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The Phenomenon of the Great War and its Characteristics (1914-18)

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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


A short essay regarding the characteristics of the Great War.


This lies in the alliances structure whereby once the Hapsburg Empire declared war on Serbia in August 1914 the Tsar of Russia had to defend the Slav Nation of Serbia by declaring war on Austria-Hungary (the Hapsburg Empire). Imperial Germany then declared war on Russian to support is ally in the Dual Monarchy - the Hapsburgs. Germany could not take the risk of a preventative strike by the French Army Generals in August 1914. France would wish to support the Russians against the belligerent Germany but Germany did not wait for France to move and declared war on its western neighbour.

Germany’s secret strategic plan (The Schlieffen Strategy) demanded the Kaiser’s Army deliver the knock-out blow by trampling on Belgian neutrality and thereby taking the French General Staff by surprise. If Germany waited this chance would be lost as the French would fortify Belgium’s defences in response to a build-up of German forces across the border in Germany. Surprise was crucial to the German High Command in August/September 1914 and they delivered that by applying Schlieffen’s Strategy. Britain guaranteed Belgium’s neutrality and its territorial integrity. Once Germany’s forces entered Belgium to deliver the hammer blow we were at war with the Kaiser Wilhelm II under pre-war Entente Cordial. We were duty bound to support the French Third Republic anyway. Italy did not join hostilities until 1916 and then against the Central Powers. Portugal, Spain, Denmark and Holland remained neutral as did the USA until 1916.


The chessboard was set as hostilities began. There were no armoured divisions. Horse drawn transport was the norm. Lorries were used and motorised ambulances. There was no significant air power. It was infantry against infanterie once the troops were mobilised by rail. Artillery and machine guns played a key role in supporting the foot soldiers. In the East the Russo-German battles were not static but fluid right up until the closing of that Front in 1917 (Treaty of Brest-Litovsk) when the Russians gave up the fight and this released large numbers of German units for transfer to the Western Front in early 1918. In the west the battles did not become entrenched and fixed along those lines until mid to late November 1914. General Joffre (French) delivered the destabilizing and outflanking blow across the Marne River and Valley to the German armies advancing on Paris in 1914 and saved the “day for La France”. The lines became entrenched not long after the Marne bataille in September/October 1914. There was movement on the Western Front in 1914 but by that Christmas lines of trenches were holding sway e.g. The Christmas trees and fraternization and football organized by the ordinary soldiers forbidden by the High Command on all sides in France and Flanders in later years.


This is where the Great Ware was to be decided and won and lost unlike the Second World War where the Red Army essentially won it for the Allies in the East in 1942/43. It quickly became a war of attrition in to 1915 to 1918. What decided the outcome? Germany claimed it was never defeated in the West in 1918 – but she accepted the Armistice when she was on the defensive Hindenburg Line because I say:-

Internal political dissent (Communists) and the Kaiser stood down to create a power vacuum.
The British naval blockade had throttled the German armed forces and its citizens thereby worsening civil unrest and its potential to unsettle the Country.
Militarily she had had enough and was now facing a powerful reinforcement of the allies in France – the USA Army under General Pershing. The German High Command knew now was the time to call it a day to avoid a Communist take-over in Berlin. The two key German Generals in 1918 were Hindenburg and Ludendorff, both typically conservative, and they had been the dominant actors in German military thinking for some time.


These key battles which lasted for weeks rather than days were crucial to the outcome in 11/11/1918 and the Armistice. They all three battles took place in 1916 and 1917. The first to start was the Verdun Salient and it became a graveyard for thousands of Germans and French soldiers: The Battle for “mort home” and “Fort Douaumont” was masterminded by the French General Philippe Petain (later Maréchal) (the master of defence). He conceived several successful tactics in this static battle.

Leave the first trench line virtually undefended and conserve your fighting troops in the third line of defence. The German bombardment then fell on lightly defended trenches (1st and 2nd line). When the German attack came the French were ready to meet it.
The ordinary French Soldiers (the Poilu) respected Petain as he respected them and did not treat them as cannon fodder. The military result was the French held off the repeated attempts by the Germans to break through their lines at Verdun and the German casualties mounted as the French defence held firm and its 75’s (artillery) cost the Germans dear. Not every French General enjoyed the same affection as Maréchal Pétain. Nivelle in particular was hated for exposing French troops to unnecessary slaughter on other parts of the Front at the time of Verdun in its various stages.
Moreover Petain devised a plan of time out of the line (leave) at home and then back into the trenches. (Le Moulin as it was called – the Mill). This helped quell the mutiny in L’Armée Francaise in 1917 as the soldiers had a spell out of action at home which hitherto they had not experienced. Petain was a very skilful General and what is more a Christian one in his attitude to his soldiers and their officers.

4. b) THE SOMME (1916 SUMMER)

This was a frontal assault by the British Volunteer army recruited by Lord Kitchener in 1915/16. It was proceeded by a heavy bombardment but the Germans were so well dug in it had little effect. When the British Infantry advanced in considerable numbers they were cut to pieces by machine gun fire. The territorial gains were minimal – practically none. However there was no proper air power and tanks were not decisive when used a little later by the British at Cambrai in France. Thus it had to be foot soldiers to fight the battle the hard way – the Germans could not be outflanked. The trenches ran to the English Channel. The British Commander in Chief General Douglas Haig (a Field Marshal) like Petain retained great loyalty amongst his rank and file and his Staff Officers and his Commissioned Officers. What is the verdict of history on the Somme battle with its terrible losses for no gains? Quite simply you do not go to war and sustain no casualties however regretted. Secondly obeying orders is the essence of military life and combat. On both counts the British Volunteer Army of the Somme in 1916 recruited in 1915 and trained in that year in England won its colours – indeed passed with flying colours in that test. The net result was the British Troops on the Somme in 1916 tied down valuable enemy troops that would have been transferred to the Verdun Salient to pressurise the French.

The very presence of those British forces let alone the Somme advance itself and bombardment had this effect. The Germans knew the Somme was coming. General Haig recognised he had to support the French – his ploy worked. The French and British interacted well together thanks to General Haig, Foch (the Supreme Allied Commander on the Western Front and a French General) and General Petain. This interaction may not have been overtly expressed but without doubt it was happening and effective. These three Allied Generals were “guided” to cooperate in this manner.

Flanders in 1917 was another example of the British doing their bit for the French Army weakened by the mutiny in its ranks in 1917 caused by ever increasingly casualties. The British Army performed the role of the supporting force (the persistent jab) whilst the French Army sucker punched the German Army to punishment at Verdun in particular in 1916/17. Flanders (1917) dragged on interminably to take the pressure off the French Army.


The release of German troops from the Eastern Front lead to the Big Push in March 1918 in France against the British units under General Plummer’s command weakened by attrition. When the attack came (masterminded by Ludendorff) the Germans broke through the British lines but they could only advance at the speed of infantry (unmechanised) on foot. The French Reserve was mobilised and this time the French Army saved the day and British blushes. Once again the Franco-British entente was the victor in military terms.


The arrival of the USA came too late to affect the course of the War – the French and the British won the Great War themselves without doubt. The Marne, the Somme, Verdun and Flanders in 1917 were crucial or the Germans would have been all over France and the Great War would have finished before 1918 when the Americans arrived in force. Even in March 1918 with the USA presence building it was the French troops and French General Staff who halted the Big Push which would have won the war for Germany. Ludendorff was an exceedingly cunning General. Germany held the Americans at bay cleverly on the Western Front whilst the Big Push was primed by Ludendorff and actioned against British troops who would not withstand it due to weariness and poor morale. America was only in a lesser role and a late entrant. The real action was done by the French and British Armies before US entered the fray properly.


The Americans were side lined on purpose in the Big Push by Ludendorff and essentially they were not participants in the defence of the Big Push. If Ludendorff had succeeded the Western Front would have been sliced wide open and the US Forces would have been caught in a pincer movement located on Verdun and Ludendorff’s advance. The American Expeditionary Army - the fresh troops – would have fallen into this trap. The Americans were the “prize” for Ludendorff because they represented the Industrial/Military might of the USA. He knew the danger the USA presented to Germany. In one fell swoop Ludendorff would have put the American Army in “the bag” and a lot of the British. The French would have been paralysed. The Americans did not save the day – they were sitting ducks – the French Reserve held firm and defeated Ludendorff’s armies.

It can truly be said the French Army supported by the British won the Great War for these reasons. Even in spring 1918 the other British Armies held their ground alongside the gap in the line when Plummer’s Army collapsed under the German onslaught in 1918. The crunch came in this Big Push. Not since 1914 on the Western Front had the infantry broken through to open country and never before across the entrenched fortifications. This was the biggest test of all – the Great War could have been lost in a week to Ludendorff.

Clearly the Americans held down enemy troops as did the remaining British units and all the French armies. However these static formations suited the German High Command as these Allied troops were entrenched and not mobile to attack Ludendorff’s advance when he broke through. Ludendorff played the game of trench warfare his way – movement versus stationary. In the end the wisdom of keeping a reserve and of switching the French infanterie divisions to stem the German advance worked. We were back to the Marne and 1914. It took Ludendorff’s genius to engineer this breakthrough. In reality all the other battles since 1914 had been intended to be attritional. The Allied High Command (Foch) realised just in time Ludendorff was back to mobility in 1914. With the backdrop of attrition Ludendorff nearly took Foch unawares and Foch’s presence of mind was admirable to restore the stability of the defensive line.


Palestine, Mesopotamia, the Dardanelles, Salonika, the Balkans, East Africa and South West Africa and Italy/Austria, the Serbian Campaign and the Carpathians and the Russian Front. All these theatres held down enemy troops but were not crucial or pivotal. As I have said the fight was decided in the West in France and thank God for Britain and France or we would have been right back to Bismarck and Koniggratz (1866) (Sadowa) and Sedan in France 1870-71, Alsace/Lorraine would have stayed in German Hands. The German knock-out blow was in 1918 March. German pride was dented by the occupation of the Rhineland and Cologne. This “undefeated” army had to swallow those bitter pills. Alsace/Lorraine were rightly returned to the French Third Republic. Germany had to accept reparations – not enforced sufficiently strongly. It retained its territorial integrity however subject to the French Army occupying the Ruhr and the Rhineland. Essentially the Allies were too magnanimous to post First World War Germany which could easily have been pastoralised or at least disarmed permanently to prevent a militarist revival which happened in the 1930’s. The sequel to 1945 has been the end of Germany’s independent military capability and its truncation militarily. If this had been done in 1919 the Second World War would not have happened. The sacrifices and the lessons of World War One had to be suffered again and relearned due to the failure to enforce peace on Germany in 1919. The Allies lacked the courage of their convictions. An Army of occupation was called for.