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Only the dead have seen the end of war. —George Santayana
From 1914 to 1918 the nations of Europe focused their intelligence and energy on the perfection of the science of killing. Nations that had taken immense pride in calling themselves civilized were engaged in a campaign of slaughter on a scale that was unprecedented in the history of humankind. The number of young lives snuffed out in the struggle that was called "The Great War," before people began numbering their world conflicts, easily surpassed that of all previous wars.
To understand almost any twentieth- or twenty-first-century subject without understanding what occurred in World War I is difficult, if not impossible. It is like trying to comprehend the late medieval period while ignoring the Great Plague. In addition to inaugurating modern warfare (tanks, machine guns, airplanes, and submarines all made their first appearance on a large scale in this war), the Great War had enduring political effects. The unprecedented carnage of the war led the Allies to impose the harsh Treaty of Versailles on Germany, which led, in turn, to the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II. The war also led to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which led, in turn, to a Cold War that lasted nearly half a century.
Like these other developments, the Siberian intervention finds its origin in the events of World War I. The disasters of that war eventually led to the departure of American soldiers for the distant land of Siberia.
Causes of World War I
Numerous volumes have been written to dispute the causes of World War I. Suffice it to say that there were many causes. Several powerful ideologies of the nineteenth century, such as nationalism, imperialism, militarism (increased by ignorance of the lethal nature of modern warfare since Europe had not suffered a general war in a century and its generals refused to learn the lessons of the U.S. Civil War, the Boer War, and the Russo-Japanese War), and fatalism about the inevitability of war spawned by Social Darwinism all played key roles, as did poor leadership and the development of alliance systems. By the start of the war in 1914 the Allies, which included Great Britain, France, and Russia (joined by Italy in 1915), were arrayed against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. Far from fostering peace, as expected in traditional balance of power theory, this balance actually encouraged war because each side became confident in its ability to win. Finally, the military strategies of both sides called for preemptive strikes, thereby making war more likely than peace after the onset of a crisis, as each side rushed to implement its strategy ahead of its opponent. For instance, Germany's Schlieffen Plan centered on knocking France out of the war in the West before turning to face Russia in the East. Thus, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Bosnian nationalist, with the connivance of some members of the Serbian government, set in train a cascade of events that led inexorably to war. When the Austrians moved to invade Serbia, Russia mobilized its massive forces to help its traditional ally, prompting Germany to mobilize its own forces and initiate the Schlieffen Plan out of the fear that a Russian invasion of Germany would end all hope of averting a two-front war. The German invasion of Belgium in preparation for the invasion of France, in turn, led both France and Britain to declare war against Germany.
Trench Warfare and Its Consequences
Ten million men were killed in World War I. France lost 17 percent of its soldiers, 1.7 million out of a little over nine million. Russia also lost 1.7 million men, Britain one million, Germany two million, and Austria-Hungary 1.5 million. The bodies of more than half of those killed in the West, and an even higher percentage in the East, were never recovered. Many survivors were badly mutilated.
One reason that the casualties were so numerous is that the trench warfare that characterized the Western Front heavily favored the defensive, so that it was extremely difficult for an attacker to make any progress. When the Germans were stopped short of Paris on the Marne River, they retreated and entrenched themselves on favorable ground. Within a brief time, both sides possessed a line of trenches that extended 475 miles from the North Sea to neutral Switzerland, a line that changed little for almost three years. The ten-foot-deep trenches were fronted by massive entanglements of barbed wire and backed by an increasingly elaborate system of reserve trenches connected by communications trenches that extended for miles, a system so complicated it soon required guides and street signs. Whenever one side attacked, its massive artillery barrage generally accomplished little except to ruin any chance of achieving surprise. (Since telephone and telegraph wires were almost always immediately destroyed in the opening bombardment, and primitive radios, which could not yet transmit voices, only Morse code, and relied on massive batteries, were too slow to be useful and too unwieldy to be carried into battle, armies were forced to use such primitive means as flags, runners, and carrier pigeons to transmit the information necessary to target and retarget their artillery barrages accurately.) Attacking infantrymen crawled out of their own trenches, carrying sixty to eighty-five pounds of equipment on their backs (at a time when the average recruit weighed only 132 pounds), and marched across the "no man's land" of a few hundred yards that normally rested between the trenches to almost certain death, mowed down by rifle fire and machine guns while attempting to cut through dense tangles of barbed wire that were sometimes over a hundred yards deep. Even when the attackers managed to take the opposing trenches, they were almost immediately set upon by fresh, lethal reserves.
Nevertheless, the military cultures on both sides were painfully slow to abandon their semi-mystical, Napoleonic faith in "the spirit of the offensive," which taught that a determination to continue attacking despite heavy casualties would bring victory. This stubbornness was exacerbated by the rareness with which top-ranking generals visited the front lines and their obliviousness when they did so. A British soldier wrote: "A fortnight after some exploit, a field-marshal or a divisional general comes down to a battalion to thank it for its gallant conduct, and fancies for a moment, perchance, that he is looking at the men who did the deed of valour, and not a large draft that has just been brought up from England and the base to fill the gap. He should ask the services of the chaplain and make his congratulations in the grave-yard or go to the hospital and make them there."
Although there were 850,000 European casualties of war in 1914, and two and a half million in 1915, the level of carnage reached new heights in 1916. At Verdun, General Erich von Falkenhayn, commander of German forces on the Western Front, hoped to draw French units into his "mincing machine" of heavy artillery. Falkenhayn knew that French pride would demand that Verdun be defended, though it jutted out of the French line as an awkward salient. He also knew that the French Chief of Staff, General Joseph Joffre, had neglected the defense of the old fortress. Thus, on February 21, 1916, the Germans rained 80,000 artillery shells on a fifteen-mile segment of the French line, the first of 20 million that would be fired by both sides in the battle zone by June 23 and would reduce forests to splinters and villages to rubble. The Germans easily broke through the line, so that Verdun appeared lost. Only one light railway and one road remained to supply it. Had the Germans destroyed these, they probably would have not only captured Verdun but also the entire French army stationed there, since Joffre had threatened court-martial for any officer who ordered a retreat.
The French sent General Henri-Philippe Petain to command Verdun at this point. Besides inspiring confidence in his soldiers, Petain also widened the supply lanes to Verdun, so that it could be supplied and reinforced safely. The French also benefited from the willingness of the British to assume more of the Western Front, thus freeing more French soldiers to reinforce the fort, as well as from an Italian offensive on the Isonzo River in northern Italy and a Russian offensive at Lake Narocz in Lithuania, both of which distracted the Germans.
Although the French managed to hold the old fortress in the Battle of Verdun, over 200,000 men were killed on each side. A Frenchman who participated in that campaign wrote, "The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank, everything we touched had a rotten smell, owing to the fact that the earth around us was literally stuffed with corpses." It was the only prolonged offensive on the Western Front in which the attacking side did not lose more troops than the defending party. This anomaly was the result of the German practice of sending "advance groups," guinea pigs whose sole function was to draw enemy fire, in order to ascertain the location of least resistance along the front before the main force was committed to battle.
Douglas Haig, who had become Commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France in December 1915, was not disturbed by the extent of the French losses at Verdun. Believing that his own troops would succeed where the French had failed, Haig planned a summer offensive along the Somme that would be dominated by British soldiers.
Everything went wrong. Haig was "overruled by his commanders" when he suggested using advance groups as the Germans had at Verdun. In the Allies' opening bombardment, 1500 guns fired one million shells, but only 450 of these guns were heavy artillery, the type necessary for destroying the concrete machine gun nests of the Germans. Also, Haig's field commander made matters worse by selecting an area of bombardment that was too wide, so that some machine gun nests were completely untouched when Allied troops advanced towards them on July 1, 1916. Furthermore, the French overruled British proposals that the attack be made at or before dawn, contending that their artillerymen required "good observation" for firing. The result, of course, was good observation for the many German machine gunners who had been largely unaffected by the preliminary bombardment. In addition, the British infantrymen were ordered to attack in close formation—in the words of military historian B. H. Liddell Hart, "symmetrically aligned, like rows of nine-pins ready to be knocked over." Each soldier carried sixty-six pounds of equipment on his back. It was "difficult to get out of a trench, impossible to move much quicker than a slow walk." Although the gaps that the British had cut in their own wire in preparation for the attack facilitated German targeting of their troops, aiming was largely unnecessary. A German machine gunner recalled, "When we started firing, we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn't have to aim, we just fired into them."
On the first day alone the British lost nearly 60,000 men. The Allies corrected only some of their tactical errors and continued the offensive. By the time November mud ended the Somme offensive, the British had experienced the greatest military catastrophe in their history, suffering 420,000 casualties, the French 194,000, and the Germans over 600,000. The German total would not have been so high had not a German general, emulating the Allies, ordered that every yard lost be taken by counterattack.
The French Mutiny
Both the French and the British failed to learn the lessons of 1916. In 1917 French General Robert Nivelle launched a new offensive on the Western Front that was equally disastrous. The Germans shrewdly adopted a tactic of "defense in depth" that left the front line almost empty, while an intermediate zone behind was held by machine gunners stationed in shell holes and other strong positions, and the real strength of the defense lay in reserves deployed outside artillery range 10,000–20,000 yards behind the front. The resulting casualties were so demoralizing that French soldiers launched a mutiny, a sort of military strike in which they pledged to defend their own trenches but refused to continue attacking the enemy's.
The Flanders Offensive
Nevertheless, the imperturbable Haig persuaded the reluctant British War Cabinet to approve a new offensive in Flanders for 1917. Liddell Hart later charged that Haig was able to secure permission by promising not to engage in an all-out assault on German positions but rather to take a gradual approach that he had already categorically ruled out in conversations with his own generals. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George opposed the offensive, saying, "We shall be attacking the strongest army in the world, entrenched in the most formidable positions with an actual inferiority of numbers. I do not pretend to know anything about the rules of strategy, but curious indeed must be the military conscience which could justify an attack under such conditions." Yet the War Cabinet approved the offensive, due partly to the desire to capture German submarine bases in Belgium.
According to Liddell Hart, Haig's second deception occurred after the offensive began. In order to gain a continuation of the offensive, which was obviously failing miserably, Haig grossly exaggerated the number of enemy casualties in his reports to the War Cabinet. Before Haig guided Lloyd George on a tour of his "prisoner cages," he replaced healthy German prisoners with gaunt ones in order to demonstrate the success of the offensive in demoralizing and debilitating the Germans.
Perhaps most importantly, Liddell Hart claimed, Haig failed to inform the War Cabinet about reports he had received from General Headquarters to the effect that the Ypres area, where he planned to make his primary assault, was a reclaimed marshland that would revert to its original state if its drainage system were destroyed by a prolonged bombardment. In fact, the commander of Haig's Intelligence Staff had also informed him that records for the last eighty years indicated that heavy rains broke over Flanders in early August "with the regularity of Indian monsoons." Haig did not inform his superiors of this report, either. While there is no reason to doubt Liddell Hart's account, its flattering portrayal of Lloyd George steadfastly ignores the fact that he could have used his own authority as prime minister to suspend the campaign at any time he wished. Although Haig deserves most of the criticism he has received, Lloyd George's timidity was certainly no profile in courage, and his subsequent, largely successful efforts to pin all of the blame on Haig, whom he failed to replace even after the Flanders campaign, were unseemly at best.
The Flanders offensive began on July 31, 1917. The bare plain would have made British plans obvious to the Germans, even if their two-week bombardment had not. Though over four million shells poured forth from 3,000 artillery guns, the British failed to destroy the German machine gun nests on the right, which were situated on high ground. Thus, the bombardment succeeded only in eliminating any chance of surprising the enemy and in making the battlefield a quagmire, a situation worsened by steady torrential downpours. The bombardment churned up the ground to a depth of ten feet, exposing corpses buried after earlier fighting. When a British officer was ordered to consolidate his position, he replied, "It is impossible to consolidate porridge." Although the British achieved some success on the left, only death awaited those unfortunates who were sent to the right. The Germans had strengthened this position, already one of the strongest German positions on the Western Front, both geographically and militarily, by constructing nine layers of defenses, including a line of listening posts in shell holes, three lines of trenches, machine gun posts and pillboxes, and counterattack units in concrete bunkers. In September Lloyd George again opposed continuation of the offensive but again deferred to the expertise of the same general he would later vilify. In October, some minor successes were achieved due to the sheer volume of artillery expended, causing Haig to tell war correspondents absurdly, "We are practically through the enemy's defenses." Soon after, the mud became so deep, and the assaults so costly, that even Haig felt obliged to discontinue the offensive.
As the price for gaining a few hundred yards to the former village of Passchendaele, 70,000 British soldiers were killed, another 170,000 wounded, in a sea of mud. Liddell Hart described the field conditions faced by British soldiers during the Flanders offensive:
The broken earth became a fluid clay; the little brooks and tiny canals became formidable obstacles, and every shell-hole a dismal pond; hills and valleys were but waves and troughs of a sea of mud. Still the guns churned the treacherous slime. Every day conditions grew worse. What had once been difficult now became impossible. The surplus water poured into the trenches as its natural outlet, and they became impassible for troops; nor was it possible to walk over the open field—men staggered wanly over duckboard tracks. Wounded men falling headlong into the shell-holes were in danger of drowning. Mules slipped from the tracks and were often drowned in the giant shell-holes alongside. Guns sank till they became useless; rifles caked and would not fire; even food was tainted with the inevitable mud. No battle in history was ever fought under such conditions.
Excerpted from When the United States Invaded Russia by Carl J. Richard Copyright © 2013 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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