten-day period at a cost of 25,000 casualties and no gain.
Battle of Attrition
As the hoped-for breakthrough failed to materialize, the Allied commanders began to waffle, unsure of what their objectives were, moving between the extremes of seeking a breakthrough and waging a battle of attrition. Their tendency in one direction or the other would often be based upon the day-to-day events of the battle. A small success somewhere along the front would prompt hopes of a breakthrough, and reinforcements would be ordered in. But these uncoordinated, unsupported attacks were doomed to fail, and Haig and his generals then settled again on the strategy of pinning the Germans in a bloody attritional battle.
From mid-July to mid-September, the British and the French, in exchange for an advance of three square miles, sustained a total of 82,000 casualties. Haig, finally resigned to a battle of attrition, began planning for another push, at Flers.
The offensive at Flers stalled in the mud, but Haig was still convinced he had the Germans on the brink of defeat. He would launch two more offensives along the Ancre River through October and into November, but with the failure of the second Ancre attack on November 18, the Battle of the Somme finally came to an end.
Casualties and Aftermath
In all, fifty-one British and forty-eight French divisions participated in the battle’s bloodbath. The BEF lost 420,000 men, and total Allied casualties were 614,000. German casualties are not known for certain, but estimates range between 465,000 and 650,000. Even at its most conservative estimates, total casualties in the Battle of the Somme were over one million men killed, wounded, missing, or captured, one of the gravest tallies of the war.
As the Battle of the Somme was winding down, the Germans were adopting a new strategy, constructing an elaborate trench system behind their current lines. In February 1917, the Germans withdrew to these new positions—the Hindenburg Line, as the British called it—abandoning the Somme battlefield, razing villages, and poisoning wells as they went.
Although some claimed that this retreat showed the Battle of the Somme’s effectiveness, the Germans were simply shortening their lines, which had followed the irregular boundary of the 1914 advance, to free up units and resources. Nevertheless, the Germans had indeed suffered grave losses in the battle, losing more of its irreplaceable trained soldiers.
The Somme offensive also taught the British many important lessons that would bear upon the 1918 offensives, but the price in blood these lessons demanded was almost more than the BEF could endure.
The spring of 1918 saw the Germans mount what in some ways was one of their most successful offensives. By April, the Germans had moved to within five miles of Amiens. Their front extended over twenty miles, but it was in danger of bogging down again. The original plan was a single, massive thrust north by northwest along the sea. But the German commanders changed this strategy and decided to divide the attacking forces into three prongs. They had hoped to take advantage of a break in the British lines near the old Somme battlefield.
Dividing the German troops in this way reduced the impact of the main attack. The three groups were not strong enough to create their own breakthrough in the Allied lines. To make matters worse, the Germans encountered obstacles from the Old Somme battlefield—craters, barbed wire, and unexploded ordnance. Some of the German units actually stopped to plunder Allied supplies of food and alcohol instead of resuming their attack. Others got lost and attacked the wrong sector.
The British and Australian troops seized upon the German disorganization and launched a counterattack on April 4. The Germans lost some of their most elite troops, and the pressure was on for German General Erich Ludendorff to act quickly. He proposed a new attack that was one of the contingency plans for the current operation. ‘Operation George’ would probe the British at the old Ypres battlefield. The British had improved their defenses at this location. They had worked on these positions since 1914, and it was probably their strongest defense on the whole western front. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was concerned that this was the decisive point of the war. He sent a message to the troops in this sector known as the “Backs to the Wall” order, to fight to the end.
Luckily for the British, they had air support, and the Germans used unimaginative tactics with full frontal assaults. There were plenty of enemy targets for the British artillery and machine guns. There was even one of the first tank battles in history between the Germans and the British. The British tanks were superior in number and quality, and they were able to beat back the German attack. Ludendorff then decided to gamble, and he set his sights on Paris. He planned a hasty attack down the Oise Valley, because Paris was only seventy miles away. The German artillery now had six thousand guns with two million shells trained on the Allies. Fifteen divisions of the German Sixth Army began the attack. They were followed by twenty-five more divisions. The Germans had mass, speed, and momentum as they attacked from the heights of a ridgeline down to the reverse slope and the flatlands below.
Ludendorff’s force got as far as Soissons and Château-Thierry; they were only fifty-six miles from Paris. The Allies began calling in their reserves, and this is how the Americans finally got in the fight. The U.S. Marine Corps had a brigade at Belleau Wood, along with the U.S. Army Second and Third divisions. The mission was to block the German advance at the road near Reims. The marines fought bravely and the German offensive ground to a halt. The U.S. Second Division counterattacked with the French at Belleau Wood. They stopped the Germans cold by June 6. However, the Germans were too close to Paris for comfort. Plans were made to evacuate the government and the people.
French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau tried to rally his country with a rousing speech similar to Haig’s ‘Back to the Wall’ talk. One mass attack might have been too much for the Allies, because the Americans were not initially deployed correctly and were also inexperienced. But Ludendorff had decided to break his attacking force into three prongs and have one rush to Paris. Paris had looked like the lower-hanging fruit, but he was not able to grasp it. Now the Germans were again defending a narrow salient; they were overextended, and they invited more counterattacks. Unfortunately, they had broadcast what they thought was a successful attack to the citizens of Germany. Withdrawing now would look like defeat and hurt morale. Ludendorff felt he had no choice and decided on yet again another offensive.
During the preceding spring offensive, the Germans had lost another 100,000 troops. It seemed like the Allies could go on forever because reinforcements kept pouring in. The Americans now had twenty-five divisions in or near the area of operations. Fifty-five more were on their way. Despite a rocky start, General John J. Pershing had found a way to get along with Allied generals Foch and Haig. The American soldiers, known as ‘doughboys,’ were proving their mettle in combat. It finally appeared that the Allies were gaining momentum in the war. Belleau Wood appeared to be one of the decisive contests of the war. The American Expeditionary Force came to the aid of the French at the right time, and they were able to build momentum with further counterattacks against the Germans in their sector on the way.
Key Elements of Warcraft
The First World War, perhaps more so than any other conflict before or since, saw an extraordinary level of development of new military technology. Spurred by the seemingly ceaseless attrition of trench warfare on the Western Front, both sides developed ever more fiendish and ingenious systems in an attempt to create the next “wonder weapon” that would break the deadlock.
Perhaps the most well known of the new weapons developed during WWI, the tank, a steel-clad monstrosity that was initially nearly as lethal for its crew as it was for the enemy, reflected the desperate measures war strategists were willing to undertake in the face of a bloody stalemate.
Developed under the auspices of the British Admirality Office and its First Lord, Winston Churchill, the tank went from concept to execution in a little over a year. Although its initial debut in battle left something to be desired, by the final year of the war the tank had found a place in the tactical doctrines of the Western Allies, where its contributions to finally winning the war would foreshadow a return to mobile warfare in future conflicts.
The development of the tank was driven by the desire to neutralize three of the conditions that had led to the trench deadlock in the first place: machine guns, barbed wire, and the trenches themselves.
The rapid-fire machine gun, which came into its own during World War I, could mow down waves of enemy infantry as they crossed the cratered “no man’s land.” The tank’s armor was made thick enough to stop machine gun bullets, protecting the crew within.
Barbed wire—which could reach heights of ten feet and whose fields could extend for hundreds of feet—was also a major obstacle for advancing troops. The conventional means of destroying wire (via long and intense artillery bombardments) required a huge commitment of resources while also preventing the artillery from focusing on more important targets. What’s more, these anti-wire bombardments often left much to be desired, as they rarely cleared the barbed wire completely. In contrast, the tank’s caterpillar treads, based on civilian tractors, could roll right through and over barbed wire emplacements and create a pathway through the wire zone safe for allied forces to follow.
In order to facilitate the long-desired breakthrough, tanks were built in such a way as to enable easy trench crossing. The distinctive rhomboid shape of the first British tanks, as well as their extreme length, were design elements based directly on the need to span trenches quickly.
The first British tanks—a name derived from the dummy code “water tanks” under which the vehicles were developed and manufactured—made their debut in September 1916, during the closing phases of the Battle of the Somme. They came in two varieties: “male” tanks featured two six-pound naval guns and four machine guns, while the “female” tanks—intended to sweep the immediate combat zone of enemy infantry, thus protecting the male tanks—mounted six machine guns. This gendered concept would prove short lived, and most subsequent tank designs would feature either one weapons system or the other.
The conditions inside the first tanks were horrific by later standards. The interior was unsegmented, which meant that the engine compartment and crew compartment were effectively one and the same. Breathing the engine’s toxic fumes, sweltering in temperatures that could easily top 120 degrees, the tank crews—which included two drivers and two “gearsmen,” who had to manually shift the tank’s gears inside the gearbox—wore full gas masks and chainmail veils, intended to protect them from bits of flying metal and dislodged rivets in the event of a direct hit from a large shell.
In addition to the risk of flying metal, the first tanks were also vulnerable to hits on their fuel tanks, which would flood the interior with flaming gasoline if struck. Special squads were assigned to “clean up” such knocked out specimens and were forbidden from discussing their work with the crews of other tanks.
Communication inside the noisy tank was difficult at best; communication with other tanks and supporting infantry even worse, and with rear echelon commanders, nearly impossible. For one thing, there were no radios inside the tanks. Early models instead relied on carrier pigeons which were released out of hatches in the back of the vehicle. To communicate with nearby compatriots via signals or shouting required the tank commander to stick his head out of the tank—called “unbuttoning”—thus exposing himself to enemy fire.
To make matters worse, tanks throughout the war were notoriously unreliable. Although the first tanks to roll into combat sent their German opponents fleeing in terror, any chance of exploiting this success was lost by a near total loss-rate due to mechanical malfunction. It was not uncommon for half or more of a tank unit to find itself out of action before even reaching the jumping-off point for a planned attack.
All these considerations aside, commanders quickly recognized the tank’s enormous potential as a new weapon. The French soon followed the British with their own designs: the cumbersome St. Chamond and Schneider tanks and the revolutionary FT-17, from which most subsequent tank designs would derive. The Germans, who would revolutionize tank warfare in the Second World War, contributed but a single tank design in World War I, the A7V, an ungainly beast with an eighteen man crew, of which only twenty models were built.
The tank was soon to prove its worth at such battles as Cambrai—the first mass tank attack in history—and Amiens—Germany’s “Black Day,” which saw the use of hundreds of tanks in a massive combined arms effort that spelled the end of trench warfare on the Western Front. The first tank versus tank battle would take place at Villers-Bretonneaux in April 1918.
The war ended before the full potential of the tank could be realized; the first “fast” tanks, running at speeds upwards of eight miles per hour, prefigured the “lightning war” of 1939–1940. Other tank variations saw the development of the first armored personnel carriers—the Mark V British tank had room for a squad of infantry inside—and armored support vehicles.
By the end of the war, over 6,500 tanks had been built and sent into combat. Despite the role tanks played in Allied victory, it was the defeated Germans who were most impressed with the new technology. British and French doctrine after the First World War continued to focus on massed artillery and marginalized the tank into an infantry support vehicle. It wouldn’t be until the Blitzkrieg of World War II that the tank’s full power would finally be unleashed, ironically against the very countries that had championed its development.
One of the iconic images of the First World War soldier is that of a faceless combatant concealed behind a rubber gas mask, his eyes turned into two unreadable glass discs. In addition to providing an apt visual metaphor for the inhuman nature of the world’s first industrialized war, the gas mask also provides a chilling icon of World War I’s most notorious new weapon, poison gas.
The concept of using poison in war has long been frowned upon. Military tradition stretching back to Ancient Rome banned poisoned weapons. During the closing years of the nineteenth century, various resolutions, most notably the Hague Conventions, outlawed the use of poison gas in projectiles. These laws were not enough, however, to prevent its use once the stalemate of trench warfare set in.
The use of poison gas is most widely associated with the Germans, but it was actually the French who first experimented with it in the form of tear-gas grenades. However, it is not surprising that the German Army quickly became the leader of developing new gas technology, as Germany possessed a massive chemical industry at the start of the war.
The first German gas attacks occurred in January 1915 on the Eastern Front in the form of artillery shells filled with tear gas. However, as it was winter, the tear-gas crystals froze, and the gas failed to materialize. Three months later, in April 1915, the first mass gas attack in history took place on the Western Front at Ypres.
The gas used that day was chlorine, a toxic vapor that was readily available thanks to Germany’s status as a leader in the manufacture of chemical dyes, a process that produced chlorine as a byproduct. Perhaps in order to dodge accusations of breaching the Hague protocols, the gas was not fired but rather, once a favorable wind had picked up, released from giant cylinders along the German front line. The wind blew great greenish-yellow clouds across no man’s land and into the French lines, where a four-mile gap soon appeared thanks to the several thousand deaths and widespread panic that the chlorine sowed amongst the stunned and unprepared French and Algerian troops.
Luckily for the Allies, the Germans were equally taken off-guard by the success of their operation. By the time they had mustered enough reserves to make a big push, the gap in the French line had been filled. Nevertheless, the use of gas was deemed a success by both sides. By September 1915, the British employed gas in their attack at Loos—also with mixed results, as a shift in the wind blew the gas back onto the advancing British soldiers at one point. Despite these inauspicious debuts, it wasn’t long before gas became a regular element of Allied and Central offensives and, as all pretense of respecting the Hague Conventions was dropped, often in the form of artillery shells rather than the less precise cannisters.
With the widespread adoption of gas came the inevitable see-sawing of countermeasures and counter-countermeasures. The gas mask rapidly developed from a piece of moistened cotton held over the mouth and nose by a string to a complex apparatus that covered the face and/or head entirely and filtered air through a hose and box. Against the ever more sophisticated gas masks were ranged ever more deadly gases. After chlorine came phosgene and diphosgene, all three of which attacked the respiratory system and caused the lungs to fill with fluid.
As gas mask filters were developed to keep pace with the new chlorine derivatives, Germany turned instead to mustard gas, an insidious vapor that irritated the mucous membranes and burned exposed flesh. Exposing the eyes to mustard gas for even a few minutes could cause blindness, sometimes permanent, and the gas’ skin-irritating property meant that a mere mask no longer guaranteed protection—any bit of exposed flesh would blister at the touch of the gas. The Scottish Highlander units, clad in their kilts, suffered particularly horrific casualties in the wake of mustard gas’ debut.
Even worse, mustard gas had a thick, oily property that caused it to coat everything it came into contact with. It poisoned wells and ponds, and being heavier than air, it tended to lay in low-lying spaces such as trenches and shell craters long after the main cloud had dissipated. For these reasons, mustard gas would often make an area uninhabitable for days after an attack.
Nevertheless, effective countermeasures were developed against mustard gas as well. In the end, the role of gas in World War I was largely reduced to that of a “nuisance weapon.” Overall casualties resulting from chemical warfare were around one million, with the vast majority of those being hospitalizations rather than deaths. This was a small percentage of the total war casualties.
The most effective use of gas in battle came with the German offensive of 1918. As part of their overall combined arms strategy, the German Army utilized the full arsenal of gas available to them by that point. Tear gas was launched first in order to inhibit enemy troops from quickly donning their gas masks. Following quickly on the heels of the tear gas was phosgene, which would attack those who were still struggling into their protective gear. Meanwhile, a screen of mustard gas was laid down along both flanks of the intended German assault in order to stymie the arrival of enemy reinforcements.
As terrifying as a gas attack was, after the initial surprise at Ypres it was rare indeed to suffer massive casualties from gas. Instead, its use forced soldiers to fight in cumbersome masks that restricted breathing and vision while taking a tremendous psychological toll on the men in the trenches, who lived in constant fear of the words, “Gas! Gas!”
Although the technology of flight existed before the advent of the First World War, it was not until that conflict that aviation underwent a rapid and widespread transformation from an embryonic science to a full-fledged branch of the military. Perhaps more than any other weapon in World War I, airplanes were subject to the most rapid development and most dramatic changes.
In 1914, there were only five thousand airplanes in the whole world. A mere four years later that number had increased to 200,000, thanks entirely to the role airplanes came to play in the Great War. Perhaps even more significantly, the planes of 1914 bore little resemblance to their 1918 descendants. This was thanks to a constantly escalating “arms race” that saw an endlessly repeating cycle of the latest design dominating the skies for perhaps a few months before being rendered obsolete by the next generation of designs.
This arms race took a little while to begin in earnest, but the role of the airplane in revolutionizing warfare was evident from the start of the war. In 1914, the “Miracle of the Marne,” in which the German Army was stopped as it advanced towards Paris, was owed in part to a French observer plane that spotted just how overextended the German lines had become and where their weakness lay.
The first observer planes were unarmed, thanks to the limitations of technology. The rickety frames and underpowered engines of those early planes couldn’t take the added weight of a machine gun, let alone the stress from the gun’s recoil. Furthermore, there was a significant problem owing to the fact that firing a gun straight ahead from the cockpit—the natural configuration—would send the bullets streaming through the propeller, destroying it in the process.
However, the need to arm planes quickly became apparent, as opposing observer aircraft contested airspace over the rapidly developing line of trenches that stretched along the Western Front. In static warfare, the role of observer craft became even more important.
The first air-to-air conflict occurred with opposing pilots firing pistols at each other. It wasn’t long, however, before machine guns were mounted on upgraded airframes in a variety of configurations aimed at getting around the “propeller problem.” Some planes had their propellers mounted at the rear; some biplanes mounted their guns on the top wing, requiring the pilot to half-stand in order to fire his gun. Neither of these methods proved wholly satisfactory. It would take the German development of the interrupter gear to truly revolutionize the role of airplanes in combat.
The interrupter gear was a simple device that ensured a machine gun mounted behind a propeller would not fire if the propeller blade was in front of the barrel. First deployed on the Fokker “Eindecker” monoplane, the interrupter gear gave the Germans such an advantage in the skies that the spring of 1916 was referred to as the “Fokker Scourge.” The airplane arms race had begun in earnest.
By April, the Eindecker, a primitive and flimsy craft, was no longer ruler of the skies. Instead, the newest French planes were able to establish air superiority—itself a new and important concept—over the battlefield of Verdun, an instrumental key to the eventual failure of the German offensive there.
Along with the new technologies, new strategies were evolving as well. The Eindecker was the first plane to be deployed in dedicated fighter groups, a tactic quickly replicated by the Allies. Soon both sides were sending large groups of fighters on raids deep behind enemy lines, lending mobility to an otherwise sedentary front. Specialty planes began to appear, most notably the bomber, such as the German Gotha and British Handley Page.
Gotha bombers saw the birth of strategic bombing during what some have called the “First Battle of Britain,” when they flew across the English Channel during the summer of 1917 in a series of raids on British towns and factories. This new type of warfare treated civilians working in war industries as military targets and prefigured the devastating bombing campaigns of World War II.
The newer generations of fighter planes also enabled the development of new tactics, both in the air and on the ground. Ever more powerful engines and stronger airframes pushed speed and altitude limits. Air-to-air combat became increasingly sophisticated as the planes twisted and turned in a variety of aerobatic maneuvers that soon came to be called the “dogfight.”
To support its 1918 Offensive, Germany was the first country to develop a dedicated ground-attack airplane, armored along its underside to protect against ground fire. Specifically designed to strafe and bomb enemy troops in support of an advance, the new planes sowed terror among Allied troops and prefigured the development of such later ground-attack aircraft as the German Ju-87 Stuka and the American A-10 Warthog.
The ever more sophisticated fighter planes and the men who flew them swiftly captured the publics’ imagination. Flying aces such as Rene Fonk of France and Germany’s famous Manfred “Red Baron” von Richthofen and his “Flying Circus” of colorfully decorated planes symbolized to many a return to the pageantry of warfare in days gone by, standing in stark contrast to the mechanized death of the ground war.
The vital role played by airplanes in the First World War, bolstered by widespread public interest, earned the emerging air forces a permanent place in the military. For example, by war’s end, over 165,000 personnel were serving with the British Royal Air Force. The planes they flew were the product of four years of some of the most intense research and development ever applied towards an emerging technology and would serve as the template in both development and doctrine of all military aircraft to follow.
Although it was fairly old technology, the submarine did not come into its own in warfare until the First World War, where its use by Germany would prove instrumental in the eventual outcome of that conflict.
The first submersible watercraft were developed as early as the seventeenth century. Over the next two hundred years, that technology would be slowly refined and improved. The first attempt to use a submersible vehicle in combat came during the American Revolution, when the “Turtle,” a small egg-shaped craft, was piloted into Boston Harbor in an unsuccessful attempt to blow up a British ship moored there.
The American Civil War saw further development of submarine technology, including the first successful sinking of an enemy craft by a submersible—unfortunately, the submarine also sank in the action.
It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that the submarine, thanks to several technological developments, became a weapon worthy of notice. The first German sub, or “U-boat,” was launched in 1906, at a time when the other great powers of Europe already boasted relatively large submarine fleets. However, thanks to the Anglo-German naval arms race, the German submarine fleet began to grow rapidly. At the start of World War I eight years later, Germany had a fleet of twenty submarines.
Although these were the newest generation of vessels, submarine technology at the time was still rather primitive. The U-boat was obliged to spend most of its time above water, as its underwater speed was extremely slow. The U-boat’s sophisticated self-propelled torpedoes were initially limited to a payload of four. These two restrictions made it difficult for Germany’s U-boat fleet to operate safely for extended periods of time. Conventional military wisdom at the outset of the war downplayed the submarine threat significantly.
Conventional wisdom thus received a rude shock in September 1914, when three outdated British warships were sunk by a single U-boat in the span of an hour. The threat of submarine warfare now all too real, the entire British fleet quickly relocated from its base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland until sufficient anti-sub defenses could be installed.
Despite this early victory, the success of U-boats against military vessels was limited. By late 1914, Germany had declared open war on merchant shipping bound for Britain in the hopes of counteracting the swiftly developing deadlock on land with a “knockout blow” delivered at sea and as a countermeasure to the naval blockade laid down by the British. The sinking of merchant shipping, which began to rise exponentially month by month, was meant to starve the British economy and break the public’s will to fight.
The problem with using submarines to raid merchant ships was that, due to the small crew and the vessel’s fragility and vulnerability, following standard naval protocol—sending a boarding crew onto the merchant ship, ordering the ship’s crew into life boats, then sinking the ship after the crew had abandoned it—was not really practical, and it left the U-boat open to attack. Although some sub captains continued to follow this protocol, the majority did not. As a result, a new policy of launching torpedoes (or shelling with the sub’s deck gun) without warning was developed.
The outcome of this new “unrestricted” submarine warfare and the manner in which it was waged was a diplomatic disaster for Germany. The sinking of the hospital ship Asturias in January 1915 and the public outcry it provoked was only a sample of the outrage stirred up by the international incident that resulted from the sinking of the Lusitania.
The Lusitania was a luxury cruise liner that had continued to make the run between England and America despite the increasingly hazardous situation at sea. On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was struck by a single torpedo fired from the submarine U-20. A secondary explosion, perhaps from a store of weapons being clandestinely sent to England, sealed the ship’s fate. The Lusitania sank in less than twenty minutes, taking nearly 1,198 people down with it, including over 100 Americans.
The incident nearly propelled America into the war, and it was only by promising an end to unrestricted submarine warfare that Germany was able to avert such an outcome and assuage international condemnation.
For the next year-and-a-half, German submarines played only a limited role in the war at sea, but by February 1917, in the wake of a near-famine (the so-called “Turnip Winter”) Germany was once again growing desperate. Sensing Britain’s economy was nearly as bad off, it was decided to resume unrestricted warfare in the hopes of taking England out of the conflict—thus effectively ending the war—in six months. Although it was recognized that America might finally enter the war, it was hoped that Britain would capitulate before America could fully mobilize.
It was not to be. Although the new phase of unrestricted warfare caused tremendous losses, it was not enough to break Britain’s economy. When, as feared, America entered the war in April 1917, spurred in large part by U-boat attacks on American shipping, the pressure on England was eased even more. Several U-boats, most notably U-151, operated along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States in 1918, sinking ships and laying mines in Baltimore harbor and Delaware Bay. Despite the public outcry and fear that resulted from these actions, however, they amounted to little more than nuisance attacks.
The effectiveness of submarine warfare was further hampered by the development of effective countermeasures. Perhaps the most distinctive of these was the British “Q-boat,” submarine hunters disguised as tramp steamers that featured naval guns concealed behind drop-away screens and Royal Navy crew who went to elaborate lengths to ensure the authenticity of their disguise.
Although the Q-ships sunk a few subs, the most effective countermeasure was the adoption of the convoy system in the summer of 1917. By sailing with an escort of military vessels, merchant ships found safety in numbers; submarine losses dropped off precipitously. Also helping matters were the first depth charges and early versions of sonar detection.
By war’s end the German U-boat fleet had sunk around five thousand enemy vessels and sent millions of tons of shipping to the ocean floor. In exchange, 178 submarines were lost along with nearly half of the U-boat fleet personnel. The trade-off, particularly America’s entry into the war, casts grave doubts on the effectiveness of Germany’s submarine strategy.
The use of mines in naval warfare came into its own during the First World War as a means to control enemy ship movements and protect vulnerable coastlines. Both sides made extensive use of mines, as did neutral countries worried about naval raids and encroachment.
The mine is perhaps the most cost effective weapon in the naval arsenal. Its potential for destroying a costly vessel compared to its own relatively small cost, combined with the ease with which it can be deployed—dropped from a boat, submarine, or airplane—and the difficulty in detecting it, make it an ideal weapon. Its only disadvantage is, naturally, its sedentary nature, which prevents it from seeking out the enemy and instead requires enemy ships to come to it.
World War I was the first war in which mines were deployed on a massive scale. This deployment generally took three forms: offensive, defensive, and protective. An offensive deployment placed mines in the enemy’s home waters, such as when the German submarine U-151 deployed mines at the entrance to Delaware Bay in 1918. A defensive deployment placed mines in international waters, generally for the purpose of screening the enemy’s naval advance or of protecting the flanks of one’s own naval movement. Finally, protective deployment placed mines in home waters with the objective of keeping enemy ships at bay.
The German Navy made extensive use of offensive deployment, laying 43,000 mines in British territorial waters over the course of the war. This tactic paid off handsomely, sinking 586 ships and over one million tons of shipping. A mine also claimed the HMS Audacious as it was steaming out of its home harbor in October 1914, the first battleship loss of the war.
Although the German mine campaign was extensive, it paled in comparison to Allied efforts. As part of an overarching naval blockade aimed at starving Germany and its allies into submission, Britain would ultimately lay over 129,000 mines along the German coastline and in the Mediterranean.
A significant amount of that total comes from the “North Sea barrage,” a massive joint Anglo-American effort to seal off the German U-boat fleet in the North Sea. Beginning in March 1918 (but not really getting under way until the summer months), by October the barrage had laid down 70,263 mines, mostly in a continuous belt that averaged between fifteen and thirty-five miles deep and that stretched from the Orkney Islands north of Scotland all the way to Norway, a distance of 250 nautical miles. Other screens were laid at the Dover Straits and along the North Sea coast.
The majority of the mines dropped in the barrage, 56,571 to be precise, were American, and they were typical of mines of the day. Able to be submerged up to 240 feet below the ocean’s surface, each mine packed three hundred pounds of explosive. A wire running from the mine to the surface formed the detonator—when the wire came into contact with a metal surface, an electrical circuit would be completed, thus triggering the explosion.
The North Sea barrage was meant to trap the German U-boats in a small area, and it largely succeeded. Although only about seventeen subs were destroyed, the effect on the morale of the German fleet was significant. The lowered morale brought on by the barrage eventually contributed to the widespread mutinies that swept the German navy, which in turn hastened the end of the war itself. By the end of the war, overall German losses due to the Allied mining operations tallied 150 warships and forty U-boats.
Although the howitzer had been around for centuries by the time of the First World War, it found new life in the static siege-like nature of war on the Western Front. As artillery came to rule the battlefields of France and Belgium, the howitzer-type gun became omnipresent. By war’s end, the howitzer and the field gun had become essentially indistinguishable, and so it continues to this day.
Prior to World War I, the howitzer was defined as a short-barreled gun that fired its payload in a high trajectory. Furthermore, howitzer rounds were often explosive, rather than solid, in nature. These two characteristics made the howitzer a natural for siege operations. During the eighteenth century, the howitzer also enjoyed use in the field as a supplement to the field cannons of the day. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the howitzer had largely become a specialized siege weapon.
When the “Race to the Sea” in late 1914 resulted in a continuous line of trenches from Switzerland to the North Sea coast, high trajectory guns were suddenly much in demand. The German army found itself at an immediate advantage in this regard, as it boasted several “heavy” and “super-heavy” howitzers in its siege train. Originally intended for use against French and Belgian fortifications, these howitzers were quickly pressed into service during combat offensives, such as Verdun in 1916.
The most famous howitzers of the war, the four German “Big Bertha” guns, took part in the Verdun offensive. With a barrel caliber of 420 millimeters (mm), Big Bertha could send a 1,600 pound shell over ten miles. Yet these howitzers were soon rendered obsolete by even bigger guns developed by the French. Despite these developments, the days of the pure howitzer were numbered.
At the start of the war, there had been two types of artillery: field guns and howitzers. Field guns, such as the famous French quick-firing 75 mm, were meant to be fired directly at the enemy over a relatively flat trajectory. As trench warfare largely rendered this approach obsolete, the “gun-howitzer” was soon developed. A concept that had been briefly adopted in the mid-nineteenth century and was rediscovered during WWI, the gun-howitzer combined the best of both types of guns, enabling a high or flat trajectory and firing solid or explosive shot at the gunners’ discretion. Since the end of the First World War and to this day, most artillery is of the gun-howitzer type.
Impact of World War I
World War I significantly altered the cultural, political, and social order of the world. The greatest political and geographic consequence of the war was the eradication of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. New nation-states, dominated by ethnic groups either long repressed by imperial rule or long separated from smaller existing states, arose to take the place of these lost empires. Austria and Hungary emerged in abbreviated form as separate entities for the first time since 1526. Poland, for the first time since 1795, was freed of German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian imperial rule. Bohemia and Moravia, under direct Habsburg rule since 1620, shared the new state of Czechoslovakia with the peoples of Slovakia and Ruthenia. Serbia became part of the multiethnic Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which would later become Yugoslavia. Romania vastly enlarged its territorial base after it seized Transylvania from Hungary and Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina from the Russian Empire.
Following in the wake of these tremendous changes were political violence and extremism, major economic upheavals, serious international weakness, and divisive ethnic tensions. These problems affected nearly every other country in Europe and continue to inspire questions about the nation-states’ viability and stability. Historians have traced the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the division of Czechoslovakia in 1993 back to the Great War and its aftermath.
Probably the single most significant event precipitated by World War I was the Russian Revolution of 1917, a series of political and social upheavals that eventually led to the establishment of the Soviet Union. First the tsarist autocracy was overthrown, and a liberal and moderate-socialist Provisional Government briefly took its place. This changed when Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Party, overthrew the Provisional Government, which led to the formation of an all-Bolshevik government. Historians still debate whether Russia could have avoided the revolution and its accompanying inflation, food shortages, and strained infrastructure by staying out of World War I.
Germany, which took responsibility for starting the war, experienced two major economic crises after signing the Treaty of Versailles. Between 1921 and 1924, the country suffered severe economic instability and hyperinflation. Between 1929 and 1932, along with the rest of most of the world, Germany’s economy was crippled by the Great Depression. Each financial crisis was accompanied by political consequences. Armed uprisings by the extreme Left and extreme Right occurred during the first period of strife, while the second spawned the rise of German communists and the right-wing Nazi Party. Many historians link the economic instability of post-World War I Germany with the rise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler to chancellor in 1933. These historians point to the punitive Treaty of Versailles, which was drawn up by western powers desirous of revenge, as the cause of Germany’s later financial woes. The enormous reparations the country was forced to pay in 1921 took capital and resources from the German economy. Provisions that solved the first crisis and made the debt more manageable only made Germany dependent on foreign capital, which evaporated in the wake of the Great Depression.
But World War I did not only affect the world’s political, economic, and geographic systems. The global community experienced a deep sense of loss and disorientation after the war, which went on to affect humanity for years to come. Widely recognized as the “lost generation,” war veterans—especially those living in Europe—found it difficult to cope after the war. Roughly one-half of the men from major combatant countries between the ages of eighteen and fifty were called to serve in World War I. Almost one-half of those men died or became casualties of war. Europeans lost more soldiers in World War I than all other conflicts in European history put together. The war maimed even more. Veterans of previous wars returned home traumatized, but their numbers were so small the men were easily marginalized. This was not the case after 1918.
The term “lost generation” was used by Gertrude Stein to describe a community of American writers who had experienced the war. The concept originally described soldiers who seemed to have lost their way and themselves after fighting in the trenches along the Western Front, but the phrase came to acquire a myriad of different meanings. Since so many of the casualties were young men in the prime of their lives, “lost generation” was a fitting descriptor for the many poets, writers, musicians, and other educated victims who would never realize their full potential. A disproportionate number of war casualties came from the elite of Europe so when the war ended, entire classes at the prestigious universities of Britain, France, and Germany did not return. Beyond the vanished potential, the incredible loss of so many people meant that almost every European was affected. Estimates reveal that Germany sacrificed about 36 percent of its men aged nineteen to twenty-two. The losses for France and Britain were just as horrific.
Even those who returned from the battlefields were “lost” when they made it home. The deadly routines of war left deep and permanent scars, making it difficult if not impossible to fully acclimate to family life during peacetime. Insanity and nervous disorders of all kinds claimed thousands of former soldiers who suffered from “shell shock,” what is now known as “post-traumatic stress disorder.”
World War I destroyed the optimism of the early twentieth century and sent Europe into a state of mourning. Years of fighting left people disgusted by nationalism, which led to the rise of internationalism and support for organizations such as the League of Nations. A marked rise in pacifism and anti-modernism followed. Most significantly, though, was the growing strength of communism and socialism, especially in those areas most directly and critically affected by the war. The resurgence of both would affect global politics and culture in the coming years.
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