Weltkrieg

From Kaiserreich

The Welkrieg or Great War, was a major war centered on Europe that began in the summer of 1914. The fighting ended in November 1921. This conflict involved all of the world's great powers, assembled in two opposing alliances: the Allies (centred around the Triple Entente) and the Central Powers. More than 71 million military personnel, including 61 million Europeans, were mobilized in the largest war in history. More than 10 million combatants were killed, due largely to great technological advances in firepower without corresponding advances in mobility. It was the deadliest conflict in history.

The assassination on 28 June 1914 of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was the proximate trigger of the war. Long-term causes, such as imperialistic foreign policies of the great powers of Europe, such as the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the British Empire, France, and Italy, played a major role. Ferdinand's assassination by a Pan-slav nationalist resulted in a Hapsburg ultimatum against the Kingdom of Serbia. Several alliances formed over the past decades were invoked, so within weeks the major powers were at war; via their colonies, the conflict soon spread around the world



Contents

History

In the 19th century, the great powers had gone to considerable lengths to maintain a balance of power throughout Europe, resulting by 1914 in a complex network of political and military alliances throughout the continent. After the Franco-Prussian War, European conflict was averted largely due to a carefully planned network of treaties between the German Empire and the remainder of Europe orchestrated by the great Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. He especially worked to hold Russia at Germany's side to avoid a two-front war. With the ascension of Wilhelm II as German Emperor (Kaiser), Bismarck's system of alliances was gradually de-emphasised. For example, the Kaiser refused to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1890. Two years later, the Franco-Russian Alliance was signed to counteract the force of the Triple Alliance. In 1904, the United Kingdom sealed an alliance with France, the Entente cordiale and in 1907, the United Kingdom and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Convention. This system of interlocking bilateral agreements formed the Triple Entente.

German industrial and economic power had grown greatly after unification and the foundation of the empire in 1870. From the mid-1890s on, the government of Wilhelm II used this base to devote significant economic resources to building up the Kaiserliche Marine, established by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, in rivalry with the British Royal Navy for world naval supremacy. As a result, both nations strove to out-build each other in terms of battleships. With the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, the British Empire expanded on its significant advantage over its German rival. The arms race between Britain and Germany eventually extended to the rest of Europe, with all the major powers devoting their industrial base to the production of the equipment and weapons necessary for a pan-European conflict. Between 1908 and 1913, the military spending of the European powers increased by 50 percent.

On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian-Serb student and member of Young Bosnia, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, Bosnia. This began a period of diplomatic manœuvring between Austria, Germany, Russia, France and Britain called the July Crisis. Wanting to end Servian interference in Bosnia conclusively, Austria delivered the July Ultimatum to Servia, a series of ten demands which were foolishly rejected. When Servia acceded to only eight of the ten demands levied against it in the ultimatum, Austria declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914, with Germany supporting her ally. Russia intervened in support of Servia, and so brought France into the war, while the German invasion of Belgium was used as a pretext by Asquith and Grey for bringing Britain into the war.

1914

The strategy of the Central Powers suffered from miscommunication. Germany had promised to support Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia, but interpretations of what this meant differed. Previously tested deployment plans had been replaced early in 1914, but never tested in exercises. Austro-Hungarian leaders believed Germany would cover its northern flank against Russia. Germany, however, envisioned Austria-Hungary directing the majority of its troops against Russia, while Germany dealt with France. This confusion forced the Austro-Hungarian Army to divide its forces between the Russian and Serbian fronts.

The Serbian army fought the Battle of Cer against the invading Austro-Hungarians, beginning on 12 August, occupying defensive positions on the south side of the Drina and Sava rivers. Over the next two weeks Austrian attacks were thrown back with heavy losses, which marked the first major Allied victory of the war and dashed Austro-Hungarian hopes of a swift victory. As a result, Austria had to keep sizeable forces on the Serbian front, weakening its efforts against Russia

At the outbreak of the Weltkrieg, the German army (consisting in the West of seven field armies) executed a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan, designed to quickly attack France through neutral Belgium before turning southwards to encircle the French army on the German border. The plan called for the right flank of the German advance to converge on Paris and initially, the Germans were very successful, particularly in the Battle of the Frontiers (14–24 August). However, by the 12 September, the French with assistance from the British forces halted the German advance east of Paris at the First Battle of the Marne (5–12 September). The last days of this battle signified the end of mobile warfare in the west. The French offensive into Germany launched on 7 August with the Battle of Mülhausen had limited success.

In the east, only one Field Army defended East Prussia and when Russia attacked in this region it diverted German forces intended for the Western Front. Germany defeated Russia in a series of battles collectively known as the First Battle of Tannenberg (17 August – 2 September), but this diversion exacerbated problems of insufficient speed of advance from rail-heads not foreseen by the German General Staff. The Central Powers were thereby denied a quick victory and forced to fight a war on two fronts. The German army had fought its way into a good defensive position inside France and had permanently incapacitated 230,000 more French and British troops than it had lost itself. Despite this, communications problems and questionable command decisions cost Germany the chance of obtaining an early victory.

Outside of Europe there was fighting in Africa and the Pacific, Togaland and all of Germany's Pacific territory (aside from a handful of holdouts in New Gunieu) were rapidly overrun.

1915

The Germans now decided to change their tactics, fighting defensively in the West and trying to defeat Russia quickly by attacking, while the Allies aimed to break through on their respective fronts. Meanwhile, Serbia came under increased pressure and Britain made preparations to attack Constantinople and seize control of the Bosporus. On 22 April 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans (in violation of the Hague Convention) used chlorine gas for the first time on the Western Front. Algerian troops retreated when gassed and a six kilometre (four mile) hole opened in the Allied lines that the Germans quickly exploited, taking Kitcheners' Wood. Despite attacking on the Western Front, Britain and France make few gains; they also incur hundreds of thousands more casualties than their enemy. The Gallopoli landings also failed, causing the resignation of Winston Spencer-Churchill from the British government. Meanwhile, the Central Powers achieve what looks like success in the East, pushing the Russians back into Belorussia... but Russia's manpower, manufacturing and army remained strong, but casualties had been huge.

1916

1916 began with both sides planning assaults: Germany wanted to grind French manpower down through a war of attrition, forcing them to defend the symbolic Fortress of Verdun at horrific cost, while the Entente aimed to breakthrough on the Somme. In the East, the Germans planned to hold firm while different Russian armies planned attacks. The First Battle of Jutland (Skagerack) is fought between the British and German fleets on May 31st, it ends with both sides proclaiming victory. The initially successful Brusilov Offensive shatters the Austrian army, and on the Western Front the Battle of the Somme begins, the battle is immensely costly and also sees the first deployment of tanks in battle. The Somme as well as Verdun cost roughly a million men each with little appreciable gain. 1916 also witnesses the fall of German Kamerun and German South West Africa, leaving Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck's forces in East Africa the sole remaining German forces outside of Europe.

1917

As 1917 dawned neither side was very confident about their strategically position. In Germany internal unrest was beginning to grow as the British blockade tightened and shortages worsened. Hindenburg informed the Chancellor that “the military position could hardly be worse than it is”. Russia’s revival in fortunes in 1916 meant that many German units were tied down in the east leaving the western front dangerously vulnerable in many Generals’ eyes. The Battle of the Somme had left a large portion of German lines overstretched and vulnerable whilst Austria had taken a heavy beating in the Brusilov offensive and was plagued by nationalist unrest across its territories. The Ottoman Empire too was crumbling in the face of Russian offensives which had driven the Turks out of much of Armenia. However for those in the Entente things similarly seemed bleak.

The Somme had demonstrated just how futile massive frontal assaults could be, with hundreds of thousands dead for little gain. Italy’s armies were still entrenched along the Isonzo front but were coming under increasing pressure from Austria. In the middle east British forces were pinned down at the gates of Palestine and across Mesopotamia while in Russia revolution loomed. On the western front Germany began the year with a full withdrawal back to the Hindenburg Line - an enormous system of fortifications. This withdrawal strengthened their front line and shortened it too.

This was followed by two allied offensives - a British one in Arras which proved moderately successful and a French one at Chemin des Dames which proved to be a disaster, leading to the fall of Nivelle, the French Commander-in-Chief and his replacement by Petain. The latter’s first task was to quell the widespread mutinies now breaking out amongst the French, something he proved very capable at. Nevertheless the French army was thus paralysed for most of the rest of the year.

Meanwhile Russia collapsed. The Czar abdicated in March, leading to the creation of the Provisional Government, which ruled only until early November when the Bolshevik revolution overthrew it, beginning the Russian Civil War. The new government then signed a humiliating peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk in January 1918, ending Russia’s participation in the war and freeing many German and Austrian divisions for other fronts. Further bad news for the Entente came on the Italian Front, with the great offensive of Caporetto in October which drove the Italians back to the Piave river. However the Italian army, which had been teetering on the verge of collapse in late October managed to recover marvellously and so held the Piave line against all other advances that year. The only bright spot in the year till near the end was the capture of Baghdad in March and the total occupation of Mesopotamia by British troops.

On the naval front 1917 began with renewed calls within the German navy to authorise unrestricted submarine warfare in order to starve out Britain. With hindsight such a move would probably have succeeded, albeit at the cost of bringing the USA into the war. However Germany was determined to keep the USA neutral and once more the demands were refused. Thus much of the year involved the same skirmishing in the North Sea that had characterised the early years of the war.

The last months of 1917 did bring several hopeful moments to the Entente however. In Palestine, Allenby broke through the defences around Gaza and captured Jerusalem. Meanwhile a British offensive at Cambrai proved extraordinarily successful and demonstrated the value both of strategic surprise and of the use of tanks to break trench lines if well supported by infantry.

1918

As 1918 opened both sides could see both victory and defeat looming closer. The fall of Russia allowed thousands of German troops to head west, and thousands of Austrian troops to head for Italy and Greece (which had finally joined the allies in 1917). However the British blockade was becoming ever more effective and the Ottoman Empire too seemed to be collapsing slowly. Surprisingly the German High Command decided to maintain a defensive posture for the year, at least in the west. They gambled that the collapse of Russia and the opening of its resources to Germany, particularly the Ukraine, would alleviate the worst effects of the blockade. Moreover it would give them the time to prepare for a grand offensive in 1919 with overwhelming strength. To aid this smaller offensives would occur to destroy the Entente forces at Salonika and to aid the turks, thus allowing for better concentration of forces in 1919.

Meanwhile the Entente decided that a massive offensive in the west was needed, before Germany could strengthen its forces there with its Russian divisions. The so-called Great Western Offensive was planned for March and involved a near simultaneous attack on no less than five different points along the front. While this hampered attempts to concentrate attacking forces it was hoped that the German line and mobile reserve would not be able to defend so many places at once. Attempts were made to replicate the new tactics devised at Cambrai. Unfortunately it proved impossible to achieve surprise with such a large attack. Moreover the Germans decision to defend meant they had taken the time to devise counter-measures for the tanks. As such, when the attack was finally launched it immediately became bogged down. The strong defences of the Hindenberg Line proved too much for the Entente forces. Only in the British attack on Lille was any notable success achieved - though this success proved very worthwhile next year for its strategically role helped to allow thousands more British troops escape France. Elsewhere the attack proved to be a costly (over 800,000 Entente troops died) waste of time.

As the offensive died down during early June, the Germans launched Operation Teutoberg, a combined German/Austrian/Bulgarian attack on Greece and the Salonika beach-head. Ludendorff used the offensive to do perfect his new attack methods trialled previously in the attack on Riga, which involved the use of small storm trooper squads infiltrating enemy lines ahead of the main advance. Once again the new tactics proved very successful. While the Austrians and Bulgarians pinned down the allied forces at Salonika the German divisions swept through Greece. Athens fell on July 3rd and Britain soon had to mount an evacuation operation to extract the remnants of the Greek army from the Peloponnese.

With Greece out of the war the German forces returned north and drove the allies back into Salonika proper. The siege of Salonika lasted 5 months until December 28th, when the last allied forces were evacuated by the British Navy. News remained bright for the Entente in the Near East however. Allenby’s forces staged a massive attack on Turkish positions in September. In the most brilliant use of cavalry seen in the entire war Allenby managed to trap and destroy around 80% of the Turkish army, captured Damascus and soon swept through Syria. The remnants of Turkish forces, hurriedly reinforced by two German and one Austrian division retired back into Asia Minor, planning to dig in and defend the mountain passes onto the central Anatolian plateau.

1918 - War at the sea

As the year that marked the end of the post-Jutland stalemate opened, it appeared that the Entente had the upper hand. The Royal Navy’s increasing success against the U-Boat menace was due to the combined effects of convoying and further developments in naval aviation. Many observers believed that the German High Seas Fleet would ride out the war in harbour for fear of the RN, however in the first week of November the HSF put to sea out of sheer desperation in a final attempt to break the British blockade. Under the command of Admiral von Hipper the HSF managed to score a remarkable victory over the RN on the 11th of that month in what became known as the Second Battle of Jutland. The actual losses of the two fleets where almost equal however the shock to an over confident RN was enough to force them back to port. The year closed with the HSF poised to roam the Atlantic at will and with the RN licking it wounds at Scapa Flow.

1919

Planning for Germany’s Great Spring Offensive had being going on for over a year. New equipment, tactics and logistics had been developed, many of which were tested in the Greek offensive. Since the fall of Greece a second offensive had also been planned, known as Operation Radowitz, which called for an envelopment of the Italian army at the Piave by an attack from Trento. Germany sent four elite alpine divisions to spearhead the attack.

The Spring Offensive was launched on the 2nd March. The German 1st and 8th Armies attacked the French lines at St. Mihel to the south of Verdun. The storm trooper tactics worked once more, albeit not as stunningly as at Riga in 1917 or in Greece the year before. After 5 days of heavy fighting the Germans broke out of the St. Mihel salient. German planners had been careful this time to have ready a large and mobile reserve which now penetrated through the gap. German forces quickly pushed west and south. Verdun itself became surrounded on the 14th and the siege began a day later while Nancy fell on the 16th. Allied divisions rushed to the front managed to slow the German advance as it approached the Marne and soon another stalemate seemed likely. However on the 26th March another German attack was launched on French positions near Rheims. While the attack had been hastily organised it succeeded partly because the allies were too overstretched and so couldn't defend the line properly. With the capture of Rheims the new allied lines near the Marne were outflanked. At this point the German 6th Army showed great skill. In three days they pushed through all opposition to capture Chateau-Thierry. This blocked the path of retreat from the Marne back to Paris and so split the French forces. While a large portion retreated southward the rest fell back on Paris. The only remaining entrenched zones were now the British lines to the North.

Meanwhile the Germans struck north and south and began to encircle Paris. The attack in Trento, begun on the 11th March, was also proving a success. Helping this was the denuding of that front by the allies in order to get reinforcements north into France. A lightning advance by the Central Powers saw them reach Verona and Vicenza on the 24th. The Italians hurriedly began to pull back from the Piave line but far too late for many. Despite strong opposition from an Australian division that held the road to Padua for three days single-handedly the Central Powers were able to push forward and reached the Adriatic coast south of Venice on the 10th April, trapping over 60% of the Italian army in doing so.

Italian morale plummeted quickly, just as it had done at Caporetto. Nevertheless it was only on the 8th June that the last Italian resistance in the pocket outside Venice surrendered. Meanwhile Venice itself came under fierce siege. The arrival of much of the Italian army in the city made defence easier but supply a lot harder. Luckily the Austrian navy was in no state to blockade Venice and so sea-supply routes were soon set up. While all this was occurring other Austrian forces were pushing southwards, aiming at seizing Rome before the end of the year. In France Paris was surrounded by the beginning of May and victorious German forces halted to regroup and plan the next offensive. This proved to be a mistake, for it gave time for much of the British army to pull back and retreat slowly towards the Channel Ports. Thus, when the Germans began a new drive for the coast around Dieppe in June the British managed to get most of their army out of the trap by an extended naval evacuation. A few Belgian units were also evacuated, but returned home soon after with the surrender of their country.

In both France and Italy the Entente was in full retreat. Paris and Venice were both under siege while German, Austrian and Bulgarian armies raced southwards down the country at a speed which seemed incredible next to the trench warfare pace that had dominated the war for four years. In the end Rome fell on the 1st August. Five days later Italy unconditionally surrendered to the Germans (in the hopes of avoiding Austria’s harsh terms), its remaining armies pinned in Venice, its capital and industrial heartland gone. The fall of Italy also allowed a southern invasion of France. Marseilles fell in late September but by then it was clear that France too was doomed. Thus on the 4th October, with Paris only weeks away from surrender, the French government likewise chose to surrender to the Germans, their decision no doubt hastened by the rising radicalism amongst the working class soldiery. This left Britain as the only remaining major Entente power left in the war, although Japan remained strong in the east too. In Turkey Allenby had been recalled to help defend France. His successor, Sir William Marshall, launched two attacks on the Turkish defences which failed only due to a shortage of men. But with the Central Powers free to reinforce Turkey next year it was clear that Britain was in deep trouble.

1919 - War at the sea

To coincide the Army’s spring offensive, the HSF was ordered to strike at targets of opportunity, particularly in the French Navy that was at this stage in open mutiny. Battlecruiser raids on Entente convoys where actually rarer than the RN feared, although this did not stop the adoption of a disastrous policy of de-convoying that lead to an upsurge in U-Boat attacks. Despite the country’s official neutrality, German warships often coaled in Spanish ports, allowing them to operate with deadly efficiency against the French. By May the British had decided to detach single vessels from the fleet to effectively commandeer the French Navy, which lead to the supreme irony of French warships assisting the evacuation of British troops in June, a move that effectively doomed the French government. The final months of the year saw a slow attrition of the RN by an increasingly assertive von Hipper including the destruction of the Aerodrome Ship HMS Furious on 4th October, the very day of the French surrender.

The Rest of the War 1920-1921

The only land action in the rest of the war was in the Near East. German and Austrian reinforcements drove the British back out of Palestine and Mesopotamia through 1920. However this gave time for the British to build a fortified line along the Suez Canal and the Central Powers spent the rest of the war beating their heads against it in vain, thus helping to preserve Britain’s African possessions. The successful evacuation of the British army persuaded the Germans that an invasion of the British Isles was unfeasible.

Sporadic attempts were made to break the British Home Fleet but with only limited success. However the opening of France and Italy to the German market drastically reduced the impact of the blockade on Germany. The result was a stalemate war, one which dragged on for years before the so-called Peace with Honour was signed. Meanwhile Austria got on with dealing with its divided nation and Germany spent its time reforming Europe and crushing the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. After the peace they began to assimilate their new global empire and create a new world order.

1920 - War at the sea

The account at sea was finally settled on the Ides of March 1920. Reactivating an old plan, a small RN flotilla managed to slip through the Skagerrak in late February and attack the German Baltic Coast, thus drawing the HSF back from the Atlantic. Assuming that the Germans would not risk the English Channel route (now heavily fortified out of fear of invasion), Admiral Beatty assembled the Home Fleet near the Faroe Islands for a final, decisive engagement and on the 15th of March the two grand fleets met in the Battle of Rockall. Unlike earlier battles, Rockall played out as though copied from a naval textbook; shortly after dawn the Battlecruisers of the RN spotted the forward elements of the HSF, engaged the German picket and withdrew before being caught by the big guns of the Battle squadrons. In a noticeable deviation from the textbook aeroplanes from HMS Argus managed to torpedo and cripple the German flagship SMS Württemberg, although this success was somewhat cancelled when an unidentified Destroyer managed to evade the British battle line and torpedo the last remaining active Aerodrome ship, which forced it to disengage and retreat from the battle, leaving the remaining ships to slog it out. In the end the battle was a marginal British victory, but the damage done to both sides would dictate the course of the war at sea over the next two years, a war that would be fought with small units in an unusually empty ocean.

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