First World War For Dummies
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‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.’ So go the words spoken each November on Remembrance Sunday in Britain, as the British pause to remember the dead of the First World War. Other countries hold similar ceremonies to honour their war dead. But what else should people remember from the First World War? What lessons can it teach?

The pre-war plans didn’t work

‘No plan,’ said the great 19th century German General von Moltke, ‘survives its first contact with the enemy.’ Perhaps he should have added that it helps to have a good plan in the first place.

The war plans of the Great Powers in 1914 were pretty poor. The French Plan XVII seemed to assume that they just needed to launch a raid across the border and the whole German Empire would fall to its knees. The Germans’ famous Schlieffen Plan was based on three assumptions that proved wrong: France could be defeated quickly (it couldn’t), Russia would take months to get ready for war (it didn’t) and Britain wouldn’t come into the war (it did). The Russian plan to invade eastern Germany came unstuck because the Russian army was hopelessly disorganised. The real tragedy is that the governments and high commands of 1914 believed in these plans: no one was to question or alter or cancel them, not even the Kaiser or the Tsar. Had their plans not been so rigidly fixed, history could have been very different.

The war wasn’t fought for nothing

In 1914 the German army launched an unprovoked attack on neutral Belgium and Luxembourg and went on to commit wholesale murder of civilians. Some atrocity stories undoubtedly got exaggerated for propaganda purposes during the war, but that doesn’t minimise the importance of what happened. If you believe the international law that states that countries that invade their neighbours and murder their inhabitants should be stopped, then the First World War, at least the war in the west, was every bit as justified as declaring war on Hitler’s Germany when it invaded Poland 25 years later.

Armies took to using gas very easily

Before the war gas was banned under the Hague Convention as a barbaric form of warfare. Yet as soon as the Germans used it at Ypres in 1915, generals in all armies simply changed their minds. Soon armies were using gas as if it were no different from any other weapon. One British general made the decision to use it by licking his finger to check which way the wind was blowing.

The use of gas in the First World War is a terrible reminder of how easily war can lead people to start shifting their moral boundaries and doing things they were denouncing as utterly inhuman only months before.

The war wasn’t fought just in Europe

You can very easily fall into the trap of thinking of the First World War as an all-European affair, but it wasn’t. Fighting took place all over the world, in the Pacific, in central Africa and in the deserts of Arabia, as well as in Europe. Thanks to the Europeans’ global empires, men were recruited from every part of the globe.

The trenches of the Western Front saw soldiers from India, North Africa, the West Indies, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, as well as the British, French, Americans and Germans, and the battlefronts of Salonika, Gallipoli and Palestine were equally multinational. Ships from Brazil and Japan escorted Allied shipping in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. The war certainly grew out of European politics, but it involved people from all continents, and they’re part of its story.

The war wasn’t fought just on the Western Front

The image of the First World War is so dominated by the Western Front that you can easily treat the other fronts as minor details. They weren’t. Of course, during the war huge arguments on both sides raged between ‘westerners’, who thought the Western Front was the only one that mattered, and ‘easterners’, who thought the war would be won or lost in the east. But whichever side you agree with, you still need to recognise the courage and sacrifices of the Eastern Front, the Italian front and the Balkan fronts. Men on these fronts were often fighting in conditions every bit as bad and as dangerous as those in France and Flanders, and casualties could be just as high. No front in the First World War had a monopoly on horror and loss.

Women played a major role

The First World War was the first war in which women made a major contribution to the outcome. Active women’s movements had existed in Britain, Germany and the United States before the war, and in all these countries large numbers of women worked in factories during the war, producing munitions for the troops. Women also started to take on other roles that had previously been filled by men, keeping public services such as the post or the buses going. Women were also needed to work on the land, especially in more traditional countries like Hungary or Italy, where opposition existed to women working in industry.

Britain and the United States even created armed service units for women, and in Russia after the February 1917 revolution, women even served on the front line, though other countries drew the line at putting women in uniform and giving them guns. Women probably gained most emancipation in Britain, where they won the vote in 1918, followed a year later by women in the United States, and in Russia, where they gained equal rights with men through the revolution.

Attrition didn’t work

Attrition is what you resort to when all your plans have gone pear-shaped. The attacks on Verdun, the Somme and at Passchendaele all failed terribly, but the generals didn’t order the men to pull back or disengage: they had to keep on, attacking and attacking, almost regardless of loss. Instead of capturing strong points or outmanoeuvring the enemy, their aim was now to kill as many of the enemy’s men as you could.

Some of the very worst conditions of the war resulted from commanders resorting to attrition. Eventually, the politicians had to overrule the generals and force them to rethink their tactics. Perhaps more than anything, attrition turned the war into a nightmare.

The generals weren’t all donkeys

Contrary to popular opinion in some quarters, some of the men in charge during the First World War, such as the British General Plumer, the Australian General Monash or the French Marshal Foch, were very able and did achieve great success. Of course, not all generals were so good: Nivelle proved a liability in 1917 and so did General Townshend, who had to surrender Kut al-Amarah to the Turks in 1916. But the generals on the Western Front were caught in a situation no military leaders had ever faced, and with new military technology that was developing at a bewildering rate. People often criticise the generals of the First World War for launching futile attacks for minimal gain, but they were on a very steep learning curve.

The Allies won the war

It’s worth pointing out that the Allies won the war, because many accounts of the war tend to overlook it entirely. After the war, Germans convinced themselves that they hadn’t lost the war really: they’d been ‘stabbed in the back’ by leftists and traitors and (you’ve guessed it) Jews at home. These arguments were utter nonsense, put about to hide the awkward fact that the German army was comprehensively defeated in the field: the Allied offensive in the summer of 1918 was one of the most devastatingly successful campaigns in military history. The reason the Germans asked for an armistice was precisely because they were afraid that the German army was about to collapse completely and the Allies would be able to march into the very heart of Germany.

More recently, people have tended to think of the First World War just as slaughter with no ‘real’ winners and losers. You can certainly view it that way, but in strict military terms, no doubt exists in the matter: the Allies heavily defeated the Germans and their allies.

The peace treaty was a disaster

Five peace treaties were signed in 1919 with the defeated powers – Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey – and they all went wrong.

The Treaty of Versailles with Germany was so harsh on the defeated side that it led many Germans to welcome Hitler into power in 1933 after he declared that he’d tear the treaty up. Austrians resented the fact that the Treaty of St. Germain reduced their country to a small rump and forbade them to join up with Germany: it’s no surprise that they welcomed Hitler to Vienna when he took the country over in 1938. Hungarians were outraged by the loss of their lands imposed by the Treaty of Trianon (and they still are); Bulgarians feel much the same about the Treaty of Neuilly. The Turks, too, felt they had a raw deal in the Treaty of Sèvres, but they challenged it and got a better deal at Lausanne a few years later.

The peace settlement was supposed to have made the First World War a war to end all wars; instead it set the fuse for an even bigger world war just 20 years later.

About This Article

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Dr Seán Lang is a Senior Lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University and has been teaching history to college and university students for more than three decades. Lang is the author of a number of books on history, including British History For Dummies and European History For Dummies.

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