W1.05 All the Plans Fail
Hi, welcome back. In this presentation, I wanted to focus on the first two years of World War I. The basic message is that all the really elaborate plans to win the war are failing. Vast plans moving millions of men, huge amounts of artillery and ammunition, careful railway timetables, comes to bloody wreckage. The war starts out, though, with a great sense of social unity, all those terrible political arguments of the preceding 20 years, management versus working class and so on, now seen replaced by a new kind of unity, as countries rallied to their flags. But the war unfolds in ways that none of the combatants had expected. What did they expect? You might ask. Well, mostly what people expect in the future is things that they know have happened in the past. They tend to predict the future with analogies to the past. If they'd looked at other wars in the past: the Russo-Japanese War lasted about a year and a half to two years; the Franco-Prussian War lasted about a year or so; the Crimean War, again relatively short. No one had any experience in their lifetimes of a large-scale war that lasted year after year after year. It was expected that there would be a violent clash of armies, intense warfare, and a quick outcome. That's not what happened. A key decision at the very outset of the war is: What to do about Belgium? The creation of a neutral Belgium had been a linchpin of European politics ever since the 1830s. France and Germany both had to decide who would enter Belgium to try to gain more advantage from that. Principally, it was the Germans that decided that they would really conduct the invasion of Belgium to get the high ground. Knowing that would surely bring the British in, on the French side. The British decision to join the war, after the invasion of Belgium, it might have happened anyway. It was unlikely the British were just going to let the French be defeated, but the German invasion of Belgium, was the pivot point for the British decision. But the German decision to invade Belgium did not bring them success in the West. Let's look a little bit about, how the initial weeks of the war unfolded. I'm greatly aided here by a wonderful interactive map that's been created by the Public Broadcasting Service, in conjunction with some of their work. Let's zoom in on this interactive map. Step one is the Germans break into the Belgian forts to penetrate into Belgium, in order to wheel down in France. The French are launching their own attacks, against the German frontier. Those attacks collapse in bloody failure. The combatants are discovering that the power of modern weapons, machine guns, artillery, are simply devastating, when men in cavalry stand up and charge out in the open. The German armies in Belgium sweep down from the north, heading toward Paris. A lot of the standard works refer to this German plan, as the so called Schlieffen plan. What the German attack was meant to do was to provide an effective offensive move against France, as France had its own offensive plan against the German frontier. Meanwhile in the East, the Russians launched their attack, by two separate armies, against German East Prussia. But the Germans counterattack and defeat the Russian armies. Back in the West, the French rally a defense near Paris, at what would be called the Battle of the Marne, and the French defeat the overextended German armies, who have now outrun their overextended supply lines, because these modern armies now require huge logistical support. In the next months of 1914, the different sides settle into this line. And this line, will define what was called the Western Front for the next years of war. Failures in the West are accompanied by failures in the East. The Russians launch their offensives here, against East Prussia, here against Austria; they don't get very far. The Serbians drove forward into Bosnia, but there's a counter attack from the Austrians, backed by the Germans, eventually assisted by Bulgarian allies. Serbia itself is occupied by the Central Powers; the battle line by the end of 1915 running down here. By the end of 1914, and into 1915, the war begins widening pretty rapidly. Japan, a treaty ally of the British, join in on the British side. They use this as an opportunity to occupy German territory on the Chinese mainland: the whole Shandong Peninsula and Qingdao. The Japanese also occupied German held islands in the Pacific. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire, under the leadership of its Turkish ruler, joins with Germany and Austria and Bulgaria to form a united front. The Ottoman Empire and its Muslim rulers declare a holy war, a jihad, against the British and French and all their positions in the Middle East, and the war quickly extends to a battle for colonies: colonies especially in Africa, where both the British and the Germans mount expeditionary forces to fight wars against each other in the jungles. So, to give you some sense of scale of the war in Europe and Southwest Asia: By the end of 1915, Germany and its allies are dominating this whole area of Central and Southeastern Europe, going on into Southwest Asia, with the Russians and the French, with British help, pushing against them on both sides. And the British now especially involved in battles against the Turks in Asia. With the British reaching out for help from potential local allies, like say the Arabs, the war is widening in other ways, too. In 1915, the combatants begin using the new marvels of chemistry against each other in other ways, releasing many tons of poison gas that, when inhaled, will cause the lungs to inflame and asphyxiate people in the thousands. As all the soldiers begin finding that gas masks are part of their standard kit, the Germans are also advancing in their use of submarines to disrupt world trade and offset some of the British naval advantages. So in early 1915, all the sides had realized that their initial plans at the outbreak of war have not ended the war. And they all start developing their war-winning plans for 1915. Okay, they've learned their lessons, they're going to mount huge offensives on the Western Front to now break through and settle things in France. In the case of the Allies, they develop a big plan to break through that German, Austrian, Bulgarian, Turkish combine by attacking right near Constantinople and putting a huge landing force, especially using Australian and New Zealand troops, to land at a place called Gallipoli, then move from there to threaten Constantinople, knock Turkey out of the war. They've all these elaborate plans. And in the spring and summer of 1915, all of these plans fail, too. The offensives in France collapse into bloody ruin, with the casualties lists beginning to amount into the hundreds of thousands after these weeks of fighting. Both sides now realizing that theyï¿½re straining their industry to simply produce enough shells to now wage these sorts of modern battles. Then Gallipoli attack against the Turks encounters a quite modern and very determined Turkish army that kills the Australian, New Zealand, and British Attackers in the tens of thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands of casualties. As the powers on both sides realize that they're involved in a prolonged world war, their war aims evolve, too. Again, think back: What was the war initially about? It was initially about this rivalry in the Balkans. But once these countries were fully at war, once so many of their citizens are fighting and dying on such a colossal scale, well you have to develop war aims that will somehow match. The Allies begin moving toward war aims, that will dismantle the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dismantle the Ottoman Empire. Germans and their allies developed equally vaulting war aims. They're now developing ambitions that are so radical that each side sees this almost as wars for their future existence. Okay, so they had their big plans in 1915; their plans failed. Well, they're going to learn the lessons of 1915. They're going to develop still better plans for 1916 that fully understand these conditions of modern war. Both sides develop huge elaborate plans for war winning offensives in 1916. In the case of both the Allies and the Germans, their plans center on the Western Front. The Germans plant to launch an offensive at a point the French are going to have to defend. The Germans don't think that winning the territory wins the war. No, they deliberately set out to wage a battle in which they will bleed the French army to death. They'll wage such a war of attrition that the French Nation won't be able to stand to continue the war. They pick as their site for that attack, that blood bath, a place called Verdun. Meanwhile in 1916, they plan to greatly expand submarine warfare, including sinking ships that transit in the Atlantic between Britain and the raw materials in America, in the hope that that will help knock Britain out of the war, as well. The Allies, for their part, are developing huge offensive plans of their own. The British will take the lead, focusing on a place called the Somme. The battle for Verdun begins in February of 1916. It goes on virtually the entire year. The hopes for a bloodbath are realized, but the attrition runs both ways. Enormous losses of life within this relatively tiny place. I've spent some time at Verdun; it's one of the saddest places you can visit on the planet. There are places of the landscape that are so blasted by the fighting, that the vegetation still hasn't recovered to this day. To this day, you can still see the way the earth has been re-molded by the shell fire. You can see the gigantic cemeteries and tombs of the soldiers who died there, under nightmarish conditions. About a million French and German soldiers are consumed in the Verdun maelstrom. The submarine war is effective but not effective enough. The United States, which has stayed out of the war, warns the Germans that, if they sink American shipping and interfere with American trade, the United States will join the war on the side of the British and the French. The Germans hold back. So, the German offensive plans fail. The Allies had their offensive plans, too. The lead part was that the Russians were going to launch a gigantic offensive aimed at knocking the Austrians out of the war. The offensive is very successful; it hits the Austrians very hard, but it ends up hurting the Russian army just as bad. The result: another inconclusive outcome. And as for the offensive on the Somme, one of the most famous disasters of the entire war. The British attackers suffered 60,000 casualties, 20,000 British soldiers killed, just on the very first day of the battle: July 1st, 1916. So in other words, every side has tried its grand bid to win the war, and every side has realized that none of it is working. All the plans have failed. In each of the Allied capitals, especially among the leaders, who have the best information on what's really going on, they can feel the strain now. The losses, the costs, are simply enormous. Their economies, their finances, everything is being strained to the limit. They're all thinking about: Where is this going to go now? How can we win the war? And that creates a really interesting moment, between about August 1916 and January 1917, when a lot of things were possible, a crossroads that we'll discuss in the next presentation.