World War I (Part 2)

By Stephen

On the western front in 1914, the Germans invaded France through Belgium and soon faced a counter-attack by the French and British.  The invaders were pushed back to the Aisne River, where both sides dug in, in what one writer says was the “last Nineteenth Century war.”  What he meant was, instead of armies moving, trench warfare made them static; and as a result, the front in the west stayed pretty the same until the end of the war.  Offensives,  such the Somme, provided a level of casualties never before seen (1.2 million in both sides) in modern warfare, all for the gain of a few yards.

Staying in trenches didn’t mean soldiers were safe.  Gas injured and killed a large number of men from the first time it was used by the Germans at the second Battle of Ypres in April 2015, soon both sides were using the silent killer.  Artillery duels were particularly devastating to trench inhabitants, since the big guns were used soften opponents before either side launched an offensive.  In fact, most battlefield deaths were the result of artillery barrages.  The Allies also used tanks, heavily armored machines that ran on continuous treads making them easier to drive on irregular terrain than vehicles with ordinary wheels.  Soldiers run over by tanks often disappeared in the mud, never to be found again.  Both sides also used sappers to plant mines under enemy trenches with deadly results.

Both the allies and the Central Powers were fighting a multi-front war.  The Germans were able shift more troops to the western front after Russians pulled out of the war; following their revolution, when the Communists took  0ver the government.   Great Britain and France fought against the remains of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, both in modern Iraq and in Saudi Arabia.  In the latter area an Arab revolt was led by Lawrence of Arabia.   In addition, there was an ill fated  direct attack on Turkey on the Gallipoli peninsula.

Most historians agree that the United States entering the war in 1917 tilted the scales in favor of the Allies.  The secondary reason for this action was the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.  But more important was the Zimmerman telegram which promised Mexico some territory it had lost in the war with the United States in the 1840s, if it joined Germany in the war against the U.S.   In 2003, Richard Rubin published The Last of the Doughboys, the result of his finding and interviewing veterans of the American experience in Europe in 1917-1918.  All the men he talked to were between 106 and 110 and all had died by time the book came out.   James Carl Nelson used archival material to tell the stories of five young graduates of Harvard who fought in France in 1918 in The Five  Lieutenants.

The American army participated in the last Allied offensive that led to the armistice been declared on November 11, 1918, at 11 A.M. (the eleventh month, the eleventh day, the eleventh hour)  The United States suffered 110 thousand deaths which was miniscule when compared with death toll of the European nations:  United Kingdom: 908,300; France: 1.3 million; and  Germany: 2.1 million. Russian death are harder to estimate, but they were somewhere over 2 million.

Not all the dead were identified. The United Kingdom, France and the United States dedicated monuments to Unknown Soldiers after the war.   France’s La tombe du soldat inconnu was placed in the Arc de Triomphe, Britain’s in Westminster Abbey, and the United States’ in Arlington National Cemetery.  The British also placed a memorial in Whitehall in London, the Cenotaph, which memorializes all United Kingdom soldiers who have given their lives  in service to their country.  Every year on Remembrance Sunday (The Sunday before November 11),  at 11 o’clock in the  morning, the time the armistice took effect, two minutes of silence are observed across the nation.   One minute to remember the death and one to honor the survivors.

Germany was defeated and the Allies made sure that country paid dearly at the peace conference in Paris.  The victors drafted the Versailles Peace Treaty which called for an international body called the League of Nations.  Reparations, called for in the treaty, ruined the German economy to the point inflation made money worthless in the 1920s and the resulting unrest sowed the seeds of World War II.  But that is another story.

Footnote:  An uncle on my mother’s side, Patrick Morrison, served in the Great War in Gordon Highlanders on both the Western front and Gallipoli.  He was one of the fortunate ones who survived.

Additional Reading

Niall Ferguson.  The Pity of War:  Explaining World War I Niall Ferguson.   War of the World:  Twentieth Century Conflict and the  the Decline of the West Paul Fussel.  The Great War and Modern Memory. Martin Gilbert.  World War I . Adam Hochschild.  To End All Wars:  A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion. John Keegan.  World War I. Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett.  The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century

Lyn MacDonald.  Somme.  Neil Hanson.  Unknown Soldiers:  The Story of the Missing of the First World WarBarbara Tuchman.  The Zimmerman Telegram.

Videos:

Slaughter  in the Trenches

Digging up the Trenches

Battle of the Somme

Remembrance Sunday Ceremony at the Cenotaph 

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