WWI – A Hundred Years Ago – New Year’s 1916
New Years Day 1916
The principal participants in WWI take end of the year inventory and make 1916 projections. Germany has traditionally been held accountable as the perpetrator of the conflict by attacking Belgium. However, certainly Austria-Hungary, the British Empire and even France could have made greater effort to avoid outright war. Everywhere, the leaders see the war as an opportunity to expand their sphere of influence or as an opportunity to solidify power in an outdated social structure.
The soldiers are pieces to be managed in a new industrial world. The Generals are slow to understand new weapons and new strategy. Because the Generals are not able to secure a decisive victory on any side, and certainly not by Christmas 1914, some changes are made. In England Sir Douglas Haig replaces Field Marshal Sir John French. The French name General Joseph Joffre as commander of the western front.
In 1916, more and more the situation becomes apparent that the war will not be decided in battle though battles of merciless attrition continue. The battles are defensive in nature and application. Even planned attacks are preventative. Hence the trench lines are nearly permanent on the western front throughout the four years of war. The war will be decided by economics.
War Will Come
Social Structure and Economics
Germany began the war in 1914 with the economic advantage. This advantage was due to the munitions industry. Germany begins the conflict with the best equipped and best trained soldiers in the world. Had the war ended by Christmas 1914 as expected the German military would have been victorious. The German civilian population would have maintained reasonable living standards and social status quo under the monarchy.
However, Kaiser Wilhelm II does not prepare for long term civilian population needs such as food. As the war stretches into 1916 the Kaiser continues to ask for money to fund his armies but has no plan for food and necessities for his civilian population. The turnip winter is approaching. Socialism escalates. The political monarchial system is in trouble.
Up to New Year’s 1916 the civilian populations of all the waring nations are sacrificing for god and country. As 1916 progresses, the economic advantages as well as social stability are with the allies. (Always excepting Russia). The civilians in England and France are fed and politically stable despite concerns of industry and labor. Outcries for social change are rising in Germany and Russia as demands for change in government grow in volume and ferocity despite the ongoing war. Everywhere, all nations, the death toll of young men is difficult to bear and difficult to justify. For Germany, the war must be won or the monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II will topple. War is destroying the political and social order.
The year is far into 1916 before Woodrow Wilson is reelected president of the United States. He is elected on a platform of peace. The waring nations continue and expand propaganda to win the hearts of American civilians. On New Year’s 1916, all waring nations know that America is the determining factor.
Questions of propaganda - women’s work, strikes, food, self-defense and fault dominate the discussion in newspaper and on the radio. Part of propaganda is to report military success and might. The press distorts the numbers in battle always to the benefit of their own. Despite slanted reporting, until the very end of the war propaganda probably had little effect on the commitment of civilians. However, at the end of the war the propaganda that always put a rosy light on battle and on casualties likely made acceptance of national defeat harder on both soldiers and civilians.
The tough reality for civilians is that the outcome of the war is not the function of the bravery of fighting men. Victory in war arises from economic resources and social cohesion.
A better job of propaganda in neutral countries is completed by England rather than Germany. American entry into the conflict is not a result of propaganda. However, the British appeal, much more skillfully managed than the German campaign in the United States, did strike at the American public especially with the continued submarine terror campaign. Americans felt close to the French and Lafayette.
Americans do not want to be dragged into a European war. Americans want peace, and manage to keep their piece for all of 1916. Americans do support the Allies and send material and financial support. Americans are not willing to send their sons. In America two attitudes are different: One - a deep respect for individual life. Two – government is not god. America has no tradition of royalty or bowing to the Kaiser.
City of Verdun in France
The Battles to come in 1916
Victory would result for the allies because the German civilian population break down politically, socially and in all aspects of maintenance. The German population in 1918 is starving. And through the German military machine could have continued the civilian support structure is gone. But not in 1916. Not yet. In 1916 the battles of war continue.
Verdun becomes the symbol of French nationalism. From February 21, 1916, to December 18, 1916, the Germans attack unsuccessfully the area of Verdun on the Meuse River. Fort Douaumont is a key French position four miles from the city. The fort falls to the Germans on February 25. Once begun, the battle took on a life of its own.
The French commander, Joffre, had not taken seriously the threat of a German assault on Verdun. Joffre dismantled and reorganized the defenses around Verdun. His response to those who worried about the depleted defense around Verdun due to the dismantled canon at Fort Douaumont was - I ask only one thing, and that is that the Germans will attack me, and if they do attack me, that it will be at Verdun.
General Henri-Philippe Petain takes charge of the French forces at Verdun. Petain is a French hero who re-invigorates the French soldiers on defensive tactics. He shall not pass becomes the French slogan meaning the Germans will not pass through Verdun. French morale does not break. Petain establishes communication and supply with hundreds of vehicles a day on the Sacred Way. The defense of Verdun became an emblem of French military might. To hold Verdun turns into a symbol of the will of the entire French nation.
The Somme is a British disaster. July 1 to November 19 continues unsuccessful allied attacks on German lines in the Somme Valley, France. The allies launch a major attack on the German lines near the River Somme. After a five day bombardment to level German lines, 13 English divisions and 5 French divisions assault German positions. The bombardment fails, and the German positions are intact.
The combined infantry and artillery attack proceed with clockwork precision. The artillery barrage goes first for an exact time. Then the infantry advance in a straight line. Wave after wave of infantrymen are hit by German machine-gunners. The first day of the Somme offensive is the worst day of casualties suffered by any army during the war. The worst day in the history of the British army.
Despite these results, the assault does not stop. This pattern of attack continues for six months. The Somme is a British disaster. The rigidity of the British plan under Haig is blamed for this. His plan tolerated no deviation. Hence the soldiers on the ground could not take advantage of unexpected gains nor could they retreat from obvious failure. The operation cut the heart out of the British volunteer armies.
The war of attrition continued with gains and losses of five miles along a trench line from Belgium to Switzerland.
The Sacred Way
The Sacred Way
The key to defending Verdun is the problem of supply. Since the Germans have cut out the southern and western rail links to the city, an alternative has to be found. The only way to keep 20 divisions provided is by motorized transport in a constant stream of over 3000 trucks per day on a minor road. This lifeline to Verdun took on the name of Voie Sacree or the Sacred Way. The battle of Verdun becomes a national myth.
Happy New Year 1916
The war is not constant. The war is grinding but the war ebbs and flows so that even the soldiers in the trenches have developed a social form. This life is too often interrupted with fighting and death but as New Years Day 1916 comes over the horizon the men believe the New Year will bring an end.
The civilian populations carry forward with normal activities. The social breakdown of the aristocracy is not yet visible to the average eye. The political breakdown of the monarchy is certainly visible and alarming in Russia but not in Germany. The civilians are not yet experiencing deprivation though labor unrest is loud in the streets and Socialist are a growing voice of peace and rebellion.
The preeminent question around the world for the populations of the world on New Year's 1916 is: Will my son, father, brother, and husband be here on this earth for another year?