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Chapter 20. Turning the World Upside Down

In This Chapter

• The First World War

• Revolution strikes in Russia

• What a worthless treaty

• Europe gets anxious

Europe, along with everyone else, gets depressed

The nineteenth century had been one of growth, expansion, growing pains, scientific and technological advancement, and war. The rollercoaster ride that was the nineteenth century seemed tame in comparison with the first 30 or so years of the twentieth century.

The first years of the twentieth century were characterized by rising tensions among the European powers that seemed to escalate with each passing year. The competition for military supremacy and for economic resources abroad were complicated by entangling alliances, which were supposed to make Europe feel safer but ultimately left everyone paranoid and wondering who actually was trustworthy. The powers sat divided into two sides, or blocs, with each side just daring the other to make a hostile move.

Exacerbating the situation, particularly in eastern Europe, were nationalist desires for self-determination. When war finally did erupt, nobody expected the utter disaster that it brought down on Europe. When it was over, Europe was utterly exhausted, with deep emotional scars, faced with a long, tedious rebuilding process complicated by economic problems unlike anything Europeans had ever experienced. The first 30 years left Europeans scratching their heads and wondering where the world was headed.

The War That Was Supposed to End All Wars

The wars of the late nineteenth century sharply contrasted with the Napoleonic Wars and those of centuries before in one major way. Early wars seemed to drag on and on because no nation had the ability to deliver a knockout punch. That changed in the nineteenth century and the wars, for the most part, seemed shorter and less costly. The Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, the battles resulting from imperialism, and the Balkan Wars were nothing compared to the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, or the Napoleonic Wars.

This played a large part in the decisions of European nations to go to war in 1914. The threat of war was not the deterrent that it should have been. World War I, of course, was not called that until after Europe had a second such war. It was simply known as the Great War, and later the War to End All Wars.

When fighting began in mid-1914, most governments believed the war would be over by Christmas. Little did they know that Europe would soon find itself in a familiar position. Though armies, ships, and guns were larger, more powerful, more destructive, and more deadly than ever, nobody could land the knockout punch. That, combined with the particular style of warfare used during the Great War, made the war seem like it would never end.

How Did This Happen?

The events that led to the outbreak of war were almost unbelievable. The chain of events that sparked the war began in Bosnia. The heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914), visited Sarajevo in Bosnia, which was controlled by Austria-Hungary. As Ferdinand drove through the streets of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, a radical Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918) attacked the motorcade and assassinated the archduke and his wife.

Austria was outraged and blamed Serbia, claiming that Serbia had supported the terrorist organization known as the Black Hand with which Princip was affiliated. Austria had already been leaning toward challenging Serbian nationalism, and this provided the perfect opportunity. After an investigation, the Austrian government issued an ultimatum:

Would You Believe?

Princip actually threw a hand grenade at the Archduke's car but did not hit his target. A few moments later, when the Archduke's driver made a wrong turn, Princip finished the job with a handgun as the car drove by slowly.

Serbia must cease all anti-Austrian activity and submit to an all-out investigation of such activity. Serbia refused to comply and the dominoes began to fall.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Germany had already thrown its support behind Austria by issuing the infamous “blank check,” promising Austria that they would provide any financial or other support for Austria in the case of war. Germany and Austria both knew that Russia was an ally of Serbia and would likely enter the fray if Austria attacked Serbia, but that didn’t matter.

Would You Believe?

During the war, the two sides were the Triple Entente or the Allies, Britain, France, Russia, and later Italy and the United States and the Central Powers, including Germany, Austria- Hungary, and later Turkey and Bulgaria.

Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. In response, Russia mobilized its forces. Germany then issued an ultimatum to Russia to stand down. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia. Since France was an ally of Russia, Germany declared war on France two days later. Britain warned Germany that if it invaded neutral Belgium to get at France, Britain would be forced to retaliate.

Ignoring the warnings, Germany invaded Belgium, and Britain declared war on Germany on August 4. Over the next 10 days, Austria declared war on Russia, and France and Britain declared war on Austria. Italy declared it would remain neutral. In less than a month, the belligerent Germany and Austria had dragged an entire continent into war.

War on the Western Front

Generally speaking, the war played out in two main theaters, the Western Front and the Eastern Front. On the Western Front, the Germans enacted the Schlieffen Plan as soon as war became imminent. The Schlieffen Plan was a German battle plan dictating that France must be knocked out first—military necessities outran political concerns. The plan called for rapidly mobilizing German troops and then plowing the troops through Belgium into France. The goal was not to take strategic French locations but rather to surround the French army.

Germany expected a two-front war, with France in the west and Russia in the east. Russia would take several weeks to fully mobilize its troops, so the plan called for immediate mobilization of almost all German troops to the west for an attack on France via Belgium and Holland. The remaining troops would establish a defensive position in the east and await the Russian attack.

Would You Believe?

The outmanned French actually used taxis to transport reserves to the First Battle of the Marne.

As the plan unfolded on the Western Front, the Germans faced the British and Belgians in Belgium, then the French. By September the Germans were forcing an Allied retreat through France and the French government left Paris in case the Germans occupied the city. The Germans crossed the Marne River and engaged the French at the First Battle of the Marne. The battle involved more than two million troops. The French held their own and forced the Germans to abandon the Schlieffen Plan. With the battle fought to a draw, both sides dug in and began the terrible strategy known as trench warfare.

Life in the Trenches

The two sides dug trenches meant to protect soldiers in defensive positions for a short amount of time. However, with the armies stalemated across from each other, they eventually grew longer, more complex, and more permanent; over time, the maze of trenches stretched along the entire French border. The complicated system of trenches often featured a front trench, a supply trench behind that, then a third trench in the rear where troops could gather for an attack.

The problem was that there was little attacking. Soldiers camped in the sucking mud of the trenches and exchanged volleys of rifle and artillery fire. The open land between the Allied and German trenches was known as “no man’s land,” because of the obvious danger of entering the unprotected area. Occasionally troops would attack over the ground, but the use of artillery, grenades, and gas made it easier to just dig in defensively. Neither side gained more than several hundred yards of territory over the course of years of trench warfare.

Would You Believe?

In 1929, German author Erich Remarque published the classic AH Quiet on the Western Front, a novel about a young soldier in the deadly trenches of World War I. Nazi Germany eventually banned the book and accused Remarque of being Jewish.

Conditions in the trenches were miserable. Aside from the immediate threat of enemy fire, the greatest threats to the soldiers were disease, rats, lice, and exposure. After the short initial burst of fighting, the duration of the war on the Western Front was epitomized by trench warfare, which cost both sides millions of soldiers. Not until the end of the war in 1918 did the British finally break through the German trench system and force the Germans to retreat toward Germany.

War Spreads Across Europe

On the Eastern Front, the war had a much different character. The vast spaces and wide-open battlefields necessitated mobile troops and massive movements. At the beginning of the war, the huge Russian armies won victory after victory over the German and Austrian forces. However, as the Germans relocated troops from the Western to the Eastern Front and as Russia developed internal problems, the tide turned for Germany. Russia suffered enormous loss of life, ran short on weapons and supplies, and second-guessed what it was doing in the war. Russia would soon bow out entirely.

In the south, the Central Powers occupied the Balkans early in the war. Also in the south, the British faced off against the Ottomans in the Dardanelles in an attempt to resupply the Russians via the Black Sea. The British finally withdrew attacks on the Turks and concentrated on Ottoman forces in Palestine and the surrounding area. Britain called upon Australia, New Zealand, Egypt, and India for help there. Italy entered the war in 1915 by declaring war on Germany. Austrian troops then engaged the Italians along the Isonzo River in northern Italy; more than two million troops fought over a dozen major offensives there. The war turned global, too, as Allies of the Entente took Germany’s colonies.

The turning point in the war came in 1917. First, the United States declared war on Germany because of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. Two years earlier, a German sub had sunk the Lusitania, a passenger ship carrying a number of Americans. The United States issued a stern warning, but hoped to stay out of the war. When Germany resumed the use of subs to starve the British, the Americans jumped on board.

In addition, by 1917 Germany was really feeling the strain of war. The economy was shot and strikes broke out. In response, Germany established a dictatorship. With Russia out of the war because of the Russian Revolution, Germany turned toward France to deliver the knockout punch once and for all. They hoped to get to Paris before the American reinforcements arrived. Unfortunately for Germany, the American troops began arriving in Europe in small numbers in early 1918 and then in larger numbers by summertime. In July of 1918, British, French, and American forces engaged the Germans at the Second Battle of the Marne and turned the tide for good. For the first time, the Central Powers did not have the upper hand. The Allied forces then marched toward Germany. In the south, the British and Egyptian forces knocked out the Ottomans and the Italians forced a stalemate with the Austrians.

The Total War Effort

Because the powers involved in the First World War had no idea how long they would be involved in the war, early estimates of wartime costs fell far short of actual expenditures. It soon became obvious that the war was going to drain the nations’ economies far more than anyone imagined.

That realization prompted the governments to temporarily abandon their traditional economic systems and establish command economies. Governments took over the means of production and mandated what was to be produced and in what quantities. In Germany, laws required men of working age to work only at jobs that benefited the war effort. Despite this strategy’s effectiveness at streamlining the national economies, the governments of Europe alienated many workers.

The governments went a step further, too. In most countries, everyone got involved in the war. The men went to war, the women often worked in factories where the men used to work, and the children worked to collect scraps of metal to be used for military manufacturing purposes. The governments also instituted price controls and rationing, especially for food. Precious food often was denied to citizens so that the available supply could be used to feed soldiers. Through these extreme measures, with Germany’s being the most extreme, the European governments were able to compensate for and manage shortages of all sorts of raw materials and necessary supplies.

Would You Believe?

To keep everyone on board with the war effort, governments used propaganda posters and pamphlets to promote the war. Government propaganda typically featured patriotic messages and often portrayed enemies as villains or monsters.

The efficiency demonstrated by some governments in the total war effort strengthened the arguments of socialists who advocated government control of means of production as well as the responsibility for the redistribution of wealth. The mobilization of entire societies proved invaluable to the war effort on both sides.

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