THE FIRST WORLD WAR
THE FIRST WORLD WAR.
“He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence, ‘all quiet on the western front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long. His face had an expression of calm as though almost glad the end had come.”
With these touching words Erich Maria Remarque concludes his great novel “ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT”. Words which express the despair, misery and futility of war and a generation of youth snuffed out at the prime of life.
It all began with a single shot fired on June 28, 1914 by a Serbian youth named Gavrilo Princep against the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Hapsburg dynasty. Princep was a member of a hardcore group of nationalists who wanted an independent Serbia. The early part of the 20th century was comparatively a time of peace and prosperity in Europe with a few irritants in Eastern Europe like the Balkan problem in 1912-13. The French and German stand off in Morocco (1908), Russian and Austrian quarrel (1911) over their influence in the Balkans were just some issues which occasionally disturbed the peace.
Most of Europe was however knit by a complex web of alliance, and the result was a fragile peace of deterrence. Imperial Germany along with Austria and Italy formed the Central alliance. Italy however gravitated away as it found Austria to be an impediment to imperial ambitions. Later however Turkey, Bulgaria and Japan joined the Central Alliance. Britain, France and Russia formed a rival alliance of convenience to counter the potential threat of the Central Alliance. Britain and France were traditional rivals often clashing in Africa and Asia, but the emergence of a strong Germany forced them to bury their differences.
But the fragile balance of power was not the sole reason for the outbreak of First World War, because there were other undercurrents which accentuated the differences. Apart from imperial rivalries, there was the emergence of militarism which upset the applecart. A powerful class of military officials dominated the affairs of countries like Germany particularly in times of war The German general staff was an institution which gave Germany its military might and which had existed right from 1840. This combined with nationalism was a heady brew particularly in countries like Germany. Adding to the woe was the absence of any enforcing institution to implement the resolutions of the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907.
So when the heir to the Hapsburg throne was assassinated the fragile balance of power was rudely shaken. The alliance was basically defensive in nature which became activated only when an ally was attacked. Austrian officials felt that strong action should be initiated against Serbia for harboring militants and fomenting trouble amongst Slavs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They thought a pre-emptive strike against Serbia would not provoke other European powers and so on July 28th 1914 Austrian troops invaded Serbia and without any fanfare the First World War began.
What followed was a series of miscalculations which no one had dreamt of. The Austrian offensive had the tacit support of Germany and the allies at first hesitated to immediately respond. But faced with the prospect of a friendly small state being trampled upon the allies felt inaction was not prudent. As the crisis began to escalate out of control the allied powers realized that for the first time Europe was on the verge of a general war as in 1815. But it was destined to be far worse.
Some of the European powers started mobilizing their troops which in early 20th century was a slow and cumbersome process. There were many reasons for this like:
· Enlisting men and giving them supplies was time consuming.
· Transporting men and materials to the front was a laborious affair.
· Co-ordinating various activities
In this regard it was only the Germans who had the initial advantage.
The strategy of Germany the dominant power in the Central alliance was to mobilize a lion’s share of their troops and resources to the western front with only a token presence in the East. They surmised that Russia would take weeks to mobilize their troops as the vast expanse of Russia and its slender rail network would delay activating its troops. The German strategists felt that they had sufficient time to focus on the western front and France in particular. They thought that the entire campaign on the western front could be folded up in about six to seven weeks after which the troops could be transferred to the Eastern front. This however was not possible without invading Belgium a neutral country. But the Germans were in no mood for such diplomatic niceties and technicalities. They bulldozed their war machine through Belgium and until September 6, 1914 the German plan worked as per schedule. Though slow the German advanced relentlessly towards Paris. But soon things began to go awry. As the German troops advanced the distance between columns widened and the French began to penetrate these gaps. The Germans were forced to withdraw to the Marne River with the French in hot pursuit. But bad weather and shortage of supplies forced the Germans to stand still deep inside French territory. The rival French troops too dug in and by the end of the year there was an unbroken line of trenches with troops holed up right from the coast of English Channel in the north to the Swiss frontier in the south. With this the famous Trench war began. What unfolded was a great human tragedy. Over weeks these trenches became permanent fixtures. Usually there was a no man’s land running along the trenches with barbed wires used to ward of advancing troops. Immediately behind it would be the first line of defense with replenishments and reserves behind it. The third line were usually communication centers and over months there was a permanent stalemate with progress being only few square kilometers of land annexed in an encounter only to be lost in a subsequent one.
The eastern front however was not a witness to such a catastrophe but success for the Russians was elusive.
Some of the characteristic features of the war on the western front were:
· Heavy reliance of artillery. Whenever there was heavy artillery it signaled the beginning of an offensive.
· Use of chemical weapons like poison gas
· Setting up of trenches and bunkers.
A prolonged stand off naturally had other fall outs.
· Rationing was introduced and the bureaucracy was focused on diverting resources for winning the war. This was a very complex process were production and distribution of goods had to be revamped to shift from peace time activity to war time functions.
· Innovations and planned inventions were introduced. In Germany for example as nitrate which were imported from Chile, ran out of stock, the chemist Fritz Haber solved this by developing fixation of nitrogen. Similarly amongst the allies scientists and engineers were assigned the problem of solving technical difficulties.
· Principles of management were developed which despite its initial application to defense later came to employed for commercial production and administration of organization.
· The most obvious was the socio-political changes. The war resulted in changing the political landscape. The old order came crumbling down and in this dust bin of history lay the Austro-Hungarian empire Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. New countries like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, Armenia, Georgia and Syria.
· Rival ideologies like communism emerged in the most unlikely of countries like Russia putting an end to centuries of Czarist rule.
· Diplomatic efforts witnessed the emergence of the League of Nations with the noble intention of preventing another Armageddon by settling disputes amicably through mediation and negotiation.
· Literature was enriched by the writings of great poems of the Trench poets (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, John McCrae, Rupert Brooke) and novels like ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque.
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