*** World War I -- Germany

World War I: Germany

Eorld War I Germany
Figure 1.--Imperial Germany on the eve of World War was the most powerful and prosperous country in continental Europe. The progress of industry and science appeared to be delivering a new century of unparalled progress. The most respected institution in Germany was the Army, in part because of the army's role in unifying Germany and the Prussian Junker tradition.

Germany unlike the situation in World War II was not almost single-handly responsible for launching World War I. Imperial Germany, however, did play a major role in launching the War. The Kaiser decided to back Austria-Hungary and decided that war was necessary when the Russians began to mobilize. Faced with the prospects of fighting a two-front war against an alliance of France and Russia that might eventually include Britain, the German military activated the Schlieffen Plan, a massive attack in the West that would knock France out of the War. Germany could then turn on the Russians. France and Russia had an alliance. It was not clear how Britain would react, but a strike through Belgium would bring the British into the War. This was a risky strategy as the Allies with Britain had superior industrial and manpower resources as well as contol of the seas. Unless Germany suceeded in its initial strike at France, the superior resources of the Allies would likely prevail in a protracted war. The German Army was the most powerful in Europe. The Kaiser and the army High Command believed that they could succeed in a quick war along the lines of the Franco-Prussian war. The German war plan was conceived by Count Alfred von Schlieffen and as a result is known as the Schlieffen Plan. It involved a massive attack on France which avoided the heavily fortified French frontier by attacking through neutral Belgium. The Germans realized that this would almost surely bring Britain into the War. Again the Germans were gambling. A quick victory over France would mean that Britain's naval power would have little impact on the War and thus worth the risk of striking through Belgium. Russian pressure in the East forced the Germans to weaken their thrust west and the French held at the Marne. The result was a long devestating war. The Western Front proved a terrible killing field. The British control of the sea severly affected the German economy. The Germns succeeded in knocking out the Russians, but incredibly inept diplomacy and militay calculations resulted in America entering the War. And it was the American infantry that made the difference on the Western Front.

Assaination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (June 28, 1914)

Serb nationlist Gavrilo Princip assasinated Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne (June 28, 1914). Serb nattionlist supported by high officials of the Serbian Government objected to the Austrian administration of Bosnia. The Pan-Slavs in Serbia in fact saw the southern provinces of Austria-Hungary with their Slavic population as legitimately part of a future Great South Slavic Union. Here they had support from TsaristvRussia which used pan-Slavism rather as the Soviets were to use Communism. Princip was supported by the Black Hand, a secret society of pan-Serbian nationalists. The assasination did not immediately involve Germany, but German was allied to Austria Hungary.

European Alliance System

Europe in 1914 was a powder keg divided into two major alliance systems. The major powers were persuing an arms race and had developed poweful armies and navies. Germany was the major country in the Central Powers. Its principal partner was the aging and multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. Itaky also joined the Central Powers. The two other major continental powers were Russia and France. Prince Otto Von Bismarck had persued a foreign policy aimed at preventing Russia and France negotiating an alliance. Kaiser Wilhelm II, however, was headstrong and arrogant and failed to understand the importance of Bismarck's diplomacy. The French understood the importantabce of allies after the Franco-Prussian War. French republicans seemed a strange ally for Russian royalists, but the power of Germany and the logic of an alliance drew them together. The key unknown in the European ballance of power was Britain. Here again Kaiser Wilhelm II had done a great deal to turn sympathy toward the Germans toward hostility. Beyond his beligerant posturing, his decession to begin a naval arms race with Britain was seen as a hostile act.

Austrian Reaction

Austria was not at first sure how to respond to the assasination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand. It was clear that Serbia was involved. Austrian officials had been concerned about Serbian nationalism for some time because of Serbs living within the Empire. Serbia was becoming a serious potential threat. Serbia had nearly doubled its territory in the Balkan Wars (1912-13). Emperor Franz Joseph, and Conrad von H�tzendorf,were among many in the Empire concerned about Serbian agitation. Here their concdrn was not only the Serbs in the south. There were other restive minorities in the Empire. The Austrians decided that the assasination provided the opportunity to act against the Serbian threat. After a month of debate, Austro-Hungarian officials decided on a plan of action. The Empire issued the 10-point July Ultimatuma ultimatum to the Serbian Gvernment (July 23, 1914). The Serbs were given 48 hours to accept it. No negotiations were offered.

July Crisis

Serbia wishing to avoid war agreed to all but one of the Austrian demands. Serbia claimed that it could not allow Austrian officials to participte in its judicial proceedings as it would violate the constitution. Austria intent on reducing Serbia broke off diplomatic relations (July 25). It is at this time that the surge of events spun out of control before it could be contained by diplomacy. In a little over a week, the most devestating war yet to be fought in Europe was launched. The Austrians first declared war on Serbia (July 28). The declaration of war directly involved Russia. The Austrian annexation of Bosnia had caused an international crisis (1909). To difuse the crisis, Russia had agreed to guarantee Serbian independence if Serbia would accept the Austrian action. The Austrian declaration of war clearly imperilded Serbian independence. Tsar Nicholas was unsure how to react. He had exchanged messages with Kaiser Wilhem urging him not to mobilize (the "Dear Willy and Nicky" correspondence). His military advisers, however, urged him to mobilize. Finally the Tsar ordered the mobilization orders (July 30). Now the Germans were involved. The German military considered the Russian mobilization order an act of War. The Germans believed they could deal with the standing Russian Army, but a fully mobilized Russian Army wasca serious threat. As a result, Germany demanded that the Tsar cancel the mobilization order (July 31).

German Assessment

The German strategy was based on a massive attack in the West that would knock France out of the War. Germany could then turn on the Russians. France and Russia had an alliance. It was not clear how Britain would react, but a strike through Belgium would bring the British into the War. This was a risky strategy as the Allies with Britain had superior industrial and manpower resources as well as contol of the seas. Unless Germany suceeded in its initial strike at France, the superior resources of the Allies would likely prevail in a protracted war. The German Army was the most powerful in Europe. The Kaiser and the army High Command believed that they could succeed in a quick war along the lines of the Franco-Prussian war. The German war plan was conceived by Count Alfred von Schlieffen and as a result is known as the Schlieffen Plan. It involved a massive attack on France which avoided the heavily fortified French frontier by attacking through neutral Belgium. The Germans realized that this would almost surely bring Britain into the War. Again the Germans were gambling. A quick victory over France would mean that Britain's naval power would have little impact on the War and thus worth the risk of striking through Belgium.

Schlieffen Plan

The German War Plan was the Schlieffen Plan. It was developed by Army Chief of Staff Count Alfred von Schlieffen to deal with a two-front war against France and Russia. It was elaborated over time. On paper the Russian Army seemed an overwealming force. The Germans believed, however, that the Russians would take at least 6 weeks to mobilize, probably longer, and the Army would be poorly trained and equipped. The Germans considered the French more of a threat and thus Schlieffen developed a plan to knocking France out of the war before Russia could effectively attack. Schlieffen thus planned a small force to defend East Prussia while Russia was mobilizing. The great bulk of the German Army would be deployed in the West for a massive offensive aimed at seizing Paris. Schlieffen invisioned attacking France through Belgium to avoid the strong French defenses along the Franco-German border. The flat geography of Flanders was ideal for a mobile invasion force. Schlieffen invisioned five German armies moving through Belgium and northern France in a grand arc. He graphically insisted, "When you march into France, let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve". Schlieffen warned of the need to maintain a strong right arm. The Germans had the advantage of staging areas in Alsace-Lorraine, obtained in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). This avoided major geographic barriers. Schlieffen was insistent on the invasion force having a strong right arm. Schlieffen assumed that the French would attack into Alsace-Loraine to regain the provinces rather than attempt more difficult objectives such as crossing the Rhine. Thus the strike through Belgium could move on Paris and the rear of the French Army moving north. Once the German Army had delt with France in the West, the Army would be rapidly deployed to the east by Germany's excellent railroad system to confront the mobilized Russian Army.

Conscription and Age of Soldiers

Prussia adopted universal conscriotion during the Napoleonic Wars. After defeat at the hands of Napoleon, Prussian Army reformers Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, Boyen, and others sought to create a modern new army. Like the French, the Prussians maintained that every citizen has a moral obligation to the fatherland. Along with the defeat of Napoleon brought enormous prestige to the military. The military became perhaps the most prestigious careers in Prussian society. After the defeat of Napoleon and restoration of conservative regimes overseen by the Congress of Vienna, there was a militarisation of Prussian society. Citizens of all classess received military training. Germany was united under the Prussian monarchy. German military policy thus was largely conceived under Prussian influence. The German army with its core Prussian officer corps was the most influential institution in Germany--primarily because it had been the force that had achieved unification. Not only officer rank conveyed social status, but also reserve officer rank. The army's officer corps was drawn almost exclusively from the Prussian Junker aristocracy. The influence of the Prussian military and the policies of the monarchy resulted in Germany giving great priority to military power. Key to that policy was a massive conscript army and a high state of military readiness.

Outbreak of War (August 1914)

Austria-Hungary was determined to punish Serbia for the assaination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. When Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia was committed to defend the Serbs--fellow Slavs. Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas exchanged telegrams, but ther personal relationship could not restrain the developing tragedy. The Tsar ordered a mobilization. France also began to mobilize its troops. Russia had the largest army in Europe and once moibilized posed a forbidable danger to Germany. Germany thus felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize. Germany declaring war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3). The strike at France followed the Schlieffen Plan which meant invading Belgium. German armies crossed the Belgian birder (Aufudy 4). This brought Britain, which had treaty obligations to Belgium, into the War. Britain may have entered the War with out Germany invasion of Belgium, but the invasion provided both the causus bellum and popular support for war. Germany's decession to support Austria's desire to punish Serbia turned a Balkans crisis into a major European war. Germany probably would have prevailed in a war with France and Russia. The invasion of Belgium provided tactical advantages, but at the cost of brining Britain and the Empire with its immenense military and material resources into the War. After the War, the Allies demanded that Germany accept the guilt for launching the War. Some authors have laid the blame for the War largely on Germany. [Fischer] Other historians are more inclined to ascribe the blame to other countries as well seeing war in most instances as a reciprocal event. [Strachan]

German War Goals

German war goals in World War I are a much more complicated matter than in World War II. German F�hrer Adolf Hitler along with Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin lunched World War II anf there is detailed information about Hitler's war goals. They are clearly stated in Mein Kampf, his speeches, and German actions and policies during the war. World War I is more complicated. There i no evidence that Kaiser Wilhelm, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, or the Germam military commanders had a carefully laid long-term plan to launch a major war and to redraw the map of Europe. Germany like the other European states rather blundered into World War I. Another problem in assesing German war goals is that they changd over time. A factor here is that as a result of the Kaiser's diplomatic blundering, Germany faced a difficult strategic position, the Russians in the East and the French in the West. Germanytoo the one step that made the War in evitable--pledging support to Austria if they condusted a punishment vampaign afainst Serbia. Austria needed this because of Russia's pledge to back Serbia. This was a carefully considered policy on behalf of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollwegw. Bethmann Hollweg and Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow both assured Austria of Germany's unconditional support. Beitish Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey at the time was suggesting a mediation between the Austrians and the Serbs. Bethmann Hollweg attmpted to hide the dangers from the Serbs. The Kaiser was less forcefully commited to this policy. Grey told the Chancellor, "Also, the whole world here is convinced, and I hear from my colleagues that the key to the situation lies in Berlin, and that if Berlin seriously wants peace, it will prevent Vienna from following a foolhardy policy." Just what the Chancellor's objective was in backing Austria, it not entirely clear. What ever Germany's initial war goals become more apparent as the war developed. We do not believe that they were objectives at the start of the War, but they were ideas that were being discused before the War. The Chancellor made concessions to the nationalist right. He came to support the long-term natiinalist goal of goal of ethnically cleansing Poles from the Polish Border Strip. He also edorsed a policy of germanisation of areas populated by Poles by settling German colonists. [6] Readers will of course recognize NAZI World war II occupation policies and a basic statement ig Generalplan Ost. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg crafted the Septemberprogramm, including aggrssively expansionist goals for the war. With Germany's failure to defeat the Allies, the militry increasingly tool control of the German state. Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff replaced Erich von Falkenhayn at the General Staff (summer 1916). This ended the Chancellor hopes for American President Woodrow Wilson's mediation. Germany's war goals in the East became a matter of public record -- the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. It was a hard peace. Had the Gernan's wom the war, it would have been the template for what would have occuured in the West.

German Offensive

Faced with the prospects of fighting a two-front war against an alliance of France and Russia that might eventually include Britain, the German military activated the Schlieffen Plan. The Germans rapidly moved through Belgium, although the resistance of the valiant Belgium Army slowed their advance, throwing off the rigid German time table. The Germans rapidly moved toward Paris. One of the major weaknesses of the plan proved to be the failure to anticipate how difficult it would be to maintain contact with forward units in the years before sophisticated radio communication and how difficult it would be to keep fast moving forward units supplied. German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke in fact weakened the right arm. Russian pressure in the East forced the Germans to weaken their thrust west. The violation of Belgian neutrality brought Britain into the War. The British rushed the British Expifitionary Force (BEF) to France. Although small it was composed of highly trained professional soldiers. The Allies suceeded in rush troops and supplies to the front by using the French railway system. The Germans could not do the same with their front line troops. French generals spotted a weakness in the German lines and struck at the Marne. Paris taxis famously rushed reserves to the front. The Germans were forced back from Paris.

Land War

It was the Germans who turned a Balkan crisis into World War I, until World War II referred to as the Great War. TYhe Germans believed that they could knock France out if the War before the Russins mobilized and that Britain did niot have a karge enough army to batter--the Kaiuser referred to ot as a 'pathetic little army". When they failed, the were confronted with a war of ttrition for which Germany was unprepared. While Central Powers partners, the Astrians and Ottomans, supplied substanial manpoer, all the impoant victories on the various fronts were largely achieved by the Germans. And almost all of the industrial might supporting the War was German industry. Germany was the most powerful European power and came very close to winning the War, although at great cost. The War had bcome a long draining war of attrition which Germany was not well situated to wage bercause of the resulting Royal Navy blockade. Germany was able to defeat Serbia, Romanoia, Russia badly damage Italy, but victory eluded them on the Western Front. Germany had the capability to defeat Britain and France on the Western Front, but had to divide its forces to fight a two front war. When the Russians were finally defeated, but with the Home Front deteriorating andf their allies collaosing, the Germans dedcided to commit forces from the East to a massive Spring offensive in the West (1918). They not only planned a land campaign, but also a renewed U-boat campaign even though it meant bringing America into the War. They gambled that they could win in the West before America could create and train an army and transport it to France. It proved to be a disaterous gamble. And one niother germnan leadeer would repeat two decades later.

Western Front

The Western Front was one if the two priomary theaters of World War I. The Westrn Front began with the German Army smashing into Belgium as part of the Schliffen Plan's efforts to outflank the formidable French border fortifucations . It would eventually streach from the North Sea to the Swiss border. It is the one that most Western historians focus on because here the great bulk of the Belgian, British, French, and eventually the Americans armies were committed. It is on the Western Front that the War is generally addressed and known to the public. The Germans expected a quick vicyory in the West, smashing the French Arny and seizing Paris before the British or Russians could effectively interven. The Belgian Army was basically dismissed. This would have ended the War in a month. With the French defeated, the British and Russians would have had to seek terms. The German assault on Belgium proved to be a powerful thrust, but it was no Blitzkrieg. The Germans could move no faster than men on foot. The Germans had only a handfull of trucks, using wooden wheels. The men could not move beyond artillery cover and the artillery was horse drawn. And the German General Staff was astounded with several unforseen development. First the Belgian Army fought, and fought effecively, slowing the German advance. Second, by taking the offense, the Germans did not fully appreciate the advantage they were seeding to the the Allies. They were unable to move troops forward by rail after the jumping off point. The Allies were able to use the rails. The French Arny in particular made efficent use of the rails in shiting men west to meet the German advance. Third, the British moved their small, but highly professional army into Belgium much faster than the Germans anticipated, bolstering the Belgian defenses. Fourth, especially disconcerting to the Germans was the speed to which the thought-to-be lumbering Russian Army struck in the East. This forced the Germans to take forces fom the drive through Belgium and shift them to East Prussia to met the Russians. All of these factors mean that it not only took the Germans Army longer than anticipated to move through Belgium, but as they crossed the French border and moved toward Paris, the front-line troops were tired, battered, and low on supplies. The French strike on the Marne, ended the German hope of a quick vicory. The Western Front would settle down to a brutal war of attrion fought from trenches that barely moved for 4 years despite mountains of casulties. This was a disater for Germany. The German Army which was built to strike hard and fast and gain a quick victory was now locked into a war of atrition aginst advrsariels that had substantially greater human and material resources.

Eastern Front

World War I was begun and eventually settled on the Western Front. Of all the other campaigns, it was the figting on the Eastern Front that was most important. The figting on the Eastern Front was critical in preventing the Germans from forcing a conclusion at the beginning of the War. The Russians, true to their treaty obligations, with the commencemebnt of hoistilities, drove west with their huge but cumbersome army into Germany (East Prussia) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hindenburg and Ludendorff became German national heros for defeating the Russian offensive. These victories came at a cost, hever, forces had to be ithdrawn from the Western offensive. It was all just the beginning. Fighting raged from East Prussia in the north through Poland to Calacia and the Catpethean mountains. Fighting at first stopped there because Romania did no immediatelt enter the War. While Brithish, French, and American historians focus on the Western Froint, the fighting in the East was every bit as bloody as on the Western front. It was entirely differnt in character. While there were also trenches, the fighting in the East was to a large degree a war of movement, what the Germans had intended in the West. The Austro-Hungarian Army suffered enormous losses in Galacia, especially around Lemberg (Lviv) that severely weakened it. Russia was also mortally wounded by the fighting. Gernany w not mortally wounded, but the fighting in the East prvenbted it from unleaing the full power of its military on the Western Allies. The three empires locked in mortal combat in the East began the War as awelcomed opportunity to settke precived accounts. It would prove the death knool end of all three, actually four if the Ottoman Empire is included.

Middle East

Sea War

The Sea War is commonly given scant coverage in World War I histories. Churchill was correct taht Adm. Jellicoe was 'the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon'. Command of the sea was vital bto the Allied ware effort. With it, the Allies could starve Gernany of food and raw materials. Withioutb it, the vGermand could starve Britain. Several countries had navies, but in the end the sea war was a conflict betwwen Britain and Germany. There were naval engagements around the world, but the central naval campaign of the War was between the larger British Royal Navy and the smaller, but more modern German Imperial Fleet. Affter small surface engagements, the decisive Battle of Jutland demonsrtrated that the Royal Navu could not be defeated and the British blockade broken. The Imperial Fleet esebtially retired to the safety of their ports and the British blockade continued to drain the German war economy and food shortages intensified. The Germans attempted a blockade of their own against Britainn using U-boats. They had back away from unrestriucted submarine warfare after sinking the RMs Lisutania when President Wilson threatened to bring America into the War (1915). President Wilson's after winnin reelectiinnnegan forcing Britain and France to make peace by restriucting war loans. The Germans refused to enter in the American peace effort, bolstered by victories on the Eastern, and with victories against Russia in the East, decided to seek a military sollution. The Kaiser resumed unrestructed submarine warfare, bringing America into the War (1917). The Royal Navy strengrthened with Ameruican destroyers defeated the U-boats. And the U.S. Navy successfully delivered the American Expeditioinary Force to France. This broke the deadlock on the Western Front. The sum total of Germany's naval effort was to bring America into the war, ensuyring German's defeat.

British Propaganda

British propaganda proved more effective than German propaganda. The German war propaganda lacked subtlety and was seen as strident by most Americans. The British, however, had important advatages. British propaganda was to play an important part in the Allied victory. The British had no propagbda office when the War began, but quickly created one. The War Propaganda Bureau was placed in the hands of Charles Masterman (September 1914). The British had two concens with one broke out. First, The British from the onset needed to influence domestic public opinion. This was more important in Britain than any other because Britain entered the War with only a small all-volunteer army. Thus Britons until 1916 had to be persuaded to volunteer. And the British public as the War progressed will apauling casualties had to be persuaded to continue the War. Second, the British needed to influence world opinion and here it was the United States that most concerned the British. This became increasingly important as the War progressed and neither the Allies or the Central Powers could break the deadlock on the Western Front. By 1917 with the virtual collaose of the French Army and the disolution of the Russian Army that Allied success would depend on America. Here the Germans had given the British a substantial advantage. However the Germans tried to explin it, the fact remained that the War began wjen they invaded Belgium--a neutral nation. And the brutal German occupation regime in Belgium gave the British material for their progand mill. Certainly the British blew iy up out of all proportions, but the Germans provided plenty of material for the British to work with. Had not America rushed food shipments to Belgium, there would have been mass starvation. The British had another important advantage, they controlled the Trans-Atlantic cabels, which meant they controlled the War news America received. Thus from a very early stage in the War, American sympathies were with the Allies. The German introduction of sunmarine warfare and poison gas only confirmed American attitudes toward the Germans and British propaganda made full use of both in their propaganda.


The Germans committed extensive atrocities during World War I. They were no way close to the NAZI basbaities in World War II, but they were a serious affriont to European and American sensibilities at the time. The destruction of Reims, especially the magniicent cathedral, bercame one of the central images of German atrocities. Others were long with the ruins of the Ypres Cloth Hall and the University Library in Louvain, as evidence that the Germans targeted cultural landmarks of European civilization as a matter of policy. British and French propaganda may have exagerated the atrocities, but they were very real and involved far more than the destruction of cultural treasures. They were especially notable in Belgium. his was in part because they were do widely reported. Begium was not entirely occupied and was tied into Western media. German asctions in the East, especislly Serbia were also very severe. and were not as widely reported. After the War, there was no recognition in Germany of the destructyion and misery their firces had wreaked thriyghout Europe. The Versailles repasrations were seen as victor's revenge and not as jutifiable aciunability for gthe destruction they caused. Much more attention was given to tyhe miklitary loss and the idea set in thr Gerrman mind that gthat they had not really lost the War, but weere 'stabbedin the bsck' by the November criminals' (Jews and Socialistrs). Hitler and the NAZIs picked up on this theme, but it was widely accepted by a large segment of the German public.


There were various attemps at mediation. America at various points tried to negotiate an end to the War. President Wilson following his reelection, launched a major peace initiative (December 1916). After the Somme and Verdun, it might be thought that both the Allies and the Central Powers would have been willing to consider making peace. This was not the case. Wilson dispacted Col. House to Eurooe to persuade the combatants to make peace on a basis fair to all. The Allies humored him and still hoped America would enter the War in the Allied side. . The Kaiser was dismissive. He considered Wilson an amateur and unsophisticated. Kaiser Wilhelm dimissed Wilson's efforts as unrealistic. He had no appreciation for the importance of America, in part because the Unuted States did not have a creditable army or military tradition. The Allies had a greater appreciation for America's importance and thus treated House Wilson's proposals with more deferemce. Neither side was, however, willing to give up their war aims. The French would not give up their goal of regainning Alsace-Loraine and the Germans would not give it up. Britain was unable to allow Germany to control the Low Lands and the Germans again would not withdraw. Even Russia and Austria-Hungary, both near collapse, would not willing to accept America mediation. Wilson in an early 1917 speech called for a "peace without victory". None of the major European combatants showed much interest in the American efforts. Pope Nendedict also offered to mediate.


The Germans steamrolled through Belgium (August 1914), but the French stand on the Marne (September 1914) meant that the War would not be a quick one and ultimately it would be settled by the economies of the various national economies. Unfortunately for the Germans, the military advantage they had at the inception of the War was undermined by substantial economic weaknesses and their major ally, Austria-Hungary was even weaker. And if this was not bad enough, policies pursued by both countries as well as Allied naval power only weakened their economies and undermined their war effort as the War progressed. Germany had the largest indusrial power in Europe, permitting it to equip its very professional army which launched the War by invading neutral Belgium. The whole German war plan was to avoid the French border defenses by striking through Belgium. The objective was to envelop Paris as they had done in the Franco-Prussian War (1870), winning the War in a few weeks of fighting. They came very close to doing just that. The French victory on the Marne proved to be a disaster for Germany. While Germany had the largest industrial base, Britain and France combined had a larger industrial capacity. And there were serious weaknesss to the German war economy. Germany had few natural resources. German industry not only had to import raw materials, but food to feed its industrial workers. And the Allies implemented a naval blockade to cut off the needed imports. As a result German industrial output declined while British industry increased production as the War progressed. The economic inbalance did not impair German military performance at first, but gradually undercut both arms production and eventually civilian morale. The Germans even before defeating the Russians decided to add the United States to the beligerants it faced. Pushed by economic declines, the Kaiser decided to stake everything on one final massive offensive in the West.

Figure 2.--Here are some German children playing war. Notice the Pickelhaubes (spiked helmets) and Imperial German flag. Notice that the girls are wearing colored pinafores. I'm notsure when this photograph was taken, but I would guess 1915 or 16.

Home Front

The diversion of manpower and resources for the war effort afected the civilian economy. This was also the case in all combatent countries. The situation in Germany, however, was aggrevated by several factors. The preminent factor was the Allied naval blockade. The British and French had access to suppliers in America (American only entered the War in 1917) and ther neutral countries. The Germans did not. This had a major impact on the German economy as raw material and food shortages grew as the War dragged on. Surprisingly given the shortages caused by the Allied naval blockade, the Germans did not use their available resources efficently. Not only could the Germans no longer import food, but conscription of farm laborers had serious reduced agricultural production. This was combined with the failure to implement a rationing system. The Germans also did mobilize women for war work as did the British and Americans. By 1917 there was wide-spread hunger in Germany. Even potatos were in short supply. Many people were barely surviving on the less nutritious turnip. A German reader reports, "My great aunt (she is 92) told me, that for the people year 1917 was the worst: there was nothing to eat!"

German Calculations

The Germans seriously under estimated the potential impact of American involvement and failed to recognize the full consequences of American entry into the War. This is in sharp contrast to the British who saw at an early stage the importance of deawing America into the War. It is not entirely clear how the Germans could have miscalculated so badly. It appears to be in large measure a matter of ignorance and the belief that America was not an important military power. Here they were essentially correct. Their error was how rapidly America could train and equip an army and transport it to France. The German military were convinced that with the empending collapse of the Russian Eastern Front that they could force a decission on the Western Front before American could intervdne. They also questioned the martial ability of any American army that was raised..

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

Military commanders convinced Kaiser Wilhelm to resume unrestricted sunmarine warfare (January 1917). By this point in the War, Germany was becomung a military dictatorship. As a result, the misgivings of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg who had played a key role in the outbreak of the War, were disregarded. Hindenburg and Ludendorff with the support of the Crown Prince forced the decision to pursue unrestricted submarine warfare. The actual U-boat operations began (March 1917). This led to the United States's entry into the war (April 1917). German calculations centered on the capacity of the U-boat force to win the War. You see this in the Chancellor's speech to the Reichstag. And not for the last time, relatively little considration was given to the consequences of American entry. A factor here appears to be the fact that the United States did not have an army of any consequence. And the German naval commanders assured the Reichstag that they could prevebn the arrival of American forces in France. The Germans seriously under estimated the potential impact of American involvement. Gambling that the U-boats could fotce Britain out if the War and the Army could force a decission on the Western Front, the military insisted that Kaiser Wilhelm consent to resuming unrestricted sunmarine warfare. This was the critical decission of the War and the Germans made a catetrophic error. The unrestricted U-boat campaign gained Germany very little. The Royal Navy convoy system and ASDIC (sonar) easily defeated the U-boat campaign. The declaration of unrestriucted submarine warfare, however, brought America into the War. The U-boat camapign failed and a million-string Armerican Expeditionary Force (AEF) poured into France. It would be the American infantry that would blunt the German 1918 Spring offensive and turn the tide on the Western Front. Ludendorf who along with Hindenburg had demanded unretricted submarine warfare, after the war identified the American infantry and the war-winning element. Without the arrival of the Americans, it is likely that the Germans would have won the war.

Zimmerman Telegram

Britain controlled the trans-Atlantic cable links to America. The Germans used the cables to send telegram messages to their diplomatic missions in America. The Germans encoded sensative messages, assuming the British could not read them. German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman sent a coded message to the German Ambassador in Mexico von Eckhardt (January 16, 1917). It instructed him to inform the Mexican Government that Germany would soon resume unrestricted submarine warfare which in a few months would knock Britain out of the War. The Germans assumed this would cause America to declare war. Zimmerman offered Mexico U.S. territory if Mexico would join Germany in the war. The telegram read, ""We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal or alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President's attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace." Signed, ZIMMERMANN." It was possible the most blatantly incompetent diplomatic approach in history. We are not sure to what extent the Kaiser was involved, but Zimmerman would not have made this offer without the Kaiser's approval. British Naval Intelligence cryptographers using a captured German codebook decoded the message. were surprised when a encoded German transmission came across their desks. German actions in the War, especially in Belgium and on the highseas had brought most Americans over to the Allied side, although public opinion still opposed entry in the war. The British turned the telegram over to the American Embassy in London (February 24, 1917). The Wilson Administration released the telegram to the press (March 1). Some at first thought the telegram a forgery which the Germans and Mexicans first claimed. Zimmerman inexplicteldly admitted he had sent the message (March 3). The American public was outraged. Public opinion shifted toward a declaration of war. [Tuchman]


The number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 41 million, upuntil that time, the deadliest war in history. There is no precise count, but one estimate suggests that here were over 15-18 million deaths and some 23 million wounded. Germany was one of the countries hardest hit in absolute numbers, although little of the war was actually fought on German soil. Some other countries such as Serbia or even France suffered higher casualties proportionally. Some 1.8 million Germans were killed in combat. Totaled military casualties totaled some 2 million killed. Only the Rusians suffered comparable losses, although Russian statistics are not as reliable. Some 4.2 million Germans were wounded during the war. Advances in battlefield care meant that many soldiers were saved, even many greviously wounded. Civilians were also affected, primarily because of malnitrition resukting from the Allied naval blockade. The situation for civilans was becoming increasingly serious. by the end of the War. Esrimaes suggest that 0.4-0.8 million civilins denied because of maknutrition and rlatd causes. [Wiki] World War I brought many innovations in warfare, making the battlefield much more deadly. One important innovation which helped to save many lives was a much greater attention to the medical care of soldiers. Ambulance services were organized to get wounded soldiers to medical units. Women served in large numbers as nurses. Nursuing sisters played a major role. The Red Cross also played a major role. Countless lives were saved because of the measures taken. Because of the number of casualties, large numbers of hospitals and extended care facilities had to be opened to care for wounded and shell-shocked soldiers. Shell-shock is a term which first came into use during World War I. Such soldiers before World War I were generally not treated medically. In addition to military doctors and orderlies. This is a subject that we do not know much about that. We would appreciate any reader comments here.

American Declaration of War (April 6, 1917)

American President Woodrow Wilson camaigned for re-election in 1916 with the slogan "He kept us out of war". America at various points tried to negotiate an end to the War. Wilson in a 1917 speech called for a "peace without victory". None of the major European combatants showed much interest in the American efforts. The Britsh were still hopeful that America would join the Allies. Kaiser Wilhelm dimissed Wilson's efforts as unrealistic. The Germans seriously under estimated the potential impact of American involvement. Gambling that they could force a decission in the Western Front, the military convinced Kaiser Wilhelm to resume unrestricted sunmarine warfare. After German U-boats sank five American merchant vessels, President Wilson on asked Congress to Declare War on Germany which was approved April 6. President Wilson's motives are a subject of controversy among historians. The declaration of war was following the declaration of War an explosion of patriotic fervor not seen in America since the Civil war. Large numbers of young men enlisted. Many cities came close to fulfilling their quota within a few months, well before selective Service went into effect (June 5). There wee patriotic celebrations with children dressing up in uniforms and patriotic outfits. Along with the patriotic fervor. a wave of anti-German hysteria spread over America with the declaration of war on Germany. It was far worse than hate crimes against Arab-looking and turbaned individuals after Septenber 11, 2001.

Generals Seize Control

Germany began World War as aarlimentary democracy, alneit one where the Kaiser and his ministers had great influence. The dreadful battle of Verdun led by General Falkenhayn had brought the French Army close to collapse. It also was a terrible blood lettig for the German Army. Falkenhayn was replaced with Hindenburg and Lundendorf who were achieving victory on the eastern front. The new German High Command determined to achieve victory in the west, endorsed the nrewal unrestricted sunmarine warfare to force Britain out of the War. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg oposed this, convinced it would bring America into the War. The generals and admirals prevailed and commenced unrestricted submarine warfare (February 1, 1917). As Bethmann-Hollweg feared, America declared war on Germany (April 6). And it was soon clear that the new U-boat effort would not succeed in cutting Britain's sea lanes. Frustrated deputies in the Reichstag began working on an initiative to end the War. Social Denocratic and Progressive deputirs joined the Center party to pass a declaration for the government to fight a "purely defensive war without any thought of conquest." This was part of the Peace Resolutions which were introduced by Center party deputy Matthias Erzberger and passed in the house. General Ludendorfff was outraged. He demanded that Bethmann-Hollweg resign and replaced him with Georg Michaelis, firmly in the military camp. He simply ignored the Peace Resolutions. From this point to the end of the War, the Reichstah was irelevant. Germany was governed by a military dictatorship over seen by Hindenburg and Ludendorff. And they were determined to seek a military decesion in the west. They rejected peace initiatives offered by Pope Benedict. The collapse of the Russian Army offered the opportunity for a massive German offensive in the west.

American Mobilization

The British and French expected that with the declaration of war, a huge American Army would immediately arrive in France. This was not possible because there was no such army. General Pershing and a small staff was dispatched to France, but it would be many months before an American Army could be trained and shipped to France.

Lafayette We Are Here

One of the heros of the American Revolition was the Marquis de Lafayette. In fact French naval and army units played a decisive role in the American Revolution. Gradually American soldiers did begin to arrive in France. Their ranks would eventualy swell to nearly 1.8 million doughbous. The British and French wanted the Americans to be used as replacements in thir lines. These were the same military commanders that had used their cown country's manpower so poorly, sustaining enormous losses. Pershing refused, although apparently on nationalistic grounds rather than an adverse assessment of British and French leadership. General Pershing insisted that American soliders fight as American units with American officers under the American flag. [Mosier]

Russian Collapse

The collapse of the hard-pressed Russia Army in late 1917 forced the Russians out of the War. The Kerensky Provisional Government honored the committment to the Allies of no separate peace. Such was the demand for peace among Russians that this proved Kenrensky's undoing. The Bolcheviks offering peace, seized power (November 1917). They asked the Germans for an armistace. The Germans forced the Bolcheviks to sign the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which among other provisions separated the Ukraine from Russia. The Russian collapse enabled the Germans to transfer powerful forces to the Western Front to prepare for a massive wr-winning Sprung 1918 offensive. The Germans were convinced that this offensive combined with the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare would finally enable them to crack the Allies before the Americans arrived in France in force.

Fourteen Points (January 1918)

President Wilson defined American war aims in a proposal submitted to the Senate in January 1918. He indicated that America was not making war on the German opeopkle, but against its authocratic government. The 14 points included an end to secreat internationala greements, freedom of the seas, removal of trade barriers, reduction of armaments, reassessment of colonial claims in the interests of the people concerned, self determination for European populations, and the creation of an international organization to preserve the peace. This was the basis for his description of World War I as "the war to end all wars". America's allied, Britain and France, were not enthisiastic about many aspects of the 14 Points. French Primier Clemanceau sniffed, "Moses brought down 10 Commandments, Wilson needed 14."

German Offensive (May-July, 1918)

The German launched a massive offensive in the summer of 1918. Ludendorf conceived it as an all or nothing offensive. The Germans were convinced it would be a War-winning offensive and break the Britsih and French before the American infantry, then arriving in France in substantial numbers, were fully trained. Ludendorf was commiting his last reserves to this offensive and would face defeat once the AEF was fully equipped and trained. Failure meant that the Germans would face disaster. The Germans rushed units freed from the Eastern Front west after the Soviet capitulation. The Germans were able to amass a force of 192 divisions to coinfront the 178 Allied divisions. The units rushed west were some of the finest remaining in the German army. The Germans in 1918 were victorious on all fronts. Only on the Western Front had victory eluded them. The Allies had greater stocks of equipment, more artillery and planes and a far greater force of tanks. The Allied ranks were also being enlarged by the deployment of the AEF. Some German strategists believed that they should strike the French. Ludendorf realized that Germany only had the strngth for one great blow. He decided to strike the British 5th Army at the center of the Western Front befoire the AEF could turn the ballance of forces. The German offensive began March 21. Ludendorff directed 76 well prepared German divisions against 28 British weaker divisions. The attack was preceeded by an intense artilleyr barage. Mixed in with the explosive shells was mustard gas, clorine, and phosgene with lachrymatory (to induce the defenders to rmove their gas masks) shells. The Germans made huge inroads in the Allied line, and it looked for a time as if they would succeed in achieving breakthrough and separating the English and French armies. They were, however, stopped British tanks. The final German effort came July 15 and Ludendorff committed all his remaining force. The British and French had lost 150,000 men. The Germans pushed forward. The French prepared a desperate effort to save Paris. [Mosier] The Germans crossed the Marne and Paris seemed within their grasp. The French counter attacked and with them were five divisions of the AEF (American divisions were larger than the English, French, and German divisions). The Germans had to retire back across the Marne. The German offensive had failed to take Paris and had disasterously weaked the German army. More than 90 German divisions had been serioiusly depleted. The allies had suffered huge losses, but many were from support units. The German losses came from the front line combat soldiers. [Keegan , pp.392-414.] Now an exausted German army no longer faced the also exhausted British and French armies, but the AEF which was now appearing in force on the Western Front.


By the time the Germans were able to launch their offensive, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) of over a million men was in France. Both the Allies and Germans felt that the Americans were not yet ready. Pershing had continued to refuse to feed American soldiers into Britsih and French units. Many Europeans doubted the effectivness of American units. Many viewed Europe as the heighth of civilization and that only the major European countries could ammass effective military units. Pershing was later to describe the prevailing attitude, "For 200 years the Europeans viewed us as incapable of competing. They were disparaging of our military and organizational skills. Then, in a brief time--judst a year--we went from noncombatant to victor." It was at this time that Pershing marched into a glum Allied military planning session and announced it flawed but clear French, "I have come to tell you that the American people would consider it a great honor for our troops to be enagaged in the present battle. I ask you for this in their name and my own. At this moment there are no other questions but of fighting. Infantry, artillery, aviation, all that we have is yours; use them as you wish. More will come, in numbers equal to the requirements." [Eisenhower] The AEF was committed to stop the German onslaught. To the asstonishment of British, French, and German commanders, the AEF not only stopped the Germans, but took heavily defended German positiions, the first important Allied victories on the Western Front. [Mosier]

Allied 100 Day Offensive

After the German offensive failed, the Allied bolstered with an American army of over 1 million fresh soldiers launched the Meuse-Argon offensive against the much vaunted Hindenberg Line. The German Westernt Front cracked. Pershing planned a massive new offensive for November 14, but it never occurred. Germany sued for peace and an Armistace agreed to on November 11. The Americans held 16 miles more of the front than the British when the armistace was declared. German General Ludendorff was to say after the War that it was the arrival of the American infantry that was the decisive factor on the Western Front. Given the importance of American units in World War I, it is astonishing that a German leader at war ith Brith and the Soviet Union in World war II would declare war on the United States.

Armistice (November 11, 1918)

Allied offensives on the Western Front cracked the German front forcing them back toward Germany. The German Navy mutined. Riots broke out in Germany cities. The General staff informed the Kaiser that they could no longer guarantee his saftey. He abdicated and fled to the neutral Netherlands. A German Government was hastily formed and asked for an armistice based on President Wilson's 14 Points. After determining that the request came from a civilian German Government and not the Kaiser or German military, the Allies accepted the German offer. The gun fell silent after 4 years of vicious fighting at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (November 11, 1918). There had been over 8.5 million soldiers killed and 21.2 million wounded.

Occupation (1918-30)

The Allied World War I occupation of Germany, in sharp contrast to the subseqient World war II occupation was limited. The Armistice (November 11, 1918) provided for the rapid withdrawl of German forces from Belgium, Luxembourg, and northern France as well as the German Rhineland. There were also restrictions on the right (eastern) side of the Rhine. Allied occupation was basically limited to the Rhineland with a few exceptions. The occupation was conducted by American, Belgian, British, and French forces. As the Germans military crossed the Rhine, the Allied troops moved into the Rhineland. The initial Armistice was for a month. There were three subsequent prolongations (December 13, 1918 � January 16, 1919), (January 16 - February 16, 1919), and (February 16, 1919 � January 1920). The Inter-Allied Rhineland High Commission provided for by the Versailles Treaty (paragraphs 428-431) was set up in 1920. Although not occupation, arelted Allied Cotrol Commision was established in Berlin to ensure that the Germans onserved the terms of thetreaty in the much larger unoccupied areas. It proved ineffective. And there was widespread evasion even before the NAZIs seized power. When the Germans failed to pay the reparations required under the Versailles Treaty, France and Belgium occupied the industrial Ruhr. The Ruhr flows into Rhine and thus much of industrialized Ruhr was just across the Rhine. To punish the Allies, Weimar authorities unleased the devestating infation on the German people. The French and Belgians withdrew fro the Ruhr (1925). There were a range of incidents betweem the occupaytion troops and German protestors. The Germans were particularly incensed about the French use of African colonial troops in the occupation. There were incidents, but they were blown up out of all proprtions by the German press. The term 'Rhineland Bastards' began to be used. What was missing in the was any willingness to recognize how limited the incidents were in comparison to the brutality of the German occupation of Belgium, Luxenbourg, and northern France. Under the terms of the Locarno Treaties (1925-26), Allied which were by that time Fremch troops completed their withdrawl. The Saarland in the southern Rhineland voted to return to Germany (1935). Even after the Allied withdrawl, the Versailles Treaty required thazt the Rhinelnd remain demilitarized. Hitler unilrerally remilitarized the Rhineland (1936). While a vilostion of the Versallies Treaty, the Allies only submitted a weak protest.

Versilles Peace Treaty (June 1919)

The Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I was signed on June 28, 1919, about 7 months after the Armistace stopping the fighting on November 11, 1918. It had a huge impact on the international status of Germany, impacting the country territorially, militarily, and econimically. Germany was made a pariah country and largely blamed for the start of the War. Of major significance, the Germany being punished was the Germany of the Weimar Republic and not Imperial Germany as the Kaiser had abdigated. As a result, the domestic German oposition to the changes, including the territorial changes, came to be directed at the Weimar Republic and not the Imperial Government and German military that had conducted the War. The NAZIs and other right-wing groups were to saddle demoncratic politicans with the "shame of Versailles". Germany under the terms of the Treaty suffered many consequences. The navy and merchant marine was lost. The battleships had to be turned over the the Allies. The battleships ships in fact steamped into the British naval base at Scappa Flow. The German captains, however, rather than turning them over to the British, scuttled them. Germany lost her African and Pacific colonies. Along with territorial losses in Europe were important natural resources. The German Army was reduced to virtual impotence. And the country was sattled with immense retributions. A critical elemement in the treaty was the principle of national self determination promoted by President Wilson. This resulted in the creatiion of a large number of small, weak states in Eastern Europe. It must be said that the the Versailles Treaty was not as onerous as the Treaty of Breast-Litovsk (1918) imposed on the Russians. Still it was undenuably harsh. Many historians see it at the first step toward World War II.

Weimar Republic (1918-33)

A new German Weimar Republic relaced the Imperial German Government at the end of World War I. The Allies refused to negotiate with the German military. Thus the Armistace (1918) and resulting Versailles Treaty (1919) were signed by republican officials. This allowed right-wing politicans after the War to claim that the German Army was not defeated, but stabbed in the back. The Republic from the beginning had major problem. It inherited a civil service from Imperial Germany that was strongly monacharist in loyalty and suspicious of parlimentary democracy. The officer corps of the Army took a oath of loyalty to the Reoublic, but in fact was deeply suspicious of the Weimar regime and from the onset set out to evade the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty--in oart explaining how the NAZIs were able to so quickly rearm after seizing power. Popular support for the Weimar Republic was impaired by first the public shock at the Versailles Treaty and then the ruinous inflation. In fact the Republic was headquarters in Weimar rather than Berlin because the Army remamed the Reichwehr could not guarantee security in Berlin. Gradually the Republic began to gain some credibility. Competent fiscal management, the Dawes Plan, and the Locarno Agreements had by 1925 considerably improved the economic situation in Germany.


Hickey, Des and Gus Smith. Seven Days to Disaster (1982).

Keegan, John. The First World War (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1999), 475p.

Mosier, John. The Myth of the Great War: A New Military History of World War I (Harper Collins, 2001).

Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania (1972).

Strachan, Hew. The First World War (Viking, 2004), 354p. While we disagree with Strchan's marginalization of the impotance of the AEF, this is an excellent summary of the War.

Tuchman, Barbara. The Zimmermann Telegram.

Wells, H.G. The Outline of History: The Whole Story of Man (Doubleday & Co.: New York, 1971), 1103p.

Wiki. "World War I casualties". We have used Wikipideia for the casualty figures. The sources are indicated on the page. Wikipedia is useful because they provide coparable at for other countries.


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