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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

The War

On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.

A. E. HOUSMAN "Shropshire Lad"

Four years, three months, and one week after it began, the world war ended. Its political and economic effects would continue for another twenty years. As for the psychological and cultural impact it generated, there is no means of statistical or chronological measurement. "The war has ruined us for everything," woefully commented one of the characters in Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front". It ruined many and much: lives, property, ambitions, ideals. "Progress," that simple word and widespread European ideal, would never again be piously proclaimed.

Yet such dismal thoughts as these filled few minds in the summer of 1914. A "frischer und fröhlicher Krieg", a "fresh and joyous war," was what was generally expected. It was to have provided much excitement, many opportunities for heroic action; and it would leave as its rewards medals to display and acts of glory to recount before a winter fire, and over a glass of port or a stein of beer. And so German soldiers, wearing fresh flowers on their field-gray uniforms, proudly paraded before cheering Berliners; while French infantry in blue jackets and red trousers gathered at the Parisian railroad stations, where they were greeted by lilting military marches and finely dressed female admirers.

This bright moment was very short. It did not last beyond the summer. The Schlieffen Plan nearly succeeded, but did not. Against the relentless and well- timed advance of the Germans, the French suddenly rushed reinforcements northward to keep the "swinging door" from closing on their nation. The two rival military forces now began what has been called the "rush to the sea," in reality an improvised set of actions on the part of the Germans to maneuver around the French, and an equally hasty effort on the part of the French to prevent this. Each side moved laterally until the North Sea was reached.

For the next four years the war was in fact a stalemate, an unrelieved linear war, with two forces sufficiently matched to prevent one or the other from "unlocking the front," from breaking through the enemy lines. Therefore, it is best to imagine the military scene as composed of two parallel lines, separated by a newly created wasteland, a "no man's land" dug out of French soil by artillery fire and kept starkly barren by the constant interplay of machine guns and the presence of twisted coils of barbed wire.

The parallel lines were, of course, the rows of trenches in which the soldiers stood, slept, cursed, and waited, until the signal for an attack on the other side was given. Seldom more than a few miles of territory were yielded by one force or the other in these wanton exercises. The battlelines therefore remained nearly static.

What was the result of this unanticipated military situation? The war has been described as a grand artillery duel. And it was that. The Germans concentrated 1,400 guns along an eight-mile front for the opening of the Battle of Verdun in 1916. They also stocked 2,500,000 shells for the occasion. In the following year, at the Battle of the Chemin des Dames, the Germans concentrated 2,541 artillery pieces, while the French and English concentrated 3,810. Figures such as these were repeated in the preparations for all the major battles.

The war has been described as a war of attrition, in which each side was drained economically and demographically. And it was that. By 1918 the war was costing $25 million an hour. As a result, France and England lost their positions as the world's two great creditors; they both became debtors, notably to the United States. And Germany was so badly hit financially by the war and by subsequent war costs that a postwar inflation reached the preposterous situation in October 1923, when 62 billion marks were worth only one dollar. The demographic situation was even more horrible. The war bled Europe white. In 1918 France was losing a soldier every minute. All told, some 9 million combatants were killed in the war, some 7 million permanently disabled, another 15 million seriously wounded.

The war has been described as a new and unusually grotesque social experience, one in which a "lost generation" was spawned, a multinational group of front-line soldiers who were no longer convinced of the good purposes of European civilization or of the fundamental decency of human beings. And it was that. Hundreds of accounts described conditions like the following, from Robert Graves, "Good-Bye To All That":

Cuinchy-bred rats. They came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses and multiplied exceedingly. While I fought there with the Welsh, a new officer joined the company and, in token of welcome, was given a dug-out containing a spring-bed. When he turned in that night, he heard a scuffling, shone his torch [flashlight] on the bed, and found two rats on his blankets tussling for the possession of a severed hand. This story circulated as a great joke.

The Changing Military Dimensions of the War
The war began in the tangled confusion of Balkan politics. The immediate cause was the assassination on June 28, 1914, of the heir to the Austrian throne, the archduke Francis Ferdinand, at Sarajevo in Bosnia. The act had been carried out by members of "The Black Hand," a terrorist group opposed to the Austrian political presence in the Balkans and operating out of Serbia. Within a month the Austrians used this tragic occasion to force war on Serbia, which was the political focal point of Balkan nationalism, an ideology primarily directed against foreign domination. From the Austrian perspective, the assassination was an opportunity to remove the Serbian threat.

The anticipated local war by which Austria would destroy Serbia quickly expanded, for the other major powers, ensnarled in their alliances and anxious over the immense problems of national military mobilization, responded in a reckless and militant way. In a frightening example of cause and effect the European states followed one another into disaster. It all occurred within one week. On July 28, Austria declared war on Serbia; on July 30, Russia began total mobilization, this directed against Austria and in support of Serbia; on July 31, Germany, determined to stick by Austria, also mobilized. Then, in face of Russia's continued mobilization, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, and on Russia's military partner, France, on August 3. England joined France and Russia on August 4.

The major participants and the sides of the conflict were thereby quickly determined, only to be modified by the entry of Turkey on the German side later in 1914, of Italy on the Allied side in 1915, and--most significantly--of the United States on the Allied side in 1917. Even though the war reached Africa, the Pacific, and the Near East, activities in these regions did not seriously affect the outcome. Militarily, the war was a European affair, primarily fought on French and Russian territory.

Here were located the two major "fronts" along which the opposing sides long fought. The western front is both the more famous and significant, because the outcome of the war was finally settled there. Yet the eastern front, stretching from Poland to Austria, also was the scene of intense warfare, as Germany and Austria steadily attacked tsarist Russia. By 1917, the Russians were exhausted; their losses were high, with over one million men dead or wounded in the last major offensive against Austria, which was made by General Brusilov (hence its name, "The Brusilov Offensive") between June and December of 1916. By the end of the following year, the Russians agreed to an armistice, and thus the two-front war waged by Germany at long last ended.

However, the war in the West did not alter noticeably after this change. The grinding-down process of the large artillery duels continued. Finally, in the spring of 1918, the Germans began their "Great March Offensive," which allowed them to penetrate British lines some forty miles in depth. In May, the Germans again approached the Marne River, as they had in 1914, and drove on until they were only thirty-seven miles from Paris. There, their offensive ended. The Allies, strongly supported by fresh American troops, checked the German advance and began their own offensive in the late summer. Fearing for the fate of their armies, the German military leadership, on September 29, requested the Imperial Government to start peace negotiations.

NEXT:  The Changing Domestic Dimensions of the War

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