From 1914 to 1918 Europe and the world was subjected to the most destructive war in human history. What happened, and how would it lead into the Second World War.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 2: The War to End all Wars. This episode I would like to give a thank you to all of the podcast’s supporters over on Patreon, where as a way of expressing my gratitude they get access to special ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Member only episodes released once a month. If that sounds interesting to you, head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. On June 28, 1914 in the city of Sarajevo the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne was assassinated, an event that would trigger the chain of events that would lead to a war, and not just a war, the largest war in human history. The conflict we know today as the First World War would spiral out from its Balkan origins and turn into a war that few expected and nobody would have wanted. It would only end after more than 4 years of fighting, during which millions of soldiers and civilians would be killed. Its body count does not tell the whole story of the war, and the strain that it placed on the economies and societies of nations around the world would cause a set of cascading changes that would alter the geopolitical landscape of Europe and the world after the conflict was over. The influence of the war on the military leaders during the decades after 1918 cannot be overstated. Many of the leaders of the interwar years and into World War 2 had served during the war, some had themselves fought in the trenches or at the very least commanded men who had. These experiences changed people, although that change often manifested in different ways. During this episode I will give the briefest possible history of the First World War, if you want to know more, I have a whole podcast covering the war that you can check out. This episode should not be considered something even approaching a full history of the war, and instead it will mostly be a way to frame and introduce important events and themes that had their roots in the First World War which will be integration to our story of the interwar period.
Franz Ferdinand was assassinated while in a car driving in Sarajevo, and he was killed by a young Serbian nationalist named Gravilo Princips, who like many Serbians wanted to see the Slavic regions of the Southern Austro-Hungarian empire brought out of the empire and either joined with Serbia or given independence. The Habsburg leaders would blame the Serbian government, and would eventually send an ultimatum to the small Balkan country. To the question of whether or not the Serbian government was involved in the assassination historians generally give a really strong maybe. There are no firm connections, no smoking gun, but given the connections between many Serbian leaders and the group that recruited the assassins and organized events in Sarajevo it is also impossible to rule out that possibility. As with many events in the lead up to wars, that actual truth mattered very little at the time, and the ultimatum that was delivered to Serbia, if accepted, would have represented a surrender of Serbian national sovereignty to its much larger neighbor. Importantly for later events, this ultimatum was designed to be rejected and by the time that it was sent the Austro-Hungarian leaders were fully supportive of war. These events, within a vacuum, were not destined to spool out into a worldwide conflict. The Balkans had been witness to two wars in just the five years before 1914, and so regional conflicts were just an accepted part of politics in the region. But, of course, this conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia would not be a regional affair, and soon it would become the First World War.
Europe had not seen a continent spanning conflict since Napoleon. There had been wars, here and there over the years, the Crimean War, Austro-German War, Franco-Prussian War, Italian War of Unification, just to name a few, but in all cases, much like in the Balkans, these conflicts had always been regional wars that had, for the most part, ended quickly. While the wars would end, the national tensions would continue, and this would cause countries to seek out alliances with other states in the hopes of balancing against possible future enemies. The evolution of these relationships was complicated, but by 1914 the most important links to the events of July 1914 were between Serbia and Russia, Russia and France, and Germany and Austria-Hungary. These relationships were ones of mutual assistance, and if one country went to war it would call on its allies for aid. These relationships would be put to the test in the run up to the First World War, and the mountains of diplomatic communications between the countries has resulted in a similarly large mountain of books trying to chronicle and understand it. There are so many questions about the events of July 1914 that will never have definitive answers. Most importantly, and the one that would occupy so much thought after the war is: Why did it happen? During the conflict both sides blamed the other, but after the dust had settled on the battlefield a more nuanced understanding began to emerge. The question still remained, of blame, a question that became more urgent as millions, and then tens of millions would be killed or injured during the war. It is a question that even to this day, over 100 years later, causes countless pages to be written every year. These writings primarily focus on how the events went from a regional Balkan conflict to a European war, with focus being on the actions of France, Germany, Russia, and Britain. My opinion has settled into the idea that the reason that the war spiraled out of control was not due to one specific government or individual throwing the continent into war, but instead a mutual desire among the countries, each for their own reasons, to enter a conflict, or at least to not resist one. The reason that the First World War started is not because a country started it, but because none of the countries involved, and very few of the leaders of those countries, truly wanted it NOT to happen.
Once the political leaders drifted toward war, the military planners took over, and the race to war began. The size of the armies at the beginning of the First World War was like nothing seen before, and on mobilization each country could call on millions of conscripts. They would use the railways build all around Europe in the preceding decades to rush these troops toward the borders in prearranged mobilization plans, and their goal was almost without exception to launch an attack. Russian troops launched into East Prussia, Austro-Hungarian troops moved into Serbia, French forces threw themselves against the German border from the Ardennes Forest to the Vosges Mountains. The Germans, of course, attacked through Belgium, with the violation of that country’s neutrality used as an excuse by the British government to enter the war. Many, even most, of the military leaders believed that these offensives would very soon cause the end of the war, the idea that the war would be over by Christmas was genuinely held. This belief was rooted partially in the idea that modern society could not continue war over a long period, it would simply be too expensive and would destroy the intricate network of international trade, and so a devastating early blows would cause countries to move to the negotiating table. They obviously greatly underestimated the resilience of armies and nations. There was also another problem, all of these opening attacks, so long planned and prepared for, failed. Some were perhaps more successful that others, capturing more territory, but in the result was the same, a failure to achieve their objectives of quickly winning the war. In the east the front would settle into modern day Poland, in the west it would begin at the North Sea and only end at the borders of neutral Switzerland. More nations would join in the war, Italy and the Ottoman Empire being important early entrants during the first year. What many hoped would be a quick victory instead quickly settled into a long slog.
After the end of 1914, and for the rest of the war right up until just weeks before it ended, most of the fighting would turn into the kind of positional and attritional warfare that shared more in common with siege warfare than armies on the open field. From 1914 to 1918 every year one side or the other, and some years both, would attempt to break the deadlock on what both sides saw as the primary theater, the Western Front. All of these attacks would fail. Some of the most well known battles in 20th century European history would happen during this time: Verdun, the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele, Operation Michael. They all had one thing in common, not a glorious march to victory but instead the fact that they all failed. After the war these failures would analyzed, again with the question of why. Everybody wanted to know why the war had turned into such a nightmarish trial of attrition, where thousands of men were dying not for victory but instead gains measured in square feet. Conclusions drawn from this question were important because they would dictate how each country would react to the lessons from the First World War when it came time to plan for future conflicts. One school of thought, which would be led and held onto the longest by the French, believed that the level of technology present on the battlefield, and specifically how that technology increased the available firepower for both sides, meant that the First World War was just the first example of what war had become. They believed that all future wars would be a similar slugfest, and so the French optimized their interaction with that attritional style, leading them down their own path of methodical battle which would serve them so poorly in 1940. The other school of thought attributed the positional and attritional nature of the First World War to a lack of mobility. Those who believed that mobility was the problem would turn to newer technologies, the tank, motorized transport, and aviation to find answers to the problems that they had faced in the earlier war. By the 1930s this was probably the most popular answer for what had happened during the First World War. It is also an interpretation of events that I would agree with. When asked why the First World War, especially on the Western Front, resulted in several years of trench warfare I would say that the cause was the asymmetrical relationship between offensive and defensive mobility in the years before the widespread presence of motor vehicles. It was simply impossible for the attacking army to move forward fast enough, often over trenches and broken terrain and always at the speed that soldiers could walk, to outrace the ability of the defender to rush in reinforcements and supplies, often using the large network of railways present in Europe at this time. This lack of offensive mobility would result in a huge amount of time, effort, and money being spent during the interwar years trying to find some way to give the attack a solution. The solution that was settled on was the tank and motorized transport for the infantry, both concepts that had been present during the First World War, but on a relatively small scale. Instead of being an after thought, in the interwar years these new methods of transport became the focus.
While much of the fighting would occur in Western and Eastern Europe, there was also fighting all over the world during the First World War. The Middle East would see fighting between forces from the British Empire, primarily India, and the Ottoman Empire. In the Caucasus region of central Asia Ottoman and Russian forces would clash. In Southeast and Southwest Africa primarily British forces would try and eliminate German forces within their colonies. In the Pacific Australian, New Zealander, and Japanese forces would all move against German colonial Islands. Beyond this fighting the interactions between the war and the rest of the world would be different than in the past. Emphasis was placed on the access and availability of undersea telegraph cables, which were critical to global communications. There were also global radio networks for the militaries to consider, with communication between say Paris and Russia, or Germany and Southern Africa possible for the first time via large and powerful radio towers. This gave the war much greater reach, even if most of the primary fighting was still contained to a relatively small area in Western, Southern, and Eastern Europe. These interactions, and their effects on global opinion and support, would be critical to the next war, with its much larger geographical and political reach.
Fighting the war put strains on societies around the world, and some were more or less prepared to deal with them. The largest example was probably the Russian empire, which had many issues in the decades before the war began in 1914. Almost universally the start of the war caused unity and patriotism to surge in all of the countries involved, Russia included, but then as the war continued month after month, year after year, this mindset began to change. Not only were the armies still in the field, but the war totally disrupted both international and domestic trade. Agriculture all around Europe saw a downturn in productivity as men were pulled away into military service, in an age where manual labor was still the vast majority of farming work. This, along with a few years of bad weather, caused food shortages, which every country in Europe would have to deal with during the war, some were successful, others were not, and some saw more severe food shortages than others. In Russia the focal point of these food problems were in the cities, and even if there was food in the countryside it often could not be transported to the cities due to the demands placed on the rail and road transportation system by the war. This caused frustration and anger to build in the cities. In those cities some mothers would wait in food lines all day, only to reach the front of the line and be told that there was nothing for them, and they were forced to go back to their children with nothing, when these experiences are considered it becomes a bit difficult to blame them for their discontent. In Russia this frustration and anger would feed into a pre-existing dissatisfaction with Russian society to create an explosive mixture of reformist and revolutionary actions. The result in 1917 would not be one but two revolutions, first the overthrow of the Czar by a coalition of socialist parties, and then the October revolution which would see the socialists overthrown by the Bolsheviks, who would later change their name to the Communists. The Bolsheviks, and their violent advocacy for worldwide revolution, would be an important factor in postwar events, and the fear of Communist revolution spreading into Western Europe would be an important driver of decisions by the victorious nations after the war.
While Russia would exit the war by the end of 1917, a replacement for the Eastern giant would enter the conflict, the United States of America. The Americans had been interacting with the war on some level since hostilities began, during 1915 the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat which caused an international incident which caused Germany to halt unrestricted submarine warfare until 1917. The American economy would then go on to benefit from the increase in demand for almost every type of raw material by the countries of Europe, from food to steel and everything in between. During 1917, and after another round of unrestricted submarine warfare prompted by Britain’s continued total blockade of Germany, the United States would enter the war. The entry of the Americans was important for many reasons. The first, and most obvious, was that it provided the Allies, who were reaching the end of their ability to bring more men into the military forces and were largely reliant on new classes of kids aging into conscription, a seemingly bottomless pit of new manpower. This fresh manpower reserve would probably have been the greatest impact of American entry in the long term, but in the short term the most immediate impact was the fact that after April 1917 American banks and the American government bankrolled the Allied war effort. Up until that point the British had been the primary financial supporter of the Allied war effort, utilizing her gold and economic reserves built up over the previous decades, but by 1917 even these massive quantities of wealth were reaching their limits. The Americans would take up the mantle as the monetary driver of the war effort by providing loans to several countries, which would at some point have to be repaid, but that would happen after the war. This included loans to the British government. While the injection of funds would be the most immediately impactful action of the Americans, by 1918 American troops were beginning to arrive in Europe, which posed a problem for Germany, and it would cause them to launch a final attack in the spring of 1918.
By 1918 Germany and Austria-Hungary were in serious trouble, while they had defeated the Russians and forced them to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that essentially dismantled the Russian Empire, they were no closer to winning the war. Since 1914 the Royal Navy had been enforcing a blockade of all goods being imported to Germany or Austria-Hungary. Over the next four years this blockade caused various problems, it reduced the amount of food that could be grown, since Germany was heavily reliant on imported fertilizers, and it prevented more food from begin imported from abroad. When this was combined with the agricultural disruptions, the food demands brought on by the war, and transportation issues, many of the cities of the two Empires were at the point of starvation. The armies also did not avoid these problems, and by 1918 both armies were down to the minimum rations that would really allow them to continue to function. Time and food, was basically running out. In March 1918 the Germans would launch their final set of attacks, beginning with Operation Michael and then moving through several more large offensives over the spring and summer months. Michael would begin well, and it would gain many square miles of territory, but nothing of real value. The other offensives would do much the same, they would all capture territory, but they would always be stopped just short of capturing anything of real strategic importance which may have altered the course of the war. In each case the Germans were limited by how far and fast their armies could move forward, while French, British, and American reinforcements moved in huge numbers on French railways to meet every fresh German attack. The attacks were failures, and costly failures, sacrificing the last German reserves and with their failure it was only really a matter of time before the end.
That end would come on November 11th 1918 when an armistice went into effect. In later years the idea that the German army, still at the front, had been betrayed by the civilian government in Berlin would be used by radical political leaders to gain support among some German groups. The country was at the time of the armistice led by a government made up of socialists and centrist liberals which would be the target for these accusations. It would later be given a fancy name, the “Stab in the back” and would be the idea that Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who were leading the German army at the time that the armistice began to be considered, would later promote when they both entered the political arena after the war. It was easy for them to make these claims because when the armistice was signed the German army was still in possession of French and Belgian territory and was still, at least to some extent, a coherent fighting force. However, in the heated discussions of late October and early November 1918, both in Berlin and at Army headquarters in Belgium, Ludendorff and other military leaders made it clear that the army was finished and that there was no prospect of military victory. It would be the military leadership that would push the German government into negotiations with the Allies, and it would only be after negotiations had started that the military leaders would begin to reconsider their actions. The discussions that occurred at army headquarters were, of course, secret and never released to the public, and so in the postwar years various former military leaders could continue to perpetuate the idea that the German army had been ready, willing, and able to continue the fight but had been betrayed by the politicians. It was not true, but that did not really matter.
The future political ramifications of the exact nature of the end of the war were, in November 1918 a problem for the future, and instead their was general rejoicing all around Europe and the world that the war might finally be over. The war had been running for 52 months, and the number of those killed and wounded, both at the front and at home, was simply staggering. Numbers are always a bit fuzzy, but between 8.5 and 10.5 million military personnel were dead, adding in directly attributable civilian deaths brings that number to between 15 and 19 million. 15 to 19 million, a number large enough that it is incredibly difficult to fully comprehend and understand. A better way to represent it is perhaps deaths over time, so for 52 months and taking the low end of the estimate on deaths that is 288,000 deaths per month, 9,615 every day, 400 every hour, almost 7 per minute. That is seven people dying every minute for over 4 years. Oh, and those numbers do not even include the deaths caused by the Spanish flu, which might double the number, or events like the Russian Civil War which would add millions more. These events were separate from the war at least in some ways, but they would still be just part of the story of human suffering and pain from the period. These deaths were not evenly distributed around Europe, with Serbia for example suffering between 750,000 to 1.2 million deaths, which barely cracks the top 10 in terms of total deaths, but it came to almost a quarter of the country’s prewar population, 25%. For most countries around Europe the number of deaths would be around 4-5% of their total pre-war populations. But that does not necessarily tell the full story of the impact, the most obvious reason being that we are only talking about deaths, and not about how many millions more were wounded by the war. And while the general feeling of misery was felt throughout most of society, military casualties were also not born evenly, those born between 1890 and 1895 would have been 19 to 24 years old when the war started. In Germany a full third of this group would not survive the war, and similar figures would be present in many countries. A sizable chunk of an entire generation was destroyed in many countries in Europe. Those born later, and too young for military service would not escape the war, and especially in Central and Eastern Europe, those areas hardest hit by food shortages and famine, child mortality rates would skyrocket. It would be these generations, those that had been intrinsically tied to the First World War in their youth and early adulthood which would be so important to the events of the interwar years. Unfortunately for these generations that would experience both world wars, the suffering caused by the First World War would be dwarfed by that of the Second.
After the armistice had been signed, the victorious powers of Western Europe moved onto the next battle, what the peace treaty that would end the war would contain and what it would hope to achieve. It would be crafted at a peace conference which would be shrouded in contradictions: It would have to work within the time honored tradition of spoils for victors and punishment for the vanquished, while also using newer ideas of reconciliation and recovery; It would have to strike a balance between old nations settling old scores, and new nations springing up in the wake of collapsing empires; It would have to reconcile the differences between those who dreamed the impossible dream of everlasting peace with those who saw a future war as not just possible, but inevitable. All of those questions would have to be answered, or at least an attempt to be made to answer them, at the Paris Peace Conference and in its resulting treaties, which will be our topic for next episode.