The Great War

Germany’s Schlieffen Plan fails, mostly because the British step in and support France. And so they are stuck fighting a war on both of their borders. The allies siding with Austria are called the Central Powers because, if you look at a map of the fighting, well, they’re in the center of it. The the Allied Powers are mostly made up of Russia – who handles most of the fighting along the eastern front, and Britain and France – who set up shop along the western front.

(Listen to the entire episode here!)

The reason this event eventually gets called the First World War is because it truly was a global conflict, partly thanks to imperialism. Colonists and subjugated people often supplied troops and weapons to help their European mother countries. India, for example, sent tons of soldiers to fight for the British in hopes that it would earn them more freedoms as a thank you after the war was over. It wouldn’t.

world war in the middle east

But it also was a global conflict fought on multiple continents. We focus most of our time on the eastern and western fronts in Europe, but there was fighting on an Italian front and, more importantly for the 20th century, in the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria. They were embarrassed by how weak they had become and hoped to side with the rising power of Germany to take down the British and the French who had been encroaching on their territories, like when they built the Suez Canal in Egypt.

Constantinople was fairly well protected but the British attempted to take down this massive empire from the outside by sending in their navy. But they also fuel rebellions inside the Ottoman Empire to break it up from within. The most famous of these was an Arab revolt led by charismatic “desert warrior” T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia. The British stoked the flames of Arab nationalism in an attempt to weaken the Ottomans, having no idea the ramifications it would have on Middle East politics for the next century (or more, we’re still living through it)

Old Tactics + New technology = 🙁

Back in Europe, the war came to a screeching halt pretty early on. Here was the problem: all of the generals were old guys who had been raised and trained on traditional warfare. You meet on an open battlefield, march towards each other, kneel and shoot, reload, eventually you get close enough to “Fix bayonets!” and then you meet in hand to hand combat. It was very rigid, formal, and gentlemanly. It also was really stupid now that you have industrialized weapons of war.

So the European generals make their plans, the soldiers travel to the open battlefields, and they start advancing toward each other. One account at the Battle of the Somme talks of a British officer walking casually in front of his men with a walking stick. What’s different now? Oh, I don’t know… machine guns? Soldiers immediately get mown down by machine gun fire, forcing them to retreat, dig a hole to get below ground, and then stay there for four years. And that’s trench warfare.

trench warfare

Just along the western front, 25,000 miles of trenches were dug over the four years of the war. The trenches protected the soldiers relatively well but the generals back at headquarters were stumped. They had to quickly rethink every military tactic they’d ever been taught and, in the meantime, men were living in muddy rat-infested pits. It was cold and constantly damp; soldiers whose feet were wet for so long from staying in the trenches developed trench foot, where your skin would essentially rot off the bone. Don’t Google Image that – trust me.

In between the trenches was “No Man’s Land.” This was a huge, barren field covered with barbed wire and huge holes where bombs had been dropped. If you’ve seen Wonder Woman then you know exactly what this looked like. And technology had become advanced enough to stop anyone from just marching across, but not good enough yet to overcome the stalemate.

Over the years, a lot of the trenches became fairly sophisticated. The Germans were especially skilled at engineering trenches. The German trenches at the Somme – the epic four-month battle in France – had electricity, toilets, ventilation and wallpaper. But, still, life was miserable in the trenches. One of the biggest concerns was soldiers losing their minds after spending months in constant fear of an attack and, honestly, sheer boredom.

psychological warfare

Even though the fear of going “over the top” and running across the open battlefield was terrifying, even worse was the prospect of being shelled. Soldiers described it as a form of torture because you are sitting in your hole constantly afraid that you might suddenly be buried alive. Soldiers were paid very little but were plied with alcohol to overcome the brutal reality of trench warfare. If you watch Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby suffers from a ton of addictions and psychological issues because of his time as a tunneler in World War I.

In hindsight, a ton of these soldiers were clearly suffering from PTSD but, of course, they didn’t know what that was at the time. Many soldiers returned home from the horrors of this new industrial war and felt alienated from regular society. In the U.S. these people are sometimes referred to as the “Lost Generation” because they felt so changed and separated from their lives back home. Writer Gertrude Stein coined the phrase but Ernest Hemingway made it famous in his book The Sun Also Rises. Other American authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald would go on to write about the hard-drinking, fast-living, disillusioned young people of the post-war 1920s.

As the generals and scientists back home worked to overcome the stalemate, the soldiers were stuck in trenches that were often just 50 yards away from the enemy. And you knew that there were always snipers waiting for someone to make a mistake and rise above ground level. There are stories of soldiers who, by the later years of the war, so desperately wanted to get sent away from the trenches they would raise their hand into the air, knowing that it would get shot off by a sniper and they would get to go back to the hospital.

the christmas eve truce

This proximity also made for some interesting interactions. On Christmas eve the first year of the war, 1914, British soldiers are in their trenches when they hear a sound coming from the other side. Across the battlefield they hear the Germans singing “Silent Night.” Some of the British troops join in and, eventually, they leave the trenches and meet the Germans in the middle.

One of the British troops brought a soccer ball and they played a game on “No Man’s Land.” Eventually, their commanding officers forced them to go back to the trenches or risk a court martial, and the war continued the next day.

technological advances

Eventually, military technology caught up and the trench stalemate was broken. Even though they didn’t have Wonder Woman’s shield or bracelets, scientists developed tanks to cross “No Man’s Land” better protected. Now, these tanks were terrible. At full throttle they went 4 mph and they often got stuck in the mud or the enemy’s trenches. But it was better than running across the battlefield without a tank.

Both sides used early airplanes and blimps, but mostly for surveillance. They could fly over the enemy trenches to see where they were amassing troops so that they could warn their soldiers on the ground to be ready.

But probably the most infamous military technology used in WWI was chemical warfare. Toxic smoke had been used in battles since the ancient era, but as soon as the war broke out, the Germans began developing chemical weapons. But this technology was so new that the most effective way to use it was to line up canisters along your front line, point them towards the enemy, and then wait for a breeze in the right direction. Soldiers would unscrew the caps and chlorine gas wafted across No Man’s Land – god forbid the wind should change.

I always equate this to that scene in the second Hunger Games movie when Katniss is asleep in the jungle and she sees that hazy mist coming toward her. Not knowing what it is, she reaches out and touches it and it burns her skin. Again, Suzanne Collins just plagiarizing from history.

Early on, there were no defenses against chemical weapons. Some soldiers discovered that breathing through a wet cloth could help prevent the gas from entering your lungs and so they would pour water or urinate into rags and cover their mouths. Yeah. War is hell, y’all. Eventually, defensive technology caught up and soldiers were issued gas masks. And at the end of the war, more than 100,000 tons of chemical weapon agents were used, injuring 500,000 and killing 30,000.

In 1925, the Geneva Protocol banned the use of chemical weapons in war, although it will be used occasionally in other conflicts through the 20th and 21st centuries.

the lusitania

So with all of this technology and stalemate, how did the war end? America! Yay! So the United States had stayed out of the war for the first few years. Woodrow Wilson campaigned on keeping us out of war; he was a college professor who envisioned a global peace. President Wilson is actually the person who coined the phrase “the war to end all wars.” But two things brought us into the conflict.

First, in 1915, a German U-boat submarine torpedoed and sank British passenger liner, the Lusitania. 1,100 people died, including 120 Americans, which increased public pressure to enter the war against Germany.

the zimmerman telegram

But it would be two years before the U.S. entered the war, although we were definitely supporting the Allies from the beginning. In January 1917, the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, wrote a secret message to the German Ambassador to Mexico. Yes, that Mexico.

So remember in the 1800s when the U.S. Manifested its Destiny all over the West? We annexed Texas and then fought the Mexican-American War that gave us everything from Albuquerque to California? Yeah, the Mexicans didn’t like that. So the Germans proposed an alliance. They would offer significant financial aid if the Mexican government declared war on the U.S., engaging them in a conflict along the border and keeping them out of the conflict in Europe. It was a great plan. Mexico would help Germany and when they won, they would get to take back all that land they lost.

One problem: the telegram was intercepted by a British spy and published in American newspapers. Oops. This was the final straw for most Americans and Woodrow Wilson proposed that we prepare for war the next day.

the u.s. enters the war

Now, to be fair, U.S. troops didn’t actually do a lot of fighting in World War I, at least relative to European powers. But it was the threat of two million American troops that pushed things in favor of the Allies. Remember, everyone else has been slogging away in muddy trenches for three years. And here come American doughboys, fresh out of the oven, hopping on ships and coming over to Europe!

Knowing they need to strike before too many Americans can get set up in Europe, Germany makes a last-ditch push on the western front to conquer Paris. They got within 50 miles but were stopped by French, American, and Moroccan soldiers. On November 11 at 11:11am, the armistice became official and fighting along the western front stopped. That’s why November 11 is Veterans’ Day in the U.S.

But wait. What about the eastern front? What’s been happening in Russia all this time? You remember all those times in past episodes that I said the czar would probably be fine? Yeah, about that