Tag Archives: operations

Berlin-1945

Barbarossa/Eatern Front Timeline in WWII

Over the past few days I have had an email conversation with Mr. George Toomes, one of my readers, and he brought up a very interesting question. It started with asking if I had or knew where to find a map of the Russian counter-attack outside Moscow in the winter of 1941. In a follow up he mentioned that he was trying to get an idea of when and where the Germans and Russians stopped in their various offensives and counter-offensives in the war in the East.

Russia-1941
Russia-1941

I don’t think I have ever seen a video or graphic that lays out the back and forth of the eastern front in the way this question asks. One thing is certain, the Eastern Front in World War II was dynamic throughout the entire war. From the massive gains of the Germans during the first year of the invasion to the equally massive gains by the Russians in the last, the front was always in motion somewhere. One of the difficulties when discussing the War in the East is the sheer scale of the operational area. The Eastern Theater of the war encompassed an area almost 1,500km deep by roughly 2,000km north-south., an area of roughly 3 million km2.

Best animation of the front movements of WWII I have found freely available. It is from Wikimedia Commons and unfortuantely for English speakers the labelling is in German.

During the 4 years that the war was fought the Germans started from just east of Warsaw and went almost to Moscow before being stopped and then being ground back to Berlin over the subsequent 3 years. It is not that simple though, there were constant ebbs and flows as the front line moved constantly from the huge gains of major offensives by both sides to small tactical adjustments at battalion and even company level.

Berlin-1945
Berlin-1945

The volatility, to borrow a term from the stock market, of the Eastern Front is breathtaking if one takes the time to really look at it. There are several good books post USSR that utilize newly available archives to tell the story of the Eastern Front in even greater detail than before and the most distinguished author writing on the Russo-German War is David Glantz whose best titles include: When Titans Clashed and Stumbling Colossus.

Book Review: Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe by Steven D. Mercatante

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

At first glance Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe is another of the rehashing’s of WWII in the East and West that have become so popular since the fall of communism in the 1990’s and the opening of previously closed Russian archives.  That first glance would be wrong.  Steven Mercatante has produced a very well written history of the war in the East that goes to the heart of why the Eastern Front is so important to World War II historiography. This reviewer has some issues with the work but overall it is an exhaustively researched book that presents an intriguing point of view.

The details first.  The book is fairly long at 408 pages and includes a fairly extensive bibliography although it appears that only secondary sources were used which disappoints me somewhat.  It is broken down into three parts which essentially cover Germany before the war, the war until D-Day, and the war after D-Day.  The book includes copious footnotes throughout that this reviewer, for one, appreciates.  The author has also posted a very extensive bibliography online at his personal website  Globe at War. The chapters flow logically from one to the other and are ordered chronologically making it easier to follow the progress of the war.

The book is written fairly well if a little overexcited at times.  I found the book difficult to read as the narrative was a little too breathless for my taste.  I would say that if every third adjective were removed the text would be much clearer and easier to read.  There is extensive use of hyperbole and the author brings the point up again and again of the criminal nature of the Nazi regime, often it seems only because he can, not because it contributes to the narrative.  I find it difficult to believe that any reasonably informed individual can be unaware of the Holocaust and it is redundant to continually pound the point home.  This is somewhat of a stylistic complaint though and if these instances can be ignored he does bring out some salient points. Those complaints aside, it is clear that the author has an almost encyclopedic grasp of the history of the war.  That is clear from the depth of his knowledge on the war’s conduct.  It is obvious that some deep research went into the preparation of the work.

Mr. Mercatante seems to be trying to claim that Germany could have won if Hitler had gone after strategic economic goals rather than attempting to annihilate the armies of his opponents.  His main argument is that the quality of the German army trumped the quantity of his opponents and he squandered his advantages by not solidifying Germany’s economic position in Europe soon enough, which allowed his enemies to improve the quality of their own militaries.  I don’t know that I necessarily agree with that thesis.

One of the points Mercatante makes again and again, which he seems to think supports his thesis, is the massive amount of punishment the Red Army continually took throughout the war and indeed, right up until the last days.  Total Soviet losses during the war amounted to roughly 29 million dead, wounded, and missing compared to Wehrmacht losses of roughly 14.5 million including their Hungarian, Romanian, and Italian Allies.  The Soviets lost approximately 14 times their pre-war strength during the course of the conflict while the Germans lost 4 times theirs.  Much is also made of production numbers for tanks, aircraft, and artillery/mortars.  Again, once the Soviets recovered from the evacuation of the Donetz Basin factories to the Urals in 1942 they out produced the Germans and had the additional advantage of copious Lend-Lease aid from the Western Allies.  It is the disparity in both human and machine capital and the consequent scale of losses on both sides that make the brute force argument for why Germany lost so appealing.  It is simple to make thew argument that German troops were qualitatively superior to their opponents and it is also true.  It is also true that despite this qualitative superiority, the Germans were never able to kill, wound, or capture enough of their enemy’s soldiers to drive them from the war.  Thus size was a deciding factor in the war’s outcome.  Not just size of the combat theater, but also size of the material and human resources available for the combatants to draw upon.

There is no doubt that the Germans were tactically and operationally superior to the Soviets almost throughout the war.  There is also no doubt that German equipment was generally of higher quality with some tank models being notable exceptions.  What is equally remarkable is that even when the Germans were equipped with inferior tanks, they still managed to inflict an uneven casualty ratio on the Soviets because of their tactical acumen.  This tactical superiority does not mean the Germans could have won.  The sheer vastness of the Eastern Front coupled with the seeming inexhaustibility of the Russian Armies meant that the Germans were indeed swallowed in Russia.

Mercatante rightly points out that the harshness of German occupation policy added up to a net minus in German combat efficiency by requiring the deployment of some German units behind the front.  This is especially so in the Ukraine where the Germans were initially greeted as liberators.  There are also several decision points that could be argued the Germans chose poorly.  Mercatante posits that the Germans should have sought to carve southern Russia away from the Soviets so that it could be exploited economically.  His contention is that the Northern portion of the front could have been held while southern Russia was consolidated giving Germany economic mastery that they could translate into physical and military dominance.

There are several factual errors in the book but two in particular that jumped out at me.  The first  error I noticed does not concern World War II except peripherally and it is his contention that Germany had an AFV program in World War I.  While that is strictly true, Germany did build twelve tanks during the war, they did not do so with any seriousness instead concentrating on infantry/artillery training and doctrine to break the stalemate of trench warfare.  The German tank program of WWI was a footnote rather than a building block for the future German development of armored doctrine.  Lastly, and this speaks to the effectiveness of German tanks in WWII.  In his conclusion he mentions that the Panther Ausf. D had an underpowered final drive.  The recently retired soldier in me that spent over twenty years on armored vehicles was left scratching his head wondering what an underpowered final drive is.  The final drive of a tank or AFV is the part that physically turns the track assembly.  It has no organic power, it is the mechanism by which the power from the engine is applied to the tracks through the transmission.  I think he meant that the final drive was poorly or even over-engineered leading to overheating and sheared drive sprocket teeth.  However, someone with little to no knowledge of AFVs might draw a different conclusion.  Problems like these were not uncommon with German tanks, which had more complex designs than did either Russian or American tanks.

In all, Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe is  an intriguing book and worth reading for the detailed description of the various campaigns of the war.  This reviewer has not read such a good campaign history in a long time and that alone was refreshing.  The thesis that the Germans almost won interesting and worth discussing.  In my opinion, Mercatante did not make his case but the individual reader should decide for himself.  I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this work on the merits of its thesis.  That being said, as an operational and strategic level history, the book is almost unmatched and that alone makes it a worthwhile purchase.

 

Given that this is the first somewhat negative review I have written and I like just about every history book I read, I gave the author the opportunity to rebut my review.  I have adjusted my review somewhat in response to his comments but my recommendation remains the same.  His rebuttal is below:

Patrick,
Thank you for the thoughtful review. I am flattered by the kind things you had to say about my work – particularly that it contributes to the scholarship on this subject as that was one of my primary goals in writing the book. In addition, thank you for the opportunity to respond. In deference to your much appreciated time I will keep my response brief.
First, it is quite alright that you do not agree with my conclusions as I welcome a healthy debate. In fact, that would be the one thing I would like to see more in your review in lieu of two issues you spend some time upon.
The first such issue, and my only real criticism with the review, is the time spent on discussing minor technical/factual errors that are not really germane to my thesis. There is no question that all errors should be expunged from the work, and sometimes it is the minor one’s that are so galling in that they undermine the credibility of the author. Unfortunately, ABC-CLIO (Praeger’s parent company) has refused to allow me to make such changes as they consider it not worth the expense (they would not even let me remove the title Field Marshal from Milch’s name when I was discussing his mid-1930’s era work in building up the Luftwaffe – as he was not as of that time a Field Marshal in rank so obviously I would love to excise that little oversight right out!). This is even more frustrating in as much as the first print run was small and I prepared a list of errors that I had found in the text that had escaped the initial review process – all in hopes that they would be corrected for the second print run. Instead, and with ABC-CLIO’s current stance, a well-scrubbed and hopefully error free edition of the book won’t be available until the UK publisher that just bought the rights to publish the book in the UK releases its hardcover version later this fall (as they were thrilled to see the more thoroughly edited version I had prepared following my first print run). Ironically, I know of several other authors who have battled the same process (including Robert Kirchubel who had similar problems with Osprey – though they allowed corrections for follow up print runs – and it seems that in general if an author does not get an entirely clean copy right the first time that the resources are not there for a second try; a whole another issue regarding the ever exciting publishing world). It is likely that you have run into similar issues with works you have published, and that most other historians who have published extensively will recognize these issues – hence their relatively minor status.
Accordingly, and though the majority of your readers are likely non-historians, I feel that the parts of your review where you debate the actual merits of my thesis are far more interesting. For instance, perhaps you could replace the paragraph spent on such errors with a more in-depth discussion regarding why you feel the war’s quantitative factors, such as your reference to the “the seeming inexhaustibility of the Russian Armies” was more determinative in deciding the war than the qualitative elements I focus upon. There are no doubt readers who think I have built a persuasive argument (as evidenced by the reader reviews posted on Amazon.com’s US site – no less the endorsements from the professional historians who state as such). On the other hand, there are readers who disagree and think that brute force won the war. You seem to side more with the brute force side and by expunging the minor quibbles with my book so that you can develop your brute force position further I think you build a stronger review for your own readers (some of whom may fall on one side, while others take the opposite position, and others yet remain undecided and are open to argument).
Finally, my only other criticism would be in response to this point you make: “There is extensive use of hyperbole and the author brings the point up again and again of the criminal nature of the Nazi regime, often it seems only because he cannot because it contributes to the narrative.  This is somewhat of a stylistic complaint though and if these instances can be ignored he does bring out some salient points.” I am not sure what you mean by this. However, my use of the word “criminal” or other such phrases to assist in describing various German military leaders is important and I think helps contribute to the scholarship on the war. This is for a number of reasons. One, is that the men whom I describe as “criminals” were just that – convicted as war criminals for their actions during the war. Thus, we lose something when we don’t point out this fact and only focus on their attributes. For instance, Manstein is an operational genius, almost nobody would dispute this, and few ever do. Instead this genius is often what is focused upon while ignoring the fact that, for example, during his command of the German 11th Army some of the war’s most heinous war crimes were committed either by his men or facilitated by his men in support of the local Einsatzgruppen and their ilk. Both Manstein’s leadership in the field and what happened behind the lines are germane to a complete understanding of the man, the Wehrmacht, and the regime whose crimes the Wehrmacht at best enabled and at worst participated in on a regular basis. But this may still not answer why it is important for me to remind the reader that for all their accolades many of Germany’s top military leaders were morally suspect at best. To that point I make the effort to better link the holocaust and military operations not only because the quest for Lebensraum driving Barbarossa was inherently genocidal in intent (and therefore that it is historically accurate to link the two), but because all too often casual WWII enthusiasts are not exposed to the horrific crimes of the Third Reich. Instead they read about, or look at pictures of, the cool-looking supposedly technically superior German equipment, or are entranced by the romantic notion of a brave band of men fighting to their death against hordes of enemy soldiers (as is so often the presentation of the Germans vs. Soviets), and take these ideas with them as they play their computer or board war games, build their models, and consume their WWII related media. As a result they end up romanticizing the Wehrmacht and that is something that I would very much like to see the casual military history enthusiast move away from. I hope you understand what I mean by all of this?
Once again, thank you for your time and the opportunity to respond. I hope my response was not too lengthy and has helped clarify some of the issues you were concerned about in your review – enough that you are able to more “wholeheartedly” recommend it? Otherwise I love engaging with “the other side of the hill” vis a vis the quantitative vs. qualitative adherents in explaining the Second World War’s outcome, and appreciate your intellectual honesty in granting the strength of my work where appropriate. After all it is debates such as these that continue to bring life to our understanding of what I consider to be the most important events in modern history.
All best,
Steven
The route of Xenophons March Up Country

Book Review: The Anabasis by Xenophon

I read part of this work in High School over twenty years ago and decided a few weeks ago to finish reading it. Now that I am done, I wonder why I waited so long. The book was written by Xenophon, and ancient Greek soldier and general, in the late 4th Century BC.

Xenophon’s account in The Anabasis is one of the first true (in several senses of the word) adventure stories to be transmitted from antiquity. There is as much adventure here as will be found in any modern day work of fiction. One of the things that makes this book so great is that as I was reading the book it was constantly in the back of my mind that these events really happened. The book is part adventure and part autobiography told from the 3rd person.

The background is that in 402 B.C. Cyrus the Younger of Persia hired an army of Greek mercenaries to help him overthrow his brother Artaxerxes II, the legitimate ruler of the Persian Empire. Everything went swimmingly until Cyrus was killed in battle. The Greek army hired by Cyrus was in a tight position, Artaxerxes did not have the force to crush without taking unacceptable casualties but he equally did not want them to escape. The Persian answer was to feign letting the Greeks start on their way home providing them provisions, guides, and quarters along the way. The the Persians tricked the Greek generals into attending a dinner under flag of truce and had all the Greek generals executed.

It is at this point that Xenophon steps forward and is elected general and co-leader of the remaining Greeks. The rest of the story is a recounting of the many trials and tribulations the Greek army of Ten Thousand makes its way home fighting numerous battles, encountering hostile people, terrain, and weather.

The Route of Xenophons March Up Country

The only complaint, if complaint it can be called, is that the speeches ascribed to various characters are not 100% accurate. This is true of many ancient Greek and Roman writers. What they did was to invent a speech that in its essentials expressed the same message as the actual speech did, perhaps they dressed it up a little. The ancient historians did not have a problem with this practice at all and just considered it god history, that is not true of modern historical practice.

In summation, if anyone would like to read the ancients and does not know where to start, The Anabasisis a good place to start. It is a great story and Xenophon’s prose is concise enough to not bore the casual reader.

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The Campaign in Central Mexico 1847-1848: In Search of Decision

After the northern campaign of General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850), failed to force the Mexican government to sue for peace, President James Polk (1795-1849) decided on an invasion of central Mexico with the goal of capturing Mexico City.  The planning for an invasion of central Mexico was the brainchild of General Winfield Scott (1786-1866), who prepared a series of three memorandums laying out the case for the operation, which he sent to President Polk in October 1846.[1]

Scott had desired a command of his own since the beginning of the war and he felt slighted that he had not been given command of the force in northern Mexico.  Scott was suspicious that he was kept from command for political reasons since Polk was a Democrat and Scott a Whig.  He was correct to be suspicious for these were exactly the reasons that Scott was denied command at the outset.  General Taylor was a Democrat who was deemed politically reliable although he secretly coveted the presidency, something a successful campaign would help him achieve.

The invasion of central Mexico was planned in detail and would require twenty-thousand troops, 50 transports, and 141 flatboats to land the troops after they reached Veracruz.[2] The flatboats were to be constructed in New Orleans and General Scott sent the Quartermaster General Thomas S. Jesup (1788-1860) to ensure they were constructed properly.  In the end, only 65 boats were available for the landings due the time necessary for their construction.

The landings at Veracruz began on 9 March 1847 and on 25 March, the Mexican garrison began negotiations for surrender after taking a terrible pounding from American artillery and dismounted naval guns.  The surrender was completed on 27 March, General Scott granted generous terms to the Mexicans, they were required to surrender all their arms and military equipment but the soldiers were paroled and in addition, the Americans guaranteed the security of the civilian population.[3]

The threat of Yellow Fever, which was endemic in Veracruz, General Scott determined begin his march inland as quickly as possible.  The march route would follow the National Road to Mexico City via Jalapa rather than the Orizaba road because the former was in better repair.  The Mexicans were not standing still, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana (1794-1876) had returned to Mexico City after his defeat at Buena Vista and immediately assembled another army to oppose Scott upon learning of the surrender of Veracruz.

Santa Ana, with an army of 12,000 men met the Americans at Cerro Gordo on 18 April and was defeated; resulting in the virtual destruction of the Mexican army but Santa Ana escaped on horseback and returned to Mexico City to prepare its defenses.  General Scott continued to march until he reached the city of Puebla where he was forced to stop and await reinforcements because most of the volunteer regiments in the army had completed their one year of service and wished to return home.  The American army would remain in Puebla until September when sufficient reinforcements had arrived to begin the march on Mexico City.

The American assault on Mexico City began on 14 August 1847 and over the next two days; the Americans defeated all Mexican forces on the approach to the city and had effectively bottled up the Mexican army in the city itself.  In order to avoid a costly attack on the walls of the city General Scott halted his army three miles outside Mexico City and offered a truce to General Santa Ana in order for armistice negotiations to begin.  An armistice was concluded on 24 august but it was to be short-lived.  Armistice negotiations began the next day and the both sides presented their demands.  The negotiations continued until 6 September when the Mexican delegation announced that they could not acceded to the American demands and General Scott angrily terminated the armistice citing Mexican treachery.[4]

The final assault on Mexico City began on 8 September 1847 and in a series of bloody engagements, the American forces advanced until they had captured two of the city’s gates by 14 September.  As the American army was preparing for the final assault on the city itself, the mayor surrendered the city, General Santa Ana having fled the night of the thirteenth.

The Fall of Mexico City

General Santa Ana resigned the presidency shortly after the fall of Mexico City the moderate Manuel de la Pena y Pena (1789-1850) replaced him as Mexican president.  The new government began negotiations for the end of the war with Nicholas Trist (1800-1874) who had been dispatched by the President Polk with the authority to negotiate for peace.

Negotiations for a permanent peace dragged on through the Christmas holidays because of uncertainty on the part of the Mexican government.  The final details were hammered out in January 1848 and a final treaty of peace was signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo on 2 February 1848, which ended the war.  The United States was given the territory that makes up the states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah in addition to paying Mexico $15,000,000 and assuming responsibility for all American claims against the Mexican government.

The campaign in central Mexico was decisive in bringing an early conclusion to the war.  It is likely that if General Scott had not invaded central Mexico and captured the Mexican capital that the war would have ended very differently.  General Santa Ana had shown a remarkable ability to reconstruct armies after suffering defeat.  It was the capture of Mexico City that caused Santa Ana to resign the Mexican presidency, which allowed a moderate to come to power.

 

 

Bibliography

Brooks, Nathan C., A Complete History of the Mexican War: Its Causes Conduct, and Consequences: Comprising an Account of the Various Military and Naval Operations.  From its Commencement to Treaty of Peace, Cranbury, NJ: The Scholars Bookshelf, 2006

Eisenhower, John S.D., Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott, New York: The Free Press, 1997.

Singletary, Otis A., The Mexican War, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960

Endnotes

[1] Eisenhower, John S.D. So Far From God:  The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848, p. 253

[2] Ibid. p. 254

[3] Brooks, N.C. A Complete History Mexican War: Its Causes, Conduct, and Consequences: Comprising and Account of the Various Military and Naval Operations from its Commencement to the Treaty of Peace. First published in 1849, reprinted by: Cranbury, NJ: The Scholar’s Bookshelf, 2006, pp. 310-312

[4] Singletary, Otis. The Mexican War, p. 93

The Fronts of World War I in 1917 & 1918

The tactical and strategic situation at the beginning of 1917 was little changed from that at the beginning of 1916.  All that the offensives on the Western Front had managed to accomplish the previous year were minor changes in the trace of the trenches and massive loss of life.  Both the British and French planned further offensives in the west during the years but events would intervene to ensure that only the British committed themselves to large-scale offensives on the Western Front in 1917.

The spring and summer saw the French army undergo a crisis of confidence that has come to be known as the French mutinies, thought they were not mutinies, as the term is generally understood.  After the abortive assault on the Chemin des Dames ridge in April 1917, a large part of the French army refused to go on the offensive.  Although the mutineers continually made it plain that they would defend, what they would not do, was attack.

German shell bursting between advancing French troops: Image Courtesy www.firstworldwar.com

Keegan theorizes that at that point in the war the infantry collectively decided their chances of survival were less than even and that this precipitated the mutinies.[1] This theory holds that French had suffered as many dead in battle as their pre-war infantry strength and somehow the infantry sensed this, it led to their refusal to fight.  This glosses over many of the grievances the French infantry had, which included the pay, rations, and leave policy of the French army.  These last reasons are enough on their own to account for the low French morale; there are numerous examples of sacrifice in history, but few examples of an army that subsisted entirely on horrible rations or low pay with little chance of leave.  Even Alexander the Great’s army finally demanded to return home after an unbroken string of victories and the carving of an empire, the French army of 1917 hardly had a string of victories to show for its exertions.

The British however, did launch a series of attacks on the Western front during the year, at Arras, Messines Ridge, and a major effort in Flanders, the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele.  The British attacks were launched largely because General Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had the feeling that while the French would not fight, something must be done.  This led to the launching of Third Ypres between June and August 1917.  This attack was designed to sweep all the way to the channel coast and liberate a large parcel of Belgian territory south of Brussels.  Passchendaele ended in failure, with the British suffering 70,000 dead and 170,000 wounded for marginal gains in the Ypres salient.

The year of 1917 would be one of crisis for the Allies, not only did the French suffer a moral collapse, but the Italians and Russians experienced their own crises as well.  The Russian collapse began in the rear of the armies and spread forward.  In late February 1917, the civilians in Petrograd rioted due to food shortages and the Petrograd garrison refused to put down the demonstrations.  The people set themselves up in local councils or Soviets, under many different political groups among them the radical Marxist Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, who agitated for an end to the monarchy.  The Tsar abdicated on 2 March and his handpicked successor refused the crown while the Duma refused to accept the Tsarevitch thus leaving Russia without a head of state.[2]

A leader of the Provisional Government emerged in the person of Alexander Kerensky who attempted to continue the war.  Kerensky launched an offensive in June but it failed and the army rapidly began to disintegrate in the face of German and Austrian counter-attacks.  Kerensky barely managed to suppress a revolt at Petrograd in July but his days were numbered, as the political currents in the country were unpredictable.  Throughout the summer, the Bolsheviks were constantly working to undermine the Provisional Government and planning a revolution of their own.

In September, the Bolsheviks made their bid for power and the country descended into chaos.  Initially they were successful with Bolshevik units using the nation’s rail network to rapidly gain control of Russian population centers.  Simultaneously, the Russians declared an armistice and began to negotiate with the Germans at the fortress town of Brest-Litovsk in Poland for an end to hostilities.  The Germans presented their demands and set a time limit and when the Russians prevaricated, the Germans attacked all along the front in February 1918, and in a panic the Bolsheviks let the Germans dictate terms and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918, ceding a huge amount of Russian territory in return for peace.[3] The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended Russia’s role in the First World War, though the Russian Civil War would drag on until the 1920’s.

The collapse of the Italian army was of a different nature entirely than that of either the French or the Russian armies.  The Italians had been pounding along the Isonzo front in the Alps since 1915, mounting 12 offensives, an average of one every three months for the gain of only sixty miles.[4] The Italians had driven up the valley floor but failed to adequately secure the peaks on their flanks.  There was also a systemic failure and societal failure in the Italian army; the officers were mainly northern Italians, while the lower ranks and especially the infantry were largely made up of poor peasants from the agricultural south.  This, along with the draconian discipline imposed on the peasant infantry, made for poor cohesion in the Italian army.

The German and Austrian armies attacked at Caporetto on 25 October 1917, and rapidly achieved a breakthrough.  The Italian units in the front lines cracked by the third day and what had been a retreat quickly turned into a rout.  Entire units surrendered enmasse to the advancing Austrian and German troops.  The Italian retreat did not end until 3 November, when they reached the river Piave, a distance of eighty miles from their initial positions.[5]

The year was not all bad for the allies though as 1917 was the year in which America entered the war on the Allied side.  America had maintained a policy of neutrality despite several provocations, including the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915, after which the Germans ceased unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman affair with Mexico.  The final straw that ended American neutrality was the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, the U.S. formally declared war with Germany on 6 April 1917.  The Germans had calculated that they could bring England to the brink of starvation and end the war before the American presence made itself felt on the continent, unfortunately for them, they were wrong.  Soon after declaring war the Americans began shipping soldiers to France and enacted universal conscription, 318,000 American troops had arrived by March 1918 in Europe without the loss of a single soldier while crossing the Atlantic.[6] The American Army would not become a decisive factor until later in 1918, though individual American units were used in stopping the German offensives in the spring of 1918.

The Germans had hoped to starve the English out of the war, but with the intervention of America and the addition of her navy, transatlantic shipping was finally rationalized and a convoy system was worked out which prevented a collapse on the English home front.  After the failure of the submarine offensive, the Germans once again turned to their army.  The fall of Russia had released almost a million veteran troops for use in the West.  Ludendorff planned a great spring offensive to cut the British off in Flanders and finally rupture the front separating Britain from her allies.

The first German offensive opened in March 1918, and caused a crisis at the front, the allies retreated over forty miles, and the Germans were only seventy-five miles from Paris when they were stopped.  Ludendorff tried several more assaults that were tactically successful, but failed to break the front.  After the final offensive in July, all the Germans had managed to accomplish was the loss of over 1,000,000 irreplaceable casualties, and extension of the German lines, which stretched the army thin in trying to defend.

The allies counterattacked in August and were spectacularly successful, driving the Germans all the way back to the start line of the spring offensives and beyond.  In October, a new civilian government was formed to seek an armistice and the Kaiser abdicated on 9 November and went into exile in Holland.  The allied attacks continued and they were within fifty miles of the German border when the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.  The First World War was over but its effects would be felt for the next 30 years and the problems it created would cause a new, more destructive war, while some of the problems remain unresolved to the present.


[1] Keegan, John, The First World War, pp. 329-332

[2] Ibid, p. 336

[3] Ibid, p. 342

[4] Ibid. pp. 344-345

[5] Ibid, p. 349

[6] Ibid, p. 372