July 1, 1916. Musings about the Great War.

"The Real War"
July 1, 1916 — The first day of the Battle of the Somme
Uncommon valor
The Battle of Verdun
Gas warfare
The roots of World War One
— German militarism — French revanchism — British intransigence
Why could the War not be stopped, say in 1916?
The failure to bring about a lasting peace.

WW1 assault."The Real War"

It is only with advancing age that I have come to fully realize — not just intellectually, but in my bones! — that the past is just as real as the present. This is probably a process that all people experience as they grow older. The Space Age dawned just over fifty years ago, and J F Kennedy was elected president of the United States three years later, when I was 20. To me, those seem fairly recent events; certainly when compared to the interval between 1914 and 1960. Yet, the opposite is true.

I now find it much easier to understand why, whenever talk turned to the Second World War, my grandfather would remind us that "the real war" had been the First World War. It was the war he had grown up with, and where he might well have been called up to serve. (Sweden managed to stay out of both world wars.) Even so, he was not so far off the mark. True, the estimated number of military deaths in WW1, 8.5 million; did not reach the number in WW2, 15 million excluding the Pacific theatre. (Civilian deaths are another matter altogether.) But his opinion was not formed on the basis of the number of bodies; what he had in mind were the particular horrors of trench warfare on the Western Front.

When I was an adolescent, I took little interest in the First World War. It was the Second World War that had shaped my life, forced me to change my country and my language from German to Swedish, and it was from the Second World War that I had some hazy personal memories. Besides, my impression of WW1 was that it had been a "dull" war, with great armies stuck for years in the mud of Flanders. No dramatic action, no "blitzkrieg", no Battle of Britain, no Pearl Harbor, no atom bomb. And the images from that war seemed strangely detached from reality. Even the old news reels showing lots of strutting soldiers, but few combat scenes, seemed slightly ridiculous: they were usually grainy films projected at the wrong speed — as a result, people seemed to be bobbing and jerking all the time in a comic fashion.

However, with the passage of time I have come to realize that the outbreak of WW1 was the great forking point of history during the past century. The leaders of the world had a real choice then, and the path they chose led to the great cataclysms of the last one hundred years.

I am not claiming that mankind would necessarily have been better off without WW1. We might have been spared the tyrannies of Stalin, Hitler and Mao, and a 100 million dead — and many more bereaved (an aspect that proponents of the death penalty tend to overlook) — but there would have been other tyrants and other conflicts. Nuclear weapons (and, for that matter, chemical and biological weapons) might have been developed and used with less restraint. Nationalism and racism might have prevailed. — We shall never know.

Isaac Asimov in his wonderfully inventive novel The End of Eternity described a society of time travellers who tried to improve the world by engineering small changes to history. To make it work, he had to postulate that the effects of those small changes would gradually die out as a consequence of a certain "inertia" in Reality.

July 1, 1916 — The first day of the Battle of the Somme

WW1 assault.July 1, 1916 was the bloodiest day of WW1. It epitomizes the butchery of trench warfare on the Western Front. On that date, the Battle of the Somme began with an all-out assault by the British forces on German positions. Before the day was over, nearly 60,000 British troops had been hit by enemy fire. 20,000 of them were dead.

The assault had been prepared for a week with a barrage of artillery fire from 3,000 British and French guns. 1.6 million shells had been raining over the Germans; the heaviest bombardment in military history. Just before the attack at 07:30 hours, mines containing 100 tons of high explosives were set off under German positions. The assumption was that the defensive positions would be destroyed, the barbed wire ripped apart, and the defenders dead.

The assumption was wrong. The German troops had built robust concrete bunkers which offered adequate protection. When the artillery pounding stopped and the infantry assault came, the Germans were prepared. The advancing British troops were met with a hail of machine-gun fire:

"...they were directed to advance across 1,500 yards of No-Man's-Land towards solid banks of barbed wire and well-sited machine-guns. So hopeless was their task, and so atrocious the resulting slaughter, that when at last the battered remnants abandoned the attempt and began to stumble back, numbers of German machine-gunners and riflemen stopped shooting because they had not the heart to continue the massacre." — From "The Ethics of War" by Anthony Joseph Coates.

"Hundreds of dead were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high water-mark. Quite as many died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in the net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as if they were praying; they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall. Machine gun fire had done its terrible work." — George Copper, a British machine gunner.

Haig's diary, July 2, 1916.
Haig's diary entry for 2 July 1916. National Library of Scotland, Acc.3155/97

On July 2nd, Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, wrote in his diary:

"The A. G. reported today that total casualties are estimated at over 40,000 to date. This cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked."

In the following day, weeks and months, General Haig ordered renewed attacks. The outcome was always the same: the attacks were repulsed with heavy losses on both sides. (The losses became more evenly distributed as British tactics and use of artillery improved.) After three weeks, the British had lost 170,000 men. By the time the Battle of the Somme petered out in mid-November, due to rain, snow and mud, British losses had mounted to 420,000. In addition, French casualties had reached 200,000, and German casualties were on the order of 500,000. The allied forces had gained only 12 km at the deepest point. The battle had ended in a stalemate.

A noteworthy characteristic of the British Expeditionary Force was that men from the same town or trade were encouraged to join up together, fighting in the same unit (the "Pals" system). An unforeseen effect was that a village would sometimes lose all of its young men, when that unit was wiped out.

Uncommon valor

Uncommon valor was a common virtue. — Admiral Nimitz honoring the U.S. Marines at Iwo Jima in WW2.

Something that I find hard to comprehend, is the courage of the officers and soldiers marching across No-Man's-Land to their deaths. These were not elite forces, just ordinary infantry. While the first assault wave may not have known what awaited them on July 1st, the men who succeeded them on that day, and in the following days and weeks, knew exactly what they were in for; still they kept going. The battlefield was strewn with bodies and body parts in varying states of decomposition. The officers went first over the parapet, unarmed except for a pistol. They were the preferred targets of the defenders. They had a life expectancy of three weeks on the Somme front. Their men lived for a few months, on average, but of course that just reflects that there were lulls in the fighting. And an artillery shell could hit them at any moment, day or night.

Douglas Haig.
Douglas Haig (1861-1928)


Aerial view of a section of the Somme battlefield.

Somme battlefield.

Come to think of it, it was not just the foot soldiers who were displaying remarkable bravery. German submariners faced grim odds of survival. (The odds were even worse in WW2: just 1 in 6 survived.) Aircraft pilots were not equipped with parachutes until late in the war, and even then only the German and Austrian ones. Newly arrived pilots could expect to live for just a few weeks. If they survived their first missions, the odds gradually improved. The disparity in skills between experts and neophytes was evident in the number of victories of WW1 aces, such as von Richthofen ("the Red Baron"): 80 enemy planes shot down. Similarly, the crews of the Zeppelin airships that bombed London had slim chances of survival. — "Our nerves are ruined by mistreatment. If anyone should say that he was not haunted by visions of burning airships, then he would be a braggart. But nobody makes this assertion; everyone has the courage to confess his dreams and thoughts." — Pitt Klein, German Navy Airship L-31

One might think that only the threat of court-martial and summary execution could have enforced such discipline. This does not appear to have been the case, in general. Out of the millions of troops, 361 were executed by the British (2 of whom for sleeping on post, poor souls!) and some 600 by the French. Many cases likely could be attributed to "shell shock" (video clip) and nervous breakdown, rather than "desertion" or "cowardice". ("Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.") — Of course, one can always argue that it only takes a few executions to "encourager les autres". Just 30 "ringleaders" were shot by the French after an incident involving 30,000-40,000 soldiers refusing to go into battle. — The German Army was even more lenient: only 48 death sentences were carried out during WW1. (By contrast, in WW2, some 15,000 soldiers were executed.) — By and large, the troops advanced because it was expected of them, because they expected it from themselves, and above all because they were determined not to let their comrades down.

The Battle of Verdun

General Haig's optimism (he held cavalry in standby to exploit any gap in the German lines!) and renewed attacks over and over in the face of staggering casualty figures, and his opinion that 40,000 casualties in one day "cannot be considered severe", can only be understood in the context of the Battle of Verdun, which lasted from February to December 1916. Initially, a million German troops faced 200,000 French defenders. After initial German gains, the offensive came to a standstill, as the French sent in reinforcements. More than three quarters of all French infantry regiments eventually fought at Verdun.

Gradually, Verdun assumed an importance vastly out of proportion to its strategic significance. It became a great test of will and perseverance on both sides. The aim of the German Chief of Staff von Falkenhayn was to "bleed France dry" in the defense of the fortress town. "They shall not pass", became the French battle cry. The fighting was ferocious, the conditions difficult to imagine, see a sampling of eyewitness accounts. Losses on both sides were horrendous. At least 300,000 soldiers were killed. At times, life expectancy at Verdun could be measured in weeks.

Incidentally, the laughable myth propagated by some American politicians, annoyed at France's refusal to participate in the second Iraq war (remember "Freedom Fries"?), that the French have a poor record in military matters, can be exploded with a single word: Verdun!

Douaumont fortress, Verdun.
The Douaumont fortress at Verdun. It was seized by the Germans. The French recaptured it at a cost approaching 100,000 casualties.
Falkenhayn's plan of a war of attrition at Verdun might well have succeeded in the absence of countermeasures. The main objective of the Somme offensive was to lessen the pressure on Verdun by forcing the Germans to divert troops to the Somme front. While Haig expected to be able to achieve a breakthrough at the Somme, he also felt that he had a duty to attack in order to provide relief for Verdun. There had been deep dissatisfaction among the French, who thought that the British were not pulling their weight in the war effort. Thus, Haig may have felt a certain relief at being able to point to mounting British losses when he met his French counterparts. A sickening thought!

Gas warfare

Among the horrors of WW1, gas warfare takes a special place. It was used on a small scale as early as in the first month of the war by the French, in the form of tear gas grenades. It did not have much of an impact, and the Germans had even less success in October with a "sneezing" agent, which was hardly noticed by the intended victims.

The ethics of using tear gas in the battle field remains questionable, even though it is routinely used as an incapacitating agent for crowd control by police forces in many countries. — I was given a whiff of it in my basic military training in 1965, when my platoon was equipped with gas masks and brought to a cellar where tear gas was released. We were ordered to remove our masks one by one and ask permission to leave the cellar. Very few of us were able to complete the sentence before we panicked and headed for the exit. — We also discovered that the gas masks themselves were a problem, when we were ordered to jog up a small hill while wearing them. This seemed an easy task until oxygen debt became noticeable. At the point where you normally start panting, it became clear that not enough oxygen was coming through, and again panic set in. Several of us ripped off our masks.

Poem by Wilfred Owen.

Excerpt from a poem by Wilfred Owen, killed just one week before the armistice in 1918.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets, just in time.
But someone still was yelling out, and stumbling,
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.

Dim, through the misty panes and heavy light,
As under a dark sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He lunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

Machine gunners wearing gas masks.
Blinded by gas.
Soldiers blinded by a gas attack.

Poison gas was first used by the Germans in April 1915, at Ypres. A yellow-green cloud of chlorine was released and drifted toward the French trenches. Thinking that it was a smokescreen, and that a German attack was imminent, the unprotected French troops took up their positions and were directly exposed to the gas cloud. The impact was devastating, the soldiers fled in panic. But, as on many occasions when a new weapon was tested, there were no plans for a follow-through and the opportunity was lost, as was the element of surprise.

The British and the French responded within a few months with their own gas attacks. The weapon proved to be a risky one to use, as shifting wind conditions sometimes led to heavy losses among those who released it. — Later in the war, more potent poison gases were used by both sides: phosgene and mustard gas, which caused lasting skin and respiratory damage. In general, the French and the British used it more successfully, simply because the prevailing winds on the Western Front favored them, but gas warfare did not have a decisive effect on the outcome of the war — it simply burdened the soldiers with yet another element of suffering and inconvenience.

It is of some interest that a German corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler was among the victims of gas warfare. He was temporarily blinded and spent the end of the war in a military hospital. Many have speculated that this was one of the reasons why poison gas was not used in the battlefield in WW2. It certainly was widely expected that it would be, and that it would be used against civilians as well. — My mother, who was married and moved to Germany in June 1939, was issued a gas mask as soon as WW2 started in September. And I would imagine that the temptation must have been strong to use poison gas against the advancing Red Army during the last two years of the war.

Churchill's views on gas warfare are interesting: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.” (May 12, 1919). — See also his memo on the use of poison gas against Germany of July 6, 1944. (I am assuming that the document is authentic, although I have not seen it attract any attention on a "main-stream" history site.)

WW1 fox holes.
William Rider-Rider/Getty Images

Trench warfare in WW1. Can anybody truly imagine what it must have been like? Mud, rain, snow, rats, decomposing body parts, constant artillery shelling, excrements, diarrhea. Fleas and flies.

And that would be on a good day, with no poison gas or infantry assault against barbed wire, bayonet stabbing, machine guns, hand grenades, and flame throwers, and your best friends being torn to pieces, left and right.

The roots of World War One

Back in the 1950s, I watched a road safety film called To Kill a Child, based on Stig Dagerman's short story. It alternated between idyllic pictures of a happy man driving his car through a sunny summer landscape, and of a child playing near the street in a small village. I remember the description of the driver: "This is not an evil man. He is just in a hurry. He has no idea that in just a few minutes he is going to kill a child." The story ended: "But so merciless is life, that for someone who has killed a child, afterwards everything is too late."

These powerful images and sense of doom come back to me, when I think of the outbreak of WW1. Thousands of books have been written about the tragic events that led to the war, and passions still run high almost a full century later. Yet, no credible evidence has been brought forward that any of the principal actors actually wanted this war, or conspired to make it happen. They were not evil men. What they should be accused of, perhaps, is their resignation and fatalism when they confronted the "inevitable". The possibility of a major war had been recognized for years. Arms and ships hade been built. Plans for the conduct of war had been prepared. With time, a gradual shift in thinking took place: "If war breaks out" turned into "When war breaks out". And once that point was reached, mistrust escalated.

Verdun battlefield.When the Austrian Archduke was assassinated by a Serb nationalist, the whole chain of commitments and alliances was triggered. Once mobilization of the armed forces took place in one country after another, war was inevitable. There was no turning back, because military plans depended critically on rapid mobilization and attack. Any de-mobilization at that point would have meant total chaos (for instance, troop movements on railways had been planned to the minute), and would have left that nation open to attack. — Perhaps the heads of state had thought that they still could put the brakes on at the last moment? If so, I am sure that the military commanders quickly disillusioned them. But there is no particular reason to believe that the military leaders were evil men, either.

So, just as a traffic accident is not just an accident but also a result of contributing factors (speeding, absence of sidewalks, hedges too close to the street, or whatever), the outbreak of WW1 cannot just be ascribed to the murder of the Archduke. Most probably, it would have happened anyway, a month or a year later. — Thus, in fact it was an accident waiting to happen.

Then, what were the underlying causes of the First World War? Well, the easy answer is "German militarism", and that still seems to be the general view in the victor countries. It undoubtedly played an important role, so let us put it first on the list. Some other important factors, I think, were French revanchism and traditional British concerns about one country dominating the European continent and challenging British naval supremacy.

German militarism

"Most Germans only want to remember the good that the Prussians are responsible for: They emancipated the local Jewish population in 1812; serfdom was eliminated; immigration was encouraged; the arts and sciences and the introduction of compulsory education were sponsored and administered by the Prussian state. Warmly evoked by countless Germans is the belief in Prussian virtues: modesty, discipline, self-control, punctuality, thriftiness, state service and a hard-working attitude. These virtues are seen as the catalyst of Prussia’s economic power. — However, to most Europeans, Prussia is generally remembered for its militarism, arrogance and, especially, its expansionism." — William Ghannam

Prussia, the dominating state in the German Empire, had a well-established tradition of putting priority on developing its military capabilities. King Friedrich Wilhelm I, who reigned from 1713 to 1740, became known as "the Soldier King", although he never started a war. He was a „roi militaire et pacifiste“ (Mirabeau), observing the Roman adage "Si vis pacem, para bellum" ("If you wish for peace, prepare for war"). Not an unreasonable attitude, perhaps, in the wake of the Thirty-Year War, when the German states had been devastated by roaming armies and lost a third of their population.

By contrast, his son Friedrich II (known as "Frederick the Great" and "Der alte Fritz"), an enlightened and cultured monarch who ruled Prussia 1740-1786, who abolished torture and corporal punishment, and who introduced freedom of religion etc., fought several wars. He conquered Silesia from Austria, following a dynastic dispute, participated in the carving-up of Poland, and held his territory against a formidable coalition of Austria, France, Russia, Saxony, and Sweden. He turned Prussia into a Great Power. It was of him that Mirabeau wrote "Other states possess an army; Prussia is an army which possesses a state".

Prussia was overrun by Napoleon's armies in 1806 and lost a considerable part of its Polish possessions to Russia, confirmed in 1815. But it played a decisive role in the defeat of Napoleon and won France's former client state, the Rhineland.

Prussia had now become the strongest and most influential German state, overshadowing Austria. It must be remembered that the rest of Germany still consisted of a patchwork of independent kingdoms, duchies and principalities, with their own governments, currencies and customs barriers, many of them aligned with Austria through political or dynastic alliances. "Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube" ("Let others wage war, you — fortunate Austria — marry!") — In 1848, a year of growing nationalism and unrest all over Europe, the Danish king, who was also the Duke of two German states, Schleswig (with a large Danish population) and Holstein, sought to incorporate those states into Denmark. This led to war with Prussia. After international pressure was applied, status quo ante was re-instated.

My great-grandmother played a role in that war, when, at the age of 16 she draped herself in a Prussian flag, swam across a moat to a Danish fortress and replaced the Danish flag! Fortunately, she survived the incident, or I would not be sitting here :-) Her father, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kiel, was banned from his post by the Danish government in 1852, along with nine colleagues, for his political views.

North German Confederation 1866-1870.

The North German Confederation and the German states still aligned with Austria after the war of 1866.

Adapted from Wikipedia Commons.

The conflict simmered on and led to renewed war between Denmark and the German Confederation (including Austria) in 1864. Denmark was forced to cede all of Schleswig to Prussia and Holstein to Austria. This quickly led to friction between Prussia and Austria, with Prussia declaring war in 1866. Its decisive victory in that short war spelled the end of Austrian influence in Northern Germany. Prussia annexed some of Austria's former allies outright, and formed the North German Confederation, dominated by Prussia, out of 22 states.

In 1870, France declared war on Prussia. The immediate cause was the refusal of the Prussian king to accede to a humiliating demand that no member of the Hohenzollern dynasty would ever ascend to the Spanish throne. Prussia's prime minister von Bismarck made sure that this refusal was made public in a way that seemed insulting to the French, further inflaming passions that had already been aroused. As Bismarck had anticipated, the southern German states (except Austria, Liechtenstein; and Luxemburg and Limburg on the Dutch border) joined Prussia. The war quickly turned into a French disaster. Her emperor was captured in the field, and Paris surrendered after a short siege. The Prussian king was named "German Emperor" in Versailles, just outside Paris. (Not "Emperor of Germany", as Austria was not included.)

During the next two decades, Bismarck worked hard to consolidate the German Empire, especially through alliances with Austria, and Russia. He avoided challenging Britain through naval build-up or colonial adventures, but in 1888, Wilhelm II became emperor. He forced Bismarck to resign in 1890.

The most extravagant idea that can arise in the head of a politician is to believe that it is enough for a people to enter armed among a foreign people and expect to have its laws and constitution adopted. No one likes armed missionaries; and the first advice of nature and of caution is to repulse them as enemies.

Robespierre anti-war speech in 1792.

It seems to me that up to this point, all the talk of a warmongering, reckless, expansionist Prussia, "the root of evil" (Churchill), is greatly exaggerated and can be attributed to a large dose of bitterness engendered by the two world wars. For nearly a century after the last, defensive, war of Frederick the Great, Prussia did not wage any war except for the ones forced upon it by the French revolution and Napoleon.

When it resorted to violence in 1866, ending Austrian hegemony in northern Germany, and setting up the North German Confederation under its own domination, this was not necessarily seen as an act of conquest by the people concerned, many of whom were fed up with German fragmentation and disunity. Nationalism was on the rise all over Europe. Just four years later, some of Prussia's recent enemies, the southern German states, would join her in the war against France.

Bismarck leaving the ship (cartoon).
An acclaimed cartoon: Bismarck as the pilot leaving the ship in 1890.

Of course, Prussia could be faulted — and was! — for fostering a military outlook on life, emphasizing discipline, unquestioning obedience, hard work, duty to the state etc. "Sparta in the morning, Athens in the evening", as Voltaire put it. Her large Polish minority was mistreated. And I very much doubt that Prussia was squeamish about coercing her neighbors for political gain.

Still, I find it hard to believe that Prussia was in a league of its own when it comes to brutality and disrespect for human life and dignity. If anything, she may come out better than some of the other major powers. After all, this was the age of colonialism in Europe and slavery in America. Britain and France grabbed large parts of Africa (including Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria) in bloody wars of conquest.

However, after Bismarck was forced to resign in 1890, things took a decided turn for the worse. Wilhelm II was determined to gain "a place in the sun" for his empire commensurate with its industrial and military strength, the size of its population, and the vitality of its culture. This inevitably meant friction with the established Great Powers, especially France and Britain. Germany was a late entrant in the race to acquire colonies in Africa and the Pacific, and she embarked on a program of naval buildup that was a clear challenge to British supremacy on the seas. What made the situation even worse was that Wilhelm personally was a vain and arrogant man, totally lacking in diplomacy. (In an interview intended to calm the British public about German aspirations, he was quoted as saying: "You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares.") He irked the British by supporting the Boers in the South African war, and the French by favoring Moroccan independence. Wilhelm was obsessed with the display of military power, staging parades and sending his fleet to "hot spots" of conflict. (By the way, one of the best political cartoons I have seen shows thousands of flies attending a military parade featuring a huge — fly swatter! I have been unable to find it on the Web.) The outbreak of the war caught him by surprise and he tried to stop it, but by then it was too late.

French revanchism

France had been a player in German politics at least since the 30-year war 1618-1648, when, in alliance with Sweden (a great power throughout the 17th century), she sought to counteract the influence of the Emperor of "the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation" (which was "neither holy nor Roman, nor even an empire"), who resided in present-day Austria. The war ended with France in possession of part of the German-speaking Alsace province. — Following another war with Austria, France in 1697 won complete possession of Alsace, including the important city of Strasbourg. France was now firmly established on the left bank of the Rhine. However, she abstained from any attempt to convert Alsace into a French-speaking province. Culturally, Alsace remained German. (Goethe finished his education as a law student in Strasbourg in 1771.) It was only after the French revolution that Alsace became more closely integrated with France, as Paris began to exert firmer control over the provinces. In 1815, after Napoleon's final defeat, there was only a minor adjustment of the Franco-German border. Thus, Alsace remained a French province for almost two centuries right up to the Franco-Prussian war, while retaining her own language, which was a dialect of German.

In 1795, France annexed the Rhineland (with a wholly German population) and present-day Belgium. This gave France possession of the left bank of the Rhine all the way down to Holland, but in 1815 she was forced to surrender the Rhineland to Prussia (and Belgium was returned to the Netherlands). — France continued to covet the Rhineland, however, viewing the Rhine as her "natural border". In 1840, the French government under Adolphe Thiers demanded the return of the Rhineland and threatened the German "Bund" of loosely confederated states with war (the Rhine crisis). Although the crisis subsided, it led to an awakening of German nationalism, which expressed itself in patriotic hymns such as "Die Wacht am Rhein" and "Deutschland über alles". Heine wrote: "Thiers brought us back on our feet as a people".

Yet another issue that nearly led to war in 1867 was the French emperor's attempt to annex the German state of Luxemburg. It could only be averted through the mediation of Britain. Luxemburg would not belong to either France or Prussia, but it stayed within the German customs union.

Europe 1914 map.
Source: Life 10/3/1938 (through history/sandiego/edu).
Europe in 1914. — I have highlighted Alsace-Moselle which changed hands between France and Germany four times 1871-1945.

When France declared war on Prussia in 1870, expectations, at least among the French public, were that the Rhineland would be restored to France, and that the Rhine would become the western border of the German Federation. Instead, on top of a humiliating defeat, Alsace and part of Lorraine were lost to Prussia and the newly formed German Empire!

If one looks at the map, and considers that the territory grabbed by Prussia had an overwhelmingly German-speaking population, it may be hard to understand the depth of resentment that was felt in France after the Franco-Prussian war. But the idea of an expansion to the Rhine had been a central theme in French politics for centuries, and the Alsatians were considered to be loyal Frenchmen.

In fact, until nationalism and pangermanism became important forces in the mid-19th century, ethnic identity was less of a concern. In the absence of modern communications, the immediate surroundings: the village, the region, remained important, while Paris and Berlin were relatively irrelevant. Most Alsatians probably considered themselves Alsatians first. — As late as in the 1970s, I was surprised to hear people in Chamonix say that their weather came from "France". Savoy had been annexed by France more than a century earlier!

La dernière classe excerpt-

From my library: The end of Alphonse Daudet's short story "La dernière classe", which describes the last lesson given by a teacher of French in an Alsatian school.

Bismarck resisted the proposal to seize Alsace and Moselle. His principal concern was to consolidate the new German Empire, and he considered it prudent to abstain from territorial conquest, just as he had abstained from territorial demands on Austria after 1866, so as not to engender future enmity. But the military leadership under general Moltke argued successfully that the French would remain implacable foes regardless, and that militarily it was much easier to defend the Reich from the left bank of the Rhine. Besides, most of the German public wanted Elsass-Lothringen (Alsace-Lorrraine) "liberated". Bismarck was overruled.

Even today, how you view Alsace's history seems to be very much colored by your own background. Here is a forum where amateur historians seek to clobber each other with statistics from that long-gone era. — What remains important is that the loss of Alsace became a subject of intense emotion in France: a national trauma and a source of passionate hatred.

My German grandmother, who was born in 1881, spent some time in Nancy around the turn of the century. I think that she worked as an au-pair or a governess. She experienced at first hand the deep hatred of all things German at that time. Her daughter-in-law — my mother — remarked on her bitterness toward France as late as WW2. An instructive example of how hostility breeds hostility over generations!

Actually, Prussian rule over Alsace was comparatively lenient. French civil law remained in force until 1900. French was recognized as school language and official administrative language in the French-speaking regions around Metz. Well over 90 percent of the population chose to stay and become German citizens. But local elections were invariably won by candidates who favored independence or increased autonomy for Alsace. — After WW1, a program of ethnic cleansing (épuration) was launched. French became the only official language. German immigrants were expelled, and four levels of citizenship were established. — Since WW2, French has gradually supplanted Alsatian as the spoken language, and today Alsatian is on the list of endangered languages.

British intransigence

With regard to Europe, Britain has historically observed two fundamental principles:

1. To seek naval supremacy, in order to protect the British isles from invasion, and to protect commerce.
2. To counteract any power seeking to dominate the European continent.

This policy served Britain well during the Napoleonic wars, and for centuries before that. In the late 19th century, it meant that with Prussia's growing strength, Britain's old rivalry with France was gradually being superseded by concerns over a potential German challenge to British interests. In 1904, Britain entered into an "entente cordiale" with France. Old rivalries in the colonies were laid to rest. Spheres of interest were agreed, with Britain getting a free hand in Egypt and France in Morocco.

British worries over Germany's growing power intensified after Russia's defeat in her war against Japan in 1905. Suddenly, France's alliance with Russia seemed frail. Would Russia really honor the alliance, if a war should erupt between France and Germany?

During the following years, Germany intensified the buildup of its fleet. This was an extremely sensitive subject to Britain. Naval power was considered the foundation of her existence, while Germany's ambitions were seen as a "luxury" purely aimed at expanding its power. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, insisted that Britain must retain a 60 percent advantage over Germany, and build two new battleships for each one added to the German fleet. The arms race intensified.

Why could the War not be stopped, say in 1916?

If the forces that worked for war in 1914 — not by design, but inexorably nonetheless — proved unstoppable, due to a combination of militarism, arrogance, chauvinism, revanchism, xenophobia, cynicism, mistrust, miscalculation, and pure hatred; why was it not stopped once the true nature of modern warfare had become evident, say in 1916 after the battles of Verdun and the Somme, if not before then? Dreams of a rapid victory had been shattered on both sides. The war had basically reached a stalemate. Every offensive on the Western Front had been repulsed with staggering losses. Many hundreds of thousands of young men had been sacrificed on both sides.

After all, none of the combatants could be sure of victory. Their war aims seemed modest when compared to the horrible sacrifices already made and yet to be expected. Whatever their own propaganda was proclaiming, national survival was not at stake. None of the great powers was out to enslave the others. Yet, no serious attempts were made at the highest levels to stop the war. What could explain this?

Many answers can be given, none of them truly satisfactory, considering the dimensions of the unfolding tragedy.

"The underlying causes would have remained unsolved."

Europe hade been on the verge of war for years before its outbreak in 1914. It was increasingly seen as inevitable. An armistice would not have settled any of the underlying issues. France and Britain would have felt just as vulnerable as before, and Germany just as fettered and threatened by a two-front war. Russian strength was growing, e. g. its railway system was being improved. Both sides viewed a settlement as likely to be temporary, and to carry a high risk that a future war would favor the enemy.

"Any peace feeler would have been interpreted as a sign of weakness."

Christmas truce 1914In time of war, any sign of hesitation is likely to strengthen the resolve of the enemy and to lower morale on your side. In general, any suggestion of a negotiated settlement would be considered unpatriotic, or even treacherous. — A case in point is the fraternization that took place between British and German troops on the front during Christmas 1914. It was viewed with great alarm by commanders on both sides, and harsh measures were taken to ensure that it would not happen again.

Another example is the case of Lord Lansdowne, a leading conservative with the best credentials, a minister 1915-1916. Having become increasingly concerned with the appalling losses in the war, he wrote a letter in 1917 reflecting on the possible principles for a peace offer. Its publication had been cleared with the Foreign Secretary in advance (which is not to say that he agreed with it), but the Times refused to print it. The Daily Telegraph accepted it. It caused an uproar, and the cabinet denied any previous knowledge of it. Lansdowne was violently denounced and died in disgrace after the war.

Popular sentiment for peace was weaker than one might expect in the face of the appalling casualty figures. People in the warfaring countries were largely kept in the dark about conditions — and losses — at the front. Strict military censorship was imposed on all correspondence. In the later stages of the war, the soldiers were given pre-printed postcards, where they could check boxes describing their present status, leaving no room for personal messages. Newspapers exercised self-censorship even when they were not nominally being censored, echoing official optimism about the prospects for victory and downplaying setbacks.

No belligerent likes to make a proposal from a position of weakness, especially if he finds reasons to hope that the situation will improve. Conversely, the combatant with the upper hand is tempted to push his advantage rather than lose momentum through negotiations. Therefore the opportune moment for negotiations to start is easy to miss, and even after any peace talks start — in secret or openly — any progress will be highly dependent on military and political events.

"The depth of mutual hatred made it impossible."

Enmity between the French and German nations had been on the rise throughout the 19th century along with the rise of nationalism. I suspect that France's and Prussia's leaders did not really mind. From time to time, French governments sought to defuse civil unrest by mobilizing opinion against an external adversary (e. g. the Rhine crisis in 1840), while Prussia's schemes to extend her influence among the German states were helped by antagonism vis-à-vis France. Public opinion in France reached a fever pitch in 1870 when Napoleon III, weakened by his Mexican debacle, was unable to withstand the pressure to declare war on Prussia. During the following decades, mutual hostility and mistrust escalated, as described earlier.

Antipathy between the British and German nations was less deep-seated. Britain and Prussia had been allies in the war against Napoleon I. The British royal family had roots in Germany, and until 1837 the British monarch was also the king of Hanover, one of the larger German states. The growing power of Prussia was not seen as a threat to British interests until Prussia's victories in 1866 and 1870. Earlier, Prussia had seemed a useful counterbalance to France, Britain's main rival. Stereotypes of the German character tended to evoke amusement rather than fear.

When war broke out, there was an outpouring of patriotism in Germany and France. In Britain, initially the mood was more subdued, although people were resigned to having to join the war after Germany had violated Belgium's neutrality. This presented the British government with a problem, as strong public support was essential to the war effort, and as the British army was dependent on volunteers signing up. (Military service in Germany and France was compulsory.)

Bureaus of propaganda were set up in all the warring nations. In Britain a group of famous authors was formed in secret to produce poems, stories and pamphlets glorifying the war and engendering hatred of the enemy. The authorities and newspapers on both sides were more than willing to endorse unsubstantiated rumors about enemy atrocities.

The account of a single purported eyewitness has been known to tip the scales in favor of starting a war. Remember the testimony given to a U. S. congressional caucus on Capitol Hill on Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait (babies ripped from incubators)? It was later revealed that the "witness" was not actually an eyewitness — and that in fact she was the Kuwaiti ambassador's daughter!

A sampling of posters and cartoons vilifying Germany as the aggressor and perpetrator of heinous crimes.

The drawing on the far right alludes to rumors, printed in The Times, that the Germans used the bodies of dead soldiers to produce soap and other industrial materials. — The same rumor resurfaced after WW2. Allegations were made that Jews had been "turned into soap" in the concentration camps, and were given credence at the Nuremberg trials. The Nazis have since been absolved of that particular crime, but to this day it remains imprinted on the minds of many people. — This kind of "Greuelpropaganda" during WW1 had the unfortunate effect that rumors of Nazi atrocities during WW2 were easily and credibly dismissed as enemy propaganda by the Nazi leadership and failed to impress the German public.

I do not want to give the impression that war propaganda was a one-sided affair. In Germany, "Gott mit uns" and "Gott strafe England" ("May God punish England") became battle cries in resonance with the general conviction that the fight was for a just cause. "Holy Hatred" of the enemy was extolled as a virtue.

There is even a poem with that title to be found in the war diary kept by my father's cousin Nessie (1900-1991). Her naive schoolgirl diary faithfully reflects the jingoistic attitudes in Germany at the time.

As the war progressed, to allow the hated enemy to escape defeat, humiliation, and retribution, became just as unthinkable as actually losing the war.

"All the sacrifices would have been for nothing."

War cemetery.An argument which is repeated over and over in wartime is that anything less than complete victory would be a betrayal of the brave men who have given their lives for their country. It is a fallacious argument, but one that resonates deeply with the human psyche. — "Do you mean to say that we have sacrificed our son in vain?"

The same logic is often applied in other areas: — "We have invested so much in this project. We cannot afford to drop it." — "You want to turn back after we have gone this far?" — "You want to sell this stock, now that we have taken a 15 percent loss?" Logic of course tells us that each situation should be evaluated on its own merits, without looking back, but that is not how most of us think. And regardless of your own opinion, in politics you cannot afford to ignore what most people think.

* * * * *

In summary, then, there were many obstacles to a negotiated peace, and realistically only the top leaders of the great powers were in a position to make it happen: the Kaiser, Hindenburg perhaps, Poincaré, Clemenceau, Asquith, Lloyd George. Any one of them would have had to summon enormous courage to even whisper any thoughts in this direction. The risk of starting a negative spiral of declining morale among their own citizenry and armed forces, while encouraging the enemy, would have been considerable. And the leaders were only human, they shared the prejudices and emotions of their subjects. They certainly did not want to go down in history as "weak". Victory still beckoned. Also, I suppose that commanders and leaders who had already sent thousands to their deaths, were subject to a process of desensitizing as time passed and losses mounted.

But I cannot help wondering: Did any of them ever suffer from nightmares — other than about losing the war?

Ypres 1917.
Photographer: Frank Hurley
Ypres, 1917

The failure to bring about a lasting peace.

I was tempted to put Talleyrand's famous opinion (about Napoleon's decision to have the Duc d'Enghien executed) at the top of this section: "It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder". But that would be too sweeping a judgment of the Versailles treaty. The victors all wanted a lasting peace, but they also had severe constraints to deal with. All the bitterness that remained after the war — partly engendered by their own propaganda efforts — demanded that harsh terms be imposed on Germany and Austria. Vengeance could not be denied. France, Britain and the United States were parliamentary democracies where popular opinion could not be ignored. The next election loomed in the minds of their appointed leaders. Politicians and newspapers stood on guard to sound the alarm at the slightest sign of leniency or "weakness". "We won the war, now let us make sure we also win the peace", was the general mood.

Clemenceau viewing German body.
Clemenceau (2nd from right).
"He was the only Western statesman who would walk up and unmoved look at the body of a German soldier who, through his presence, had defiled the soil of his beloved France."

(Swedish journalist and historian Jan Olof Olsson).

On the other hand, Clemenceau won tremendous respect from his troops for having the courage to visit them in the trenches. During the critical last year of the war, he stiffened French resistance through sheer willpower.

And there is no table where you can look up the risk of a future war as a function of the severity of the conditions you impose on a defeated enemy. The victors all had different views on this. — Clemenceau, "the Tiger", on behalf of France demanded a "carthaginian" peace which would permanently remove the threat of German militarism through huge war reparations and the suppression of its armed forces. France must have the Rhine as its eastern border. — Lloyd George was content to divest Germany of her fleet and her colonies. Her territorial losses should be limited to areas where Germans were in the minority. He feared the risk of a future war if Germany were forced to surrender the Rhineland.

During the past few days, I have been reading Churchill's account of the Versailles negotiations, in which he participated, in his three-volume "The Great War", published in 1933. Fascinating stuff! A few things that I found particularly noteworthy:

  • Churchill, who participated in the negotiations, appears to be mildly apologetic over the Treaty. On the one hand he defends its provisions as largely just and reasonable, on the other hand he stresses the point that clearer heads found it difficult to prevail in the face of the passions that were still raging. He notes that the Treaty failed to give France the security it required, and at the same time was totally unacceptable to Germans. He pins his hopes to the Locarno Treaty of 1925. He agrees with the renowned economist Keynes that the provisions for German reparations were self-defeating but notes that they had subsequently been relaxed. (Austria and Hungary fared even worse.) He notes with amazement that Germany had been limited to an army of 100,000 men, no tanks, no military airplanes, only a few ships, while other nations faced no such restrictions, notably Poland and Russia. He finds it paradoxical that the same Czechs and Slovaks who had recently been fighting for Austria were now sitting among the victor states, representing Czechoslovakia.
  • Churchill relates the negotiations between the victors, and how they led to the actual terms of the Treaty, but in my opinion he fails to adequately address the psychological impact on Germany of the way the Treaty was prepared and presented — something that may have had an even larger detrimental effect on the prospects for a lasting peace than the provisions themselves.

    He concedes that it was generally understood that Germany's surrender was based on Wilson's 14 points, and that both France and Britain took advantage of the unexpected German interior collapse after the armistice to adjust and interpret those provisions to their own advantage. — Generally speaking, the German people were unprepared for a harsh peace. The whole war had been fought on foreign soil, and victory had seemed within reach well into 1918. Churchill points to the horrors that would have awaited Germany, had the war continued into 1919. He is undoubtedly right, but the fact remains: Germans felt misled and tricked by their enemies.

    He describes how Lloyd George was determined to fulfill his election promise to "hang the Kaiser", and how the French acquiesced, a little shocked but at the same time amused at the idea. — Hindenburg then declared himself fully responsible for all acts of the German armies from 1916 onwards, and offered himself to the court. The Emperor's sons took the same line. ("I am Spartacus!") — The problem was solved through the refusal of the Dutch to surrender the Kaiser, saving everybody from embarrassment.

    I think he underestimates the psychological effect of denying Germany at least a symbolic seat at the negotiating table. And he dismisses paragraph 231, where Germany is forced to assume total responsibility for the outbreak of the war, as a legal necessity to justify war reparations.

    Finally, he mentions German protests against the hunger blockade, which remained in force until July 1919, after the Treaty was signed, but he does not express any view on the subject. According to official German figures, nearly 763,000 wartime deaths in Germany occurred due to starvation caused by the Allied blockade. (This figure excluded the further 150,000 German victims of the 1918 "Spanish flu" influenza pandemic.) There are no statistics for the final eight months of blockade after the armistice, when conditions became even worse.

    My German aunt was sent to Sweden in the summer of 1920 at the age of 12 to "put some flesh on her bones". This is how my German father and my Swedish mother later came to meet!

  • Churchill feels that France was shortchanged in the peace agreement. She had been forced to accept that the Rhineland would remain German, even if de-militarized, in exchange for British and American guarantees to go to war on her behalf in case of German aggression. But the U.S. Congress refused to ratify the agreement and the U.S. did not join the League of Nations. This left France in a precarious situation: she had humiliated and angered Germany without being able to ensure long-term military supremacy. In the choice between showing magnanimity with a view to improving relations, and ruthlessly crushing her enemy, she now found herself in an intermediate position, achieving neither reconciliation nor security based on domination. France's Marshal Foch, a hardliner in the mold of Clemenceau, memorably denounced the Versailles Treaty: "This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years".
  • Churchill approvingly quotes a memo by Lloyd George, where the latter worries about the possibility of a German communist revolution, creating the spectre of a Russian-German alliance with 300 million people organized into a huge Red Army, under German leadership, and justifies his policy of relative moderation with that perspective.

    This scenario, in effect, remained a distinct possibility over the next fifteen years. Communist rebellions were crushed in Kiel in 1918, and in Berlin and Munich in 1919. Even then, Lloyd George could not have foreseen the further stresses on German society caused by hyperinflation in 1923 and mass unemployment during the Great Depression 1929-1933. There is no doubt in my mind that fear of a civil war greatly contributed to the rise of Hitler. There was a yearning for a "strong man" who would "bring us together" and eliminate class struggle and party strife.

    When my German uncle Hans returned home to Leipzig on a hospital train after the war, he encountered a revolutionary band who busied themselves with tearing the insignia showing rank and military distinctions from the uniforms of officers. He took refuge in a greengrocer's shop, where the lady owner "carefully and lovingly" removed his insignia and Iron Cross for him. — And my German grandfather, a prominent church dean, wrote in 1927: "...and the still ongoing persecutions of Christians in Russia, make it seem not impossible to us, that we German Christians perhaps shall be forced to confirm our faith with the death of martyrs ('Zeugentod')."

  • Churchill's description makes one realize the sheer volume of matters that had to be settled. It was not just a question of agreeing on which measures to take against Germany. The exact shape of Germany's eastern border would ideally reflect the Polish/German ethnic majorities, but they were mixed up, with many enclaves. Poland required access to the Baltic, which conflicted with that principle. Then there were borders to be agreed between the new states, e. g. between Poland and Czechoslovakia. New borders were drawn for Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria. Ethnicities were poorly documented and highly controversial, varying from village to village. Plebiscites were arranged, leading to new complications. Millions of Germans found themselves living in newly created countries. — Churchill admits that the result was far from satisfactory but argues that it was the best that could be achieved.
  • He rather prophetically writes: "The next time, perhaps there will be a contest of killing women and children and the civilian population in general, and victory will hold a sorrowful wedding with the diligent hero who has organised the mass murder at the largest scale." (Translated back from Swedish; I do not have access to the original version.)

In the aftermath of WW2, statesmen were more successful. America launched a large aid program to rebuild wartorn Europe. Men such as Monnet, Schuman, Adenauer, realizing that economic integration was a powerful means of counteracting nationalism, forged the Coal and Steel Community, which over the years developed into the European Union. The Cold War undoubtedly helped Western Europe to find a commonality of purpose. But even today animosities incomprehensible to a Scandinavian persist in the Balkans, and, at least until recently, in Ireland.

Mitterand and Kohl holding hands at Verdun.

French President Mitterrand and German Chancellor Kohl honoring the fallen at Verdun.

One way to look at World War One is that abstract concepts such as Nation, Fatherland, Honor, Duty, took on a much greater significance than the concrete reality. Soldiers would remark on the strangeness of their task: to run a bayonet into a man whom they would gladly have invited to a glass of beer under other circumstances. An abstract label such as "Frenchman" or "German" became reason enough to kill or starve people, whether they were soldiers or civilians, men or women, children or old people, criminals or clergymen. Regardless of one's views on collective guilt, large groups of people — including soldiers (I have never understood the talk of "innocent" civilians; what makes them more innocent than their brothers and fathers and sons?) — were made to suffer without having carried any personal guilt except to be born in the wrong country.

This train of thought brings back the memory of a young schoolgirl who wrote: "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?"

It is all too easy to blame WW1 on the shortsightedness of the leaders who started it, who failed to stop it, and who — once it ended — failed to create the conditions that might have led to a lasting peace.

But who among us can say with certainty that he would have fared any better in their place, without the benefit of all the experiences and lessons of an additional century of history?

Further reading (and watching)

There are of course thousands upon thousands of books and web sites dealing with World War One. Here are just a few that happened to catch my interest:

1. "A Death at the Battle of the Somme, 1916," — EyeWitness to History web site.
2. "The Somme — From Defeat to Victory, Part 2." — Video from a BBC documentary.
3. "Battles: The Battle of the Somme, 1916." — FirstWorldWar web site.
4. "The Great War — Historians Overview." — PBS (Public Broadcasting) educational web site.

    Last edited or checked May 6, 2008. Broken links fixed or replaced March 16, 2018, February 19, 2024.  

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