Feature Articles - Germany During World War One
June 22nd - Conflict Begins
The Schlieffen Plan
A State Of Imminent War Danger
August 3rd, 1914 - World War One Begins
The Battle At Marne
A War Of Attrition - The Trench Forms
The Eastern Front
1915 - Germany Slows Down
The Effect of War Back Home
The German Navy - Why The United States Entered World War One
1918 - Germany Makes a Treaty With The Bolsheviks
The German Army Is Defeated
An Immediate Armistice
The Great War, World War One, consisted of two stages: conventional warfare that lasted from 1914 to 1916, and a war of desperate expedients, when both sides struggled for their own existences, lasting until the end.
The two sides of the war consisted of the Allied Powers (France, Great Britain, Russia, the United States, and other smaller counties) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey/Ottoman Empire, along with other smaller country support).
Though Germany turned out to be the Central Power most involved in the war, there is little or no evidence that the Germans had planned for war. There are several fundamental causes that had brought the world to the brink of war: nationalism, imperialist competition, militarism, and the build up of pre-war alliances. These growing appearance of these factors perhaps inevitably led to what was called the Great War, World War One.
The war began as a chain of events that revolved around several alliances made between countries. These pre-war alliances called for the defence of various countries under attack, and all of the major players in the war had made these alliances. These alliances combined with tensions between militarily active countries set the world up for a major war. The chain of events that led up to the war began on June 22nd 1914, when a Serbian student named Gavrilo Princip, who was part of the militant group called the "Black Hand", assassinated Austrian archduke Frances Ferdinand and his wife.
The assassination was a result of the nationalism caused by the moulding of the Yugoslavian provinces into a single state.
The Serbian government was implicated as being involved in the plot and naturally the Austrians grew angry with them. Austria declared that they would go to war against Yugoslavia, but they were hesitant to do so because Yugoslavia held a defensive treaty with Russia. Germany had made a defensive treaty with Austria, so they promised that if Austria went ahead and made a move against Yugoslavia, Germany would defend them from Russia. Germany then told Austria to begin the war, and if it evolved into a larger conflict, Germany would support them.
Germany had a variety of reasons for being willing to be involved in this war. One of these reasons was that the assassination was an example of the Hapsburg's loss of control and if Austria were to decline to Germany's offer, Germany would be completely surrounded by enemies.1 The German government also knew that Russia would lose a major base in Europe if they were to lose Yugoslavia. An annexation of Yugoslavia would also leave Greece and Bulgaria open to attack. Germany believed that Russia would back down like they had in 1908, when Austria had annexed parts of Serbia.
The only difference from the earlier conflict was that in 1908 Russia was also suffering from a revolution, but by 1914 Russia had not only stopped the revolution, but they also had recovered enough to fight against Germany or Austria. Aside from that though, Germany had recently made an alliance with Turkey, and that made them confident that they could defeat any European country. Another benefit that Germany had was that England would not enter the war if Russia were the aggressor. Little did Germany know that the general consensus around Europe was that even if Serbia had been involved in the assassination it was not grounds to conquer it.
Germany had been developing plans for invasions into every European country since the time of Bismarck. One of these plans was called the Schlieffen Plan. The plan basically called for quick, encircling movements that would surround and destroy the enemy.
This plan was used for the invasion of France and also for individual conflicts like the Battle of Tannenberg. One of the key points of this plan was that it was absolutely necessary to put all possible force behind the invasion of France and not to hold any soldiers back in reserve.
It was Germany's hope to end this war quickly by attacking France immediately and overrunning it before Russia had a chance to mobilize. The violation of this plan was what many consider to have caused the Germans to lose the war. This could easily be compared to Pericles and the Peloponnesan war. He warned the Athenians that the only way they could win the war was if they did not try to expand and colonize. In this example too, they broke the condition and therefore lost the war.
Anyway, the plan involved attacking Belgium and then proceeding south into France. Unfortunately for Germany, the Belgians didn't simply step aside for the Germans; they fought back, making it much harder for Germany to carry out the Schlieffen Plan. Aside from these war plans, Germany also tried to stop countries from getting involved in the war by starting revolutions in them. As we shall see, it worked in Russia but all attempts to start a revolt in Ireland failed.
The Germans, in order to prevent England from entering the war, tried to make it appear as if Russia had really started the war. They announced that any conflict between Austria and Serbia was a local conflict in which outside powers should not interfere. Of course, the other European states saw right through this ruse and prepared themselves for a war that would involve all of the great powers.
On July 13th, 1914, the Austrians made an ultimatum saying that they would require all Serbs to leave Albania. The Serbians were not willing to agree to any demand that would hurt their government, and they immediately mobilized for war. On July 28th, three days after Yugoslavia refused to yield to their demands, the Austrians officially declared war. The conflict was begun with the intentions of capturing a small part of Serbian territory and then bargaining that land for compliance with their demands.
On July 29th and 30th, Russia began its mobilization with the intent to protect Yugoslavia from Austria. Germany's only stop from entering the war was England. Their main energies were put into trying to keep England out of the war.
England, as a result of the outbreak of war, tried to begin peace talks but none of the involved parties complied. Soon after this attempt at peace, the German government decided that England was not going to remain neutral, but they decided to engage in the war anyway. This was another reason the Schlieffen Plan would fail; Britain's entry into the war was not expected, at least not so quickly.
On July 30th, Moltke, Germany's military leader, announced a "state of imminent war danger."2 The next day Russia completed its mobilization, but they still maintained that they would not attack if peace talks were to begin. Germany then replied that Russia must demobilize within the next twelve hours. This short deadline shows that Germany was really itching for a war and did not expect Russia to comply in any way.
Russia naturally declined to demobilize and Germany used this as an excuse to declare war. On July 31st William II ordered Germany to fully mobilize its armies. Moltke decided that a war would have to be fought and won on the western front before they could defeat Russia. If the Schlieffen Plan worked, he could concentrate all of his army on the Eastern Front. He went on to demand that Belgium allow him to cross through their country and on into France unopposed. As we shall see later, this refusal to comply was a key factor in the defeat of Germany.
The war began on August 3rd when Germany declared war on France, saying that they had infringed upon Germany's territory. The German army that took the field August 1914 has been described as the most brilliant the world had ever seen. The day after the declaration of war against France, Germany moved soldiers into Belgium, and the Belgians resisted. Three days later the Germans captured the stronghold of Liege, and Belgium fell.
As the opening invasion into Belgium began, England sent an ultimatum to Germany saying that they had to withdraw from Belgium or England would enter the war.
England effectively lost any element of surprise by announcing their attack beforehand. By August 18th Germany had overrun all of Belgium and the German army was gathering on the French border to begin the offensive. Two days later the attack began, and the French were immediately driven out of Lorraine.
The Germans continued to advance until they hit France's frontier fortifications. This offensive took the French completely by surprise even though a German defector had already warned them. On August 22-25 the French tried to begin their own offensive but were soundly defeated at the battles of Neuchateau and Longwy. Soon after this failed offensive, the Germans advanced into France from the north and quickly defeated the French at the battle of Namur and the British at the battle of Mans.
By the end of the initial offensive, August 25th, Germany's front was uncontested by any of the other powers. The Schlieffen plan had stated that the German army should have been in France in 40 days and by the 32nd day the Germans were still 25 miles from the city. This was Moltke's largest mistake- the mistake that would eventually lose the war for the Germans. He saw that the Germans were doing well in France and therefore decided to send divisions to stabilize the eastern front, which had been compromised by a quick Russian mobilization.
By August 27th, the German army had already been greatly lessened by the loss of the forces sent to the eastern front and the loss of the forces sent to survey the land around Antwerp.
To add to this, the army was weakened by the siege of Maubeuge and at other forts along the way. The Germans had, on the western front, only 40 of the 52 divisions that had begun the war. This was enough to continue winning, but it became obvious that it was not enough to take Paris as the Schlieffen Plan dictated.
On August 30th the Germans began their pursuit of the French army that was retreating towards Paris. The armies were directed to advance to two points near Paris. The emergence of another French army caused Moltke to have to rethink his plan. He ordered the southern armies to advance to the northwest and the northern armies to advance to the southeast. This action was intended to surround the French army.
The German armies were assembled for the new offensive by September 4th but this manoeuvre had made the left flank of the northern army vulnerable. The French noticed this vulnerability and attacked the German front with 52 divisions while they sent a smaller detachment to attack the exposed side. The ensuing battle took place at Marne.
The German army turned and defeated the small detachment in three days of fighting, establishing their military superiority over the French. The complete turn to the west that the northern army made caused a gap to form in the northern front. The English army advanced into this opening, thereby placing the Germans in a weak position.
Moltke saw this and ordered his army to retreat, and as they were doing so the French army advanced and began to attack the retreating soldiers. The eastern armies tried to resist the attack but Moltke ordered the withdrawal of the northern army due to its precarious position. The result of this battle, the Battle of Marne, was a major swing in the German army's momentum as they were now moving backward for the first time.
"Its [Marne's] loss by Germany meant the failure of the entire Schlieffen plan; the end of any prospect of a short war."3
A short war was basically what the entire German military was counting on as the only way to win the war. When this possibility was taken away, the prospect of winning began to fade. Moltke's lack of judgment in this matter can be attributed to the distance he was away from the actual line of battle. He could not make decisions because he could not see what was going on. The condition of the soldiers was also a factor as reported by a German officer:
"Their faces coated with dust, their uniforms in rags, looking like living scarecrows. They march with their eyes closed, singing in chorus so that they shall not fall asleep…It is only the delirium of victory that sustains our men."4
On September 14th General Erich Falkenhayn replaced Moltke, and by the 15th the western line had been stabilized. By this time the German army was so hurt that even if they could have reached Paris, they could never have taken it.
After the battle, the two lines entrenched themselves as close as 800 yards away from each other. Here was where the trench warfare that caused so many losses began. The giant trench formed the western front, and the battle in the west from then on became a war of attrition.
Falkenhayn decided that there was no way to win a war against England, France and Russia put together. He adopted the policy of attrition in order to tire out the western powers. He planned to be merely defensive on the western front while attacking the eastern front. On the days of October 17-30 the battle of Yser was fought, in a last effort to assault the French.
The Germans committed all of their last resources to launch this attack on the French front but the battle proved costly and ineffective. The attacks lasted until November 3rd, when Falkenhayn was finally convinced that the west was hopeless and the only place a victory could be won was in the east.
"Falkenhayn had to send into the holocaust thousands of half trained volunteers straight from school or the university, commanded by elderly officers. Enthusiastically singing "Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles", the youngsters were mowed down in swathes by the expert marksmen of the B.E.F."
While the conflict in the west was developing, Russia was having success with driving the Austrians back and also infringing on German territory. Their basic strategy was to concentrate all of their forces on Austria, but due to the success of Germany in France at the time they sent 28 divisions into East Prussia as a relief force. The Russians had mobilized more speedily than the Germans expected and were therefore able to overrun most of East Prussia before the Germans could react.
The eastern general for the German force, Von Prittwtiz-Gaffron, hesitated before making any move. He was immediately deposed of, and on April 23rd General Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, two of the most influential generals of their time, replaced him.
Hindenburg was a veteran of the wars in 1866 and 1870. He was a very careful and calculating general. Ludendorff was one of the nationalistic zealots created by the outbreak of war.
Hindenburg decided to attack at once. He left a small force in Germany and lead 166,000 men against Russia's 200,000. These forces came against each other on August 26-31 at the battle of Tannenberg.
The German army performed a perfect Schlieffen plan manoeuvre and encircled the Russian army. They captured 92,000 Russian soldiers while overall 3/5ths of the Russian army was destroyed (at least those in Prussia). The offensive ended at the battle of the Masurian Lakes (September 9-10) wherein the Russians withdrew from the rest of Germany without putting up a fight.
The Austrians, on the other hand, were soundly defeated by the Russians due to the lack of coordination between the Austrian and German armies. At the beginning of the war the Germans had not even told the Austrians about the Schlieffen plan and their intentions to invade France. This shows that the Germans did not really care about the Austrians and what had initially caused the war. They acted like they were fighting their own war despite the fact that the Austrians supposedly started it.
By September 13th the Austrians had lost 300,000 soldiers and the entire army had retreated into the mountains. By February the army had lost 1.5 million soldiers. The Austrian army was also defeated at two attempts to invade Serbia. At this point, Austria was effectively out of the war leaving Germany and Turkey alone against the Russians.
During October, while the battle of Yser was going on in the west, the German forces launched an offensive and advanced all the way to Warsaw and Iangorad, but by the end of October, a build-up of Russian forces along the border caused the Germans to retreat from Poland completely. Hindenburg moved most of his forces into North Prussia where they could strike against the unprotected northern front of the Russian army. He even got a promise from Falkenhayn of six divisions to join in on the offensive.
Unfortunately for Germany, Falkenhayn decided that a withdrawal of western forces would be perceived as a retreat, so the divisions were never sent. Falkenhayn then decided to continue the attack at Ypres and again was defeated. On November 18th, the western army began to break off and slowly go to join the eastern soldiers. The opportunity for Hindenburg's flanking manoeuvre however, was lost.
Though Russia managed to destroy the Austrian army, The Battle of Tannenberg was the event that effectively knocked Russia out of the war. Later on, after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russians would completely surrender to Germany.
The situation at the beginning of 1915 was definitely not in Germany's favour. The western front showed 90 German divisions against 108.5 Allied. On the eastern front, there were 78.5 German divisions against 93.5 Russian.
Falkenhayn decided to leave only enough soldiers to hold the west and to bring the rest over to the east, to fight the Russians. These soldiers took part in the second battle at Masurian Lakes where the Russian army was again completely destroyed. By the last week of January, the Germans had also freed the trapped Austrian forces. The German army joined up with the Austrians and proceeded to break the Russian line in Austria at the beginning of May.
The eastern forces continued their success through the summer of 1915, overrunning Poland, Lithuania, Galicia and Latvia. The Russian casualties were estimated at 200,000.
While this was going on in the east, an Allied offensive had begun to liberate France on September 25. Despite a 5:3 soldier ratio, the German army was unable to do anything about it. As a result of this failure, Falkenhayn decided to test his luck with yet another offensive against the French line. He decided to attack the French army's cornerstone at Verdun. The offensive began on February 21, 1916, and met with initial success but was soon stopped.
The battle was reduced to a "grim endurance test on a narrow battlefield transformed by rain into a grenade pocked quagmire." Falkenhayn was attempting to "bleed the French white" by exhausting their resources, but the battle proved to be just as exhausting for the Germans as it was for the French. No one ever made any headway but both sides suffered severe casualties. Falkenhayn did not finally call off the attack until July 1916.
Soon after the Battle of Verdun, the Allies launched their own offensive with 52 divisions at Somme. After two months of fighting, Germany's line had only backed up six miles.
With the offensives of Verdun and Somme, the casualties for both sides were over 600,000, with both sides losing almost the same number of people. The offensive was renewed in September of 1916. The Germans began to worry about the increasing number of Allied soldiers as well as the invention of the first tanks, a technology which the Germans had not pursued up until then.
On the eastern front, the Germans were still making much headway. On August 27th, Rumania, one of the Balkan countries which was sitting on the fence over which side it would join, declared war on Austria and therefore Germany. Rumania did this because Russia promised them Transylvania. The fact that the Russians were also launching an offensive in the area was also a small part of their decision. On August 29, 1916, Hindenburg and Ludendorff were given complete command of the entire eastern front. The first act of these generals was to invade Rumania, and by December 6th, Bucharest was occupied.
During the fighting in the west and the east the people of Germany were mostly in support of the war. The belief was widespread that even though the war was forced upon the German people, it was for the "Greater Germany" that it could become. When the war started turning against Germany, there was still the general belief that at least they should gain something from their effort. The German people were mostly willing to have peace as long they did not have to give up any land.
The government did not want peace because they thought it would be seen as a loss and the liberal party would lose popularity, and perhaps there would be a revolution. This situation can be compared to the conflict between Israel and the PLO, where Israel wants peace but does not want to lose land. Germany, in general, wanted peace, but not at the expense of the land they had taken.
When the war was beginning, it had the support from a coalition of the SPD, the Progressives, and the Kaiser's conservative government.
As the war continued and was becoming more and more a war of attrition, the SPD, who were already opposed to an offensive war, split into three groups: the Independent Socialists, the SPD and the International Socialists.
The international socialists (Spartacists) were opposed to any war of any kind while the other two groups were still in support of a defensive war. The leaders of the Spartacists, Liebknecht and Luxenburg, held a demonstration against the war on May 1, 1916. They were arrested, and in response to this the workers rose up for their first strike of the war. From this, there can be seen the first seeds of discontent among the people.
The German economy was also going through more and more strain as the war went on. In 1914 the German economy was almost completely reliant on outside trade and therefore not ready for a protracted war. They had absolutely no large stocks of guns or ammunition and were forced to employ chemists to find replacements for substances that were made scarce by the war. They discovered things like a replacement for gunpowder ingredients, synthetic rubber, and the use of oil instead of coal in machinery.5
There was such a shortage that riots had already begun in 1916. The armed forces took all the hired labour out of the economy. The immediate consequences of the war on the economy were more government control of goods and production, army control of what determined economic policy, and an increase in scientific pursuit.
The German navy was not very active during World War One. In fact, the only major battle, the Battle of Jutland, was fought on May 31, 1916. Germany was the victor but was still behind in terms of naval superiority. An Allied fleet in the North Sea blockaded Germany, and as a result, Germany declared that they would sink any Allied ship that they find. The Germans initially did not try to get out any further than the Baltic Sea due to an U.S. ultimatum, but in 1917 they began to advance and sink various American ships carrying munitions and reinforcements, thereby drawing the U.S. into the war.
By 1917 and 1918 the German people had begun to lose faith in the war. The government was torn between what the people wanted, a "status quo" peace, and what Hindenburg wanted, a "fruits of victory" peace. On November 7-8, 1917, a German encouraged revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, began in Russia. After much conflict, the Communist leader Lenin was appointed their new leader. He wanted peace with Germany because of the instability of his position in the Russian government.
On December 20, 1917 the central leaders and Russia met to make a peace treaty. The talks lead to nothing and Germany began its attacks on the Balkan states.
Peace talks again resumed with Russia and by 1918 Germany had concluded a peace treaty with the Ukraine. By March 3rd, a treaty was made with Russia. Germany quickly ignored previous treaties and marched straight into the Ukraine, taking Kiev on March 1. From there they proceeded directly into Russia, despite recent treaties.
The attack was so effective that the Germans had reached the Caspian Sea by September 1918. On August 27, 1918, the German government decided that they had enough land, and they signed another peace treaty with Russia. At this point, Russia had pretty much surrendered to the Germans. At that point, Germany also made an alliance with Finland and deposited 150,000 soldiers in their country- soldiers that could have been used in the actual war.
By the summer of 1918 the Germans had concluded most of their business in the east, so half of the eastern army was sent to aid the west. By March there were 190 German divisions in the west opposed to 170 Allied. Ludendorff decided to attack the point where the English and French lines met, hoping to separate the two armies and force the English to withdraw across the sea.
On March 21, 71 German divisions prepared to attack the 26 British divisions. The British were overwhelmed and the French were pressed back. In the ensuing battle from March 21-April 5 Germany advanced 35 miles into the line, causing the British to lose 163,000 soldiers and the French to lose 77,000. The Germans tried to follow up on this success by launching an attack on April 9.
This attack met with minimal success was basically considered a failure. Ludendorff then decided to launch a new offensive, this time concentrated on the French lines, in the hopes that the Germans could cut off reinforcements to the British. When the British were in a position where they were unable to secure reinforcements, the Germans would attack the them.
The offensive began on May 27th and the Germans were able to force back the French line. By June 3rd the Germans had reached a point five miles from Paris, but the Allies rallied and managed to stop the German advance.
Ludendorff began to plan yet another offensive. In June of 1918 the first American soldiers fought the Germans. The Germans began their new offensive on July 15th with 51 divisions, this time against the combined forces of the British, the French, and the Americans. The German army was met with strong resistance and many losses.
Three days later, the French began a counter-offensive lead by 600 tanks. The move by the French took the Germans by surprise and the Allies began to slowly push the Germans out of Marne. The German army suffered 30,000 casualties and lost 800 artillery pieces. The Allies pressed their advantage, and on August 8, 1918, they began a huge offensive that completely broke the German's strength.
This was the major turning point in the war, as the Germans not only lost their momentum but also began to lose more and more ground. The offensive was renewed against the German lines and the whole German army began to be pushed back. By September, the Germans had lost 1,000,000 soldiers, reducing their army from 3.5 million to 2.5 million. The previously superior German army was now down 191 divisions to the 400-500 of the Allies. The American involvement in the war rose from 200,000 in March to 2,086,000 at the end of the war.
During the days of September 14-30, Allied troops caused the entire Bulgarian front to collapse. At the same time, the Austrians were also negotiating their own peace treaty with the Allies. Meanwhile, a combined French, British, Greek and Serbian army liberated the Balkans, and by November 10 they had moved into Rumania. Ludendorff accurately summarized the outlook of the war when he said:
"The condition of the army demands an immediate armistice"6
Bulgaria (Germany's ally) collapsed in late September, and Austria-Hungary was soon to collapse. With no other choice left, the Germans proposed the armistice on October 3rd. The Allies declared that they would grant it only if Germany made no move to improve its military strength. On October 26th Ludendorff resigned because he was unwilling to sign the armistice. After his departure, the Germans amended the constitution to prevent people like Ludendorff from becoming virtual dictators. Instead, the general was made to require the support of the Reichstag. This shows that the Germans were not completely supportive of the war.
The armistice was given to Germany. It basically required that the Germans retreat into their own borders and leave all of their weapons behind.
William fled the country and Prince Max was put on the throne just long enough to sign the armistice. The German soldiers began to retreat into their own country and on November 11 the armistice was signed, officially ending the war.
During World War One we were still seeing the nationalistic tide that was begun by Otto von Bismarck and would ultimately end after the Second World War. Germany was a country that had just unified forty years earlier, after decisively beating almost every European country.
When Kaiser William came into power, he had very expansionist views. Furthermore, he did not have any of the political savvy that was displayed by Bismarck. The downfall of the German people was that they had a leader who was trying to repeat the conquests of the past while lacking the skills to do so.
William "cleverly" tried to gain power by finesse and treating the Balkan conflict like the unification wars: localized and defensive. When the other powers saw through this fumbling ruse, he dropped all pretence of political manoeuvring and just started attacking everybody, a policy that would inevitably end with his destruction as he also, at the start of the war, lacked a military mind that could make up for his political bluntness.
Moltke and Falkenhayn took a war that should not have been started in the first place and made it even worse by horribly bumbling it. The people during this time period were only kept going by the leftover nationalism caused by the unification. The war was probably looked at from the point of view of a country that had never lost a major conflict. The German people went to war expecting to win because they knew of nothing else. They had been raised on the tales of the unification wars and to them, this was just another step.
1. Holborn, Hajo. A History of Modern Germany 1840-1945. New York: Knopf, 1969, p.415
2. Holborn, Hajo. A History of Modern Germany 1840-1945. New York: Knopf, 1969, p.422
3. Ryder, A. J. Twentieth Century Germany From Bismarck to Brandt. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973, p. 115
4. Holborn, Hajo. A History of Modern Germany 1840-1945. New York: Knopf, 1969, p.434
5. Ryder, A. J. Twentieth Century Germany From Bismarck to Brandt. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973, p. 154
4. Holborn, Hajo. A History of Modern Germany 1840-1945. New York: Knopf, 1969, p.506
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website
A 'Baby's Head' was a meat pudding which comprised part of the British Army field ration.
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