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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The approach of war
     War in the west
     War in the east
     The search for support
     Neutral nations
     The war at sea
     War in the air
     Japan seizes a chance
     German Africa

After the war

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War in the west: 1914

At first the thrust of the German armies through Belgium and south into France seems to fulfil the Schlieffen Plan. 'Victory by Christmas' does indeed seem possible (though the German high command is not alone in making this promise to its citizens - all the other combatants are professing equal optimism).

The Belgian army puts up a heroic resistance but is unable to prevent the Germans from taking Liège on August 16, Brusssels on the 20th and Namur on the 23rd. Meanwhile a small British Expeditionary Force, rushed across the Channel in mid-August to Boulogne, reaches Mons.


Confronted at Mons on August 23 by a much larger German army, the British Expeditionary Force fights a successful rearguard action and retreats south again to escape encirclement.

Meanwhile the initial French effort has been wasted in a drive east through Lorraine. By August 22 this is halted by the Germans, bringing France massive numbers of dead and wounded (in the region of 300,000, a foretaste of the ghastly statistics which will characterize this war). After this disaster the French redirect their efforts northwards to counter the threat from Belgium.


The German intention has been to sweep to the west of Paris and thus encircle the city. Opposition in Belgium and northern France has been sufficient to confine the German thrust to the east of the capital. Nevertheless by September 3, a month after their invasion and well within their schedule, German armies cross the river Marne. To safeguard against the likely fall of Paris, the French government moves south to Bordeaux.

The Germans are within 30 miles of the capital when a mainly French force finally halts and then rolls back their relentless advance. During four days of fighting (Sept. 5-8, the battle of the Marne) the German army is pushed north of the river.


This reversal means the collapse of the Schlieffen Plan in the west, depending as it did on a rapid conquest of France. Meanwhile it has proved equally defective in the east, where the Russians make early advances.

These advances prompt the German high command, in late August, to transfer four divisions from Belgium to the eastern front. So the army which is forced back over the Marne is smaller than intended. It is also much more vulnerable than it should be. The German supply lines have not been able to keep up with the army's rapid move south.


With the tide turning, the German forces hurry back to the river Aisne to regroup. They then move west in a second attempt to outflank the Allied armies. (By this time Britain, France and Russia are known as the Allied Powers, after signing a treaty in London on September 5 in which each guarantees not to make a separate peace treaty with the Central Powers.)

The Allies also move west, to frustrate the German flanking movement. Thus begins the competitive advance which becomes known as the 'race to the sea', during which the most hard-fought encounters are in October and November around Ypres. The point at which the two armies reach the sea becomes the northwest end of a 400-mile line of demarcation.


By November 1914 the line is fixed. It runs roughly along the French and Belgian border and then down the French and German border to Switzerland. The only part of this terrain which is flat and therefore hard to defend is in the northwest, among the fields of Flanders.

Here, in the winter of 1914, each side begins feverishly building trenches. These become permanent defensive structures, more like cramped underground barracks than mere shelters from bullets and shells. They will be home to hundreds of thousands of Europe's young men for more than three years. The fanciful notion of 'victory by Christmas' is transformed into protracted and nightmarish warfare of a kind previously unknown in history.


War in the east: 1914

Russia mobilizes rapidly in August 1914, in an attempt to relieve the German pressure on France. As a result early gains are made, with Russian armies advancing into east Prussia and into Galicia (the northeast corner of Austria-Hungary). This move has the desired short-term effect, causing the Germans to withdraw four divisions from Belgium for the eastern front. But events soon suggest that Russia has entered the field unprepared. Disaster strikes before the end of the month.

Several factors contribute. The large Russian army in east Prussia is ill-fed and exhausted. And Russian commanders incautiously send each other uncoded radio messages which are intercepted by the Germans.


The result is that a much smaller German force is able to effect a devastating pincer movement during August 26-28 to encircle the Russians at Tannenberg (the site also of a famous medieval battle). About half the Russian army is destroyed, including the capture of 92,000 men. The Russian general, Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Samsonov, shoots himself.

Further south the Russians have slightly more lasting success in their invasion of Austria-Hungary. By the end of 1914 much of Galicia is still in their hands. Further south again, the Austrians prove ineffective in their attempts to crush their tiny neighbour Serbia (in the regional dispute which sparked the wider conflict).


The local campaign begins in mid-August when an Austrian army invades Serbia, but within a fortnight - and with a loss of some 50,000 men - they are driven back by the Serbs. Another invasion is more successful, three months later, when the Austrians succeed in occupying Belgrade for two weeks (from Nov. 30). But by the end of the year the Serbs have again recovered all their territory.

Although there is more movement on the eastern front, particularly on the open plains between Germany and Russia, the outcome at the end of the first calendar year of the war suggests that here too there will be no easy or quick victory. Both sides begin to look for new allies.


The search for support: 1914-1916

Britain enters the war with the support of her dominions (willingly given in Australia and Canada, much resented by some of the Boers in South Africa). But the Central Powers are the first to win an unexpected ally.

Before the outbreak of war Germany has spent much diplomatic effort in befriending the Young Turks who now form the government in Istanbul. Germans and Turks share a hostility to Russia, Turkey's traditional opponent, and Germany offers help in building up the Turkish navy. On 29 October 1914 a German admiral commands the Turkish fleet in a bombardment of Russian ports in the Black Sea. Russia declares war on Turkey on November 1. France and Britain follow suit four days later.


The other important European power as yet unaligned is Italy. In spite of her Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, Italy is able to stand aside in August 1914: the treaty does not commit her to take part in a war of agression, and the original alliance of 1882 specifically excluded any action against Britain.

For the first nine months of the war the Italians appraise the situation to decide where their best interests lie. By the spring of 1915 they have been tempted by an offer put to them by the Allies - that after the war they can take the remaining Italian-speaking parts of the Austrian empire (Trentino and Trieste), together with German-speaking South Tirol (thus straightening their Alpine border).


With this agreed, the Italians declare war on Austria-Hungary in May 1915, thereby committing themselves to prolonged trench warfare along the Isonzo river. It proves as futile and costly as the better-known Flanders version. Over the following eighteen months there are no fewer than ten battles of Isonzo, bringing little change of territory but half a million Italian casualties.

In response to similar bribes, Bulgaria enters the war in September 1915 on the side of the Central Powers with the promise of receiving Serbian Macedonia. And Romania joins the Allies in August 1916, tempted by the bait of several neighbouring parts of the Austrian empire.


One small nation voluntarily enters the fray from the start. In August 1914 the new republican government of Portugal offers military support to Britain, in token of Europe's longest alliance. Portuguese troops in Africa immediately take steps to defend their colonies. But it is not until Portugal seizes German ships in Portuguese ports, in February 1916, that Germany takes notice and declares war.

Greece, the last European nation to enter the war, joins the Allies in November 1916 after more than two years of uneasy neutrality and bitter internal disagreements as to which side to support.


Neutral nations: 1914-1918

On the first declarations of war, in 1914, several European nations either reiterate or declare for the first time their neutrality - at the same time mobilizing large forces to deter any aggressor.

Among them are Switzerland, the longest established of the neutrals, and the Netherlands - where the German violation of their neutral neighbour, Belgium, strengthens the local resolve to stay out of this conflict. Plans are immediately laid to breach the dikes if necessary, in the ultimate Dutch act of self-defence.


The Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Sweden and newly independent Norway, take the same path. Denmark is particularly robust in her response. 19,000 men are immediately mobilized to lay mines in the Danish coastal waters bordering on Germany. In Spain, where Liberals and Republicans incline to the Allies while Catholic and conservative groups favour the Central powers, the government contrives to maintain a steady impartiality throughout the war.

But outside Europe there is one neutral country of major concern to all. The United States, whose population comes from all the countries at war, is determined to wash its hands of the belligerent Old World - though Germany's submarine strategy seems well calculated to enrage the sleeping giant.


The war at sea: 1914-1915

The war at sea immediately takes on the aspect of a world war because the fleets of two main combatants, Germany and England, are already dispersed around the globe.

From the very first week of the war a German light cruiser, the Emden, carries out a brilliant series of raids in the seas around India, preying on the British merchant and troop ships which are bringing supplies and men to the European theatre of war. Within a period of three months, until being sunk on November 9 off the Cocos Keeling islands by an Australian cruiser, the Emden either sinks or captures as many as twenty-three merchant vessels - while incidentally finding time to shell the British oil installations at Madras.


Meanwhile the German admiral Graf von Spee is leading a small squadron of four cruisers across the Pacific towards South America. In September von Spee stops at Fanning Island to cut the trans-Pacific telegraph cable. He shells a French base in Tahiti, before reaching the South American coast and joining up with another German light cruiser. Off Coronel, on 1 November 1914, he is confronted by four British cruisers. Von Spee wins a decisive victory, sinking two of the British ships with no damage to his own.

Von Spee continues round Cape Horn to attack the Falkland Islands, where he is unaware that two British battle cruisers, more heavily armed than any of his squadron, have recently arrived from Britain to join half a dozen cruisers at Port Stanley.


Von Spee tries to escape but he is overtaken. In an engagement on 7 December 1914, he and some 2000 other German sailors lose their lives when four of the five ships in his squadron are sunk. The British on this occasion lose only ten men.

The last naval engagement of the early part of the war is again a British victory, this time much closer to home. A battle off the Dogger Bank, on 24 January 1915, ends with the sinking of a German battle cruiser, the Blücher. The effect is to keep the German fleet in harbour for a year or more. But by this time German strategy has in any case shifted to a far more effective form of aggression - submarine warfare.


From the start of the war both Britain and Germany have done their utmost to cut off the other's maritime supply lines. For Britain this is relatively easy. A heavily mined English Channel can prevent vessels from reaching the North Sea and the Baltic from the south. And fleets can be on permanent patrol to protect the only other means of access, around the north of Scotland.

Britain, by contrast, has the entire north Atlantic as access to the outer world. The only way to apply any sort of stranglehold here is by submarine warfare - a task which Germany now undertakes with astonishing success, given the very recent development of the submarine as a practical sea-going vessel.


The first victim of a German submarine is claimed in a chivalrous encounter on 20 October 1914. A U-boat (or Unterseeboot) surfaces to confront the British merchant ship Glitra. The crew are ordered into their lifeboats, whereupon the German captain fires his torpedo into the empty vessel.

But matters will not long remain so civil. Ships begin to be sunk without warning, including on 30 January 1915 two passenger liners, the Tokomaru and the Ikaria. In February Germany declares that all the waters round the British Isles are a war zone, in which not even neutral ships will be immune from attack.


Neutral countries, including the USA, are by now protesting at this high-handed damage to their trade. The Germans are not deflected. Even neutral cargo vessels plying between neutral countries continue to be sunk. And then, on 7 May 1915, comes an event of a different order. The British passenger liner Lusitania (which the Germans rightly claim is also carrying ammunition for Britain) is sunk off the coast of Ireland with the loss of more than a thousand civilian lives, among them those of 128 US citizens.

American protests have no immediate effect (two more passenger liners are torpedoed during 1915) but the incident has dangers for Germany. It begins a crucial shift in American perception, from committed neutrality to a growing sympathy for the Allied cause.


War in the air: 1914-1918

In 1914 war in the air is an even newer phenomenon than war under the sea, but it is part of the scene from the very start. In early October British planes, taking off from Dunkirk, bomb Cologne railway station and destroy Germany's latest Zeppelin in its great shed at Düsseldorf.

By December the Germans are ready to retaliate. Bombing raids by aeroplanes on Dover in December are soon followed by the much more alarming arrival of vast Zeppelins during the night. Great Yarmouth is the first British town to be bombed by a Zeppelin, on 19 January 1915. London suffers its first raid on May 31. The most intense of all the Zeppelin attacks is on 2 September 1916, when fourteen Zeppelins drop 35,000 lb. of bombs on London and elsewhere.


Meanwhile the development of fighter aircraft is proving an unexpected but increasingly significant factor in the skies above the battlefields. In the early months of the war single- and double-seater planes are used for reconnaissance. Subsequently their task is extended to include photography of the enemy's disposition behind the lines, once the stalemate of trench warfare has developed.

These small light planes are unarmed, but there is always the hazard of encountering a reconnaissance plane from the other side. So the pilots begin to fly with their own hand weapons on board, taking pot shots at each other in mid-air with pistols and rifles.


Both sides rapidly progress from this amateurish state of affairs. During 1915 single-seater planes acquire a machine gun, cunningly synchronized to fire between the blades of the revolving propeller. And the pilots are equipped now with radio, to communicate with each other.

The fighter plane has arrived, and with it the glamour of the ace - the pilot who proves his mettle again and again in individual combat. (No ace of World War I surpasses the glamour of Manfred von Richthofen, known from the colour of his plane as the Red Baron. Before himself being killed in action, in 1918, he shoots down 79 British and one Belgian aircraft.)


As fighter aircraft improve, the great gas-filled Zeppelins prove too vulnerable to undertake bombing raids. In their place both sides develop heavy bombers during the second half of the war. By 1918 these are quite formidable craft. On February 17 of that year one of London's railway stations, St Pancras, is bombed by a Staaken R.VI which carries a crew of seven and a bomb load of 4000 pounds.

Aircraft are not yet at the point of influencing the outcome of World War II, as they will in all subsequent conflicts. But to an extent unanticipated in 1914, they have progressed far enough to make their future role unmistakable.


Japan seizes a chance: 1914

Japan has a diplomatic reason for participating in the war, since she has signed in 1902 an Anglo-Japanese Alliance in which both nations agree to safeguard each other's interests in China and Korea.

However Japan also has a strong motive of self-interest in coveting a German enclave around the valuable port of Qingdao, just south of the Shandong peninsula. This has been leased to Germany by China in 1898, to solve the crisis caused by the murder of two German missionaries. It is a port well placed to protect (or to harm, if in the wrong hands) Japan's interests in Korea.


Japan declares war on Germany on 23 August 1914. In September a Japanese army lands on the Chinese coast and the navy mounts a blockade of the port of Qingdao. After two months of siege and some heavy fighting, the German colony falls to the Japanese in November.

Meanwhile the Japanese navy has also appropriated some useful German staging posts in the long curve of islands to the south of Japan (the Marianas, and the Caroline and Palau islands). With these acquisitions so rapidly made, Japan plays little further part in the war, apart from some assistance in the escort of convoys at sea.


German Africa: 1914-1918

The early months of the war also see energetic attacks on the most significant part of Germany's empire, the four territories acquired by Bismarck in the 1880s in the 'scramble for Africa'.

Matters are speedily resolved in the two colonies on the Bight of Benin, Togo and Cameroon, both of which have French and British colonies as immediate neighbours. There are invasions across the borders within a week of the start of war in August 1914. In Togo the Germans are defeated before the end of the month. Hostilities last a little longer in Cameroon but are over by the end of February 1915.


In South West Africa (now Namibia) the situation is more complicated. Here the main neighbour is South Africa, an ally to whom Britain entrusts the task of seizing the German colony. But such a policy is much resented by many in the Boer community, including some of the most distinguished commanders from the Boer War. The result is that some of these leaders rebel, deserting the South African cause and taking their troops over to the German side.

The rebellion peters out by February 1915, but it has delayed any effective action as yet against the German enemy. The Germans are eventually forced to capitulate five months later, in July.


In Germany's only east coast colony, German East Africa (now Tanzania), the action is much more prolonged. Indeed, owing to the astonishing skill and persistence of one man, the conflict here lasts for the entire four years of the war.

The inspired leader is Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the German army in the colony. The first force sent against him is 8000 men despatched from Bombay. Landing on 2 and 3 November 1914, and immediately losing nearly 1000 of their number under fire from the Germans, they re-embark and depart in disarray (an embarrassing fiasco, news of which is kept from the British public for several months).


During 1915 Lettow-Vorbeck, left to his own devices, sets about transforming his colony into a self-sufficient territory, capable of surviving without imports as a siege economy. The next allied invasion comes in February 1916, when an army of some 20,000 under General Smuts moves south from British East Africa (now Kenya).

This force is too strong for Lettow-Vorbeck to confront head on, so he transforms his men with great success into a guerrilla army. For two years he moves around German East Africa, and often across its borders into neighbouring hostile colonies, always avoiding defeat - and tying down as many as 130,000 Allied troops, about half of whom die (some in action, many more of disease).


By November 1918 Lettow-Vorbeck is still as active and elusive as ever. It takes two weeks for the news of the armistice to reach him, but when it does - on November 25 - he finally surrenders. As an indication of the fight still left in his guerrilla army, he is found to be in possession of 500,000 rounds of ammunition.

Welcomed as a hero on his return to Germany in 1919, and twenty years later avoiding any link with the Nazis (though strongly right-wing in his political views), this remarkable man lives on until 1964, dying in Hamburg in his ninety-fourth year.


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