|A murderous image of WW1 - gas and machine gun. The |
latter killed far more but the former brought greater revulsion.
With hindsight we can see that Austria Hungary, although one of the main instigators of the conflict, was on a hiding to nothing from the start. Created in 1867 as a compromise reaction to the ascent of Bismarck's unified Germany, it was the final incarnation of the Habsburg dynasty, which had ruled the Holy Roman Empire for hundreds of years until 1806; and then as the Austrian Empire, which was greatly weakened by Bismarck's successes. By the outbreak of WW1 it was really only held together by the status of octogenarian Emperor Franz Joseph, on the throne since 1848. Apart from at its Germanic heart, the empire was a patchwork of nationalities and ethnicities straining for freedom from the Habsburg yoke. As a result, the Austro-Hungarian armies contained large numbers of half hearted (at best) Slavs, Rumanians, Poles and Ruthenians (Ukrainians). Their army was strong in numbers and equipment, but poorly led, particularly by Conrad von Hotzendorf, the C-in-C, whose erratic decision making compounded problems, and led to Ludendorff's famous (perhaps apocryphal) statement that Germany was "shackled to a corpse". From early poor performance against little Serbia and the humiliation at Lemberg and in Galicia (1914), they had rallied a little to hold their parts of the Eastern Front (with German support), but then had collapsed again disastrously against Brusilov's 1916 offensive. Conrad's own prestige-saving advance against Italy in Trentino in early 1916 was close, but did not win the cigar of isolating Italian forces in the east. They were now under pressure in every way, and even in Vienna the population was feeling the effects of food shortages, high casualties and low morale. Things would get worse.
Only the geography of the Balkan peninsula was a common factor in the internecine struggles it enclosed. The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 set conditions for hatred and brutality between combatant nations. At this stage Bulgaria had benefited most from the opportunist moves into war. With Germany in command she had taken her share in the destruction of Serbia, and her armies were holding their own on their southern frontier against the Allied presence around Salonika. We have seen how Roumania's late entry on the side of the Allies backfired disastrously in Autumn 1916, to the extent that the government had retreated to Moldova, and only retained influence in that northern province. Greece was still neutral, but riven with factions, and a continuing stand-off between the pro German King Constantine and the pro British leadership (periodically as prime minister) of Venizelos. The ill defined territories of Macedonia and Thrace were constantly fought over. They provided communication links through the mountainous region, and were of particular importance to the central powers with the links to Turkey. Only little Albania seemed to escape damaging involvement in the conflict.
Overwhelmed by the hammer of the Schlieffen plan in August 1915, Belgium remained almost wholly occupied by Germany at this half way point. The Germans were brutal occupants in their demands for resources and forced labour, and the rape of their country was a constant burden for the Belgian people to bear. A small north western corner of the country remained behind the western front. Nieuport was the focus of the defence and the King, Albert, served in the trenches and inspired his people from his base in the small town of De Panne.
France had probably suffered more than any combatant ( maybe Russia could claim so ). Not only had she to suffer the pain and indignity of occupation of a large north eastern salient of the country, her losses had been enormous. Only the 'miracle' of the Marne' in September 1914 acted as a counter to the demoralisation of occupation and huge casualty lists from futile counter attacks in Artois and Champagne during 1915. True, the carnage at Verdun was shared by the Germans, and the heroic defence of the citadel town was inspiring the nation, but again at huge cost. After the humiliation of withdrawing to Bordeaux in August 1914, the Government had returned to Paris after the Marne victory. Vivian was replaced as Prime Minister by Briand in 1915; Poincare was President throughout the war; but C-in-C Joseph 'Papa' Joffre probably wielded more power than any of them, at least until 1916. By half time his powers were waning, and he was no longer immune to criticisms about the continuing presence of the Germans on French soil. Oddly, some of the most successful actions of the French army in their share of the Somme campaign in Summer 1916, went by almost unnoticed as the focus was on the British campaign, and on the continuing blood letting at Verdun. Joffre would soon be the victim of a sideways promotion.
The German military machine had won most of the important set battles of the war to date. However, their biggest reverse was at the Marne because it deprived them of the rapid victory over France that they needed to bring the war to an early successful conclusion. Thereafter, they knew that the longer the war ran the more likely they were to succumb to blockade and exhaustion. This did not stop them from strengthening their formidable defence of the western front; breaking through on the Eastern Front at Gorlice-Tarnow and wrapping up all of Poland and large chunks of Russia. High casualties and the shortages at home led to a resolute but unhappy home population, which was to face desperate conditions in the approaching third winter of the war. The Kaiser's popularity had fallen drastically, but by this point he was a token leader, and control of the war had passed to the latest military leadership (Hindenburg and Ludendorff replacing Falkenhayn in 1916, as he had replaced Moltke in 1914 after the failure at the Marne). The politicians and military leaders were at loggerheads over unrestricted U-boat warfare. The latter, increasingly desperate about the blockade of Germany saw this as the only way to defeat Britain and win the war. The former, still led by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, were terrified that unrestricted U boat activity would finally tip the USA into declaring war for the Allies and against Germany.
|Asquith - a good man, not|
suited to wartime leadership.
Italy had entered the war in May 1915 in a calculated manner, forsaking the triple alliance with Austria Hungary and Germany in the hope of gaining territory at the former's expense. After early encounters along the tortuous mountain border, the struggle had focused on the coastal plains near the River Isonzo, site of numerous attacks and counter-attacks. Then came the Austrian offensive from the Trentino salient in Spring 1916. The Italians had held off this desperate ploy - just. The Italian army was well equipped, but morale was not high, and Cadorna, the C-in-C was unpopular with the rank and file. At the war's mid-point the Italian front was a stalemate.
With boundaries that had stretched in a huge crescent from Libya round to the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire had been in decline for over a century. The loss of territory in Europe following the Crimean War, decreed by the Treaty of Berlin (1878), earned the Empire the title of 'sick man of Europe' and it's demise was predicted repeatedly during episodes of Russian pressure to gain Constantinople, and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Almost bounced into war in late 1914 by political intriguing of Russia and Germany, the Empire had fared much better than most would have expected. True it had strong technical and material support from Germany; it had suffered disaster in the Caucasus against the Russians; and its attempts to overcome the British at Suez had failed. However, the humiliation of the British at Gallipoli was unprecedented, and the army had followed this up with the siege and capture of the British forces at Kut in Mesopotamia. Although its connections to northern Persia and Arabia were threatened, and the Armenian genocide worsened its pariah status, the Ottoman leadership was secure as things stood. At its western borders, German, Austrian and Bulgarian strength protected Constantinople from Allied pressure.
The destruction of his army -
the 2nd - led to his suicide.
Germany's military successes and territorial gains were unarguable, but all her allies - Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria - were fragile and highly dependent. Her population, promised an early victory by the Kaiser, was disillusioned, hungry and under pressure.
The Allies had suffered massive losses on all fronts but somehow were growing in strength, and the full power of the British Empire was now being harnessed. For all the dreadful losses on land, the future decisions about war at sea - specifically unrestricted U-boat warfare - would be most influential, especially in the role to be played by the one remaining uninvolved major power - the USA.