Monday, May 21, 2018


Early World War I History.

The beginning of the World War I started with miscommunication. The Central Powers had to communicate with its ally Germany. Germany promised to support Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia. The problem was that the interpretations of what that meant differed. There were previously tested deployment plans. They were replaced in early 1914. They have never been tested in exercises. Austro-Hungarian leaders believed Germany would cover its northern flank against Russia. Germany wanted Austria-Hungary to direct most of its troops against Russia, while Germany dealt with France. The confusion forced the Austro-Hungarian Army to divide its forces between the Russian and Serbian fronts.  On August 12, 1914, Austria invaded and fought the Serbian army at the Battle of Cer and Battle of Kolubara. Over the next 2 weeks, Austrian attacks were thrown back because of heavy losses. This was the first major Allied victories of World War One. It dashed Austro-Hungarian hopes of a swift victory. After this, Austria had to keep sizable forces on the Serbian font, which weakening its efforts against Russia. Serbia’s defeat of the Austro-Hungarian invasion of 1914 has been one of the major upsets victories of the twentieth century. German forces started to come into Belgium and France. During the start of World War I, 80% of the German army was deployed as seven field armies in the west. This was according to the plan called Aufmarsch II West. Yet, they were then assigned to execute the retired deployment plan of Aufmarsch I West. This was also known as the Schlieffen Plan. This plan would be about marching German armies through northern Belgium and into France. The Germans wanted to encircle the French army and then breach the second defensive area of the fortresses of Verdun and Paris including at the Marne River. Aufmarsch I West was one of the four deployment plans available to the General Staff in 1914. Each plan favored certain operations, but they didn’t specify exactly how those operations were to be carried out (at their initiative and with minimal oversight). 

Aufmarsch I West was created for a one front war with France. Both Russia and Britain were expected to help France. Italian or Austro-Hungarian troops weren’t available for operations against France. The plan was offensive. Accordingly, the Aufmarsch II West deployment was changed for the offensive of 1914, despite its unrealistic goals and the insufficient forces Germany had available for decisive success. Moltke took Schlieffen's plan and modified the deployment of forces on the western front by reducing the right wing, the one to advance through Belgium, from 85% to 70%. In the end, the Schlieffen plan was so radically modified by Moltke, that it could be more properly called the Moltke Plan. This plan wanted to go to the right flank of the German advance to bypass the French armies which were found on the Franco-German border. They wanted to defeat the French forces closer to Luxembourg and Belgium, so they could move south to Paris. The Germans were successful at first, especially at the Battle of the Frontiers (from August 12-24, 1914). By September 12, 1914, the French (with assistance from the BEF or the British Expeditionary Force) halted the German advance east of Paris. This was found at the First Battle of the Marne which occurred from September 5-12, 1914. They pushed the German forces back some 31 miles. The French offensive into southern Alsace was launched on August 20 in the Battle of Mulhouse. It had limited success. Russia invaded with 2 armies in the east. The Germans responded. They used their 8th Field Army from its previous role as reserve for the invasion of France. They used that army to go into East Prussia by rail across the German Empire. This German army was led by Paul von Hindenburg. They defeated Russia in many battles known as the First Battle of Tannenburg from August 2 to September 2, 1914. The Russian invasion failed. It caused a diversion of German troops to the east. The Allied victory came about in the First Battle of the Marne. This meant Germany failed to achieve its objective of avoiding a long, two-front war. However, the German army had fought its way into a good defensive position inside France and effectively halved France's supply of coal. It had also killed or permanently crippled 230,000 more French and British troops than it itself had lost. Despite this, communications problems and questionable command decisions cost Germany the chance of a more decisive outcome.

Conflict existed in Asia too. New Zealand occupied German Samoa (or later Western Samoa) on August 30, 1914. By September 11, 1914, the Australian Naval and military Expeditionary force landed on the island of Neu Pommern (later New Britain), which was part of German New Guinea. On October 28, the German cruiser SMS Emden sank the Russian cruiser Zhemchug in the Battle of Penang.  Japan seized Germany's Micronesian colonies and, after the Siege of Tsingtao, the German coaling port of Qingdao on the Chinese Shandong peninsula. As Vienna refused to withdraw the Austro-Hungarian cruiser SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth from Tsingtao, Japan declared war not only on Germany, but also on Austria-Hungary; the ship participated in the defense of Tsingtao where it was sunk in November 1914. Within a few months, the Allied forces had seized all the German territories in the Pacific; only isolated commerce raiders and a few holdouts in New Guinea remained. Some of the first clashes of WWI involved British, French, and German colonial forces in Africa. From August 6-7, 1914, French and British troops invaded the German protectorate of Togoland and Kamerun. On August 10, German forces in South-West Africa attacked South Africa. Plus, sporadic and fierce fighting continued for the rest of the war. The German colonial forces in German East Africa, led by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, fought a guerrilla warfare campaign during World War I and only surrendered two weeks after the armistice took effect in Europe. Germany attempted to use Indian nationalism and pan-Islamism to its advantage, instigating uprisings in India, and sending a mission that urged Afghanistan to join the war on the side of Central powers. However, contrary to British fears of a revolt in India, the outbreak of the war saw an unprecedented outpouring of loyalty and goodwill towards Britain. Indian political leaders from the Indian National Congress and other groups were eager to support the British war effort, since they believed that strong support for the war effort would further the cause of Indian Home Rule. The Indian Army in fact outnumbered the British Army at the beginning of the war; about 1.3 million Indian soldiers and laborers served in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, while the central government and the princely states sent large supplies of food, money, and ammunition. In all, 140,000 men served on the Western Front and nearly 700,000 in the Middle East. Casualties of Indian soldiers totaled 47,746 killed and 65,126 wounded during World War I. The suffering engendered by the war, as well as the failure of the British government to grant self-government to India after the end of hostilities, bred disillusionment and fueled the campaign for full independence that would be led by Mohandas K. Gandhi and others. World War I was truly a global war. 

The Western Front was a famous part of the war. There were military tactics developed before WWI that failed to keep pace with advances in technology and had become obsolete. These new advances made the strong defensive systems to be better than old school military tactics. There was barbed wire. This was a significance hindrance to stop many infantry advances. New artillery was more lethal than weapons used in the 1870’s. There were machine guns making crossing open ground extremely difficult. Commanders on both sides failed to develop tactics for breaching entrenched positions without heavy casualties. Later, other technology had gas warfare and the tank. Just after the First Battle of the Marne (like September 5-12, 1914), the Entente and German forces attempting maneuvering to the north. They wanted to outflank each other. These actions were called, “Race to the Sea.” These outflanking efforts failed. The opposing forces found themselves found themselves at a line of entrenched positions from Lorraine to Belgium’s coast. Britain and France wanted to take the offensive. Germany wanted to defend the occupied territories. German trenches were much better constructed than those of their enemy. Anglo-French trenches were created only to be temporary before the Allied forces broke through the German defenses. Both sides wanted to break the war stalemate with new scientific and technological advances. The Germans violated the Hague Convention and used chlorine gas for the first time on the Western Front (during the April 22, 1915 Second Battle of Ypres). Both sides used gas and it wasn’t a battle winning weapon. Poison gas was heavily dangerous and destructive. Tanks were created by the British and French. They were first used in combat by the British during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette or part of the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916. There was only partial success in that battle. Yet, the tank was very effective as the war progressed. The Allied created large tanks. The German armies only employed a few of them. From 1915 to 1917, the war was a stalemate without a decisive blow. There was the continuation of trench warfare. Throughout 1915–17, the British Empire and France suffered more casualties than Germany, because of both the strategic and tactical stances chosen by the sides. Strategically, while the Germans only mounted one major offensive, the Allies made several attempts to break through the German lines.

On February of 1916, the Germans attacked the French defensive positions at Verdun. It lasted until December of 1916. The battle had initial German gains before the French counter-attacks returned matters to near their starting point. France had more casualties. Many Germans died as well from 700,000 to 975,000 people. Verdun was a symbol of French determination and self-sacrifice. The Battle of Somme was an Anglo-French offensive from July to November of 1916. The start of the offensive on July 1, 1916 saw the British Army suffer the bloodiest day in its history. They suffered 57,470 casualties including 19,240 dead on the first day alone. The whole Somme offensive cost the British Army some 420,000 casualties. The French suffered another estimated 200,000 casualties and the Germans an estimated 500,000. Gun fire wasn’t the only way that soldiers died. There were diseases that killed people on both sides of the war. Many had infections. Illnesses like trench foot, shell shock, blindness, burns (from mustard gas), trench fever, body lice, and the flu harmed people. There was protracted action at Verdun all over 1916. There was massive bloodshed at the Somme. Many French soldiers were near collapse. There were the futile attempts using front assault at the high price for the British and the French. Many French Army Mutinies existed. This came after the failure of the costly Nivelle Offensive of April to May 1917. The concurrent British Battle of Arras was more limited in scope and more successful. It was less of a strategic value though. One smaller part of the Arras offensive involved the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps. This was very important to Canada as the idea that Canada's national identity was born out of the battle is an opinion widely held in military and general histories of Canada. The last large-scale offensive of this period was a British attack (with French support) at Passchendaele (July–November 1917). This offensive opened with great promise for the Allies, before bogging down in the October mud. Casualties, though disputed, were roughly equal, at some 200,000–400,000 per side. These years of trench warfare in the West saw no major exchanges of territory and, as a result, are often thought of as static and unchanging. However, throughout this period, British, French, and German tactics constantly evolved to meet new battlefield challenges.

By Timothy