Part 2—The First World War—Was It the Prelude to Man’s Final Era?
In our previous issue, Part I explained how the nations’ leaders allowed the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to escalate into war. Europe—and soon the rest of the world—was thrust into a new era. Will it be man’s last?
“THE war will be a pushover,” the German soldier boasted. “It will last just a few weeks and we will gain the victory!” And on the eve of war, many shared this confidence. Propaganda campaigns were all too effective in convincing a naive public that the war could be won quickly. Says historian Hans Herzfeld: “The condition bordering on ecstatic excitement with which the peoples of Europe, spoiled by a long period of peace, entered the ‘Armageddon’ of World War I is only too easily passed off today as incomprehensible, both in substance and psychologically. But it is so much a part of this turning point in history that without understanding this wave of enthusiasm and willingness to sacrifice, the historical nature of the catastrophe would, to all intents and purposes, be incomprehensible.”
Belgian Resistance—A Signal to Germany
Germany’s hope for a quick victory over France was largely based on her war strategy. A modified version of the “Schlieffen Plan,” it was deceptively simple. The German troops would march through Belgium and enter France from “behind,” avoiding the fortifications along her border. Striking first—and quickly—was essential to the success of this scheme. No one, however, counted on the Belgians’ putting up much of a fight.
For but a brief moment, King Albert of Belgium captures history’s spotlight. Germany demands they be allowed to pass through Belgium unmolested. Addressing the Council of State, King Albert says: “Our answer must be ‘No,’ whatever the consequences.” Hastily formed Belgian troops therefore fight fiercely, savagely, against the invading armies.
Propagandists quickly cushion this blow to German morale. Relatives of men killed in the Belgium campaign, recalls one elderly German, “received commemorative papers with the picture of an angel on them, stating that the soldier had died ‘for the Kaiser and for the Fatherland.’”
Germany crushes tiny Belgium. But her invasion of this neutral land has aroused the ire of the world. England immediately decides it will not idly watch Germany gobble up Europe. On August 4, England declares war. Belgium’s resistance thus proves to be a warning signal to Germany. Victory will not at all be “a pushover.”
The war has now become a world war. Historian Gerhard Schulz explains: “The war became a world war by the very fact that unity within the [British] Empire was maintained throughout the war, the allied powers of England, France and Russia having access to the resources of the entire world.” Soon the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) will ally itself with Germany, Japan with the Allies, and even some Central and South American countries will join the fight against the Central powers. By the end of the war few countries will boast of having remained neutral.*
Bible students would find new meaning in Jesus’ startling prophecy: “For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.”—Matthew 24:7.
Stalemate on the War Fronts
German soldiers now advance toward Paris, despite French resistance. Within just miles of Paris, however, the German war machine falters. Poor communication and indecision on the part of her military leaders allow the Allies to regroup and mount a devastating counterattack. At the Battle of the Marne, the German army is forced to make a humiliating retreat. It is, nevertheless, able to dig in and secure a position. The Allied armies do likewise. A deadly no-man’s-land now separates the entrenched troops.
For many months, the war is a stop-and-go game of trench warfare—soldiers venturing into no-man’s-land, hurling grenades at each other and making a hasty retreat. Human blood flows like wine at a drunken carouse, without bringing victory for either side a single day closer. Periods of uneasy silence regularly punctuate the sporadic fighting, during which the media report “all quiet on the western front.”
Periods of fighting are brutal. Recalls one German soldier: “I operated a machine gun, and this meant that I was always in the front ranks. We allowed the French to get within 100 meters [110 yd], and then opened fire into the huge mass of approaching troops . . . We simply mowed them down.” Meaningless deaths! The battles fought in 1916 at Verdun and on the Somme last for months and “cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides.”
Fiendish weapons add to the terror of battle. Ninety-two percent of the war casualties are credited to the machine gun. A set of German cannons, popularly called Big Bertha, rain death on Paris from the then unheard-of distance of 76 miles (122 km). Soldiers become acquainted with the drone of the airplane—at first used mainly for reconnaissance but later as a lethal weapon. Sailors live in fear of submarine attack. And even poison gas—at times as devastating to the attacker as to the attacked—becomes part of the arsenal. Historian Herzberg calls a poison-gas battle fought at Ypres in 1915 “one of the most murderous events of the war,” taking over 100,000 lives. Nevertheless, trench warfare on the western front continues to be a frustrating stalemate.
On the eastern front, though, German military leaders Hindenburg and Ludendorff achieve such staggering victories against ill-prepared Russia that they are dubbed the invincible demigods of war. Nevertheless, the winter of 1914-15 sees a deadlock develop also in the East. For months the tide of war ebbs and flows indecisively. As late as 1917, it seems anyone’s guess as to who will win.
The Tide of War Turns
In 1917 Russia is immobilized by a revolution. The new Bolshevik government immediately sues for peace with Germany, temporarily relieving her of the burden of war on two fronts. Germany, nevertheless, is unable to use these events to her advantage, for a formidable enemy now enters the war. The 1915 sinking of the vessel Lusitania arouses U.S. sentiment against Germany. And in 1917 the United States officially joins the war. Before U.S. assistance can arrive, however, the Germans desperately attempt an offensive. But small gains are overshadowed by enormous casualties. Allied losses are high, too, but the increasing stream of U.S. help more than makes up for the losses. German offensives become German retreats.
However, defeat is not solely due to military losses. Germany’s economy has utterly collapsed. The Allied blockade—and some bad weather—takes its toll and produces severe food shortages. As one German recalls: “Although things had been rationed for a long time, the rations just kept getting smaller.” During the winter of 1917, hungry Germans have to settle for the lowly turnip as their main fare. “The turnip winter,” they bitterly call it. Attempts to stretch their diet with horrendous substitutes—everything from sawdust to earthworms—prove hopelessly ineffective. As an eyewitness recalls: “Hunger was an enemy Germany could not conquer . . . Many families had lost both father and sons. Now all they saw before them was illness, hunger and death.” Some 300,000 persons die of undernourishment and sickness. The nation is on the verge of revolt.
Austria-Hungary fares little better as its empire begins to disintegrate—member nations either suing for peace or declaring independence. Face to face with a demolished morale, evaporating supplies and the sheer mass of the Allied armies, the Central Powers have no choice but to surrender.
Beginning at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the guns are silent.
In our next issue, the final installment will discuss the aftermath of the war and the postwar efforts to maintain peace.
In Europe, only Denmark, Holland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Spain. In the Americas, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela. In Asia, Afghanistan and Persia. In Africa, Abyssinia.