Sunday, September 18, 2016

An Ordinary Day in the First World War

One hundred years ago today, September 18, 1916, was a fairly typical day during the First World War. Lots of things were going on around the world.

In France, around the fortress city of Verdun, one of history's longest and nightmarish battles was still ongoing. Between February and July, a titanic German offensive against the French Army there had been repelled by the narrowest of margins and only at a terrible cost in human life. The land surrounding Verdun had been turned into a surreal quagmire of mud churned up by unprecedented amounts of artillery fire. Chemical weapons had been used on a massive scale, including the first employment of diphosgene gas by the Germans, against which the gas masks of the French troops were initially ineffective. Now, the French army was preparing a major counter offensive to retake the lost ground, which was seen as a matter of national honor. The attack would open the following month and, by December, drive the Germans back to the positions from which they had launched their initial attacks nearly a year earlier. Over the course of the Battle of Verdun, in a space of ground roughly the size of a typical American county, about 300,000 men had been killed on both sides, and hundreds of thousands more had been wounded. The front lines ended pretty much where they had begun.

To the north and west, another ferocious battle was raging along the lines near the Somme River. Back on the first day of July, the British army had launched a mighty offensive designed to smash through the German lines and win the war. It had not gone according to plan. The first day of the attack proved to be the most disastrous day in British military history, with 60,000 casualties (including 20,000 dead) being suffered for minimal gains. The attacks continued for months, extending to September 18 and beyond, but the British eventually gained only about seven miles of ground. Over the course of the battle, the British lost more than 400,000 men and the French, who supported the attack, had lost about 200,000. The Germans lost about 500,000 men in repulsing the attacks.

On the Eastern Front, the Russians had mounted a great offensive against the Austro-Hungarians back in June, under the command of their best general, Aleksei Brusilov. At first the attack had achieved great success, taking the Austro-Hungarians by surprise and punching a huge hole in the front. The Eastern Front had always been more fluid than the Western Front and the Russians made some impressive territorial gains in the first days, taking thousands of enemy prisoners. In this sense, the Brusilov Offensive represented the greatest Russian victory of the First World War. But as the weeks past, Russian momentum had slowed down, the Austro-Hungarians had recovered, and heavy German reinforcements had arrived. The offensive was eventually brought to a halt. All told, the Russians lost about half a million men, the Germans about 350,000 thousand, and the Austro-Hungarian a whopping 900,000.

The initial success of the Brusilov Offensive had persuaded Romania, which had remained neutral up to that point, to join the war on the side of the Allies. Being a bit on the greedy side, they hoped to seize territory held by Austria-Hungary which was largely peopled by Romanians. Their initial attacks into Habsburg territory succeeded in gaining some territory. On September 18, however, the Germans under the command of Erich von Falkenhayn launched a major counter offensive, effectively coordinating German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Turkish forces. By the end of 1917, Romania had been crushed and its army had suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Meanwhile, down in the Alps, the Italians were busy banging away at their Austro-Hungarian enemies in an endless series of battles along the Isonzo River. The mountainous terrain was tailor-made for the defense, with soldiers being asked to launch attacks in an almost vertical direction. The Italian commander, Luigi Cadorna, might be a candidate for the title of most incompetent general of all time and he simply flung his divisions against the Austro-Hungarian positions again and again, resulting in nothing but heavy casualties. He blamed his troops rather than his own lack of imagination for the successive defeats, dealing out incredibly harsh punishments. The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo had been fought the previous month, resulting in minimal gains and heavy casualties. On this date a hundred years ago, the Seventh Battle of Isonzo was coming to an end, having resulting in no gains and heavy casualties. The following month, the Eighth Battle of Isonzo would be fought. You won't be surprised to learn that it resulted in no gains and heavy casualties.

In northern Greece, fighting raged along what was known as the Salonika Front. An Allied army consisting of French, British, and Serbian troops faced off against the Bulgarians and a few German units, each side attacking and defending in turn, rather like partners at a dance. Bizarrely, Greece was officially neutral in the war and nobody seemed to know why the Salonika Front even existed. Though the fighting there was not as intense or costly as the battles raging on other fronts, thousands of men still died along its lines.

Battle raged in subsidiary theaters of the war this day in 1916 as well. Russian and Turkish troops clawed away at one another in the Caucasus Mountains, which each side advancing and retreating in turn. In the Sinai Peninsula, the forces of the British Empire faced off against a Turkish army reinforced by German machine gun teams and Austrian artillery; having successfully defended the town of Romani, the British would soon go over to the offensive. In Mesopotamia, having suffered a humiliating defeat at Al-Kut earlier in the year, the British were reorganizing their forces and preparing for a major offensive when the weather turned favorable. In German East Africa, the intrepid German commander Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, a master of mobile warfare, continued to run rings around the British forces sent against him, though this would change the following year. In the North Sea, the Grand Fleet of the British and the High Seas Fleet of the Germans, having fought the enormous, costly, and utterly inconclusive Battle of Jutland a few months earlier, continued to eye each other warily. In the air, German zeppelins were periodically bombing London and Paris, a prelude to the much more destructive bombing campaigns that would take place in the next war, but in this conflict something that didn't achieve anything aside from killing a couple hundred civilians for absolutely no purpose.

This, then, was the state of the war on the completely ordinary day of September 18, 1916, exactly one hundred years ago. In France, the British and French slugged it out with the Germans, with both sides suffering massive losses at Verdun and the Somme. The Brusilov Offensive by the Russians on the Eastern Front had spent itself, having gained some ground at heavy cost, while dealing massive casualties against the Austro-Hungarians. Romania was about to be crushed. The Italians continued attack along the Isonzo, suffering massive losses for little or no gain. And fighting on the "minor" fronts continued to cost the lives of many thousands of men.

It might fairly be asked by a rational person what all of this fighting was about. The answer is a very sad one. It was about nothing.

The war, of course, had started because a Habsburg archduke got shot by a Serbian nationalist. The Austrians thought this would be a good chance to knock the Serbians down a peg or two and so provoked a war over it. The Russians, fearful of looking weak, decided that they had to back up the Serbians. The Germans, through foolishness or inattention, decided to back the Austrians. The logic of entangling alliances then brought in the British and French and the war was on. As it progressed, other powers jumped into the fight out a greedy desire for territory: Japan on the Allied side, then the Turks on the German side, then the Italians on the Allied side, then the Bulgarians on the German side, then the Romanians on the Allied side, and so on and so forth.

The First World War was the worst of all possible wars, because it was caused by human vanity and human stupidity. There was no great ideological or religious issue at stake. It was about nothing. The men who bravely fought and died in the First World War fought and died for nothing. There have been many useless and unnecessary wars in history, but the First World War was surely the largest and most bloody such conflict. The Second World War had to be fought, because Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan represented truly evil forces which were trying to subjugate the world and had to be defeated. The aggressors in the First World War were not evil so much as stupid.

A mother in 1942 or 1943 who received one of the dreaded telegrams informing her that her son had been killed fighting against the Germans might eventually, in the fullness of time, have been able to have console herself in the knowledge that he had died fighting against a truly monstrous evil. A mother receiving a similar telegram received on September 18, 1916, would never have such comfort, for the First World War was an entirely unnecessary and stupid war.

The British writer Rudyard Kipling (one of my favorite authors) is largely known for his jingoistic and patriotic poems and short stories written in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, when the British Empire was at its height. The First World War changed him, especially after his son John was killed fighting against the Germans during the Battle of Loos in September of 1915. I think that a two-line poem he wrote in response to the war, taking the voice of a common soldier, pretty much sums up how we should all feel about the war.

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

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