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Frank Hurley/Getty Images
Frank Hurley/Getty Images

WWI Centennial: An Overview

Frank Hurley/Getty Images
Frank Hurley/Getty Images

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. For the last six years we’ve been covering the causes and major events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. All the entries in the WWI Centennial blog are available in reverse chronological order, along with other stories about the war, here.

With the final climactic year underway, we’re also providing a (relatively) condensed version so new readers can catch up and long-time readers can refresh their memories.

1914: THE CONFLICT BEGINS

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb nationalists in Sarajevo, the leaders of the ailing Austro-Hungarian Empire decided to use the murder of the heir to the throne as a pretext to crush their troublesome neighbor, the Kingdom of Serbia, once and for all. With support from their powerful ally Germany, they delivered an ultimatum to Serbia with demands so outrageous it was guaranteed to be rejected, giving them an excuse to declare war.

But Germany and Austria-Hungary’s clumsy efforts to “localize” the conflict went off the rails in the “July Crisis.” After Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, on July 30 Serbia’s Slavic patron Russia mobilized against Austria-Hungary and Germany. On August 1 Germany declared war on Russia and its ally France, and on August 4 Britain declared war on Germany after German troops violated Belgian neutrality as part of the Schlieffen Plan.

As war rippled across the planet, fighting defied expectations on both sides. France’s attempt to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine ended in bloody defeat during the Battle of the Frontiers, while the Germans overcame the odds to destroy the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg, and Austria-Hungary suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Serbs at Kolubara. In September Germany’s invasion of northern France failed decisively at the “Miracle on the Marne,” and the exhausted Germans retreated north and dug in, marking the emergence of trench warfare.

The opposing armies now tried to outflank each other again and again, without success, in the “Race to the Sea,” leaving parallel lines of trenches behind them, eventually reaching the North Sea in Flanders in western Belgium. Here the Germans made one last push to break through the Allied lines at Ypres (fated to be the scene of two more titanic battles in the years to come). As 1914 drew to a close, the horrific casualties shocked the world, and the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers in November just spread the bloody stalemate further.  However there was a brief moment of good cheer with the famous Christmas Eve Truce.


Erik Sass

1915: GALLIPOLI AND THE GREAT RETREAT

The following year was marked by more disappointments and surprises. Frustrated on the Western Front, Britain and France tried, and failed, to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war with a long shot attempt to “force” the Turkish straits with warships, followed by amphibious landings, resulting in an even worse defeat at Gallipoli.

Although the Turks held off the Allied attacks, the threat to the Turkish homeland, along with the fact that some Armenian Christians were helping their Russian co-religionists invade the empire, prompted the Ottoman “Young Turk” triumvirate to unleash the Armenian Genocide, killing around 1.5 million by 1917. At the same time, after a year of heated debate Italy—thinking Gallipoli was going to be a big Allied victory—finally joined the Allies with a declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, but immediately became bogged down in trench warfare as well.

In spring 1915 Germany outraged public opinion with two brutal new weapons: poison gas and submarine warfare. The German Fourth Army unleashed chlorine gas on Allied forces at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, causing horrific casualties but ultimately failing to achieve a breakthrough, thanks to the bravery of Canadian troops; This set the pattern for the rest of the war, as both sides used poison gas to amplify the effects of artillery bombardments on enemy trenches—with terrible but rarely decisive effects.

Meanwhile Germany’s decision to mount unrestricted U-boat warfare brought her to the brink of war with the United States, the world’s most powerful neutral nation. The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 infuriated the American public and pushed the U.S. towards the Allies (although there was also anger at the Allied blockade of the Central Powers, which hurt U.S. business interests). The Germans backed down, but remained determined to cut the Allies off from American industry, the key to sustaining the Allied war effort.

The summer of 1915 brought the first major breakthrough of the war on the Eastern Front, with the Central Powers’ rapid conquest of Russian Poland during the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign. The Russian Great Retreat, as it came to be known, was a huge setback, prompting Tsar Nicholas II to take over personal command of the Russian Army—meaning he would be held responsible for future defeats. And worse was to come for the Allies: in October 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers and helped crush Serbia. The remnants of the Serbian Army managed to escape through Albania, and were subsequently evacuated by Allied ships to the island of Corfu. Eventually the Serbian Army was redeployed in Salonika in northern Greece, reinforcing Allied troops recently evacuated from Gallipoli in a belated effort to help Serbia from the south.


Erik Sass

1916: CATASTROPHIC CASUALTIES

Some of the biggest battles in human history occurred in Europe the following year, beginning with the incredible German onslaught at Verdun in February 1916. A cold-blooded German plan to “bleed France dry” through simple attrition, Verdun soon spun out of control, resulting in almost as many casualties for the Germans as the French. The failure led to the firing of chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, replaced in September 1916 by Paul von Hindenburg (aided by his chief strategist, Erich Ludendorff).

In June 1916 the Russians launched their most successful offensive of the war by far, orchestrated by General Alexei Brusilov, a pioneer of “combined arms,” in which attacks by artillery, infantry and airplanes were carefully coordinated to punch holes in widely separated portions of the enemy front at once. The Brusilov Offensive, as it became known, resulted in the almost total collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies in Galicia by September 1916, forcing Germany to withdraw troops from other parts of the front to prop up its beleaguered ally, at which point the Russian offensive sputtered.

The summer of 1916 was a grim time for the Central Powers, as the British also launched their biggest offensive of the war to date at the Somme. The Allies inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans but also suffered breathtaking losses, with 57,470 British casualties including 19,240 dead on the first day alone (July 1, 1916). In the weeks to come the British scored more victories, pushing the enemy back again and again, but the Germans were always able to dig into new defensive positions; the battlefield debut of tanks in September 1916 spread terror in the German ranks but failed to provide a decisive advantage.

In another case of bad timing, in August 1916 Romania—encouraged by Russian success in the Brusilov Offensive and the British advance at the Somme—joined the Allies in hopes of conquering Austria-Hungary’s ethnic Romanian provinces. However this soon proved a disastrous mistake, as Germany rushed more reinforcements to the Balkans and swiftly crushed the Romanians with help from the Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians and Turks, occupying Bucharest by winter.


Erik Sass

1917: THE U.S. ENTERS THE WAR

The fourth year of the war started and ended with upheaval. Leading the way was the Russian Revolution in March 1917, when workers and soldiers overthrew the Romanov Dynasty and seized power on behalf of the Duma, or parliament. However the new Provisional Government was always weak, forced to share power with the Petrograd Soviet, a socialist assembly representing soldiers and workers, and leftist radicals in the Soviet, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks, wanted to overthrow the Provisional Government too.

The radicals got a boost with the failure of the disastrous offensive ordered by War Minister Alexander Kerensky in July, followed by an abortive military coup led by a conservative general, Kornilov, which undermined popular support for the new regime. After their own failed coup attempt in July, the Bolsheviks finally succeeded in overthrowing the Provisional Government in November, supposedly seizing power on behalf of the socialist Soviets—but in reality for themselves. The Bolsheviks would soon take Russia out of the war, a huge setback for the Allies.

This wasn’t their only problem. In March 1917 the Germans made a surprise withdrawal to formidable new defenses on the Western Front, known as the Hindenburg Line, in order to shorten their line and free up forces to fight elsewhere. Following the bloody defeat of the French spring offensive on the Western Front, half the French Army mutinied in May 1917, paralyzing the French war effort. Although General Philippe Petain, the hero of Verdun, set about improving conditions and restoring order, it would take months before the French Army was able to mount a major offensive. To take the pressure off their weakened ally, the British launched a gigantic offensive at the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, which achieved some gains, but again ultimately failed to break through the German lines. The stunning Italian defeat at Caporetto then forced the British to halt the offensive to reinforce the Italian front.

Fortunately for Britain and France, an even bigger ally was rumbling into action. Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare in February 1917, followed by the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram, in which the Germans secretly encouraged Mexico to declare war on the U.S., outraged American public opinion so much that President Woodrow Wilson got Congress to declare war on Germany on April 4, 1917. But it would take time for the U.S. to build an army big enough to make a difference in Europe.


Erik Sass

After the Bolsheviks agreed to an armistice in December, Russia’s exit from the war and descent into civil war spelled bad news for the Allies. As 1917 drew to a close, the big question was whether the Germans would be able to transfer troops from the Eastern Front and crush the overstretched British and French before American troops started arriving in large numbers? This was the final race that would decide the outcome of the war.

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Did a Typo Help End World War II?
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When Geoffrey Tandy was summoned to Bletchley Park in 1939, he had no idea what to expect. A volunteer at the Royal Navy Reserves, Tandy wanted to serve Britain however he could as World War II threatened his country’s existence. But as a cryptogamist for the National History Museum, Tandy wasn’t quite sure where he fit in. Cryptogamists studied algae, a skill that wasn’t in high demand when it came to military strategizing.

Tandy was greeted by representatives for the Ministry of Defence, who seemed excited at the prospect of Tandy joining the top-secret efforts at Bletchley—too excited, really, about someone whose expertise was in seaweed.

At some point, it occurred to Tandy that the Ministry may have made a mistake. The exact details are lost to history, but it became clear that someone had mistaken his job of cryptogamist for a cryptogramist—a codebreaker, which is exactly what men like Alan Turing were doing at Bletchley. The mistake led to a moss specialist being deposited into one of the most intense covert operations of the war.

Generally useless to the group, Tandy did nothing for two years. Then something incredible happened.

In 1941, Allied forces torpedoed German U-boats and salvaged some important documents from the wreckages, including papers that instructed users of the German Enigma Machine how to unscramble messages. The problem: The papers were waterlogged, damaged, and in dire need of quick restoration before they could be put to use.

The Ministry needed someone who was an expert in drying out water-damaged, fragile materials. Someone who may have had training in preserving algae in such a manner. They needed someone like Tandy.

Using absorbent materials gathered from a museum, Tandy dried the pages and returned them to legibility. The Bletchley codebreakers were able to use the information to crack German communication, allowing Allied forces to get a glimpse of their strategy. The deciphering likely hastened the end of the war by two to four years, saving millions of lives in the process.

It’s not quite clear how Tandy’s fortunate misplacement occurred. Did a recruiter see a typographical error, with Tandy’s occupation getting the extra “R”? Or did someone simply misread it? Either way, the misunderstanding turned out to be quite fortuitous. Referencing the story in a 2012 speech, British politician William Hague said it demonstrated “just how useful wide expertise can be.”

[h/t: @floschecther]

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Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: Operation Mars Fails
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 305th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

After a cataclysmic week beginning with the biggest bombardment in history on March 21, 1918, Germany’s spring offensive Operation Michael—chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s final gamble to destroy the Allies before American troops arrived in Europe in large numbers—had conquered a large part of northern France but was now in danger of stalling. To the south the massive Eighteenth Army had captured Montdidier but outrun its rail supply lines, and by the end of March faced new threats as French commanders Henri Philippe Petain and Ferdinand Foch moved up the First, Third, and Tenth Armies to plug the gap with the British Expeditionary Force to the north.

WWO Operation Mars
Erik Sass

In the middle of the expanding German salient the Second Army captured Albert but faced supply problems over the wrecked Somme battlefields of 1916, with shell shortages again slowing the offensive. Meanwhile British resistance stiffened as the Third Army under General Byng dug in before Amiens and Arras. Australian troops arrived in emergency troop convoys, once again enabled by the BEF’s fleet of requisitioned London buses. Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, remembered day and night travel along tiny roads leading the battlefield:

"We’re in a long stream of buses; miles of transport, all leading south. Away on the horizon, clouds of dust. We know that the roads are jammed with traffic as all available modes of transport are rushing men, guns, shells, and food south. Village after village flits by as our cloud of dust rolls over them and we are gone. Night is upon us and still the buses move on."

The arrival of Allied reinforcements on all three sides of the German salient made a breakthrough increasingly improbable, as French and British troops fought savagely to reestablish contact and contain the German thrust (below, British troops with barbed wire).

British troops in World War I with barbed wire
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Desperate to restore Operation Michael’s momentum, on March 28, 1918 Ludendorff ordered Operation Mars, a second planned offensive by the German Second and Seventeenth Armies against the British Third Army around Arras. Mars, an attack by 11 German divisions against British defenses along the Scarpe River, was intended to initiate a German pivot northeast, beginning just south of Arras, threatening to envelop the British Expeditionary Force from the rear and cut it off from its sources of supply, the English Channel ports (below, the ruins of the Arras cathedral).

Arras cathedral, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, the British Third Army had taken elaborate precautions, beginning with the effective adoption of “defense in depth,” a strategy pioneered by the Germans, in which most troops remained in a reserve zone behind a lightly held “battle zone,” consisting of multiple trenches and strongpoints to break up attacking enemy formations and sap their momentum. Elsewhere Operation Mars called for renewed attacks by the German Eighteenth Army against the French forces guarding Amiens to the south, but here the Germans found the French holding the well-prepared Amiens Line of heavy fortifications, first constructed in 1915.

The result was a complete failure, as the German attack collapsed in less than a day. Fighting continued along the front for another week, until Ludendorff finally called off the offensive on April 5. In his diary entry on March 30, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, described intense combat as German attacks were brought up short by determined French defenders:

"It’s evening, I’m writing down my impressions of this day, which must have been the nastiest of any blessed day in the whole war, full of many dreadful situations, each one following closely on the one before: At 7:30 our infantry attacked, and by way of reply to that a hail of machine-gun fire comes out of Le Mesnil, worse than I’ve ever known … I bring the battery up behind, and now we’ve got so much shrapnel raining down on us that you can hardly see or hear anything. The machine-gun fire, chattering away at us from only a few hundred meters' distance, keeps on as heavy as ever. All hell has been let loose. The French seem to be transformed; they must have thrown completely fresh, properly rested troops into this sector, and a large number of them too."

Sulzbach and the Germans soon found that the French Army, relatively rested and now recovered from the 1917 mutinies, was beginning to show its teeth again, thanks in part to stockpiled artillery:

"We pull up a steep track on to a plateau … And up there it’s a witch's cauldron, compared with which the business we had before was child’s play: machine-gun fire and small-arms fire so strong that it might have been thousands and thousands of enemy gun-barrels being trained on our one battery. The concentration of fire is so heavy that all we can do is lie on the ground beside the guns, with the infantry hardly 300 meters in front of us … Meanwhile, in spite of the bad weather, enemy planes have been appearing over our lines, flying at a low altitude in heavy swarms of 20 or 30 in a bunch."

On the other side, Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, described seeing French field guns lined up in huge numbers:

“Alongside and behind us are several batteries of French 75mm guns and farther behind are many French batteries of heavier guns and howitzers. I have never seen so many guns massed together. In one place they were lined up, wheel to wheel, resembling a wall of guns.”

And John Hughes, a Canadian officer, described one young soldier’s reaction to the mindboggling bloodshed:

"One lad in the car going to the CCS was very sick. He seemed to be trying to throw his insides out. We asked him where he was wounded. He said he was not wounded, only sick. 'I have killed so many men this day I am sick with the blood I have spilled. They came on in waves,' he said. 'We mowed them down. There was great pile of them in front of our machine guns. We had to fall back and get a new position. Again and again they came on. They died, oh how they died by the hundreds. Oh my God, I will never forget those dead,' and he was sick again."

Fighting raged on for several more days, however, and Lynch, the Australian private, described fighting near Dernancourt, about 10 miles east of Amiens, in his diary on April 2, 1918:

"My head is lying on the parapet now. I feel my body shake to each crushing shell. Dust and clods rain down everywhere. In front, a sea of mad, flaring shell bursts. I watch the railway embankment. A perfect rain of shells is on to it. A black length of railway line leaves the embankment and comes turning and screwing towards us, tossed by the shells. I can hear it humming through the air before it crashes 50 yards ahead. I’m watching the village. Our shells are crashing into it. It’s a mass of dust and collapsing walls. I catch the fleeting glance of forms running from a burning, tottering house … Now I am watching the railway embankment again. Two shells land together. Two black funnels of earth and smoke viciously kick upwards. Something spinning and turning in the dust cloud. A man—with neither head nor arms, flying high above the embankment. Still the barrage keeps on. Still the air is vibrant with the paralyzing roar of the crashing detonations of exploding shells."

To the south the Allies halted the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux, although the Germans came within seven miles of Amiens. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described crossing the former Somme battlefield on their way to join the German offensive in the south:

"Within a 60-kilometer radius there was hardly a house standing—nothing but rubble and ruins. The fields were covered with overgrown shell-holes. Between them were the crosses of the fallen. If you had not seen it yourself, you would not be able to form a picture of the damage … A bridge led across the river. It had been repaired by German engineers. To the west of the bridge, I could see the first dead English soldiers. From up ahead came the continuous thunder and boom of the artillery. On all our faces you could read a dread of the future. People call us ‘heroes,’ a wonderful name which seldom—and in a manner of speaking, never—reflects reality."

Conditions for ordinary soldiers were awful on both sides, with freezing rain and flooding trenches once again the norm. Hanson recorded their circumstances in his diary on April 4:

"We arrived back to find that our tarpaulin had been commandeered by the officers and that we poor Signallers were again shelterless during a night of torrential rain. Behind the ridge we made a roof of straw which kept off some of the rain, but did not prevent us becoming soaked to the skin … My mother would go insane if I told her about things like this. Hell cannot be much worse than this, for everything contrives to break our spirits. Personally I feel tonight that I don’t care which side wins the war."

By the time Operation Michael ended on April 5, the Eighteenth Army and Second Army had penetrated over 40 miles and captured over 1000 square miles of territory. The offensive caused 240,000 Allied casualties, including 90,000 taken prisoner—but Germany, which couldn’t afford to lose any more manpower, suffered just as much, with 250,000 casualties for the offensive.

Meanwhile the Allies agreed to the appointment of the French general Ferdinand Foch as supreme commander of the Allied forces, to better coordinate the Allied response to this and future offensives, and the top American commander, General Pershing, offered as many American troops as he could muster wherever the British and French needed them—an offer that was immediately accepted.

But Germany’s strength was far from spent. With Michael canceled, Ludendorff turned his attention to the next offensive, Operation Georgette—an attempt to smash the rest of the British Expeditionary Force in front of Ypres, already the scene of three horrific battles. The next blow would fall on April 9, 1918.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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