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The Defeat of Imperial Germany, 1917-1918

The Defeat of Imperial Germany, 1917-1918

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The Defeat of Imperial Germany, 1917-1918

4.5/5 (2 peringkat)
466 pages
5 hours
Aug 27, 1989


The Defeat of Imperial Germany, 1917-1918 by Rod Paschall is the first volume in the Major Battles and Campaigns series under the general editorship of John S. D. Eisenhower. Designed for the "armchair strategist," this book offers striking proof of the inaccuracy of the conventional depiction of the trench warfare of the First World War, in which commanding generals are seen as mediocre and unimaginative, having stubbornly sent hundreds of thousands of troops over the top to be mowed down by the lethal weaponry of modern war. Paschall builds a compelling case that the generals on both sides invented ingenious new strategies that simply failed in the context of a war of attrition. In a series of vivid analyses of successive offenses, Paschall describes the generals' plans, how their plans were aimed at dislodging the entrenched enemy and restoring maneuver and breakthrough on the Western Front, and what happened when the massed soldiery under their command sought to carry out their orders. Though these strategies and tactics largely failed at the time, they would prove successful when implemented twenty years later during World War II. Dozens of photographs, many never before published, as well as theater and battlefield maps help make The Defeat of Imperial Germany, 1917-1918 an outstanding and original contribution to the body of knowledge of the Great War.

Aug 27, 1989

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Colonel Rod Paschall, a native of San Antonio, Texas, is director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. A graduate of West Point, he holds postgraduate degrees in international affairs and American history from George Washington and Duke universities. A decorated veteran of five campaigns in Vietnam, he is a member of the Army Special Forces and a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College.

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The Defeat of Imperial Germany, 1917-1918 - Rod Paschall


January 1, 1917

IT WAS A WORLD WAR, BUT NOT THE FIRST. That distinction is held by the Seven Years’ War in the eighteenth century. The men who fought in the twentieth-century nightmare would learn to call it the Great War, or the World War. Yet, on a crisp September day during 1931, that too changed when officers of the Japanese Empire in Manchuria created an incident that destroyed the international mechanism to preserve the peace, and the second world war began. Thus the veterans of the Great War even lost control of the name of the event they suffered through. There was little protest over the name change, however; for that generation was quite accustomed to its role as a pawn in uncontrollable situations.

The survivors of the 1914-18 war could reflect back on that grim New Year’s Day in 1917 when they were all locked into a hopeless, bloody struggle that seemed to have no end. On the first day of January 1917, the people of the West had little reason for optimism. A brutal, worldwide battle had simply stagnated. The adversaries seemed evenly matched. Each military or naval move on either side had been checkmated. It was the same all over the world. The conflict could spread. New fronts could be opened. But each new thrust was parried, and another piece of the earth would be turned into an immovable killing ground.

There was no lack of courage. There was no lack of daring. The missing ingredient was any hope for victory, decision, or conclusion. It is quite likely that some of the world’s leaders even secretly hoped for resolution at any cost, including defeat. The rapid collapse of a front, quick negotiations, and an end, however disappointing, would almost be welcomed. Life could then be resumed and some assurance of a future could be secured. As it was, this New Year’s Day brought only one certainty—that the already appalling death toll would continue to mount.

The stalemate even extended to the high seas. Some leaders, however, now hoped for decisive results there, in particular the advocates of the German U-boat. In the previous four weeks of December 1916, German submarines had sunk an astounding 300,000 tons of Allied shipping. Erich Ludendorff, knowing that an unlimited submarine campaign was to open in the next month, hoped for a victory at sea beginning in February of 1917. As second chief of the German General Staff, Ludendorff was the controlling mind behind all German operations, and his thinking governed not only German actions, but in many instances those of Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria as well.

Wiser heads, however, differed with Ludendorff’s optimism about the forthcoming U-boat campaign. The British had already transported their colonial armies to war. German submarines in the Channel had not been successful in severing Britain’s line of communication to her troops in France. The U-boats might succeed in reducing Britain’s vast food imports, but the indigenous British agricultural potential had yet to be fully exploited. Even if the food situation in Britain were to deteriorate, what would that do? The target was obviously the willpower of the British people, and few races had exhibited more dogged determination and perseverance. Moreover, the German submarines were facing the world’s most powerful and skillful naval force. If any organization could find an answer to the U-boat campaign, it was the Royal Navy. The German effort might wound, but could not kill Britain’s ability to prosecute the war.

Although some German leaders staked their hopes on ending the costly conflict with the submarine, no one anywhere could reasonably argue that an end to the killing would come by some sort of triumph on the surface of the oceans. True, the Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany and her allies was effective. But Berlin did not depend on the sea for much of its economy, and its production of the implements of war was reaching all-time highs in January of 1917. There were growing food shortages in Germany, but no Allied leader doubted Ludendorff’s continuing ability to mount major offensives. The Allies could not logically hope for another showdown with the German High Seas Fleet, in which they would hold a decided advantage. That had been settled in 1916 at the Battle of Jutland, in a brief foray by the High Seas Fleet from its ports, a naval skirmish with the British, and a return of both fleets to their respective checkmate positions. Admiral Jellicoe, the commander of the British Grand Fleet, was afterward described as the only man who could lose the war in one afternoon. No one, however, thought he could win it in one day’s fighting. There could be no rapid termination of the global conflict at sea.

There was also an impasse in the Middle East. On New Year’s Day in 1917, all of the British schemes for bringing down the Turkish Empire, opening a southern supply route to Russia, or finding a back door to Austria were defunct. In the previous year the British had lost their entire garrison at Kut-el-Amara, on the Tigris River in modern-day Iraq. The other arm of their offensive against the Turks was based in Egypt and directed into Palestine, but that effort had mired in the sands with little prospect for success. There was a little good news: word had reached Cairo of incidents of Arab unrest and fighting against Turkish rule. However, no British leader believed that the report indicated any sort of decisive movement. The Allied effort was squarely based on its armies, and those organizations in the Middle East not only were stationary, but had been effectively countered by Turkish troops with their German leaders.

Ludendorff could be well satisfied with the performance of his officers serving with Turkish forces. In early 1917, however, his greatest joy probably came from the happy situation created by his Bulgarian allies. The Bulgarian army formed the bulk of the Central Powers’ troops arrayed against the large Allied contingent reaching out from Salonika, Greece. During 1916 the Allies had managed to lose 50,000 French, Serbian, and British troops in a failed offensive. Despite this failure, despite open bickering among the Allies and Greek ambivalence about the effort against the Central Powers, the Allies continued to pour in manpower for the questionable enterprise. Allied strength there was approaching 600,000 troops, many of whom would become victims of malaria. Ludendorff could jest with a wry smile that Salonika was his biggest prison camp.

There was, however, little humor to be found among either the Allies or the Central Powers in Italy. There the Italians had taken 273,000 casualties during the year ending in 1916. These grim, morale-sapping totals were the only significant results from five unimaginative, grinding offensives. By December the Italian leaders were asking Paris and London for reinforcements. Their opponents, the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had fared no better. They had lost 184,000 men and were asking Berlin for more assistance. No one expected that more resources would actually prove to be conclusive in any positive way, other than to keep Austria and Italy in the war. The Italian front was a sinkhole for both sides, but each of the protagonists believed support was essential. Otherwise the opponent might actually win in Italy, freeing substantial numbers of troops for use elsewhere.

On the first day of 1917, the war on the Eastern Front had also reached the stage of hopeless stalemate. The bright Allied prospects of the previous year had collapsed in a sea of blood and futility. London and Paris had persuaded Romania to join their cause, then had to watch helplessly as the small nation was crushed by German and Austrian troops. But Ludendorff could gain little satisfaction from his victory there. The effort in Romania had cost the Central Powers thousands of troops, who had hurried east from the Western Front. To Berlin the Romanian adventure had been a classic exercise in robbing Peter to pay Paul.

In a similar way, the Allies’ optimism over the great Russian offensive of 1916 had been destroyed. British, French, and Italian dreams of the Russian steamroller—an overwhelming, massive use of Moscow’s manpower against the Austrian and German armies—were now at an end. The courageous campaign of the year past had cost Russia one million casualties, with no results to speak of. On this New Year’s Day, the Allies now spoke of the Eastern Front in the same way they referred to the Italian front: keeping their friends, in this case the Russians, in the war so that the forces of the Central Powers could not be transferred somewhere else. The fact that Russian society was unraveling and would fail to prosecute the war was not yet fully realized by the participants. Ludendorff certainly did not expect a Russian withdrawal from the war in the coming year, so he could not be too optimistic. The Eastern Front was simply another area of endless death, endless stagnation, and endless despair.

If a solution to this global tragedy was possible, it was becoming increasingly evident to many that it would have to come on the Western Front. The battlefields of France and Belgium held the key to the end of the war. Of all foreign soil occupied by the Central Powers in January of 1917, the most valuable was in France and Belgium. It would bring the highest price at the bargaining table, if the war were to result in a negotiated conclusion. To Germany, Russia was endless, and her prime enemies, Britain and France, would not pay dearly for regained Italian territory. In the same way, Berlin was not terribly enthusiastic about protection of Turkish claims. Not only was Ludendorff interested in protecting his gains on the Western Front, he also knew that the western theater of operations offered almost the only real opportunity for offensive measures. A major German advance could push the British back on their line of communications, the French coast. The same attack, if delivered at the right point, could push the French armies back to protect Paris. Separating the French and British physically would force the Allies to reconsider their war aims in the light of more basic interests. For Berlin, the battlefields of France and Belgium presented an opportunity for a satisfactory resolution of the conflict that no other area could promise.

Similar reasoning governed the war leaders in Paris and London. France was the strongest ally of Britain, but since French soil was occupied by the German army, the French leadership could hardly be expected to pour significant military resources into any theater of operations outside of France. The main effort would have to be made there and in Belgium, where the battlefields were closest to the locus of French and British power. This location would also have the advantage of the shortest line of communication and supply, an important feature in the achievement of maximum combat power. Moreover, the western battlefields were not too far from German soil. If the Allies were to conquer part of Germany, their strongest adversary would have to bargain at a distinct disadvantage. Destruction of the Turkish, Bulgarian, or Austrian armies would not necessarily end the war. The linchpin of the Central Powers was the German army. If that army could be defeated or badly mauled, the war could end on favorable terms for Britain and France.

For both sides, the question was therefore not whether the Western Front was the decisive front, but how to reach a decision there, for it too was frozen in a deadly stalemate of agonizing attrition. Indeed, the Western Front was the most stagnant of all World War I battlefields. Throughout the previous two years, 1915 and 1916, an advance of as little as four miles by either side was considered to be a major achievement. The costs were appalling. In 1914 and 1915 the French managed to lose 2.4 million casualties, the British lost 381,000, and the German total came to about 1.5 million. The situation in 1916 was little better. The German-initiated campaign in the Verdun sector raged from February to December of that year, and the butcher’s bill was high. The French defenders—later the attackers—lost about 362,000 men, including killed, wounded, and captured. The Germans came out with 337,000 casualties. From June to November of 1916, the British, under their leader Sir Douglas Haig, staged a massive offensive to relieve pressure on the French. In that campaign, later known as the Battle of the Somme, British losses amounted to approximately 420,000. On the right flank the French lost another 194,000. The German totals amounted to some 650,000. Each nation counted casualties with different criteria, and the official figures are still highly suspect, so comparisons are hazardous. But by any line of reasoning, what was happening on the Western Front amounted to nothing short of the systematic genocide of the flower of Western youth.

The prewar male population of the British Isles had been about 22.4 million, that of France 19.5 million, and the German total approximately 32 million. Discounting those who were too young, too old, or otherwise ineligible, the maximum prewar troop strength would be about 8.4 million for the British, 7.3 million for the French, and 12 million for the Germans. In essence, the bloody fighting on the Western Front alone had cost the French about 47 percent of their prewar military manpower. The German figures came to somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of their prewar manpower potential. British losses amounted to about 15 percent of their prewar maximum military strength. True, some of the wounded had returned to battle, and more young men became eligible for service each year, but there is every indication that the official casualty figures had been minimized, and the leaders of Germany, France, and Britain knew they were dealing with an almost impossible situation. An age-old soldier’s rule of thumb held a 25 percent casualty rate to be the turning point in a combat unit’s effectiveness. A rough but objective evaluation might well yield a projection that in January of 1917 France, as a nation, could no longer prosecute the war, that Germany was rapidly reaching the same status, and that only Britain possessed the capacity to continue military operations. So if the Western Front held the promise for decisive results, it also held the potential for national ruin.

How had it happened, and why did warfare differ so markedly from previous experience? Much was made of two American innovations—the machine gun and barbed wire—to explain the static lethality of the Western Front. These, along with the increased efficiency of artillery, provided the accepted rationale for the front’s characterization as an area of tactical deadlock. But the term tactical deadlock does not fully describe the actual conditions of the 1917 battlefields in France and Belgium. Tactical deadlocks had been experienced before. Complicated trench systems, extensive barriers to infantry assaults, and the massive use of artillery had characterized the lines of U. S. Grant and Robert E. Lee during the Petersburg campaign of late 1864 and early 1865 in the American Civil War. The fundamental factor that made the Western Front so remarkable was that the trenches stretched in an unbroken line from Switzerland to the English Channel—and that had little to do with

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