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HIST 202: European Civilization, 1648-1945
- War in the Trenches
With the failure of Germany’s offensive strategy, WWI became a war of defense, in which trenches played a major role. The use of trenches and barbed wire, coupled with the deployment of new, more deadly forms of artillery, created extremely bloody stalemate situations. The hopelessness of this arrangement resulted in a number of mutinies on the French side, motivated neither by defeatism nor by ideology, but rather by the sheer horror of trench warfare. Due to the unprecedented scale of casualties, WWI impressed itself irresistibly upon the cultural imagination of the combatant nations.
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European Civilization, 1648-1945
HIST 202 - Lecture 17 - War in the Trenches
Chapter 1. The Failure of the Schlieffen Plan: The Battle of the Marne [00:00:00]
Professor John Merriman: We’re going to talk about the war today. Let’s do that. I assume that you guys all saw Paths of Glory, so I’m going to talk about the mutinies in a while. Jay Winter is going to talk about essentially the Great War in modern memory. To make a nice transition to his lecture, I’m going to end with something that he wrote about how reality and art came together in a terrifying way in 1918. Okay. Now — comment faire ça? Qu’est ce qu’on va faire? — so, just a few things at the beginning that are obvious. They’re in the book. It didn’t work out the way Schlieffen wanted it to. The point about the invasion of Belgium was that it brought Britain into the war. The Germans were counting on the fact that it would take Britain a very, very long time to raise an army, not a navy but an army of any size. What they called the British Expeditionary Force does arrive and takes its place next to the French. But it’s very small and they don’t have conscription until late in the war. Unlike the French, they did not have military conscription.
Basically, to make a long story short, in part because Germany, as France, as everybody was worried about the home front, basically what happens is they hurt their chances of pulling this off by moving some divisions to Alsace to try to blunt the force there. Also, some more are headed off to the eastern front, because they start to realize that the Russians are mobilizing more rapidly than they thought they could. Basically, it’s possible to argue that the Battle of the Marne saves Paris and saves France. Schlieffen would have gone crazy about this. Remember, the last thing he said supposedly in his life was, “Let the last soldier touch the English Channel and then come down and hit Paris.” But they turned down before that, and the first airplanes are used as reconnaissance planes. The pilots literally had to carry pistols with them at the very beginning. They had not figured out a way to put machine guns on that the bullets wouldn’t hit the propeller and then come back and kill the pilot. So, all this took some doing. But the first planes were reconnaissance planes.
At one point in this huge engagement featuring enormous armies, in the German case supplied by trains going many every hour across the Rhine, the French planes see that there’s a big gap in the German lines. So, they counter attack in the famous story everybody knows. Again, what I want to insist on is — look at where it says Battle of the Marne. There’s a town called Lagny there. Now it’s practically a suburb of Paris, L-A-G-N-Y. You could hear the battle in Paris. You could hear the roll of thunder of the guns. When you ask how the French home front holds together so long, it’s that the Germans are so close. In 1918, they will be close again. In 1918, they’re firing this huge gun which the British soldiers called “Big Bertha.” It’s lobbing from way, way the hell up in the north. It’s lobbing shells from behind the German lines all the way to Paris on Easter Sunday 1918. It hit an apartment house on the Church of Saint Gervais, another hit an apartment house on the Boulevard Port Royal, one on the Rue de Rivoli not too far from our place.
The Germans are so close. But in 1914 what happens is that literally the commander of Paris, whose name was Gallieni. He has a métro stop named after him. A lot of these guys do. He commandeers the Paris taxis. They are literally carrying soldiers out to the front at the Battle of the Marne. What happens is the Battle of the Marne stops the German advance and then the race to the sea begins. They try to outflank each other. Again, to borrow a ridiculous football analogy, but it’s not so ridiculous. It doesn’t matter if you don’t follow football. If you’re trying to get around the outside before the outside linebacker can get there and you’re trying to turn the corner. Basically, that’s what they’re trying to do. Both sides are trying to turn the corner and they end up at the sea. At that point, the trenches are dug literally from the sea all the way to Switzerland.
The war, to repeat what I said the other day, only a couple people who had seen what was going on in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 could have imagined this war in which the offense was supposed to have, as in 1870-1871, every advantage. Remember the French commander said élan vital, “We need the frenetic patriotic energy. That’s all we need. We need to attack and keep on attacking.” It doesn’t work out that way. The reason that you have all of these millions of people killed, the flower of British youth, the flower of every youth in that period, is because this offense war becomes a defensive struggle in which breaking through is almost literally impossible. Thus, backdrop to what you have seen in Paths of Glory.
Chapter 2. Trench Warfare [00:05:47]
The weapons of the war including the shelling, most people are killed by shells in World War I than dying in any other way. There are new and horrible ways of dying, flame throwers, for example, poison gas, which is first used by the Germans at Ypres, on of the many battles of Ypres. There are twelve battles of the same river in northern Italy. There are several battles of the Somme. These battles keep on happening, because large chunks of real estate are virtually impossible to conquer. So, trenches are defensive weapons. One of the reasons that the breakthrough is impossible is that when you’re going to try to break through these trenches, what they have is what they call creeping barrages. They start trying to — and lots of people died with what the Americans call friendly fire — they try to coordinate the shelling to go in advance of the people going over the top and then trying to carry sixty pounds — pick up sixty pounds some time — worth of stuff on your back, and go down into these horrible craters full of all sorts of crap, and dead floating rats, and dead floating bodies of human beings, and to try to break through.
Then you run into machine guns. Machine guns which can fire what? I just saw this morning or last night. I think it’s 600 rounds a minute. The Gatling guns had first been used in, I think, the American Civil War. But these are much more rapid firing. They aim basically at your knees. They just sort of go back and forth, back and forth. Then barbed wire. One of the things that soldiers had to carry with them were wire cutters. Sometimes the wire cutters weren’t equal to the task of cutting the wire. It’s hard to cut wire if people are firing machine guns at you as well.
That’s why the trenches, which you’ll see some real ones in a minute, are fairly elaborate defensive weapons. Everybody has seen the footage of real battle. Sometimes — they’ve wrecked it, but the Imperial War Museum, which used to be much better than it is now in London, but it’s really worth seeing. They used to have this amazing small clip. You see these three guys and they’re about ready to go. One guy blows his whistle to say, “Follow me.” The first guy goes up and he gets his head over. Then he’s dead. He falls back. The second guy goes up and he gets a little further. Then you see his body hit. The third guy, when the clip ends, is just about to get out. You don’t know what happens to him, but his chances weren’t very good. Breaking through.
There are debates on how ridiculous these people like Nivelle were, or Foch, and Joffre and the whole gang, because they keep ordering these attacks. “The breakthrough is going to come next. We’ve really got them. We’re going to break through.” But they don’t break through. And they don’t break through. They can’t break through. That is background for the mutinies. The first real breakthrough doesn’t come until March, 1918, in the Ludendorff offensive, 1918. Then they overrun their supplies, and it kind of snaps back like a rubber band and pushes them back. The Germans, at that point, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute, know that they’re not going to win the war. They can’t win the war.
What’s going to happen is that when the war ends, and more about this when we talk about the post-war, is that the war ends with German troops far inside France. How do you explain that back to the home front? The Berlin home front has started to collapse. There’s great deprivation, great problems getting enough to eat. And that situation, that will make it easier, later, for Hitler and many other little would-be Hitlers to argue that you were winning, but you were stabbed in the back by the Jews, and the Communists, and the Socialists, and the peaceniks, and all of these people, from their point of view.
When you do these creeping barrages, you’re indicating where the attack is going to come. Behind the trenches the Germans, as do the French, have railroad lines that are used to bring in reinforcements, to bring in supplies. What you do is you bring in supplies. You bring in reinforcements. If you read a great book by Paul Fussell called The Great War in Modern Memory, it’s about the war poets. It’s about Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen, and folks like that. Eisenberg, I quote him. I think one of his poems is in the book. That is an amazing look at the whole thing. That’s a ready-made paper topic, to take a couple of those poems and talk about the war.
Breaking through is very, very difficult. It’s almost impossible. That’s why you have the carnage. That’s why you have, as I said the very first day if you were here, that there were more British soldiers killed or seriously wounded in the first three days of the Battle of the Somme, like the river, than there were Americans killed in World War I, Korea, and Vietnam. In three days. The first three days. You’re talking about horrific losses. You’re talking about an expectation. Try to put yourself in the same thing. I think I have that quote in there. Somebody said, “You discuss your own death as if you were discussing a lunch that you were planning tomorrow.” Someone else said, “I didn’t want to die, at least until I’d finished reading The Return of the Native.” That, again, is background for the mutinies.
What is amazing is that — and again, the French situation because of the precariousness — it’s difficult to explain how people could have continued to fight in many ways. Again, looking at the Austro-Hungarian Empire where they had huge losses. The armies hold together, really, until 1917 and even beyond the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Russian case, too, is remarkable. The Battle of Tannenberg is just an amazing battle in 1914. There are so many casualties they couldn’t even count them. There’s so many people dead. There had never been a war like this. No one had ever seen, couldn’t have imagined a war like this. The proximity, also, the English had the advantage of having the channel there. But it’s one of these, if you’ve been to Victoria Station, it’s one of these things they always say about the war, but it’s true. You go to the officer’s club in Victoria Station, have a decent lunch, knock down a couple pints of beer, and you’re on the front and can be dead by early evening.
It is said that in Kent, where the miners, these Welsh miners in Belgium, they tunnel under this sort of promontory that’s sticking up, that’s a defensive position for the Germans. They bring in all these munitions and they blow the thing up. They blow this huge thing up. In Kent supposedly it is said that people in Kent on and near the coast of the English Channel could actually hear the explosion. The war is that close. Of course, it’s close in other ways. Imagine that you lived in a village in France or anywhere. The facteur, or, in our case, the factrice, the mail carrier comes. What you don’t want to see is you don’t want the mail carrier to come to your house. You don’t want mail. He would be carrying a telegram saying, “Be proud of X, who has just died for” you fill in the country — Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, France, Germany, Russia, Britain, anywhere.
Chapter 3. The Legacy of the Great War [00:13:51]
So, it became a war like no other war, with the only possible exception the Spanish Civil War. It has given birth to really the greatest writing about arguably any war, certainly, in history, and arguably any events outside of maybe the rise of Hitler and National Socialism in Germany. It was like that. It really couldn’t have been any other way. They’re still arguing over these battles. Passchendaele, we once drove up — Passchendaele was one of these places that they first used poison gas. Now it’s a lot of lotissements, in Belgium, a lot of housing developments. I just wanted to go and see there. You can’t even see there where the hell that was Passchendaele was actually there.
If you’re going to go see these battlefields, the one to go to is Verdun, which I’ll talk about in a minute. There you can go through these forts, Douaumont and Vaux, to imagine what it’s like. You can see some places where they’ve left, in the winds, and the mists, and the terrible — of that part of France. The one road going from Bar Le Duc, on the sacred road, supplying Verdun. You still see there’s one place where they’ve left the guns with their bayonets. There was a lot of hand-to-hand fighting there. That’s the place where Falkenhayn said, “We can afford to lose more children, more young people, more young men. We will simply outbleed them.” He hurdles one attack after another over most of 1916 against Verdun. That’s where so many people die. Of course, that is the background also for these mutinies.
Okay. Here’s the western front in 1915-1917. You can see that it really doesn’t move at all. Again, there is Paris and there is fighting. By the way, these places like Reims, with the beautiful cathedral which was rebuilt thanks to the Americans after the war. The Carnegie family gave a lot of money, and ordinary people rebuilt the cathedrals. One of the great cathedrals anywhere in Europe. Reims was right on the line. Of course, Reims just got pounded. The whole place was just totally devastated. Arras, there’s another example up there, right on the line. I can’t remember on the first day or not if I didn’t relate a story of people that we knew, now about eight years ago, who were actually killed because of World War I. They were killed.
There’s a family we knew who were cousins of really good friends of ours that would come down there. There was a boy the age of my daughter then. I guess he was twelve then. We met them and we had a good time talking to them. Then I asked how they were at Thanksgiving when I went over at Thanksgiving. In France we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but I had ten days, so why not? They were dead. Not the father, but the son and the mother had been killed by World War I. Their house was right in Arras and in the basement they had a fire. This was just a few — you were ten years old when this happened. This was World War I. Still killing. They were killed because there was a fire in their basement. They didn’t know that on the other side of the wall were all these munitions stocked right near the front on World War I. The fire caught and it blew up the house. The father wasn’t there and this little guy and his mother were killed, were blown up, killed by World War I.
In the 1920s there were people killed all the time. Every couple of weeks — you still see in the paper now that they found a bomb in Berlin from World War II from all the bombing, or in Dresden and in all these other places. In World War I, there were constantly farmers who were blown up as they were plowing, constantly, as they were plowing on these battlefields around the Chemin des Dames, for example. You can see the Somme there. That’s a good one to have there. But the Chemin des Dames is up near there. It’s north of Soissons. Anyway, if you go to any of thosedépartements, if you go to the Marne, which is where the Somme basically was, or in the Pas de Calais, which is Picardie there, there are just fields and fields of these cemeteries there with hundreds of thousands of crosses. One can go on and on about this, but there had never been anything like it.
So, war became the dominant experience in the lives of Europeans, period. No matter how old you were, you knew somebody who died. You had a relative who died, period. There are in France, where much of the fighting was — the western front fighting was there, and in Belgium, there are 36,000 communes, which is an administrative unit, 36,000. Twelve out of 36,000 had nobody killed in World War I. There are places you can go, particularly if you’re in the south of France, where you can go. They were all taken. People who were skilled workers, who could work in munitions factories, could get out. There were a lot of tensions between rural and urban people, because urban people who had rationing problems said, “Oh, the rural people are hoarding their products” and stuff like that. But there are places you can go where you see these, and I’m a counter. I count things all the time. It’s maddening. You’ll find there’s one town where seventy-four people died. A very small town in the south of France, in the Aveyron. There are hardly seventy-four houses.
There’s a village that’s quite beautiful. It’s a twelfth century church way up in the Cévennes mountains where we take tourists. When you walk there, the monument to the dead is inside the church. When you show people this beautiful Renaissance entryway, portail, there’s twelve people killed in the war. You cannot count. There aren’t twelve houses. You can’t count twelve houses. People don’t live there anymore. Hardly anyone’s there. We know more about the western front and now there’s some good books appearing on the eastern front, but it’s the same thing in every country that you’re talking about. The numbers of people killed around will make clear what the countries were that really suffered the most. They were Germany and France, followed by Russia, but also Britain.
Don’t forget Britain. Remember I said four empires disappear? The fifth empire arguably disappears in the end, because of dynamics caused by the war. People in the so-called colonies fighting for the British Empire, they began to think, “Why shouldn’t we have independence? Why shouldn’t we have freedom, too?” Of course, at the Battle of Gallipoli, which is one of the great tragedies of the war when Churchill, who had ten ideas a day and nine of them were bad, as one of his critics said, Churchill said, “We’ll take the pressure off. We’ll knock the Turks out of the war.” They’re going to have this impossible assault on Turkish fortified positions. They said, “We’ll knock them out of the war with the Australians, and the Indians, and the New Zealanders. We can afford to lose them more easily. They’re not really ours.” Of course, that still resonates in places like New Zealand, and Australia, and India, as well it should. Anyway, that’s another complicated story, and we have other stuff to do. Read things on this. It is a phenomenal thing. Mutinies. Just a little bit to the mutinies. The Somme you can read about, and all of that.
Chapter 4. The French Mutinies of 1917 [00:22:20]
When I used to work at Vincennes, in the military archives there, because I was writing about 1830 and 1848 and all that stuff, I was reading day by day the correspondence from various regions in France. I was trying to find these documents that I knew were there. This was when I was just starting out. I wasn’t much older than you guys. I’d like to think that. Younger than I once was, but anyway, whatever the song is. And I knew the stuff was there. The person that ran it was out having sort of a torrid affair with this guy all the time. So, she was never there at lunch. And she didn’t know what she was doing anyway. I bribed one of the guards to let me back in the stacks where you’re not supposed to go in French archives. But the guy was a stamp collector and I knew that. So, I kept leaving all these jazzy stamps on my table. Finally he said, “Oh, those are beautiful stamps. “Would you like them?” The next thing I knew I’m in the back.
I remember what I saw was this huge thing of boxes. This is in the mid-1970s. This huge number of boxes that were literally chained up. They were in this cage and they were chained up, really chained up with big locks and all that stuff, big security. I said, “What’s all that?” He said, “Those are the mutiny documents. Those are the documents from the mutinies in 1917.” Now, finally, a guy was able to get in, because in France there’s a fifty-year rule and he should have been able, fifty years after the fact, he should be able to consult documents. This guy was finally able to get exception to go work on these documents. So, the thesis that was published is very good, by a guy called Guy Pedroncini, whom I don’t know, and it’s on the mutiny. Now we know about the mutinies.
What do we know about the mutinies that confirms what you saw in the film? Several things. The mutinies spread rapidly. They did, indeed, begin with soldiers who were being sent the front baa-ing like sheep, as if they were being sent to a slaughterhouse, because that’s what they’re being sent to. What’s the difference between a soldier carrying sixty pounds of equipment going to some attack that’s going to go nowhere, where his chances of being killed are enormous, and sheep being led to a slaughterhouse? What is the difference? Really not much, except you’re dealing with a human being and not a sheep. That was a bad sign for these officers.
When the mutinies started, there were only really four reliable divisions, they figured at one point, between Paris and the German lines. The incredible thing was — is because soldiers never talk about the battle when they go back. They don’t talk about the battle. It was impossible to communicate what was going on. The mutinies were one of the well-kept secrets. Nobody knew. The Germans didn’t know at the time. Hardly anybody knew. Nobody is probably too strong. The mutinies involved thousands, and thousands, and thousands of soldiers. In some cases they elected people to represent them. In a few cases where the officers maintained the upper hand, they summarily shot mutineers. Do you say mutineers? I don’t know, people who mutiny. I confuse these things.
They were massive. But they had nothing to do with socialist, or anarchist, or pacifist propaganda at all. There were attempts. There were congresses. There was a congress in Sweden. There was another one in Switzerland. The French government would not let representatives go to those congresses. The first reaction in the high command was that, “Well, the socialists are now showing their true stripes. Anarchist propaganda is working.” Look at the Bolshevik Revolution. It had not yet happened. That was in October, but the Russian Revolution in February had already occurred. It has nothing to do with it. What they objected to, they were not defeatists at all. They did not want the Germans to win the war. But they realized that they weren’t going to win the war either and that this strategy was completely futile.
There were cases of fraternization. They are very famous cases. Christmas 1914, on the front way up near Belgium, on the British side particularly. They start yelling back and forth, the Germans and the British. They say basically, “Screw this stuff. Why don’t we take the day off?” So, the Welsh were singing Christmas carols to the Germans and the Germans were getting their best singers and singing back. They actually did get together and play a soccer game. They found a place that wasn’t totally chopped up and played. In 1915 on Christmas a British soldier said, “Why don’t we do the same thing?” They put him up against the wall and shot him.
There were these rumors that were very persistent during the whole fighting on the western front that underneath, underneath Reims — where, after all, were all these champagne caves, or underneath Albers. That was the town where the statue of the Virgin Mary on the top of a church hung like this. The Germans said if it falls one way we’re going to win. If it falls the other way, the French are going to win. That somewhere the people who are lucky enough to be alive were down there. They would come out and take food, and they would take wine rations, and stuff like that. They would take them back from the dead, and they were all partying underground. They were the lucky ones. They were all fraternizing. It wasn’t that case. Still, you hear all these stories. The great war poets sort of saying, “Yeah, this German guy and a British guy find themselves in a crater, both on the verge of death, and they’re discussing Nietzsche until somebody finally comes and rescues them.”
A lot of this may be apocryphal. But the mutinies had to do not with defeatism; it had to do with the sheer madness of it all. It was mad. And there are still historians who are saying, “Well, the creeping barrages, if they had made them a little bit more organized then maybe the breakthroughs would have come.” They’re still defending the impossible after all of these years — Something happened. I want to show you these, please. I think I’m turning it off. Simon, can you? I am nul. It was very dark at the Battle of Verdun. What happens? Could you do this? Okay. These are real ones from Verdun. Verdun was 1916. It begins in February. It rains all the time in that part of France. To explain the mutinies is also to understand Verdun. This is a reconnaissance plane. Those are craters there. Those are some more craters over there. That’s Fort Douaumont or Vaux. When you go to them, and you really should go to them, it’s a long way from Verdun. Verdun is the town that’s near there. The one I’ll never forget is when you go in and you see — after the war, like as people do in churches, people would come and put plaques — the most moving one is “To my son, since his eyes closed. Mine have not ceased to cry.”
Next one, please. So, you’d be going in there. Those are where the plaques are, right there. In fact, that plaque that I just said is right next to that. Now, you’re here and they say, “Over the top, men.” You’re trying to get on the other side there. How are you going to do that? That’s all barbed wire around there. How are you going to do that? You can’t. That’s inside Vaux or Douaumont. Night patrol. Again, there’s the trench. They’re attacking. But you’ve got to climb over your own barbed wire, too. That’s barbed wire that’s protecting you from if they attack. The casualty rates are just absolutely phenomenal at all these. The casualty rates here are not the same as the Somme, because it wasn’t a massive attack. You’re defending it against the Germans. They’re taking care of some people that have been hurt, carrying somebody back. The poor guy looks a little peaked there. Telephones. The Russian phone system was so bad the Germans could hear every single word that they said on the eastern front.
Next, please. Well, you get the point. There’s the machine guns aimed low — medical. That’s fantastic to walk in there. But you have to remember that a lot of the fighting is on the outside in the mists, and the snow, and the crap. It’s an amazing thing. But they held. They held. Marshall Pétain became the hero of France. He would have a later incarnation in World War II. We’ll get back to him. They hold. How are you going to run up that hill carrying sixty pounds? There’s a commune, by the way, called Douaumont, which is the only commune out of the 36,000 that no longer exist because it was so battered that there’s a difference in height in these hills of fifty and 100 feet. It could never be rebuilt.
Next, please. We get the scene. It’s amazing how little people knew. What they knew on the home front, and there’s a very good book edited by Jay Winter and his friend, Jean-Louis Robert, about capital cities at war, about London, Paris, and Berlin, comparing the home front. It’s really good stuff, how little people knew about this. It’s like an Italian said, “Do people really imagine that we just jump up and down screaming ‘Long Live Italy’?” One of the most amazing things is that people in the hell, actually that more of them didn’t mutiny. That’s one of the most incredible things about the whole bloody mess. They died in hell, they called it Passchendaele. That was a place where the British gained four miles, that’s about seven kilometers, in exchange for 300,000 dead or wounded, 300,000. Take a football stadium like University of Michigan or UT Austin and fill it up three times, and imagine that you know those people. That’s what it was like.
Chapter 5: The Turning Point in 1917: The Russian Revolution and American Involvement [00:34:18]
1917 changes everything. 1917 changes everything because two key events happen, and they’re obvious. One is the Russian Revolution in 1917 in February. That’s A. Then B, and this is still point number one, is the Russian Revolution in October. It’s clear that the — we’ll talk about this or you can read about this. The Kerensky provisional government is under tremendous pressure from the allies to stay in the war. But it is clear that when the Bolsheviks seize power in October 1917, the Russians are going to get out of the war. “Peace, land, and bread” is a powerful, powerful slogan for the Russian soldiers. It’s amazing that the Russian soldiers didn’t all go back to Vladivostok, or to Kazakhstan, or to wherever, that they were able to hold on as long as they did. That’s going to change things.
It’s at that time that the second event happens. That is the Americans come into the war. The Americans — outside of places like Chicago, and Milwaukee, and Philadelphia maybe, they had lots of Germans — most people in the United States, the tendency was to want the allies to win, to fight another day, and the Americans were angered by the submarine warfare campaign. In 1915, a boat called the Lusitania was sunk. There had been warnings posted by the German government, saying, “If you’re a passenger, don’t go on that. You’re going into a war zone.” The Germans claim when the boat was sunk that it was full of munitions. The Americans and the British said, “No, it wasn’t.” In fact, it was. That was proved about twenty-years-ago by divers. It sunk near Ireland and lots of people died.
The Germans know that the only way they can win the war is the unrestricted campaign of submarine warfare to try to keep Britain from being supplied by American supplies. Woodrow Wilson, Princeton, who won the election, kept us out of war. He takes the country into war, and eventually he can’t get the Treaty of Versailles passed even by the American isolationist senate. So, the Americans go to war in 1917. I took Yale alumni, besides taking them to the Épernay to drink champagne, a lot of them wanted to go to this a long time ago, to Chateau Thierry, which is the first place that American soldiers fought in 1917. Now, it wasn’t the American troops that made the difference. In the imaginary, the imaginaire, in the perceptions of the French, it was the arrival of General Pershing, who had made his career slaughtering Mexicans in Mexico. The image was that the far west was coming and these sort of gun-toting Dodge City types were going to turn the tide. That’s not what happens.
What turns the tide is that once the Americans are in the war, the tremendous industrial strength of the U.S. means the curves are going to cross. By that simply I mean the curves that the Germans know they aren’t going to win the war. The British, and the French, and the American high command know they’re going to win the war. They think they’re going to win the war in 1920 or 1921, maybe 1919, if all goes well. There was a quote in there after they just had — at the cost of thousands of lives — I think it’s still in there. They had gotten a couple of kilometers of territory back from the Germans. Somebody says, “At this rate, we’ll get to the Rhine in the year 2006,” I think is what they figured. The long duration, of being in until the end, was going to be a long time, if you were able to survive.
Those are the two big events, the curves cross. 1917 is also an important year because tanks begin to make a difference. Tanks can’t do anything in these craters. They get stuck. Their treads just sort of spin like a car stuck in the snow in North Haven or something. They don’t make any difference until actually they can break into the open. At that point, then they can be a way of protecting infantry behind them. So, 1917 really turns it around. To make a long story short yet again, in 1918, by this time, Hindenburg and Ludendorff basically have taken over the government. Basically, the Second Reich is now controlled by the military. Of course, Hindenburg has a rather pernicious role in the long run to play. He was determined to destroy the Weimar Republic, even though he was president. As he in 1932 says, “We’ll bring in the Adolf. We’ll bring him in as chancellor.” So, Ludendorff said, “Look, we’ve got to do it now. If we don’t do it now, it’s never going to happen.”
So, they throw every conceivable resource into this offensive. They do break through. They do break through. You can look at the maps in the book. They get a long way. But then it snaps back like a rubber band. They overrun their supplies, as they had in 1914, in the big war offensive in 1914. They begin to overrun their supplies. They get tired and then they’re pushed back. At that point, the worst days of the bombardment of Paris have ended. The allies are sure they’re going to win the war, and that the Germans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is almost on the verge of collapse, despite the sheer inefficiency of the Italian military, they know that it’s going to collapse and that Russia’s coming out of the war in the long run did not make that much of a difference.
The Italians are able to stabilize the front in Austria-Hungary, and the whole thing is going to collapse. And the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the nationalities are putting forth their claims. Franz Joseph dies in 1916, and it’s not going to go on that long. Finally, on the 11th of November 1918, in a railroad car near Compiegne in the forest, not very far north of Paris, they sign on the dotted line and the armistice is declared. In 1940, Hitler would accept France’s surrender. It wasn’t actually the same railroad car, but they told him it was, also in the forest near Compiegne in 1940. The war ended. More about this later.
Basically, France in victory is not as strong as Germany in defeat. Germany is industrially a much more prosperous country. This will hang over the negotiations at Versailles, because the French demand that somebody pay for the war, which France suffered more than any other country in terms of its agricultural land being chewed up, the finest land in France, etc., etc. That’s going to hang over the peace proceedings. I want to make just a few comments before I end with Jay Winter. We have five minutes left, so I’m going to do that.
Chapter 6: The Scale of Destruction [00:41:52]
The highest percentage of losses was France, with 16.8 percent of those mobilized killed. In Germany, 15.4 percent killed. But if you take those in combat, it’s twenty-two percent officers and eighteen percent soldiers. Remember, officers weren’t all fancy generals who were sitting drinking champagne, plotting the deaths of all these people. The junior officers, and this is also the case in the British sense, the flower of British youth from Oxford, Cambridge, etc., etc., they’re the ones that blew the whistle and said, “Follow me, men.” And they jump over, armed with only a pistol. They’re toast. They get killed in even greater percentages. Anyway, Serbia loses thirty-seven percent of all its combatants. They don’t have as many. Turkey, twenty-seven percent; Romania, twenty-five percent; and Bulgaria, twenty-two percent. Now, think of this. The war starts in early August, 1914, and it ends on the 11th of November, 1918. Every day of those years, every day. Think four years back in your own lives, and then every day, 900 Frenchmen were killed every day, every day. That’s a lot of telegrams. “Be proud of X.” 1,300 Germans were killed every day.
The death rate was higher in World War II. Of course, in World War II, the Soviet Union has an unbelievable death rate, twenty-five million people die, some of them in Stalin’s Gulag, but most of them because of the war. The death rate is higher. July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 20,000 British soldiers were killed. Not just killed and wounded, dead in one day. They were there to go over the top, and they’re dead at the end. Unlike previous wars, disease didn’t play a major part. Unlike, for example, the Crimean War. Though the Blue Flu, sometimes called the Spanish Flu, as you know will kill more people in 1918, 1919, and 1920, than the war. That’s the pandemic. As I said, most people die of shells, followed by machine guns and flames, despite progress in medicine.
Also, things like shell shock were first identified at this time after the war. Freud was very interested in that, among other people. The psychological — I wasn’t — you went into the Paris Metro or the London Tube and you saw people begging with one arm, or one leg, or no legs. You saw people who had also choked out their lungs on gas or who were blind. They were all over the place. Europe was a country of widows, especially in countries like Italy where widows still wore black all the time. Europe was a country of widows. If you had a demographic curve, a triangle, it was like a shark had eaten a huge bite out of the male population between eighteen and, say, fifty-five.
The length was simply staggering. The Battle of the Somme lasted five months. Gallipoli lasted more than eight months. Verdun, ten months. Ypres, in 1917, four months. On the Battle of the Somme, you talk about how war influenced people’s lives, four million men participated in the Battle of the Somme, four million. That’s a phenomenal statistic. More than a quarter were killed, captured, or porté disparu, classified as disappeared, nothing left. Battlefields were no longer called the field of glory. That went. The language went. I make an allusion to that, which is an obvious one, at the end of what you read. Also, there’s a brutalization of the sense of humanity that you lost because you were dealing with so many people dead all around.
You were fighting for your life. The attitude that people had toward other people changes, and the demons of the twentieth century — fascism above all — would be built on that dehumanization. Difficult to imagine, though not impossible, the Holocaust without World War I; but given the Turks and what they did to the Armenians, it’s hard to say. Also, atrocities. There were atrocities. Now there are a couple of good books on atrocities. Most of the atrocities were committed by the Germans in Belgium. They executed 5,500 Belgian civilians. Edith Cavell was the most famous, the nurse. In part because German soldiers believed that they were being picked off by civilians — is what had happened in France in 1870-1871. But the Russians committed atrocities in east Prussia and in Galicia.
The Austrians, who had been told that the Serbs were subhuman, committed atrocities there. There were rapes. Rape had not yet become an arm of combat as it would with the Russians after World War II, but people were treated like animals. Hitler said in 1939, “After all, who will remember the Armenians?” That’s an incredible, chilling thing. So, I want to end simply with Jay Winter, whom you’re going to meet soon, assuming I can find this. It’s about a haunting film done by Abel Gance. It’s called J’Accuse, I Accuse. It’s not the same thing as Zola’s I Accuse; it’s another one. Made in 1918-1919.
The hero, Jean Diaz, is a wounded soldier poet. He begins to lose his mind. He escapes from the hospital and he reaches his village. There he summons the villagers and he tells them of a dream. It starts on a battlefield graveyard with wooden crosses all here, and there, and everywhere. A huge black cloud rises above it, and magically, ghost-like figures emerge from the ground. They’re wrapped in tattered bandages, some limping, some blind, walking with upraised arms stumbling blindly like Frankenstein’s monster.
They leave the battlefield and they go home. They go from the grave to their villages. And they want to see if their sacrifices have been in vain. And they get back to their villages and what they find is that their wives have cheated on them. They find that people are still ripping people off by false weights at the market. The petty ways have continued despite their horrific losses. They say, “You must mend your ways. We didn’t go through all of this hell so that you would continue to behave like you do. The world, after all, must be a better place. Isn’t it a better place now? Won’t it be?” That’s the big illusion, by the way, about 1920s and 1930s. The world wasn’t going to be a better place. It wasn’t at all. They believed their mission is fulfilled. They go back to their graves.
After recounting this dream, the poet, now totally mad, accuses the sun above of standing idly by and watching the war go on. Then he dies.
The oddest thing about this, about how art and reality merge, is that this film was made before the end of the war. I’ll bet Gance, the producer, got permission from the army to have real soldiers be extras in his movie. You can see real people, who are not going back to the front, with their arms ripped off. Stumps. They had stumps. Some of the people who were in that movie went back to the front and were killed. They didn’t survive the war. The war had taken a terrible vengeance both in art, the joys of great artistic production, but on reality, too. It’s an incredible scene.
Of course, things couldn’t go back again. You couldn’t go back to your village. You couldn’t get off a bus at the end, and go back and fall into the arms of your family, and stand there with tears on your cheeks as you were counting off the names of the dead, people that you knew. Things were going to get better, but they don’t. One way of looking at the entire period of 1914 to 1945, and Jay will talk about this, is to view it as an entire, more horrible Thirty Years’ War, because things don’t get better; they get worse, if that’s even possible. On that light note, I wish you a happy election.
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