As we approach the Centenary of the Great War this summer, I have noticed an appreciable upturn of interest in WWI. Having written several books on the topic, (go ahead, check Amazon.com) I have noticed, over the years, people referring to the war in terms of the myths that it has generated.
Many of these myths are misinterpretations, accidental and deliberate, in terms of how people viewed the war. Some have been perpetuated by bad history books and worse historians. With no surviving veterans of the World War One, people often accept these myths as reality. So here’s my semi-professional opinion of the larger myths that have come out of this conflict.
The conflict was dominated by static trench warfare. It is true that trenches became the norm, but that wasn’t until mid-late 1915 – the second year of the war. The illusion that there was a single static trench-line on the fronts is a fallacy.
The war had a great deal of mobility associated with it. Prior to heavy entrenching, the armies were actually quite agile. Even after 1915, campaigns altered the lines, in some cases dramatically. Near the end of the war, large scale assaults caused massive changes to the front lines – despite the trenches.
And the men that lived and fought in those trenches, did not do so for years at a time. Both sides rotated troops in and out of the filthy trenches.
On the eastern front trenches were dug, but the war was dominated by large moves by armies. On the western front, there were shifts in the front lines despite entrenchments – and some of these were substantial – such as Germany’s 1918 offensive. True – trenches were prevalent, but armies still advanced and retreated.
The war was Germany’s fault. Far too much has been written about the ignition of the Great War, but to lay the blame on Germany alone would be ignoring a great deal of history. Britain, for example, declared war under the auspices of protecting Belgium. In reality however, the fear of a victorious Germany unifying mainland Europe was more of a motivation. The complex web of treaties and royal families all contributed to the war – but to lay the blame solely on Germany would be incorrect. The Treaty of Versailles did lay the blame on Germany to bear, which is where this myth began.
The men were sent to slaughter by incompetent Generals. There were some loser Generals, I’ll give you that. The issue was the same that was faced in the American Civil War – technology eclipsing tactics. The leaders struggled to wrap their hands around the changes that technology introduced which required changes in tactics. Aircraft, tanks, flamethrowers, chemical weapons, all dramatically changed the battlefield conditions. Generals attempted to cope with these, but often they could not. By the end of the war every army still maintained mounted cavalry under the illusion that they might be able to penetrate to the enemy’s rear and wreck havoc.
The Generals were adapting as quickly as their predecessors had to changes in technology. Decades of training and indoctrination were difficult to overcome but many did. The illusion that the Generals rushed their men blindly to their deaths is one that is unfair in most cases.
The Battle of Jutland determined British supremacy on the high seas. Jutland was to have been this massive decisive naval battle. In reality, the Germans won the battle tactically and the British claimed victory strategically because the High Seas Fleet never sailed out to challenge the blockade again in large numbers But wait.
Jutland itself was a spectacular battle…but the real winner was British intelligence. The British had access to German coded messages and could read them. They knew the intended movements of the fleet real-time with their German counterparts. This allowed them to sortie and fight Jutland in the first place. Without the access to coded messages, one wonders how Jutland might have played out. In fact, it was this same intelligence apparatus that decoded the infamous Zimmerman Telegram which was instrumental in getting the United States into the Great War.
Jutland was won in an office in the Admiralty known as Room 40 where the German navy’s plans were deciphered and acted upon.
The use of chemical weapons in WWI was so horrific that the Germans were afraid of using them in WWII. Chemical weapons were effective at softening up enemy positions, but they were not the most effective way to kill large numbers of the enemy. Almost all chemical weapons of WWI and WWII were delivered by artillery, and limited by range and weather conditions. The Germans have maintained that they didn’t use chemical weapons because they knew that the allies had stockpiles of them as well which could be used in retaliation – negating any advantage they might offer.
Granted chemical weapons have horrific effects on their victims, but both sides in the war issued gas masks and trained their troops for dealing with chemical attacks – should they come. It is certainly possible that the German military commanders feared what the repercussions of using such weapons might be if they lost the war – but given the other horrors that the Nazi’s unleashed, these would have seemed inconsequential.
Zeppelins were the wonder-weapon of the war. I blame the movie Flyboys for this myth. The image of a Zeppelin over a battlefield is more fiction than reality. Zeppelins proved far to fragile to bomb the actual front lines. While they were used to bomb London and other British cities, they generated far more terror (and propaganda) than they did damage. While the image of a Zeppelin is often tied to the Great War, they proved to be so ineffective that the German Army turned over their Zeppelin’s to the Navy by the end of the war, acknowledging their ineffective use of them.
The German Navy did effectively use Zeppelins for long range observation for their ships. Their overall influence on the war itself is subject to debate.
The true “wonder weapon” of the war was the airplane…fighters, bombers, and observation. At the start of the war airplane were in their infancy. By the middle of the war they were directing artillery bombardments, bombing rear strategic targets and cities and making enemy movements visible. Aircraft underwent multiple technological metamorphoses in the war, each one driving new technologies and techniques.
The arrival of the Americans spelled the end for Germany. This is a popular American myth but one that doesn’t quite hold water. If anything, the arrival of American troops almost cost the allied powers the war. When Russia stopped fighting the Germans rushed hundreds of thousands of troops to the western front. They did this out of concern of the arrival of the American troops which might balance or tip the scales of the conflict. The result was the St. Michael Offensive in 1918. While misdirected, this offense had the potential to give the German’s a victory prior to the arrival of the rest of the American AEF. It was a stunning success at first. The relatively static trench lines were shattered. Armies were on the movie again. But logistics could not keep up with the advancing Germans. Eventually the offense petered out.
The arrival of American forces certainly were a shot in the arm for the allies and their fighting helped shorten the war. But Germany was already starving and exhausted. Even without the Americans it is conceivable that Germany would have been defeated (though it would have taken longer).
The tank ended trench warfare. The arrival of the tank on the battlefields is often heralded as the decisive tool that broke years of deadlock on the Western Front. True, tanks allowed for penetration of the front – but Germany’s 1918 St. Michael Offensive did not utilize tanks to achieve a dramatic breakthrough. Tanks were first employed in numbers in September of 1916 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Due to losses (most mechanical) they failed to penetrate the enemy lines. This was two years before the end of the war.
Tanks provided for changes in tactics that helped allow penetration of the enemy lines. The change of tactics, such as the German use of stormtroopers, altered the trench lines too. Tanks played an important role in making warfare more fluid in the Great War, but it was not a burden they bore alone.
The bottom line: No single piece of technology broke the stalemate of trench warfare.
The Russians played little part in the final outcome of the war. I will grant you, the Russian war effort was managed sloppily. The German victory of Tannenberg did not knock Russia out of the war though. Hundreds of thousands of troops were tied up on the eastern front until 1918. Only went outright revolution broke out in 1917 in Russia was it possible for German y to turn her gaze westward. Germany sent Lenin back into Russia to formant revolution, but that fire soon got out of hand.
The “red rebellion” spread into Germany too. There was a last ditch plan to sortie the High Seas Fleet for a final strike against the Royal Navy. The thought was that a strong decisive blow in one epic battle might break the blockade, sink the British Navy, and give Germany a better position at the peace table. The only reason that this was not done was communist rebellion in the High Seas Fleet.
Russia played an important role in the war, if not militarily, then politically.