*** First World War World War I -- conduct of the war

World War I: Conduct of the War

World War I British uniforms
Figure 1.--This portrait shows quite a range of British World War I uniforms. Pictured here are a territorial Force Nursing Reserve nurse and her brother, a sailor and soldier. Their younger brother is a Boy Scout. The portrait was taken in Dura, Fifeshire, Scotland. Image courtesy of the RS collection.

Terroism was at the heart of World War I in a chilling reminder to our modern age. War had been brewing in Europe for decades. It was a terrorist act that was the actual catalyst. Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (June, 28, 1914) assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. The Austrians were incorporating Bosnia into their Empire and had chosen the most sacred day in Serbian history, their defeat by the Ottoman Turks on the plains of Kosovo, for the Archduke's visit. The Austrians decided to punish the Serbs. The German Government (July 6) gave its support for Austro-Hungary's plan to punish the Serbs. Germany and Austria-Hungary became known as the Central Powers. When Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia and France began to mobilize its troops. As a result of Kaiser Wilhem's bumbling, France had succeeded in signing a mutual defense treaty. Germany felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize. Germany declaring war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3). The German Army entered neutral Belgium (August 4), in an effort to go around the strong French border defenses. Britain declared war on Germany over the violation of Belgian neutrality. Britain, France, and Russia became known as the Allied countries. The Germans were convinced they could take Paris before either the British or Russians could intervene. Miraculously the French Army managed to stop the Germans at the Marne and the Western Front became a brutal war of attrition. Italy had signed a treaty with Germany and Austria Hungary, decided not to honor it and later entered the War. Turkey had signed a defensive alliance with Germany in July 1914 and seeing an opportuity to make major gains against their historic enemy Russia joined the Central Powers. Making another effort to win the War, Germany in 1917 reimplemented unrestricted submarine warfare (March ?, 1917), bringing America into the War (April ?, 1917). Despite German victories on the Eastern Front agaist Russia, the added resources and manpower America provided enabled the Allies to break the Germans on the Western Front. The Kaiser was forced to abdicate and a new government had to seak an armistace (November 11, 1918).

The Schlieffen Plan (1905)

Count Alfred von Schlieffen, became German Chief of the Great General Staff in 1891. He worked on a war plan for years, perfecting a precise movement of troops. He submitted his plan in 1905. French foreign policy was devoted to ensuring that in another war with German, France would not fight alone. Kaiser Wilhelm bombastic sttements and aggressive policies, including the contruction og a highseas fleet, made the task much easier for French diplomats. France and Britain in 1904 signed the Entente Cordiale (friendly understanding), it was not a full military alliance, but it was clearly aimed at Germany. The French wanted to also involve Russia. The Germany military preceived the need for a military strategy if war came with France, this time aided by Britain and Russia. Schlieffen had for years been working on just such plan. Schlieffen's plan was permised argued that it was critical that France be quickly defeated. Without France, Schlieffen was convinced that neither Russia or Britain would continue the war. Schlieffen estimated that Russia would take 6 weeks to mobilize its massive, but backward army. Thus to win the war, Germany must Therefore, it was vitally important to smash the French before the Russians could bring its forces to bear. Schlieffen envisioned commiting 90 percent of the Germany army to attack France as soon as war was declared. He was afraid of the strongly enginerred French border fortifications. He thus conceived of an attack west through the neutral neutral Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg and this invade France through the poorly defended Belgian border. The Germans would then swing east, take Paris and push the French Army back against their eastern frontier fortresses and the Swiss frontier. Helmuth von Moltke replaced von Schlieffen as German Army Chief of Staff in 1906 and modified the plan by not invading the Netherlands and in weakening the right wing--a move von Schlieffen had specifically warned against. The Germans in the revised plan would advance over the flat plains of Flanders. Moltke was convinced that that the Belgian army would be not effectibely resist a massive German attack.

Colonial Disputes

A series of crisis, often imperial conflicts, were negotiated to avoid war. Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II who was convinced that Germany was not properly respected and did not gain a fair share of colonial possessions, often played a boisterous role in these crises. The Scramble for Africa involved many of the European countries. North Africa was a particular bone of contention, especially because it was one of few African territories not yet colomized by the Europeans. And the Germans had begun to build a high-seas fleet. British and Russian relations were complicated by the Russian move into Central Asia, thretening the Raj. This setv off thd Great Game. This led to the British providing navak technology and training to Japan, a key factor in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). The British and French competed over Southeast Asia. The Europeans had issues with Latin America over payments of debts.

Arms Race

War had been brewing in Europe for decades. The Franco-Prussian war and German annexatiin of Alasace-Lorraineb left an embittered France brooding for revenge. Russia pushed south against andecklining Ottoman Empire. Tensions also developed between Russia and Austria-Hungary over the Balkans. The Great Game festered between Russia and Britain. The Scramble for Africa and iother colonial issues created further problems. The German decesion to build a modern High Seas fleet set off alarms in the British Admiralty. The result was a series of negotiaion of alliances. All of the world's major powers were tied into the varuiius alliance systems--all except America. Here the young German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, made the catrotrophic mistake of allowing the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia lapse. The escalating rensions set off a massive arms race. The European countries (especially Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany,a nd Russia ) spent Vast sums on military preparations. All of the European powers (except Britain) had conscroption laws and built large armies. (This waw one of the causes of emigration to America.) Vast arsenals were required to quip the conscripts and a competition to build better weapons. There was a steady rise in military expenditure as each country competed to build stronger militaries. This rsulted in a cinstantly escalating arms race as ecalation by one country was countered by the escaltions of competing countries. Each country was faced with the need to keep up with their advrsaries as armies and navies were enlarged and one technical advance followed another. The different militaries acquired modern weapons like rapid fire machine guns, hand grenades, field artillery, telephones, telegrams, motor transport, air planes, field kitchens and practical neutral-colored field uniforms. Artillery would play an especially important role in the War The French developed rapid fire field artillery, the famed 75 millimeter gun. The Germans had an overall lead in the amount and efficacy of its artillery. [Herrmann] The arms race took a decisive turn when the Germans decided to launch a major navaal building program. This racheted up military spending. Large naval ships were the super weapons of the day and enormously expensive. Any country of any importance wanted them, including the United states which had not participated in the Euroopean arms race. Britain had a royal family of German origins and a long history of alliances with German states. Germany's mercurial Kaiser had raised eyebrows in Britain and the war with Denmark (1864) had caused unease, including the eminity of the Danish-born Princess of Wales. The German decesion to build a highseas fleet fundamentally changed British defense thinking. It led directly to a British raprochment with two countries with which it had a history of antagonism. The first step was the Anglo-French political settlement (1904). This was followed by a similar Anglo-Russian allignment (1907). Both motivated by the growing German military challenge. Many World War I histories stress the naval arms race in the lead up to the War. This certainly affected British policy, but the land arms race was of great importance on the Continent.

Assasination and Terrorism (June 1914)

Despite all the bickering over colonial possessions, it was the Balkans that would provide the spark for war. Terroism provided that spark in a chilling reminder to our modern age. The Balkans was particularly unsettled and wars occured there just before the outbreak of World War I. It was a terrorist act that was the actual catalyst. Serbia developed as an independent state in the mid-19th century and an expanding Serbia came into cinflict with an expanding Austro-Hungarian Empire. And beause large numbers of Serbs lived in Bosnia which the Austro-Hungarian annexed, the conflict between the two states intensified. Serbia was a much smaller country and as a result, declined to confront Austria openly. Serbian officials, however, supported Serbian nationalists in Serbia to destabilize Austrian rule. The best known Serb terrorist group nwas the Black Hand. Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (June, 28, 1914) assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. The Austrians were incorporating Bosnia into their Empire and had chosen the most sacred day in Serbian history, their defeat by the Ottoman Turks on the plains of Kosovo, for the Archduke's visit. The Austrians decided to punish the Serbs. This might have been a localized incident. The two countries, however, had treaty and cultural relations with larger powers. The Serbs were Slavs and Russia had a pan-Slavic foreign policy. The Austrians had a treaty with Germany. Austria would have reacted cautiously to the assiasination if they knew they would have to fight Russialone. The German Government (July 6) gave its support for Austro-Hungary's plan to punish the Serbs. The Austrians did not think Russia would dare fight Germany.

 World War I casualties
Figure 2.--Given the horrors of the War and the hyge casulties we wonder how images like these could have been popular. This French post card was postally used in 1917. The little boy wears a French solduier's uniform. The captions reads, "Happy New Year" and "The Good Hostess".


Each of the belgerant countries convinced itself that it was responding to aggression and protecting themselves. In World war II there was a clear pattern of Axis ans Soviet aggression. World War I was much more complicated each country managed to view the opponents as aggressors. It was Austria-Hungary which in fact first launched milutary action. They were, however responding to the assasination of the heir go the throne in a terroist attack sponsored by Serbian officials. Thus it is unserstandable how they felt threatened. Germany first crossed the Belgian frontier, but felt threatened by a coordinarted Franco-Russian offensive. Fear "dreaded Slavs" and "Cossacks" weee especially frightening to the Germans. The French and Russians felt that they wre endangered if Germany was allowed to defeat one of them. The British felt endangered both by Germany's consruction of a high-seas fleet and German domination of the Low Lands. These were not incidents like the staged Polish attacks on Germany in 1939. Each of the beligerants rightly or wrongly were reacting to preceived threats on their security.


Historians argue as to whether World War I could have been avoided. It was unlike world war II, awar thast did not need to be fought, but ghat does not mean it could hve been provided. Certainly the European system had many shared values and economic and social interconnections that argued against war. Rationality in the heated nationalistic environment pre-War Europe is not what prevailed. The decesion for war was essentially irrational. Germany's desire for greater influence and the Kaiser's eratic personality were major factors. The key steop was the Kaiser's 'blank chevk' to the Austrians. We are not entirely sure why the Kaiser took this step. It appears to have been the personal ambitions and eaagerated ego of Wilhelm II. He saw himself as brillint and that neither he or Germany was given his due. He rested on the works of his Bismarck anf=d his Grrandfther. He felt the need to meaure up to them. There were issues t play in Germny, such as the Franco-Russian Treaty nd the growing olish ethnic popultion in the east, but it seems tgo have been the Kaiser's need to show strength thst resulted in the Blank Check Bismarck might have avoided war, but the Kaiser was the complelete oposite of Bismarck. German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg made no serious efforts to stop the spiral toward war and seems to have asctually been more instragent ghan the Kaiser. Then there was France's passionate desire to regain Alsace-Loraine. The nationality problems in the Balkans and Austria-Hungary's attempt to confront them proved more than could be resolved through diplomacy, at least in the time frame available. The key step toward war was surely the Kaiser's decision to write Austria-Hungary a blank check to deal with Serbia. We can't help but think that even if the European powers had successfully negotiated the 1914 Balkans crisis that another crisis would have eventually brought war. The only way to have prevented the war was to appease Germany and this would just have meant that the Kaiser would have learmed that the way to prevail in future crisis was to flext Germny's military mussles. But of course no one can be sure. One historian persuasively argues argues that the rapidity in which the crisis developed was just too fast for early-20th century communications to contend with. [Strachan]

Declaration 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 orderdec a partial mobilization. France alsi 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. This brought Britain, which had treaty obligations to Belgium, 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]

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 streacg 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, i is this sector of the War that is generally adressed and known tonthe public. The Germans expected a quick vicyory in the West, smashing thecFrebch Arny and seizing Paris before the British or Russians could efectively interven. This would have bded the War in a month. With the French defeated, the British and Rusians would have to seek terms. The German assailt on Belgium proved to be a powerful thrust, but it was no Blitzkrieg. The Germans could no faster than men on foot. he Germans had only a hanfull of trucks, uing wooden wheels. The men could not move beyonf artillery cover and the rillery was horse drawn. and horse-drawn artillery. And the German General Staff was astounded with several unforseen development. First the Belgian Army fouht, and fought effecively, slowing the German advance. Second, by taking the offense, the Grmans 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 poont. The Allies were able to use the rails. The French Arny in particular made efficen 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 Russuan Army wtruck on th East. This forced the Germans to tke firces fom the drive through Bgin and shift them to East Prussia o met the Ruims. All of these factors mean that it not only took the Germans Army longer than anticipated to ove through Belgin, but s they crossed the French border bd moved toward Paris, the front-line troops were tired, battered, and lowin 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 diater for Grmany. The German Army which was built to strike hard and fast and gain auick 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.

War of Attrition

The German war plan, the Scliffen Plan, was designed to win the War quickly in a massive Western OIffensive before he Rusians could mobilize. The Russians mobilized fster than expected and thd French held on the Marne. Thus the war that the Germans launched turned into a deadly war of attrition. The professional armies of 1914 were devestated in the early fighting before commnders began to adjust tactics to the deadly new wepons. The professionals had to be replced with youthful conscripts. Even Britain had to eventually begin conscription. It was more of a controversy in the Dominions. The Germans having failed to win the War at th onset, decided to breal the French Army at Verdun knowing that the French would fight and not retreat. The Germans failed to break the French Army, but did destroy it as an offensive force. And the Germans also paid a terrible price. What began as a rapid war of movement soon settled down to static trench warfare and became a brutal war of attrition. While the Germans had the advantage at the beginning of the War, a long war of attrition was not to their advantage. The German Army was designed for aggressive, offensive campaigning. The German Empire was well suited to wage an exyended ar of attrition. Germany had the single largest industrial base in Europe, but lacked the access to raw materials and agricultural production available to the Allies. The Royal Navy's command of the seas was to proive a decisive advantage. This meant that the British and French with a larger combined industrial base nd who could obtain militry supplies, raw material, and food from the British overseas dominions and neutral countries like America had an advantage. German industrial and agricultural production fell as more and more men were drawn into the military. The drafting of agricultural workers would undermine the war economy of Germany and Austria as food shortage developed and becme increasingly severe. The neutral United States with its vast industrial capacity and agricultural production was especially important and gave the Allies with their command of the seas a virtually inexautible source of war materials and food. To redress this inbalance the Germans turned to their U-boats in an effort to cut Britain's sea lifelines. In the end, the Germans would not only fail to cut Allied supply lines, but disastrously bring America into the War on the Allied side. The Germans at enormous cost knocked Russia out of the War and crippled the French Army. The Kaiser then threw away these dearly won achievements and drew American into the War the only country with the manpower and resources capable of redressing the war of attrition that had stalematted the Western Front for 4 years. It was a action of stunning incomptence, only exceed by the next German war leader.


Artillery has been important in warfare even before the invention of gunpowder and cannon. The medieval trebuches could demolish stone castels, but the process was slow. The invention of cannons meant that fortified cassels that had resisted seiges for months if not years could be demolished in ours. This was an important factor in ending the European feudal system. The Napoleonic Wars had been fought at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Since then enormous improvements had been made in metalurgy and balistics. The American Civil War has been called the first modern war, but American at the time was just beginning to industrialize. Only in World War I had fully industrialized powers first come to grips in a general European war. And no where did this show on the battlefield more than artillery. The rapid fire French 75 mm gun made a poweful impression early in the more mobile phase of the War, but the French Army was unable to capitalize on the potential of this weapon. As the Western Front settled down into tatic trench warfare, the armies of both sides began demanding heavier artillery that could destroy heavily fortified positions. And the heavy industries of the major combatants were capable of producing truly fearsome artillery in great quantities.

Turkey and Italy

The War began as a struggle between Germany and Austria-Hungary and France and Russia. Britain and Belgium were immediately drawn into the War because Germany in vaded France through Belgium. Many other countries were eventually drawn into the War. Two of the most important to enter the War were the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and Italy. Turkey which was heavily courted by Germany had been hard-pressed by Russia saw the opportunity to win back lost territory and joined the Central Powers. Italy which was allied with Germany decided to join the Allies, prinarily because they were offered territorial gains at the expense of Austria-Hungary. Neither country when they entered the War had any idea what the costs would be.

Other Campaigns

World War I was begun and eventually settled on the Western Front. The figting on the Eastern Front was critical in preventing the Germans from forcing a conclusion at the beginning of the War. There was also fighting in the Middle East. There were, however, engagements in many other theaters which are scarely remembered today. They were not of the dimensions of World war II, but they did occur. German Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck led a campaign in East Africa. The Germans had little chance of suceeding in Africa because of the Royal Navy's command of the seas. The campasigns were, however, quite remarkable. A Turkish Army essentially froze in the Sarikamish campaign. A British Indian army was destroyed by the Turks at Kut in modern Iraq. The Austro-Hungarian Army suffered enormous losses in Galacia, especially around Lemberg (Lviv) that severely weakened it. Campaigns were fought in the Balkans. Naval engagements were fought in the South Atlantic. [Strachan] The Japanese and British cooperated in China and the Pacific to seize German colonies.

Italian Front

Italian General Luigi Cadorna assembeled 25 infantry and 4 cavalry divisions on the Austrian border. The Italian force was organized into four armies. Italy was the weakest of the major European powers. It was a poor country with a partly industrialized north. The Italian Army was thus not equipped for a modern war. The Italians had only 120 heavy or medium artillery pieces and about 700 machine guns. Cadorna despite the limitations of his forced launced the spring Isonzo Offensive (May 1915). The Austrians following the pattern of the Western Front, built a system of trench defenses. Four indesivive battles were fought on the Isonzo River. The Italian goal was to take Trieste, a largely Italian city on the Adriatic. The city was important to the Audstria because it was the Empire's only important port. Without Trieste, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was largely land-locked. The Italians took heavy casualties trying to break through the Italin trenches. In only 2 weeks of fighting, 60,000 Italians were killed. The Italian continued the attacks into the winter. Casualtied mounted and totaled 300,000 men by the time the offensived was ended. Despite the huge losses, Italy between 1915 and 1917, never penetrated more than 10 miles into Austrian territory.

War Propaganda

The major contending powers in the War were the Central Powers (Germany and Austria) and the Allies (France, Britain, and Russia). Italy had signed a treaty with Germany and Austria Hungary, decided not to honor it and later entered the War. Turkey had signed a defensive alliance with Germany in July 1914 and seeing an opportuity to make major gains against their historic enemy Russia joined the Central Powers. The British, in particular as the War dragged on, sought to involve America which had proclaimed its neutrality after the outbreak of hostilities. British propaganda played up the German invasion of Belgium. The Germans harshly administered occupied Belgium, but British propaganda painted a vicious pictures of the Germans--an image they wereto live up to in World War II. The British painted the War has a conflict betwen the Allied democracies (Britain, France, and Italy) and the authoritarian Central Powers (Germany, Austria, and Turkey). This played wll in America. The obly problem was that Russia, the most autocratic country in Europe was a key member of the Allied coalition. It was Russia in August 1914 that prevented thge German from bringing the full weight of their Army to bear against the French and winning the War at the onset in August-September 1914.

Aerial Warfare

Military airplanes when the war began were primative, unarmed craft. Many military experts dismissed them as a weapon of war. At the time, the principle recognizance tool was the cavalry. Machine guns soon put an end to cavlary and commanders began turning to airplanes. The major role of the air arm became recognisance. It was a French pilot who spotted the deformation in the German lines that resulted in the Miracle on the Marne (1914). Recognisance and artillery spotting became the major role of the air arm during the war. Stunning technical advances occurred throughout the War as air superiority sung back and forth between the Germans and Allies. The Allies could outbuild the Germans, but the Germans came up with important advances that at time gave them air superority over the trenches. Flying was one of the most dangerous activities in the War. A new pilot arriving at the front had on average only a few weeks to live. The Germans attempted to use Zephlins as bombers, but they proved easy targets for fighters and artillery. Bombers were not employed to any extent because they were still being developed. Both sides were, however, preparing bombing operations had the War lasted into 1919.

Naval Warfare

The German surface fleet, the pride of the Kaiser, which had played such an important role in turning the British against the Germans played only a minor role in the War. There were a number of small engagements including German shelling of fishing villages. The only major engagement was Jutland (1916). The German fleet performed well, but unable to overcome the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet. The small U-boat fleet, however, proved a major challenge to the British. Early in the War, U-boats sunk three British cruisers, astounding the public both in England and Germany. The Germans backed down unconditional submarine warfare when America protested the sinking of the Lusitania. The sinking of the Lusitania combined with the invasion of neurtal Belgium helped create the image of Germans in the American mind as modern day Huns. Making another effort to win the War, Germany in 1917 reimplemented unrestricted submarine warfare (March 1917), bringing America into the War (April 1917). The U-boat fleet succeeded in sinking 5,000 ships. That was an amazing 25 percentb of the Allied merchant fleet. The Allies attempted to determine how to sink U-boats and developed the depth charge. It was, however, the introduction of the convoy system that defeated the U-boat. The World War I U-boat was really a surfacre vessel that could sumbmerge. Against esorted convoys, it had little chance of success. In the end the German Navy only served to bring Britain and America into the War, ensuring Germany's defeat. An embittered German naval office, Karl Donnietz, confined in a British POW camp in 1918 was already planning Germany's strategy in the next war. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the Germans could had to surrender their fleet. The German High Seas Fleet sailed for Scappa Flow in 1919, but many of the officers scuteled their vessels rather than handing them over to the British.

American Peace Initiative (December 1916)

President Wilson 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. Wilson soon found that they were not. There wee many reasons for this, but Allied and Central Power politicans could hardly go back to their people and explain the huge sacrifices and losses for no result. And most importantly, the Germans wete unwilling to withdraw from occupied territory. Wilson dispacted Col. House to Europe to persuade the combatants to make peace on a basis fair to all. The Allies humored him, understanding the potential importance of the United States. The Kaiser was dismissive. He considered Wilson an amateur and unsophisticated. The Kaiser and other German officuals had no appreciation for the importance of America, in part because the United States did not have a creditable army or military tradition. The Allies had a greater appreciation for America's importance and thus treated House and 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 conquered territiry. 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. But it went further than this. The Kaiser was not oinly dismissive of the Americans, but was moving toward actions that would bring America into the War, advised that the United States could not have a real impsct on the War. The Navy assured him that U-boats would even prevent American troopship from reaching France.

Russian Revolution (March-November 1917)

The poorly organized and led Russian Army suffered enormous losses. The Russian tied down large German armies in the Eastern Front, making it impossible for the Germans to concentrate their strength against the French and British on the Western Front. Germany began the War as the strongest single country in Europe. The inability of the Germans to concentrate their strength in the West in the end cost them the war. The Russians finally cracked in 1917. Revolution broke out in Petrograd. The Tsar attetmpted to retuen to the capital, but was arrested and forced to abdicate. A Provisional Government formed from the Duma attempted to continue the War. The Bolsheviks promosing "Bread, pace, and land," seized control in the name of the Petrograd Soviet. The Germans forced a humiliating peace on the Bolsevicks at Brest-Litovsk (1918). With Russia out of the War they could finally concentrate their strength in the West. The Germans amassed their forces in 1918, hoping that they could break the Allies before the Americans arrived in France in force.

German Critical Decision (1917)

he Germans after over 2 years of bitter War and a detriorating home froint thought they finally had a real chance of winning the War. They experiencd a series of major successes. A revolution in Russia deposed the Tsaris regime (February 1917). French Army mutinies left the French Army, the backbone of the Western Front, incapable of offensive oprations (April 1917). The British War Cabinet was disgusted with Field Marshall Haig's strategy of attrition and were not prepared to authorize major new levies. The Battle of Capretto redered the Italian Arny ineffective (Septemer 1917). The Bolshevik Revolution in brought to power a regime determined to make peace (October 1917). This also forced Romania out of the War. Fortunately, the German peace demands were so onerous that a pece treaty was not signed with the Russias for some time. All of this could have been a game changer for the Allies on the British and French. For much of the War the Germans had about 250 divisions, 150 on the Western Front and 100 divusions on the Eastern Font. The collapse of the Eastern Front meant that the Germans were in a positions to throw a substantial portion of their 100 Eastern divisions and the artillery in the East at the Allies on the Western Front which were not in a position to raise any significant number of new divisions. The Allies British and French were desperate. Fortunately for the Allies, the Germans had made a critical mistake. Frustrated with the deteriorating situation on he Home Front, the Germans were unwilling to continue restricting their U-boats. They wanted the British to suffer like their people. As a result, the resumed unrestricted submarine warfare (Februrary 1917). This brought America into the War (April 1917). The Germans anticipated this, but did no see the United States as real country. And knew that it would America had only a tiny army, not to taken seriously. In addition the German admirals assured the Kaiser that the Americans even if the fielded an army, the U-boats would prevent transport to France. The Germn generals were convinced that no country could build a serious army in a year basically from scratch, certainly not the Americans with a diverse population and no martial tradition. (Another German government two decades later would reach the same conclusion.) The German launched their Western offensive -- Operation Michael (March 1918). It was enormouslhy successful, gaining more ground in a few weeks.than the Allies had in 3 years. More onminously, it was stratehic areas toward the Channel Ports and Paris. It is at this point that Marshall Foch ordered the still poorly trained American Expeditionary Force (AEF) into the line--a force that the Germans were convinmced could not reach France or be an effectiuve combat force.

Allied Hundred Day Campaign (August-November 1918)

When the German Spring 1918 Western offensive ground to a halt the Allies initiated their offensive. This was largely an Anglo-American operation. The French Army since 1917 was largely restricted to defensive operations. The British in 1914 had only a small professional force. By 1918 they had built a large conscript army. The army had learned a great deal on the Somme (1916) and with a new tank force was ready to assault the Hindenburg Line. The Americans when they entered the War in 1917 also had only a small professional army. America rapidly built a large conscript army and by mid-1918 that army was ready to assault the Germans. The Allies wanted the Americans to be used as replacement troops in British and French units. Pershing insisted on fielding an American army--the AEF. Having help stop the German offensive, the Americans along with the British went on the offensive. The Allied Hundred Days Offensive proved to be the war-winning offensive of World War I. The Allies struck (August 8). The German Spring-Summer offensive had severely bleed the German Army. Under the powerful Allied onslaught, the Germans finally began to crack and large numbers of soldiers began to surrender and desert. The Allies forced the Germans to retreat.

Armistice (November 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. There was not total agreement on this Genetral Pershing wanted to fight on to Berlin. The guns 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.


Bull, Stephen. World War I Trench Warfare two volumes (Osprey Publishing Co., June 2002).

Buttar, Prit. Collission of Empires: The War on the Easten Front in 1914 (2014), 488p.

Fischer, Fritz.

Gilbert, Martin. World War I.

Herrmann, David G. The Arming of Europe.

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

Strachan, Hew. The First World War (Viking, 2004), 354p. Strachan offers an excellent brief review of some of the lesser known campigns. This volume is a condensed version of a three volume work he is preparing.

Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August.


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Created: October 1, 2002
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