August marks the 100th Anniversary of the start of World War I, an event that transformed Europe and produced a lasting effect on France. In Paris there have been several recent exhibitions showing various aspects of the war through French eyes. Unlike World War II, where the threat of destruction was everywhere, World War I in France was confined to a strip of countryside running from the North Sea along the French-Belgian border and across France to the Swiss border. The land in this wide strip was devastated, first by the various armies digging on each side up to 4 networks of trenches fortified with barbed wire and concrete, and then through the explosions of many millions of shells and even more bullets. The same land was consecrated by the death of millions of French, German, English, and eventually American soldiers, many of whose bodies were never recovered.
Europe in 1914 was at peace, and most governments had been stable for many years. In France, it was the time of the Belle Époch, the period from the end of the Franco Prussian War in 1871 until the start of World War I. It was a golden age of achievements in science, art, and literature. There were strong links between countries in banking and commerce. Continental Europe, though some parts were still imperial, was a civilization of European enlightenment, respect for constitutional principles, the rule of law, and representative government. The war would damage this civilization, bring on the rise of totalitarianism in Russia, Spain, Italy, and Germany and set the stage for World War II.
Civilization, life itself, is something learned and invented… After several years of peace men forget it all too easily. They come to believe that culture is innate, that it is identical with nature. But savagery is always lurking two steps away, and it regains a foothold as soon as one stumbles.
Saint-Beuve, quoted by George Eliot in Impressions of Theophrastus Such
Beneath the peace and prosperity, there was in France a cultural battle pitting a conservative viewpoint, which wanted to preserve religious and cultural heritage (including the monarchy) and a liberal viewpoint, which embraced the ideas of the 18th century thinkers who had fostered the French Revolution (including most contentiously the separation of the church from the state). The rhetoric between these two parties was contentious, like the rhetoric in modern day America. War was one idea that both groups, tired of years of public bickering and scandals, found they could support. A way to revive the spirit of unity and progress! Also the French were still angry at the Germans for the loss of their territories in Alsace and Lorraine in 1871. The public expectation was that the war would be quickly brought to an end.
The start of World War I
The war started in a most curious manner. The heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Arch Duke Ferdinand, and his wife were assassinated on June 28, 1914, by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo, Bosnia – then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassins were armed and assisted by a nationalist organization from nearby Serbia, a country which had gained its independence from the Turkish Empire. Many ethnic Serbs lived in Bosnia. The state of Serbia was sponsoring nationalist terrorists to rise up against the Austro-Hungarian government (similar to the current activities of Russia in the Ukraine). The Austro-Hungarian government ruled an empire with 5 languages and a dozen religions, so they could scarcely let this external ethnic threat go unanswered. They decided to threaten military action against Serbia.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Italy, who each pledged to support the other in the event of an attack by an outside power. There was a possibility that Russia might decide to come to Serbia’s assistance. Worried about the military consequences of attacking Serbia, Austria-Hungary sought diplomatic support from the German Emperor. There was a mutual assistance alliance between Russia and France in case either was attacked by Germany. There was also an understanding between Britain and France to lend assistance if the vital interests of either were judged to be threatened.
Germany agreed to fully support Austria-Hungary. The Austro-Hungarians dithered for 3 weeks before submitting a diplomatic note of demands to Serbia. Serbia was ready to accept all the demands (which would have prevented war) when they heard from their diplomat in Russia that the Czar was fiercely pro-Serbian and had declared a period preparatory to war (a pre mobilization of troops so to speak). This caused the Serbians to amend their response to Austria-Hungary and reject some of the conditions. While the Serbian army mobilized, the diplomats to all the major powers conferred to try to work out a solution to the crisis.
The problem was that the diplomatic efforts were superseded by war planning. The armies needed time to call up reserves and move troops into positions to defend against an attack. The Russians actually mobilized half their Army, and the Czar agreed to fully mobilise on July 30th. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, cousin of the Czar, sent a telegraph to him urging Russia to remain a spectator in the conflict without involving Europe in “the most horrible war she has ever witnessed.”. The evening of July 29th the Czar cancelled his mobilization order – just in time. Unfortunately, Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff, determined that unless Germany mobilized immediately, they would be vulnerable on their eastern frontier should war commence. He decided to greatly exceed his authority and inform the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff to mobilize immediately, and that Germany would mobilize as well. The Austro-Hungarians put the order to mobilize before the Emperor Franz Josef, who signed and returned it on July 31st. Russia backtracked and declared general mobilization too. On August 1st Germany mobilized against Russia. The French, fearing a loss of territory from a German first strike, actually mobilized an hour earlier than the Germans. The British declared war on August 4th after Germany failed to respond to a British request that they cease their attack on Belgium.
(I’ll keep it short)
World War I spread to involve fighting in Europe, Africa, and Asia. It was a huge and complicated conflict. Considering only the major activities in France, here is a link to a map showing the the western front. Germany had a plan called the Schlieffen Plan to end the war with France and England in six weeks. It involved bringing overwhelming force to sweep through Belgium and across northern France, then turning south to envelop Paris and the northern part of the country. The French plan of attack was to go into Germany through Alsace. Neither of these plans worked out as intended.
The Germans encountered much more resistance from the Belgians than they expected, and then they encountered strong resistance from the British. The French attack reached German territory and then was driven back in a counterattack. Eventually the French General Joffre decided on August 23rd that the offensive plan was failing and ordered troops to withdraw from the front to defensive positions. French troops retreated towards Paris with the Germans in hot pursuit. German logistics worsened, French logistics improved. The French organized a counter attack at the Marne River – the Germans had come within 30 miles of Paris. The counter attack had success, and eventually the Germans concluded that their plan for rapid defeat of the French had failed. They withdrew back beyond the Marne to the Aisne River and its tributaries, giving up the ground they had taken in the previous 2 weeks.
Thus began a new phase of the War – trench warfare. The German Schlieffen plan was designed to win the war in the west before the Russian troops could become a threat to Germany in the east. The German army ran out of time and was ordered to fortify and defend its positions in the west while troops were redeployed to fight on the eastern front. The line of trenches by the end of 1914 was 475 miles long – from the North Sea to Swiss border. In 1915 the French and English had little success against the German defenses. In 1916, the Germans tried to take the offensive at Verdun against the French General Pétain, but in the end not much was gained, and each side had over 200,000 killed or wounded. The Somme was an allied offensive led by the British General Haig. In trench warfare, the lightly protected attackers always suffered horrific casualties trying to dislodge the entrenched defenders. First one side would attack until they were repulsed, then the other side would attack. The attacks at The Somme yielded little ground, and Germany and the Allies each had more than 600,000 killed or wounded after months of battle.
In 1917, the French forces staged mutinies against the war. Their demands were more leave, better food, better treatment for soldier’s families, and lastly, a way to find peace. The French placed Philippe Pétain as Commander of the Army. Pétain made changes in doctrine to provide defense in depth, changes in tactics to limit the number of casualties in battle, and changes to policy to provide simpler and more regular leave. Gradually the crisis of the French army abated. Other countries were to have their own crises of morale during the war.
In April 1917, the US declared war on Germany. Despite efforts by President Woodrow Wilson to remain neutral and bring the warring parties to the negotiating table, the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare plus other factors finally brought the US into the War. America had a large navy but a very small army, and was otherwise unprepared to make an immediate contribution. General John J Pershing arrived in France in June 1917. By August 1918, America had sent 1,300,000 men to Europe.
The Germans were released from their eastern front by the collapse of the Russian Army when the Czar of Russia was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Russia had agreed to peace terms with Germany, ceding it territory for an end to warfare. Germany’s plan was to redeploy their troops from the east for one last all or nothing offensive in the west. The Germans still had a numerical superiority, and their plan was to attack before the Americans could mass forces to join the effort. The German aim was to push the British forces in northern France along the Belgian border back into the sea, then to sweep down upon the French forces. Thus on 21 March 1918, 76 German divisions attacked 28 British divisions of lesser quality first using deadly chlorine and phosgene gas and then bombarding them with millions of artillery shells. After the onslaught, the German attackers overran the British positions and pressed into France, attempting to roll up the British against the sea. As the allied armies fell back, they held a meeting between British and French to coordinate strategy, and both countries agreed to respond under the allied leadership of French General Ferdinand Foch. Foch’s coordinated strategy allowed the allies to staunch the assault.
The German’s tried several other assaults, all stopped short of taking Paris. Eventually the Germans could see that they didn’t have the population to provide enough new soldiers to make up for their continuing losses in battle. With an ever growing American army and the allies also possessing great superiority in tanks and other hardware, the Germans finally decided to fall back to the Hindenburg line and pursue negotiations for an armistice.
Aftermath of the War
There were some great inventions and legacies as a result of the war. The Wall Street Journal published an informative section on legacies of the Great War. These include minor achievements like the development of Pilates and more significant ones like the invention of plastic surgery. Of course there were also many new developments in warfare. The war created new countries and unfortunately also fostered the beginnings of the Middle East conflict. However, all these changes were overshadowed by the horrible, indescribable losses. Just consider some of the sacrifices of France:
The bodies of over half of the men killed in action were never recovered. There were 1.7 million French war dead in a country of 40 million. Twice that many were injured. Some 13% of the men of fighting age were killed. Among the youngest recruits aged 19-22 when the war broke out, 35-37% were killed. There were 680,000 widows. The total French losses in World War II were greater than those of the US. On a per capita basis, they were 5 times the American losses. Yet the French lost more than 3 times as many people in World War I than they did in World War II. A whole generation had been wiped out.
Shortly after the war ended and partly as a result of the problems of poor health and sanitation caused by the war, a Spanish flu would rage through Europe and kill more people than had been killed in the war. The liberation of peoples formerly in the Austro-Hungarian or German Empire brought little relief for the ethnic animosities that contributed to starting the war, and neither did the totalitarian revolution in Russia. The rancors and instabilities left behind only led to an even more destructive war a generation later. For all parties World War I was a terrible mistake.