The First World War was fought from 1914 to 1918 in Europe, the Near East, Africa, East Asia and the oceans. About 17 million people lost their lives as a result of it. It began on July 28, 1914, with the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia, which had been preceded by the assassination attempt in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, and the resulting July crisis.
|Date||From July 28, 1914, to November 11, 1918|
|Duration||4 years, 3 months and 14 days|
|Place||Europe, Africa, the Middle East, China, Oceania, the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean|
|Casus belli||Sarajevo attack|
The armed conflict ended with the armistice of Compiègne on November 11, 1918, which was synonymous with the victory of the war coalition that emerged from the Triple Entente. Important participants in the war were the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria on the one hand and France, Great Britain and its British Empire, Russia, Serbia, Belgium, Italy, Romania, Japan and the USA on the other 40 states took part in the most comprehensive war in history to date, and a total of almost 70 million people were under arms.
In the assassination of Sarajevo, the Austrian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek, Duchess of Hohenberg, were murdered by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the revolutionary underground organization Mlada Bosna, which was or was brought in association with Serbian officials. The main motive was the desired “liberation” of Bosnia-Herzegovina from Austro-Hungarian rule with the aim of unification of the Southern Slavs under the leadership of Serbia.
For action against Serbia, Austria sought the backing of the German Empire (Mission Hoyos), as an intervention by Russia as a protecting power had to be expected. Kaiser Wilhelm II and Reich Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg pledged their unconditional support to Austria-Hungary at the beginning of July. With the issuance of this so-called blank cheque, the July crisis began. On July 23, Austria-Hungary ultimately demanded from Serbia a judicial investigation against the participants in the June 28 plot with the participation of Austro-Hungarian bodies.
The Serbian government, encouraged by Russia’s pledge of military support in the event of conflict, rejected this as an unacceptable violation of its sovereignty. Russia’s attitude, co-determined by the Pan-Slavic motive, was again supported by France during the French state visit to St. Petersburg (20 to 23 July), which, in reaffirmation of the Franco-Russian alliance, guaranteed the Russian’s support in the event of war with Germany. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
The interests of the great powers and the German military planning (Schlieffen Plan) escalated the local war into a continental war within a few days with the participation of Russia (German declaration of war of August 1, 1914) and France (German declaration of war of 3 August 1914). The political consequences of the Schlieffen Plan – bypassing the French fortress belt between Verdun and Belfort, German troops attacked France from the northeast, thereby violating the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg – led to the entry into the war by the Belgian guarantor power Great Britain and its Dominions (British declaration of war of August 4, 1914), which led to the expansion of a world war.
The German advance came to a standstill on the Marne in September, and between November 1914 and March 1918, the front in the West froze. Since Russia continued to participate in the war in the east until the October Revolution of 1917 and the separate peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Germany was for a long time contrary to planning in the two-front war.
Typical features of combat became trench warfare as well as material battles with high losses with mostly only minor terrain gains. This included the Battle of Verdun, the Battle of the Somme, eleven of the twelve Isonzo battles and the four Battles of Flanders. Special escalation levels include the gas war, the unrestricted submarine war – which led to the entry of the USA into the war against the Central Powers in 1917 – and the Armenian genocide associated with the war.
Russia’s withdrawal from the war after the separate peace with the Bolsheviks made possible the ultimately unsuccessful German Spring Offensive in 1918, but the lack of supplies as a result of the British naval blockade, the collapse of the Allies and the development on the Western Front during the Allied Hundred-Day Offensive led to the assessment of the German military leadership that the German front had become untenable. On September 29, 1918, contrary to all previous announcements, the Supreme Army Command informed the German Emperor and the government about the hopeless military situation of the army and demanded by Erich Ludendorff the ultimate start of armistice negotiations.
On October 4/5, 1918, Reich Chancellor Max von Baden asked the Allies for an armistice. By seeking the hitherto avoided, almost hopeless decisive battle with the Grand Fleet with the fleet order of 24 October 1918 in the sense of an “honorable sinking”, the naval war command aroused the resistance of sailors, who refused the order in increasing numbers and as a result triggered the November Revolution. On 11 November 1918, the Armistice of Compiègne came into force. The terms of peace were regulated in the Paris suburban treaties from 1919 to 1923. Of the losing powers, only Bulgaria was able to maintain the state constitution of the pre-war period, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary disintegrated, in Russia the Tsardom perished, in Germany the Empire.
The First World War was a breeding ground for the success of Soviet Leninism as well as for fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany and became the forerunner of the Second World War, which the National Socialists explicitly saw as an “unfinished legacy of the First”. Because of the upheavals that the First World War triggered in all areas of life and its consequences, which continue to have an effect until the recent past, it is considered the “primordial catastrophe of the 20th century”. It marks the end of the age of (high) imperialism.
The question of guilt for the outbreak of this war is still controversially discussed today, the corresponding Fischer controversy is now in turn a part of German history. In the cultural field, the First World War also marked a turning point. The many thousands of frontline experiences in the trenches, the mass extinction and the upheavals of everyday life caused by necessity changed the standards and perspectives in the societies of the participating states.
Background and initial situation
Before 1914, Europe was at the height of its global dominance. As a result of the industrial revolution and population explosion, Europe, together with the imperial powers Japan and the USA, which had also been operating imperially since the end of the 19th century, had succeeded in establishing global political rule (colonialism). Essentially, only China could preserve its independence, decolonization succeeded before 1914 only the USA and the Spanish colonies on the American double continent, as well as with restrictions some white dominions.
The establishment of the French protectorate over Tunisia (1881) and the British occupation of Egypt (1882) had given imperialism a new quality in that the European states were once again increasingly seeking formal rule over newly acquired territories. This became increasingly a question of national prestige, as the strength of the European states in the public perception seemed to be defined by their non-European position. Thus, the tensions that arose in the periphery inevitably shifted back to the continent, especially when in the 1890s the division of the world was essentially completed, without Italy and the German Empire having received a share corresponding to their self-image.
With the founding of the German Empire, an imbalance had arisen within the European pentarchy, from the formerly weakest power (Prussia) emerged the German Empire. The German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine stood in the way of an understanding with France. Security interests, national prestige thinking as well as economic interests came together in this constellation of powers. Apart from that, domestic political tensions and fears of threat contributed to the fact that the ruling elites and governments leaned towards risky policies in order to distract from internal shortcomings through foreign policy successes. In the age of imperialism, increasingly peace-threatening crises developed:
- In the War-in-Sight Crisis (1875), Russia and Britain indicated that they would not accept a renewed defeat of France. Without being involved in alliance systems, these powers reacted according to their great power interests, as they did later in the July crisis.
- In the Balkan crisis (1875–1878), a local conflict developed into a small war (Serbian-Ottoman War) and from this the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877/78. Although the Congress of Berlin ended the crisis, it deepened the rivalry between Austria and Russia in the Balkans and worsened the German-Russian relationship.
- French boulangism exacerbated tensions between Germany and France, especially during Georges Boulanger’s tenure as Minister of War (January 1886 to May 1887) (exemplified in the Beaks Affair of 1887) and led to the resurgence of revanchism.
- The Bulgarian crisis – namely the Serbian-Bulgarian War of 1885/87 – significantly worsened Austrian-Russian relations.
- The Fashoda Crisis (1898) and the Second Boer War (1899–1902) “signaled the filling of colonial power vacuums overseas […] by European-North American imperialism around 1900, so that tensions on the periphery returned to Europe.”
- In the First Moroccan Crisis (1904–1906), Germany tried to break France out of the Entente cordiale, isolated by Russia’s weakness (Russo-Japanese War 1904/05, Russian Revolution 1905), but failed at the Algeciras Conference (1906). On the contrary, the attempt led to the unmistakable isolation of the German Reich, which subsequently became all the more closely linked to Austria-Hungary.
- With the Naval Battle of Tsushima (May 27, 1905) and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05, which was thus effectively lost for Russia, a reorientation of Russian politics took place. After the loss of the East Asian position and in view of the British position in the Middle East, the urge to expand the zones of influence was directed back to Europe and especially to Southeastern Europe, which brought with it the conflict with Austria-Hungary.
- The Bosnian annexation crisis of 1908/09 fueled Serbian nationalism. The further political repercussions also led to a humiliation of Russia, which almost resulted in a war with the Zweibund. In response to the annexation, the group Mlada Bosna was formed, which was to carry out the assassination of Sarajevo with the support of the secret organization Black Hand.
- Britain, mobilized by the Second Moroccan Crisis (1911), warned increasingly politically isolated Germany against war against France. In view of the diplomatic failure (Morocco-Congo Treaty) despite German threats of war, the pressure of imperialist-oriented agitation associations – such as the All-German Association and the German Fleet Association – on the German Kaiser and his government, which had retreated, grew.
- The two Balkan wars strengthened Serbia, deepened tensions in the Danube Monarchy, exacerbated The Austrian-Russian antagonism and further fueled Slavic nationalism.
- The Liman von Sanders crisis of 1913/14 exacerbated distrust of Germany, especially by Russia.
The alliance system sought by Bismarck after the founding of the Reich tried to isolate France. This required good relations with Austria-Hungary and Russia (Three Emperors’ Agreement of 22 October 1873). The Balkan crisis effectively caused this agreement to fail, and Germany’s mediation in the Congress of Berlin (ended with the Berlin Treaty on July 13, 1878) found Russia hostile.
The following year, Tsar Alexander II issued a more or less hidden threat of war in the event of a repetition, so that Bismarck looked for other allies. Due to the German grain tariff policy from 1879 onwards, further tensions developed with Russia. Austria-Hungary and Germany concluded the Zweibund (October 7, 1879), which was joined by Italy in 1882 (Dreibund), and Romania also joined in 1883. The treaty committed to mutual support in the event of a simultaneous attack by two other powers on a signatory or a French attack on the German Reich or Italy.
The avoidance of the European war by the Congress of Berlin thus led to the first permanent alliance between great powers since the Crimean War. In addition, on 18 June 1881, the Dreikaiserbund, a secret neutrality agreement (German Empire, Austria-Hungary and Russia), which broke up in the Bulgarian crisis of 1885/87. The dismissal of Bismarck in March 1890 meant the end of his alliance policy. Wilhelm II, on the recommendation of Bismarck’s successor Leo von Caprivi and those of the Federal Foreign Office, then failed to extend the secret reinsurance treaty between Germany and Russia concluded on June 18, 1887, which is considered one of the fatal decisions of the “New Course”.
Due to the German Lombard ban of 1887, which prevented the purchase of Russian railway bonds in Germany, Russia increasingly oriented itself financially towards France since 1888. In 1891, France and Russia concluded an initially vague agreement, which was supplemented by a military convention in 1892 and ratified by Tsar Alexander III in 1894 (Franco-Russian Alliance). After giving up its splendid isolation, Great Britain initially worked towards an alliance with Germany, which failed in the negotiations from March 29 to May 11, 1898.
With the Faschoda crisis (1898) there was initially a fierce Franco-English confrontation, which could be resolved in the Entente Cordiale (April 8, 1904), which regulated the general conflicts of interest around the colonies of Africa (“Race for Africa”). Great Britain then moved closer to France, because Germany refused to renounce naval armament, resulting in the German-British naval arms race. The underlying Tirpitz Plan was based on risk theory. Germany believed it could conduct a policy of a free hand. The resulting intransigent German stance on arms limitations in the Hague peace conferences reinforced the general distrust of German policy.
Britain, increasingly disturbed by German naval policy, supported France almost unreservedly during the Algeciras Conference (1906). Germany’s erratic and clumsy foreign policy action was an essential factor in the founding of the Triple Entente in the Treaty of Saint Petersburg (August 31, 1907), even if this Entente, which anticipated the war coalition, was primarily concerned with the settlement of colonial rivalries. However, Britain was not an integral part of the alliance and each side was careful not to allow itself to be instrumentalized by the other. Thus, Russia kept its distance on the Moroccan issue, and in the Bosnian annexation crisis, neither France nor Britain wanted to intervene in favor of Russia.
The second Moroccan crisis was accompanied by fierce opposition between the German and French publics and prompted France to re-establish its relationship with Russia, which had cooled down with the Bosnian annexation crisis, with France accepting the Aggressive Balkan League supported by Russia despite concerns. Germany’s isolation, which was evident at the latest with the Algeciras conference, led to unconditional loyalty to the alliance with Austria-Hungary, the last remaining alliance partner.
Balance of power
On the eve of the war, the Central Powers were significantly inferior in numbers, economic output and military expenditure: in 1914 they (including Turkey) had a population of 138 million and 33 million men fit for military service, while the Entente (including colonies) had 708 million inhabitants and 179 million men fit for military service. The absolute military expenditure of the Entente in 1913 was about twice as high as that of the Central Powers. Only in terms of modern heavy artillery was Germany superior, which brought a considerable advantage, especially in the – generally not expected – trench warfare.
The infantry armament was balanced in terms of firing power, but the British troops had an above-average infantry rifle. At sea, the Entente and especially Great Britain was far superior to the opponents, so that it could come to the distance blockade of Germany. In return, however, Russia could be cut off from supplies via the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. Germany and Austria-Hungary had the geostrategic advantage of the Inner Line, which meant that the numerical superiority of the Entente did not initially come to fruition.
The troop strengths of the most important combatants are shown in the following table:
|State||Troops to enter the war||after mobilization||War participants in total.||Notes|
|Germany||761.000||3.8 million||approx. 13 million|
|Eastern Hungary||395.000||2.3 million||8 million||incl. Landwehren|
|Osm. Rich||—||approx. 800,000||2.8 – 3.5 million|
|Bulgaria||85.000||650.000||1.2 million||Entry into the war in 1915|
|Russia||1.4 million||4.5 million||12 – 15 million||Exit from the war winter 1917/18|
|France||823.000||3.8 million||8.4 million||incl. colonial troops|
|Great Britain||250.000||250.000||8.9 million||Western Front 1914: 120,000 men; from 1916 conscription; Numbers Column War Participants inges. incl. Empire|
|Belgium||117.000||267.000||267.000||no further mobilization base wg. occupation|
|Montenegro||40.000||50.000||50.000||Surrender at the beginning of 1916|
|Japan||—||—||800.000||tied up forces of the Central Powers only in East Asia in 1914|
|Italy||—||4.3 million||5.6 million||Entry into the war in May 1915|
|Portugal||—||200.000||100.000||Entry into the war in 1916; deployed 100,000 men|
|Romania||—||—||750.000||Entry into the war in 1916; Armistice at the end of 1917|
|UNITED STATES||—||—||4.3 million||Entry into the war in 1917|
|Greece||—||—||230.000||official entry into the war in 1917|
In total, the Entente deployed 41,851,000 soldiers and thus 19 percent of the men fit for military service (as well as about 300 female soldiers), the Central Powers 24,400,000 soldiers and thus 71 percent of the men fit for military service.
July crisis and the beginning of the war
In the age of high imperialism, a considerable potential for conflict had accumulated in Europe. Nevertheless, the assassination attempt in Sarajevo (28 June 1914) was not initially regarded as threatening peace. In Vienna, only Chief of The General Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf and Finance Minister Leon Biliński – supported by large parts of the press – advocated the immediate mobilization against Serbia. In a meeting with Foreign Minister Leopold Berchtold on 1 July, von Hötzendorf made the war dependent on the question of whether Germany “has its back on us against Russia or not”.
The German Foreign Office initially wanted to avoid the war between Austria and Serbia, as it correctly foresaw the “world war” as a consequence. Until 4 July, the Federal Foreign Office held the opinion that Austria should not make humiliating demands of Serbia. As far as is known, a statement by Kaiser Wilhelm II (“The Serbs must be cleaned up and soon.”) on 4 July led to the Federal Foreign Office immediately adopting the opposite position.
|State||Alliance||Entry into the war|
|Austria-Hungary||Central Powers||July 28, 1914|
|Serbia||Entente||July 28, 1914|
|German Empire||Central Powers||Aug. 1, 1914|
|Russian Empire||Entente||Aug. 1, 1914|
|Luxembourg||Entente||Aug. 2, 1914|
|France||Entente||Aug. 3, 1914|
|Belgium||Entente||Aug. 4, 1914|
|Great Britain||Entente||Aug. 4, 1914|
|Australia||Entente||Aug. 4, 1914|
|Canada||Entente||Aug. 4, 1914|
|Nepal||Entente||Aug. 4, 1914|
|Newfoundland||Entente||Aug. 4, 1914|
|New Zealand||Entente||Aug. 4, 1914|
|Montenegro||Entente||Aug. 9, 1914|
|Japan||Entente||Aug. 23, 1914|
|South African Union||Entente||Sep 8, 1914|
|Ottoman Empire||Central Powers||Oct. 29, 1914|
|Italy||Entente||May 25, 1915|
|San Marino||Entente||June 1, 1915|
|Bulgaria||Central Powers||Oct. 11, 1915|
|Portugal||Entente||March 9, 1916|
|Hejaz||Entente||June 5, 1916|
|Romania||Entente||Aug. 31, 1916|
|Greece||Entente||Nov. 24, 1916 /June 29, 1917|
|United States||Entente||Apr. 6, 1917|
|Cuba||Entente||Apr. 7, 1917|
|Guatemala||Entente||Apr. 22, 1917|
|Siam||Entente||July 22, 1917|
|Liberia||Entente||Aug. 4, 1917|
|China||Entente||Aug. 14, 1917|
|Brazil||Entente||Oct. 26, 1917|
|Panama||Entente||Nov. 10, 1917|
|Nicaragua||Entente||May 6, 1918|
|Costa Rica||Entente||May 24, 1918|
|Haiti||Entente||July 15, 1918|
|Honduras||Entente||July 19, 1918|
Accordingly, on 5 July, Alexander Hoyos (Mission Hoyos), the Legation Council sent to Berlin in the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Ministry was promised support for the war course and an early strike was generally recommended. The next day, the Reich Chancellor handed over the official, identical answer to the envoy Hoyos and Ambassador Szögyény, which was later interpreted as a blank cheque issued in “extreme negligence”.
According to Kurt Riezler’s diary entries from the meetings with Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg (July 7/8, 1914), the motives of the Reichsleitung were that a war could be won in 1914 rather than later due to Russia’s growing military and transport potential. If Austria is not supported, there is a risk that it will turn to the Entente. Although the danger of the World War was seen, the German Reich leadership hoped for localization and saw the situation favorably: “If the war comes from the East, so that we fight for Austria-Hungary and not Oest[reach]-Hungary for us, we have the prospect of winning it. If the war does not come, the Tsar does not want to or advises dismayed France to peace, then we still have the prospect of dissecting the Entente about this action.”
The day after Hoyo’s return (July 7), the Austro-Hungarian Council of Ministers decided to give Serbia an unacceptable ultimatum and to take military action if it was rejected.
From 20 to 23 July, French President Raymond Poincaré and Prime Minister René Viviani visited the Russian capital St. Petersburg and pledged their full support to the hosts. There was a consensual view that Serbia bore no responsibility for the murders, that the (in principle already known) demands on Belgrade were illegitimate and that the Entente would remain steadfast against the Central Powers.
The opening of the July crisis in the narrower sense formed the ultimatum issued to Serbia by the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Berchtold on July 23, 1914 with a notice period of 48 hours.
Encouraged by the results of the French government visit, the Russian Council of Ministers decided on 24 July to support Serbia and, if necessary, to launch mobilization.
The corresponding telegram arrived in Belgrade on 25 July in time for the Serbian response to the ultimatum. The extent to which it influenced Serbia’s rejection of the key points of the ultimatum is not clear. The answer to Vienna was partly relentless, partly evasive. However, the participation of Austrian officials in the prosecution of suspects was flatly rejected on the grounds that this violated the Serbian constitution. Foreign Minister Nikola Pašić personally handed over the answer to the Austrian legation shortly before the deadline. Ambassador Giesl scanned the text and left immediately with the entire legation staff.
In the states of the Entente, doubts were raised that Austria-Hungary was the driving force behind the events, they increasingly suspected the significantly stronger Germany.
Russia began on July 26 with the first mobilization measures (the so-called preparation period before the war), which were possibly intended only as a precautionary measure or a deterrent signal, but which, despite the threats of diplomatic conflict, gave a military note and escalated it, as the Austrian and German sides learned of the measures almost immediately.
On the morning of July 28, 1914, Emperor Franz Joseph signed the declaration of war of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy to the Kingdom of Serbia (To My Peoples!). Previously, the German government had urged the alliance partner since July 25 again massively for “immediate debate”. Vienna wanted to declare war until this time only after the completion of the mobilization and thus around August 12.
Since the attack at Temes Kubin (an alleged fire raid by the Serbs on July 26) was a propaganda invention and an alleged reason for war (similar to the Nuremberg plane), the “shooting war” began on July 29 shortly after 2 a.m. with the shelling of Belgrade by the inland warships S.M.S Temes, Bodrog and Szamos. On July 29, despite a warning from Bethmann Hollweg that the continuation of Russia’s preparations would result in Germany’s mobilization and presumed entry into the war, the Russian army was partially mobilized.
On July 29, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg told British Ambassador Edward Goschen that Germany would attack France in violation of Belgian neutrality and that Germany would offer the restoration of the territorial integrity of France and Belgium – but not that of their colonies – after the war for British neutrality.
The British side – which had regarded the Reich Chancellor as a moderating force in Vienna and had previously acted cautiously – reacted to Bethmann-Hollweg’s horror with sharp rejection and indicated that this would constitute a reason for war for Great Britain. Bethmann-Hollweg then tried to recapture the escalation process and – together with the Emperor – to persuade Vienna to a “stop-in-Belgrade” plan, i.e. to be content with the occupation of Belgrade near the border as a pledge, but it was already too late and the escalation was in full swing.
Moltke countered Bethmann-Hollweg’s attempts by encouraging Conrad von Hötzendorf to march against Serbia and the Russian Empire, while Vienna rejected the plan for a temporary occupation of Belgrade because it would have been only a partial solution to his Serbian problem. More time might have changed the Austrian positioning, but that was exactly what happened.
Tsar Nicholas II approved on July 30 the general mobilization of the Russian army, which was published the next morning (July 31). The German Reich then demanded in an ultimatum the immediate withdrawal of the Russian mobilization (by August 1, 12, noon local time St. Petersburg), although it was assumed that it would be much slower than the German one.
After the withdrawal had failed to take place, Wilhelm II gave the mobilization order on August 1 (5 p.m.) and declared war on Russia on the same day (7 p.m. local time St. Petersburg). Russia-allied France also issued the mobilization order on August 1 (4 p.m.). On the morning of August 2, German troops occupied the city of Luxembourg as planned, mounted patrols invaded France without a declaration of war, with a French and a German soldier falling.
In the evening (8 p.m.), Belgium was asked to make a declaration within twelve hours that the Belgian army would behave passively in the face of a march of German troops; this was rejected the next morning. On the evening of August 3, Germany declared war on France for alleged border violations and fabricated air raids (“Nuremberg plane”). On the same day, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio di San Giuliano informed German Ambassador Hans von Flotow that, in the opinion of the Italian Government, the Casus Foederis was not given, since Austria and Germany were the aggressors. Already in the afternoon, the Italian declaration of neutrality was made.
Also on August 3, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg sent a letter of justification to the British government. Bethmann Hollweg presented the “violation of the neutrality of Belgium” as a consequence of a military predicament due to the Russian mobilization. German patrols had already crossed the Belgian border on the morning of that day; corresponding reports were available in London.
The German Empire thus violated Article I of the Treaty of London of 19 April 1839, in which the major European powers had guaranteed Belgian neutrality, and endangered British security interests. Edward Grey described in the House of Commons on the afternoon of 3 August the violation of Belgian neutrality and the danger of a defeat of France as incompatible with British state interests, and Parliament followed this assessment.
On August 4 at 6:00 a.m., the German ambassador in Brussels informed the Belgian government that, after rejecting its proposals, the German Reich was forced to enforce the measures necessary to “ward off the French threat” by force if necessary. A few hours later, German troops marched into neutral Belgium in violation of international law and without a declaration of war. On the same day (August 4), British Ambassador Goschen presented German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg with an ultimatum limited to midnight, demanding a promise that Germany would respect Belgian neutrality in accordance with the Treaty of London of 1839.
Bethmann Hollweg accused the ambassador that Britain was going to war against Germany over a “scrap of paper”, which was met with outrage in London. After the expiration of the ultimatum, Great Britain was in a state of war with the Empire, its Dominions followed immediately (mostly without a separate declaration of war), which within a few days had developed from the local war into a continental war and from this the world war. Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia on August 6, ending the “grotesque situation that Germany was at war with Russia six days earlier than the ally for whose sake it took up the fight in the first place.”
The events of the First World War
The war year 1914
Failure of war plans and transition to trench warfare on the Western Front
While the assembly of the German army on the western border was still in progress, the German X Army Corps led a handshake-like raid on the citadel of the Belgian fortress of Liège, which had already been planned in the Schlieffe n plan. The city quickly fell into the hands of the attackers (5-7 August), while the belt of twelve forts could not be conquered at first.
Only after the acquisition of the heaviest artillery (the fat Berthavon Krupp and the lesser-known, more mobile slender Emma of Škoda) was it possible to occupy the fortresses and completely conquer Liège by August 16. The climax of the fighting is the destruction of Fort Loncin on August 15 by a direct hit in the ammunition chamber. The rapid elimination of the forts, which were considered impregnable, led to strategic changes in further French war planning.
On 4 August, German soldiers committed the first violent attacks on the civilian population in the Belgian villages of Visé, Berneau and Battice near Liège. In the coming weeks, German troops committed numerous atrocities against the civilian population in Belgium and France, which were justified by attacks by snipers. The first mass shootings of Belgian civilians took place on 5 August, and German troops committed particularly serious war crimes in Dinant, Tamines, Andenne and Aarschot.
Between August and October 1914, around 6500 civilians fell victim to the reprisals, and the arson in Leuven was particularly noticed and condemned worldwide. The reception of actual and fabricated attacks was incorporated into the English propaganda term Rape of Belgium, which is still common today.
While the German troops unfolded their arc movement over Belgium within the framework of the Schlieffen Plan, plan XVII was prepared on the French side, which, in contrast to the German encirclement strategy, relied on the strategy of penetration in the center (Lorraine). Before the actual large-scale attack as part of this strategy, an advance attack on Mulhouse/Mulhouse took place.
The French commander Joffre wanted to bind German troops in the south and strengthen the enthusiasm of the French population by advancing into Alsace, which had fallen to Germany after the defeat of 1871, which was quite successful during the short-term capture of the second-largest city and the most important industrial location in the region. On August 7, Mulhouse was taken, with a part of the local population cheering the French soldiers.
Already on 9 August, it went back to the German troops. After a renewed conquest, the city and all Alsatian territories with the exception of the DollerTal and some Vosges heights fell to the Germans again on August 24 for the rest of the war. General Louis Bonneau, who commanded the French attack, was dismissed by Joffre.
Joffre initially had no intention of allowing himself to be influenced by the German attack on Belgium in his deployment according to Plan XVII and concentrated 1.7 million French soldiers in five armies for the attack. However, he could not completely ignore the movement of the German troops and moved the 5th Army under Charles Lanrezac accordingly further northwest. The British Expeditionary Corps under General John French, which had just landed in France, joined north at Maubeugean. The French offensive began on 14 August: the 1st Army under General Auguste Dubail and the 2nd Army under General Noël de Castelnau crossed the border and advanced on Saarburg (Lorraine), among other places. The German 6th and 7th Armies – both commanded at the time by Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria – initially retreated fighting.
On 18 August, after the defeat of the fortress of Liège (final fall of Liège on 16 August), the actual major offensive of the right wing of the German right to surround the Allied armies began. He very quickly advanced to Brussels and Namur. The main part of the Belgian army retreated to the fortress of Antwerp, after which the two-month siege of Antwerp began.
On August 20, the actual French offensive towards German-Lorraine and Saar-Ruhr area began, at the same time the German counterattack began. From this and from a series of other battles at Saarburg, at Longwy, in the Ardennes, on the Meuse, between Sambre and Maas and at Mons, losing battles developed for both sides between the Vosges and the Scheldt, the so-called border battles. The French troops suffered extraordinarily large losses; 40,000 soldiers were killed between 20 and 23 August, and 27,000 on August 22 alone. The losses were mainly caused by machine guns. The French 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Armies were severely defeated head-on by the German 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Armies, as were the 5th Army and the British Expeditionary Corps on the left wing.
However, the French troops managed a sufficiently orderly retreat on the one hand behind the Meurthe and the fortress ring around Nancy, on the other hand while preserving the fortress Verdun behind the Meuse, without the German troops succeeding in encircling and completely destroying large units. In disregard of the Schlieffen Plan, Crown Prince Rupprecht asked Chief of Staff Moltke to take advantage of the success and to be allowed to go on the offensive himself, which he approved. However, this German offensive between August 25 and September 7 did not bring a breakthrough.
The French and British armies on the left wing began a general but orderly retreat through northern France, punctuated by isolated battles such as the Battle of Le Cateau (August 26) and the Battle of St. Quentin (August 29), bringing the pursuing German right-wing ever closer to Paris. The French government left the capital on September 2 and moved to Bordeaux, the defense of Paris was entrusted to the reactivated General Joseph Gallieni. Meanwhile, the French High Command gathered troops from the right wing and reserves to raise a new (6th) army under Joseph Maunoury at Paris, which threatened the German advance in the flank. Another (9th) army under Ferdinand Foch was pushed into the center. Joffre planned to use the Marne as a catch-all position to stop the German advance with an offensive on the entire front.
The German swivel wing – the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th German armies – had already made its rotation towards the southwest and south at still high speed; the 1st Army deviated from its planned direction of advance already after the capture of Brussels (20 August) south, as commander Alexander von Kluck pursued the French troops and the British Expeditionary Corps.
Due to the increasing front expansion, the surprise effect of the German offensive disappeared, and the numerical superiority of the right German wing was lost with the stretching, the connecting lines of the Germans became longer and longer, those of the French shorter and shorter. The disintegrated German front threatened to tear apart at the end of August, the right wing had to change the direction of attack further due to counterattacks and swing into the south and southeast, the encirclement of Paris was abandoned on 30 August, of which Joffre was informed on 3 September.
The Supreme Army Command, stationed in Luxembourg, has since lost track of the operational situation, and above all there was no telephone connection to the threatened right wing. The technically inadequate radio traffic could not make up for this, the aircraft messages often remained unused. The 1st Army (320,000 soldiers) tried to include the British Expeditionary Army with violent marches, neglecting western flank protection. The surrender of two corps to the Eastern Front, siege troops left behind (Antwerp, Maubeuge), loss of march and combat and supply difficulties caused stagnation, the exhausted 1st Army had covered over 500 kilometers under heavy fighting.
On September 6, the French offensive against the open flank of the German army (“Battle of the Marne”) began. The German 1st Army, which, despite instructions to the contrary, had advanced south of the Marne on September 5, 1914 and had reached the westernmost points of the municipalities of Le Plessis-Belleville, Mortefontaine and Meaux around Paris (farthest advance:), had to retreat in a two-day violent march. By its sudden U-turn, it caused a gap about 40 kilometers wide between the 1st and 2nd German armies, into which strong French and British forces entered around noon on September 8, 1914.
The context of the German front was torn apart, the danger of an operational breakthrough and an encirclement of the German armies grew hour by hour, there was a threat of the constriction and destruction of individual German army units, a flight-like retreat and, in the worst case, a backward encirclement of the entire German West Army. The German armies were at the end of their forces after their incessant advance. Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, sent by the Supreme Army Command (OHL) to the High Command of the 1st and 2nd Armies, recommended the retreat, which was ordered by the commanders-in-chief of the two armies on September 9, without further contact with the neighboring armies or the OHL.
The necessity of the retreat – especially that of the 1st Army – was later controversial, but today an opinion is predominantly held, as Holger Afflerbach formulated, for example: “Operationally, the withdrawal order was correct and absolutely necessary, but its psychological effects were fatal.”The Schlieffen Plan had failed, the constriction of the French army on the eastern border (Lorraine and Alsace) had failed. On September 9, Chief of staff Moltke saw the envelope, he wrote on that day:
“It’s going badly … The beginning of the war, which began so hopefully, will turn into the opposite […] how different it was when we opened the campaign so brilliantly a few weeks ago […] I fear that our people in their triumphal frenzy will hardly be able to bear the misfortune.”
Chief of Staff Moltke suffered a nervous breakdown and was replaced by Erich von Falkenhayn. The 1st and 2nd German armies had to break off the battle and retreat, the remaining attack armies followed. The subsequent retreat of the German offensive wing behind the Aisne led to the First Battle of the Aisne, which initiated the transition to trench warfare. However, after their retreat, the German troops were able to dig in on the Aisne and rebuild a coherent, resilient front.
On September 17, the French counterattack came to a standstill. In France, this German retreat was later described as a “miracle on the Marne”, in Germany the order was met with the sharpest criticism. Falkenhayn advised Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg to inform the German public about the critical military situation after the failure of the plan of attack, which he refused.
Initially, Falkenhayn adhered to the previous concept, according to which the decision should first be sought in the West. In the race to the sea (13 September to 19 October 1914), both sides tried to outdo each other, the fronts were extended from the Aisne to Nieuwpoort on the North Sea. In northern France, the enemies tried to initiate the war of movement again in the first weeks of October 1914, with the German troops being able to record some successes with heavy losses (capture of Lille, Ghent, Bruges and Ostend), but without achieving the breakthrough. After that, the focus of the fighting shifted further north to Flanders, the English supply via Dunkirk and Calais was to be interrupted.
On October 16, 1914, the Declaration of the University Teachers of the German Reich appeared.It was signed by over 3000 German university teachers, i.e. almost the entire teaching staff of the 53 universities and technical colleges in Germany, and justified the First World War as a “defensive struggle of German culture”. Foreign scholars responded a few days later in the New York Times and The Times.
Fierce battles developed near Ypres (First Battle of Flanders from 20 October to 18 November 1914). Hastily formed German reserve corps suffered devastating losses at Lange Marck and Ypres. Insufficiently trained young soldiers led by reserve officers without frontline experience – occasionally 15-year-olds – died here by the tens of thousands without achieving any significant goal.
Nevertheless, the myth of Lange Marck was constructed from this – the first significant example in this war of reinterpreting military defeats or failures into moral victories. The Allies succeeded in withdrawing the canal ports of Boulogne and Calais and the railway junctions of Amiens, which were important for British supplies, from German access.
With the fighting at Ypres, the war of movement ended. On the German Western Front, an extensive system of trenches (trench warfare) emerged. All attempts by both sides to break through failed in 1914, a more than 700-kilometer-long front from the North Sea to the Swiss border froze in trench warfare, at the front sections the front trenches were often barely 50 meters away from the enemy positions.
On November 18, 1914, Falkenhayn told Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg that the war against the Triple Entente was no longer winnable. He pleaded for a diplomatic liquidation of the war on the continent, for a negotiated and separate peace with one or more opponents, but not with Great Britain, with which he did not consider a political compromise possible. Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg rejected this. The Reich Chancellor had above all domestic political reasons for this, he did not want to do without in view of the great victims of the attack on annexations and a “victory prize” for the people.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff proceeded from the unconditional will of the opponents to annihilate and also considered a victory in peace to be still possible. The Reich Chancellor and the General Staff concealed from the nation the significance of the defeats on the Marne and at Ypres. In this way, they upheld the nation’s will to fight and persevere. The discrepancy between the political-military situation and the war target demands of the economic and political elites thus increasingly increased in the further course of the war, which contributed to the social frontline position during the war and beyond.
In November 1914, the British Navy declared the entire North Sea a war zone and imposed a long-distance blockade. Ships flying the flag of neutral states could become the target of British attacks in the North Sea without warning. This action by the British government violated existing international law, including the 1856 Declaration of Paris, which Britain had signed.
On December 24 and the following two days, the so-called Christmas Truce, an unauthorized truce among the soldiers, took place on some sections of the Western Front. Involved in this Christmas ceasefire, combined with gestures of fraternization, were probably over 100,000 mainly German and British soldiers.
Fighting in the East and the Balkans during the First World War
Since two Russian armies, contrary to the assumptions of the Schlieffen Plan, entered East Prussia two weeks after the outbreak of war and thus unexpectedly early, the situation on the Eastern Front was initially extremely tense for the German Reich. The Germans were rather defensive on their Eastern Front due to the Schlieffen Plan. Only a few Russian-Polish border towns had been occupied; Kalisz was destroyed. After the Battle of Gumbinnen (August 19/20), the 8th Army defending East Prussia had to give up further parts of the country.
As a result, the troops were strengthened and the previous commanders were replaced by Major General Erich Ludendorff and Colonel General Paul von Hindenburg, who initiated the securing of East Prussia with the victory in the Battle of Tannenberg from 26 to 31 August. German troops succeeded in containing and largely destroying the Russian 2nd Army (Narew Army) under General Alexander Samsonov. From September6 to 15, the Battle of the Masurian Lakes followed, which ended with the defeat of the Russian 1st Army (Njemen Army) under General Paul von Rennenkampff. The Russian troops then evacuated most of East Prussia.
After the Battle of Galicia from August 24 to September 11, Russian troops occupied Galicia, which belonged to Austria-Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian army had to retreat to the Carpathians in September after an advance on the Galician capital Lviv because of the overwhelming Russian superiority (Battle of Lviv August 26 to September 1). The first siege of Przemyśl from September 24 to October 11 was repulsed. An offensive in southern Poland (from September 29 to October 31) launched by the newly formed German 9th Army to relieve the Austro-Hungarian troops with the aim of reaching the Vistula failed. On November 1, Colonel General von Hindenburg was appointed Commander-in-Chief East of the German Army.
On November 9, the second siege of Przemyśl, which ended fatally for Austria on March 22, 1915, began and on November 11 the German counter-offensive in the Łódź area, which lasted until 5 December, after which the Russian troops went on the defensive. From December 5 to 17, Austro-Hungarian troops managed to stop a Russian advance on Krakow; After that, the enemies in large front areas initially remained in trench warfare. In the Winter Battle of the Carpathians (December 1914 to April 1915), the Central Powers were able to assert themselves against Russia.
The starting point of the war, the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, came to the brink of attention in view of the large-scale escalation from August onwards. The three offensives of the Austro-Hungarian army between August and December 1914 mostly failed or brought only partial successes; in December, Belgrade was briefly taken. The Austro-Hungarian Army, therefore, had to accept a devastating failure in this theatre of war as well.
In particular, the first Imperial and Royal offensives were accompanied by serious attacks against the Serbian civilian population. Several thousand civilians were killed, villages were plundered and burned down. The Austrian army leadership admitted some of the attacks and spoke of “unorganized requisitions” and “senseless reprisals.” The Serbian army was at the end of its forces in December after the effort – against an opponent who was several times superior in resources. In addition, epidemics had broken out in Serbia.
Entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war
The German military missions in the Ottoman Empire and the construction of the Baghdad Railway had already intensified relations between the German and Ottoman Empires before the war. On August 1, two battleships ordered in Great Britain and partly already paid for were seized. The government of the Ottoman Empire initially tried to stay out of the fighting in an “armed neutrality”. It was clear to the ruling Young Turks that they had to lean on a great power in order to be able to withstand militarily. At the instigation of Enver Pasha, there was finally a war alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, which was controversial in the cabinet.
On September 27, the Dardanelles were officially closed to international shipping. After the two ships of the German Mediterranean Division under Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, Goeben and Breslau, had escaped the British Mediterranean Fleet and entered Constantinople, the two warships handed over to the Ottoman fleet, still commanded by Souchon and manned by German sailors, shelled Russian coastal cities in the Black Sea on October 29.
As a result, France, Great Britain and Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of November. On the morning of November 14, the Sheikhül Islam of the Ottoman Empire Ürgüplü Mustafa Hayri Efendi proclaimed jihad against the hostile states in front of the Fatih Mosque in Constantinople after an edict of Sultan Mehmed V. During the war, this call was echoed only by individual Muslim troops in British services, such as Indian Muslims from Punjab, who mutinied in Singapore on February 15, 1915. The appeal had a reinforcing effect on the anti-British mood in Afghanistan, which broke out after the end of the war in the Third Anglo-Afghan War.
Shortly after the declaration of war, British Indian troops landed at Fao in the Persian Gulf on November 6 to protect the British oil concessions of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, opening the Mesopotamia front. After several encounters with weaker Ottoman troops, they succeeded in capturing Basra on November 23.
Also on the Caucasus front, Russian troops opened the offensive at the beginning of November (Bergmann offensive). There it came in the winter during an attempt at a counterattack of the Ottoman 3rd Army to their first heavy defeat in the Battle of Sarıkamış. On the Russian side, Armenian volunteer battalions were involved in the fighting, which exacerbated the mood against the Armenians in the Young Turkish leadership, although the majority of the ethnic group was loyal to the Ottoman Empire. Russian troops attacked from the northeast of Persia, which they had been occupying for some time. For the time being, there was no major fighting on the Palestine front.
War in the colonies
As early as August 5, 1914, the London Committee of Imperial Defence had decided to extend the war under a unilateral interpretation of the treaties of the Berlin Africa Conference of 1884/85 (“Congo Conference”) and to attack all German colonies or to have them attacked by French, Indian, South African, Australian, New Zealand or Japanese troops. Especially in Africa, there were sometimes heavy fights. The colony of Togo, surrounded by all sides, was immediately taken.
Cameroon was also difficult to keep: by the end of 1914, the German troops withdrew into the hinterland. A grueling small war developed there, which lasted until 1916. The Union of South Africa attacked German South West Africa, which initially held its own at the Battle of Sandfontein from September 24 to 26. In the attacks of the South African Union, the anti-British uprising of a part of the Boer population, which could only be finally suppressed in February 1915, had a delayed effect.
German East Africa defended itself doggedly under Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and forced the British troops to retreat at the Battle of Tanga (November 2/4, 1914). Thanks to the German strategy of retreats and guerrilla tactics, the Schutztruppe was able to hold on to German East Africa until the end of the war. The German colonies in the Pacific, where no Schutztruppen were stationed, were handed over to Japan, Australia and New Zealand almost without a fight. The German colony of Kiautschou was fiercely defended during the siege of Tsingtau until material and ammunition were used up (surrender November 7, 1914).
The war year 1915
On February 4, the German Reich officially announced the submarine war against merchant ships on February 18. The waters around Great Britain and Ireland were declared a war zone against the protest of neutral states, although not enough submarines were available to effectively blockade Great Britain. With the use of submarines against merchant ships, Germany broke new ground militarily and internationally. Submarines could only imperfectly comply with the rules of prisen law, especially since the increasing armament of British merchant ships endangered the safety of the boats.
In addition, the submarine commanders were not given clear execution instructions. The naval leadership obviously assumed that most of the sinkings would take place without warning and thus a deterrent would be achieved against neutral shipping. However, due to the protests of neutral states after the German announcement, the submarine war was formally restricted to the extent that no neutral ships could be attacked.
On May 7, the German submarine U-20 sank the British passenger ship Lusitania, which triggered a wave of protests, especially in the USA. More than 200 Americans were on board the Lusitania when it left the port of New York on May 1, 1915, although the German embassy in Washington had warned in advertisements against using British ships to cross to the United Kingdom.
For the Americans, the sinking of the Lusitania and the death of many Americans meant a shock that made them realize how difficult it was to stay out of the world war. When the passenger steamer was sunk on May 7, 1198, passengers and crew members died, including nearly 100 children and 127 Americans.
There was outrage in America, followed by a change of notes between the American and German governments. On 1 and 6 June, the Emperor agreed to the Chancellor’s request (at that time still supported by the OHL on this issue) that German submarines should not sink neutral ships and generally no large passenger steamers. Grand Admiral Tirpitz and Admiral Gustav Bachmann therefore immediately submitted farewell requests, which the Emperor rejected in a harsh manner.
After the sinking of the steamer Arabicon on 19 August 1915 by U 24, in which Americans were killed again, Ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff made clear the now applicable restrictions of the American government (Arabic pledge). The German press was informed at the end of August and its editors-in-chief – explicitly Ernst Graf zu Reventlow, but also Georg Bernhard – were instructed by the General Staff to immediately stop the campaigns led by some newspapers for the unlimited submarine war and against the USA (on the basis of their grades).
Germany seeks the decision to go to war on the Eastern Front
On the Eastern Front, the German army defeated the Russians in the winter battle in Masuria from 2 to 27 February with the help of the newly arrived 10th Army. The Russian troops then finally withdrew from East Prussia.
In November 1914, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich von Ludendorff, as his Chief of Staff, had received the High Command of all German troops of the Eastern Front and had since successfully campaigned for an attempt at a war decision in the East in 1915. The aim of the German leadership was to prepare for the blowing up of the opposing coalition by weakening Russia. Since the general situation in the east – almost all of Galicia was occupied by Russia – made a separate peace advance on the part of the Central Powers seem a little promising for the time being, the pressure on Russia was to be increased by military means and a favorable impression on the neutral states, especially in the Balkans, was to be achieved.
Above all, Italy’s expected entry into the war threatened a dangerous strategic situation for Austria-Hungary: the Russians had been able to assert themselves in the winter battle in the Carpathians, and when Italy entered the war, a large-scale pincer movement (between the Isonzo and the Carpathians) could have meant the military end of the Danube Monarchy. A breakthrough in western Galicia to the San was to force the Russian forces to withdraw from the mountains, otherwise, they would have to fear confinement. For this purpose, parts of the Western Army (the 11th Army under August von Mackensen) were transferred to the Eastern Front in the spring of 1915.
From 1 to 10 May, the Battle of Gorlice-Tarnów took place east of Krakow, during which the German and Austro-Hungarian troops (4th Army) managed an unexpectedly deep break-in into the Russian positions, already reaching the San in mid-May. The battle marked a turning point on the Eastern Front. The success could not hide the fact that from the beginning of the war until March 1915 Austria-Hungary had to bear losses of almost 2 million men and was increasingly dependent on massive German aid.
At the end of June, the Central Powers continued their attack with the bow offensive. After the reconquest of Przemyśl on June 4 and Lviv on June 22, the constriction of the front arch in Russian Poland seemed tangible, with coordinated attacks from the north and south the Russian units were to be trapped there, the Supreme Army Command – with such a success in mind – postponed attacks on other fronts. However, this planning by Ludendorff seemed too ambitious to Falkenhayn and Mackensen – in view of the experiences in the Marne Battle – and was reduced accordingly.
The Bug Offensive (June 29 to September 30) and the Narew Offensive (July 13 to August 24) did not lead to the containment of large units, but the Russian army could be forced to the “Great Retreat”: evacuation of Poland, Lithuania and large parts of Courland and shortening of the Russian front from 1600 to 1000 kilometers. By September, the Central Powers had succeeded in capturing important cities such as Warsaw (August 4), Brest-Litovsk and Vilnius.
In Russian Poland, two general governments were created by the occupying powers: an Austrian one in Lublin and a German one based in Warsaw. In “Upper East”, de facto a military state in the areas under German supreme command except for Russian Poland, an occupation policy was subsequently pursued for the intensive economic exploitation of the country and its human resources. Towards the end of September, further offensives by the 10th Army under Ludendorff against Minsk and the Austrian troops against Rovno failed. Despite the overall higher losses of the Russian army, it remained numerically superior after the conclusion of the Great Retreat (September 1915), the planned relocation of large parts of the German troops to the Western Front could not take place to the extent hoped for.
The Western Front in 1915
On the Western Front, the Allies initially pursued the classic strategy of constricting the large German front arch between Lille in the north and Verdun in the south by pressing the two flanks, interrupting as far as possible the railway lines important for supplies. As part of this strategy, the Winter Battle of Champagne ( until the end of March), which had already been prepared at the end of 1914, first took place, in which the type of material slaughter developed: days of artillery shelling escalating to drum fire, which intended the massive demoralization and material wear and tear of the enemy, which was followed by the massive attack of the infantry.
However, this tactic did not lead to success, as the Germans were prepared for the attack by the shelling and were able to repel him from the well-developed shelters with barrage and machine guns due to structural advantages of the defender in trench warfare. Allied attacks on the small, strategically threatening front arch of Saint-Mihiel (Easter Battleor First Woëvre Battle between Meuse and Moselle) also failed.
The use of poison gas on the first day of the Second Battle of Flanders, April 22, is considered a “new chapter in the history of warfare” and the “birth of modern weapons of mass destruction”. Although irritants had already been used by the Allies in the gas war during the First World War, since deadly chlorine gas was used on 22 April, the attack was internationally regarded as a clear violation of the Hague Land War Regulations and was used for propaganda purposes. The gas attack was carried out with Haber’s blowing method, which depended on the wind direction.
As early as March, pioneers installed concealed gas cylinders in the foremost trenches near Ypres, from which the gas was to be blown off. Since east winds are relatively rare in West Flanders, the attack had to be postponed several times. On April 22, there was a steady north wind, so the gas was blown off at the northern part of the Allied front arc around Ypres. The effect was much more serious than expected: the French 87th and 45th (Algerian) Divisions fled in panic, opening up a six-kilometer-wide gap in the Allied front. The number of dead in this gas attack was given as up to 5000 at the time, today’s estimates are about 1200 dead and 3000 wounded.
The German leadership had not expected such an effect and probably, therefore, did not provide sufficient reserves for a further advance, apart from that the gas affected the attackers. The front arch of Ypres was only reduced in size during the Second Battle of Flanders and could be held by the British troops and the newly arrived Canadian division at the front. Due to the use of gas, the losses of the defenders were significantly higher than those of the attackers (about 70,000 to 35,000), which was unusual for trench warfare in the First World War.
On May 9, the British and French attempted a breakthrough in Artois in the Battle of Loretto. Despite enormous losses (111,000 Allied and 75,000 German soldiers), this was only partially successful and was aborted in mid-June. On the German side, it was increasingly possible to further expand the structural advantages of the defender in trench warfare through tactical changes: While traditionally the defense had been concentrated on a first line in the front slope position (best overview and wide field of fire), the German troops increasingly moved to shift the center of gravity of the defense to the second line in the backhand position due to the material superiority of the Allies.
On the one hand, this left enough time for the advance of reserves at the Allied breakthrough, on the other hand, the superior Allied artillery was no longer accurate enough to eliminate the German positions due to a lack of direct visibility.
The last major fighting on the Western Front of the war year 1915 was Allied offensives between September 22 and October 14, again in Artois and Champagne. The Autumn Battle of Champagne and the Autumn Battle of La Bassée and Arras brought hardly any results with high losses and successively increasing use of materials: “The troops of the Entente had to pay for minimal terrain gains with losses of up to a quarter of a million men.”
The Gallipoli Enterprise of the Allies
On February 19, the Allied Dardanelles operation began with British and French warships shelling the Turkish coastal forts along the Dardanelles. Initially, deminers tried to clear the Turkish mine barriers in the strait in order to reach the destination of Constantinople directly. The intention of the Allies was to force the Ottoman Empire out of the war by threatening its capital and to open the supply route to Russia through the Dardanelles.
On March 18, a breakthrough attempt was made by the naval forces under Admiral John de Robeck, sinking three Allied battleships and damaging others. As a result, the Allied governments decided to force the opening of the Dardanelles with the landing of ground troops. Previously, British military officials had considered landing troops at Alexandretta to separate the southern areas of the Ottoman Empire from the Anatolian heartland.
On April 25, the Allied landing began on the Gallipoli peninsula and on the opposite Asian coast at Kum Kale. Allied troops had previously occupied the island of Limnos, among other things, in defiance of Greek neutrality, in order to use it as a starting point for attacks against the Ottoman Empire. 200 merchant ships – backed by 11 warships – dropped 78,000 British soldiers of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force and 17,000 French soldiers of the Corps expéditionnaire d’Orient, including the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) in its first war mission.
The attack failed due to the unexpectedly fierce Turkish resistance, with Mustafa Kemal, in particular, standing out as commander of the 19th Division in the 5th Ottoman Army under the command of Otto Liman von Sanders and laying the foundation for his reputation as a folk hero. The operation, in which a total of over 500,000 Allied soldiers were deployed, had to be aborted by 9 January 1916 with a comprehensive amphibious evacuation. In the battle, 110,000 soldiers from both sides lost their lives.
Italy’s entry into the war
On May 23, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary. Since January, Germany had previously put pressure on Austria to cede Trentino and other territories to Italy in order to at least ensure its neutrality. Even after the termination of the Tri-League on 4 May, Italy was presented with ever more extensive offers, such as the cession of Trentino and the Isonzo region on 10 May, largely a free hand in Albania and much more. On the other hand, Italy had negotiated with the Allies and obtained more far-reaching commitments on the part of the Allies in the London Treaty on 26 April in the event of a war entry. Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino had decided after months of tactics with the express consent of King Victor Emmanuel III to declare war on Austria.
They followed the pressure of public opinion, although there was neither a majority for the war in the population nor in parliament at the time of the declaration of war. The proponents of the war against Austria were far more active and were able to unite the most important Italian opinion leaders from all political directions. Political irredentism, for example, could fall back on Cesare Battisti. Gabriele D’Annunzio – writer and later pioneer of European fascism – organized popular events and mass demonstrations for the war in Rome, the socialist publicist Benito Mussolini had been pleading for war since October 1914, which led to his expulsion from the Partito Socialista Italiano. Mussolini then founded his own newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia – presumably financed by France – with which he continued to demand Italy’s entry into the war on the side of the Entente.
The proponents of the war received further public support from the Futurists around Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Although the parliament supported the neutrality course of the majority leader and former prime minister Giovanni Giolitti shortly before the declaration of war, which earned him calls for murder from D’Annunzio, the parliament was not the actual place of the political decision. When it was convened on 20 May on the occasion of the granting of the war credits, only the socialists voted against the loans, while the former opponents of the war, such as the Giolitti supporters and the Catholics, tried to prove their patriotic attitude by accepting the war credits.
The Italian front ran from the Stelvio Pass on the Swiss border via Tyrol along the Dolomites, the Carnic Alps and the Isonzo to the coast of the Adriatic Sea. As a result, Austria-Hungary was now in a three-front war, which made the situation of the Central Powers more difficult. The Austrians were also unable to adequately secure parts of the Italian front at the beginning of the fighting, often only local militias, Landwehr and Landsturm were used, including 30,000 marksmen. Fighting began on the Isonzo immediately after the declaration of war, the actual beginning of the First Isonzo Battle is scheduled for June 23. Despite great superiority and territorial gains, the Italians did not achieve a decisive breakthrough either in this battle (until 7 July) or in the immediately following Second Isonzo Battle (17 July to 3 August).
This also applies to the Third and Fourth Isonzo Battles, high losses of people and material were accompanied by no changes to the overall strategic picture. The First Dolomite Offensive (5 July to 4 August) as the actual beginning of the Alpine War also fit into this picture, it also formed another novelty in military history: Never before had there been long-lasting combat operations in the high mountains, which took place up to an altitude of 3900 meters above sea level (Ortler position).
Since the Battle of Sarıkamış, the Young Turkish leadership increasingly suspected Armenians of sabotage. When the Russians approached Lake Van in mid-April, five Armenian local leaders were executed in the region. This and other incidents led to unrest in Van. On April 24, a wave of arrests of Armenian intellectuals began in Constantinople (today’s national day of remembrance in Armenia). On May 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sasonov issued an international note of protest (already prepared on April 27) claiming that the population of more than 100 Armenian villages had been massacred and that representatives of the Turkish government had coordinated the killings.
The next day (May 25), Ottoman Interior Minister Talât Pasha announced that the Armenians would be deported from the war zone to Syria and Mosul. On May 27 and 30, the government of the Ottoman Empire enacted a deportation law, thus beginning the systematic phase of the Armenian genocide and the genocide of the Assyrians. The German ambassador Hans von Wangenheim reported to Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg in June about Talât Pasha’s view that “the gate wanted to use the world war to thoroughly clean up its internal enemies – the native Christians – without being disturbed by the diplomatic intervention of foreign countries”.
Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, the German vice-consul in Erzerum, also reported at the end of July “that the ultimate goal [of] the action against the Armenians is the complete extermination of the Armenians in Turkey”.The German ambassador and successor of Wangenheim Paul Metternich tried to intervene with the Turkish government in December 1915 on behalf of the Armenians and proposed to the German Reich government to make the deportations and riots public. However, this was not approved by Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, he rather noted: “The proposed public co-ordination of an ally during the current war would be a measure that has not yet been seen in history.
Our only goal is to keep Turkey by our side until the end of the war, regardless of whether Armenians perish or not.”An intervention by Pope Benedict XV, who addressed himself directly to Mohammed V, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, came too late. The genocide claimed an estimated one million lives by the end of the war and was already referred to as the “Holocaust” in its predecessors (massacres and pogroms in 1895/96 and the massacre of Adana in 1909).
Bulgaria’s entry into the war and the Serbian campaign of the Central Powers
The Central Powers received reinforcements on 14 October 1915 with Bulgaria’s entry into the war. Bulgaria had not been able to assert its territorial claims to the creation of an “ethnic Bulgaria” in the Balkan Wars, practically all conquests made in the First Balkan War had to be relinquished in the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913, the country was also considerably weakened by the wars.
On August 1, 1914, the government of Vasil Radoslavov had initially declared Bulgaria’s strict neutrality. The Central Powers and the Allies subsequently sought Bulgaria, which in turn was able to make its participation in the war dependent on the respective offer. Here the Central Powers were in a better starting position, they could more easily accommodate the territorial interests at the expense of Serbia and, if necessary, Romania and Greece (whose entry into the war was expected on the part of the Allies) than the Allies, so the Bulgarians Macedonia, the Dobruja and Eastern Thrace were promised.
Accordingly, and due to the relatively favorable course of the war in the autumn of 1915, Bulgaria awarded the contract to the Central Powers. Already on September 6, Bulgaria had agreed to cooperate with the Central Powers, which wanted to establish a land connection to the Ottoman Empire by attacking Serbia. The participation in the war was extremely controversial in Bulgaria, after the government’s decision to enter the war, the opposition parties – with the exception of parts of the Social Democrats – supported the war course. On October 6, under the command of Mackensen, the offensive of the Central Powers against Serbia began, on October 14, Bulgaria declared war on Serbia.
Thus, the Serbs faced a considerable superiority, which could not be compensated by the Allies with a landing of troops north of Thessaloniki. Greece refused to enter the war on the part of Serbia, citing insufficient Allied support, despite its commitment to support Serbia in a bilateral treaty on 1 June 1913. After the fall of Belgrade (9 October) and Niš (5 November), the remnants of the Serbian army (about 150,000 men; at the beginning of the war: 360,000 men) under the leadership of Radomir Putnik withdrew with about 20,000 prisoners of war to the Albanian and Montenegrin mountains; after its reformation in Corfu, it was later used again on the Salonika front. Occupied Serbia was divided between Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria.
Other side fronts in 1915
The Battle of Sarıkamış on the Caucasus front ends on January 5, 1915, with a heavy defeat for the Ottoman Empire. On the Palestine front, Ottoman troops under Friedrich Freiherr Kreß von Kressen Stein undertook an unsuccessful offensive against the Suez Canal from the end of January.
The surrender of the German Schutztruppe in July 1915 ended the fighting in southwestern Africa.
At the end of November, the British advance on the Mesopotamia front (now Iraqi territory) at the Battle of Ctesiphon (22-25 November) was stopped by the Ottoman army under the de facto command of Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz and the Expeditionary Corps of the British Indian Army was trapped in Kut on 7 December (→ siege of Kut).
Political and social developments
Joseph Joffre, commander-in-chief of all French troops since the beginning of December, convened an Allied conference in Chantillyein from 6 to 8 December, where the Grand Quartier Général had been based since October 1914. In order to deprive the Central Powers of the advantages of the “Inner Line”, coordinated attacks on all fronts were agreed for mid-1916. The British government under Herbert Henry Asquith had to be reshuffled in May of this year due to the unfavorable war situation, especially in the Dardanelles, with the involvement of the hitherto opposition Conservatives. The coalition government under Asquith included an ammunition ministry in response to the ammunition crisis of the spring of 1915.
In October and November, in view of the tightened food restrictions in front of grocery stores, dispensaries and free benches, there were initially riots in Germany, but increasingly also protest meetings of predominantly female demonstrators. On November 30, 58 women were arrested at a protest meeting in Berlin on Unter den Linden, and the press was not allowed to report on them.
Already in November 1914, the prices for grain, bread, butter and potatoes had risen sharply, the urban markets were at this time only hesitantly or not at all supplied by the farmers. The reasons for the supply problems lay in the organizational inability of the authorities – no one had expected and prepared a long war – as well as in the elimination of food and saltpeter imports (the latter for fertilizer production), and horses and workers were deprived of agriculture by the war. At the end of 1914, the Federal Council set maximum prices for bread, potatoes and sugar, followed in January 1915 by other staple foods, so that farmers increasingly tried to market their goods in the “surreptitious trade”. At the end of 1915, an observer noted: “Inflation has taken on a threatening character […]
The change in mood in recent weeks, since the beginning of the stricter food restrictions, is very strong. Especially the women become rabid […] the women shout ‘Give us food!’ and ‘we want our men’”. In view of the flourishing black market, the population believed less and less the official propaganda according to which the English naval blockade alone was responsible for the poor food supply. The consequence of the incompetence of the state in the food question was a gradual “alienation of the citizens from the state, even an actual ‘delegitimization’ of the state”, which began at the latest at the end of 1915.
On 27 November, the Reichstag parliamentary group and the SPD party executive decided to introduce a “peace interpellation” in the Reichstag with the question of when and under what conditions Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg intends to initiate peace negotiations. Bethmann Hollweg tried unsuccessfully to withdraw the interpellation, and on 9 December it was dealt with in the Reichstag. The Reich Chancellor answered the question put by Philipp Scheidemann to the extent that “safeguards” (annexations) in East and West were indispensable for peace, abroad this was regarded as a “hegemonic”. As a result, 20 Social Democratic deputies rejected the renewed approval of war credits in the Reichstag session on 21 December and issued a statement that Bethmann Hollweg favored “annexation drivers”.
The war year 1916
Occupation of Montenegro and Albania
On 4 January Austrian troops attacked the Kingdom of Montenegro, on 23 January King Nikola capitulated and went into exile in France (→ campaign in Montenegro and Austro-Hungarian occupation of Montenegro 1916–1918). The Principality of Albania was also occupied by about two-thirds by the Austro-Hungarian army (→ Austro-Hungarian occupation of Albania 1916–1918).
The Serbian troops who had fled to Montenegro and Albania largely retreated to Durrës, where an Italian expeditionary force had landed in December 1915. In March 1916, the Italians evacuated 260,000 people from this port. Among them were 140,000 Serbian soldiers who were embarked on the island of Corfu, which had previously been annexed by the French, where they reorganized militarily (transferred to the Oriental Army in Thessaloniki in June), the Serbian government in exile under the leadership of Nikola Pašić established its headquarters in Corfu.
Among the evacuees evacuated from Durrës were 24,000 Austrian prisoners of war who were taken to the Sardinian island of Asinara, where about 5,000 died. The Italians were able to hold the port city of Vlora in Albania and thus expand their sphere of influence in southern Albania. In Montenegro, Viktor Weber Edler von Webenau was military governor-general from 26 February 1916 to 10 July 1917. In Albania, which was not an active participant in the war, a civilian administrative council was established under the chairmanship of Consul General August Ritter von Kral. Through the participation of Albanian leaders and the expansion of schools and infrastructure, the occupying power tried to win over the Albanians.
Battle of Verdun
On February 21, the Battle of Verdun began. In contrast to later depictions of Erich von Falkenhayn, adopted by many authors, the original intention of the attack was not to let the French army “bleed itself dry” without spatial targets. With this assertion made in 1920, Falkenhayn tried to give the failed attack and the negative German myth of the “blood mill” an alleged meaning afterward.
Originally, the idea of the attack at Verdun came from Crown Prince Wilhelm, Commander-in-Chief of the 5th Army, with Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, Chief of Staff of the 5th Army, in charge. The German army command decided to attack the originally strongest fortress in France, which had been partially disarmed since 1915, in order to get the war on the Western Front moving again. Around Verdun, there was also an indentation of the front between the front arch of St. Mihiel in the east and Varennes in the west, whereby the German front was threatened in its flanks.
A capture of the city itself was not the primary goal of the operation, but the heights of the east bank of the Meuse, in order to bring its own artillery into a dominant situation analogous to the siege of Port Arthur and thus make Verdun untenable. Falkenhayn said that France could be persuaded, for reasons of national prestige, to accept unacceptable losses in defense of Verdun. In order to keep Verdun, a reconquest of the heights occupied by German artillery would have been necessary if the plan was successful, which was almost impossible against the background of the experiences from the battles in 1915.
In the first phase, after eight hours of barrage from 1500 gun barrels, eight German divisions of the 5th Army attacked over a width of 13 kilometers near Ornes (today Wüstung) in the north of Verdun. Contrary to German expectations, the French provided fierce resistance, terrain gains were initially hardly recorded. On February 25, Fort Douaumont was captured by German troops, which had little tactical significance due to the eastern orientation of this fortress.
On the occasion of the loss of the fort, the French decided that the fortress of Verdun should be kept. General Pétain was entrusted with the defense of the city. Via the only connecting road from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun (stylized as the “Voie Sacrée”) it was possible to build the so-called Noria – the supply via this road was carried out with great effort. The battle took place in four phases: the first ended on 4 March, as The French artillery shelling from the heights west of the Meuse brought the German advance to a halt.
In the second phase, Falkenhayn gave in to the urging of the 5th Army and launched attacks on these ridges. The height “Le Mort Homme” (“Dead Man”) was taken several times, but not held for very long. Le Mort Homme and altitude 304 are considered a symbol of the “Hell of Verdun” because of the brutal fighting, Le Mort Homme lost six meters in height due to the shelling.
In the third phase, the attackers again focused on taking Verdun itself. On June 7, early in the morning, Fort Vauxwegen capitulated to a lack of water, on June 23, an attack on the Vaux-Fleury line began with 78,000 men, which also got stuck. In the short term, the German troops managed to push beyond this in a fourth phase until 11 July, and fierce fighting broke out around the Ouvrage de Thiaumont (immediately southwest of Douaumont). At Fort de Souville (about five kilometers northeast of Verdun) and in front of the Ouvrage de Froideterre, the German attack finally got stuck, Falkenhayn ordered the cessation of the offensive on the afternoon of July 12 in view of this and bearing in mind the Allied attack on the Somme that began on July 1.
Resignation of Tirpitz and Skagerrakschlacht
At the beginning of 1916, the German leadership again discussed the question of an intensified submarine war against Great Britain. After the elimination of Serbia, Falkenhayn considered the time had come to act more actively against Great Britain in support of the Verdun offensive, accepting a break with the USA. He was encouraged by assurances from Admiral Chief of Staff Henning von Holtzendorff that Britain could be brought to its knees within a year. In negotiations, the Reich Chancellor achieved a postponement of the decision by the Emperor and a provisional compromise: intensification of the submarine war (including the sinking of armed merchant ships without warning), but no return to unrestricted submarine warfare.
At the beginning of March, a campaign initiated by the Reichsmarineamt by sections of the press in favor of an unrestricted submarine war (“Better war with America than starvation”) began, but this greatly angered the emperor (“His Majesty sees in this an outrageous procedure, in the last place the person of the emperor as the supreme head of imperial politics and warfare before the whole people), so that Alfred von Tirpitz had to resign from his post on March 15. The intensification of the submarine war was reversed in April after the Sussex incident.
On 31 May and 1 June, the Battle of Jutland took place rather unintentionally and thus – measured by the tonnage of the ships involved (about 1.8 million tons displacement) – “the largest naval battle in world history”. More than 8600 sailors died, including the writer Gorch Fock. With luck and tactical skill, the German high seas fleet escaped annihilation by the British superiority and was able to inflict significantly higher losses on the British than vice versa. However, this did not change the strategic location and thus only confirmed British naval rule.
Brusilov Offensive and Somme Battle
According to the agreement in the Chantilly Conference, three major Allied offensives were planned for mid-1916: the attack on the Somme, the Brusilov offensive and another Isonzo battle. The attack on the Somme on 1 July was originally planned under French leadership, but due to the Battle of Verdun, it was largely taken over by the British. On the Italian front, the 6th Isonzo Battle did not begin until 4 August, because because of the German attack on Verdun at the request of the Allies, an attack (5th Isonzo Battle) had already taken place on 11 March and the Austrians had opened the South Tyrol Offensive on 15 May (until 18 June), for which the Brusilov Offensive was brought forward and began on 4 June.
With the Brusilov offensive, the most successful Allied large-scale attack to date began on 4 June. Alexei Brusilov, the new commander-in-chief of the Russian Southern Army since March, had drawn tactical consequences from the previous failures: in contrast to the previous approach, the attack took place on a broad front (400 kilometers as the crow flies) so that the enemy could not concentrate troops at a predictable decisive point; the attacking infantry was protected by deep shelters driven up to 50 meters to enemy lines (previously, attacks over up to 1600 meters of no man’s land were common, resulting in significant losses).
Although Brusilov’s numerical superiority was not great (too small for an attack), the 8th Russian Army was able to almost completely smash the 4th Imperial and Royal Army east of Kovel by June 8, the 9th Russian Army rubbed up the 7th Imperial and Royal Army in the south between the Dniester and the Carpathians and conquered important cities such as Chernivtsi and Kolomea. The losses for Austria-Hungary amounted to 624,000 men.
Brusilov was able to advance far (up to 120 kilometers), especially near the Romanian border, which was the decisive factor in Romania for the entry into the war on the part of the Allies. Logistical problems, however, prevented an even further advance, in addition, supporting attacks according to the old pattern (on a narrow front section) in the area of the Pripjet swamps and at Baranawitschy failed, as well as the attempt to take the kovel transport hub. “Nevertheless, the Brusilov offensive – by the scale of the First World War, in which every meter of ground was fought for – was the greatest victory the Allies won on any front since trench warfare had begun on the Aisne.”
The BEF under the command of Douglas Haig took over the leadership of the attack on the Somme, as the Battle of Verdun had reduced the French contingent from 40 to 11 divisions. After eight days of uninterrupted artillery preparation by over 1500 guns, in which about one and a half million shells were fired, the attack on the German positions on the Somme began on 1 July 1916. Despite the heavy gunfire, numerous German shelters had remained intact, so that the German soldiers could counter the British attack with MG fire. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone, 19,240 British soldiers died, 8,000 of them in the first half hour.
Despite the enormous losses, Haig allowed the offensive to continue. On 15 September, the British used tanks for the first time in terms of war history. The fighting continued until 25 November, the Allies were able to push the German front in the focal point of the (as the crow flies) about 30 kilometers wide the German front by 8 to 10 kilometers. The British and French losses for this modest gain in terrain amounted to 624,000 men, on the German side the losses were 420,000 men. The figures of the German losses are controversial, British authors extrapolate the number of slightly injured – allegedly not recorded by the German medical report (there loss figure: 335,688) as in the corresponding Allied reports – and come to German losses of up to 650,000 men.
The Battle of the Somme was in any case the most costly single battle of the First World War. The 1st of July as the beginning of the battle still has a certain significance as a day of remembrance in Great Britain today. The British historian John Keegan summed up in 1998: “For the British, the Battle of the Somme was their greatest military tragedy in the 20th century, indeed in its history […]. For Britain, the Somme marked the end of an era of vibrant optimism to which it has never returned.”The announcement of the extent of the losses on the Somme in late 1916 was decisive for the change in British governance in December from Herbert Henry Asquith to David Lloyd George.
South Tyrol Offensive and Isonzo Battles
From May to June, the Austro-Hungarian army led an offensive in South Tyrol against the Italian positions, which had to be aborted after little initial success due to the situation on the Eastern Front (Brussilov offensive). The Italian army undertook several major attacks on the Isonzo from March to November (5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Isonzo Battles).
The Italians conquered the city of Gorizia and the doberdò plateau, and the Italian army failed to achieve further successes. On August 28, 1916, Italy also declared war on the German Reich. Already from May to November 1915, a reinforced German division (Alpine Corps) had been transferred to the front in South Tyrol in support of the Austro-Hungarian ally, as the OHL saw southern Germany at risk. During the mountain war in the Southern Alps, several 1000 Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers died on 13 December 1916 in dozens of avalanches. The avalanche disaster of 13 December 1916 is considered one of the worst weather-related disasters in Europe.
Romania’s entry into the war
On August 27, 1916, Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary and had in fact opened the Romanian theater of war a few days earlier. Although Romania had joined the Triple League in 1883, at the beginning of the war Romania remained neutral in its literal interpretation of the Treaty of Alliance. Domestically, Romania was initially divided, the liberals under Prime Minister Ion Brătianu favored the rapprochement with the Entente, while the majority of conservatives were more in favor of neutrality.
King Charles I was one of the few politicians who pleaded for the Central Powers to enter the war. Russia had already assured Romania of support for its territorial claims in Transylvania in an agreement of 1 October 1914. Since Romania had received the southern Dobruja after the Second Balkan War in the Peace of Bucharest, which was mainly inhabited by Bulgarians and Turks, the Bulgarian entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers was another factor that moved Romania towards the Entente. Moreover, the “Greater Romanian unification” in the form of the inclusion of the areas of Transylvania, the Banat and Bukovina belonging to Austria could only be achieved in the event of a war alliance against Vienna.
The Entente also made corresponding territorial advances (without wanting to fulfill them completely), so Romania also joined the Entente by treaty in view of the successes of the Brusilov offensive on 17 August 1916 (see also war aims). Initially, the numerically far superior, but poorly equipped Romanian army in Transylvania was able to achieve an extensive incursion into Hungary. The 9th German Army under the command of the former head of the OHL Falkenhayn defeated the Romanians at the Battle of Sibiu (26-29 September). In a large-scale house fight – rather atypical for the First World War – Kronstadt could be reconquered by 8 October.
The Central Powers built up a classic pincer movement: on 23 November, Bulgarian, Turkish and German troops (“Danube Army”) crossed the Danube from the southwest. Bucharest, which had been bombarded several times by airships and warplanes, was captured on 6 December. Romania’s entry into the war brought advantages to the Central Powers, as they were able to take over the oil fields of Ploiești and large agricultural capacities in the course of 1916, which initially noticeably alleviated supply shortages in Germany. With Russian help, the Romanians were only able to hold the northeast of their country, King Ferdinand evaded with the government to Iași.
Dismissal of Falkenhayn and 3rd OHL
During the severe crisis into which German warfare fell in the summer of 1916 due to the Allfront War of the Entente, Kaiser Wilhelm was increasingly attacked to finally part with Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn. Romania’s entry into the war on 27 August provided the occasion. The new leadership (from 29 August) with Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff Erich Ludendorff, also known as the 3rd OHL, broke off the offensive actions against Verdun and immediately initiated measures to increase economic mobilization; on 31 August, corresponding demands, later referred to as the Hindenburg Programme, were submitted to the Prussian War Ministry.
However, the appointment of the 3rd OHL also meant a political turnaround, which led to the de facto military dictatorship: “With the appointment of the general duo Hindenburg/Ludendorff, who were virtually irreplaceable by their nimbus, the monarch not only moved even further into the background than before in the war, but also fell into the political pull of the OHL. […] The indispensable general duo […] were […] prepared […] to intervene in politics far beyond military competences, to put the emperor under pressure and to exert decisive influence even on the selection of personnel – the center of imperial power.”
French counterattack at Verdun and replacement of Joffre
In the autumn, the French army went on the counter-offensive at Verdun. On October 24, French troops captured forts of Douaumont and Thiaumont. Further French offensives forced the Germans to evacuate Fort Vaux on December 2. The fort was blown up by German pioneers after its evacuation. By December 16, the French had reconquered almost all the territories that the Germans had taken in their offensive in the spring.
The Battle of Verdun claimed 337,000 casualties to the Germans (including 143,000 dead), 377 000 to the French (162,000 dead). At least 36 million shells had fallen on the battlefield, which is about 30 kilometers wide and 10 kilometers deep.
Since the French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre was accused of the misunderstanding of the German intention to attack at Verdun as well as the bloody and useless offensives in the Champagne and the Somme, he increasingly came under criticism. On 3 December he was replaced by General Robert Nivelle (1856–1924), who had led the successful counter-offensive at Verdun and had thus recommended himself for the leadership of the Allied spring offensive planned for the next year. Nivelle was initially preferred to Philippe Pétain, the successful defender and “hero of Verdun”, who was considered too defensive.
Regency Kingdom of Poland and Peace Initiatives
On November 5, the Russian part of Poland, which until 1915, was proclaimed an independent kingdom by the Central Powers. However, expectations regarding substantial military support from Poland were not fulfilled, only a small national Polish volunteer contingent – until July under the leadership of Józef Piłsudski – fought on the side of the Central Powers. This contingent was declared part of the Polish Wehrmacht. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers of Polish nationality also served as respective “subjects” in the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian armed forces, without forming separate national units.
After the capture of Bucharest, the Central Powers made an offer of peace to the Allies on December 12, which the latter rejected on December 30.
While the Entente’s deliberations were still in progress, which preceded their response, American President Woodrow Wilson surprisingly addressed his own peace note to the warring parties on December 21, 1916. He tried to give the peace process a clearer direction by calling on the belligerent powers to clarify and publicly announce their war aims and to explore an understanding on this basis. Both the Allies and Germany reacted cautiously to dismissively to the mediation attempt. While the Entente emphasized the sole guilt of Germany and its allies, with whom it did not want to be put on a par, and listed some goals that were hardly acceptable to the Central Powers, the German government refused to allow America to participate in peace negotiations and to publish conditions.
The war year 1917
Intensification of submarine warfare and entry of the United States into the war
On 8 and 9 January 1917, after a long period of pressure (since January 1916, ultimately since December 1916), the Supreme Army Command obtained the Emperor’s approval to resume unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February. The previous peace offer of the Central Powers (see above) and its expected rejection also served the domestic and foreign policy preparation of this step. But it was not until the Allies’ response to Woodrow Wilson’s unexpected offer of mediation (dated 18 December 1916), which became known on 12 January, that brought about a far-reaching domestic political solidarity. Wilson had requested, among other things, the disclosure of the respective war goals.
Theodor Wolff, editor-in-chief of the Berliner Tageblatt, who is otherwise quite critical of the government, noted on 12 and 13 January: “The Entente’s response note to Wilson has been published. It announces the war aims of the Entente. Separation of the formerly conquered provinces and territories from Germany, complete dissolution of Austria-Hungary according to the nationality principle, expulsion of Turkey from Europe, etc. enormous effect.
Deep delight in the All-Germans and similar elements. No one can still claim that the Entente does not want a war of annihilation and is ready for negotiations. […] As a result of the Entente response, the emperor makes an appeal to the people. Everything is now in preparation for unlimited submarine warfare.”The Central Powers rejected Wilson’s mediation proposal and at the same time informed the US on January 31 of the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. On February 3, the U.S. responded by severing diplomatic relations with Germany.
On April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war on the German Reich after President Wilson had called on the U.S. Congress four days earlier to participate in the crusade of “peace-loving” democracies against the “military-aggressive” autocracies of the earth. Both houses of Congress overwhelmingly agreed. The deeper causes of this development initially lay in the view that the respective ideas of a global post-war order were mutually exclusive and that the German continental European hegemonic intentions and global political ambitions could not be reconciled with American interests.
Even before the war, the United States had increasingly come to believe that the political strategy associated with the Tirpitz Plan was in the long term contrary to American interests, including the Monroedoktrin. Furthermore, the attitude of leading American scholars and politicians at the beginning of the 20th century was characterized by a deep mistrust of the German claim to cultural superiority and the German idea of the state. The increasing economic ties with the Entente since the beginning of the war, reports of actual and alleged German war atrocities such as the Bryce Report and ship sinkings with American victims – namely those of the RMS Lusitania – intensified the anti-German sentiment. Initially, however, the increasing armament efforts since the beginning of the war were not aimed at entering the war, but at the potential war after this war.
While still campaigning for the presidential election of November 7, 1916, Wilson focused on maintaining American neutrality, which, after Wilson’s election victory, was conducive to the decision of the German Reich leadership to further escalate warfare. Decisive for the development towards entering the war was the German reaction to Wilson’s peace initiative of 18 December 1916 (see above). The confidential and immediately relativized transmission of the German peace conditions – de facto a rejection of the mediation offer – took place at the same time as the announcement of the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Reich. Germany explained that ships of neutral states, including the USA, would also be sunk in a war zone defined by Germany. Wilson took this first in disbelief and then with deep disappointment.
Although the majority of Wilson’s advisers – especially Robert Lansing and Edward Mandell House – were now definitively pushing for war, Wilson only broke off diplomatic relations with the Empire on February 3 and wanted to wait and see whether the Reich leadership made good on its threat. On February 24, the American government became aware of an intercepted telegram from the Secretary of State at the Federal Foreign Office, the Zimmermann cable, which was published in The New York Times on March 1.
In it, Germany made an offer of alliance to the government of Mexico in the event of war, signaling “ample financial support and consent” if Mexico “retakes previously lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona.”After this news, there could no longer be any doubt about the readiness of the American population to go to war, and in March American citizens were again killed by German submarine attacks. After the declaration of war on Germany, the declaration of war on Austria-Hungary took place in December 1917.
Hunger Winter in Germany
In the winter of 1916/17, several developments came together that led to the so-called turnip winter, including a particularly poor harvest due to the weather. The distorted price structure (see above) meant that it was more profitable for producers to use potatoes and bread cereals as feed or to sell them to distilleries. In February, the average daily ration dropped to 1,000 kilocalories per day (average requirement: 2,410 kilocalories), which escalated difficulties in the food supply. At the same time, the turnip winter caused a deep cut in the collective perception of social solidarity (producers versus consumers) and the state’s ability to provide food.
Revolution in Russia
The demands of the first “industrial” war increasingly exceeded the forces of the Russian Empire, which was largely dominated by agriculture, and led to an escalation of the already serious social problems. In addition, there was the naval blockade of the Baltic Sea and the Dardanelles, which played a major role in the exhaustion of Russia in the course of the war: before the war, 70 percent of imports went through the Baltic Sea to the Tsarist Empire, the remaining 30 percent ran predominantly over the Black Sea.
Against the background of the war burdens, increasing inflation and above all due to the severe lack of food, primarily workers’ and soldiers’ women and, for the first time, peasant women organized mass demonstrations in Petrograd on February 23 / March 8 (therefore a late date of International Women’s Day), which already attacked the Petrograd garrison troops on February 26 / March 11 and expanded into the February Revolution.
As in 1905, workers’ committees formed councils (soviets) that represented the demands of the demonstrators and tried to enforce them politically. At the head of the councils was an executive committee, which was initially composed mainly of Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. On March 1 / March 14, the Petrograd Soviet issued Order No. 1, according to which only orders of the government that did not contradict those of the Soviet were to be followed – which the Soviet was able to enforce.
In parallel, the bourgeois parties represented in the Duma formed a provisional government under Prime Minister Georgi Lvov and were able to persuade the Tsar to abdicate (3 March / 16 March). This led to a state of limbo between the provisional government and the Soviets, known as “dual power”. To the disappointment of large parts of the Russian population, the provisional government decided to continue the war, the Soviets in their composition at that time followed the course of the government on this point. The Allies viewed the events in Russia mostly positively, because Russia, as an anti-democratic state, posed a problem for Allied propaganda, which always emphasized the struggle of democracy against arbitrary rule.
The German leadership made it possible for Lenin and 30 other leading Bolsheviks – partly on a German train – to return to Russia from exile in Switzerland via Finland on 21 March / 3 April. The “Bolshevik” (majority) wing of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, whose leaders had mostly lived in exile since the 1905 revolution, had tried from the beginning of the war to mobilize against the war policy of its own government and propagated the “transformation of the current imperialist war into civil war”, but initially without much success. The Reich government, which had established contact with Lenin, who lived in Switzerland, through the intermediary Alexander Parvus, subsequently supported the revolutionaries with large amounts of money (probably several million marks) in order to destabilize the Russian state.
Immediately after his return, Lenin published his April Theses on April 7 / 20, in which he set out his views on the further development of the revolution and demanded the immediate end of the war, which met with great approval among the war-weary population. The publication of the Milyukov note (continuation of the war, no special peace) on the “day of struggle of the workers’ movement” (April 18 / May 1) further fueled the already heated mood of the demonstrating masses and triggered the “April crisis”, which led to a government reshuffle with the participation of the moderate-left parties represented in the Soviets.
Alexander Kerensky – Minister of War in the first coalition government formed on 6 May / 19 May and at the same time Deputy Chairman of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviet – pushed through the implementation of a Kerensky offensive later named after him with the goals of Brzezany, Lviv and Vilnius, in accordance with his concept of “peace without defeat”. The attack began on 29 June with artillery shelling of unprecedented intensity on the Eastern Front, with a focus on the Stanislau area, beyond which the Russian army advanced to Kalusz (11 July), only to become entrenched.
The attack also failed on the other front sections. As a result, there were mass demonstrations and the dissolution of the Russian army, Kerensky stopped the offensive on July 25. In a counterattack, the Central Powers advanced as far as Tarnopol and Chernivtsi (3 August), which was accompanied by the reconquest of eastern Galicia and Bukovina. In Russia itself, there was an attempted coup by the Bolsheviks at the beginning of July, which was crushed by the military. Lenin then fled to Finland. In September, German troops captured the city of Riga and in October in Operation Albion the Baltic islands of Ösel, Dagö and Moon, after which the military resistance of the Russian army almost collapsed.
When General Kornilov attempted a coup at the end of September, Kerensky had to resort to the Bolsheviks to defend the revolution, which was accompanied by de facto and legal rehabilitation. At the beginning of November, the situation in Russia escalated. The October Revolution of October 24 / November 6 to October 25 / November 7, led by Lenin, who had since returned from Finland, overthrew the provisional government and took power from the Bolsheviks. Already on October 26 / November 8, the new Russian rulers issued the Decree on Peace, which provided a strong military relief for the Central Powers on their Eastern Front.
On 5 December, a ten-day armistice between the Central Powers and Russia, which was later extended several times, was agreed and on 22 December in Brest-Litovsk, the initially inconclusive peace negotiations were opened, which ended on 3 March 1918 with the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk (see below).
Germany on the defensive on the Western Front
In March 1918, the German troops standing in the middle section of the Western Front on the Somme withdrew in Operation Alberich to the greatly expanded Siegfried position. This shortened the front line by 50 kilometers. The actual movement was carried out within three days, from 16 to 19 March.
This retreat and the intensification of the naval war were consequences of the major battles of 1916 at Verdun and on the Somme; the German troops were battered. The initiative came from the army group “Kronprinz Rupprecht”, which prevailed against the resistance of Ludendorff. The construction of the Siegfriedstellung was probably the largest construction project of the First World War; the work was mainly carried out by prisoners of war and forced laborers. Before the tactical retreat, German troops systematically devastated the area to be released (“scorched earth”), partially mined it (also with booby traps) and deported its inhabitants.
Villages such as Bapaume were blown up, a total of 150,000 people were deported, including about all 40,000 inhabitants of Saint-Quentin. Militarily, the operation was a success: it improved the situation of the German troops by shortening the front and retreating to the well-developed Siegfried position, the attack plans of the surprised Allies for the spring of 1917 initially came to nothing. The impact on public opinion abroad, on the other hand, was as devastating as the operation that “completely shattered civilian life and turned a historic landscape into a desert” in the affected area.
At the second conference in Chantilly (the site of the French headquarters) in November 1916, the Allies had again agreed on a combined offensive. Robert Nivelle, who was appointed joint commander-in-chief for this offensive, chose the northern French city of Arras as the starting point for an attack (Battle of Arras) by the British army (including Canadian and New Zealand units) that began on 9 April. The main attack of the French army followed a little later on the Aisne (Battle of the Aisne) and in the Champagne.
After the failure on the Somme, the Allies returned to the tactical concept of 1915: the still large German front arch between Lille in the north and Verdun in the south was to be constricted by impressions of the two flanks. The main goal of the French was the capture of the Chemin des Dames. The attack at Arras surprised the German troops under General Ludwig von Falkenhausen, who was subsequently replaced. The extent of the impending attack had remained hidden from the German Reconnaissance, not least because of 24,000 soldiers hidden in the “tunnel city” of Arras.
Apart from this, the use of materials was significantly higher than at the Somme in the previous year. The Canadians succeeded in capturing a strategically important ridge at Vimy, but the advance then got stuck. The French attack 130 kilometers further south was a failure despite gaining ground, the Chemin des Dames as an operational target could not be taken. Both offensives had to be aborted in May after heavy losses.
According to a flexible defense strategy developed by Fritz von Loßberg (“defense in depth”), the German army had begun to stagger the defenses deeper and more complex. The tanks used by the British and the French (170 in total) could not yet have a major impact due to technical problems and too few numbers. Poison gas was used by both sides, with these two battles increasingly replacing the gas grenade with the blowing process.
The failed offensive at the Chemin des Dames (Battle of the Aisne) was the cause of mutinies in 68 divisions of the French army, a total of about 40,000 men (out of 2 million). Five divisions were seriously affected; these were located directly in the south of the offensive’s offensive zone at the Chemin des Dames, between Soissons and Reims. Similar problems arose with the Russian Expeditionary Corps, which was also deployed there. In view of the initial British successes at Arras, the high expectations were particularly disappointed there.
As a rule, the mutinies did not begin with the troops in the front line, but with those in the pause in fighting on the occasion of the order to return to the front. The concrete demands were more leave at the front, better nutrition, better status for the families of the soldiers, an end to the “carnage” (protest against the methods of warfare) and occasionally also “peace” and an end to “injustice” in general (primarily in the sense of military justice). “For the most part, the mutinous soldiers had not questioned the war itself, but only protested against being slaughtered uselessly.
“On April 29, the French commander-in-chief Nivelle was replaced by General Pétain, who had organized the defense of Verdun. By switching to a defensive posture, Pétain was able to contain the unrest in the French army. He introduced a new way of fighting that resembled the German “defense in depth”. Apart from two limited, successful operations at Verdun in August and on the Aisne in October (where the Germans were thrown back behind the Ailette), the French army did not undertake any more offensives between June 1917 and July 1918.
In addition, Pétain made improvements in terms of food and rest periods for the troops. About 10 percent of the mutineers were tried, 3427 soldiers were convicted, the courts-martial handed down 554 death sentences, of which 49 were executed. During the height of the mutiny between May and June, the German troops were content to accept the passivity of the enemy, as they did not see through its causes and were bound to other fronts.
At the Battle of Messines (21 May to 7 June), the British succeeded in conquering a strategically important ridge in the south of Ypres. Miners from Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand had placed 21 large mines under the German positions in a year and a half of work, the ignition of which initiated the most effective non-nuclear explosion in war history (10,000 dead, 6,400 stunned). The conquest of the ridge secured the right flank and enabled a major Allied offensive under British leadership, the Third Battle of Flanders (31 July to 6 November).
Targets of a hoped-for breakthrough were, among others, the German submarine bases Ostend and Zeebrugge. The attack got stuck after some successes on 9 October at Langemark-Poelkapelle; in addition, the main thrust against the strategically important plateau of Geluveld failed, exposing the Allied troops to constant flank fire. After the capture of the ruins of Passchendaele by Canadian troops on 6 November, the fighting subsided – the Allies were only able to push back the German front by 8 kilometers even here and thus in the most successful section. The losses on both sides amounted to about 585,000 soldiers.
The Battle of Cambrai (20 November to 6 December) saw the first operational deployment of closed tank units, a “milestone in the history of warfare.”About 320 operational tanks of the Royal Tank Regiment – supported by 400 aircraft and six infantry and three cavalry divisions – crossed the Siegfried position after a short artillery preparation on a 15-kilometer-wide front in the area of Havrincourt and advanced about seven kilometers.
The new attack procedure was surprising, as the usual days of artillery preparation were expected for attack intentions due to the deeply structured positions. However, the breakthrough to the railway junction Cambrai did not succeed, a good third of the attacking tanks were destroyed, in a counter-offensive launched on 30 November, the German troops succeeded in recapturing most of the lost terrain. This defensive success strengthened the German army command in its miscalculation that the establishment of its own tank force was not urgent.
The side fronts
At the beginning of the year, the British renewed their offensive towards Baghdad on the Mesopotamian front, on February 24 they reached Kut al-Amara and surprisingly took Baghdad before the beginning of the rainy season on March 11, the Turks had to retreat to Mosul. The fall of Baghdad was a severe blow to Turkey and the Central Powers, as it called into question all plans in the Orient, including those associated with the Baghdad Railway. Therefore, the former Chief of The General Staff Falkenhayn was tasked with preparing the reconquest of Baghdad together with Enver Pasha under the code name “Jilderim” (Blitz).
On June 29, 1917, the Kingdom of Greece entered the war on the side of the Allies, after Greek volunteer units had already fought on their side on the Salonika front. Since the landing of Allied troops in Greece at the end of 1915, a “National Schism” had occurred, in which the provisional counter-government of Eleftherios Venizelos, which was turned towards the Entente, finally prevailed against the ruling “Germanophile camp” around Constantine I thanks to increasing British-French interventions.
After the occupation of almost all strategically important parts of the country, including Athens, by the Allies and an ultimatum from the French Chief Commissioner Jonnart, Constantine abdicated in June 1917 and went into exile. In return, Venizelos returned to Athens from Thessaloniki, convened the parliament elected in 1915 and formed a government that immediately declared war on the Central Powers. The new king was Alexander I.
In the 11th Battle of Isonzo (17 August to 12 September), Austria-Hungary narrowly escaped a heavy defeat. Fearing that he would no longer be able to withstand the next Italian attack, Emperor Charles I and the Austrian High Command requested German support, which was provided in the form of the 14th Army (including the German Alpine Corps) newly formed for this mission.
The expected attack of the Italians was pre-empted with its own offensive, in the Twelfth Battle of Isonzo (also “Battle of Karfreit”, Italian “Battaglia di Caporetto”, 24 to 27 October/11 November) the breakthrough was surprisingly achieved, in eleven days the Central Powers advanced by 130 kilometers, occupied Udine, the first Italian city and stood 30 kilometers from Venice. The Italians lost more than 305,000 men (Central Powers: 70,000), including 265,000 prisoners of war. The success was based above all on the “shock troop procedure” developed from the experiences of the first years of the war, which was used for the first time on a large scale in the Battle of Riga (rapid advance of assault battalions on a narrow corridor without special attention to flank protection).
The front could be stabilized with difficulty on the Piave and Monte Grappa. The Allies sent five British and six French divisions to support. However, the somewhat revolutionary situation in Italy (strikes, mass deportation) subsided due to the disaster, because: “The offensive war became a defensive war”.In response to this defeat, the Allied Supreme War Council was founded on 7 November at the Rapallo Conference, and the Italian Chief of the General Staff Luigi Cadorna was replaced by Armando Diaz.
The last major offensive of the war year 1917 was also the last major cavalry attack in military history: On October 31, 1917, the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade with 12,000 cavalrymen and the British 5th Mounted Brigade under the command of General Edmund Allenby attacked Be’er Sheva, held by Ottoman and German troops, and were able to capture it.
Falkenhayn then moved into his headquarters in Jerusalem on November 5 and wanted to defend the city at all costs. However, the OHL ordered the eviction in order not to further damage the reputation of the Central Powers in the world public in the event of a possible destruction of the holy sites. The Battle of Jerusalem with the support of rebellious Arabs (T. E. Lawrence) thus ended on December 9 with the capture of Jerusalem by British troops without a fight.
Politics and peace initiatives
In the Easter message of 7 April, Wilhelm II vaguely promised democratic reforms after the war. On April 11, the USPD was founded in Gotha as a split from the SPD, the background was the escalated discipline of party leftists in the SPD to maintain the burgfriedenspolitik, the Russian February Revolution and the April strikes. A week later, on April 19, the SPD (increasingly referred to as the MSPD later in the year) demanded equal citizenship rights as well as steps towards the parliamentary system (“parliamentarization”) and declared its approval of the demand of the Petrograd Soviets at the end of March: peace without annexations and reparations, free national development of all peoples.
Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, who had already increasingly isolated himself with his indifferent attitude to the war goals and political reforms, thus came under pressure: since he now “could no longer master social democracy” in view of the MSPD declaration in view of the OHL’s point of view, Hindenburg and Ludendorff demanded the dismissal of the chancellor from the Emperor – initially without success. At the War Target Conference in Bad Kreuznach on 23 April, however, the Chancellor, under pressure from the OHL, signed a protocol which, even in the opinion of Admiral Müller, was a document of “complete excess” with regard to the annexation goals.
From 2 June to 19 June, the Stockholm Conference of the Second International took place, but it remained just as ineffective as various soundings for a separate peace, especially on the part of the new Austro-Hungarian Emperor Charles I. Attempts at peace with Russia in the spring initially failed due to the unacceptable German demands.
On July 6, the Reichstag speech by Matthias Erzberger (German Center Party) triggered a “sensation in all political circles”: The conservative politician, originally an advocate of a “peace of peace”, proved the military false statements about the effectiveness of the submarine war and campaigned for a “peace of understanding”: Germany must renounce annexations. In addition, on the same day, leading deputies from the MSPD, the Centre and the Liberal Progressive Party also agreed on the Intergroup Committee as the coordinating body of the majority parliamentary groups, which is regarded as the prelude to the parliamentarisation of Germany and was accordingly interpreted by conservatives as the “beginning of the revolution”.
On the basis of Erzberger’s speech, Hindenburg and Ludendorff spoke to the emperor on 7 July and demanded the replacement of the chancellor, which the emperor in turn rejected. In addition, on July 10, the chancellor obtained from the emperor the promise of the same right to vote in Prussia after the war (in contrast to the three-class suffrage), which became known to the public on July 12. On the same evening, Hindenburg and Ludendorff threatened to resign if the chancellor was not recalled, which caused the emperor to retreat. Moreover, on the morning of July 13, Bethmann Hollweg, informed of this, submitted his resignation request, and the largely unknown Georg Michaelis was appointed as his successor.
On July 19, 1917, the majority of the Reichstag approved the very general peace resolution submitted by Erzberger, which had no consequences. Domestically, however, the peace resolution of the Reichstag had an impact, among other things, in that on 2 September the annexationist, völkisch-nationalist German Fatherland Party was founded on this occasion as a counter-reaction.
Pope Benedict XV’s note of peace Dès le début on 1 August to the leaders of the belligerent countries also had no consequences. The Pope proposed, among other things, a peace without annexations and reparations, free sea routes and a settlement of the disputed issues with the help of international law. This initiative, combined with humanitarian activities (e.g. initiation of a wounded exchange and a missing person tracing service) and repeated condemnation of the war (“useless bloodshed”), is regarded as the prelude to the modern foreign policy of the Holy See.
Since Reich Chancellor Michaelis obviously saw himself largely as a vicarious agent of the OHL, the Reichstag majority pushed for his dismissal since the end of October and was able to enforce this, successor was Georg von Hertling on 1 November.
On December 3, negotiations began between Russia and the Central Powers on a separate peace, and on December 6, Finland proclaimed its independence from Russia.
The war year 1918
Wilson’s 14 points and mass strikes
President Woodrow Wilson presented his 14-point program in a programmatic speech to both houses of the U.S. Congress on January 8. Wilson claimed to want to realize liberal political principles globally, Wilson proclaimed the right of self-determination of people as the most important goal. Among other things, the 14 points called for the evacuation and restoration of Belgium, Serbia and Montenegro, as well as the evacuation and abandonment of Alsace-Lorraine, a separate Polish state, freedom of the seas, arms restrictions and “autonomous development” for the peoples of Austria-Hungary. On January 24, Germany and Austria-Hungary rejected the 14 points.
On January 14, the January strikes began at the armaments factories in and around Wiener Neustadt, the strike front expanded and only crumbled in the face of massive military violence, on January 23 work was resumed.
In Germany, between January 28 and February 2, mass protests and strike actions with more than one million workers (January strike) took place in Berlin and other industrial centers, which, unlike previous actions, were primarily politically motivated and spoke out in favor of “general peace” and against “annexations and contributions,” aimed primarily at the annexationist stance of the OHL in Brest-Litovsk. The MSPD sent Friedrich Ebert, Otto Braun and Philipp Scheidemann to the Action Committee to “keep the movement in orderly shape”. Similar to Austria, however, the movement could only be suppressed with military repression, on January 31, the authorities in Berlin declared an intensified state of siege, arrested members of the strike leadership and subsequently sent 50,000 participating workers to the front. From 3 February, most companies resumed their work.
Peace with Russia, Spring Offensive and War Change
In the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations on January 19, 1918, the German side demanded in the ultimate form that Russia renounce Poland, Lithuania and western Latvia, after which the Soviet negotiator Leon Trotsky obtained a pause in negotiations. In Petrograd, the government and the Central Committee opted for Trotsky’s proposal to delay the negotiations in anticipation of the imminent uprising of the Western European proletariat.
On January 25, Ukraine declared itself independent by the decision of the non-Bolshevik Central Na Rada, and on February 9, the Central Powers concluded a special peace (“bread peace”) with Ukraine. In return for the generous demarcation of the border in western Ukraine, the Central Powers demanded extensive grain supplies from the Ukrainian government, at the same time they gave Russia an ultimatum to accept the terms of peace, whereupon Trotsky – still hoping for the imminent revolution in Germany – unilaterally announced demobilization without signing the treaty.
The Central Powers therefore advanced in Operation Faustschlag from 18 February and occupied large parts of the western border areas in the Baltic States, western Ukraine, Crimea, the industrial area on the Donets and Belarus in just a few weeks. Without entering into negotiations again, the Soviet delegation had to accept the considerably tightened German conditions, the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3. Although the Central Powers committed themselves to the evacuation of the occupied territories with the exception of Livonia, Russia had to renounce territorial claims in Poland, Lithuania and Courland as well as territory claimed by Turkey in the Caucasus.
In connection with the treaty, Germany agreed in March to an independent Lithuania closely tied to Germany (declaration of independence on 16 February). A supplementary agreement signed on 27 August stipulated Russia’s renunciation of Livonia and the recognition of the independence of Finland and Ukraine. The German Reich had previously (June 28) made the momentous decision not to advance to Petrograd and to keep Bolshevism alive despite ideological reservations, since the other groups in the Russian Civil War did not accept the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty. With the treaty, Russia gave up a third of its population and most of its raw material and industrial potential.
The relief of the Eastern Front, which was already foreseeable at the end of 1917, led to the fact that on 11 November 1917 in Mons the German army leadership decided on an offensive on the Western Front, for which various competing plans were worked out and which was to give the war a turn before the arrival of the Americans. Another aspect was the poor supply situation at home, which made a rapid military decision seem necessary.
On January 21, 1918, Hindenburg and Ludendorff opted for a variant under the code name “Michael”: an offensive in the area of St. Quentin along the Somme, which would swing northwest, encompass the British army and force it to retreat to the Canal ports. By withdrawing troops, especially from Russia, the number of German divisions in the west could be increased from 147 to 191, compared to only 178 Allied ones – for the first time since 1914, the German army had again achieved a numerical superiority, but still no material one. On March 10, Hindenburg issued the offensive order for March 21.
In the early morning of March 21, 1918, the German spring offensive began. After comparatively short artillery preparations – over five hours – the German stormtroopers achieved a deep break-in into the British front with their infiltration tactics (influenced by Herman Geyer). A novel German infantry weapon – the MP18 submachine gun – contributed to the success. However, the OHL shifted the focus and direction of the attack several times in the following days.
Above all, Ludendorff “abandoned the strategy of a single, massive advance and opted for an attack with three peaks, none of which was strong enough to achieve a breakthrough,” which earned him considerable criticism in the General Staff and weakened the offensive: “As in 1914 when advancing on Paris, the German army reacted to events and followed the line of least resistance, instead of usurping the law of action.”In addition, there were logistical difficulties in the devastated Somme area. Attacks were also stopped not least by the fact that the poorly supplied German troops plundered the British depots. Furthermore, the material superiority of the Allies could not be permanently compensated by the surprising setting of priorities.
As a novelty in the history of the war, it can be said that for the first time on longer front sections, the German losses were mainly due to air raids. The Allies reached an agreement on 3 April under the pressure of events on Ferdinand Foch as joint commander-in-chief. Although the German troops had advanced up to 60 kilometers deep on an 80-kilometer-wide front (from St. Quentin to the west of Montdidier), the offensive had created a large new front arch with high, no longer compensable losses and had not achieved any strategic goals. After a counterattack by Australian troops off Amiens, Operation Michael was discontinued on 5 April.
Ludendorff, who was now openly accused of leadership errors in the General Staff, resorted to an alternative plan to the Michaelsoffensive: Operation Georg, an attack in Flanders along the river Leie on a front width of 30 kilometers with the aim of the Channel coast west of Ypres (Fourth Battle of Flanders). Due to Operation Michael, the action could only be carried out to a lesser extent and was renamed Georgette accordingly.
After some initial successes such as the conquest of the strategically important Kemmelberg on 25 April, Georgette got stuck. As part of the offensive, the first major tank battle in the history of the war took place, but the most famous event is the death of Manfred von Richthofen. More serious for the German army, however, was the increasing refusal of offensive orders from the exhausted and disappointed troops from about mid-April. The OHL had not been unaware of the dwindling morale of its own troops and therefore immediately opened a new offensive on 27 May (Battle of the Aisne or Operation Blücher-Yorck) with the strongest artillery deployment of the war to date, almost 6000 guns fired two million shells within four hours.
On 29 May, the Germans stood again on the Marne, on 3 June just before Villers-Cotterêts, so Paris was only 90 kilometers by road and 62 kilometers as the crow flies from the German front – shells of the Paris gun struck the French capital, the British Cabinet discussed the evacuation of the British expeditionary army on 5 June. However, the Marne Line was stabilized with the help of American troops. The OHL called off the attack on June 5-6 due to losses, Allied counterattacks and logistical problems. As part of the fighting, the Battle of Belleau Forest took place with the participation of the United States Marine Corps.
Already on June 9, Ludendorff opened another attack on the Matz (Operation Gneisenau), which also had to be aborted on June 14 due to American-French counterattacks. Shortly thereafter, a final attack by the Austro-Hungarian troops on the Italian front also ended in failure (Second Battle of Piave from 15 to 22 June). The real turning point of the war on the Western Front was the second Battle of the Marne: the German attack, which began on 15 July with all the troops still available, initially made good progress; on July 18, however, the French and Americans led a counterattack with massive use of small and maneuverable tanks (Renault FT).
The hardened, poorly supplied and therefore (according to some authors) more affected by the first wave of the Spanish flu than the Allies German troops were surprised and withdrew again over the Marne, which had only been crossed three days earlier. The rear connections of the 7th Army goods endangered; almost the entire territory conquered in May and June had to be abandoned. In contemporary official war historiography, July 18 was regarded as the real “turn of the fate of war”. The Allies won the initiative that day in order not to give it up until the end of the war.
Hundred-Day Offensive of the Allies
In the Battle of Amiens, which began on August 8, 1918, the German army suffered a heavy defeat (“Black Day of the German Army”), the battle initiated the Hundred Days Offensive. Favored by heavy fog, 530 British and 70 French tanks – followed by Australian and Canadian infantry – pushed through the surprised and understaffed lines east of Villers-Bretonneux.
The affected 2nd Army found itself in a desolate state after the spring offensive (“shadow army” with a “militia-like” character). The German losses on August 8 alone amounted to about 27,000 men, including at least 12,000 prisoners, at the end of the battle 75,000 men, including 50,000 prisoners. The operational success (slump a maximum of 20 kilometers to Bray-sur-Somme and Chaulnes) was rather average compared to the German attacks in March, but the moral effect was enormous, especially since significant parts of the army had obviously lost the will to continue fighting.
On August 13, the OHL came to the conclusion that the initiative could not be regained in the war. At the Spa Conference on August 13 and 14, however, the OHL argued to The Emperor and Reich Chancellor Hertling that defensive operations would paralyze the Allied will to fight and that Germany should only offer peace talks after the next success in the West. Objections from Hertling, Foreign Minister Paul von Hintze and Emperor Karl did not come into their own, the opinion of the OHL was still decisive.
By mid-September, the Allies were able to gradually gain territory, on 21 August there was an attack by the British at Albert, at the beginning of September the Germans were pushed back to the starting position of their March offensive, the OHL reluctantly ordered the retreat to the Siegfried position on 2 September. On 12 September, the Americans began their first independent offensive with the Battle of St. Mihiel, which was followed on 26 September by the large-scale Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which lasted until the end of the war, and on 29 September the Siegfried position was broken for the first time.
Although the German troops were initially able to inflict heavy losses, especially on the inexperienced Americans, they were increasingly demoralized. The strength of the team had drastically decreased due to cumulative losses, desertion, capture and illness, reserves were no longer available. Added to this were poor food – namely the lack of staple foods such as potatoes – and other supply problems. The Allies increasingly exploited their material and personnel superiority, and tactical improvements in their warfare also had an effect.
Although the Allies, and especially the United States, were more affected by the second wave of the Spanish flu than Germany – the Americans lost more soldiers than to combat – it had a more serious effect on Germany due to the overall situation. However, the German front did not completely collapse until the armistice on 11 November, which gave the so-called stabbing legend a boost after the war. In November 1918, the German troops occupied only a small part of northeastern France and a good half of Belgium and Luxembourg, the Allies still occupied hardly any German territory.
The collapse of the German allies and the October reform
In the Battle of Palestine from 19 to 21 September, the Ottoman army was finally defeated. More importantly, however, the resistance of the Bulgarian army collapsed in mid-September and Bulgaria asked for an unconditional ceasefire on 26 September, with the conclusion of which on 29 September Romania as a central oil supplier as well as Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian troops in Albania and Serbia were threatened. Earlier, on September 14, Austria-Hungary had sent a (initially unanswered) note to the Allies asking for peace.
This development and the extensive attacks on the Western Front led to Ludendorff suffering a nervous breakdown on September 28 at the Grand Headquarters (at the time in Spa). On the morning of September 29, the OHL presented the military situation to Foreign Minister Paul von Hintze, immediately followed by Wilhelm II. A “revolution from above” was agreed in the form of a broad national government involving all parties represented in the Reichstag, and a military dictatorship, which was also discussed, was to be dispensed with. When Reich Chancellor Georg von Hertling – who rejected democratic reforms – came to Spa belatedly, he found himself faced with a fait accompli and resigned.
His successor on 3 October was Max von Baden, who formed a new cabinet to which Social Democrats were appointed for the first time with Philipp Scheidemann and Gustav Bauer. The day before, 2 October, Major von dem Bussche had explained the militarily hopeless situation to the stunned party leaders of the Reichstag.
Ludendorff did not accept the concerns of the new Reich Chancellor and the government against an immediate armistice offer, so the new cabinet sent a note to President Wilson on the night of October 4-5: Wilson was asked to take the establishment of peace into his hands on the basis of his 14 points as well as the supplementary 5 points of September 27, 1918, and to bring about an immediate armistice. Shortly afterward, a German submarine sank the British passenger ship RMS Leinster (10 October), which was immediately reflected in the American notes of 14 and 23 October.
Wilson called for a guarantee of the continued military superiority of the Allies (i.e. far-reaching disarmament of Germany) and parliamentary control of politics and the military as conditions for peace negotiations (but not necessarily for the armistice). Ludendorff and Hindenburg again took a negative stance against peace negotiations in view of the American notes of 14 and 23 October, drove from the headquarters to Berlin without imperial permission and declared in an army order (24 October) that the last Wilson notes (disarmament) was unacceptable.
Reich Chancellor Max von Baden was able to prove the insubordination of the OHL and insisted on a change of personnel. Ludendorff and Hindenburg had to ask Kaiser Wilhelm for their dismissal on 26 October, the Emperor accepted Ludendorff’s request for dismissal, but not that of Hindenburg. With the October reforms, there was a change in the system of government, Germany was formally from 28 October to 9 November unique in its history a parliamentary monarchy.
The situation in Austria-Hungary had deteriorated dramatically in 1918. The soldiers were malnourished, desertion, suicides and epidemics increased rapidly. The army was rapidly disintegrating, and the arms industry was on the verge of collapse. Bohemia, Galicia, Hungary and Upper Austria stopped supplying food to other parts of the country where hunger prevailed. In addition, spectacular scandals and failures such as the Sixtus affair (April 1918), the sinking of the SMS Szent István (10 June), the Second Battle of Piave (15 to 22 June) and the undisturbed propaganda flight over Vienna by Gabriele D’Annunzio (9 August) had shaken Austria-Hungary.
On August 21, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff Alfred von Waldstätten explained the hopeless situation to the stunned generals of all armies at the Belluno meeting. The first peace démarche of 14 September was followed by another on 4 October. In October 1918, Austria-Hungary began to dissolve, the entire state increasingly became a “illusory world”, which the People’s Manifesto of 16 October on the part of Emperor Charles could no longer change, but further accelerated the dissolution. On 6 October, the National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs was constituted in Agram, and the Hungarian National Council was formed in Budapest on 25 October as part of the Aster Revolution.
The day before, the Hungarian government issued an instruction to the soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army to return home immediately. At the same time, in this situation, the major Allied attack at Vittorio began, on 27 October the attackers gained bridgeheads east of the Piave. The Austro-Hungarian troops refused the order to counterattack, making the situation hopeless. On October 28, a request for a ceasefire was issued. On the same day in Prague, the Republic was proclaimed and Czechoslovakia was founded, on October 29 the state of the Slovenes, Croats and Serbs.
Already on 7 October, the Polish Regency Council had issued an appeal for the establishment of a Polish state, and on 11 October it also took over military command. On October 30, in response to the decline of all non-German territories, the state of German-Austria was constituted. On 1 November, an independent government was formed in Hungary after Hungary terminated the Real Union with Austria on 31 October; Thus the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was dissolved. The attempt to shift the responsibility for the acceptance of the armistice conditions onto the parties of parliament failed, in contrast to Germany, because of their refusal to end a war started by the emperor (as explicitly Victor Adler did in the Council of State).
On November 3, General Weber signed the armistice of Villa Giusti with the Allies. On 11 November, Charles I/IV, as Emperor of Austria, renounced any share of the affairs of the state, on 13 November in the same way as King of Hungary, thus ending the Habsburg Monarchy.
November Revolution in Germany and Armistice
Already on 30 September, one day after the demand for an armistice on the part of Ludendorff, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, the head of the naval war command formed in August, had gathered the High Seas Fleet without giving reasons on Reede near Schillig near Wilhelmshaven. The fleet command was signaled that a demand for delivery of the German fleet had to be met. Rear Admiral Adolf von Trotha then developed a plan of attack on the more than twice as strong Grand Fleet on the basis of previous plans drawn up in the spring of 1917 and April 1918.
The operational plan provided for a night advance of the entire fleet into the Hoofden on 30 October. At daybreak, the Flanders coast and the Thames estuary were to be attacked. Since the British fleet would most likely cut off the retreat to the German Bight, the naval leadership expected the great naval battle at Terschelling in the late afternoon of the second day of operations. The admirals saw a certain chance of victory, so they did not plan a “death cruise” for 80,000 sailors from the outset, but such a journey was accepted as a more likely variant. Neither the Emperor nor the Reich Chancellor were informed, but Ludendorff was.
The motives of the fleet advance lay in questions of honor and the existence of the admirals: It was believed that without a final mission, the coming reconstruction of the fleet would be endangered. After the corresponding fleet order of 24 October, on 27 October there were refusals of orders on some of the largest ships. On 29 October, Admiral Franz von Hipper reversed the order to leave and ordered the fleet squadrons to their respective locations. The particularly restless III Fleet Squadron arrived in Kiel on 1 November, where 47 sailors, who were considered the main ringleader, were taken into custody.
From protest actions against this measure, in which seven demonstrating workers and soldiers were shot dead on November 3, the Kiel Sailors’ Uprising developed. The MSPD, whose leadership was sufficient for the October reforms and rejected the revolution, could not stop the further development. The November Revolution swept through city after city in rapid succession. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils were formed throughout the Reich, which took power in Hamburg on 6 November and in Munich on 7 November.
Kaiser Wilhelm, who had been at the Grand Headquarters in Spa, Belgium, since October 29, was officially confronted with the demand for his abdication for the first time on November 1 due to a note from US President Wilson. After questioning 39 commanders on the Western Front, he received the answer on November 9 that the troops would largely refuse the order if they were deployed against the revolution.
On 7 November, the MSPD ultimately called on the Reich Chancellor to persuade the Emperor to abdicate, otherwise, it would leave the government. The MSPD feared that otherwise, it would not be able to stop the revolution. Since despite a vague promise of the emperor the concrete abdication did not follow, the Berlin large companies went on a general strike on 9 November, large crowds of people with red flags marched through the streets in Berlin, which were hoisted on many public buildings – such as the Brandenburg Gate.
The MSPD resigned from the government at 9 a.m., Reich Chancellor Max von Baden announced the abdication of the emperor and the renunciation of the throne of the crown prince and handed over his office to Friedrich Ebert. At 2 p.m., Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the German Republic – without coordination with Friedrich Ebert, who was very angry about this.
Karl Liebknecht of the Spartakusbund proclaimed the free socialist republic of Germany at 4 p.m. Under pressure from the rank and file, the hitherto hostile social democratic parties MSPD and USPD constituted a joint Council of People’s Deputies on 10 November, while Liebknecht met with protests with his demand for a frontline position against the MSPD. Wilhelm II, who feared the fate of the Tsar’s family, fled on the same day from Spa to the Netherlands, where he formally renounced the Crown of Prussia and the German Imperial Crown only on 28 November “for all future”.
William II left the country without words of thanks to the people and the troops who had fought in his name, nor did he remember the fallen. Even many supporters from the conservative milieu felt that going into exile without prior abdication was desertion. In the Ebert-Groener Pact, Ebert and General Wilhelm Groener agreed on joint action against unclearly defined “Bolshevik” groups, which was to have far-reaching effects on the Weimar Republic.
From 29 October to 4 November, a conference of the Allied war coalition was held in Paris to discuss the terms of the armistice. The German combination of peace offer and ceasefire request was interpreted as an admission of defeat. The American representative Edward Mandell House could no longer fully commit the Prime Ministers Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George to the 14-point program, so that in the so-called Lansing Note of 5 November two serious tightenings were formulated: the freedom of the seas (thus also the lifting of the blockade) would only be settled in later negotiations and the “restoration of the occupied territories” included the demand for comprehensive Reparations.
The response arrived in Berlin on 6 November, where, in view of the spreading November Revolution and the pressure from the OHL, it was already being considered to send a delegation with a white flag across the front line even without an answer. Originally, General Erich von Gündell was intended as first plenipotentiary of the Armistice Commission, in Spa State Secretary Matthias Erzberger (German Centre Party) and Paul von Hintze agreed at short notice that Erzberger would take over the leadership, for which Erzberger had been given a blank power of attorney in Berlin as a precaution. The momentous idea, first formulated in the cabinet meeting on 2 November, to give the ceasefire commission a civilian state secretary (de facto: minister) at all, came from Erzberger himself.
The four-member delegation, consisting of Erzberger, General Detlof von Winterfeldt, Captain at Sea Ernst Vanselow and the diplomat Alfred von Oberndorff, crossed the front line in today’s municipal area of La Flamengrie on 7 November at today’s Monument de la Pierre d’Haudroy and arrived in the early morning of 8 November at the clearing of Compiègne in the forest of Compiègne, where Marshal Ferdinand Foch had the armistice conditions, which were perceived as very harsh, read out in the “Chariot of Compiègne”. On the evening of 8 November, Hindenburg expressly called on the German delegation in two – partly unencrypted – cables to accept the conditions even if no improvements were possible. In the following negotiations, only minor simplifications could be achieved.
On the morning of November 11, between 5:12 a.m. and 5:20 a.m. French time, both delegations signed the Compiègne ceasefire. Among other things, this provided for the evacuation of the territories occupied by the German army within 14 days and the left bank of the Rhine and three bridgeheads in Mainz, Koblenz and Cologne within 25 days. The Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the Peace of Bucharest had to be repealed, as well as large quantities of means of transport, weapons and significant parts of the fleet had to be surrendered in order to practically deny the Empire the continuation of the war. The armistice came into force at 11 a.m. French time (12 p.m. German time) and was initially limited to 36 days, but effectively ended the war.
Individual aspects during the First World War
Enthusiasm for war and anti-war demonstrations
At the beginning of the war, people showed a wide range of very different reactions, ranging from protest and refusal to perplexity and shock to patriotic exuberance and hysteria. There was neither a general enthusiasm for war, nor were the proletarian and peasant layers united and consistently opposed to the war. Above all, large parts of the bourgeois-academic strata welcomed the coming war event.
The conservative bourgeoisie reacted to the ultimatum and the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia with patriotic parades, for example in Berlin-Mitte on 25 July 1914 with about 30,000 participants. In smaller cities, and especially in rural areas, on the other hand, there was a decidedly depressed, thoughtful and pessimistic mood. The coming war brought about similarly restrained and depressed reactions in the working class of the industrial centers. In none of the countries affected by the outbreak of war has there been an “intoxicating enthusiasm for war” that touches all sections of the population.
On the other hand, anti-war demonstrations took place in Germany at the end of July, similar to Great Britain and France, for example in Germany alone (according to the SPD) 288 assemblies and marches in around 160 cities, for example in Berlin-Mitte on 28 July 1914 with more than 100,000 people and this despite the ban of the magistrate. The turning point for the truce was the news of the Russian partial mobilization on July 28, 1914. Similar to the workers’ movement in other countries, the Social Democrats joined the united political front, although only a few days earlier they had opposed the “warmongering” of their own government.
On August 1, 1914, between 40,000 and 50,000 people gathered in front of the Berlin City Palace for the second balcony speech by Wilhelm II, who announced that he knew “no parties and no more denominations.” Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg also cleverly understood how to portray Russia as a supposed aggressor. SPD party executive Hugo Haase, who had organized numerous anti-war rallies and fought against the acceptance of war credits within the party until August 3, 1914, declared for the SPD the following day: “We will not abandon our own fatherland in the hour of danger.”At the beginning of the war, there was broad political solidarity in all the countries involved in the war, a worried, serious and determined acceptance of the war.
War Target Policy
The military war goal of Germany, which was initially in the foreground and contributed significantly to the outbreak of war, was – in accordance with the War Council of 8 December 1912 – to wage the war against the Entente, which was considered inevitable, at a still favorable time, whereby the middle of 1914 had already been considered favorable in the War Council of 1912.
According to the German military leadership, the European balance of power developed increasingly unfavorably for Germany. Triggered by the rapid successes of the army in the Western campaign, annexations in East and West were added as political goals to secure a hegemonic position of the German Reich on the European mainland, which were reflected, among other things, in the “September Program” of 1914. The demands for annexation, which could be brought less and less into line with the overall military situation during the course of the war, were a major obstacle to peace negotiations.
Austria-Hungary claimed to fight for its interests in the Balkans and for its very existence. Contrary to the nationalist tendencies of the time, Austria-Hungary adhered to the universal idea of empire and thus to the multi-ethnic state. The official war goal of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was thus to maintain its existence and strengthen its position as a great power. At the same time, Austria-Hungary sought the incorporation of Serbia, Montenegro and Romania, or Russian-Poland instead of the latter.
France’s primary war objective was the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine.In the autumn of 1915, further French war goals emerged: the pushing of Germany back to the Rhine through annexation or neutralization of the Rhineland up to the dissolution of Reich unity or at least its weakening in the federal sense as well as an economic and military annexation of Belgium and Luxembourg to France.
According to the war target program of the Briand government of November 1916, France was to receive at least the border of 1790 and thus Alsace-Lorraine with the Saarland. The establishment of two neutral, independent buffer states under French protection was preferred to a permanent occupation of the Rhineland. Contrary to the ideas of the General Staff, Belgium should be left independence.
Russia saw itself as a natural protector of pan-Slavic aspirations in the Balkans. After the Ottoman entry into the war, the Russian side hoped to gain Constantinople and the straits between the Aegean sea and the Black Sea (→ agreement on Constantinople and the Straits).
In addition to the old goal of the straits, The Russian war aims also included Galicia and East Prussia, which protruded into Russian territory. In his 13-point program of September 14, 1914, Russian Foreign Minister Sasonov primarily provided for territorial cession of Germany, allegedly on the basis of the principle of nationality. Russia would annex the lower reaches of the Njemen (Memelland) and the eastern part of Galicia, as well as annex the east of the province of Poznan, (upper) Silesia and western Galicia to Russian-Poland.
At the beginning of the war, Britain demanded the restoration of the respective independence of the smaller European nations that had been destroyed by the attack of the Central Powers, especially those of Belgium, whose invasion was the official reason for entering the war. The goal of liberating Belgium was the formula of smashing Prussian militarism.
On March 20, 1917, Lloyd George described the elimination of reactionary military governments and the establishment of democratically legitimized governments as war aims that would contribute to the creation of international peace. Increasingly, their own desires for expansion in the form of demands for self-determination for the German colonies and the already occupied Arab parts of Turkey under British rule came to light. Russia’s removal from the war coalition and, to a lesser extent, France’s annexation wishes jeopardized the British concept of balance of power even in the event of Allied victory.
In the East, a cordon sanitaire of states dependent on France and Great Britain was to be created in order to create a new counterweight to Germany. At the Inter-Allied Economic Conference in Paris from 14 to 17 June 1916, not least on British initiative, negotiations were held on a post-war economic order with which the German position in world trade was to be permanently suppressed. Britain was also particularly interested in the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the division of the Arab territories. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 16 May 1916 regulated the zones of interest of Great Britain and France in the Middle East. Britain received southern Mesopotamia, while Palestine was to be internationalized. Britain insisted on the delivery of the bulk of the German fleet.
Italy’s war aims were above all in the annexation of Italian-populated areas under Austro-Hungarian rule (→ irredentism). After the Approval of the Russian Empire to the Italian desire to annex Slavic populated areas and thus establish the Adriatic Sea as mare nostro (“our sea”), the Secret Treaty of London was concluded on April 26, 1915.
The American war goals were formulated in the 14-point program of January 8, 1918. It included the complete restoration of Belgian independence, the return of Alsace-Lorraine, the establishment of Italian borders along the national borders and the continued existence of Austria-Hungary, whose nations were to be allowed free development.
Turkey was granted independence, but without the inclusion of other nationalities, the straits should be kept open by international guarantees. It called for the establishment of an independent Polish state. In October 1918, the Americans added and expanded Wilson’s 14 points: Italy was granted South Tyrol and a protectorate over Albania for strategic reasons, the liberation of all Slavic peoples under German and Austro-Hungarian rule was demanded, and the division of the Middle East between Great Britain and France was recognized.
Central problems of the war economy were the regulation of the relationship between state and economy, the preservation of industrial peace, the restructuring to arms production, the securing of consumption and the financing of war. The economic potential of the Central Powers and the Entente was already unequal at the beginning of the war, the former had only 46 percent of the population and 61 percent of the national product of the Entente.
At the beginning of the war, the provisions intended for military mobilization and a short war came into force, for example, exports of war-critical products were prohibited, food imports were facilitated and maximum prices were set for some goods. The gold standard as the basis of most pre-war currencies was suspended in the belligerent countries. These measures were often not sufficient. Thus, the ammunition crisis of 1914/15 initiated the transition to the war economy. The origins of the “total war” propagated by Ludendorff in 1935 and later by the National Socialists can be found in the war economy of the First World War.
The transition was opposed by war-related restrictions: France had lost a large part of its industrial potential due to the German occupation in the north, Russia was industrially underdeveloped and largely cut off from supplies from the Allies due to the naval blockade of the Dardanelles and the Baltic Sea, and German foreign trade was in turn severely restricted by the English naval blockade. Great Britain could only be seriously threatened by the submarine war in its foreign trade in the first half of 1917. The US, on the other hand, did not have to mobilize the economy to the same extent as the belligerent states in Europe. Since 1916/17, the state has gained considerable influence on economies, government spending ratios have increased considerably, in Germany from 17 to 70 percent, in Great Britain from 13 to 48 percent and in the USA from 1.4 to 22 percent.
Apart from the arms sector, industrial production declined in many warring countries. Thus, industrial production in the German Reich as a whole fell by almost half. The decline was weaker in the UK, while there were hardly any restrictions in the US. Agricultural yields also declined in most of the belligerent states, again with the exception of Great Britain and the USA. A bottleneck in the course of the conversion to the war economy was the supply of raw materials, on the one hand due to the naval blockades (the Central Powers and Russia were affected) and in France due to the separation of the northern departments. Another bottleneck, especially among the Central Powers and in France, resulted from the fierce competition between the army, which required more and more soldiers, and industry, which needed qualified personnel.
In order to maintain industrial peace, cooperation and discipline were applied in various ways: In Austria-Hungary, workers in armaments factories were bound to their workplace and subjected to military control and jurisdiction. In Germany, there was no militarisation of employment relationships; However, the Auxiliary Service Act of 5 December 1916 introduced compulsory service, while corporatist regulations ensured the consent of the trade unions.
Moreover, in France, deferred workers were placed under the supervision of the military by the Loi Dalbiez (named after the politician Victor Dalbiez) of 15 August 1915. In Britain, the Treasury Agreement with the trade unions and the Munitions of War Act 1915 restricted the right to strike and the free movement of arms workers. There were no comparable restrictions in the United States, but the Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917 (to build up the army) could be used to direct labor into the defense industry.
Despite the conscriptions, the number of employees in the war economy hardly decreased or increased, and through the expansion of mass and assembly line production, it was able to greatly expand its production. In Germany, the number of employees in the arms industry rose by 44 percent, while that in civilian production fell by 40 percent. To varying degrees, prisoners of war, conscripts and foreign workers (mainly from the colonies) were used. At the same time, women and young people moved up, with the number of working women increasing by 23 percent in Great Britain and by 17 percent in Germany.
Although private consumption – important for morale on the home front – was subordinate to the war economy in all states, it succeeded differently well in distributing the existing goods reasonably fairly or at least giving the impression of doing so. The USA had to accept hardly any restrictions, in Great Britain the supply succeeded comparatively well. But even there, spending on private consumption fell by around 20 percent between 1913 and 1918.
In France, nutrition was relatively well guaranteed in cooperation with the Allies. The Central Powers, on the other hand, encountered considerable problems – not only because of the naval blockade – which resulted, among other things, from the forced state economy that began as early as 1914. The supply problems and, above all, the injustice in the distribution of food undermined the authority of the state and led to unrest. The same was true for Russia. The supply policy in favor of urban consumers and industrial workers fizzled out because of their unsteadiness and lack of coercive means. The Tsarist Empire disintegrated into supply regions – excluding the cities – as the peasants marketed less and less.
Public spending on war finance increased dramatically. In Great Britain, the last war budget was 562 percent higher than the first, in Germany, it was 505 percent, in France 448 percent and in Russia (until 1916) 315 percent. The war cost around 209 billion (adjusted for inflation in 1913 prices: 82 billion) dollars. In terms of the amount of money spent, it was “cheaper” to lose the war than to win it: the Allies raised 147 billion dollars for warfare, the Central Powers 62 billion dollars.
The war was financed in all states by taxes, bonds or money creation. The public sector raised money for government spending from the central banks in exchange for short-term debt securities. After the money had flowed to the economy and households, it was partially skimmed off by taxes or bonds. Since tax increases were used only to a limited extent to finance the war for various reasons (truces, less efficient tax systems) (France 15 percent, Germany 17 percent, Great Britain 26 percent), all belligerent states relied primarily on loans (war bonds), which the enemy was to pay in the form of reparations after the war. Furthermore, the Allies in particular were heavily indebted abroad, primarily in the USA. In total, inter-allied debts amounted to $16.4 billion.
After the war, Germany faced a mountain of debt of 156 billion marks (1914: 5.4 billion), Great Britain 5.8 billion pounds (1914: 0.6 billion). The French national debt increased by 130 billion francs and the American debt by 24 billion dollars. The money supply had grown by 111 percent in Britain and by 285 percent in Germany, laying the foundation for German inflation until 1923.
Trench warfare and trench warfare are regarded as “symbols” and defining forms of the First World War: warfare along permanent, fortified front lines, “millions of soldiers, entangled for years in the mud in a senseless struggle, only to achieve tiny territorial gains under enormous losses, a years of bloodletting for the population and the resources of the warring nations.
“This trench warfare characterized above all the situation on the approximately 700-kilometer-long Western Front between November 1914 and March 1918, but at times also the situation on the Eastern Front and the Italian Front. All the great powers had provided for a war in their war plans until 1914. After the failure of the Schlieffen Plan and the mutual over-beating in the race to the sea, the armies dug in. The reasons for the rigidity of the fronts were the level of military-technical development, which favored the defender, as well as the initial loss of control in the operational leadership of the mass armies and the relative balance of forces.
In January 1915, the German Supreme Army Command ordered that the front positions on the Western Front be expanded in such a way that they could be held against numerically superior forces. The combat experience initially led to the relocation of the line – as far as possible – to a rearhang position and the introduction of a second line, from about the end of 1916 the warring parties had introduced three trench lines in many areas, from the simple trench line increasingly developed a deeply staggered positioning system and an elastic zone defense.
Successful attacks required local superiority and careful preparation. Initially, attempts were made to destroy the enemy positioning system with several days of treacherous artillery preparation, attacks increasingly became material battles with previously unknown ammunition consumption. Other attempts to soften the solidified fronts were the use of poison gas (gas warfare), blasting of mines (mine warfare), the introduction of tanks, grenade launchers and submachine guns (“trench sweepers”).
The hand grenade experienced a renaissance, while the bayonet almost lost its importance as a conventional melee weapon: in the narrow trenches, (sometimes sharpened) feldspars were used as blank weapons. The German army reacted with tactical changes, especially in the spring offensive of 1918, shock troops pushed through the lines without regard to remaining resistance and sought to destroy the rear infrastructure with this “infiltration tactic”.On the other hand, it was precisely in this trench warfare that there was the so-called “live and let live”, an uncoordinated occurrence of non-aggressive behavior between enemy troops, which was maintained in some front areas over a longer period of time.
The everyday life of the soldiers in the trenches was characterized by alternating phases of long inactivity and intensified struggle for survival. The results were on the one hand art forms such as “trench art” (“trench work”), on the other hand heavy war neuroses (for example in buried people) and war traumas (such as “war tremblers”) or even previously little-known fear reactions such as the so-called “fear sleep” (sudden falling asleep in the trenches, especially before attacks).
On 22 April 1915, up to 5,000 people fell victim to a German chlorine gas operation on the Ypres Arc (today’s estimates: 1,200 dead and 3,000 wounded). This date is now regarded as the birth of modern weapons of mass destruction and the actual beginning of the gas war, with which the image of the soldier and the idea of war as a “chivalrous struggle” was changed and questioned much more radically than with the introduction of other means of combat. The military leadership was completely surprised by the resounding success in the first use in the blowing process developed by Fritz Haber and could not exploit it due to a lack of reserves, and the attackers were also affected by the gas.
The Allies regarded the massive use of lethal gases as a clear violation of the Hague Land Warfare Order and as further evidence of “barbaric” German warfare. Although the use of chemical weapons was no longer a novelty, previously only irritants had been used in this war, which were also not very effective. The failure of offensive warfare, the grueling trench warfare and the ammunition crisis due to the lack of saltpeter, as well as the superior but underutilized German chemical industry led to the decision for this weapon. Although there were certainly concerns in the German officer corps, it ultimately accepted the deployment as a supposedly necessary evil.
On 31 May 1915, during a German attack on the Eastern Front at Bolimówerstmals, Phosgen (“Green Cross”) was added. Most of the gastots of the First World War can be traced back to the effect and, above all, the long-term consequences of this warfare agent, which is used in ever greater concentrations. On September 25, 1915, the British launched the first large-scale gas attack at the beginning of the Battle of Loos, which also enabled a break-in into the German authorities.
In the autumn of 1915, the first gas masks were introduced. Increasingly, the warring parties fired the gas with grenades in order to be less dependent on the wind direction. On July 10, 1917, the first use of “mask breakers” (“blue cross”) took place near Nieuwpoort, which penetrated the filters of the gas masks. At the same time or shortly afterward, a lung-damaging, usually deadly warfare agent (for example, “green cross”) was usually fired, as the cough stimulus often caused the soldiers to take off the masks (“colorful shooting”).
Two days after the first use of “Blue Cross”, a completely new warfare agent followed in Ypres, the contact poison mustard gas (“Yellow Cross”), also called “hun stuff” by the British. Mustard gas leads to serious injuries (similar to burns) of the skin, eyes and bronchi, as well as death at high exposure. When using mustard gas, it was certainly taken into account that severely injured people with care burden the other side more than deaths.
A total of about 112,000 tons of poison gas were used in the First World War, of which 52,000 tons were used by Germany. The exact number of those poisoned and killed by combat gas during the First World War is difficult to determine, especially since the majority of the soldiers died of the late effects only after the war: Estimates for the Western Front assume about 500,000 injured and 20,000 dead, although the number of dead will probably have to be set even higher. No reliable figures are available for the Eastern Front.
The less robust aircraft at the beginning of the war were mainly used for aerial reconnaissance. In doing so, they fulfilled an important task that was initially underestimated by many generals.
When the British arrived in France, they brought only 48 reconnaissance aircraft. They observed the front and reported the enemy movements to the High Command. It was mainly thanks to them that General Joffre launched the offensive on the Marne. The German army had intended to bypass Paris to the west during its advance. When it unexpectedly turned southeast, leaving a large gap between the individual armies, this was first noticed by the airmen of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). They passed the observation on to the French chain of command, which was then able to initiate the counterattack on the Marne.
Aerial reconnaissance and aerial photography gained in importance, which is why the first methods of combating them were developed. When trench warfare began, the airmen were used for artillery coordination. The introduction of telegraphic extinguishing spark transmitters since 1915 was synonymous with the actual beginning of air radio.
The French aviation pioneer Roland Garros was the first to develop a real fighter aircraft. He mounted a machine gun at the top of his aircraft in 1915. To protect the propeller blades from damage, he reinforced them with steel plates. In the spring of 1915, with his new weapon, he spent 18 days hunting for German, mostly unarmed, aircraft over Flanders until he was shot down during one of his missions.
A little later, the Dutchman Anton Herman Gerard Fokker installed an interrupter gearbox in his Fokker E.III. Due to the synchronization, the MG always stopped its fire when it had hit the propeller. The first successful pilots of these machines were Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, who established the reputation of the Fokkergeißel. Until the beginning of 1916, the Germans dominated the sky over the Western Front.
Bombing attacks intensified during the war. The first bombs were dropped by German zeppelins on 6 August over Liège, and more on 24 August 1914 over Antwerp.
In December 1914, German airships attacked the British Isles for the first time. By 1917, heavy attacks were carried out on London, after which some industries had to shut down operations. After that, the airships, which offered too large an attack surface and were too immobile, were increasingly replaced by large aircraft. By 1918, German bombs dropped by zeppelins had killed 1400 British civilians and wounded nearly 5000. The Royal Flying Corps, on the other hand, concentrated its attacks on the industry of West Germany and the Zeppelin works on Lake Constance. The First World War was the first war in which bombers were used. These were particularly large and stable biplanes that could drop bombs weighing more than half a ton.
In the course of the militarization of aviation was upgraded over the seas. Until then, only seaplanes and naval aviators used for reconnaissance that landed on the water were armed and used against ports, coastal fortifications and military units by air and sea. The First World War was also the first war in which early aircraft carriers were used.
To this end, Americans and British converted several of their warships. These early models were only suitable for the use of seaplanes that took off from the deck, landed near the aircraft carrier and were then transported back on board by a crane. The accelerated development of aircraft carriers against the background of the First World War was to prove to be decisive in the fighting in the Pacific during the Second World War.
In 1916, the Germans lost their air superiority again. The Allies had reorganized themselves and flew very successful attacks with some robust aircraft (for example, Nieuport 11). The Germans reacted. Oswald Boelcke trained some of the best pilots and gave them his combat knowledge, which he wrote down in the Dicta Boelcke. The German fighter squadrons (Jasta for short), especially the Jasta 11, inflicted heavy losses on the Allies. After Boelcke’s death, Jasta 11 was headed by Manfred von Richthofen at the beginning of 1917. Together with his pilots, he ensured the bloody April, in which the Allies lost 443 airmen. Richthofen himself shot down 20 planes during this time, his brother Lothar brought it to 15 kills. Another pilot, Kurt Wolff, took 22 aerial victories this April.
When the Americans arrived in 1918, the tide turned. Although the Americans were inexperienced, the Germans could not compensate for their numerical superiority of aircraft. From the summer of 1918, the imperial pilots had to try their luck with dive attacks, otherwise, they had no chance against the Allied squadrons. As a result, the Allies let several squadrons fly on top of each other, which further harassed the Germans.
On April 21, 1918, Manfred von Richthofen was shot down by an Australian gunman while being pursued by Arthur Roy Brown. With 80 confirmed air victories, he was the most successful fighter pilot of the First World War. The loss of their idol and increasing supply difficulties affected the German fighter squadrons. The Air Force could contribute little to the outcome of the war. The war was decided on the ground.
Numerous fallen German pilots, including Richthofen, were buried in Berlin in the Invalidenfriedhof.
Before 1914, the war at sea was given a large, if not decisive, role. In fact, the Battle of Skagerrak became the “largest naval battle in world history” but not the widely expected decisive battle. The share of naval warfare in the outcome of the First World War as a whole was thus not decisive and rather important in its indirect effect.
In all theatres of war there was a clear superiority of one side: Great Britain over Germany in the North Sea, Germany over Russia in the Baltic Sea (factually), France and Italy over Austria-Hungary in the Mediterranean (except Adriatic) and Russia (since the end of 1915) over Turkey in the Black Sea, although Turkey nevertheless managed to continue to blockade the Black Sea straits. The seas were predominantly a space for movement for the war fleets, merchant ships and troop transporters of the Entente, but not for those of the Central Powers.
The blockade of the North Sea by the Royal Navy in the form of the Northern Patrol around Scotland and the Dover Patrol in the English Channel contributed significantly, according to Anglo-American naval historians decisively to the exhaustion of the Central Powers, the blockades of the Baltic Sea and the Dardanelles played a major role in the defeat of the Russian Army. The actions of the German Mediterranean Division were the reason for the Entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers.
The cruiser war – the means of numerically inferior naval forces per se – had only an insignificant part in the war due to the lack of preparation on the part of the German Admiralty and the lack of bases. Unexpectedly, the submarine war proved to be the most important part of naval warfare. Since the submarine as a weapon was underestimated by all sides, the naval forces were generally little prepared for the submarine war. Nevertheless, German U-boats brought the Entente into serious trouble, especially in the first half of 1917. The submarine war indirectly led to the entry of the United States into the war and thus ultimately to the defeat of the Central Powers.
The order to use the decisive battle at sea was only given when the Supreme Army Command had lost the war, and led to the Kiel Sailors’ Uprising, which in turn triggered the November Revolution.
Propaganda essentially promoted the motivation for military service and for the support of participation in the war in one’s own population or among hoped-for allies, for which xenophobic prejudices and patriotic symbols were used. For the first time in history, the warring states established their own authorities for this purpose.
In the German Reich, the Central Office for Foreign Service was established for propaganda on 5 October 1914, followed by the Military Office of the Federal Foreign Office (MAA) on 1 July 1916 and finally the Image and Film Office (BUFA) on 30 January 1917. In Austria-Hungary, the Imperial and Royal War Press Quarter (KPQ), which had already been created on 28 July 1914, was responsible. On the Allied side, the Maison de la Presse was founded in France in February 1916, in Great Britain there was the War Propaganda Bureau for the same purpose, in the USA the Committee on Public Information.
In the German-speaking part of Austria-Hungary, the propaganda showed, among other things, war-glorifying drawings in poster size with the illustrated statement “Every kick a Britt, every kick a Frenchman, every shot a Russ” and “Serbia must find Serbian”. The motif of “Lord Kitchener Wants You” was copied many times during the war.
After reports of the fire at the University Library of Leuven at the end of August 1914, prominent British scientists declared that the German army had deliberately set the fire. German prominent scholars responded with counter-declarations, including the Manifesto of the 93 and the declaration of the university professors of the German Reich, who sought to justify the world war as a culture war and defensive war, which in turn resulted in a British response to the German professors.
The “Hunnenrede”, with which Wilhelm II had called German troops sent to China in 1900 to suppress the Boxer Rebellion, to a ruthless campaign of revenge, subsequently bore the Germans in Anglo-American countries the name “huns”. Other propaganda campaigns included the alleged crucifixion of nuns at church gates in Belgium or the alleged cutting off of children’s hands by German troops in Belgium, which were reflected in the Bryce Report, among other things.
The attitude of the British press has been well examined: it had taken an increasingly positive attitude towards Germany in the last two years before the war. The newspapers were of the opinion, among other things, that the German rearmament at sea was annoying, but did not pose any real danger to the Royal Navy. During the July crisis, the Russian tsar was initially blamed for the escalation. This changed with the German ultimatum to Russia and, above all, with the invasion of Belgium and Luxembourg.
With the further progress of the war, Germany was not only discredited as an opponent and branded as the bearer of the sole war guilt, but also stylized as the enemy image of all humanity. It was only at the beginning of the war that a distinction was made between the government and the population. This exaggerated atrocity propaganda was one reason why no peace of understanding or negotiation could be reached, and made reconciliation more difficult on all sides after the war. The National Socialists were later able to cover up their crimes more easily with reference to this propaganda (Völkischer Beobachter of 4 September 1939: “Atrocity reports as before“).
The atrocity propaganda of the Central Powers was less pronounced because hardly any German territory was occupied and thus comparatively few German civilians were exposed to direct effects of war. First and foremost, the Russian side (army and population) were vilified. The use of black colonial troops on European battlefields by the Allies was alternately denounced as a cultural break or as immoral. The propaganda departments of the Central Powers tended to degrade the enemy, ridicule them and highlight their own strength. For this purpose, numerous pictures were published and distributed as postcards showing fallen Allied soldiers and corresponding mass graves.
In Germany after the war, hostile – especially British – propaganda was considered to be much more effective than its own, and quite a few attributed the German defeat to enemy propaganda. William II, in his Dutch exile, wrote about the English publisher Northcliffe, whose newspapers were at the forefront of anti-German propaganda: “If we had had a Northcliffe, we could have won the war.” Erich Ludendorff also expressed his appreciation in retrospect. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler discussed the war propaganda in great detail and summed it up with consequences: “I too have learned infinitely from this hostile war propaganda.”
Weapon technology development during the First World War
The First World War revolutionized weapon technology in numerous aspects. In infantry equipment, the First World War brought the final breakthrough to camouflage clothing and the steel helmet. The rifles of the infantry were about equivalent, only the British Lee-Enfield was superior to those of the other combatants due to the fast firing sequence and caused high German losses, especially in Flanders.
The trench warfare brought a renaissance of the hand grenade, only the Central Powers had sufficient quantities at the beginning of the war, the British had retired them in 1870. The machine gun was further developed from models that were difficult to transport (e.g. the German MG 08 with a weight of 30 to 40 kg) to lighter models (e.g. the later proverbial MG 08/15 with 14 kg). The first “real” submachine gun MP 18 was characteristically also called “trench sweeper” and served mainly to support new infantry tactics (stormtroopers).
Machine guns and later tanks made the traditional use of cavalry an anachronism, the era of the well-known “battle cavalry” had inevitably come to an end in 1914, the cavalry lost its status as the main weapon genre in the First World War and was mainly used for armed reconnaissance and terrain security. In the extensive rooms of the Eastern Front, both sides made extensive use of their cavalry troops, the English towards the end of the war in Palestine, especially in the war of movement of 1914/15. In the later years of the war, all the belligerent powers greatly reduced their cavalry troops.
From the first moderately successful Tank Mark I, the Allies developed the effective attack weapon Mark IV and the “ancestor” of today’s tank types, the Renault FT. Until the end of the war, Germany developed only inadequate repellents such as the so-called M1918 tank rifle. The only series-produced German tank A7V could not be produced in sufficient numbers: only 20 A7V faced 1220 Mark IV and 2700 Renault FT as well as about 2,000 other Allied armored vehicles, which exemplifies the material superiority of the Allies in the last year of the war.
In the course of the First World War, the limits of the artillery led to the increase in importance of bomber aircraft, e.g. the “Fat Bertha”, which was sometimes effective at the beginning of the war against fixed targets, showed system-related weaknesses (immobility, high bullet wear, moderate accuracy). The technically complex Paris gun had no military value due to the very low accuracy and is considered a pure “terrorist weapon” against civilian targets.
The light and mobile French “Canon 75” revolutionized artillery even before the war and showed its capability against the German attack, especially in the initial phase of the war, but proved to be too small-caliber for the requirements of trench warfare. The ratio of light to heavy batteries shifted in the warring parties in the context of trench warfare from 11:2 at the beginning of the war to 9:7 at the end of the war.
The first series of fighters (e.g. Fokker E.I) were created from temporary arrangements, which aimed at the enemy with rigidly installed machine guns and the entire aircraft. Early long-range bombers such as the German large and giant aircraft or the British Handley Page Type O also developed from temporary arrangements, increasingly replacing war zeppelins. The First World War can also be equated with the actual beginning of air radio, which raised the possibilities of aerial reconnaissance to a completely new level.
The submarine – at best regarded as an auxiliary weapon before the war – became the central weapon of aggression in naval warfare. The superior radio reconnaissance (“Room 40”) of the British made the use of the deep-sea fleet more difficult until the complete cessation of relevant operations in the North Sea. The British hardly used their superior Grand Fleet offensively, mainly due to the threat of submarines, so with the First World War the decline in the importance of capital ships began.
Apart from the mobilization of all reserves within the framework of the war economy, the industrialized war was demonstrated by the fact that mainly long-range weapons determined the course of the war: artillery caused about 75 percent of all injuries in the war, infantry weapons about 16 percent, hand grenades 1 to 2 and poison gas almost 1.7 percent. Due to the traditional, “bare” weapons (saber, dagger, side rifle), only 0.1 percent of the wounds were inflicted in the entire war. Less fitting in the picture of the industrialized and thus “modern” war, however, is that almost a tenth of the Germans, one-sixth of the Austro-Hungarians and one-fifth of the French dead fell victim to an illness.
The military’s ability to judge
The equally unexpected and all-round world war disaster of warfare had its main cause in the unequal development of technology and military tactics. In the last 30 years before the war, new inventions in weapon technology piled up: low-smoke powder, small-caliber multi-loading rifles, rapid-fire guns, machine guns, airplanes and much more condensed into a “critical mass”, the behavior and consequences of which could not be easily assessed without the “great experiment” that broke out in the summer of 1914.
Both the German and French army leadership tried to ignore and devalue the ever-increasing emphasis on technology in their profession, while putting the will and the idea of attack in the foreground. The emphasis on combat morale (“offensive à outrance”) offered itself to relativize the problems caused by the mechanization of armaments. Accordingly, only one-sided lessons were learned from the siege of Port Arthur (1904/05), although the new military-technical situation of the industrialized war was already clearly visible here.
The special thing about the military doctrines in France and Germany was not the orientation towards the offensive, but their unique exaggeration – tactical reason was practically lost. Last but not least, the ideological imprint of Social Darwinism played a role. Social Darwinism offered the craft of war a new, quasi-scientific legitimation: a sense of modernization combined with the emphasis on the vital element of warfare and thus led to a path that led to tremendous bloodbaths in the face of unprecedented development of weapons technology. Nowhere were the military leaders willing to acknowledge that the unequal level of development of firepower and movement made offensive war impossible. The victory could only be won with sacrifices that were out of proportion to the profit even by the standards of the time.
The First World War with its material battles brought about a change in the self-perception and in the external perception of the soldiers. Thus, before the First World War, the general idea of war was still characterized by open field battles, in which the soldier was to stand up to the enemy in a daring, chivalrous and heroic manner. Almost all Germans had stopped in their idea of the war at the level of 1871 and earlier. Accordingly, the war was conceived as an “open, honest battle with chivalrous weapons” that would bring adventure, romance and personal heroism to the participants.
Thus, commercial prostitution was widespread both at the front and in the stage. It took place in brothels separate for soldiers and officers, which were controlled by military doctors and sometimes even operated by the military itself. But the glorified view of war could not withstand the realities of trench warfare. The experience at the front destroyed such ideas: “Courage, bravery and skill – all superfluous…” The war brought the soldiers not the hoped-for adventure and heroism, but the disturbing experience of a complete degradation of the individual to the defenseless object of the war machine, thus creating the image of a depersonalized and industrialized war.
Decisively, the almost uninterrupted fire of the artillery shaped this impression, which claimed more than half of the victims of the war. The soldiers’ only reaction to this weapon was to wait helplessly for the impact, for the onset of uncontrollable violence: “The war machine seemed to become omnipotent and to impose its decisions on those who participated in its opaque movements.”Accordingly, the iconography of a new type of soldier emerged, the “emotional, spontaneous and loyal youths” of the Langemarck myth gave way to the Verdun fighter, in the ideal image a “trained, cold, aggressive, isolated and technically equipped leader figure.” The steel helmet became the symbol of the soldier, it represented the modern, technical and functional appearance of the war.
Paradoxically, the static arrangement of trench warfare also had a tendency to limit violence as long as the soldiers of both sides pursued the status quo, which was the case outside major offensives in large areas of the front. In order to break up this situation, the army leadership used specialists in the use of force, on the British side mainly snipers, on the German and Austrian side shock troop fighters with high individual combat motivation, who were extremely unpopular with the normal troops because of the escalation of violence they had carried out.
These special units felt themselves to be perpetrators in an emphatic sense. “It is, therefore, no coincidence that here, in addition to the German shock troops, also in the Italian elite units, the ‘Arditi’, a direct line of continuity can be drawn to the fascist aestheticization of violence in the interwar period” and was also founded from a depth psychological and cultural science point of view.
Consequences of the First World War and victims
Number of victims
There is little agreement in the literature on war losses, as “losses” are defined differently. In military parlance, losses are all soldiers who are no longer available to the fighting units. In the following lists, only fatalities are listed.
Worldwide, more than 60 million soldiers were under arms, of which almost 9 million died, or 14 percent, about 6,000 per day. For the Central Powers, the corresponding ratio was about 25 million soldiers to 3.5 million deaths, for the Entente 40 million to 5 million. The death rate was different in the armies, fluctuating between 6 and 30 percent, with particularly high numbers in southeastern European countries and the Ottoman Empire.
This was due to the fact that the highly armed Western troops were vaccinated against all common diseases and that – apart from the Spanish flu – there were hardly any more deadly epidemics among the soldiers. In the case of the absolute death toll, on the other hand, the different intensity of warfare has an effect. The main reason for the increase in fatal wounds compared to previous wars was artillery shells. At 5 to 10 percent, the death rate of prisoners of war was significantly lower than in previous wars.
Among the wounded were numerous invalids, sometimes disfigured beyond recognition, who were released with previously unknown (facial) disfigurements and amputations into a civilian life that had not yet known modern prosthetics, vocational and medical rehabilitation. Countless former World War II soldiers died after the end of the war as a result of war injuries and illnesses brought along at a relatively low age. Among the wounded must be counted numerous conscientious objectors who were mentally incapable of military service; they were sentenced to prison terms and imprisoned or psychiatric hospitalized in order to “maintain the morale of the troops”.
The military deaths of the most important participants in the war are shown in the following table (see table troop strength above):
|State||War participants in total.||Fallen||Percent||Notes|
|Eastern Hungary||9 million||1.460.000||16%||incl. Landwehren|
|Osm. Rich||1.6 million||325.000||20%|
|Bulgaria||600.000||88.000||15%||Entry into the war in 1915|
|Russia||15.8 million||1.8 million?||11%||Exit from the war winter 1917/18|
|France||8.4 million||1.37 million||16%|
|French Colonial Troops||449.000||78.000||17%|
|Great Britain||6.1 million||750.000||12%||from 1916 conscription|
|British colonies||2.8 million||180.000||6%|
|Belgium||292.000||38.000||13%||Low mobilization base wg. occupation|
|Montenegro||50.000||13.000||26%||Surrender at the beginning of 1916|
|Italy||4.3 million||460.000||11%||Entry into the war in May 1915|
|Portugal||100.000||7.000||7%||Entry into the war in 1916|
|Romania||750.000||250.000||33%||Entry into the war in 1916; Armistice at the end of 1917|
|UNITED STATES||2.1 million||117.000||6%||Entry into the war in 1917, 1/2 d. Losses due to Spanish flu|
|Greece||230.000||25.000||11%||official entry into the war in 1917|
Leaving aside the figures from Russia, the civilian losses of about 6 million dead seem to be well below the military ones. The civilian population was not involved in warfare to the same extent as in the Second World War, so there were bombing raids against cities comparatively rarely and resulted in rather low human casualties. The same applies to the still rather rare mass shootings of civilians and similar crimes. However, in many cases, the figures can only provide approximate values, as no reliable data are available for a number of countries.
In Russia, the civilian deaths as a result of the war and the victims of revolution and civil war can hardly be separated. According to calculations from the 1930s and 1940s, which have not yet been seriously doubted, Russia lost around thirty million people between 1914 and 1921, more than in the Second World War. Otherwise, the loss of civilian life is mainly due to war-related malnutrition, which was exacerbated in Germany by the British naval blockade. The losses sometimes also include the sharp drop in birth rates, especially in European countries during the war. The war caused a dramatic decline in the populations of many participating countries. The war tore a deep gap in the demography of Germany and France and created unprecedented social hardship among war orphans and widows.
In the years from 1918 to 1920, the Spanish flu swept away millions of civilians and soldiers in Europe, often already weakened by the war, claiming between 20 million and 50 million lives, estimates range up to 100 million. This means that more people died of the Spanish flu than in the First World War as a result of acts of war. Estimates of the number of victims in Germany range between 209,000 and 300,000. The rapid and worldwide spread of the pandemic must be seen according to all hypotheses on geographical origin in connection with the events of the war, probably it was spread from March 1918 mainly through infections in US Army training camps and reached Europe with troop transports in April 1918.
The civilian losses of the most important participants in the war are shown in the following table:
|State||Population in millions||Dead||Percent||Notes|
|Germany||67,8||700.000?||1%||especially starvation deaths|
|Eastern Hungary||52,6||400.000?||1%||especially in Poland|
|Osm. Rich||17,0||2.000.000||12%||especially Armenians|
|Russia||164,0||28.2 million?||17%||Dead 1914 – 1921; without Finland|
|France||39,0||300.000||1%||Deaths, especially in the front area|
|Great Britain||46,1||600.000||1%||incl. Ireland|
|Belgium||7,6||50.000||1%||i. a. mass shootings in 1914|
Destruction and war costs
The particularly heavily contested areas in northern France (Zone Rouge) and Belgium had been largely destroyed in the war. The cost of reconstruction was estimated at about 100 billion francs. The assumption of the victors that they could refinance the costs of the war through reparations proved to be an illusion. Britain went from being the world’s largest creditor to one of the largest debtors. For Germany, the war ended in gigantic inflation, the victorious powers became debtors of the USA. Europe had lost its dominant position in the world as a result of the war.
The total direct war expenditure from 1914 to 1918 amounted to 1016 billion gold marks. Of this, 268 billion was accounted for by the British Empire, 194 by Germany, 134 by France, 129 by the USA, 106 by Russia, 99 by Austria-Hungary and 63 billion by Italy. Essentially, with the exception of Britain, they were raised through war bonds and money creation.
In Germany alone, war-related expenses amounted to about 60 to 70 million marks per day until 1916. After that, there were enormous increases as a result of increased armament efforts, especially in accordance with the Hindenburg program. Only a small part of the war costs could be financed by tax revenues, around 87% remained uncovered. The Reich debt, therefore, rose by 145.5 billion marks.
The First World War is regarded by some authors as an “epochal threshold”. Through him, international relations were reorganized. It destroyed existing notions of social order and, in most of the defeated states, national political systems. The war took up the entire society of a state, it left no area of life untouched and thus changed the living conditions of the people seriously. “The war […] acted as a kind of ‘space for change’, within which old orders could be delegitimized and new ones became possible.”
The questions of contractual arrangements after the war were decided within the framework of the Paris suburban treaties. On January 18, 1919, the Paris Peace Conference began, not coincidentally on the founding of the German Reich.
The negotiations took place mostly secretly and in the absence of plenipotentiaries of the vanquished and Russia until the draft treaties were submitted. The subsequent exclusively written exchange with the vanquished took place by the Council of Four formed on 24 March 1919, to which only the prime ministers of the European victorious powers France, Great Britain and Italy as well as the President of the United States belonged. Again, it was no coincidence that the draft treaty on the Treaty of Versailles was handed over to the German representatives on 7 May 1919, the fourth anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.
Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles answers the question of war guilt insofar as Germany and its allies are “authors of all losses and all damages”, which in Germany was predominantly understood as a “war guilt lie”, resulted in revision intentions and historical revisionism and contributed to poisoning the domestic political atmosphere in the young Weimar Republic. In fact, however, the moral term “guilt” was not included in the text of the treaty, so an official admission of guilt was not required. Primarily due to the German insistence on this question, however, he was included in a coat note, which was handed over on 16 June 1919 with the final text of the treaty, but was not part of the treaty. It says: The “rulers of Germany” had intended
“[…] to establish their supremacy by force. Once their preparations were complete, they encouraged a dependent ally [Austria-Hungary] to declare war on Serbia within forty-eight hours. Of this war […] they knew quite well that it could not be localized and would unleash the general war. In order to make this general war doubly safe, they evaded any attempts at reconciliation and consultation until it was too late […] However, responsibility is not limited to the fact that war was wanted and unleashed. Germany is equally responsible for the crude and inhuman way in which it was led.”
The atrocities of war during the invasion of Belgium, the first use of poison gas and the opening of the air and submarine war were mentioned and at the end the “criminal character of the war started by Germany” and the “barbaric method that Germany used in the conduct of the war” were explicitly emphasized.
The amount of German reparation payments initially remained open. The Reparations Commission agreed on 226 billion gold marks, reduced it in April 1921 to 132 billion gold marks, which were to be paid according to the London payment plan of 1921 with 2 billion gold marks annually and 26 percent of all German export earnings (about one billion gold marks). The immense German reparation debt was caused, among other things, by the historical novelty that, in accordance with the demands of Lloyd George and the prime ministers of the Dominions, military pensions and the financial support of war invalids and survivors were among the war damages subject to reparation.
Revisions of the payment plan were made in 1924 with the Dawes Plan and in 1929 with the Young Plan, in 1932 the payments were initially stopped. The Young bond, which was issued for payment in 1930, was repaid under the London Debt Agreement from 1953 to about 1988, a final installment of accumulated debt only in 2010.
Germany had to accept areas of 70,570 km² and population losses of 7.3 million inhabitants as well as give up all colonies, the treaty reaffirmed the occupation of the Rhineland for 15 years and a subsequent ten-kilometer-deep demilitarized zone. The annexation of Austria to Germany was placed under the reservation of the League of Nations Council.
In addition, there were arms restrictions such as the abolition of general conscription, dissolution of the General Staff, demolition of fortresses in the neutral zone, prohibition of modern weapons (tanks, submarines, air force), reduction of the land army to 100,000 and the navy to 15,000 men.
German counter-proposals were rejected by the winners. From 16 to 22 June 1919, there were dramatic and uninterrupted consultations of the relevant political bodies, the Scheidemann government resigned on 19/20 June, on 21 June the German High Seas Fleet sank on the occasion of the peace conditions. In view of the ultimate attitude of the victorious powers, the Following Day, on 22 June 1919, the National Assembly adopted the treaty by 237 votes to 138 with 6 abstentions, so that the Bauer government had to sign the Treaty of Versailles without compromise on 28 June 1919.
The suburban treaties with Austria (Treaty of Saint-Germain) and Hungary (Treaty of Trianon) as well as with Bulgaria (Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine) and Turkey (Treaty of Sèvres) followed in many respects the model of the Treaty of Versailles: no oral negotiations with the vanquished and their provisional exclusion from the League of Nations, as well as arms restrictions, territorial cession and high reparations. Hungary suffered the relatively largest loss of territory.
Since the U.S. Senate on November 18, 1919, rejected the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and the associated membership in the League of Nations, the United States concluded bilateral treaties with the German Reich, Austria and Hungary, among other things, with the Berlin Treaty, which raised hopes for a general revision. The treaty with Turkey did not enter into force because Mustafa Kemal’s revolutionary movement deposed the Turkish government as part of the Turkish War of Liberation. The revision of the Paris Peace Treaty – including the Treaty of Lausanne – was thus initiated with the most recently signed treaty.
Changes in the political map
The First World War brought about considerable changes in the political map, especially in Europe. Thus, the states of Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Second Polish Republic, the First Czechoslovak Republic, Hungary, Austria and Soviet Russia emerged from Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire. In addition, short-lived states such as the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Belarusian People’s Republic, the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, the Democratic Republic of Georgia and the Democratic Republic of Armenia were formed. At the end of 1922, the Soviet republics merged to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union, USSR). The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed from the merger of the Kingdom of Serbia and the Kingdom of Montenegro with parts of Austria-Hungary.
The Ottoman Empire gave rise to Turkey and various League of Nations mandates, such as the League of Nations Mandate for Syria and Lebanon, the British Mandate of Mesopotamia (from which the Kingdom of Iraq was created in 1932) and the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. The German colonies also passed into League of Nations mandates, only in Namibia, the former German South West Africa, there is still a significant German minority today. The colonial empires and zones of influence of the British and those of the French reached their maximum extent after the First World War.
Middle East conflict
The Middle East conflict is at least “in the broadest sense a product of the First World War”. In search of allies, the British distributed the hoped-for spoils of war in Palestine three times. The promises and agreements of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration were in fact mutually exclusive.
In the “Hussein-McMahon correspondence”, which only became known in 1939, the British High Commissioner to Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, promised the Sherif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali, a Greater Arab Empire, which McMahon formulated above all in the letter of 24 October 1915: Great Britain was “ready to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs within the countries that lie within the borders proposed by the Sherif of Mecca”. The British later declared that the Sherif had not fulfilled the treaty because the Arab revolt was not the promised general uprising.
In fact, Britain had never been willing to accept a Greater Arab Empire, as made clear in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 16, 1916. In this treaty, France and Great Britain demarcated their spheres of interest, the British wanted to create a zone of influence from the Mediterranean to today’s Iraq. Palestine – apart from Haifa (British) – was to come under international control. The state promised to the Arabs shortly before was to be divided into a French zone of influence in the north and a British one in the south.
The Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, issued in a letter from British Foreign Secretary Balfour to the President of the World Zionist Organization, Walter Rothschild, finally pledged the British government’s support for the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people, which was interpreted as an outrageous diplomatic success for the Jewish organization.
On January 3, 1919, Hussein’s son Faisal concluded the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement with the later president of the World Zionist Organization, Chaim Weizmann, at the Paris Peace Conference, in which Faisal pledged the Arab side’s agreement in principle to a Jewish state if Arab independence were recognized. However, the promises of the Allied powers to the Arabs, in particular those of the Anglo-French Declaration of 7 November 1918, were subsequently only partially implemented.
The conflicts of interest led to the first anti-Jewish actions in Jerusalem (Nabi Musa riots) as early as April 4, 1920. Palestine was officially handed over to Britain by the League of Nations as a Mandate territory on 24 July 1922, whereby the Balfour Declaration was taken verbatim in the Mandate text despite concerns, for example by Foreign Minister Curzon. The clashes between Jews and Arabs increased, in 1929 the conflicts received for the first time the quality of massacres (massacre of Hebron).
Committee of Inquiry and War Crimes Trials
On 21 August 1919, the Weimar National Assembly constituted a committee of inquiry to investigate the events that had led to the outbreak, prolongation and loss of the war. In the course of the discussion on the question of extradition and war guilt, the existence of the committee itself was heavily criticized by the conservatives. The party-political structure of the committee led to the fact that the majority will quickly shifted to the side of the strong forces from the outset, which had no interest in clarifying the question. Accordingly, in the end, the committee had only a functional character for official German foreign policy.
On February 3, 1920, the Allies presented Kurt von Lersner, chairman of the German peace delegation, with an Allied note demanding the extradition of about 900 German alleged war criminals. Lersner initially refused to pass it on to the Reich government in protest and threatened to resign. Reich Chancellor Gustav Bauer publicly distanced himself from Lersner’s position, the official handover of the extradition request then took place on 7 February 1920. Surprisingly, the Allies withdrew from the extradition request in a note of 16 February 1920 and agreed that the proceedings would be carried out against the accused in Germany themselves, whereby they reserved control rights and, if necessary, to take over the proceedings again.
Wanted. The reasons for the Allies giving in were the “cross-class and cross-party” resistance to the extradition demand in Germany and the significantly increased differences between the Allies since November 1918.
Even earlier, on 15 January 1920, a first Allied note had been sent to the Dutch government to extradite Wilhelm II. The Netherlands rejected the request because it was not a party to the peace treaty, there had been no statute on crimes and their punishment before the war, and the granting of asylum was an expression of fundamental legal convictions and centuries of tradition.
As part of the London ultimatum of 5 May 1921, the Allies complained, among other things, that there had been no conviction of the war criminals so far. On this point, the Reich Government was able to point out that the trials before the Imperial Court in Leipzig would take place from May 1921. In the years 1921 to 1931, the Imperial Court of Justice and the Reich Attorney’s Office dealt with the proceedings against so-called “war accused”.
Most of the cases were closed in closed session by decision or by order of the Oberreichsanwalt, there were only 17 proceedings with seven convictions. Public proceedings were suspended in 1922 after two notes from the Allies. In the notes, the Allies criticized the work of the Imperial Court and announced that they would no longer cooperate with the German courts and would conduct absentee proceedings. However, the Allies waived a request for extradition under Article 228 of the Treaty of Versailles. In France and Belgium, 493 absentee proceedings took place, and for all convictions abroad, the Reich Prosecutor’s Office discontinued the proceedings in Germany on the recommendation of the Federal Foreign Office.
Only the conviction of two officers of the SM U 86 for the shooting of shipwrecked persons of the hospital ship Llandovery Castle had a further history of effect on international law, since the Imperial Court of Justice in this case exceptionally expressly stated: if an “order manifestly presents itself as criminal for everyone, including the subordinate”, then the recipient of the order bears the criminal responsibility and can not invoking action on command.
“Although the law obliges them to be prosecuted, the Reich Attorney’s Office and the Imperial Court showed very little inclination to seriously harass sufficiently suspected war criminals […] Certainly, no direct connection can be made between German behavior in Belgium in 1914 and in the Soviet Union from 1941 onwards […] Nevertheless, there are parallels in the willingness to accept legally unbounded war violence, and it can also be found where the war was not a declared war of annihilation.”
The failure of the Leipzig Trials was intended to encourage the Allies from 1943 (Moscow Declaration) to initially take the prosecution of Nazi crimes into their own hands – including in the context of the Nuremberg Trials.
Influence on Fascism and National Socialism
National Socialism and Italian Fascism drew essential parts of their special character and legitimation from the First World War.
“Without the First World War and its legacy, the Third Reich is inconceivable. The popularity of National Socialism had crucial psychological roots that cannot be explained without this legacy. The same applies to its ability to influence the memory of the world war and the trauma undoubtedly caused by it and to instrumentalize it for political purposes […] This was especially true of the view that Germany had been thrown into a continuing catastrophe by the defeat of 1918. In the eyes of Hitler and the regime’s leadership, World War II was the unfinished legacy of the First.”
– Ian Kershaw
The majority of Germans could neither accept nor understand the defeat, so the distorted image of the First World War and the reasons for the defeat cultivated by the National Socialists fell on fertile ground. The defeat was explained in this pattern by the revolutionary activities of left-wing parties and, above all, by a racist variant of the stabbing legend (“failure of the homeland”), which blamed “world Jewry”.
“Since 1933, [this] interpretation of the war has become the basis of the political and ideological formation of the new Germany: the war not as a teacher of peace, but as a teacher of the next war and the preparation for it, so one can summarize these interpretations, which began in 1919 and lasted until 1945 – even beyond that, by using ‘Versailles’ as a legitimation for the Second World War far into the Federal Republic.”
– Ulrich Herbert
Italy, on the other hand, which was one of the victorious powers, suffered from the “arrogance with which it was treated by the Allies and, on the other hand, from the dissatisfaction with the war gains […] The disappointments created a climate of frustration that was condensed into the slogan of ‘mutilated victory’.
“The Italian Regency at the Quarnero (1919/20) – shaped by Gabriele D’Annunzio – is regarded as the first pre-fascist system, it anticipated essential elements of National Socialism and Italian Fascism and provided the guide for a “modern style of politics” that relies on the inclusion of the masses and their manipulation. Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party took advantage of the massive disappointment of the rural and petty-bourgeois lower classes, who were particularly hard hit by the war. The social acceptance of the fascist seizure of power, characterized by illegality and the use of force, is attributed not least to the experience of war.
Refurbishment and reception
“In contemporary perception and in many countries even today, this war remains the ‘Great War’, ‘la Grande Guerre’, and la Grande Guerra because of its duration, its intensity in economic, technical and intellectual terms and not least because of the countless victims among the soldiers. Especially in Germany, the memories of the First World War lie in the shadow of the Second World War, on the one hand, because of the rupture of civilization caused by the National Socialist regime in the course of the Eastern Campaign and the Holocaust. On the other hand, there was only comparatively little material damage on German territory during the First World War.
Years before the outbreak of war in 1914, the German Reich was already talking about the coming “World War”, as in the anti-British novel “The World War” by August Wilhelm Otto Niemann, published in 1904. The term First World War was first used by Ernst Haeckel as early as September 1914, he or First World War also appeared sporadically in other publications around 1920/21 and can therefore only be described to a limited extent as Retronym.
The First World War Historical Research
The First World War is one of the most important topics in modern history in historical science. “World War II research” represents an area in which general research tendencies are reflected: Since the mid-1980s, research has increasingly turned to everyday history, to the level of experience of the “little man”, “in order to break up the previous dominance of elite research and to underpin a history of society in war from below.
“Until the 1960s, the questions revolved around political history, but this was increasingly replaced by socio-historical focal points. Since the mid-1990s, studies have dominated that are committed to the history of experience or trace the representations of war. In the meantime, a disparate and differentiated field of research has emerged in which social and cultural-historical aspects are brought together.”The historiography of mentalities has also been modified for some time by the “culture of war” research, which also dominates on an international scale. In this topic, mentalities, worlds of experience, propaganda and ideology flow together more strongly than in pure “experience” research. Particular attention is paid to the “myth of the war experience”.In this process, military historiography has converged with general historical science.
The general significance of war
The First World War is referred to as an “epochal threshold”, “primordial catastrophe” and political-cultural “space for change”, which was accompanied by a delegitimization of old orders and the facilitation of new orders. The war brought about a radical change in international relations, the appearance of the new leading powers, the Soviet Union and the USA, and the decline of Europe as world and order powers. There is broad agreement in research that the First World War – as the American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan put it – was politically the “primordial catastrophe of the 20th century”.
It was an event that had a fatal effect on the further history of Europe: the October Revolution, Stalinism, fascism, National Socialism and finally the Second World War are inconceivable without the shocks of the First World War. Some historians summarize the years from 1914 to 1945 as the Second Thirty Years’ War and describe the time of the world wars as a catastrophic period of German history. The war is also seen as a political, economic and structural collapse of the previous Europe: “By this we mean the failure of the functioning of the system of the great powers, the failure of their foreign policy interaction, on which an essential part of their world standing was based.
Some see this failure already in the outbreak of war, others in the inability to end this war in time and without external help.”While in 1913 Europe still accounted for 43 percent of world production, ten years later, in 1923, it was only 34 percent. Furthermore, serious domestic, social and (further) economic consequences as well as “spiritual” and socio-cultural changes are mentioned. The war destroyed or changed existing social norms and rules and political concepts of order. However, there is no consensus on the question of whether the war has now produced completely new developments or rather merely strengthened existing ones.
According to many scholars, the First World War marked the end of an era – the long 19th century, as it is often called, which began with the French Revolution (1789) and is commonly apostrophized as the “bourgeois age”. Other researchers doubt this, as the war was merely an internal caesura within an epoch, as it drove rather than interrupted the processes of change that arose in the 19th century. In this context, war is said to have the function of a catalyst that reinforced or helped them to break through developments that had already been initiated; for example, important ideas, art movements and moments of modern mass society had already begun before 1914.
Discussion about the causes of war
Triggered mainly by the sole war guilt of the German Empire asserted in the Treaty of Versailles, an extensive apologetic literature emerged in the Weimar Republic in the years after the First World War to ward off the “war guilt lie”. The attempt to appoint those responsible for the outbreak, prolongation and loss of the war with the help of a parliamentary committee of inquiry set up by the German Reichstag in August 1919 largely failed.
Historians of the victorious states largely held on to the sole war guilt of Germany and its allies. The time of National Socialism brought an interruption of serious research in Germany and led to an isolation from Western historical science. After the Second World War, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s view that the peoples of Europe had “slipped into the World War” prevailed. In the 1960s, the Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer questioned this view of history.
It triggered a first, year-long historians’ dispute, starting with an article in the Historical Journal in 1959 and above all his book Griff nach der Weltmacht, published in 1962, according to which “the German Reich leadership bears a considerable part of the historical responsibility for the outbreak of the general war”.In the ensuing, emotionally colored Fischer controversy, which in turn can be regarded as part of German history, he intensified his theses regarding the war guilt of the German Reich leadership.
Recent overviews assume that German policy in the July crisis was a high-risk crisis strategy that “consciously accepted the possibility of a major war, but without necessarily wanting to bring it about.”The improvement of one’s own position, which was deemed necessary, was to be enforced “with the help of a ‘policy of limited offensive’, accepting a ‘calculated risk’”.
According to Jürgen Angelow, however, the terms “limited offensive” and “calculated risk” are not enough to fully express “the irresponsible and abysmal” of the German position. On the other hand, the term Brinkmans hip used by younger historians describes a “daring policy of ‘uncalculated risk’, of walking on the edge of the abyss. “Christopher Clark, on the other hand, stands for a direction in research on the origin of the First World War, which sees the outbreak of war as the “fruit of a common political culture” in Europe and thus a common “paranoia”.
Clark does not want to question Fritz Fischer’s results in general. Ian Kershaw cites Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia as mainly responsible for the war, with “Germany playing the decisive role”. According to Annika Mombauer, after initial mediation attempts, Russia and France welcomed a coming war after it seemed inevitable. “Ultimately, however, it was the governments in Berlin and Vienna that made it a matter of war, as the decisive decisions were made immediately after the assassination. “Holger Afflerbach sees the Central Powers and Russia as primarily responsible for the outbreak of war.
Today there is agreement that the outbreak of war in 1914 was “one of the most complex events in modern history” and that consequently the discussion about the causes of the First World War continues. It is questionable “whether new findings will really enrich the debate in the future”.
Research since the turn of the millennium can be divided into various key topics, in which the variety of methods and approaches with which historians approach the First World War becomes clear. Thus, the study of specific social groups often goes hand in hand with the analysis of the media and symbols that represent them.
Picture postcards, for example, were developed as a relatively young source genre for the First World War, but the reporting on the fighting in official army reports such as mass media has also aroused research interests. Differentiated investigations of the effects of war on different groups dealt with children, women, corporate students, war invalids and previously underestimated conscientious objectors in the First World War. But also orders and decorations are no longer analyzed context-free in recent research but are considered in their material and symbolic meaning in connection with the concept of military honor.
The investigation of self-testimonies such as diaries or letters has always been an important part of World War II research. “Since self-testimonies were often made in close temporal proximity to the events, they are not over-shaped by later events and knowledge” and are therefore usually regarded as particularly valuable sources and edited as such in recent years. Ernst Jünger’s war diary 1914–1918, published in 2010, is regarded as “undoubtedly the most important new publication», from which Jünger took inspiration for many of his literary works.
But also letters of socialist soldiers, which contain numerous passages critical of the war, or diary entries of intellectuals were published as source editions, such as the diaries of the lawyers Karl Rosner (1873–1951) and Harry Graf Kessler (1868–1937). Unlike field mail letters from soldiers back home, letters to soldiers have rarely been preserved. Her more recent editions “show the efforts of soldiers and those who stayed at home to bridge distances and to provide insights into the everyday life of the war from the front and home.”
One of the leitmotifs of current World War II research is the experience of violence at and behind the front. The war violence of the First World War is seen as a link between the older forms of violence, the new technical developments since the turn of the century and the dissolution of the boundaries of violence in the Second World War. The dynamics of destruction are regarded as part of the mentality-historical component of the warring societies.
However, violence is also at stake in studies on the Austrian occupation policy in Serbia, which are controversial as to whether they are predominantly accidental or systematic outbreaks of violence. The occupation of Romania, on the other hand, took place in close cooperation with the elites there, so coercive measures were not the defining element. The same applies to the German occupation of Belgium, in which the world war becomes visible as a “global economic conflict between industrial nations”.In the autumn and winter of 1916, Belgian workers were not recruited but forced to do forced labor; however, this practice did not prove successful, so the occupation regime soon refrained from doing so under the impression of international protests.
The POW camps were also the subject of several recent studies; Increasingly, the research focus fell on the internment of civilians: “Here, too, it becomes apparent that the dividing line between combatants and civilians faded in the First World War. “Another research focus is on the often nationally divergent cultures of remembrance in the various successor states of the Central Powers, as demonstrated by the example of the Austro-Hungarian Southern Front in the Old Tyrolean region.
With regard to the war experience of the frontline soldiers, the handling of sports – the popularization of football – and animals in war attracted new attention. The history of experience also includes “The Long Wait” by German and British naval officers for a naval war, “which in the end hardly took place.”For a long time, conventional topics of classical operational history – planning, tactics, battles and battle descriptions – were hardly noticed by research: “Publications that felt committed to the new military historiography often avoided such questions and addressed military action in an extended context.
In the meantime, the combat mission of military personnel has become the subject of some investigations.”In doing so, processes of change have come into focus, such as the renunciation of French offensive fetishism during trench warfare and the learning processes in which the warring parties adopted the tactics of the enemy. The psychological stress of frontline soldiers and the factors contributing to the “endurance” of the war situation were also scientifically investigated. Alexander Watson developed a new explanation for the defeat of the German Reich on the Western Front: front officers had led their units into captivity as a way out of their poor situation, in particular the lack of supplies, by capitulating to numerically outnumbered enemy troops.
Beyond the frontline experience, the effects of war in the soldiers’ hometowns have now received some attention; Roger Chickering strove with Freiburg in the First World War for a total historical perspective, which should demonstrate the formative influence of the war on all areas of life. Here, too, the decreasing ability to “persevere” since the winter of 1916/17 played a decisive role.
But Great Britain in the war also underwent closer scrutiny, for example from Adrian Gregory: “He rejects the now relativized thesis of the widespread enthusiasm for war in 1914 and analyzes the reporting on the German war atrocities. The propaganda had by no means seduced the masses, but rather ‘real events’ had supported the image of a demonic Germany until 1915.”In both German and British society, state control of public communications played an important role.
The historiography of the Eastern Front of the First World War occupies little space within the literature on the years 1914 to 1918. One reason for the low level of research interest was the Cold War, which made it difficult for Western researchers to access the Eastern archives. Under Lenin, military cemeteries of the Tsarist Empire were destroyed and thus an attempt was made to erase the associated events from the historical consciousness of the people.
In the Soviet Union, negative depictions of the Imperial Russian Army in the First World War, but also positive and patriotic ones, could lead to problems for the author, so the topic was rather avoided. Norman Stone wrote the first comprehensive account of events on the Eastern Front in 1975. Stone doubts the economic backwardness of the Russian Empire. For Stone, the weakness of Russia lay in the outdated administration, which was to blame for the supply difficulties and the inefficient army leadership.
The war in the East differed markedly from the events on the Western front, it remained in the East with the war of movement, when in the West the fronts were already frozen. The reasons for this were the sparse communication possibilities and the poor traffic development, broken gaps in the defense lines could not be closed as quickly as in the West. The spatial extent of the Eastern Front with several 1000 front kilometers contrasted with only 800 kilometers in the length of the Western Front. Only in the more recent Western depictions and research on the First World War does the Eastern Front come back into focus. The Military History Research Office (MGFA) in Potsdam held a conference on “The Forgotten Front” in August 2004.
Even today, the question of why the European powers did not succeed in ending the war by mutual agreement has an impact on European self-confidence. Holger Afflerbach has put forward the thesis that the outcome of the First World War was open for a long time and was on a “knife’s edge”: not in the sense of a German victory, but a military draw. In the end, neither side was prepared to give in decisively, in addition to fatal misinterpretations.
The war was fought so fiercely to bring about a decision militarily. The long period of war and the associated losses were ultimately responsible for the fact that each side regarded a complete defeat of the enemy as the only satisfactory outcome of the war. Afflerbach blames the long course of the war primarily on the Western Allies and Italy, for whom a draw peace was out of the question and who bet on a complete victory at all costs.
Commemorations and memorials
The most famous memorials – some of them museums at the same time – are now located in the vicinity of Verdun. The Fort de Douaumont, fort Vaux, the ossuary of Douaumont, the associated army cemetery and other remains of the Battle of Verdun form a sprawling complex today. On 22 September 1984, the memorial formed the background for the demonstrative hand-in-hand of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand on the occasion of a large ceremony in memory of the victims of the wars between France and Germany.
The Notre-Dame-de-Lorette memorial for the fallen as another important memorial was opened on the edge of the largest French military cemetery “Notre Dame de Lorette” near Ablain-Saint-Nazaire on 11 November 2014. Apart from Douaumont and Notre Dame de Lorette, the Mémorial des batailles de la Marne in Dormans and the memorial at Hartmannswillerkopf are among the four French national monuments of the First World War. The ruins of Fort Loncin are an important Belgian war memorial.
The German Military Cemetery Vladslo is mainly known for the group of figures “Mourning Parents” by Käthe Kollwitz. The history of the German Military Cemetery Langemarck is related to the myth of Langemarck. Around Ypres there are numerous memorials, especially for soldiers from Great Britain, at the Menenpoort in Ypres itself is blown daily at 8 pm in honor of the fallen The Last Post. On 1 July 2016, the central German commemorative event “100 Years of the Battle of the Somme” organized by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge took place in the German War Cemetery Fricourt.
The British and French celebrated the day at the Thiepval Monument in the presence of President François Hollande, Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince Charles and other members of the British Royal Family. Nearby Lochnagar Crater is the largest surviving mine crater of the war. In the area of the monumental Canadian National Vimy Memorial and the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, the battlefields are preserved and thus the trench systems and explosion craters can still be read in the topography. The history of the memorial in the clearing of Compiègne refers to the connection between the two German wars of aggression of the 20th century.
In Italy, the Sacrarium of Redipuglia (Sacrario di Redipuglia), the Monument of the Fallen on Monte Grappa (Monumento ai Caduti del Monte Grappa), the Military Sacrarium of Fagarè della Battaglia (Sacrario Militare di Fagarè della Battaglia) and the Bell of the Fallen in Rovereto (Campana dei Caduti Maria Dolens) stand out.
During the Weimar Republic, no consensus could be reached in Germany on a central Reich memorial for the fallen of the war, and in 1935 Hitler decreed the Tannenberg Monument for this purpose. Inaugurated in 1930, the Hall of Honor (Monument to the Fallen) at Luitpoldhain in Nuremberg became a crystallization point for the Nazi party rally grounds and served as a central backdrop for the staging of the Nazi cult of the dead.
From 1931 to 1945, the Neue Wache in Berlin was Berlin’s “medal of honor for the fallen of the war”, and since 1993 it has been the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny”. The Memorial of the German Army has been located since 1972 on the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress in Koblenz, the Naval Memorial in Laboe and the Memorial for All The Dead of the Submarine War in Heikendorf near Kiel.
Especially in France and Great Britain, national memorials have often been carefully designed to be simple, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile. The new type of monument was intended to commemorate the many unidentifiable and lost soldiers of this war. This form of commemoration was taken up in many countries, but less so in interwar Germany, where conservative and right-wing groups opposed such memorials, to whom such memorials seemed too pacifist.
Works that did not idealize the life and death of soldiers were often hostile in Germany and removed during the National Socialist era, such as those of Ernst Barlach. The victims of the First World War were the reason for the introduction of the Volkstrauertag in Germany in 1926. In Germany and France, numerous war memorials were erected, especially in smaller villages, on which all victims of the community were named, but less often in larger cities, such as the war memorial in Munich and the war memorial in Heilbronn.
The central memorials in the former British Dominions have national significance, of which Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in particular, see participation in the First World War as a significant step towards becoming a nation. For example, in Australia, there are the Avenues of Honor, the Shrine of Remembrance and the Australian War Memorial, in Canada the National War Memorial, in New Zealand the World War One Memorial in Wellington and the Bridge of Remembrance in Christchurch. In Great Britain itself – especially in London – there are also numerous smaller and larger memorials; Symbolically significant is the tomb of an unknown soldier in the central nave of Westminster Abbey, “in the midst of the kings, because he served his God and Fatherland well,” as an inscription proclaims.
The installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red in the moat of the Towers of London caused a sensation and a large number of visitors in 2014. In the Commonwealth of Nations and France, Remembrance Day and Armistice 1918 are still celebrated today on 11 November, and ANZAC Day on 25 April in Australia, New Zealand and Tonga.
100 years after the Armistice of Compiègne, numerous celebrations took place, especially in France. President Emmanuel Macron visited memorial sites between 4 and 11 November 2018, including the Monument de la Pierre d’Haudroy on 7 November 2018, the monument to the arrival of the German negotiators on 7 November 1918 near La Capelle, the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne on 9 November and the Clearing of Compiègne on 10 November 2018 together with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Macron and Merkel unveiled a bilingual plaque reaffirming the “importance of German-French reconciliation in the service of Europe and peace” and visited the identical version of the Compiègne car, in which the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, in the museum there. Federal President Walter Steinmeier, together with Macron, took part in a peace concert at Strasbourg Cathedral on 4 November 2018 and in the Remembrance Sunday celebrations in London with Prince Charles. The celebrations in Paris on 11 November 2018 were attended by dozens of heads of state and government from all over the world, including Merkel, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
The First World War museums
In Europe alone, there are more than 750 museums on the First World War. In addition to numerous objects, the Museum of Military History in Vienna shows the automobile in which the Austrian heir to the throne was murdered. The Imperial War Museum in London has a very extensive collection of the First World War, redesigned for the commemorative year. Important collections and/or individual pieces are also on display at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, the National Army Museum in Bucharest (Museal Militar National) and the Military History Museum of the Bundeswehr in Dresden. The Bavarian Army Museum in Ingolstadt presents the largest permanent exhibition on the First World War in Germany. The only original German tank of the First World War (A7V) is in the Queensland Museum, Australia (temporarily transferred to the Australian War Memorial in 2015).
Museums dealing exclusively with the First World War can be found mainly in northern France, notably the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne and the Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux. The 26-meter-high monumental statue of La Liberté éplorée by the American artist Frederick William MacMonnies directly at the museum in Meaux marks the point of the farthest German advance towards Paris in September 1914. On 10 November 2017, Emmanuel Macron and Frank-Walter Steinmeier opened the first joint German French museum (historial) on the war at the Hartmannswillerkopf Memorial.
The Mémorial de Verdun and the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres also offer outstanding presentations, the municipality of Heuvelland near Ypres has restored the trench system of the German position Bavaria Forest on the basis of archaeological investigations and made it accessible to visitors. Also worth mentioning is the Rovereto War Museum in the Rete Trentino Grande Guerra network, an association of museums and memorials in Trentino on the occasion of the centenary year of remembrance, and the Kobarid Museum in present-day Slovenia, which focuses on the Isonzo Battles (especially the Twelfth Battle of Isonzo).
The World War had an impact primarily on literary expressionism. August Stramm’s World War II experience found its strongest German-language lyrical expression in August Stramm, but from a global perspective, In Flanders Fields by John McCrae can be seen as the most influential poem. Of the British war poets, Wilfred Owen (Dulce et Decorum est) and Laurence Binyon (For the Fallen) are also to be mentioned.
Neglected by the German Expressionists, the novel became the preferred genre of literature again with the World War, as the consequences and causes of the epochal event demanded the epic grand form. The emergence of Dadaism can be seen in the context of war. Ernst Jünger’s In Stahlgewittern, Der Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten by Walter Flex (one of the best-selling German-language books ever) and Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen can be called nothing new as well-known German-language depictions that deal with the events of the war in the narrower sense. Among the German dramas, reactions to the war included The Last Days of Humanity by Karl Kraus and Bertolt Brecht’s Drums in the Night.
Until the First World War, artists were mostly uninvolved witnesses of the events of the war. In the First World War, on the other hand, in addition to the war painters, numerous freelance artists were among the soldiers. Most of her works received little attention after the end of the war, and – with the exception of Otto Dix – many authors distanced themselves from their war works. Artists such as Max Beckmann and Fernand Léger did not even attempt to exhibit them but turned to other topics immediately after their demobilization.
Well-known works are Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor (Otto Dix, 1924), Gassed (John Singer Sargent, 1918) and Den Namenlosen 1914 by Albin Egger-Lienz as well as the Self-Portrait as a Soldier (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1915). In this war, the artists of the European avant-garde finally renounced the rules that had dominated battle painting until then. They were looking for new means to do justice to the horrific reality: essentially Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism and Abstract Art. “The time of heroic realism and patriotic allegories was finally over. The detonation of projectiles, the omnipotence of artillery, total war could no longer be imitated, but had to be transposed. Broken lines, bright colors were necessary, not to depict details of the battle, but to express their inhuman violence.
“The World War abruptly ended the architecture of historicism and Art Nouveau in Germany, as the use of ornaments and the corresponding additional costs no longer seemed appropriate in view of the events of the war and the hardship. Thus, the war brought the breakthrough of modernism and the formula “form follows function” in architecture, as well as the view put forward by Adolf Loos in the polemic Ornament and Crime (1908) that the use of ornaments and décor was superfluous.
Especially in connection with the memorials to the war, numerous works of sculpture were created. From today’s point of view, the Mourning Parents of Käthe Kollwitz as well as the Der Schwebende and the Magdeburg Memorial by Ernst Barlach are particularly noteworthy among German works of art. The so-called nail paintings corresponded to the zeitgeist; a propaganda movement that originated in Vienna in the first half of 1915. Particularly well-known were the Iron Hindenburg in Berlin, Henry the Lion in Iron in Braunschweig, Dä kölsche Boor in Iser in Cologne, the nail column in Mainz and the Isern Hinnerk in Oldenburg.
For music, the First World War is not considered an epochal border, as the turning point is set with the advent of atonal music on 1908/09. Apart from that, music plays almost no role in many of today’s depictions of the war. Nevertheless, the First World War has a significance in terms of compositional history, art music took a stand, and even more naturally military music and popular music in the form of soldiers’ songs, such as the Argonnerwaldlied or wild geese rush through the Night. Every German soldier had a field hymnal with him, a well-known song from it is e.g.
We Come to Pray. Hymns during the war were sometimes used ambivalently, so above all the chorales Nun danket alle Gott and Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott als ” Battle Songs of Prussian-Protestant Germany per excellence”. The functionalization of music for the war was nothing new and in Germany, as in other countries, composers, lyricists and publishers at the beginning of the war hurriedly switched to the production of war-glorifying, national and heroic music. Pieces by composers of hostile nations were partly removed from the program of the concert halls, especially at the beginning of the war.
At the beginning of the war, the music theatres increasingly included so-called patriotic German operas such as Richard Wagner’s Meistersinger or Heinrich Zöllner’s Der Überfall in the repertoire. A number of war operettas were created, but from about February 1915 hurrah-patriotic pieces with current war themes largely disappeared from the play stages, Biedermeier operettas and the classical opera repertoire dominated the repertoire again. Only one war operetta kept the whole war on stage, the “Patriotic Folk Play with Singing in 4 Pictures” by Walter Kollovertonte Immer feste druff!.
Music provided cultural practices at the front in which everyday life at the war could fade into the background, at least for a moment. Thus, in the Christmas truce of 1914, music was a mediator and bridge builder between the trenches; the joint singing of songs with the same melody as Silent Night and Heil Dir im Siegerkranz/God save the King initiated the spontaneous truce.
Notable compositions published at the time in connection with the events of the war included Edward Elgar’s Carillon, Claude Debussy’s Berceuse héroïque, Igor Stravinsky’s Souvenir d’une marche boche and Vincent d’Indy’s La légende de Saint Christophe. Art songs on the tragedy of war were written by Franz Schreker, Franz Lehár, Charles Ives, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Richard Strauss, Lili Boulanger, Giacomo Puccini, Hanns Eisler and Paul Hindemith.
On the occasion of the 100th commemorative year after the beginning of the First World War, Altuğ Ünlü composed a Requiem, which premiered on 1 November 2014.
The First World War provided material for numerous film adaptations. The 1916 British documentary The Battle of the Somme, shot for propaganda purposes, was watched by 20 million moviegoers in Britain within six weeks, a record that was only surpassed 60 years later with Star Wars. In 2005, it was the first British contemporary document ever to be recognized as a Memory of the World. The most famous films today are In the West Nothing New (1930) based on the novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, Paths to Glory (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).