HIST 276: France Since 1871

Lecture 15

 - The Home Front


1917 is a critical moment in World War I, as the Bolsheviks seize power in Russia and Woodrow Wilson leads the U.S. into war on the side of the Allied powers. Although morale held steady on the home front in France, there were multiple mutinies and strikes as the war progressed. These mutinies were not in favor of German victory; rather, they were in protest of corruption at home, in the form of incompetence and profiteering. Literary and historical records of World War I bear witness to the difficulty faced by soldiers in reentering civilian life after returning home.

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France Since 1871

HIST 276 - Lecture 15 - The Home Front

Chapter 1. Advice for the Midterm Exam [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: I’ll tell you my favorite midterm story. Maybe one or two of you have heard this before. The point of this is that you don’t screw around with midterms because people put their game faces on; you’re going to have your game faces on, on Monday. But maybe ten years ago somebody in the first half of this class raised their hand the day before, the lecture before the midterm and said, oddly enough, “what language will the midterm be in?” And this is before we had French-speaking sections. So, I don’t know, you ask a question that was a fairly silly question, you give a fairly silly answer. So, I said “Croatian.”

And, so, then I started thinking, well I’ll play a little joke on them; “ha-ha, don’t screw around with midterms.” And, so, I have a colleague who is Croatian and so I made up the following question, which he translated into Croatian. And, so, the test, you come into the test and you get your basic piece of paper, it says answer one of the following two questions, and there’s a third question, in Croatian, with a translation by Ivo Banac. And the question was mine, I take full credit or discredit for this. The question was, “the population of Paris in 1831 was 630,721 people; name these people, and in a second column list those who owned more than one apartment.” So, if you got a question that said the population of Paris was 630,731, name these people, would you answer that question? Three people did. So you have to think, what have they been drinking, what have they been smoking?

And, so, what do we do? I’m screwing around with a midterm, and we have three blue books answering question number three in Croatian; not responding in Croatian, that would be extra credit. And the first person says, well, logically enough — people must panic. I must have done this too when I showed up late for midterms or whatever, if I remembered to go, you just — you panic and you start writing. And the first person said, “well, Merriman, he’s real interested in social geography,” so he wrote a pretty coherent essay about how the rich people live in the west and the poorer people live in the east and the wealthier people in the center, and the poor people on the periphery.” So, we graded that as a real answer. Person number two takes pen — I don’t remember male or female — person number two takes pen and starts writing a column: Albert Hassin, Jean Claude, Albert Hassin, Jean Marie, Albert Hassin, Xavier — and writes names, writes French names; sitting there for forty-five minutes writing names.

What do you do with that? Call psychiatric services, I don’t know. I got to deal with this stuff, you know. And, so, the third person says, “Question Number Three,” and then just sort of just drooled all over the blue book, for about the next half hour. And, so, we get these things, get this soggy blue book, and you get one with a kind of a half-assed but still okay essay on social geography, and you get the third, it’s a bunch of names. So, what do you? How do you grade that? We had a council of — a meeting to discuss this, and I don’t know what we did. I know we gave the first person some sort of B+ for the essay, and number two I think I convoked the person and maybe called the college dean to say “Ça va? Ça ne vas pas? Ça marche? Ça ne marche pas? On a un petit problème quand même, nous.” Anyway, I don’t mean to screw around with your midterm. Sorry?

Student: How many names did he get through?

Professor John Merriman: Oh, I guess about maybe — I tore it up at the end. There was probably about seventeen or eighteen names, and they were in alphabetical order. So, it wasn’t that the midterm was a total loss. But that’s the last time I screw around with midterms. Brian, mon brave, are your people getting this in French, the midterm, or in English?

Brian: Well, they’re getting the French Department to do French.

Professor John Merriman: No, but the exam, when we do the exam in a few minutes, are we going to do that in French? Okay, voilà. So, let’s start. Where was I? I got taken out there a little bit here, thinking about those old times.

Chapter 2. The Turning Point in 1917: The Russian Revolution and American Involvement [00:04:48]

I want today to talk about 1917 and 1918, and talk a little bit about the mutinies. The mutinies have to be seen in the context, of the course, in all these assaults, but above all the Battle of the Somme. And the Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1st, 1916 was the darkest moment certainly in four years of dark days. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme — I always give these statistics, they’re so interesting — the first day, the 1st of July, 1916, almost 40,000 British soldiers were killed in one day, and — I mean 40,000, sorry, were wounded, and 20,000 were killed on the very first day.

There was a casualty for every half meter of the entire front line; so, one casualty for every half meter of the front line. And I gave this statistic the first day, when I was kind of giving an overview of the course, but there were more British soldiers killed or seriously wounded in the first three days of the Battle of the Somme than there were Americans killed in World War One, Korea, and Vietnam combined. And you can include the 4,000 that had been killed in this current third war. So, those are phenomenal losses.

And, so, the question again when you look at the poisoning of the political atmosphere and the absence of able leadership in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, where were they? In the case of Britain they were, as that poem went, hung up on that old barbed wire, because they were dead. And sometimes it’s easy — and British society is such a class society, and it’s easy to kind of poke fun at Oxbridge folks going to their common room, and then going off to machinegun Indian insurgents, and this sort of thing. But the flower of British youth perished and the flower of other countries’ youth during this time. And, so, the mutinies have to be seen in that context; and I’ll come back to them in awhile.

Now, 1917 is the crucial year, really, in determining the outcome of a war that seemed like it was going to go on forever; forever, not defined by truly forever, but that in the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918, into March — well, after they slow down the Ludendorff offensive in 1918, the military planners begin to think that they’ll win the war in 1920, 1921 maybe, if all went spectacularly well in 1919. And, of course, as so many people died to win a few hundred meters, or a kilometer, or two kilometers, or three kilometers at best, there were wags who said well at this rate we’ll reach the Rhine, somebody figured out, by the year 2007, which is where we are now, more or less, if I remember that statistic. But two things happen in 1917 that are essential. One is that the Bolshevik Revolution comes along; but first the revolution in February where the people of St. Petersberg wake up and find that the emperor has no clothes, that there’s police but no troops, and the bread lines are long, and the czarist autocracy falls, leading to that sort of power vacuum and Kerensky’s provisional government.

And, of course, in October the Bolsheviks, after one attempt had failed, the Bolsheviks seize power. And at that point the war changes dimensions dramatically in the east. Russia is still in the war until the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March of 1918. But the propaganda, which was more than that of war, bread, and peace — that’s a motto to live by — means that you’ve got a de-acceleration in the Russian war effort and you’ve got massive desertions from the Russian Army. Now, one of the amazing things is that the desertion rate was so low, compared to what you think would happen. And it is rather amazing that the Russians were able to hold on, again, just as the Germans were close to Paris, particularly in March 1918; the German forces are also quite close to Petrograd, that St. Petersberg had been renamed because Petrograd sounded more Russian.

But the other thing that changes the outcome of the war is that the Americans come in. And in the United States — the United States were supposedly neutral until 1917, but outside of places with strong German populations, for example Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Chicago, the majority of Americans supported the Allies, as defined by the British, the French and the Russians, and particularly through the British component. But it wasn’t really that that brings the Americans into the war. The German High Command — to make again one of these interesting long stories very, very short — had decided that the only way that they could win is to knock the British out of the war, and the way that they could knock the British out of the war is to stop the supply of munitions, of food, of grain, of almost anything else you could imagine, to Great Britain.

Now, how are you going to do that? Well the way you’re going to do that is with a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare, the famous U-boats, that sink an incredible number of ships. And the German government goes down, sends representatives down to the docks in New York and to other ports, Boston and other places, and they put up warnings saying that the civilian passengers or any other Americans who go on ships ought to know that they’re entering a war zone and could be sunk. And the German U-boats sink some ships with Americans on them. The most dramatic event was the sinking of the Lusitania, which I’m sure you all know about, in which lots of Americans — I can’t remember how many, but it was hundreds and hundreds; it might’ve even been 1,000; I apologize for not have the statistic in my head — were killed, off, I think it’s fairly near Ireland.

And, of course, the Americans go wild and say that this ship was carrying passengers going over to Britain and civilians, and this was an act of piracy, an act of war, an act of murder, et cetera, et cetera. It turns out that I think it was in the 1960s or 1970s, I vaguely remember this, that they sent divers down into the Lusitania and they found that, as the Germans had claimed, it was absolutely correct that the Americans were — this ship was carrying munitions and therefore — I’m not defending the sinking of the ship, I’m not for the defending of the sinking of any ship — but clearly it was carrying weapons, and that’s one of the reasons that the ship went down with such a dramatic impact is because all the munitions blew up when the German torpedo hit it.

But over the long run what happens is that the man who was going to keep America out of war, Woodrow Wilson, former President of Princeton University, ends up taking the U.S. into war. And those of you who have had American History from Glenda or other people, Glenda Gilmore or other folks here, will know that in the end most Americans really didn’t want to go to war. And Wilson, wbo was the first American President, by the way, ever to leave the United States during a term of office, goes to Versailles, to the Treaty of Versailles after the war, and then he can’t get the treaty ever ratified by the U.S. Congress after that. His repudiation is really complete, unfortunately for him, at the end of the war.

Now, what difference did the Americans coming into the war mean, in 1917? It was not the troops — lots of troops begin to arrive, led by Pershing, John Pershing, who had honed his skills by shooting down Mexicans in Mexico. And they have the reputation for being sort of cowboys in earnest, and sort of the typical American image is really — although that’s been devastated in the last four or five years — but really is created by the Americans arriving to fight, and they’re well-trained, pistol-wielding sharpshooters and all that. And they first go to- they first fight at Château-Thierry, which is not very far from Paris, it’s northeast of Paris, in 1917. But that’s not what makes the difference.

American troops in the long run will help tilt the scale to the Allies, and it compensates for what we’ve discussed in terms of the French not having — they’re going to run out of soldiers. But the big difference is that the curves cross, that the curves of the ability of the Germans to supply their own forces; that the German war machine is not going to be able to compete with the combined power of American industrial might, and Detroit can be easily converted — the factories in Detroit, and Ypsilanti, and Flint, Michigan, and lots of other places, can be easily transformed into production of — Ypsilanti into the production of arms, and places like that. And, so, the curves cross.

And it’s at that point when many people in the French and the British High Command, along with the Americans — they know they’re going to win the war in the long run, but the question, at what cost? And there’s lively discussion, as there had been in Germany, over German war aims. The Germans, if they win the war in the west they’re going to want — demand part of Belgium, they’re going to want probably more of Lorraine, et cetera, et cetera. The French also have their war aims. They’re going to want to have a permanent French presence; they’re talking about that in the Rhineland as well as taking Alsace and Lorraine back. And so that helps set up — which I’ll come back to talk about in awhile — 1918, March, because that’s when the Germans say, “baby it’s now or never.”

And, so, that’s the big Ludendorff offensive, which I’ll come back to, in March of 1918. That’s important to say, to discuss at least a little bit. Now, what about the mutinies and what about other aspects of the war? They have to do with the home front. And the mutinies are not on the home front but they’re quite close to it. As I said at the beginning here, most people in France did not want war in 1914, but because it was easy to portray Germany as the aggressors, which they were, the vast majority of the population obviously was prepared to hold on because of the proximity certainly of Paris to the front; and this is right through the war, it’s right through into the failure of the Ludendorff offensive.

Chapter 3. Social Tensions of War: Profiteers, Women and Refugees [00:17:05]

Now, to be sure there are tensions within French society about the war. There was tremendous resentment, and you can see photos of this resentment, as in Paris the opera was one place where they distributed coal, that was rationed, in order to have heat. And as you know from discussion previously of the Grands Boulevards, that’s where many of the famous restaurants and cafés, the Café American, the Café de la Paix, ironically the Café de la Paix, the café of peace, and all those things are located. And, so, as people waited in line to hope to get a few chunks of coal in order to stay warm in these cold Parisian winters, they saw the fancy people in their big cars, driven by chauffeurs, going off to the great restaurants, and people who had profiteered from the war. And name me a war in which people do not profit enormously and in which some aspects of big business are not just gleeful with every extended tour of duty, and you’ll have discovered something that I didn’t know existed.

And, so, there’s a lot of tension toward profiteers, to les gros, the big guys, the fat guys, les gros bonnets, the big hats. And you’ve got those tensions. But you have — more than that you have tensions between those people who, peasants,les paysans, who are conscripted without any real possibility, unless they’re already had two brothers killed, and that saves them; and, for example, skilled workers in the armament industry. For example around Saint-Étienne, Saint-Étienne is an armament manufacturing town, or was — they used to make bikes there, too. They don’t make either there anymore.

Or in Tulles, in the Corrèze, places that make arms, people, skilled workers got out of the draft because of that. And thus they worked very hard but there was some tension towards that from, for example, people in the Massif Central where you have the most endless lists of names killed that one could ever see, in Auvergne and places like that. So, you have those sorts of tensions, as well. Now, the role of women in all this is of course crucial because it’s in the factories, particularly in not highly skilled work because they didn’t have the formation or the training in that, that women step up and replace men. And also, again the role of nurses is so important.

And, so, that’s why it was inconceivable for many French women, after all of this, not to get the vote after World War One; whereas in Britain women get the vote after World War Two; and in the United States Rosie the Riveter, working in a factory in Detroit or in Pittsburgh, became sort of an icon for sort of the crypto-feminist movement in later decades. So, you have some tensions there. You also had workers who would come back — and of course after the war, if they were lucky enough to survive — Bruno Cabanes will probably talk about this next week, after midterm — they get thrown out; they’re the last hired so they’re the first fired. And there’s some tensions between males and females over that, too, because the males had been out in the trenches, and they want those jobs back, and all of that.

But another thing that’s rather interesting is of course the role of women and the nurses; and the big, the northern French nuns and the Belgian nuns with those huge hats. And it was easy to become anti-clerical, and we’ve talked about that before, but one of the things that calms that situation is the role of the clergy, and in particular of the female clergy, in attending to these horrible, horrible wounds, and in some cases going to the fronts, working with ambulances and this sort of thing, as other women did who didn’t happen to be nuns. And for example the case of Lyon has been documented; and Lyon was the capital of Radical party, with a big R; socially conservative and moderate politically but based upon, built upon anti-clericalism. And in Lyon where there was this vibrant kind of anti-clericalism, before World War I, that calms down because these nuns who people attacked, representing in some ways the institutionalized role of the Catholic Church in French society, were extraordinarily heroic, and so were these priests, and ministers, and indeed rabbis, who of course get killed by shells as they’re giving the last rights to all these people who have been killed.

And there’s another tension too that’s not talked about so much, but I can — I’ve heard it in the sort of collective memory of where we live too, is that one of the things that happens with the war — and obviously when you look at a map of France — that départements like the Ardennes, and the Ain, and the Marne, and the Pas-de-Calais, and the Nord are basically German, or the front line is running right through that département. So, you’ve got these millions of people who become refugees and they are going — in a more organized fashion than in 1940 when everybody’s seen the pictures of them walking along the roads, carrying what they can, and then diving into the ditches as the Luftwaffe, the German fighter plane, the German air force is strafing them, in a more organized fashion.

But you still have to have somewhere to go, you have to have someplace to end up where you’re going to be fed. And, so, where do they end up? Well, they end up in the places in France where there is not fighting. And it became that people get tired of the war by 1917 — well, everybody’s tired of the war. But as one gets even tireder of the war you hear this sort of grumbling about these people from the north, and they speak a different accent in some cases — if they speak German they speak a different language; if they speak Flemish, and there are lots of Flemish speakers who come down from the Nord, from places like Hasbrouck and all of that. And, so, they are strains on local resources, which are already extremely limited.

And, so, you even have this talk, grumbling, it’s not more than that, but grumbling in cafés and bars about Paris’s war, but also about les borschts du nord, that is the Germans of the north. And one of the things is that a lot of people in the north of France are blonde, and a lot of people, the majority of the people in the south of France have dark hair. And, so, all of a sudden there’s this arrival — it was a silly way of viewing it, but this is how people viewed it, is that you had your blonde people in the south and you have dark people in the north, that life is like that. But you have the arrival of these people, many of whom look like they’re Dutch, who’re arriving and who cause some sort of strain on the ability of communities to take care of those perceived as of their own. And, so, 1917 is a big year for that as well.

Chapter 4. Mutinies and Strikes: Popular Revolt on the Front and at Home [00:24:19]

You have other kinds of problems. 1917 is the year lots of men and women go on strike. Now, they are not, these are not “defeatist”, in quotes, strikes, but the strikes in Saint-Étienne, and many of them are involving women, are demands for better working conditions, for better wages. They’re part of the Sacred Union, Union Sacrée, but they want better conditions. And, so, the strikes in 1917, again they’re not defeatist strikes, they want to win the war, but it’s the same thing as the movement before the war for better conditions. Why should you work for worse conditions than men, for example, or why should you work for conditions when the profiteers are getting rich and the gros bonnets, the big bonnets, the big hats are getting wealthy, why should you have terrible conditions?

And, so, these strikes are very widespread. Clemenceau has more power; in 1917 he becomes prime minister, he says, “I wage war, I wage war, I wage war, that’s all.” There were attempts to break the strikes but it’s a year where the morale of the home front is extremely fragile. It’s more fragile in 1917 than in any other time. And there seems to be this enormous disparity between the sort of howling propaganda of big newspapers, in which everything is a great victory and defeats are just tiny setbacks, a step back; and if things are so damn good why are the Germans still close to Paris? And, so, it becomes pretty hard to explain. Now, they don’t have the problems that the Germans will have because — and that’s a different situation. A very good book edited by my friend Jay Winter and Jean-Louis Robert called Capital Cities at War — because conditions are worse in Berlin than they are in Paris.

But conditions are much better in London than they are in Paris, and that’s for fairly obvious reasons, though the losses are still equally bad. So, that year, 1917, is a bad year but overall things are calmed down and for these reasons I’ve already said it is a turning point. Now, what about these, the mutinies? How serious were the mutinies? There were probably only two divisions that were totally reliable, standing between the Germans and Paris, at that point. Not reliable again to the extent that they want the Germans to win, because they don’t, but they want, for example, the rights — the French were trying to keep representatives from the Socialist Party from going to Switzerland or going to Sweden to meet in international peace conferences, and that sort of thing.

I spoke earlier, whenever it was, Monday, about this sort of discontinuity or the contrast between the soldiers’ view of the war and that of the civilians — and one of the — and how the soldiers back on leave didn’t want to talk about it and couldn’t really give that precise kinds of information anyway, because often it’s all swirling around them and they don’t really know what’s going on in other places except where they are. But one of the best evidences of that is the fact that nobody, as far as we can tell, at the home front really knew, at the time of the mutinies, about how serious and widespread the mutinies were, that they didn’t really know.

Now, remember also that — in fact, this is one of the key sources for Bruno Cabanes’ magnificent book on — the translation to English would be something like Victory Plunged into Mourning, that is the return of the soldiers. One of the principal sources are letters written by soldiers from the front that were collected and censored by military censors who don’t want these letters revealing to civilians much of what was going on at all. And, so, that also explains why people at the home front really didn’t know about how widespread these mutinies were, nor did the Germans, nor did the British, outside of High Command, have any sense of what was going on.

Now, these mutinies, it’s not too hard to say why these mutinies take place when they do, or why they take place at all. It is not again defeatism, they don’t want the Germans to win. They have some respect, lots of respect for the German soldiers they’re fighting against, although at the end of the war they still just sort of — what seeps out of these letters — and maybe Bruno will talk about this next time, is hatred for the horrible Hun, et cetera, et cetera, but that anybody could tell that these tactics were just killing hundreds of thousands of people for nothing, for nothing, that there wasn’t going to be a French-British breakthrough; that the Battle of the Somme grounds to a halt, all along the front, for obvious reasons, after a matter of really days but weeks, and that there isn’t any hope. It began when one company —

Oh, by the way, how do we know this? We don’t know it from Kirk Douglas. Most archives in France can be opened up fifty years after the fact. So, what year is this? 2000 something or other, 2007. So, we can see the archives fifty years ago, but not forty-nine years ago. But with the military archives, because this was so sensitive, the mutinies, all of these documents were in the war archives in Vincennes. And I saw them before they were open because I bribed my way in, not to see them, I was working on something else but the person that ran this, the war archives was just totally clueless, totally clueless, and she’d leave for about three hour trysts or lunch breaks I guess, more appropriately.

And I knew these documents were there and so I knew also, somebody had tipped me off that the gardien likes stamps, and so I would put all these wild sort of stamps on my mail, letters, when people still used stamps; I had ones from Latin America and ones from Africa. And this guy comes up and he says, “oh, very beautiful these stamps.” I said, “oh, do you like stamps?” And he’d be, “yes, yes.” “Well would you like these?” “Oh, thank you so much.” And pretty soon I’m in the archives, in the back. And he’s an officer too, he’s some sort of lieutenant guy — he’s a real good guy. Anyway, so I bribed my way in, and you could see these, all these cartons, and they were chained, they were literally all chained in this big kind of capsule; it looked like a space capsule except it was just — looks like the basement of Branford College or something. But you couldn’t get into those because that was thought to be the national disgrace that there had been these mutinies.

And the mutinies were indeed widespread. And so what happens is that refusals to go over the top simply spread. They spread like wildfire. Soldiers say they don’t want to get killed anymore for five cents a day. In some places red flags go up and in some places there are black flags, which are the flags of anarchism. But remember that the socialists had also joined the Sacred Union and that Jules Guesde ends up being Minister of Transport, or Minister of Communication, or something like that, in 1915, if I remember correctly. And two regiments that are posted in Soissons — Soissons is not very far away from Paris, Soissons is about a forty-five minute drive away from Paris, by car now.

Two regiments decide they’re going to march on Paris to try to set things right. They’re going to force the Chamber of Deputies to find a way to end the war; not to say we want the Germans to win but to find a way, get some sort of negotiated settlement, so that this carnage stopped. Most of the generals, who are fairly clueless, see organized Bolshevik propaganda behind this; or pacifists, those people coming out of Sweden or Switzerland and trying to stop the useless way this war is being fought. In May and June about 40,000 soldiers were involved in collective acts of refusal, and although the generals insisted in their correspondence that those 40,000 people were cowards — this obviously was not the case, and many of them had already been shot up, and already been wounded, and already were going back.

And the first signs of this, by the way, are that soldiers who were supposed to move up in order to prepare to go over the top begin baaing like sheep, going baa, baa, the way that sheep baah on the way to the slaughter, l’abattoir, the slaughterhouse, because that’s where they were going. Now, there was socialist and pacifist literature that had, happily enough, in my view, had gotten into the trenches. But this is not the motivation. And Pétain, who ends up being one of the sort of evil forces in France — but this was early Pétain, when Pétain, he realizes that this is not the case, that in fact the repression is much less severe than many of the generals wanted — more about that in a minute. And, so, he ends the policy, Pétain does, of these mad attacks; over the top, the whistles blow, and then they simply get slaughtered. In some areas — and we don’t have exact statistics because there were certainly some people who were just put up against the wall and shot, we don’t know.

It’s just like after 1945, we don’t know, we have a guess of 10,000 people were killed in the reprisals in 1945 but that’s a pretty rough account. But there were 34,027 condemnations, about ten percent of the people who were — who faced some kind of court-martial for something they did or something they didn’t do. And forty-nine were condemned to death, which is not — I’m not for condemning anybody to death but it — and then these were carried out as in the movie, as in the film, immediately. It’s just up against the wall, bang, bang. And Pétain tries to, he tries to bring in better conditions. He ups the booze ration as well, and of course that was pretty happy. So, and in fact I said 40,000, but there’s another statistic that goes as high as 70,000 people.

And let me throw in a statistic as long as we’re doing that for strikes. In 1917 there were 689 strikes affecting 300,000 workers — that’s a lot, trois cent mille, 300,000 workers, and that’s compared to ninety-eight strikes in 1916. But, again, a fascinating aspect I’m repeating is that this was not known, and this was not known — then you couldn’t drive it in forty-five minutes — but this was not known in Paris by the general population, what had happened. And in the end France holds on. Now, in the spring of 1918 the Germans launch their “victory drive,” in quotes, the first major German offensive since 1914; before it’s been the British and the French attempting to break through.

Chapter 5. Ludendorff’s Last Push: The German Offensive of 1918 [00:36:53]

Now, at the same time the Austro-Hungarian Empire — the army is — all the cracks that were quite predicted and predictable, there are all sorts of problems there. And Franz Joseph has died in 1916, and so the Germans are quite unsure whether the Austro-Hungarian Empire is going to be able to hold on fighting against the Italians, for example; and remember that Brest-Litovsk is not signed until March of 1918. And the Americans have, by spring of 1918, 325,000 soldiers. That’s not a huge number of soldiers but that’s still three times Michigan Football Stadium full. So, that’s a lot of people. So, Ludendorff decides on a massive German assault along the poor old Somme River, therefore avoiding the mud of Flanders and avoiding the forts of eastern France around Verdun. He was encouraged by the fact that there are younger soldiers that are just barely eighteen that have been put into the ranks, and he also has brought up much older men too.

So, they have some serious troops in order to try to pull off this breakthrough. And, so, on the 21st of March, 1918, after a relatively brief bombardment of five hours, as opposed to five days, 1.6 million men — who could have imagined these numbers, who could have imagined these numbers in 1913? — 1.6 million men attack the Allied defenses in five separate offences over a front of forty miles. And they do break through. In five days some German units have pushed forward more than forty miles, and there was — a complementary attack in Flanders does very well indeed. And the British troops and the French, as General Haigh in Britain famously once said, were fighting with their backs to the wall.

And on Easter Sunday of that year, again the shells from Big Bertha lobbed all those miles, from the north, fall on Paris. The Rue de Rivoli, you can still see a sign where it took out an apartment building. Church of Saint-Gervais, right near the Seine. Boulevard Port-Royal, up by Montparnasse, the same thing. So, these shells fall and they begin taking lives. But what happens was predictable and predicted, is that as on the small scale, in the big scale the Germans begin to outrun their cover and supplies, and they begin at each one of these five points of German offensive to encounter stiff resistance. On July 15th Ludendorff tries a last desperate attack and it’s repulsed. And for Ludendorff, he knew this was the last chance to win the war, and at that point he knows it’s la fin des haricots, the end of the green beans, that they’re simply not going to win and that the French, their resources swollen by the American entrance into the war, are not going to sue for an armistice until they push the Germans back across the Rhine. And at that point morale plunges dangerously in Germany.

In January of 1918, 250,000 German workers defy the government by going on strike; and strikes were illegal during the war, there was all sorts of hoarding, and so there’s a big problem. And the Allies, the British, the French, and the Americans, counter-attack in July. And at this point, when they’re in the open for the first time, tanks that you’ve all seen pictures of them stuck in the mud, now when they’re in the open tanks begin to work rather well, and they begin to adopt the strategy of having soldiers, infantry following tanks and therefore not getting picked off in such huge numbers, and they begin to make a big difference. On the 8th of August, 1918, the German army’s darkest day, there are all sorts of attacks against the German lines and a British force moves eight miles; and that’s a territory that was unimaginable in the beginning.

Chapter 6. The End at Last: The Human Cost of War [00:41:30]

At this point Ludendorff tells the hapless Wilhelm II that it’s all over but the shouting and you better figure out some way of bringing this whole thing to an end. And, as you know, in the end Wilhelm II will slither across the Dutch border and the Armistice will be signed in a railroad car, in Compiègne, north of Paris — there’s still a railroad car there, it’s not the same one, and that’s where Hitler insisted on the declaration of the Armistice in 1940 being signed — so the war ends on the 11th of November, 1918. And, as you know, there were many people — not many, but there were lots of people killed afterwards because they didn’t know that the Armistice had come along and that the biggest pandemic ever in human history, at least since the Black Death in the fourteenth century, the Spanish flu, as it was called; it probably started in India but had already begun to sweep through the world.

So, things were not getting better and better but they were getting worse and worse. Just a few obvious statistics — you can see these all over but it is staggering; before I end with something that Jay Winter has begun one of his books with. Just in terms of dead and wounded, just a couple — you can write these down, you can write them down or don’t write them down. But, anyway, Russia, dead, 1,800,000; wounded 5,000,000 — now, that ain’t nothing like World War Two, 25,000,000 dead in the Soviet Union in World War II — but 1.8 million is a rather lot to be killed. In France, the French at least — and probably more than this — but you hear figures from 1.4 million to 1.5 million dead; and wounded 4,266,000. Great Britain, including the empire, the dominion, the Australians, the Kenyans, dead, 908,000 and wounded 2,000,000. The Italians, 578,000, with about a million wounded. And Serbia, which is a very small country, dead, 278,000; wounded 133,000. Tiny Belgium, killed, 38,000; wounded 44,000.

And among the Central powers Germany, 2,000,000 dead, 2,000,000 dead; after all that with your armies, how do you explain to the folks back home all those people dead, why you surrendered? Well, it must be someone’s fault, and that’s what the Right would argue — “it was the Jews, it was the Socialists, it was the Communists; there had to have been a stab in the back.” How do you explain this to the folks back home? Wounded, 4,000,000 — more than that. Austria-Hungary, the amazing thing is they held on so long, given all the national differences — 1.1 million, with wounded 3.6 million. These are just statistics that are so incredible.

In France there are 36,000 communes and there were only twelve that didn’t have somebody killed. And that’s why when you go to any French commune, except those twelve, you’ll see a list of those people killed; or even inside churches sometimes they’ll have the parish ones, and if the war monuments are near the churches — that tends to happen more in areas that were still Christianized, where people still went to church; and I mentioned this once before, but if you go to the Bourbonnais or the Allier you still find these war memorials that are sort of like Voltaire, “if God exists, how could he or she let this happen?” With broken crosses, shattered crosses; they were lamenting that this could happen in a so-called civilized world.

And, of course, one thing that happens after the war, as Charles pointed out the other day, is that if you’ve been told — if you’re an African or you’re an Asian and you’ve been told that this is the great civilization, that the Europeans, they’ve got it all; you’ve been told by them that they’re better than you. How do you reconcile that to what they’re screaming at you in their little schools, trying to teach you their language? If they’re so damn better how could they bring all of this upon Europe? There is, by the way, but one soldier left in Great Britain who’s still alive from World War One. He’s a fellow called Harry Payne. He was born in 1898 and somebody just published a book about him. And periodically, on Armistice Day, he is interviewed; you can hear him on BBC. But with the passing of time of course you don’t have that anymore.

And I can remember even in my jeunesse, I can remember seeing these very aged people coming out on November 11th, so proud of what they did, fighting. And the Americans too that did. But in those days — those were different wars and those were different countries, and I would argue also that was a very different America. Anyway, just to simply end with something that Jay Winter leaves us with. He has a wonderful book about mourning and memory. And he begins with a film, he begins with a film by Abel Gance. Abel Gance, g-a-n-c-e, did a very long, over-rated film on Napoleon, with the famous snowball fight. But he did a book — he takes Zola’s title, but he did a movie called J’accuse! He makes it in 1918 and 1919; he made it before the war is over.

The hero is a guy called Jean Diaz. He’s a wounded soldier poet and he goes crazy, he begins to lose his mind, as so many people did, after all that in World War One, and he escapes from a mental hospital, and he goes back to his village, and he brings all the villagers together, and he tells them about a dream that he’s had in the asylum. And in the dream, in the movie, you see a battlefield graveyard with all the crosses, they’re all there, and they’re all askew, and a big black cloud comes up behind the village graveyard, in the movie, and magically these ghost-like figures emerge from the grave with tattered bandages, missing arms — their bandages begin to unravel around their head. And some are blind, they’ve lost their sight, and some are coughing out their lungs from the poison gas. And they leave the battlefield and they go back to their own villages to see if the sacrifices have been worth it.

And what they find is what Jay calls the pettiness of civilian life, the black-marketing, the profiteering. Their wives have been sleeping around. Things aren’t the way they should be, whereas they have suffered. But they come back, they’re alive again but they’re really dead. And their appearance so terrifies the villagers that they decide to mend their ways and to become better people, better people. And so these ghost-like figures and their bandages, they march back to the cemetery and they go back into their graves, and it’s all over. But what’s really interesting about it is that some of the soldiers who were on leave at that time, en permission, were used as extras in the movie, and you can identify them — someone who has lost his arm really, it’s not a fake missing arm, it’s a real one.

And some of them who were there, in the movie, go back to the war and are killed, they die real deaths, in their graves, with their tattered bandages. And it’s as if art and reality have merged. And that’s an important theme in all of this because there’s no war, no more powerful moment, in history, that has brought us such great literature and all of this. And there’s no war like this ever that unleashed so many demons into the world, and it’s some of those demons that we will now next turn but not today. Good luck on the midterm, have a great weekend. Rock and roll.

[end of transcript]

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