We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields.
— John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields” —
On paper, the Central and Allied Powers were evenly-matched in the summer of 1914. Yet the Germans held the advantage in the first year of the war, as they were most prepared for its coming. The General Staff had been conducting war games since the founding of Germany in 1871 with a variety of scenarios for two-front conflicts with multiple participants. For the situation in 1914, the General Staff chose to execute the “Schlieffen Plan,” named for Count Alfred von Schlieffen who had commanded the General Staff from 1891-1906. The German war plan called for a massive invasion of France and the Low Countries with seven of the eight field armies. The right wing would sweep down through Belgium toward Paris while the left wing held the Franco-German border region along the Rhine River. The single army in the east would hold the line against Russia (which would take at least six weeks to mobilize, according to Schlieffen’s calculations). France’s armies would be enveloped and destroyed in a battle south or east of the capital. Then the rest of the army would be transferred to the Eastern Front on Germany’s first-class rail system to invade and destroy the Russian Empire. Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the General Staff in 1914, made two minor alterations to Schlieffen’s plan: he refused to invade the Netherlands and instead forced the army’s right wing through Germany’s relatively-small border region with Belgium, and he transferred two corps from the left wing to bolster the Eighth Army’s strength in the east. He did not consider these changes to be significant, but in reality it may have cost Germany the war. By slowing the right wing’s advance in the Low Countries, France and Britain gained time to move up their forces to the border regions and prepare defenses, and moving troops from the left wing allowed the French to launch small raids into Germany. This violation of sovereign German soil led Kaiser Wilhelm II to order the left wing to advance as well, turning the single-envelopment operation into a double-envelopment. From a military standpoint, this is the most difficult type of field operation to execute, as it requires coordination between units that was simply impossible with the technology and infrastructure available at the time.
Despite some early stumbles around the Belgian fortress-city of Liege, the Germans were able to break through and begin their sweep across northern France by the second week of August. The French were hurled back all along the front, and the small British Expeditionary Force was nearly destroyed at the Battle of Mons on August 23rd. By the 24th the Allied armies were in retreat in the face of Germany’s onslaught, and Moltke reported to the Kaiser that victory was at hand. Paris was preparing to endure a siege, and the French Chief of the General Staff Joseph Joffre was planning a last stand in the capital. Then, on September 2nd, Moltke saw what he believed was the opportunity of a lifetime. The French armies were stretched out east- to-west on a line from Paris to the Franco-German border, but few troops were actually defending the city itself. Moltke chose to make a third change to Schlieffen’s plan. Rather than capture the French capital and hand the enemy a political defeat, he chose to have his forces bypass Paris to the east and continue the advance; he would destroy the Allied armies and then return to take Paris. As a result, on September 3rd, the First and Second armies drew level with Paris on the map and then continued to move south, exposing their flanks to the city.
Moltke had made a fatal mistake. Unbeknownst to the Germans, Joffre and the Paris garrison commander Joseph Gallieni had cobbled together enough soldiers to form another field army to the west of Paris, beyond the enemy’s field of vision. With Moltke’s flank now open, Gallieni began to move his forces through the city (using several hundred Parisian taxi cabs to deploy troops to the field) and position them to attack the German right. By the end of September 3rd, the French and German armies were parallel to each other along the east-west Aisne River, with Gallieni’s reserve force in Paris and detached from the main French army. The next morning, Moltke learned of Gallieni’s moves and ordered the First and Second armies to turn ninety degrees; they would now draw up on a line running north-to-south facing Paris and Gallieni’s small army. As the two German armies moved away from the remaining five (still moving south from the Aisne to the Marne River pursuing the retreating French), a gap opened up in the German line. The chance of bypassing Paris was gone, but he was still confident of victory.
Great Britain had not fought a major Continental war in a century, and its army had been reformed to combat small colonial enemies in Africa and India. When the Great War broke out, Britain could only deploy six infantry divisions and one cavalry division (France had 67 infantry divisions and ten calvary divisions while Germany had 78 infantry divisions and four cavalry divisions). The British Expeditionary Force, commanded by General Sir John French, was badly mauled at Mons in late August and had retreated beyond the Marne River to refit and repair. Its contribution to the war had thus far been negligible, and both French and German officers regularly mocked the British for their inability to fight a modern war. However, in the fateful days of early September 1914, what Kaiser Wilhelm II called “that contemptible little army” played the decisive role in saving the Allied cause.
By midday on September 4th, Gallieni’s forces were under fierce artillery attack from the German First and Second armies, and to the east the main body of the French army was retreating across the Marne River. Moltke had met with the Kaiser that morning at army headquarters in occupied Luxembourg and again assured his supreme warlord that the situation at the front was under control. In Paris, Joffre and the other officers at French command at Chantilly were lamenting their fate. Then, the report of the gap between the German Second and Third armies arrived, and Joffre dispatched a message to Sir John French at BEF headquarters asking him to attack. French hesitated but then agreed; the BEF would move up into the gap and engage the enemy. Joffre then issued orders to his own forces—on September 5th, the retreat would stop and all forces currently retreating along the Marne would turn and fight. It would be a battle to save European civilization.
The Battle of the Marne, fought between September 5th and 10th, was one of the largest battles in history in both numbers engaged and the size of the battlefield. Along a front of almost two hundred miles, 1.1 million French and British soldiers battled 1.5 million Germans for five days. Troops on both sides still marched in line-and-column and were devastated by machine gun and artillery fire. In the east, the French were able to stop the Germans cold along the river by setting up interlocking fields of fire and digging shallow trenches to protect themselves. To the west, near Paris, the armies maneuvered for position, but the Germans were caught in the open by the BEF and by Gallieni’s troops attacking out of Paris. On the 10th, General Alexander von Kluck of the German First Army reported to Moltke’s adjutant that his army was in jeopardy and had to pull back. When Moltke heard the news, he ordered all seven field armies to disengage from the enemy and retreat to the north. They would form a defensive line along the Aisne River and await reinforcements from home. In the field, British and French soldiers celebrated with cheers and bottles of wine as they watched the Germans pull away. At German headquarters in Luxembourg, Moltke was forced to report to the Kaiser on September 13th, “Your Majesty, we have lost the war.”
The Allied victory at the Marne was not the end of the story in 1914, nor certainly the end of the war. (Some civilians in London and Paris celebrated the news as if the war was over; they expected a quick victory in this “exciting little war.”) Over the next two months, both armies tried to outflank each other in northern France, stretching the lines out from the Aisne to the Channel Coast in what became the dreaded Western Front. New technology like the machine gun shifted the advantage to the defensive, and both sides began to entrench to hold their lines. By December, the war in the west had degenerated into a trench-bound stalemate, where it would remain for the next three-and-a-half long years. In the east, Russia’s rapid mobilization caught the Germans off guard, but quick and decisive action by Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (who would soon rise in rank to command all German armies) destroyed the first Russian invasion of East Prussia at the Battle of Tannenberg. 1914 closed with no end to the war in sight as Allied and German soldiers on the Western Front celebrated Christmas by crossing “No Man’s Land” to give each other gifts in the last chivalrous military action of the still-new 20th century.
Crisis of Civilization
The war in the West is one of bloodletting on an industrial scale. In the century which had passed since the Napoleonic Wars, warfare had changed forever as factories and mass mobilization brought millions of armed men to the front with the most devastating of weapons.
Poison gas was first used at the Battle of Artois in 1915 and would soon send thousands of gasping, choking men to their graves. Tanks and armed aircraft made their debuts in 1916 at the Somme and heralded a new type of warfare. At sea, submarines sank military and civilian ships alike, blockaded coastlines and starved tens of thousands of innocent civilians in both Britain and Germany. Major offensives at Ypres and Artois in 1915, Verdun and the Somme in 1916, and Nivelle and Passchendaele in 1917 cost millions of lives while gaining little ground. Soldiers were surrounded by death as they chewed barbed wire in Flanders, and an entire generation of Europeans perished. In the East, the czar’s armies hurled themselves on the Germans in brutal massed charges while the Austrians blundered from one offensive to another. The Ottoman Empire entered the war in late 1914, opening up a new theater in the Middle East that ultimately cost the ruling Turks their empire. (It also cost Winston Churchill his reputation, as his planned offensive at Gallipoli led to the deaths of 25,000 British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers.) And in southern Europe, the Italians and Greeks tried to aid the Allied cause but only managed to send their own brave men to their deaths. By 1917, both sides were nearing exhaustion, yet no end was in sight—victory was the goal, but the question was how to achieve it?
The Germans struck upon a plan to win the war in early 1917. They reasoned that, if they could shut down the Eastern Front and transfer their armies to the West, they could overwhelm the reeling French and British with sheer numbers. The situation in Russia was growing dire, as the people were fed up with the czar’s indifference to their suffering and crying out for reform and peace. In February 1917, a revolution broke out, deposed Nicholas II, and brought the socialist Alexander Kerensky to power—he promised democracy and victory in the war. (His second promise ultimately cost him his position.) At the same time, members of the German Social Democratic Party reached out to Russian revolutionaries in exile in Switzerland with an offer: they would guarantee these outlaws safe passage across Germany and into Russia in return for an end to the war. Of the many anti-czarist groups in Switzerland, the first to agree was the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin. After a long journey, Lenin arrived in St. Petersburg in October 1917, and with the promise of peace bringing him mass public support, his Bolsheviks overthrew Kerensky. He then signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, withdrawing Russia from the war. The Germans exacted a heavy price from Lenin, but the Bolshevik leader was unconcerned—he had bigger plans for his country.
Had this been Germany’s only major political move of 1917, their victory in the Great War would have been possible. However, the General Staff also made a second decision that threw away whatever gains they would make in the East. In 1915, hoping to starve Britain into surrender (and believing, correctly, that France would not fight on alone), they began sinking any ship on the high seas bound for Great Britain no matter its nation of origin. After the sinking of the RMS Lusitania and the deaths of 128 Americans on board, the Germans had backed away from this policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare.” Now, two years later, they returned to it once more. Hindenburg understood that this might bring America into the war, but he had little regard for (or understanding of) for America’s military potential. But just in case America proved more dangerous than expected, the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram to Mexico requesting their assistance in a war with the United States. Mexico immediately refused, but the British intercepted and published the telegram worldwide. Americans were outraged, and the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.
Germany’s final offensive in 1918 very nearly won them the war, but America had already begun to exercise its massive industrial and military power in Europe. Ten thousand Americans were arriving in France every month by January, and these troops were thrown into the line when the Germans attacked in March. By June, the German offensive had failed, and the Allies attacked. In the north, the British struck at Amiens and Cambrai with armored assaults that broke the enemy lines, while in the south a combined Franco-American attack at Meuse- Argonne hurled the Germans back to their prewar borders. In just one hundred days, the Germans were defeated—though their armies still stood on foreign soil. At the same time, Britain won decisive victories in Greece and the Middle East, and the Italians (with American help) broke through the enemy lines at the Isonzo River. The Central Powers had been defeated, and an armistice was finally agreed to at 11:00 AM on November 11, 1918. After four years and three months of the most devastating war in human history to that point, Europe was again at peace.
The “War to End All Wars"
The world’s representatives gathered in Paris for the peace conference on January 18, 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles (the same calendar date in which the German Empire had been proclaimed in that very room). Over the next six months, five treaties were drafted and forced upon the defeated Central Powers: Germany, Austria and Hungary (now two independent states), Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. As had happened in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, the victors redrew the map of Europe, creating new nations and claiming territory from their defeated enemies. Of these five treaties, the most consequential was the Treaty of Versailles with Germany.
Within the “Big Four” Allied Powers—Britain, France, the United States and Italy—two major attitudes toward Germany emerged during the peace conference. On one side were the three European powers, led by French Premier Georges Clemenceau, who wanted to punish the German aggressors for the war which they had started (the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by a Serb having been forgotten). On the other was President Wilson, who sought a just peace to create a “world made safe for democracy.” Wilson’s idealism sounded good on paper, but it came up agains the realities of a shattered Continent whose people wanted revenge, and few of the American president’s proposals carried the day. His one victory was the creation of the League of Nations, an international organization which would provide a forum for discussion of problems between countries without resort to war. The League would be headquartered in Geneva and did its best to confront international crises during its twenty-year existence.
The Treaty of Versailles imposed three major conditions for peace upon the Germans (whose country was now in a state of revolution after Wilhelm II’s abdication on November 9th). The new Weimar Republic would be disarmed, its army limited to one hundred thousand men and forbidden an air force and deep-water navy. German territory would be appropriated by Belgium, Denmark, France (who recovered Alsace-Lorraine), and the newly-created nation of Poland. This last was particularly galling, as Poland was given the city of Danzig and the “Polish Corridor” for access to the sea, cutting off East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Lastly, Germany was blamed for starting the war and would thus pay reparations to the Allied Powers of $32 billion in gold and deliveries in kind. The Germans protested that they had not started the war, but the Allies cited the General Staff’s decision to declare war prematurely and their invasion of Belgium to justify the treaty’s war guilt clause. The German delegation was presented with the completed treaty on May 7th and ordered to sign. Because of political disruptions in Berlin, the representatives requested time to consult with the government, which was granted. The German people were shocked and outraged when they learned of the treaty’s contents—they had not started the war, nor had they fought it any more ruthlessly than the Allies had done. (This was entirely true, and some historians have noted that Britain’s continuation of the blockade of Germany’s ports until June 1919 killed more German civilians than died during the war itself.) The Allies insisted that the treaty would not be altered and threatened a resumption of the war if it was not agreed to. This would have been a disaster for the German nation, and so the delegation returned to Versailles and signed the treaty on June 28, 1919.
Over sixteen million people died during the Great War and another 21 million were wounded. French infrastructure was devastated by four years of trench warfare, and the population only recovered in 1940 (just in time for a second catastrophe to befall the Third Republic). In many ways, the Treaty of Versailles was as great a catastrophe for the cause of world peace as the war had been. It both disarmed and enraged the German people, who grew more willing to support radical leaders promising a return to power for the Reich, but it also left the basic infrastructure of the General Staff and wartime military intact. It worried the American people, who wished to return to their prewar isolation and distance themselves from European affairs, while simultaneously inflating the sense of power of both Britain and France. It allowed Russia to descend into the terror of communism under Vladimir Lenin while failing to empower the newly-created Eastern European nations of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia to resist its spread. Each one of these mistakes made at Versailles would soon return to haunt the victors. As the war receded into memory, the people of Britain and France went back to their normal lives. Reminders of the war persisted, of course: the monuments in every town and village to the honored dead, the empty cafes and pubs where a generation who had fallen in Flanders once drank and smoked, the wounded veterans parading through the streets of London and Paris on Armistice Day. Whenever a new crisis involving Germany arose during the 1920s and 1930s, a cry went up in the Halls of Parliament or the streets of Paris: “Never again!” Never again would the young men of the West bleed and die in trenches. Never again would nations sacrifice their greatest assets for the cause of political power or changing maps. Never again. As ruthless dictators seized power in Germany, Italy and the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the free peoples of Western Europe and the United States recoiled in horror but failed to act decisively. Men like Winston Churchill who warned that appeasement would bring about a new war were mocked as out of touch or as warmongers, while men of peace like Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier were heralded as statesmen of the future. When confronted by evil, the free world failed to act. The Great War had sapped them of their resolve; it had bled them dry of all resolution to fight for the freedoms they enjoyed.
But of course, hindsight is easy and the view back through the lens of history is clear. In the hour of victory, few thought of another war. No one could imagine that a blinded German corporal lying in a hospital in Pomerania had thoughts of revenge against his enemies or an Italian socialist newspaper editor and veteran might seek to reestablish his country’s dominion of the Mediterranean Sea. People celebrated, dancing in the streets and thanking the Almighty that they had survived the world crisis. They mourned their dead, of course, but the war to end all wars was finally over. And yet, from the halls of Versailles came a warning. On the day the treaty was signed, General Ferdinand Foch, who had led the Allied armies in the final offensive against Germany, read the treaty and then commented, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” Only time would tell how right he was.