Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why did Germany lose in World War I?

Stephen Tempest

Germany went into the First World War with the advantage of a very large, very well-trained, and very well-equipped army. One-on-one, they could almost certainly have defeated any other country in the world - but they weren't fighting just one enemy. They were outnumbered, and their opponents had access to much greater resources.

Therefore, Germany's best hope of winning was a rapid knock-out blow, destroying their enemies' armies quickly and then forcing a peace. If the war bogged down in stalemate, then the Allies' greater depth of resources would allow them to grind Germany down through attrition and defeat them. In effect, that's what happened.

So, Germany lost WW1 because the French army was able to escape the trap set for them by the Schlieffen Plan, redeploy their forces to the Marne, and halt the German advance in September 1914. After that failed, the odds were always going to be against Germany.

Still, German defeat wasn't assured. After the end of the War of Movement in 1914, though, their best hope became outlasting their enemies. That is, hoping that the constant drain of dead and wounded soldiers, and the ever-increasing financial cost of the war, would eventually cause their opponents to throw up their hands and say, "This isn't worth it, we quit".

Germany had the big advantage here that their initial offensive, even though it failed in its wider aims, had still left them in control of almost all Belgium and the most prosperous industrial region of France. Their enemies had to get it back, and Germany could just dig in and defend it. The available technology of WW1 — trenches and barbed wire and machine guns and artillery — meant that the defence had massive advantages over the attack. The Allies would inevitably suffer far higher casualties than the Germans would — though this had to be balanced by the cold-blooded fact that they had far more men available to lose than Germany did.

So here we come to another reason why Germany lost. Their government — which by the middle of the war was increasingly controlled by the Army, with the civilian politicians sidelined — was unwilling to compromise. They had the advantage, they'd demonstrated that they could not be driven out of the territory they'd captured except by a long, grinding battle of attrition. A far-sighted statesman, such as Bismarck, might have seen the moment to offer relatively generous peace terms, demanding only a few minor concessions.  The Allies would probably be happy to accept that rather than keep fighting.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff, however, wanted to wring the maximum advantage from their enemies' weakness. They wanted to turn Belgium into a permanent German vassal state, annex France's main iron and coal fields, ethnically cleanse Poles from a large strip of Poland and turn it into a German colony and make the rest another vassal state, and take the Suez Canal from Britain. Anything less than a total victory would, in their minds, mean defeat. But the British, French and Russians would never agree to such terms while they thought they had the slightest chance of winning - and so the war dragged on. And the longer it lasted, the lower Germany's chances became.

Another possible way to win - or so people at the time believed - was to invent a wonder-weapon that would make you invincible on the battlefield. The submarine, the aircraft, poison gas, the tank: all were put forward as candidates. None of them  actually turned out that way, because they proved less effective in practice than their inventors had hoped, or the enemy quickly found a counter-measure. In the winter of 1916-17 the German leadership fondly hoped that unrestricted U-boat warfare would force Britain to its knees; but the British introduced the convoy system and the war went on.

Some people claim that the German offensives starting in March 1918 were also a chance of winning the war. They approached to within 50 miles of Paris, after all. They used new tactics of infiltration and hurricane bombardments that tore large gaps in the Allied front lines. However, I'm of the opinion that much of this success was illusory. The Germans quickly ran out of steam, their advances capturing large amounts of ruined muddy ground but few vital strategic positions, since these were more heavily defended. They suffered 640,000 casualties doing so, a loss they could not afford — especially since their casualties came disproportionately from their best and most experienced men, since they were the ones in the stormtrooper battalions leading the attacks.

It's probably fair to say that these attacks could perhaps have won the war, if they'd been more successful. In practice, they left Germany more exhausted, their morale shattered, and if anything contributed strongly to their eventual defeat.  Would it have been better to just stay on the defensive and outwait the Allies? Perhaps, but that might risk an economic collapse and revolution back home in Germany. The German leadership didn't really face any good options by 1918, but characteristically they chose the high stakes gamble: win big or lose decisively. They lost.

So that leaves the final question: was Germany primarily defeated on the battlefield, or by conditions on the home front? It's politically controversial because German far-right figures, starting with Ludendorff and culminating with Hitler, claimed that the German army was "undefeated" until it was "stabbed in the back" by politicians (of the Jewish or Communist variety, if Hitler was to be believed) and forced into a humiliating surrender. In reality, I think it was a bit of both.

The British naval blockade cut off Germany from all external sources of supply. They couldn't import food; they couldn't import the nitrates that were used both for fertiliser and to make explosives. They also couldn't sell their own goods abroad, so their economy suffered that way as well. But the German government contributed to their own downfall as well. They thought it would be a short war, so they conscripted most of the farmers from their fields, and equally importantly requisitioned all the horses they were using to pull ploughs. When the war turned out to be far longer and bloodier than they'd ever imagined, the result was famine. By the winter of 1917-18 German civilians were reduced to eating turnips, acorns and potato peelings. One of the reasons the German offensives of March 1918 failed was because the advancing German troops captured British and French supply dumps and found them full of real food - jam, coffee, white bread - they hadn't seen for years. They stopped to loot and fill their bellies, and gave the enemy time to rally his defences.

In Russia, such terrible conditions had triggered revolution and civil war. However, there was a difference. Russia had also suffered severe military defeats, and the people had lost all confidence that their government could actually win the war. The Tsar, discredited and without support, was forced to abdicate: but that created a power vacuum at the top and a slide into anarchy that would only be filled many long months later by Lenin's Bolsheviks.

In Germany, things never got so bad until the end. The German army still occupied Poland and Belgium, and the censored German media hid their defeats and flourished their victories before the public. One reason Hitler's 'stab in the back' theory seemed so persuasive was that the average German citizen didn't know his country was losing the war until suddenly they surrendered. But nevertheless, by summer 1918 the German army was a beaten force.

There are several reasons for this. American historians understandably emphasise the arrival of a million fresh American soldiers onto the battlefield. British and French historians counter this by pointing out that the Germans had already been halted and pushed back by their armies, before more than a handful of Americans actually entered combat. (The US Army decided to spend about a year recruiting and training up its troops, and refused to commit them to battle until they were ready). Perhaps the fairest thing to say here is that it was the fear of the US army, rather than the US army itself, which pushed Hindenburg and Ludendorff into making their ultimately fatal gamble in Spring 1918 to try and win the war before the Americans arrived.

Starting in August 1918, the combined Allied armies under the command of the French marshal Foch pushed back the Germans all along the line. They had multiple advantages: fresh manpower from the United States and the British Empire; high morale; modern equipment including tanks and ground-attack aircraft, which first saw use in mass formations in this time; new tactics, such as creeping or lifting artillery barrages. The Germans, meanwhile, were reeling from the failure of their Spring offensives, and were almost out of manpower and resources. Ludendorff called 8 August 1918 the "Black Day of the German Army" because when faced by a new-style Allied attack (French, British, Australian and Canadian troops with 532 tanks) the German defenders at Amiens surrendered en masse. 15,000 German soldiers surrendered in a single day, something that was all but unprecedented in German military history. But over the next hundred days, tens of thousands more Germans would also give up the fight.

The final defeat of Germany can be pinpointed to one night: 28-29 September 1918. General Ludendorff was at his headquarters in Spa, Belgium, listening to news of Allied offensives all along the line. Belgians, British and Commonwealth, French and American troops were all moving steadily forward. Then came news from an unexpected quarter: Bulgaria had surrendered.

Bulgaria had joined Germany's side back in 1915, in return for a promise of territory captured from Serbia. The Allies had landed troops in Salonika (Thessaloniki in Greece) to combat them, but for three years the front had been an utter backwater. But now French troops, backed by British, Serbian and Italian units, had broken through and were advancing rapidly north towards the Danube. Bulgaria, its forces shattered, agreed to surrender. This revolutionised the strategic situation, because Austria-Hungary was also teetering on the verge of collapse, only propped up by German garrisons. An Allied offensive across the Danube into Hungary would be the last straw. And if Austria-Hungary surrendered, would the next step be French and Italian troops marching down from the Alpine passes to invade Bavaria?

The next morning brought the final piece of bad news. The German army had pinned its faith on the Western Front on the Siegfried Stellung, called the 'Hindenburg Line' by the Allies. This was a purpose-made line of state-of-the-art fortifications, constructed in 1916-17 to act as a final backstop, a ne plus ultra of their defences. By the end of September the Germans had been forced to retreat back to this line, but they were confident they could hold it there. They were wrong. An attack on 29 September by British and Australian troops broke through the Hindenburg line at its strongest point, the St Quentin Canal. As at Amiens the previous month, thousands of German troops surrendered rather than fight to the finish.

For Ludendorff, all this bad news at once was too much to bear. He appears to have had something of a nervous breakdown, believing that the war was now unwinnable. His main concern, as he told some of his associates, was preserving the army intact so it could crush any Communist revolution that might break out after Germany surrendered. He therefore ordered Germany's civilian government (yes, that was the way it worked by this stage of the war) to ask President Wilson of the USA for immediate armistice terms.

The actual surrender negotiations dragged out for another five weeks, mainly because the British and French didn't trust Wilson to deal with the Germans alone. But once the decision to surrender had been made, the momentum became unstoppable.

Britain and France produced over 8,000 tanks in the war: Germany produced 20.

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