The period before the First World War was one of increasing tension between the European powers. The decay of the Turkish Empire had been the cause of many, with various parts of the Empire snapped up by the major powers, while in the Balkans the Turks had been forced back almost to the gates of Constantinople. A second cause of friction was the perceived decay of the Hapsburg Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary, when the majority of Slavs agitated for either independence, or a greater role in government, while the Austrian and Hungarian elites held out for the statue-quo, led by the elderly Emperor, Franz-Joseph, a force for autocracy and tradition. Austria's main ally was the recently unified Germany, always worried about potential Russian gains as Austria weakened, especially in the Balkans. The Germans were also engaged in a naval arms race with Great Britain, which in turn moved Britain closer to France, and thus to her ally Russia. Despite all of the potential causes of tension, Europe in 1914 looked to be more peaceful than for some years. However, on 28 June 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was shot and killed by Gavrilo Princip, a Serb terrorist, while visiting Sarajevo. The mood in Austria was already hostile towards Serbia, and now it turned towards war. The Austrians were certain that the Serbian government had been in some way involved in the murder, and while it is not certain how far that was true, the leader of the terrorists was also head of Serbian Intelligence.
On 23 July, Austria delivered a note to the Serbia government that, if agreed to, would have almost ended Serbian independence. This ultimatum included ten points. The Serbs only completely rejected one of the points, which called for Austrian officials to take part in the Serbian investigations into the assassination. The official reason was that this wasn't allowed by the Serbian constitution but there was also a fear that the links between some in the government and the assassins might be uncovered.
Some of the other nine points were accepted without any conditions, but in other cases they only partly accepted the Austrian demands, in particular requiring proof where the Austrians expected unconditional obedience to all future demands about anti Austro-Hungarian propaganda or the removal of named individuals from public service. Some of the Serb conditions look perfectly reasonably, but others could easily have been used to negate the agreement - previous Serbian promises to stop anti-Austrian propaganda or arms smuggling into Bosnia hadn't had much effect. In any case the Austrians had already decided that only an unconditional acceptance of their ultimatum would be acceptable. When the Serbs handed over their reply the Austrian representative handed over a pre-prepared message refusing to accept their limits. On 28 July 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia.
Now the alliance system swung into play. On 30 July, Russia started mobilisation. In reaction, Germany declared war against Russia on 1 August. On the next day, Germany invaded Luxembourg, and demanded free passage across Belgium. On 3 August, Belgium refused the German demand, Germany declared war on France, and Britain pledged to support Belgium. On 4 August a British ultimatum to Germany was refused, and Britain declared war on Germany, while Germany declared war on Belgium, and launched an invasion of Belgium. Finally, on 5 August Austria declared war on Russia, and the First World War had begun.
German plans for a two front war against France and Russia were based on the Schlieffen Plan, which, relying on the French to attack Germany at once via Alsace and Lorraine, called for a massive German attack through Belgium into northern France, taking Paris and cutting off the French armies, thus winning the war in the west before turning to deal with the slower Russian mobilisation. However, General von Moltke, the German commander, had tinkered with the plan, weakening the strength of the blow on the right wing, and reducing the distance into Germany that the French attack would be allowed to progress. Thus, when the French, as expected, launched their attack (Battle of Lorraine, 14-22 August 1914), they were unable to make any progress, and were even soon in danger themselves. Thus the French armies were further west than the German plan required. Another factor not properly considered in the plan was that Britain would join the war on the violation of Belgium neutrality. The advancing German troops were the first to discover the British Expeditionary Force, a small but professional army, who they encountered at the battle of Mons (23 August 1914), where the British troops took a heavy toll of the Germans before the British were forced to retreat. Nevertheless, the German advance was still going well. However, the French commander, General Joseph Joffre, managed his battle better than Moltke managed his. Reacting to the unexpected German attacks, Joffre adjusted his armies to resist the onrushing Germans, and by the end of August the Schlieffen plan, with its aim of passing west of Paris, had already been abandoned in practice, as the German armies prepared to pass east of the city.
This left the German right flank exposed to any troops that could come out from Paris. From 5-10 September, the French launched their counterattack - the battle of the Marne. By the end of this battle, which included some troops carried to the battlefield by taxi from Paris, the German attack had failed, and they withdrew towards what would become the stable line of trench warfare for most of the war. For the next month, both sides took part in the Race to the Sea (15 September-24 November), each hoping to outflank the other before the line of trenches reached the sea. The final German drive against the Channel Ports was halted by the BEF in the First Battle of Ypres (30 October-24 November 1914), which almost destroyed the BEF, but also prevented the Germans reaching the ports. The trenches now marched from the North Sea to the Swiss border. All mobility was gone from the war on the western Front until 1918.
The second year of the war saw both sides desperate to break through the line of trenches and resume manoeuvre warfare. As the year began, the French were engaged in the First Battle of Champagne (20 December 1914-30 March 1915), a determined attempt to regain the French territory held by the Germans. At the second battle of Ypres (22 April-25 May), the Germans introduced poisoned gas into the war, but despite the initial, horrific, impact of the gas, made very little progress, having failed to provide sufficient support for their new weapon, and for the rest of the year a series of failed attacks followed one after one. On 17 December Field Marshal French was replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig as commander of the BEF.
This year was dominated by two big battles on the Western Front. The town and fortress of Verdun, in French hands, formed a salient into the German lines. Falkenhayn, now German commander, decided to use Verdun to bleed the French dry, and on 21 February began his assault on the fortress (battle of Verdun, 21 February-18 December 1916). For the first few days of the battle, it looked as if Verdun would fall, but Joffre decreed that the city would not fall, and sent General Henri Petain to hold it. While the Germans paused at their first objectives, and Petain was able to move reinforcements of men and equipment into the city. Petain managed to organise a supply line that ran down a single minor road. The fighting was bitter and very costly, costing 542,000 French casualties and 434,000 German. By the time the battle ended, the French had regained almost all of the ground lost in the initial German attacks, while Falkenhayn had been replaced by the team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, famous after victories in the east, who decided to go on to the defensive in the west.
While Verdun was eating at French strength, it fell to the British to launch the offensive that had been planned for 1916. Accordingly, after a week long artillery bombardment, the British infantry attacked the German lines (battle of the Somme, 24 June-13 November 1916). In the initial assault on 1 July the British army suffered 19,000 killed and 41,000 wounded, still the greatest one day loss in the history of the British army. The battle continued for four months, and did make some advances, including breaking the second German line of defences on 13 July, which allowed the last use of cavalry on the Western Front, and also diverted some German troops from Verdun, but the human cost was appalling. The British took 420,000 casualties, the French 195,000 and the Germans 650,000, mostly in futile counter attacks of their own. While the allies only advanced eight miles during the entire battle, the Germans lost the cream of their experienced small unit officers - the non-commissioned officers, an irreplaceable loss.
The Germans began 1917 by falling back to a new defensive line (known to the allies as the Hindenburg Line), where the front stabilised by 5 April, destroying the territory they were abandoning. The allies gained a boost, with the US declaration of war (6 April 1917), but that would take time to have any effect. In the meantime, the new French commander, General Nivelle, planned a general offensive that, he claimed, would win the war. This started with the Battle of Arras (9-15 April), a minor British victory, best known for the battle of Vimy Ridge (9-13 April), a well planned attack that saw the Canadian Corps fight together for the first time.
Nivelle then launched his main offensive (16-20 April). The Germans were totally aware of Nivelle's plans, indeed he had been boasting about them for some time, and the French attacks were a total failure, and cost 120,000 casualties. The French armies had had enough, and between 29 April and 30 May widespread mutinies broke out in the French army, who refused to take part in any more offensive operations. For two weeks, the French parts of the line were almost without defenders, but a combination of amazing censorship and British attacks in the north stopped the Germans hearing about the weakness until it had passed. Now Haig decided on an attack of his own. On 7 June, after exploding a mine that could be heard in London, the British took the Messines Ridge (battle of Messines, 7 June 1917). This allowed the launch of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), 31 July-10 November 1917. This floundered for two reasons. First, the long preparations and bombardment had given the Germans time to build up their defences in great depth. Second was the terrain of Flanders, low lying, and wet at the best of times, days of rain combined with the bombardment had turned the battlefield into a swamp. Men who fell off the paths made above the mud frequently drowned in the mud under the weight of their own kit. Eventually, after capturing Passchendeale the battle was ended, having gained 5 miles at a cost of 300,000 casualties. However, the year ended with the first signs of change. At the battle of Cambrai (20 November-3 December), Haig launched the first major tank assault of the war, with 200 tanks. There was no preliminary bombardment, and surprise was achieved. The tanks made a five mile deep breakthrough along a six mile front, but there was inadequate support, and the Germans were able to seal the breach before any serious damage could be done.
When 1918 opened, change was in the air. The defeat of Russia meant that large numbers of experienced German soldiers were now free to move to the western front, while for the allies an increasing number of American troops were arriving in Europe. The allied plan for the year was to stay on the defensive until American numbers allowed an attack. Ludendorff could see this, and saw Germanys only hope to be a knockout block early in 1918, before the Americans could play a part. Between March and July, Ludendorff launched five great offensives, that threatened to break the allied lines, but never did (Somme, Lys, Aisne, Noyon-Montdidier and Champagne-Marne). The Germans soon found themselves launching attacks with no overall purpose, and struggling to advance over land they had themselves devastated in 1917. By July, the German attacks had ground to a halt, and the mood in the German command was one of great despondency. Meanwhile, the allies had finally put a combined command in place, under Ferdinand Foch, allowing for a much more coordinated war. The allies now took the offensive (the Hundred Days). On 8 August, the Amiens Offensive was started, with a short bombardment followed by a combined tank and infantry attack, which forced the Germans back eight miles, in what Ludendorff called the 'black day' of the German Army. In the fighting that followed, the Germans were forced back to the Hindenburg line. In early October, the allies were able to maintain pressure all along the line, taking the Hindenburg line, and forcing the Germans onto the retreat. Although this final stage of the war saw the greatest advances, it also saw some of the fiercest fighting. Now, Germany started to crumble. At home revolution sparked across the country, while at the front resistance crumbled. The first requests for an Armistice came on 6 October, and after negotiations from 7 November, the Armistice was signed on the morning of 11 November, with the fighting to stop at 11 A.M. The war was over.
At the outbreak of war, the Germans planned a defensive war against the Russians, with a slow defensive retreat until the French were defeated, and the Germans could turn to deal with the Russians. In contrast, the Austrians began with an offensive plan based on attacks into Russian Poland. The results were very different. In East Prussia, the Russian First and Second armies made initial progress, although the First Army was temporarily halted at the Battle of Stalluponen (17 August 1914). After a drawn battle (Gumbinnen, 20 August 1914), the German commanders were replaced by General Paul von Hindenburg, with General Erich Ludendorff as his chief of staff. First, they moved against the Russian Second Army. At the battle of Orlau-Frankenau (24 August), the Russians were stopped for a day, after which the Germans withdrew, and the Russians advanced to Tannenberg. Two days later, at the battle of Tannenberg (26-31 August 1914), the Russians were encircled, and the entire Second Army surrendered. Now, the Germans moved against the Russian First Army, catching them on 9-14 September at the battle of the Masurian Lakes, although this time the Russians were not encircled, and some of the army escaped.
The Austrian campaign was less successful. The Austrians crossed into Russian Poland on 23 August, but after a series of battles were defeated at Rava Ruska (3-11 September 1914), a decisive Russian victory, which forced the Austrians back some hundred miles, to the Carpathian mountains, well inside the pre-war borders. Alarmed, the Germans moved an army to the Austrian flank, where they campaigned in south west Poland, and after the battle of Lodz (11-25 September) stopped Russian plans to invade German Silesia, the main German source of minerals.
Hindenburg started 1915 with a great winter offensive (January-March), which had limited success. However, the German Spring-Summer Offensive (May-August) was much more successful. Between 2 May and 27 June, the Gorlice-Tarnow breakthrough saw the Russian salient in Poland crumble. Warsaw fell in early August, and by the end of the advance, the Russians had been forced back some three hundred miles, although Grand Duke Nicholas was able to hold his armies together, in return for which he was sacked, and replaced by Tsar Nicholas II in person. At the end of the year, the line had stabilised again, with the winter stopping all fighting.
The main feature of fighting on the eastern front in 1916 was the Brusilov Offensive (4 June-20 September 1916). A planned general Russian offensive failed to take place, but the southern most part, intended as a support attack, did take place. General Brusilov, one of the most capable Russian generals, launched what by the standards of 1916 was a most unorthodox campaign, launched along his entire line, and without the normal massive bombardment. The Austrian troops he was facing were taken totally by surprise, and for a moment it looked as if he could eliminate Austria from the war, but the offensive soon bogged down. His wide front and limited resources meant that Brusilov had nothing with which to follow up his successes, while an increasing number of German troops came to the Austrians aid, and eventually Brusilov was forced backed to his original lines for the loss of 1.4 million casualties.
The eastern front in 1917 was dominated by the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. After the 12 March revolution, the new government pledged to support the allies, but 2 million desertions in March and April alone, combined with the efforts of the Communists to destroy the effectiveness of the army meant that a final midsummer offensive failed. The most important military development of the year was the Riga Offensive of 1 September 1917. This was commanded by General Oscar von Hutier, and saw the first appearance of what became known at Hutier Tactics. These involved abandoning the massive bombardment, replacing it with a short sharp burst of fire followed quickly by infantry attacks, masked by smoke and gas, which stopped enemy strong points being effective. The infantry bypassed any strong points, leaving them for follow up troops, and kept moving, preventing the enemy from reforming. These tactics were used during the 1918 offensives. Meanwhile, events in Russia moved on, and on 7 November the Bolshevik Revolution brought Lenin to power. They immediately sued for peace, and on 15 December signed the Armistice of Brest Litovsk, surrendering vast areas of land to the Germans, and ending the war in the east, although during the negotiations following the Armistice the Germans started an advance east on 18 February, followed rapidly by the peace of Brest Litovsk, which confirmed the terms of Russian surrender.
Turkey joined the war on the side of the Central Powers on 29 October 1914, with a naval bombardment of Russian ports on the Black Sea. This had the immediate effect of denying the allies any access to Russia via the Dardanelles, preventing them from providing serious material aid to their ally. The allies did not take Turkey seriously as a military power, and expected a quick collapse of the 'sick man of Europe'. They were to be disappointed. The Turkish war effort was commanded by Enver Pasha, war minister and vice-generalissimo (under the figurehead of Sultan Mehmet V), only 32 in 1914. The Turkish part of the war was fought on several fronts.
Fighting in the Caucasus was started by the Russians, who crossed the Turkish border and made good progress, before a Turkish counter attack in mid December pushed them back across the border, and then under the personal control of Enver Pasha, further back, before themselves being thrown back by the Russians in the battle of Sarikamish (29 December 1914-3 January 1915), which allowed the Russians to advance into Turkey, although failure to take full advantage led to the appointment of General Nikolai Yudenich, one of the best Russian generals of the entire war. Little significant fighting occurring during 1915, but this period saw the start of the Armenian Deportations which led to the genocide of the Armenians still causing controversy to the present day. It also saw the Russians prepare for their 1916 offensive, which lasted from January-April 1916, and saw the Russians make great advances, moving over one hundred miles inside the Turkish border all along the front, and capturing the port of Trebizond, a great aid to their campaign. A Turkish counterattack in June-August 1916 failed, and fighting ended for the year. In March 1917, the Russian Revolution completely changed the situation, and the Turks were able to divert troops away to deal with other threats. After the November revolution, an armistice was signed between Turkey and Russia, but when the Turks saw the Caucasus throw off Russian rule, they decided to try and regain those areas lost to the Russians in previous wars, and by the middle of September had captured Baku, on the Caspian Sea, giving them control of a great oil producing area. Sadly for the Turks this came just before the Allied victory, and in November 1918 they were forced to withdraw to their original borders.
One danger presented by the Turks was that they could disrupt Britain's oil supply from Persia. To prevent this, The India Office sent a force under General John Nixon to secure the head of the Persian gulf, and by the end of November 1914 they had captured Basra. This secured the pipeline, and should perhaps have been the end of this campaign, but Nixon and his subordinate, Major General Charles Townshend, wanted to advance further up the Tigris towards Baghdad. They gained permission to do so, and Townshend was sent up the river, advancing to Kut-el-Amara, well over half way to Baghdad, where he defeated a Turkish army (battle of Kut, 27-28 September 1915) and occupied the city. Townshend wanted to stop here, but now the India office decided on an attack on Baghdad, and from 11-22 November Townshend marched up the river before reaching Ctesiphon, where he was turned back by the Turks (battle of Ctesiphon, 22-26 November 1915), and forced to retreat to Kut, where he was soon besieged by the Turks (7 December 1915-29 April 1916). After three attempts to relief him failed, Townshend was forced to surrender, along with some 8,000 men, remaining in Turkish captivity for the rest of the war. In August, Nixon was replaced by General Frederick Maude. By the end of 1916 he had rebuilt his force, and with 166,000 men started another advance up the Tigris. On 22-23 February 1917 he won the second battle of Kut, on 11 March captured Baghdad and on 27-28 September 1917 after an advance up the Euphrates won the battle of Ramadi (27-28 September 1917), but before he could continue north up the Tigris towards the oilfields of Mosul died of Cholera (18 November 1917). He was replaced by General William Marshall, but no more significant campaigning happened until October 1918, when a successful attempt was made to capture the Mosul oilfields before the war ended, with Mosul itself captured on 14 November 1918, after the end of the war.
Perhaps the most famous individual to emerge from this part of the war of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), the British officer who helped the Arab revolt. In June 1916, Hussein, grand sherif of Mecca, proclaimed the revolt. An attack on Mecca was quickly successful, but the Turkish Garrison of Medina held out until the end of the war. Aided by Lawrence, the Arabs then harassed the Turks in Arabian. By 1918, the Arabs had cut off Medina, and were able to play a major part in General Allenby's final campaigns in Palestine and Syria, taking Damascus themselves. Lawrence resigned at the end of the campaign, in rightful indignation over the mistreatment of the Arabs by the British, who had promised the kingdom of Arabian to a series of candidates. Hussein himself had at one point declared himself King of the Arabs, and been promised the Hejaz (The Red Sea coast of Arabia), but eventually ended up as king of Transjordan.
Egypt and Palestine
The campaign in Palestine developed out of a desire to protect the Suez Canal, the vital artery of the British Empire. In January-February 1915 a Turkish army crossed the Sinai, and even managed to cross the canal before being driven back, and the threat of future attack tied down large numbers of troops. In the first half of 1916, the British extended their defences into the Sinai, and repulsed a major attack on their railhead (Battle of Rumani, 3 August 1916), and by the end of the year had reached El Arish, almost across the desert. On 8-9 January 1917 the battle of Magruntein or Rafa ended the Turkish presence in the Sinai, and left the British free to concentrate on Palestine. After two failed attacks on Gaza (1st Battle of Gaza, 26 March 1917 & 2nd Battle of Gaza, 17-19 April 1917), General Allenby was placed in command and ordered to take Jerusalem by Christmas. After reorganising the command structure, he won the 3rd Battle of Gaza (31 October 1917), forcing the Turks to retreat. Despite a strong Turkish defence, organised by General von Falkenhayn, Jerusalem fell on 9 December 1917. There he was forced to stop, as his force was weakened to reinforce the Western Front, but in September 1918 he was able to launch another attack. By this point the Turks had put in place a strong defended line, from Jaffa on the coast to the River Jordan, although the British outnumbered them. Keeping his plans secret, Allenby launched a concentrated attack on the coast, burst through the Turkish line, sent his cavalry into the hinterland, and used his infantry to sweep up the remains of the Turkish line (battle of Megiddo, 19-21 September 1918). The resulting pursuit northwards was only ended by the Turkish surrender (30 October 1918).
The Gallipoli campaign was one of the great military disasters of the war. Control of the Dardanelles, the narrow sea lane connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, was essential if the allies were to get any aid to Russia. With Turkish entry on the side of the Central Powers that access was cut. The initial allied plan was to run a fleet up the Dardanelles to Constantinople and force the passage at gunpoint. This was attempted early in 1915, but the attempt was abandoned on March 18 after three old battleships were sunk by mines, and when probably close to success. A new plan was hatched, this time a landing on the Gallipoli peninsular. The first landings were made on 25 April 1915, but by this time the Turks had had time to improve the defences of the area, and it soon turned into a smaller version of the Western Front. By the end of the year it was clear that the plan had failed, and from November the evacuation began, ending with a perfect evacuation of the last 35,000 men on 8-9 January 1916 without any losses, one of the few well executed elements of the campaign.
|The Routledge Atlas of the First World War, a good historical atlas that makes the overall nature of the war clear. Contains over 150 maps, covering just about every major aspect of the conflict from the pre-war tensions that led to war to the Armistice in 1918. [see more]|
|A Military Atlas of the First World War, Arthur Banks. Banks provides a series of 250 very detailed maps that give the reader a good idea of what happened on the different fronts of the First World War, taking you beyond the static trenches of the Western Front. [see more]|
|The First World War , John Keegan. An excellent narrative history of the First World War, especially strong on the buildup to war. Good on detail without losing the overall picture. Keegan keeps to a factual account of the war, leaving out the judgement calls that dominate some books. [see more]|