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

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