Previous page Page 11 of 17 Next page
List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 

Share |


Pocket History Series

World War I   $3.43    £2.08
World War II   $3.72   £2.29

See others

Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily

War in the west: 1914

At first the thrust of the German armies through Belgium and south into France seems to fulfil the Schlieffen Plan. 'Victory by Christmas' does indeed seem possible (though the German high command is not alone in making this promise to its citizens - all the other combatants are professing equal optimism).

The Belgian army puts up a heroic resistance but is unable to prevent the Germans from taking Liège on August 16, Brusssels on the 20th and Namur on the 23rd. Meanwhile a small British Expeditionary Force, rushed across the Channel in mid-August to Boulogne, reaches Mons.

Confronted at Mons on August 23 by a much larger German army, the British Expeditionary Force fights a successful rearguard action and retreats south again to escape encirclement.

Meanwhile the initial French effort has been wasted in a drive east through Lorraine. By August 22 this is halted by the Germans, bringing France massive numbers of dead and wounded (in the region of 300,000, a foretaste of the ghastly statistics which will characterize this war). After this disaster the French redirect their efforts northwards to counter the threat from Belgium.

The German intention has been to sweep to the west of Paris and thus encircle the city. Opposition in Belgium and northern France has been sufficient to confine the German thrust to the east of the capital. Nevertheless by September 3, a month after their invasion and well within their schedule, German armies cross the river Marne. To safeguard against the likely fall of Paris, the French government moves south to Bordeaux.

The Germans are within 30 miles of the capital when a mainly French force finally halts and then rolls back their relentless advance. During four days of fighting (Sept. 5-8, the battle of the Marne) the German army is pushed north of the river.

This reversal means the collapse of the Schlieffen Plan in the west, depending as it did on a rapid conquest of France. Meanwhile it has proved equally defective in the east, where the Russians make early advances.

These advances prompt the German high command, in late August, to transfer four divisions from Belgium to the eastern front. So the army which is forced back over the Marne is smaller than intended. It is also much more vulnerable than it should be. The German supply lines have not been able to keep up with the army's rapid move south.

With the tide turning, the German forces hurry back to the river Aisne to regroup. They then move west in a second attempt to outflank the Allied armies. (By this time Britain, France and Russia are known as the Allied Powers, after signing a treaty in London on September 5 in which each guarantees not to make a separate peace treaty with the Central Powers.)

The Allies also move west, to frustrate the German flanking movement. Thus begins the competitive advance which becomes known as the 'race to the sea', during which the most hard-fought encounters are in October and November around Ypres. The point at which the two armies reach the sea becomes the northwest end of a 400-mile line of demarcation.

By November 1914 the line is fixed. It runs roughly along the French and Belgian border and then down the French and German border to Switzerland. The only part of this terrain which is flat and therefore hard to defend is in the northwest, among the fields of Flanders.

Here, in the winter of 1914, each side begins feverishly building trenches. These become permanent defensive structures, more like cramped underground barracks than mere shelters from bullets and shells. They will be home to hundreds of thousands of Europe's young men for more than three years. The fanciful notion of 'victory by Christmas' is transformed into protracted and nightmarish warfare of a kind previously unknown in history.

War in the east: 1914

Russia mobilizes rapidly in August 1914, in an attempt to relieve the German pressure on France. As a result early gains are made, with Russian armies advancing into east Prussia and into Galicia (the northeast corner of Austria-Hungary). This move has the desired short-term effect, causing the Germans to withdraw four divisions from Belgium for the eastern front. But events soon suggest that Russia has entered the field unprepared. Disaster strikes before the end of the month.

Several factors contribute. The large Russian army in east Prussia is ill-fed and exhausted. And Russian commanders incautiously send each other uncoded radio messages which are intercepted by the Germans.

The result is that a much smaller German force is able to effect a devastating pincer movement during August 26-28 to encircle the Russians at Tannenberg (the site also of a famous medieval battle). About half the Russian army is destroyed, including the capture of 92,000 men. The Russian general, Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Samsonov, shoots himself.

Further south the Russians have slightly more lasting success in their invasion of Austria-Hungary. By the end of 1914 much of Galicia is still in their hands. Further south again, the Austrians prove ineffective in their attempts to crush their tiny neighbour Serbia (in the regional dispute which sparked the wider conflict).

The local campaign begins in mid-August when an Austrian army invades Serbia, but within a fortnight - and with a loss of some 50,000 men - they are driven back by the Serbs. Another invasion is more successful, three months later, when the Austrians succeed in occupying Belgrade for two weeks (from Nov. 30). But by the end of the year the Serbs have again recovered all their territory.

Although there is more movement on the eastern front, particularly on the open plains between Germany and Russia, the outcome at the end of the first calendar year of the war suggests that here too there will be no easy or quick victory. Both sides begin to look for new allies.

The war at sea: 1914-1915

The war at sea immediately takes on the aspect of a world war because the fleets of two main combatants, Germany and England, are already dispersed around the globe.

From the very first week of the war a German light cruiser, the Emden, carries out a brilliant series of raids in the seas around India, preying on the British merchant and troop ships which are bringing supplies and men to the European theatre of war. Within a period of three months, until being sunk on November 9 off the Cocos Keeling islands by an Australian cruiser, the Emden either sinks or captures as many as twenty-three merchant vessels - while incidentally finding time to shell the British oil installations at Madras.

Meanwhile the German admiral Graf von Spee is leading a small squadron of four cruisers across the Pacific towards South America. In September von Spee stops at Fanning Island to cut the trans-Pacific telegraph cable. He shells a French base in Tahiti, before reaching the South American coast and joining up with another German light cruiser. Off Coronel, on 1 November 1914, he is confronted by four British cruisers. Von Spee wins a decisive victory, sinking two of the British ships with no damage to his own.

Von Spee continues round Cape Horn to attack the Falkland Islands, where he is unaware that two British battle cruisers, more heavily armed than any of his squadron, have recently arrived from Britain to join half a dozen cruisers at Port Stanley.

Von Spee tries to escape but he is overtaken. In an engagement on 7 December 1914, he and some 2000 other German sailors lose their lives when four of the five ships in his squadron are sunk. The British on this occasion lose only ten men.

The last naval engagement of the early part of the war is again a British victory, this time much closer to home. A battle off the Dogger Bank, on 24 January 1915, ends with the sinking of a German battle cruiser, the Blücher. The effect is to keep the German fleet in harbour for a year or more. But by this time German strategy has in any case shifted to a far more effective form of aggression - submarine warfare.

From the start of the war both Britain and Germany have done their utmost to cut off the other's maritime supply lines. For Britain this is relatively easy. A heavily mined English Channel can prevent vessels from reaching the North Sea and the Baltic from the south. And fleets can be on permanent patrol to protect the only other means of access, around the north of Scotland.

Britain, by contrast, has the entire north Atlantic as access to the outer world. The only way to apply any sort of stranglehold here is by submarine warfare - a task which Germany now undertakes with astonishing success, given the very recent development of the submarine as a practical sea-going vessel.

The first victim of a German submarine is claimed in a chivalrous encounter on 20 October 1914. A U-boat (or Unterseeboot) surfaces to confront the British merchant ship Glitra. The crew are ordered into their lifeboats, whereupon the German captain fires his torpedo into the empty vessel.

But matters will not long remain so civil. Ships begin to be sunk without warning, including on 30 January 1915 two passenger liners, the Tokomaru and the Ikaria. In February Germany declares that all the waters round the British Isles are a war zone, in which not even neutral ships will be immune from attack.

Neutral countries, including the USA, are by now protesting at this high-handed damage to their trade. The Germans are not deflected. Even neutral cargo vessels plying between neutral countries continue to be sunk. And then, on 7 May 1915, comes an event of a different order. The British passenger liner Lusitania (which the Germans rightly claim is also carrying ammunition for Britain) is sunk off the coast of Ireland with the loss of more than a thousand civilian lives, among them those of 128 US citizens.

American protests have no immediate effect (two more passenger liners are torpedoed during 1915) but the incident has dangers for Germany. It begins a crucial shift in American perception, from committed neutrality to a growing sympathy for the Allied cause.

War in the air: 1914-1918

In 1914 war in the air is an even newer phenomenon than war under the sea, but it is part of the scene from the very start. In early October British planes, taking off from Dunkirk, bomb Cologne railway station and destroy Germany's latest Zeppelin in its great shed at Düsseldorf.

By December the Germans are ready to retaliate. Bombing raids by aeroplanes on Dover in December are soon followed by the much more alarming arrival of vast Zeppelins during the night. Great Yarmouth is the first British town to be bombed by a Zeppelin, on 19 January 1915. London suffers its first raid on May 31. The most intense of all the Zeppelin attacks is on 2 September 1916, when fourteen Zeppelins drop 35,000 lb. of bombs on London and elsewhere.

Meanwhile the development of fighter aircraft is proving an unexpected but increasingly significant factor in the skies above the battlefields. In the early months of the war single- and double-seater planes are used for reconnaissance. Subsequently their task is extended to include photography of the enemy's disposition behind the lines, once the stalemate of trench warfare has developed.

These small light planes are unarmed, but there is always the hazard of encountering a reconnaissance plane from the other side. So the pilots begin to fly with their own hand weapons on board, taking pot shots at each other in mid-air with pistols and rifles.

Both sides rapidly progress from this amateurish state of affairs. During 1915 single-seater planes acquire a machine gun, cunningly synchronized to fire between the blades of the revolving propeller. And the pilots are equipped now with radio, to communicate with each other.

The fighter plane has arrived, and with it the glamour of the ace - the pilot who proves his mettle again and again in individual combat. (No ace of World War I surpasses the glamour of Manfred von Richthofen, known from the colour of his plane as the Red Baron. Before himself being killed in action, in 1918, he shoots down 79 British and one Belgian aircraft.)

As fighter aircraft improve, the great gas-filled Zeppelins prove too vulnerable to undertake bombing raids. In their place both sides develop heavy bombers during the second half of the war. By 1918 these are quite formidable craft. On February 17 of that year one of London's railway stations, St Pancras, is bombed by a Staaken R.VI which carries a crew of seven and a bomb load of 4000 pounds.

Aircraft are not yet at the point of influencing the outcome of World War II, as they will in all subsequent conflicts. But to an extent unanticipated in 1914, they have progressed far enough to make their future role unmistakable.

German Africa: 1914-1918

The early months of the war also see energetic attacks on the most significant part of Germany's empire, the four territories acquired by Bismarck in the 1880s in the 'scramble for Africa'.

Matters are speedily resolved in the two colonies on the Bight of Benin, Togo and Cameroon, both of which have French and British colonies as immediate neighbours. There are invasions across the borders within a week of the start of war in August 1914. In Togo the Germans are defeated before the end of the month. Hostilities last a little longer in Cameroon but are over by the end of February 1915.

In South West Africa (now Namibia) the situation is more complicated. Here the main neighbour is South Africa, an ally to whom Britain entrusts the task of seizing the German colony. But such a policy is much resented by many in the Boer community, including some of the most distinguished commanders from the Boer War. The result is that some of these leaders rebel, deserting the South African cause and taking their troops over to the German side.

The rebellion peters out by February 1915, but it has delayed any effective action as yet against the German enemy. The Germans are eventually forced to capitulate five months later, in July.

In Germany's only east coast colony, German East Africa (now Tanzania), the action is much more prolonged. Indeed, owing to the astonishing skill and persistence of one man, the conflict here lasts for the entire four years of the war.

The inspired leader is Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the German army in the colony. The first force sent against him is 8000 men despatched from Bombay. Landing on 2 and 3 November 1914, and immediately losing nearly 1000 of their number under fire from the Germans, they re-embark and depart in disarray (an embarrassing fiasco, news of which is kept from the British public for several months).

During 1915 Lettow-Vorbeck, left to his own devices, sets about transforming his colony into a self-sufficient territory, capable of surviving without imports as a siege economy. The next allied invasion comes in February 1916, when an army of some 20,000 under General Smuts moves south from British East Africa (now Kenya).

This force is too strong for Lettow-Vorbeck to confront head on, so he transforms his men with great success into a guerrilla army. For two years he moves around German East Africa, and often across its borders into neighbouring hostile colonies, always avoiding defeat - and tying down as many as 130,000 Allied troops, about half of whom die (some in action, many more of disease).

By November 1918 Lettow-Vorbeck is still as active and elusive as ever. It takes two weeks for the news of the armistice to reach him, but when it does - on November 25 - he finally surrenders. As an indication of the fight still left in his guerrilla army, he is found to be in possession of 500,000 rounds of ammunition.

Welcomed as a hero on his return to Germany in 1919, and twenty years later avoiding any link with the Nazis (though strongly right-wing in his political views), this remarkable man lives on until 1964, dying in Hamburg in his ninety-fourth year.

Trench warfare: 1915-1917

By the start of 1915, on the western front, the pattern of trench warfare is established. It will trap all the combatant nations for the next three years in an insoluble deadlock in which the lifeblood of their young men drains unquenchably away.

The commanders-in-chief - John French and then Douglas Haig for Britain, Joseph Joffre and Philippe Pétain for France, Erich von Falkenhayn followed by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff for Germany - all agree on one thing. The only way forward is to wear the opposing forces down in a ceaseless war of attrition, weakening them to the point where a sudden strategic breakthrough can be achieved.

Never in history have so many men, so heavily armed, remained for so long confronting each other in a restricted area of open ground. All the great battles of the war, some of them lasting several months, take place along a crescent stretching less than 200 miles from Ypres to Verdun. The few major advances made in either direction are less than 50 miles and are soon reversed. Most of the time it is a matter of winning, losing, clawing back a few hundred yards of shell-churned mud.

Yet in this blighted area, during the four years of the war, millions of men lose their lives. In one day alone, at the start of the four-month battle of the Somme in 1916, 20,000 British soldiers die and another 40,000 are wounded.

The pattern of attack, from one line of trenches to the other across no man's land, becomes more sophisticated as the months roll by but remains essentially the same. The trenches are protected by lethal rolls of barbed wire. These need to be flattened before there is any hope of the advancing infantry reaching the enemy. This is achieved by a preliminary bombardment from artillery behind the lines, lasting days and sometimes weeks.

In the early part of the war the bombardment ends when the infantry go over the top of their trenches, armed with rifles, bayonets and hand grenades, to stagger and slither towards the machine guns awaiting them.

Later a slight improvement is made in the form of the rolling barrage, in which the artillery gunners steadily raise their sights as the troops advance. The purpose is to lay down ahead of them a carpet of high-explosive shells, forcing the enemy to keep their heads down. Reconnaissance aircraft fly overhead, equipped with radio, to report back to the gunners where their shells are landing and what enemy targets are available.

Even when this softening-up procedure succeeds, the infantry are left with a lonely final assault on the trenches followed by close combat, unless (always the hoped-for result) the bombardment has in itself persuaded the enemy to withdraw to a secondary line of defence.

Battles along the western front: 1915-1917

In each year of this gargantuan contest both sides mount offensives, usually more costly to them than to the defenders. In 1915 the Germans move first, in April, in the northwest section of the line near Ypres. In May the French retaliate further south, between Lens and Arras. In the autumn the Allies launch twin campaigns, the British in the north near Loos and the French in the southeastern part of the line around Reims.

The first offensive of 1916 is a German thrust towards Verdun, a town behind the Allied lines at the eastern end of the trenches. Beginning in February, the battle for Verdun lasts for the rest of the year and severely stretches the resources of the French defenders - commanded by Philippe Pétain, who becomes a national hero.

The pressure on Verdun is eased in July, when the Allies advance in the valley of the Somme, in the centre of the line, in what becomes the most deadly single engagement of the entire war. On the very first day 60,000 of the British troops running forward from their trenches are mown down by enemy fire. Four months later, when torrential rain brings the battle finally to an end with little gained, the British have lost 420,000 men, the French 195,000 and the Germans more than 600,000.

Allied strategic plans are dislocated in March 1917 by a surprise German move. The line of trenches has given the Germans a southwest bulge between Arras and Reims. Deciding not to hold this, the Germans now make an unexpected withdrawal.

They pull their troops back to a newly prepared line, reinforced with a very effective innovation - concrete pillboxes to house machine-guns. This defensive barrier becomes known as the Hindenburg Line, after the recently appointed German commander-in-chief. The territory which has been abandoned is left as a heavily mined wasteland.

By this stage of the war both French and Germans have learnt the value of taking a defensive stance in this new form of warfare, but the British commander, Field Marshal Haig, is still convinced that aggression must ultimately prevail. After attempting to soften up the opposition with a bombardment of 4,500,000 shells, he launches on 31 July 1917 a massive attack from Ypres at the northern extremity of the line of trenches.

As so often previously in the war, three months of horror end with nothing achieved. The campaign lasts until early November, when a macabre last-ditch advance by British and Canadian infantry, wading through knee-deep mud churned up by constant bombardment in the autumn rain, results in the capture of a trivial but by now symbolic prize - the village of Passchendaele. It stands just five miles from where the attack began in July. Since then some 250,000 British soldiers have died.

There is one briefly effective campaign in late November 1917. A suitable terrain is chosen near Cambrai for the first serious outing of a British innovation, the tank. These strange vehicles achieve a rapid advance. But there are not enough infantry in support to consolidate the gain.

Innovations on the western front: 1915-1917

There are occasional innovations on the western front, when radically new weapons are brought to the battlefield in an attempt to clear the enemy more effectively from their trenches.

The Germans first try the use of chlorine gas against the Russians in Poland in January 1915, but the extreme cold makes it ineffective. They make a second attempt at Ypres in April 1915. This time the creeping poisonous green vapour immediately empties the French trenches. But the Germans, not anticipating such an immediate success, fail to take advantage of their opportunity. Five months later the British use chlorine gas, at Loos in September - again to little advantage, partly because the wind changes and blows the gas back over their own men.

By the end of the war both sides make frequent use of even more alarming gases (phosgene and mustard). The damage is limited by the gas mask, soon part of the basic equipment of every soldier, though mustard gas also causes severe burns to the skin.

From 1916 poison gas is no longer released from canisters, to drift with the wind across the enemy's position. Now it is fired in compressed form in shells and mortars, to expand on impact. During one advance, in the Ypres region in March 1918, the Germans fire half a million mustard gas shells into the Allied lines. But protective measures by now ensure that even such a heavy bombardment results in only 7000 gas casualties and less than 100 deaths.

Poison gas has been relatively little used in subsequent wars, for fear of retaliation in kind. But modern warfare has been transformed by another innovation on the western front.

During the battle of the Somme, on 15 September 1916, the British send into action eleven vehicles of an entirely new kind, the Mark I tank. On this first occasion they make relatively little impression. But on their second outing, at Cambrai in November 1917, they prove their unmistakable value in clearing the battleground for the infantry following behind them. Unlike foot soldiers, tanks can advance against the dreaded machine gun and can crash through the barbed wire barricades protecting the enemy trenches.

Previous page Page 11 of 17 Next page