Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Three years in - 3rd August 1917

The spark for the global conflagration was the assassination in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914. Sequentially, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28th July; August 1st Germany ordered general mobilisation and declared war on Russia; August 3rd Germany declared war on France; on August 4th Germany declared war on Belgium, and Britain did so on Germany. But not until 6th August did Austria-Hungary declare against Russia, and it was 12th August before Great Britain and France declared war on Austria-Hungary. It is not easy to pick a date to mark the 3rd anniversary of onset of the greatest conflict in history. So I've plumped for August 3rd - the date on which the two greatest armies in the world were irrevocably set against each other, and in the mid range of those other declarations.
The Prinzregent Luitpold. Cooped up in Wilhelms-
haven, her frustrated crew mutinied on 3/8/1917
As it happened no seismic events happened on that 3rd anniversary. There was a mutiny on board the German battleship Prinzregent Luitpold in Wilhelmshaven, where frustrated and war-weary sailors demanded an end to the war; and in the Bukovina, Rumania the Germans re-occupied some territory taken in the brief Rumanian assault of late 1916. But through July and August 1917 a range of events demonstrated how the old world order was continuing to change as the war ground on. The first year had seen desperate struggles that only confirmed the foolishness of experts' predictions of a short decisive war. The second year clarified matters so that by the end of 1916 it seemed only a matter of time before the British Naval blockade and the combined strengths of the Allies would eventually wear down the German people, or their military machine. By 3rd August 1917 all bets were off, in fact it looked like Germany as the more likely outright victor. Two major factors had brought about this turnaround - the Russian February Revolution, and the declaration of unrestricted U-boat warfare on the high seas. The latter had triggered a third significant factor - the entry of USA to the war on the side of the Allies.

All this had changed the two major constants of the war to date. Firstly that Germany had no choice but to pursue war on two major fronts - the Eastern and the Western. The February Revolution in St. Petersburg caused a short term collapse in the discipline and organisation of the Russian Army. Above all, uncertainty regarding the outcomes affected the balance of the Allies strategy. The planned advance through the Caucasus into Persia to link with the British faltered. By August there was a supportive provisional Russian government headed by the young Kerenski, but the outlook remained bleak. The prospect of Germany being awarded almost a free hand to attack in the West was a chilling one. Secondly, the post Jutland status quo at sea, whereby the German High Seas Fleet remained bottled up in port, and the British Grand Fleet continued its blockade of German imports, was reversed by the dramatic early effects of the German unrestricted U-boat warfare declaration in January 1917. By April, the monthly losses in merchant shipping tonnage really did pose a threat to the viability of the British war effort, although by August 3rd it seemed that the worst might be past.  
The very welcome counter to these two reverses was the entry of the USA into the war. Initially this was more of a psychological boost than a military one. However, now that the shackles of a sham neutrality had been cast off, the full economic and material resources of the USA could be committed to the cause, and there was strong cause for optimism if the present dangers could be overcome.
Initially Woodrow Wilson focused on building capacity, by voting funding and selective conscription through Congress in order to enlist 1.5 million men within four months. He supported Britain's naval blockade by banning certain exports to neutral countries. One result of this was that in July and August 1917 alone, neutral China, Siam, Liberia and several South American countries followed the USA's lead in declaring war on Germany. 

Losers? By August 1917, what had been the most significant failures of the war to date?
  • Austria's plans to annihilate Serbia - instead a humiliating defeat only put right by German intervention in 1915 that truly did the annihilation.
  • the Schlieffen master plan to end the war in three months - reversed at the Battle of the Marne
  • the Russian French agreement to crush Germany from east and west, crushed instead by the German victory over Russia at Tannenberg 1914
  • Joffre's elan-fuelled offensives in Champagne and Artois through 1915
  • Churchill's and Kitchener's strategic gamble at Gallipoli
  • Falkenhayn's Verdun plan, which backfired and ended his time as German C-in-C
  • Nivelle's shooting star career as French supremo, ending in mutiny of his own armies in May 1917
  • Russia's aims for Galicia and Hungary, so bright in late 1914 but destroyed by the German advances into Russia following the Gorlice-Tarnow breakthrough in 1915
  • Germany's first U boat blockade attempt, which was ended by the diplomatic own goal of the Lusitania sinking in 1915
  • At sea, the 'definitive' Battle of Jutland met neither side's aim, but it was the German High Seas Fleet that remained bottled up in its ports until its surrender in 1918
  • Roumania's ill judged entry to the war on the side of the Allies, which was crushed within months
  • the German political leadership had lost control of the agenda to Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Bethmann-Hollweg, an ever present as Chancellor since 1909, resigned on 14th July 1917. He was followed a day later by his inept Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmerman, whose crass telegram had finally provoked Woodrow Wilson to war. Even Kaiser Wilhelm II was now no more than a political figurehead.
  • Civilian populations almost everywhere suffered, but more so in occupied and blockaded countries
  • Armies - losses in first three years stood at around 6 million
And what had prospered?
  • the German military machine was undefeated. It had made huge initial gains, been forced by weight of opposition to establish strong defensive positions and concede some ground, but nowhere was it defending on German soil
  • Turkey - everybody's favourite for an early crushing, either by allied forces or 'neutral' Balkan enemies. In fact the new secular Turkish leadership had worked effectively with Germany and gained notable successes, particularly against the British at Gallipoli and Kut. Nevertheless, three years in, its crumbling Ottoman Empire was under increasing pressure from all sides. 
  • the Royal Navy, despite its outdated customs and leadership, had retained control of the high seas, and the blockade of Germany that slowly drained the lifeblood of the country. (It was below the surface that the U boat menace tipped the balance towards fatal merchant shipping losses.)
  • the Italian army - commanded by Cadorna, who had managed his armies well in a ping-pong series of battles with Austria along the line of the Isonzo river. At this point he was holding his own, and looking like an attractive partner for the allies to join in knocking Austria out of the war. 
  • USA neutrality, lasting for nearly three years of all out war, undoubtedly brought financial gains to the country through loans and armament sales. This would strengthen the position of the USA greatly in the post-war world. In contrast, all of the combatant nations were in severe economic difficulties by this time.
Who had been and gone? Of the dramatis personae, many of the original key players were dead or discarded
  • Sir John French - first C-in-C of the BEF, sacked in 1915.
  • Kitchener - War Minister 1914-16. A watery grave in June 1916.
  • Churchill - First Lord of the Admiralty until the Gallipoli disaster. Back in the Government as munitions minster 1917
  • Herbert Asquith (PM) and Edward Grey (Foreign Minister) - left office in 1916 with the fall of the British coalition government.
  • Joffre, French C-in-C - eventually paid the price for the terrible attritional failures of 1915
  • Moltke, Falkenhayn as German military supremos: Moltke for the Marne, Falkenhayn for Verdun.
  • Grand Duke Nicholas  -  uncle of the Tsar. A career soldier, and a good one, unlike his nephew who sacked him and then took over from him. He was made scapegoat for the defeats of 1915 
  • the Tsar, Nicholas II. A dead man walking. Deluded, incompetent, insensitive - by August 1917 he was under house arrest with months to live 
  • Conrad von Hotzendorf, Austrian Chief of Staff since 1909. He was one of the few individuals who could reasonably be accused of causing WW1. Despite humiliations and a string of poor performances at the head of the Austrian army, he retained office until March 1917, when Charles I, Austria's new Emperor fired him. Too little, too late.
Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Wilson,
carriers of the Allied hopes going into the fourth year of war

As the war entered its fourth year, Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George were perhaps the Allies most prominent statesmen. Haig was in command of the British Army, but with lukewarm support from his government. In France, Petain was C-in-C and Clemenceau was the most influential politician, though the latter had declined to join the latest short lived government of national unity. People in the west hoped (in vain) that some order and stability might come from Russia, keeping them as a potent ally. Kerenski's star was in the ascendancy, but would not be for long. In Germany, Ludendorff (with, to a lesser extent, the people's hero Hindenburg) was running the show. His military single mindedness meant further misery and suffering for the German civilian population, now desperate for the war to end.

In fact, all combatant nations - civilians, soldiers, sailors, politicians - were desperate for the war to end. But nobody yet had the answers.

No comments:

Post a Comment