14 Reasons WWI Happened (And Four Things That Could Have Stopped It)

Ypres via Wikimedia
Ypres via Wikimedia

For the past few years, Erik Sass has been covering the events that led to World War I exactly 100 years later. Here's a look back at how we got here.

In mid-June 1914, Europeans were preparing for a beautiful summer. In the mansions of the mighty, servants covered the furniture and packed heaps of luggage for a season at country retreats, while ordinary folks looked forward to holidays at the seaside, hiking in the mountains, and long afternoons at beer gardens or bistros. Behind the scenes, however, on June 16, 1914, German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg wrote to the German ambassador to Britain, Prince Lichnowsky, warning “any insignificant conflict of interests between Russia and Austria-Hungary may set the torch of war alight.” Within a matter of weeks his prediction came true. But was the Great War inevitable?

Well, the final answer to that depends on questions like whether free will exists. But here are a bunch of reasons the First World War happened—and a few reasons it didn’t have to.

1. Nationalism

Outline of History

In the medieval period, Christianity united Europeans across language and culture—but then the Reformation fractured the “universal” Catholic Church and the Enlightenment undermined religion’s hold on the collective imagination. Nationalism emerged to fill the spiritual void with an idea of community based (loosely) on shared language and ethnicity. By the 19th century Europeans took it for granted each nation had a distinct “character” and inhabited sacred, inviolable territory. So when Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, it injured French national pride and provoked “revanchism” (desire for revenge). At the same time, nationalism threatened Austria-Hungary, an old-fashioned medieval empire with a dozen nationalities who wanted out.

2. Racism and Social Darwinism

Wikimedia Commons

Nationalism was never particularly rational, but any contradictions could be papered over with racism and Social Darwinism. Racism, another product of the Enlightenment, linked human cultural differences to variations in appearance that supposedly corresponded to fundamental biological traits, like intelligence. In the 19th century, racism got a more scientific gloss from Social Darwinism, which applied the theory of natural selection to human races locked in a “struggle for survival.” Front and center was the rivalry between the Slavs and Germans.

3. Imperialism

Wikimedia Commons

Technological progress during the Renaissance and Enlightenment gave Europeans a big advantage over less advanced societies, enabling conquest and colonization around the world. By the 19th century, European nations were competing to amass global empires—but Britain, France, and Russia had a head start on latecomers like Germany, whose desire for a “place in the sun” was yet another source of conflict.

4. German Growth

While Germany lagged behind in colonies, its incredible growth at home scared France and Britain. From 1870 to 1910, Germany’s population soared 58 percent to 65 million, while France edged up just 11 percent to 40 million, and from 1890 to 1913 German steel production increased nine-fold to 18.9 million tons—more than Britain (7.7 million) and France (4.6 million) combined. Germany also had the best rail network in Europe, enabling more mobility and growth. With all this the Germans understandably felt they deserved a bigger role in world affairs … but they went about it all wrong.

5. Naval Arms Race

Wikimedia Commons

Kaiser Wilhelm II’s pet project was the German Imperial Navy, created in collaboration with Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, a sailor who happened to be Germany’s most skilled politician. But their naval obsession alienated Britain, an island nation that simply couldn’t afford to yield control of the seas. In the first years of the 20th century, Britain responded by building more ships and entering an informal alliance with its traditional rival, France—the entente cordiale (friendly understanding).

6. German Fear of Encirclement

uchicago.edu

Even though it was Germany’s own stupidity that caused Britain and France to pull closer together, the entente cordiale (on top of the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892) inspired German fear of a conspiracy to “encircle” Germany. This triggered more German belligerence, which—like any good self-fulfilling prophecy—just made Britain, France, and Russia pull closer together, forming the “Triple Entente.”

7. Arms Race on Land

German paranoia about encirclement triggered an even bigger arms race on land, pitting Germany and Austria-Hungary against France, Russia, and Britain (later, Italy got sucked in too). From 1910 to 1913, total military expenditures by Europe’s Great Powers increased from $1.67 billion to $2.15 billion per year in contemporary U.S. dollars. And more increases were on the way, prompting both sides to wonder: would it be better to just fight now before their enemies grew even stronger?

8. Russian Growth

Wikimedia Commons

Just as Germany’s economic expansion scared Britain and France, a few years later Russia’s rapid growth terrified Germany and Austria-Hungary. From 1900 to 1913, industrialization sent Russia’s gross national product rocketing 55 percent to $388 billion in today’s U.S. dollars. Over the same period its population soared 26 percent to 168 million—more than Germany and Austria-Hungary combined. In July 1914, the German philosopher Kurt Riezler, a close friend of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, wrote gloomily, “The future belongs to Russia…”

9. Turkish Decline

As Germany and Russia grew more powerful, the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, creating instability across the Balkans and Middle East. In the First Balkan War, 1912-1913, the Balkan League (Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro) carved up most of the empire’s remaining European territories. Serbia’s conquest of Albania put it on a collision course with Austria-Hungary, which didn’t want Serbia to gain access to the sea. Meanwhile, Russia was plotting to conquer Armenia, Britain and France were eyeing Syria and Iraq … and Germany feared it would be left out yet again.

10. Secret Treaties

Wikimedia Commons

Europe’s complex alliance system was even more confusing because many of the agreements were secret, which prevented key players from making informed decisions. For example, if Britain had announced its promises to France it might have deterred Germany from going to war, and Italy had a secret non-aggression pact with France which even Italy’s top generals didn’t know about. The treaties didn’t even have to exist to cause trouble: German fear of a possible secret Anglo-Russian Naval Convention fueled paranoia about encirclement, even though no agreement was reached.

11. International Law? No Such Thing

vredespaleis.nl

Despite the development of a truly global economy in the 19th century, there was no real system of international law that might be used to restrain one state from using violence against another state. There were institutions, like the Peace Palace (above), which were intended to serve as forums for arbitration of international disputes, but these had no power to enforce their decisions, so they were basically a joke. Not much has changed. 

12. Trouble at Home

morgenpost.de

WWI wasn’t just the result of international conflict; domestic tensions played an important role too. In Germany, the conservative elite was frightened by the steady political gains of socialists opposed to militarism (above), and tried to use foreign policy to drum up patriotism and distract ordinary Germans from problems on the home front. In Russia, the Tsarist government embraced Pan-Slavism to shore up its own legitimacy and draw attention away from its own failure to institute democratic reforms.

13. No Going Back

In the 19th century, it became common practice for Europe’s Great Powers to draw up detailed war plans in order to avoid getting caught unprepared—and hopefully get the jump on their enemies. These plans focused on logistics, especially the use of railroads to deploy armies rapidly. This, in turn, required elaborate schedules coordinating the movements of thousands of trains; Germany’s Schlieffen Plan (above) is the classic example. As result, war plans became so complicated it was impossible to modify them or improvise new ones “on the fly.” It also meant there was no going back: Once mobilization began, your enemies were bound to respond in kind, so there was no way to stop the cycle of escalation without leaving yourself vulnerable.

14. Don’t Fear the Reaper

Wikimedia Commons

This one’s a little out there, but worth thinking about. After WWI, Sigmund Freud theorized the existence of a “death drive” pushing humans to annihilate themselves and others. It exists alongside other drives that may hold it in check, like the desire for pleasure, but the death drive is always there in the subconscious, guiding our actions at least some of the time. Destruction is also linked to creation; it’s worth noting how many young people welcomed the war as the “dawn of a new era,” sweeping away Europe’s “old,” “stale,” “stagnant” civilization and laying the foundations for a new, better world (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

Four Things That Could Have Stopped WWI (Maybe)

1. Nobody Wanted It

The greatest irony of WWI was that none of the key decision-makers wanted it to happen (and death wish or no, neither did most ordinary people). Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II prided himself on his reputation as peacekeeper and frantically tried to avert WWI at the last minute. Previously Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Franz Josef went to extraordinary lengths to keep the peace, and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II was known for his peaceful nature. Although this obviously wasn’t enough to stop the war on its own, it shows the will for peace was there, if only circumstances would allow.

2. Better Instructions

One of the most foolish moves Germany made in July 1914 was giving Austria-Hungary a “blank check,” promising unconditional support for whatever measures Vienna proposed to take against Serbia. The Germans could have benefited themselves (and everyone else) by being a little more, well, German—for example by dictating exactly when, where, and how Austria-Hungary could chastise Serbia; how far to go in trying to call Russia’s bluff; and what their fallback plan should be in case they encountered real resistance from Russia, France, and Britain. Instead Germany just kind of said “go for it!” Very un-German.

3. A Word to the Wise

In July 1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary faced off with Russia and France over Serbia, while Europe’s other Great Powers—Britain and Italy—mostly remained on the sidelines. If Britain’s Foreign Secretary Edward Grey and Italy’s Foreign Minister San Giuliano intervened earlier and more forcefully by warning that they would fight, it might have persuaded Germany and Austria-Hungary to back down (San Giuliano had already warned Austria-Hungary not to attack Serbia in 1913, and Grey could have informed the Germans of Britain’s commitment to protect France).

4. What If…?

Gavrilo Princip could have missed. But he didn’t.

See the previous installment or all entries.

WWI Centennial: Germany Must End War, Generals Admit

Pvt. J.M. Liles, U.S. Army, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Pvt. J.M. Liles, U.S. Army, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 317th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here or all entries hereAnd buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

AUGUST 13-15, 1918: GERMANY MUST END WAR, GENERALS ADMIT

Following the failure of Germany’s final attempts to crack Allied defenses on the Western Front in spring and summer 1918, the Allies hit back beginning August 8, remembered by German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff as “the black day of the German Army,” with a devastating surprise attack led by the British Fourth Army against the German forces holding the recently re-conquered salient round the River Somme. British, Canadian, Australian, and American divisions supported by more than a thousand planes and hundreds of tanks stormed disorganized, unprepared defenses, forcing the German Second and Eighteenth Armies into a hasty withdrawal.

As the Germans beat a disorderly retreat on both the north and south banks of the river, all the way to their starting positions for the first spring offensive in March 21, Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch moved aggressively to exploit the new opportunities opened up by the British advance, with plans to unleash a new pincer attack by the French Tenth Army under Charles Mangin and the British Third Army on the main German salient in northern France. Foch was also working with American top commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing on another offensive by the new American First Army—the first American army to serve in Europe—targeting German positions in the Meuse-Argonne, the St. Mihiel salient, or both (although Foch and Pershing disagreed over which should receive priority).

Regardless of where the next blow fell, however, by mid-August 1918 it was clear to all observers that the Allies were winning the war and that the best Germany could hope for was a negotiated peace. In August 1918 Germany sustained 228,000 casualties, including 131,000 dead and missing—an unaffordable loss, maxing out the relatively fresh troops redeployed from the Eastern Front, while hundreds of thousands of new American fighters arrived every month (285,974 in August alone). By the end of the month there would be around 1.5 million Americans in France, including more than 800,000 serving in the trenches.

Even children understood the fatal turn of events, picking up on cues from despondent adults and older siblings. Piete Kuhr, a 13-year-old girl in East Prussia, wrote in her diary on August 15, 1918, “Germany is nearly finished, diary. We have suffered a terrible defeat. Most of our troops have surrendered to the English. At the station a sergeant said to Grandma, ‘Well, Mother, you will soon be able to close the soup kitchen. We are done for, fini, beaten!’ When Grandma came home from duty she was very pale.”

Following the Amiens Offensive of August 8-12, even Germany’s top generals, chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, his quartermaster general and chief strategist, now had to admit that a decisive victory over the Allies was impossible. But this wasn’t the same as admitting that Germany had lost the war: Ludendorff still argued, unrealistically, that it was possible to reach a negotiated peace with the Allies, maintain Germany’s territorial integrity, and possibly even hold on to some of the conquests in Eastern Europe.

Keen to shift blame for Germany’s impending strategic collapse, at a secret crown council meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm II at the Belgian resort town of Spa from August 13-15, 1918, Ludendorff claimed that German fighting morale remained high, and that the failure of the recent offensives was due principally to shortages of artillery and ammunition, as well as the wavering loyalty of German civilians on the home front. This analysis suggested that even though their offensive capacity was spent, German soldiers would be able to remain on the defensive for some time, exacting a heavy toll from the Allies for all future gains. Considering that French manpower was already stretched to the breaking point, the political risks of a bloody final campaign might deter the British and Americans from trying to achieve a decisive victory, for which their troops would take the brunt of losses. On that note Germany should dig in and hold on to most of Belgium and northern France as bargaining chips in hopes of winning a “fair peace” (notably unlike the punitive deal Germany just gave Russia with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk).

However, Ludendorff and his interlocutors were way off base. True, French manpower was in a precarious position, but the French Army had passed the critical morale crisis of 1917. Already, in 1918, the government had called up a new year of young conscripts for early training at the request of Foch, meaning there was still (limited) room for maneuver, allowing France to continue the war effort into 1919 if need be. Britain was also prepared, albeit reluctantly, to find hundreds of thousands of additional conscripts by “combing out” low-priority workers from its industrial labor force and from new recruiting efforts overseas.

Most importantly, as noted, the gargantuan manpower and productive capacity of the U.S. were both now online, while the French and British economies were also on a full war footing, churning out artillery, shells, tanks, and planes. The flood of artillery and tanks, in particular, meant that the morale of ordinary German soldiers was increasingly irrelevant. No amount of fighting spirit could withstand overwhelming bombardments and massed tank attacks, combined with debilitating hunger and the scourge of the global flu epidemic, now about to take an even deadlier turn.

And yet some German soldiers managed to keep holding out, testimony to their bravery and incredible endurance. Patriotic sentiment was strongest among elite storm trooper units. Ernst Jünger later wrote in his famous novel and memoir, Storm of Steel:

“I paraded my company in battle order in a small apple orchard. Standing under an apple tree, I addressed a few words to the men, who were drawn up in front of me in a horseshoe arrangement. They looked serious and manly. There wasn’t much to say. In the course of the last few days … probably every one of them had come to understand that we were on our uppers. With every attack, the enemy came forward with more powerful means; his blows were swifter and more devastating. Everyone knew we could no longer win. But we would stand firm.”

However conditions and attitudes varied widely between individuals and units, and broadly speaking, the signs of spiraling morale were unmistakable on the battlefield. Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, remembered advancing against scant resistance in late August 1918:

“Dozens of enemy are surrendering to our advancing wave. Poor, broken wretches who have been overrun by our creeping barrage. Still the advance moves on. Still the shells creep forwards. Still we follow their dusty, smoking line. Fritz are rising shivering from little holes in the ground, surrendering in fear. They seldom attempt to dispute our progress. They don’t show any fight. A dozen Fritz rise from in front of us yelling ‘Kamerad!’ We’re up to them and busy ratting them for souvenirs. They have surrendered from a great round concrete machine gun emplacement that they could have held for hours as they have two machine guns here. We despise them. Too cowardly to fight and too frightened to run. Surrendered an almost impregnable position without firing a shot. The morale of the enemy seems down to zero.”

Back home in Germany, Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, noted growing unease among the elite over political chaos in the wake of the resignation of the most recent failed foreign minister, Richard von Kühlmann:

“The whole political situation is so perilous at the moment, that everyone feels something momentous must be going to take place. The constant changes in official circles denote weakness and uncertainty, and there is in reality no strong man at the wheel of the ship of Germany. ‘A victorious army never rebels,’ people say, but an army in retreat is very liable to be seized by the spirit of mutiny, and certainly the mass of the population here would be ready to back any definite movement. Capitalists and large landowners are beginning to talk in earnest of the possibility of their land being confiscated and their property divided up in the Bolshevik manner.”

This was far from an implausible nightmare, according to some ominous anecdotal details recorded by Blücher:

“The whole public spirit is so depressed and the universal suffering so great, that the people are threatening to take matters into their own hands. You can hear this intention expressed at every street corner. A shop-girl said it openly to my husband the other day: ‘We are going to stop the war now; those in command have failed entirely and have never kept their promises which they so often made.’ Another friend heard in the tram: “It is high time for the Emperor to abdicate to bring about peace, and the sooner this is made clear to him the better.’ … Everyone is now able to see through the official telegrams which for so long hoodwinked the masses. They know that the constant threatening of the front spells ‘Retreat.’”

Blücher added:

“No wonder that half the army have ruined nerves! One young officer, just returned from the front, stated that 30,000 German prisoners were taken on one day, and that eight of his brother officers were killed at his side in one minute, he alone surviving. They say that air battles have been the most characteristic feature of the offensive, there being sometimes as many as 40 planes engaged in the air, and that the swift advance of the Allied armies was mainly due to the systematic cooperation of aeroplanes and tanks.”

Once again, the most damning testimony came from German children. On August 20 Kuhr concluded gloomily:

“We must stop playing ‘Nurse Martha and Lieutenant von Yellenic.’ I don’t want to be a soldier any more, still less an officer. Things have changed. There is no point in Gretel and me going on with the same old game—war, casualties, hospitals, convalescence, officer’s dances, and aircraft crashes. Funerals too … When we play ‘Nurse Martha and Lieutenant von Yellenic’ we forget how terrible life around us really is. Now it must finish. We are no longer children. It’s all over.”

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

WWI Centennial: “The Black Day of the German Army”

David McLellan, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
David McLellan, 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 315th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

AUGUST 8, 1918: “THE BLACK DAY OF THE GERMAN ARMY”

The failure of the final German offensive on the Western Front in July 1918 was the decisive turning point of the First World War. Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch had unleashed his first major counterattack with French and American troops at the Second Battle of the Marne, forcing outnumbered German armies to withdraw from the Marne salient thanks in part to American heroics at Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry. This retreat effectively marked the end of German offensive capability on the Western Front, but the Germans remained dug in across northern France and Belgium, meaning the war was far from over. To achieve victory, the Allies would have to mount a series of massive offensives of their own—the greatest campaign in military history to that point.

On August 8, 1918, the British Expeditionary Force took the first swing with an all-out attack against enemy forces around the historic Somme battlefield. They needed to free the strategic Paris-Amiens railroad; alleviate the threat to the channel ports including Boulogne and Calais, which served as key British supply bases; and liberate coal mines critical to French industry, per the plan agreed by Foch and BEF commander Douglas Haig on July 24, as the final German offensive petered out.

Maps of World War I positions in August 1918
Erik Sass

The Battle of Amiens from August 8-12, 1918, was a decisive Allied victory, crushing the German Second Army under the mighty hammer blows of the British Fourth, Third, and First Armies. They were supported by overwhelming artillery firepower, close air support for observation and ground attacks, with over 1,400 Allied planes facing less than half that number of German machines; and hundreds of tanks advancing ahead of the infantry to smash enemy strongpoints (top, British troops preparing to fire). The defeat was so devastating that German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff rued August 8, 1918 as “the black day of the German army.” It marked the first day of the fateful “Hundred Days’ Offensive” by the Allies, which culminated in the final collapse of the German Empire.

The Allied plan emphasized surprise, beginning with the stealthy concentration of attack troops along a 20-mile stretch of front around Amiens, requiring hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of artillery pieces and tanks to move only at night to conceal their locations from enemy spies and aerial observation. Edward Lynch, an Australian private, recalled a miserable march to the front on the night of August 7, 1918:

“Two nights later, we did another rotten night march. It took us six hours to march 12 miles as the roads were so congested with traffic. Motor traffic had the center of the road whilst the slow-moving horses and mules kept to the outside edge of it. We were anywhere we could get, walking, running, dodging, and shoving our swearing way in and out between motor wheels and horses’ legs, abusing and being abused; swallowing dust, motor fumes, and the smell of dirty mules.”

Inclement weather only added to their woes. Another Australian soldier, W.H. Downing, left a vivid impression of conditions as his unit moved up to its staging position under enemy fire:

“Every night the cobblestones of all the roads of all the countryside resounded with the clatter and the roll of many parallel streams of transport. The highways were crowded with tanks, with field guns, with motor lorries carrying war material of every kind, with 9.2 howitzers, with gargantuan siege guns whose mammoth barrels were borne on tractors, while their bodies rolled behind them on their giant iron wheels—all going the same way, making the hillsides vibrate with their thunder. Among these packed columns, strings of horsemen and laden infantry wound their way. It began to rain. The boom and flickering of guns were nearer and nearer. At length there were shell bursts on the road, a derelict tank, a dead mule or two. We had marched 20 miles. That night we lay in the rain, on the side of the railway embankment, under heavy shellfire.”

Modeled on the short-lived victory at Cambrai in November 1917 and the success of the French Tenth Army counterattack in late July, the Allies launched the attack without a preliminary artillery bombardment, relying instead on hundreds of tanks advancing under cover of darkness to catch German defenders unaware. The only artillery preparation was the standard creeping barrage, unleashed at the last minute to provide a protective moving wall of fire in front of infantry and tanks. Downing recalled the sudden unleashing of the barrage in the early morning hours of August 8, 1918:

“As though a flaming dawn had been flung into the sky, the whole world flared behind us. There was a titanic pandemonium of ten thousand guns. We shouted to each other, but we could not hear our own voices, buried beneath colossal ranges of sound. The lighter, more metallic notes of thousands of field guns were blended in one long-drawn chord. The hoarse and frantic rumble of the 60-pounders, the long naval guns, the great howitzers, was like the rapid burring of a thousand drums.”

Clifton Cate, an American soldier, described the scene in the early morning of August 8, 1918:

“The darkness of the night became a glare of lightning-like red, yellow, and white flashes. The Earth shook as from an earthquake. Breathing suddenly became difficult as our nerves grew number from the terrific concussion caused by the crashing, roaring, blasting, air-splitting din about us. Thousands of guns were firing from wherever room for one could be found, on a front 20 miles long. Thousands of tons of high explosive and gas were being thrown into the German trenches, gun positions, and routes over which his reserves must march. How any of the troops in that part of the German line ever escaped that terrible bombardment is a miracle.”

Next came the tanks, described by Downing:

“White smoke curled over us and hid the flaming skies. There was a thrumming as of gigantic bumble bees, and a low chug-chug-chug, as the ugly noses of tanks poked through the mist above us. We hastily scattered from the path of one and found ourselves almost beneath others. They went forward in a line, scarcely thirty yards between them. They were in scores, and their vibrations sounded through the fog from every side, like another layer of sound on the bellow of the guns … Whenever we found ourselves in trouble, we signaled to the tanks, and they turned towards the obstacle. Then punk-crash, punk-crash! As their little toy guns spoke and their little, pointed shells flew, another German post was blown to pieces. A brick wall tottered and crumbled amid a cloud of red dust. They passed the place. The machine gun and its crew were crushed and still.”

On the other side, one anonymous German soldier in the 58th artillery regiment recalled British infantry supported by seemingly endless numbers of tanks on the morning of August 8, 1918:

“Ahead of us, the khaki lines of British infantry were emerging from the ravine. ‘Look out, buddies, or else we are lost!’ somebody shouted. We began firing time shells. The enemy wave slowed down, swayed, and dispersed … Suddenly Sergeant Niermann, commander of one of our two remaining guns, shouted, ‘A tank, straight ahead.’ A light tank was roaring toward us with great speed, plunging into craters and climbing over trenches, while his machine guns kept firing at our battery. Bullets were whizzing all around us. Our men feverishly set the sights and fired one, two shells in rapid succession. Before us, there was a shattering roar followed by a dark cloud the size of a house: the tank had been destroyed. But this was only the beginning. Two large tanks emerged from the ruins of Lamotte, flames flashing from their steel turrets. Their projectiles were exploding around our battery. Our pointers aimed at them hurriedly, fired a few shells, and disposed of the two tanks as rapidly as they had wiped out the first. But three new tanks were approaching in single file through the high grass on our right, and had arrived within several hundred yards. We could clearly see their occupants’ flat helmets above the turrets. Their guns opened fired on us, and again four men of our battery were badly wounded … The order, ‘Fire at will!’ was followed by a desperate cannonade … The tank’s destruction was our last-minute salvation. Now it was high time to fall back. The British assault troops behind the tanks were surging forward in small groups in all directions.”

On the right the French First Army, which lacked enough tanks to participate in the surprise attack, waited 45 minutes after the British infantry and tanks went over the top before unleashing another attack preceded by the traditional artillery barrage. All along the front, the surprise attack caught thousands of German troops in frontline trenches, resulting in terrible bloodshed followed by panicked withdrawals. Lynch, the Australian private, remembered gory scenes as the Allies advanced:

“We cross the old front line and are in what was old no-man’s-land a few hours ago. We pass through the gaps in our wire and reach the enemy wire which has been smashed and tossed about by our barrage. Dozens of dead everywhere and not a whole man amongst them. Limbless and headless they lie coated in chalk, torn and slashed.”

German POWs in World War I
John Warwick Brooke, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Lynch and his comrades encountered huge numbers of surrendering Germans, reflective of the cratering enemy morale, as ordinary troops—already hungry and suffering from the flu—simply gave up in the face of the Allies’ overwhelming manpower and material superiority (above, German POWs). As Lynch wrote, some enemy officers couldn’t bear the thought of surrendering and committed suicide—or perhaps they simply refused to allow their troops to surrender, and were lynched for their trouble:

“Now a big crowd of Fritz are running back to us. There must be a hundred of them captured by our advancing companies … Into a little thick green wood and we’re in an enemy camp. Transport carts and wagons are here in dozens. Dead Fritz everywhere and about 30 wounded are lying under a big shady tree. Fritz with little red crosses on their arms are bandaging the wounded … ‘Come here, sir!’ a man calls, and I follow an officer up to a little sentry box and we look in. A Fritz officer is in it, dead; hanged by a white cord around his neck. The sight is horrible, especially the bulging eyes and the swollen, protruding tongue.”

William Orpen, a British war correspondent, described the huge numbers of dejected German POWs:

“Any day on the roads then one passed thousands of field-grey prisoners--long lines of weary, beaten men. They had none of the arrogance of the early prisoners, who were all sure Germany would win, and showed their thoughts clearly. No, these men were beaten and knew it, and they had not the spirit left even to try and hide their feelings.”

Fritz Nagel, an officer in the German anti-aircraft artillery, remembered August 8, 1918 as the final nail in the coffin of German martial spirit:

“The German armies were in very bad shape. Every soldier and civilian was hungry. Losses in material could not be replaced and the soldiers arriving as replacements were too young, poorly trained, and often unwilling to risk their necks because the war now looked like a lost cause. Since the Allied breakthrough on August 8 in the Albert-Moreuil sector, the enemy’s superiority in men and guns became visible to even the simplest soldier, and morale was breaking down gradually.”

Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, noted in early August 1918, “It also appears from the same source that the enemy have unheard-of numbers of tanks, including new models. It is gradually turning into a complete war of machines.” And in his famous novel and war memoir All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque remembered the mounting deprivation and despair of the war’s final phases:

“Our lines are falling back. There are too many fresh English and American regiments over there. There’s too much corned beef and white wheaten bread. Too many new guns. Too many aeroplanes. But we are emaciated and starved. Our food is bad and mixed up with so much substitute stuff that it makes us ill. The factory owners in Germany have grown wealthy; dysentery dissolves our bowels.”

Ominously, many ordinary German soldiers no longer bothered to conceal their feelings from military censors, a sure sign that morale was close to the breaking point. In August 1918 a report from German military censorship noted uneasily, “It is by the way remarkable that letter writers, after having recently vented their anger in most drastic form, often add, ‘I know they are checking my correspondence, but just let them read this, this way they will at least learn the truth.’”

At the same time the Germans were both impressed and discouraged by the appearance and spirit of well-supplied American soldiers, although they were also puzzled by some new American habits, according to Nagel:

“A few days before, I had seen about 20 American soldiers who had been taken prisoner and were marching by to be shipped to some prison camp. They looked healthy, well-fed, and above everything else, their marvelous clothing and uniform accessories impressed us. Everything they had seemed to be of the best—fine heavy boots and thick leather for their gun holsters, belts, and gloves. All of them were chewing furiously, which confounded the bystanders until I explained to them the importance of chewing gum to the American way of life. Most Germans never had heard of chewing gum.”

It should be noted that not everyone was impressed with the Americans’ martial bearing, at least among their own Allies. On encountering American troops for the first time during this period, Stanley Spencer, a British soldier, recognized their fitness but was otherwise skeptical:

“On the second day of our stay, one of the new American battalions marched through the village and I never saw a more disreputable looking party in my life. They were a fine lot physically but their uniforms were an amazing mixture of American, French, and British, and they shambled along the street out of step and out of line, with hardly a trace of discipline amongst them.”

With the German armies beating a swift but relatively orderly retreat in the west, the fighting ground on mercilessly, as the Allies maintained a close pursuit, inflicting heavy casualties and paying heavily in blood for these gains—the climactic resumption of the open warfare of the first days of the war, with its terrible harvest of death and suffering. Lynch, the Australian private, wrote of continuing combat August 17 (below, an Australian battalion resting):

“The darkness is stabbed on every hand by vivid lightning-like flashes that leap from the ground with mighty, shuddering roars. Under foot we feel the ground rumble and vibrate. Over our ducking heads, shell fragments whizz and hum through the air as along the trench we hurry, fearful lest a shell gets amongst us at any step. Fingers of death are clutching through the night … We are stumbling along a deep grassy trench when my foot treads on something soft and springy in the trench floor. I stumble as if walking on a half-inflated football, peer down and see I have trodden on a man’s stomach. A torch flashes and its fleeting beam shows a headless and legless Australian body lying amongst the lank grass underfoot. A few steps more and an officer gives a breathless sigh as he sidesteps something else in the grass, something round, something gruesome even to a war-hardened officer—the mangled head of the man whose body lies a few yards back.”

Australian 6th Battalion in World War I
Australian War Memorial, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A few days later Lynch described ghastly sights that had become all too familiar for young men over the previous few years:

“On every side are up-turned faces, greeny-black in putrefaction and great, swollen, distorted bodies. Sightless, dull, dust-filled eyes. If they would only close! But no, they remain open—and move! Open, gaping mouths are surely moving too! We’re sick in every fiber as we hurry on past open eyes and open mouths. Past eaten-out eye-sockets and mouths that are a seething mass of feasting grubs. We’re in the land of rotting men in the year of Our Lord, 1918.”

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

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