The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home


Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
February 20, 2007

In Memoriam: World War One - Jeremy Black on World War One - Part Two

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - continues his history of World War One. Part One of Professor Black's account can be read here.

The end of the war ensured that Allied plans for a large-scale tank assault in 1919 were not brought to fruition. Although plans for armoured land vehicles were scarcely new, the development period for the tank was shorter than that for aircraft. Tanks were not in use in 1914, indeed were only invented, independently by the British and the French, in 1915 and they were not used in combat until 15 September 1916.

Furthermore, problems with sustaining mobility made them of limited value for rapid advances. They were suited more for transforming static into manoeuvre warfare, rather than for the latter itself. Indeed, tanks seemed to overcome one of the major problems with offensives against trenches: the separation of firepower from advancing troops, and the consequent lack of flexibility. By carrying guns or machine guns, tanks made it possible for advancing units to confront unsuppressed positions and counter-attacks. They offered precise tactical fire to exploit the consequences of the massed operational bombardments that preceded attacks. The value of tanks and their likely future consequences attracted much attention from commentators. Commanders had to decide how best to employ tanks, and to combine them with infantry and artillery. This was an issue made dynamic by the variety of tank types, and by developments in them. A memorandum of June 1918 from the British Tanks Corps Headquarters claimed,

Trench warfare has given way to field and semi-open fighting … the more the mobility of tanks is increased, the greater must be the elasticity of the co-operation between them and the other arms. The chief power of the tank, both material and moral, lies in its mobility, ie. its pace, circuit, handiness, and obstacle crossing power.

Now the tank commander must make sure he was not too far in advance of the infantry,

whilst formerly he merely led the infantry on to their objective protecting them, as best he could now he must manoeuvre his tank in advance of them zig-zagging from one position to another, over-running machine guns, stampeding away and destroying the enemy's riflemen and all the time never losing touch with the infantry he is protecting.

This increased power of manoeuvre of the Mark V Tank demands an increased power of manoeuvre on the part of the infantry. By this is not meant a higher rate of advance, but skill in the use of ground and formations suitable to the ground and the tactical situation … demands more and more initiative on the part of the infantry leaders … Though the effect produced by tanks leading forward infantry may be compared to that of the artillery barrage, the infantry should not look upon it as such, but should regard the tanks as armoured fighting patrols or mechanical scouts thrown out in front of them, not to exonerate them from fighting.

Edward Heron-Allen was impressed by tanks when he saw them crossing a road on 16 October 1918, his account descriptive of the subordination of terrain by the new weapon,
really a fearsome sight… The road was on a slope of the hill, and the tanks just crawled up the slope, up the right bank nose in air, down with a bump into the road and across it - almost perpendicularly up the left bank, and down with a bump behind it and so onward up the hill without a moment’s pause or hesitation.
Tanks were indeed important but their value was lessened by their limitations, especially durability, but also firepower and speed. The British light infantry mortar in practice was more effective, more reliable and more capable of providing flexible infantry support than the tank, which was under-powered, under-gunned, under-armoured, and unreliable. Moreover, it was difficult for the crew to communicate with each other, let alone anyone outside the tank, and this made it harder to get a tank to engage a target of opportunity.

The value of tanks was also affected by the difficulty of providing sufficient numbers of them, which reflected their late arrival in wartime resource allocation and production systems, and by the ability to devise anti-tank tactics. German anti-tank measures were quite effective. Wherever tanks met real resistance, they did not do nearly as well as anticipated. The use of artillery against tanks was particularly important in this respect, and reflected the extent to which the incremental nature of improvements in artillery was a matter of tactics as well as technology and numbers. To operate most effectively, tanks needed to support, and to be supported by, advancing infantry and artillery, a lesson that had to be learned repeatedly during the century in the face of pressure from enthusiasts for tanks alone. British successes at Cambrai and Arras provide misleading examples of the usefulness of tanks because they did not meet organized resistance, and most of the tanks engaged in these battles subsequently broke down or were otherwise immobilized within a few days.

Had tank production been at a greater level, then tanks might have made a greater contribution in 1918, but the idea that massed tanks would have made a significant difference to Allied capability had the war continued into 1919 is contentious. Assuming that, in order to produce the huge numbers required, the tank could have been mass produced, which was not the case hitherto, nevertheless the same basic problems of unreliability, slow speed, vulnerability to anti-tank measures and field guns, under-gunning, poor inter-communication capabilities, and poor obstacle-crossing capability, would have remained. There is little to suggest that the tanks would have performed well. If the British tanks of the 1920s are considered as an extension of the line of development from World War One, it is difficult to see how they would have been decisive. Furthermore, this approach ignores the anti-tank technologies that would have been developed by the Germans. Indeed, the chances are that anti-tank guns would have been superior to the tanks.

Artillery-infantry tactics were far more crucial to the Allied success in 1918. In particular, well-aimed heavy indirect fire, ably coordinated with rushes by infantry who did not move forward in vulnerable lines, played a major role. Such tactics were necessary because German defensive tactics had improved during the war, particularly as a result of the repeated bludgeoning on the Somme in 1916. In place of deep dugouts and continuous trench lines packed with infantrymen came mutually-supporting concrete bunkers surrounded by obstacle belts able to provide a flexible defence in depth.

Similarly, in Palestine, British successes against the Turks in 1917-18 owed far more to infantry and heavy artillery, than to cavalry or the use of aeroplanes and armoured cars. Cavalry in Palestine, as elsewhere, offered mobility, but lacked the force necessary to overcome defences. The changes in the use of artillery and infantry that occurred in 1917-18 have been seen as so important by some commentators that they have been treated as ushering in the 'modern system', one requiring initiative and leadership way down the command hierarchy so that technology and tactics are brought into appropriate harmony. This, however, describes much combat, and it is more appropriate to argue that 1917-18 saw tactical and operational realignments that responded to the particular problems of World War One, and to what these problems indicated about a certain stage of industrial warfare in particular circumstances, rather than to claim that the problems, and/or the solution, defined industrialized war as a whole, let alone modern warfare.

This argument can also be made about naval warfare. Alongside a focus on dramatically-new technology and doctrine, including submarines, radio, aircraft, airships, and anti-submarine warfare, it is necessary to note the role of traditional practices, such as blockade, as well as incremental improvement, less spectacular technology, and manufacturing capacity. A good instance of this was provided by mines, the role of which tends to be seriously underrated. As well as being responsible for the loss of many merchantmen and surface warships, mines sank more submarines than other weapons, and mine barrages limited the options for submarine warfare. Massive barrages, that reflected industrial capacity and organizational capability, were laid across the English Channel at Dover in late 1916, and across the far greater distance of the North Sea between the Orkneys and Norway from March 1918. As an example of incremental development, and of the application of scientific knowledge, by the end of the war, magnetic mines had been developed, and were being laid by the British.

The complex relationships between tactics, technology, manufacture, and operational experience was more generally shown in anti-submarine warfare. Aircraft and airships supported convoys in coastal waters, forcing submarines to remain submerged, where they were much slower. Furthermore, one of the advantages of aircraft in dealing with submarines is that viewing submerged objects is far easier from above than from sea level. As yet, however, aircraft were not able to make a fundamental contribution to anti-submarine operations, because key specifications they had by World War Two were lacking at the time of the First, while the anti-submarine weapons dropped by aircraft were fairly unsophisticated compared to those of World War Two.

Much of the recent British literature on the Western Front has focused on the development of the appropriate artillery and infantry tactics, a development to which the ability to overcome shell shortages, itself a product of 'total' economic war, greatly contributed. This led to important advances, in particular by British, Australian and Canadian forces, in the last months of the war. Improvements in the French army also enabled it to play a major role in the closing offensives. In his report on operations from 8 August 1918 to the end of the war, Thomas Blamey, Chief of Staff to Monash and the Australian Corps, noted that the campaign,

differed from similar operations carried out in 1916 and 1917 …
a) Every possible effort was made to obtain surprise both strategically and tactically. It was, therefore, determined that there should be no preliminary bombardment or attempt at destruction of enemy defence systems.
b) Careful concealment of our intentions …
c) Emplacement of a large proportion of artillery within 2,000 yards of the front line which enabled the advance to be covered by an effective barrage to a depth of 4,000 yards into enemy country, and thus ensured that the advance of the infantry beyond the line of the enemy’s field guns should be protected by a barrage.
d) No registration of guns in new positions. This was made possible by the careful calibration of guns as new artillery came into the area.
e) The employment of a large proportion of smoke shell in the barrage with the object of enabling the infantry to appear suddenly before any enemy defences and rush them before the enemy was able to realize what was happening.
f) i) The employment of Tanks … All infantry engaged was given an opportunity of training with tanks prior to the operations.
ii) The 17th Armoured Car Battalion, Tank Corps, was placed at the disposal of the Australian Corps. It was given an independent mission to move direct against enemy centers of communication, headquarters etc. Its operations were brilliantly successful and its exploits read like a tale of the old days.
As a reminder, however, of the danger of selective quotations, the details provided on particular operations indicated the vulnerability of tanks to strong resistance, and the continued problems encountered from unsurpressed machine guns. More generally, there was still considerable pessimism in August 1918 that the war could be won that year; as well as considerable debate over what victory would mean. Blamey recorded that, on 9 August 1918, tank support was
with very reduced numbers owing to casualties suffered on the 8th … Direct fire [on 9th] was responsible for considerable casualties among the tanks supporting the 1st Australian Division.
The need to resort to artillery emerged clearly. On 11 August, Blamey wrote,
Owing to the greatly increased enemy resistance in the Lihons Ridge and the fact that there were but few tanks available to support the advance, it was decided to employ a creeping artillery barrage.
Indeed, on 18 September, the accuracy of the barrage helped in capturing the outer defences of the German Hindenburg Line.

The Germans, however, still fought hard, and Allied casualties were very heavy in the last offensives. Near Peronne, on 2 September, the attack was 'met by hurricane machine gun fire', while in the main attack on the Hindenburg Line on 29 September,

on the 27th American Division front, trouble from hostile machine guns inside the barrage was experienced from the start. A number of the tanks supporting the 27th American Division were put out of action by enemy shell fire and by anti-tank mines, and with this support gone the infantry in this sector of the attack rapidly lost touch with the barrage. Enemy machine guns were thus free to harass the main weight of the attack with the result that only isolated parties were able to get forward.
On the front of the 3rd Australian Division,
the tanks detailed to assist … suffered considerably from hostile shell fire.
The capture of the Hindenburg defences led to heavy casualties. On 3 October 1918,
considerable opposition was meet with along the Beaurevoir-Masnieres Line which was too wide on the front of the right brigade for the Whippet Tanks to cross. The heavy tanks encountered much anti-tank fire but a few reached the line of La Motte Farm and ably assisted the progress of the infantry.
Total warfare is sometimes confused with an account of modern warfare, and the latter understood in a (misleading) teleological fashion that saw World War Two as the culmination of what came before. If so, then the emphasis on tanks, aircraft and other ways to restore mobility is understandable. If, to adopt another criterion, total warfare is understood in terms of the experience of the soldiers, then a different analysis is possible. Here, the emphasis is rather on the extent to which troops were part of an industrial process, and also on the continual nature of exposure to the pressure of conflict. In May 1915, Monash wrote back to his wife from Gallipoli,
We have been amusing ourselves by trying to discover the longest period of absolute quiet. We have been fighting now continuously for 22 days, all day and all night, and most of us think that absolutely the longest period during which there was absolutely no sound of gun or rifle fire, throughout the whole of that time, was ten seconds. One says he was able on one occasion to count fourteen, but none believe him.
Yet, as a reminder of the variety of the conflict, and, specifically, of the punctuated intensity, or, looked at differently, disturbed stasis, of trench warfare, Monash wrote the following year from the Western Front, where he commanded the 3rd Australian Division,
compared with Anzac [Gallipoli], the people here don't know what war is. It is true they get an intensive bombardment now and then, and that is pretty bad for anyone who gets in its way, but in between time you’d hardly know there was a war on at all.
Monash also captured the specialization of function and intensity of organization among the military that matched (and connected) features of contemporary industrial society, writing from Gallipoli in 1915,
We have got our battle procedure now thoroughly well organized. To a stranger it would probably look like a disturbed anti-heap with everybody running a different way, but the thing is really a triumph of organization. There are orderlies carrying messages, staff officers with orders, lines of ammunition carriers, water carriers, bomb carriers, stretcher bearers, burial parties, first-aid men, reserves, supports, signalers, telephonists, engineers, digging parties, sandbag parties, periscope hands, pioneers, quartermaster's parties, and reinforcing troops, running about all over the place, apparently in confusion, but yet everything works as smoothly as on a peace parade, although the air is thick with clamour and bullets and bursting shells, and bombs and flares.
The extent to which the Germans were outfought on the Western Front in 1918 was not one that was to attract adequate subsequent attention at the popular level. The Germans preferred the 'stab-in-the-back' legend, attributing defeat to left-wing disaffection at home; while post-war opposition among the Allies, particularly Britain, to the human cost of the war and, to a lesser extent, to post-war diplomacy tarnished the presentation of victory.

More recently, academic study of the warmaking, specifically of improvements in British fighting techniques, and an emphasis on the challenge posed by German aggression and expansionism, have had scant impact on popular views. As a result, the conflict continues to be one of the most misunderstood of all major wars, which leads to more general problems with the assessment of military capability, effectiveness and development.

Raymond Aron saw World War One as ensuring a shift, from a situation in which the conditions for total war existed, to one in which such a conflict could develop, and he suggested that 'the approximately equal strength of the opposing forces' provided the key opportunity. This approach captures the contingent nature of developments, and also the extent to which wartime policies were a response to problems. For this reason, it is misleading to see the nature of the conflict as the culmination of pre-war thought, planning and preparations. Most wars do not develop as anticipated, but this was particularly true of World War One. The cult of the offensive, which had led to the deliberate underestimation of the impact of firepower in pre-war manoeuvres, is too readily read forward into the course of the conflict. There is a failure to note the degree to which pre-war planning saw attacks as an aspect of manoeuvre warfare and indeed urged the value of mobile defence; while wartime experience forced a rethinking of the attack as the way to overcome static warfare, specifically the impasse of trench conflict.

This led not only to a number of expedients, but also to a rethinking of combined-arms operations. The emphasis on strong firepower support reflected a need to suppress defences that were stronger than those generally anticipated prior to the conflict. This gave point to interest in new technology, particularly (but not only) gas, aircraft and tanks. If a tactical and operational perspective is thus taken, then the shift towards a new type of warfare occurred during the war, not with its outbreak.

At the strategic level, Aron's perspective is a valuable one. The ability of both sides to sustain the struggle forced a mobilization of resources on a scale that differed from preceding conflicts. This returns attention to the causes of the conflict and its continuation, and why neither side was willing to compromise to avoid, or end, the war. Here the context, in terms of the causes of war, was to change greatly, and in generally unpredicted fashion, from the close of World War One, as more overt ideological factors came to play a larger role in international relations, first with the Soviet Union and the response to it.

The play of overt ideological factors in domestic politics from the close of World War One also ensured that the context within which industrial mobilization occurred was to change. During World War One, however, the degree of such mobilization had already encouraged large-scale governmental and social change. In many respects, this was less novel than it might appear, because such change had also arisen from earlier conflicts. For example, British participation in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, from 1793 to 1802 and 1803 to 1814, and again in 1815, had led to a major increase in government activity, the results of which included an expansion in the information that it sought to deploy. The Ordnance Survey to map the country was complemented in 1801 by the first British national census, while income tax was introduced and the rights of workers to take industrial action were curtailed. Living standards were also affected by economic problems that in part arose from the war; although the government could not control harvests.

The economic context was different in World War One, because of the key role of manufacturing, and, therefore, of large organized workforces. Pre-industrial forms of deference and social control, in terms of the rule and role of landlords and clerics, were no longer pertinent for the bulk of the population, although in rural areas they remained more relevant than is sometimes appreciated. The social politics of the period gave the state a greater role than a century earlier, in the sense that the organization of economic mobilization was necessarily on a larger scale, and also required more central direction.

Economic mobilization was accompanied by the overthrow of globalisation. John Maynard Keynes was to reflect in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919),

What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August, 1914 … life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages. The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth … he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world … But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable.
In practice, there were already pre-war threats to the liberal economic order, not least due to tariffs, but it was to be a very dynamic capitalist world that was hit hard by the war. Aside from the destruction of manufacturing plant, there was tremendous damage to trade and economic interdependence.

On the global scale, European powers, especially Britain, sold much of their foreign investment in order to finance the war effort. Furthermore, the disruption of trade (and its total collapse outside Europe in the case of Germany), and the diversion, under state regulation, of manufacturing capacity to war production, ensured that the European economies were less able to satisfy foreign demand. This encouraged the growth of manufacturing elsewhere, not least in Latin America and in European colonies, such as India, although American exporters benefited most of all. The British war effort was heavily-dependent on the USA, while the Americans were well-placed to replace British exports to Canada and Latin America. Import substitution and industrial expansion were also pushed in South Africa under a consolidated tariff for the entire Union introduced in 1914.

The unprecedented global economic range of this war was facilitated by the extent of colonial empires. India, for example, provided large quantities of products for the British war effort, including food and textiles. This was true even for areas not well integrated into imperial economies. For example, food exports from the Anglo-Egyptian colony of Sudan rose to meet wartime demands, leading there, as elsewhere, to the disruption stemming from price and war inflation. After the war, the British sought to recreate the liberal economic order, but with only limited success.

Alongside long-term disruption, the enforced reconfiguration of the international trading system brought considerable misery during the war. This was not simply a matter of inflationary pressures, but also of hardships stemming from the seizures of resources, the Germans taking millions of tons of food from Russia and Romania, and from the deliberate interruption of trade. The most potent was the Allied blockade of Germany. This may be seen as an aspect of total war, with its direction of pressure on an entire society, and reference can be made to economic warfare during the American Civil War; but such blockades also preceded the period seen as the age of total war. During the Napoleonic Wars, France tried to stop Continental Europe trading with Britain which, in turn, applied a blockade. There was also a British blockade of the USA during the War of 1812, while the American response, privateering, was another form of blockade.

Demographic growth, and the growing economic specialization and interdependence through trade that stemmed from the global development of Western capitalism, however, made the societies of the early-twentieth century more vulnerable to blockade. This was seen with the major strains on British and German society imposed by German submarine warfare and Allied blockade respectively. The nature of this pressure, however, was very different. Unrestricted submarine warfare, by attacking all shipping and by sinking without warning, violated international law, and it was unsurprising that American political and public opinion responded unfavourably. The Germans had anticipated a rapid victory through the economic warfare of unrestricted attacks declared on 1 February 1917, but Britain did not sue for peace on 1 August, as it had been claimed they would. The Germans had insufficient submarines to match their aspirations, in part because of problems with organizing and supplying construction, but largely because of a lack of commitment from within the navy to the submarine warfare, and a preference, instead, for surface warships.

Furthermore, more seriously, the operational flaws of German warmaking rested on a strategic misjudgment of British vulnerability. During the war, the Germans sank 11.9 million tons of Allied shipping, mostly commercial, at the cost of 199 submarines, but, aside from the benefits that stemmed from the British introduction of escorted convoys in May 1917 - in cutting shipping losses dramatically and in leading to an increase in the sinking of German submarines; the British were less vulnerable to blockade than had been anticipated. It proved possible to increase and reorganize food production in Britain, and to direct its distribution. In so far as total war is a helpful phrase in this context, it applied to the methods, but not the capability, of German submarine attacks, the means and results of the British institutional response, including the establishment of an effective Food Production Department, and the success of the traditional means of surface blockade as applied against Germany.

The latter offered the British more against Germany than it had against France in the Napoleonic Wars, in part because of long-term developments in naval effectiveness, specifically the replacement of sail by steam, but also due to the nature of the international system. Germany was unable to dominate Continental Europe, as Napoleon had done, while the USA was willing to accept the consequences of British naval power, unlike the anger displayed during the earlier period, which had culminated in the War of 1812. The results of the naval war were also seen in the peace settlement of 1919, with the merchant ships seized from Germany allocated to the victors in proportion to their wartime maritime losses.

The naval struggle had been important, but there had not been the major battle sought and anticipated by navalists. Although the battle of Jutland between the British and German fleets in the North Sea in 1916 was the largest clash of battleships in history, it was not the hoped-for Trafalgar, still less a repetition of the Japanese victory over the Russians at Tsushima in 1905: a total victory soon followed by the end of the war. The Allied fleets proved more effective at blockade than battle, but they had few opportunities for the latter. The role of resources and alliances were important in both. As the Germans finished not one of the dreadnoughts or battle-cruisers they laid down during the war, compared with the five battle-cruisers laid down and completed by Britain, the Germans did not have the margin of safety of a shipbuilding programme to fall back upon; and nor did they have the prospect of support from the warships of new allies that the British gained with the entry of Italy and the USA. This helped accentuate the importance to the Germans of submarines, although, in combating these, the British benefited from their wartime shipbuilding programme, which included 56 destroyers and 50 anti-submarine motor launches. The strategic advantages of the Allies nullified the capability the Germans derived from their submarines: fewer Allied warships were sunk than were added to the combined total.

Aside from the varied nature of social change and disruption across Europe resulting from the war, which particularly hit those who benefited from pre-war prosperity and stability, there was a more immediate physical shock arising from the nature of the battlefield, specifically the way in which the terrain was devastated by conflict, with the scale seemingly dwarfing any opportunities for heroism. The exposure of large numbers to the conflict directly was accentuated by its impact on others via reporting and photography. The length of the conflict, the numbers involved, and the fact that so much of it occurred in Europe, ensured that it was not easy to treat it as a distant spectacle. Travelling the Bapaume Road, close to the Western Front, on 20 October 1918, Edward Heron-Allen, a visiting civilian, wrote in his diary

The whole landscape seen on either side … was a scene of complete desolation. As far as one can see to the horizon, blasted woods and ruined villages.
Two days later, he reached Ypres,
I thought I had seen absolute devastation and ruin at Bapaume, and Péronne, but Ypres by comparison is as the Sahara to a sand dune. I could not realize that we were approaching - much less in - the outskirts of Ypres. When, passing through some mounds of rubbish I asked where we were and was told "This is Ypres", it absolutely turned me cold. Even the streets are obliterated … there were not even bases of walls to show where houses had begun and left off … "The Hinterland of Hell" is the only phrase that in any way describes the road and the surrounding country between Ypres and Menin. Hitherto the desolation and devastation has seemed mournful - tragic - here it is fierce and absolutely terrifying. The whole landscape is ploughed up into "hummocks" like pack ice in the Arctic Floe-mounds and crevasses of blackened earth, dotted about with English and German graves, the entrances to dug-outs leading apparently into the bowels of the earth … shell holes and mine craters of every size.
As earlier with poison gas, retribution seemed the order of the day,
A flight of aeroplanes which passed overhead in battle-formation, off on a road to the east, seemed a fitting commentary upon the ghastly desolation.
In turn, in 1918, the Germans planned large-scale bombing attacks on London and Paris using more effective incendiaries, but, due to the imminence of defeat, they were not launched.

Yet, alongside the emphasis on horror, it is necessary to note a more complex situation. As ever with scholarship, there are issues of emphasis. For example, of late, there has been much stress on executions of those unfairly judged guilty of cowardice in the British army, but their relatively exceptional nature has received insufficient attention. There were 361 British military executions during the war, and they were primarily motivated by considerations of discipline. This issue is related to the more general question of the response to 'shell-shock', which would now be referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result of World War One, there was a change of perception by some doctors who were treating psychiatric disorders, and the awareness of psychiatric pressures in wartime increased. The acceptance of 'shell-shock' and battle-fatigue as a legitimate illness waned afterwards, however, and the lessons of World War One had to be relearned in World War Two.

There was often a rise of such disorders, known by different names at different times, during and immediately after war. Furthermore, 'shell-shock' was not the fate of the majority of soldiers in World War One. Indeed, the morale of the British military seems to have been pretty good throughout, and that also seems to have been the case with the German army until the summer of 1918. The experience of terrible casualties in 1914-16, also, did not stop the French or Russian armies fighting: large-scale mutinies in either did not occur until 1917, and there were particular precipitants for them. The morale of the French army recovered quickly after General Henri Pétain replaced Robert Nivelle as commander that May.

Reasons varied for the willingness of the majority of soldiers to fight, and much was due to commitment and group cohesion, but, in part, this willingness also reflected the extent to which the war was less terrible an experience than is suggested in some of the sources. Factors to note include the degree to which Fronts were relatively quiet, other than during offensives, while the latter were episodic and restricted to sections of the Front. The consistency of conflict did not match that on the Eastern Front in 1941-5, nor the Western Front in 1944-5. Secondly, the material condition of the troops was frequently better than at home, particularly in terms of rations. Accommodation was no worse than slums at home. In some respects, indeed, conditions were better than at home, and this was particularly true for the British army, which benefited from frequent rotation out of the frontline, and from organized rest and recreation while out of it. French troops were less well-treated, although Pétain introduced important reforms, not least in the leave system. There were particular problems for the Allies, where the Front lacked depth, most obviously at Gallipoli, but this was unusual.

The subsequent perception of the war was an important aspect of its wider impact. This was partly a matter of the presentation of the experience of conflict, and also of the struggle to come to terms with mass bereavement. Both played a major role in inter-war collective memory. The scale of the sacrifice was indeed unprecedented, and this had a major impact on society, with the loss of so many sons, husbands and fathers. Furthermore, there were large numbers of wounded. The impact was felt in family economies and the general economy, and in private and public senses of grief. A major revival in interest in spiritualism and the occult was one consequence, prefiguring a similar, but less pronounced, revival after World War Two.

The world-wide nature of the grief was unprecedented, and a major consequence of its global scope. New Zealand, the most distant large dominion of the British Crown, participated fully in the war (introducing conscription in 1916), and lost heavily: forty per cent of men of military age (19 to 45) served overseas; of this 120,000, over 50,000 were injured and 18,000 died, many at Gallipoli. Among the 332,000 Australian troops who served overseas, 58,460 died, while 56,119 Canadians died. Grief and remembrance therefore reached out to distant corners. The commemoration of the struggle, for example the design of cemeteries and the staging of anniversaries, provided an opportunity to underline national identity by offering a history of sacrifice and an emphasis on the casualties, that was, at the same time, a call for the sacrifice not to be in vain. Thus, past, present and future were linked.

This provided a context for public discussions about how best to consider the war. Within that context, the large number of casualties provided the prism within which perceptions and ideas were discussed. Much of the portrayal of the conflict was very critical. A more complex view, not least one that attempted to put costly battles, such as the Somme, alongside other aspects of the war, including eventual Allied success in 1918, found little favour. The same was true of the peace settlement.

Just as, by the start of the 1930s, British confidence in the conduct of the war was being sapped by critical publications, focusing on the horrors of trench warfare and the mistakes of generals, so, by then, criticism of the peace settlements that had ended the war, particularly, as unfair to the Germans and/or inopportune, was well-established. Focus on the reparations demanded from Germany, as an aspect of its war guilt, proved a particular source of criticism, encouraging the view that the peace had been particularly retributive. In short, a mishandled, if not misguided, total war had led to a harsh peace, the latter a consequence of the former.

This was an inappropriate judgment of a conflict that was far from harsh on Germany, and of peace terms that were certainly far less harsh than those of 1945 were to be. Germany lost territory in 1919, but there was no attempt to return it to the situation prior to unification under Prussian control. Talk in France of a different future for the Rhineland led nowhere. Partly, this was because of a concern to prevent the spread of Communist revolution to Germany, and partly because the military verdict was as if World War Two had ended in September 1944. At the time of the armistice in 1918, Germany was not yet overrun by the Western powers. Furthermore, she was still in occupation of large territories in Eastern Europe. The terms of the peace were designed to prevent Germany from launching fresh aggression, and thus to serve as a form of collective security. This was true of the limitations on the German military, the occupied area along the French and Belgian frontiers, much of it occupied until 1930, and the demilitarized zone that Germany had to accept.

Austria suffered far more severely from the peace, in large part because the Habsburg empire was far more vulnerable than Germany to the principle of national self-determination actively pushed by President Woodrow Wilson of the USA. The treaty settlements imposed on Austria by the French Revolutionaries and Napoleon had been drastic, with Austria losing the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium and Luxembourg) in 1797, Lombardy in 1797, Venetia (which she had gained in compensation in 1797) in 1805, Tyrol in 1805, her territories in south-west Germany in 1806, West Galicia (in Poland), Cracow, and much of Carinthia and Croatia in 1809, and Salzburg in 1810. Yet, Austria had retained control of Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Hungary, Transylvania, most of Galicia, and part of Croatia.

After World War One, in contrast, all of these were lost, as were territories Austria had regained in 1814-15 and others gained subsequently: Galicia went to Poland, Transylvania to Romania, Trentino and Istria to Italy, and Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia to Yugoslavia, Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia became the independent state of Czechoslovakia. Hungary became fully independent. This was a settlement without compromise. In so far as total war was a matter of outcomes, then this was total war.

Turkey also suffered far more severely than Germany. It was vulnerable to the idea of national self-determination, as some Arabs, Armenians and Kurds sought nationhood, but, far more, to the international ambitions of the victorious powers, in this case Britain, France, Italy and Greece. Furthermore, unlike Germany, the war ended with much of its empire conquered, although Turkey rebounded under Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s. Moreover, the victors, and the League of Nations they established in 1920, as a pan-national organization with a mission to prevent war and to deal with any unresolved peace settlement issues, introduced, and maintained, very different logics of territorial legitimacy outside and within Europe.

Whereas local consent, in the form of plebiscites, was used to determine some European frontiers, for example those between Denmark and Germany, and between Germany and Poland in East Prussia in 1920, such consent-frontiers were not granted outside Europe. The Treaty of Sèvres of 1920 established particularly harsh terms on the Turks, but the Turks were able to defeat the Greeks in 1922 and to force the other Western allies to accept more lenient terms in 1923.

The Versailles settlement and the international system it established worked better in the 1920s, at least from the perspective of Western interests, than was generally appreciated in the 1930s. There was domestic instability and international tension in Europe, but this had been the case prior to 1914, and World War One and the collapse of the European dynastic empires had left many disputes. Having launched the war in the West in 1914, and then been defeated, it was understandable that Germany suffered, but the terms it had to accept scarcely justified any sense of a peace that can be used, in itself, to substantiate the description total war.

To read the start of Prof. Black's account of World War One, see Part One.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author, amongst much else, of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006), The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).


Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Comments

Very interesting and informative. How would you rate the failure to develop effective communications that could keep pace with the development of firepower as a major constriction on the development of tactics that could exploit mobility? I wonder what might have been possible if the belligerents could have developed the ideas the Germans introduced on their assaults against the French in was it 1916 or 1917? Yours Sincerely, Peter.

Posted by: A P Muirhead at February 21, 2007 12:41 PM
•••

Hello I found this very informative also. I am doing a research paper on soilders experiences at the beginning and end of WW1 and how their poems reflect nationalism, romantism and religious aspects changed. Are there any books or other websites you could point me in by any chance?

Posted by: Britt at February 27, 2007 06:27 PM
•••
Post a comment








Anti-spambot Turing code







Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement