A NEW TYPE OF WAR TOTAL WAR Until the end of the 18th Century wars had been fought by professional soldiers. The French revolution, which started in 1...
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A NEW TYPE OF WAR TOTAL WAR Until the end of the 18th Century wars had been fought by professional soldiers. The French revolution, which started in 1789, changed this. When France was attacked, men rallied to defend the country against invaders (nationalism). From then on nations asserted the right to draft all able-bodied men to join the army to fight for their country. Vast national armies could be formed to fight on the battle front. During World War I the entire population was also drafted into the ‘home front’. Civilians fought the war in factories, in homes, through newspapers, magazines and films, by working for the war effort, and by keeping morale high. This ‘total war’, combining the efforts of the military and the civilian populations, meant that war was waged on a gigantic scale never before experienced. The ‘nation’ was at arms.

INDUSTRIALISED NATIONS AT WAR In 1914 few people understood the capability of industrialised nations at war. Europe had been generally at peace since 1870, and therefore many generals still thought of war much as it had been waged in the past. They would use infantry troops, armed with rifles and bayonets, marching shoulder to shoulder against the enemy. They still believed that cavalry (men on horses) were important in the war. Each battle would be over in a day, and they thought that a war would last no longer than a few weeks. However, the industrial growth of the late 19th Century had produced new weapons of war – weapons the Generals had little experience in using. Nations had also developed the ability to mass produce arms and supplies in vast numbers over a sustained period of time, providing a virtually limitless capacity to wage war. Because of these new weapons, their availability in large numbers, and the poor tactics of many of the Generals, WWI became a terrible experience for soldiers at the front, and lasted far longer than they ever dreamed. As a consequence World War I became a war of attrition.

1. WAR ON THE WESTERN FRONT The reasons for the stalemate on the Western Front. 

Faults in and failure of the German Schlieffen Plan.

Failure of French Plan XVII.

Tactical and Strategic Issues.

Poor Communications.

Commanders and the failure of the ‘offensive’.

***An overview of the progress of the war on all fronts.

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The nature of trench warfare and life in the trenches dealing with experiences of allied and German soldiers. 

What was meant to happen in an attack and how they typically unfolded. Artillery bombardment and frontal assault. Infiltration tactics. Raiding parties. Enfilading machine gun fire.

The structure of trenches and trench systems. Differences between German and Allied trenches.

Conditions endured by soldiers – weather/elements, mud, sanitation, food, rats, human remains, disease, lice, mental disease and breakdown, work other than fighting, camaraderie, wounds and death.

Range of weapons, how they were used, their impact and effectiveness – rifles, bayonets, machine guns, gas, mortars, artillery, tanks, aircraft, flamethrowers, barbed wire.

Overview of the strategies and tactics to break the stalemate including key battles: Verdun, The Somme, Passchendaele. 

Military Commanders, their approaches, strengths, flaws, opinions on them – Haig, French, Petain, Nivelle, Joffre, von Moltke, Falkenhayn, Ludendorff, Hindenburg, Monash. Haig is a popular study here due to his insistence on winning via a ‘war of attrition’ and some very foolish planning, particularly at the Somme.

Links with information on weapons – how they were used, when and where introduced, Also links with the nature of trench warfare and how battles were planned and unfolded. Timely to look at unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans and the Allied naval blockade and convoy system.

Great battles of 1916 – attempts to break the stalemate, Verdun, The Somme, Passchendaele. Good examples of military leadership, tactics and strategies, and reasons for changing attitudes to war.

Verdun – German attack on French town of Verdun (Feb-Dec 1916). Protected by a series of forts and a ‘salient’ of the French army. Symbol of French honour, hoped it would prevent allies attacking elsewhere, first step in an attempt to take Paris. Famous for terms such as the ‘mincing machine’ of gun power, ‘bleeding the French white’, and ‘they shall not pass’. Ultimately it failed and resulted in 362 000 French casualties, and 336 813 German casualties. Huge drain on resources leaving the French and German armies and supplies exhausted.

Somme – British attack on German lines in the north (June-Nov1916). Intended to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun, re-establish the war of movement, drive through to German supply lines encircling the German army and force a surrender. Relied on heavy artillery bombardment before advancing through no-man’s land. Germans were prepared due to poor secrecy of the plans. Complete failure with 600 000 British casualties, 195 000 French, and 450 000 German. Also a huge drain on resources leaving the British and German armies and supplies exhausted.

© The School For Excellence 2011

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Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres: July-Nov 1917) – British attack with the aim of securing the ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge which were used by German U-boats. Same tactics as the Somme, with heavy artillery bombardment followed by infantry assault. British, Canadian, and ANZAC troops suffered horrendous conditions as the battlefield was turned into a muddy swamp. German had concrete bunkers, enfilading machine gun nests, and a nine layer deep defence system. Commanders ordered progress despite having no idea of the conditions. British gained 8km, but not the ports. 240 000 Allied casualties, and 260 000 German.

Changing attitudes of Allied and German soldiers over time. 

War weariness caused by the accumulation of all the factors above – trench conditions, nature of warfare, seemingly pointless loss of life, unsuccessful battles, poor military leadership.

Comparative study of 1914 Christmas Truce and 1917 French Mutinies.

War poetry.

Spread of socialist attitudes in the trenches.

2. THE HOME FRONTS IN BRITAIN AND GERMANY Total war and its social and economic impacts on civilians in Britain and Germany. Recruitment, conscription, censorship and propaganda in Britain and Germany.


Despite a range of difficulties, the German army managed to stay in the field for 4 years, and Germany was never invaded.

Reichstag being controlled by Social Democrats (non-authoritarian) meant that the Kaiser and the military had to convince the politicians that the war was defensive.

Reichstag only controlled flow of money, but the war was run by the Kaiser and military.

Very susceptible to blockade due to geography, dependence on imports, and the development of a two fronted war. Self-sufficient in terms of food and had fantastic industrial capacity, but had limited raw resources. (Food prices rose 446% between 1914-18, 294 000 people died due to starvation by 1918.)

Compulsory military service meant that Germany could ‘go hard’ early, but might face manpower shortages if the war dragged on. Also meant that recruitment propaganda was less necessary than in Britain. Propaganda focussed on morale, which was generally considered less effective than British propaganda.

Loyalty to the empire could get shaky due to how recent German unification had been.

Germany’s allies were a liability.

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These factors meant that Germany needed to win the war quickly.

Walter Rathenau and Kriegsrohstoffabteilung (War Raw Materials Department).

Controlled and coordinated war production, and had far reaching powers to seize resources for the war effort.

Eventually used slave labour from occupied territories and POWs.

Major industrial leaders were recruited to lead different parts of the economy.

As the naval blockade began to hurt the German economy the ZEG was set up to purchase goods from neutral countries.

Started to produce ‘ersatz’ goods (eg. synthetic rubber, textiles made from wood pulp). Products such as ‘K bread’ were also made… from sawdust and potato peelings.

A plethora of organisations and laws: Imperial Grain Office, Imperial Potato Office, War Food Office, Supreme War Office (1916 – Gave Hindenburg total control over the war effort), Patriotic Auxiliary Service Law, Weapons and Munitions Procurement Agency (WUMBA).

3 500 000 women entered the workforce to make up for men lost to the front. Germany’s autocratic government made this much easier to achieve than in Britain.

Costing Germany 3 billion Reichmarks a month. Stopped exchanging paper for gold. Stopped using silver and copper coins (used iron and aluminium). Closed the stockmarket throughout the whole war.

Printed more bank notes, which led to inflation. Began borrowing lots of money (as did most combatant nations) from other nations and through ‘war bonds’. Rational was that they could pay it all back when they won the war and got reparations from the French.

Assessing the ‘Effort’: Finance Minister Helferrich was irresponsible…but if they won…Rathenau’s ‘war socialism’, a pure war economy, was admired by many. Led to resentment of the govt later in the war, which led to revolution. ‘Bureaucratic wonderland’ led to ‘overlapping jurisdictions’. BUT…Lasted for 4 years against all the odds.

Protests from 1916 onwards. Particularly by socialists such as Rosa Luxenburg and Karl Liebknecht, who were imprisoned.

Demands for constitutional change were rejected by the military throughout 1917.

Transport system was collapsing. Strikes in Berlin in 1918. October 1918 the navy mutiny in Kiel and refuse to take to the sea.

7th November 1918 Bavaria declares itself an independent republic. 9th November Hindenburg withdraws the army’s support for the Kaiser. The Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, announced the abdication of the Kaiser and established a new German Republic. Kaiser shoots through to Holland (10th Nov). Armistice 11th November.

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Started slow but came home strong.

Parliamentary Democracy with no tradition of conscription. Military not held in as high regard. Harder for government to take complete control.

‘Business as usual’ attitude. Free market economy would handle the requirements of a ‘short’ war.

Like Germany, however, Britain was not expecting a prolonged war of attrition. Morale was similarly high, and they were confident of victory by Christmas.

Britain’s industry had dominated the world for 200 years, but was slipping in recent years. They would struggle with the rapid mass production required for WWI, and significantly more so than Germany.

King George V. PM in 1914 – Herbert Asquith. Formed a coalition War Cabinet in 1915. Lord Kitchener – War Minister.

Changes after failure at Gallipoli and the Somme, and Easter uprising in Ireland: David Lloyd George – War Minister from 1916. Along with Winston Churchill, was an ‘easterner’. They lost control over military issues to Haig and Robertson – ‘westerners’. Some interesting wheeling and dealing in late 1916 saw Lloyd George become PM on 6th December. Stayed there until 1922.

DORA – Defence of the Realm Act (from 8/8/1914). Far reaching and all encompassing powers for the government. Able to restrict, procure, increase the production of, increase the taxes on, just about anything.

Banned kite flying and using binoculars. Couldn’t feed the pigeons. No bread to animals. Couldn’t throw rice at weddings. Limited pub opening hours, increased beer prices, and reduced alcohol content.

Extended daylight saving so that people could work longer. Widespread censorship. Could buy goods at very low prices, or just requisition them. Professional sport restricted.

Propaganda was widespread and very effective. Atrocity stories. Outrage at the use of gas. Royal Family changed their name: ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’.

Government intervention ensured that Union-Employer relations stayed positive by maintaining reasonable wages. Thereby reducing the risk of strikes. Used arbitration tribunals. Froze rent prices. All major political parties were included in the War Cabinet. Lloyd George included union officials in the ministry.

Introduced the ‘Leaving Certificate’. Workers could be fined or imprisoned for being late to work, absent, or strike. Work hours were increased.

Bad crop in 1916 and unrestricted sub warfare led to food shortages, so folk were urged to limit food intake voluntarily. In April 1917 there was 10 days worth of wheat left. Saved the situation with success against submarines and ‘bread-economy’ campaign.

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By 1917 there were ‘meatless’ days and restrictions placed on food served in restaurants. Propaganda encouraging thrift, and cultivation of all available space, such as tennis courts.

In 1915 Britain was producing 700 artillery shells a day. Germany was producing 250 000 a day. Something had to be done. Munitions of War Act passed in 1915. Subsidies to private companies, government factories set up, amalgamation of companies, coordinated research and development. Railways and dockyards placed under military control. Police given increased powers. Introduced new policy of ‘dilution’, which was unpopular with unions. As a result of Britain finally adopting a policy of ‘total war’ these figures became common place: 1915 army sent 110 artillery pieces in 12 months… in 1916 it received 5006.

Britain was a financial power and supported its allies – France, Russia, Italy. Sold War Bonds. Increased income tax, by 800% by 1918. Other indirect taxes. Still had to borrow from USA.

Heaps of government advertising in recruiting campaigns (Kitchener’s famous poster). By mid-1915 3000000 men had volunteered. By January 1916 it was necessary for Asquith to introduce the Military Service Bill.

Childless, single men and widowers. Between 18 and 40. Exempt if you were a clergyman, physically unfit, worked in an essential industry, or an approved ‘conscientious objector’. 5 000 000 out of 18 000 000 working age British men served in the armed forces by 1918.

Women took the place of men in industry – 750 000 by 1918. Pretty tough though – unequal pay, ‘munitionettes’ nicknamed ‘canaries’, deaths.

Demanded their ‘right to serve’ in auxiliary branches of the armed forces in non-combatant roles. Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF).

Some women’s groups protested against the war, such as the ‘No Conscription Fellowship’, and the ‘International Labour Party’ (Sylvia Pankhurst).

As the war dragged on, others protested as well. In 1914 there were 972 strikes. In 1918 there were 1165 strikes involving 1 116 000 workers.

Britain was slow to adopt ‘total war’. By the end of the war the British home front was stretched to the limit, but held on just long enough.

The efforts of David Lloyd George to drag Britain into Total War without causing social revolution were extraordinary, given the nature of British politics and society. He was a skilled negotiator, excellent administrator, and strong insightful leader.

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The variety of attitudes to the war and how they changed over time in Britain and Germany. Some interesting general trends over the course of the war was movement from nationalism to internationalism, capitalism to socialism, and male dominated groups to female suffrage groups having an influence.

BRITAIN Very positive early on through great propaganda, belief it would be over by Christmas, and intense nationalism and patriotism. Early opposition came from socialists, pacifists, some religious groups, the Irish, and feminists. Dissent was limited due to Britain’s economic strength, and Lloyd George balancing Unions, workers, and industry. There was also significant public pressure on ‘conchies’ who were also harshly treated in jail. Promised social reform after the war was welcomed by many, but the existing British social structure also supported stability. There were still many strikes but they were dealt with ‘softly’ by the government. Battles of 1916-17 led to rising discontent, as did international groups such as the International Women’s Peace Party, the Stockholm Conference, and Papal Peace Note.

GERMANY Positive patriotic support for the war early on with a lot of excitement. Authoritarian government didn’t allow for much dissent and socialists through their support behind the war effort to gain a role in government. However there was some early opposition expressed through the Peace Society and some religious leaders and intellectuals. War weariness crept up on the German people due to the changes to their lifestyle, working conditions, food shortages due the naval blockade, and lack of success on the Western Front. The huge casualties of the battles of 1916-17 also took their toll. By 1917 there was political chaos in Germany with the growing influence of socialist groups leading strikes, demanding peace, and claims of the government making false promises regarding post-war Germany. Society was becoming polarised and the government resorted to martial law. Strikes and mutinies in the shipyards and navy in 1917 were indicative of the discontent. By 1918 the military dictatorship was under threat, and with the war lost control was handed back over to the civilian government, which would cause long term de-stabilisation of the German politics for decades to come. Impact of the war on women’s lives and experiences in Britain World War I had an effect over a broad range of groups in British and German society. Apart from the men who went to fight at the front, women were the group whose lives most dramatically changed due to the ‘total war’ policies of the British and German governments. As well as directly supporting the war effort in war related industries and services, women were also expected to fill the void in industry left by men. This led to rapid social change as women, now unfettered by the restrictions of traditional female roles, became more socially independent. Many changed the way they dressed and behaved, and eventually these changes would lead to the rise in influence of suffragette groups aiming for equal voting rights, and social rights, for women. They were a political force both during and after the war. Indeed, they were promised much by the politicians of WWI to ensure their support for the war effort. This movement and the associated social changes that it encouraged would have a huge impact on lifestyle during the 1920s. Some historians have declared that the role of women in society was forever changed by WWI, however others believe that women in Britain may have made some legislative gains in terms of suffrage (and political representation as a consequence), but their fundamental role and position in society remained unchanged until post-WWII.

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3. TURNING POINTS Impacts of the entry of the USA and of the Russian withdrawal 

US Entry (April 1917) – The USA entered the war primarily due to the interference in the USAs ‘sphere of influence’ through the ‘Zimmerman Telegram’, and the German tactic of unrestricted submarine warfare which had resulted in the sinking of US ships. The indignation of US politicians and the general public had reached a point where they felt justified in entering the war on the side of the Allies against the autocratic and immoral regime of Germany.

Russian Withdrawal – The Russians withdrew from the war due to the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in November 1917. Lenin had promised Russia’s withdrawal from the imperialist bourgeois war to end the suffering of the Russian troops and people. Although accepting a very harsh peace treaty in the ‘Treaty of Brest-Litovsk’, they withdrew from the war in March 1918.

The impacts of these events were that initially the German army could move troops from the eastern front to the west, which could have been disastrous for the allies. But in fact Ludendorff and Hindenburg had to leave substantial numbers of soldiers in the east to protect the gains Germany had made in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The troops that were sent to the western front were not given any leave and arrived exhausted and with poor morale, which had a negative impact on the other German troops. The withdrawal of the autocratic Russian regime also provided the USA with an added reason to enter the war, as part of a great alliance between the great democratic powers of the west against the Germans.

With the imminent arrival of the USA to the Western Front the German High Command realised that it was time to act. Ludendorff planned for a massive offensive before their arrival, intended to make significant enough gains to sue for peace from a position of strength. With the war of attrition taking its toll on both sides, the entry of a fresh powerful army in the USA precipitated action on the part of the Germans.

Ludendorff’s Spring Offensive and the Allied Response 

Had to happen before April 1918, before US were ready to have a significant impact.

Trying to gain a negotiated peace by attacking. Didn’t expect to win outright.

Planned to split the British and French where their lines met. Meant to force the British NW and the French to defend Paris, panic, and sue for peace.

German troops brought from the Eastern Front.

Common strategy ‘elastic defensive debt’. A tactic of pulling troops out of the front lines in preparation for defending against artillery bombardment, and then the inevitable infantry attack. Reserves were kept close and ready for counter attack.

German tactics had been changing for some time. They tried to blast a hole through weaknesses in the line using artillery, then break through in fast groups of ‘storm troops’ to infiltrate and hold positions deep into enemy territory, then follow up troops would hold the gains.

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British lines had been thinned due to a re-organisation by Haig.

Germans leaked information to mislead the allies into thinking that French lines would be hit, but they snuck guns into position to attack British positions.

Fired 1.5 million shells in 4 hours. 4 500 guns concentrated on a 40 mile section of the line – “Ludendorff’s Battering Ram”.

80% of the shells contained gas (phosgene, mustard, and tear gas) which created confusion in the line.

Germans were successful, but Haig allowed British troops to be pushed west, not north-west as the Germans had wanted. Therefore they still held strong position and kept in touch with the French.

The British were driven back 145sq miles in a day: best offensive of the war. But only against Gough’s 5th Army. The rest of the line held well.

When the French began to fall the British 3rd Army spread out to cover them and withdrew in order across the Somme battlefields, which was better than a split in the line.

They actually fell back to their supply lines, more troops, and new ground…which was easier on the retreating troops.

Germans now found themselves in the terrible territory of the old battle fields, with supply lines stretched. They actually found allied supplies and became disheartened. Some even gave up and got drunk on captured wine.

British and French gained control of the air from the Germans and began to attack German ground troops.

Ludendorff’s son died on the first day of the battle, and he was beginning to doubt his successes and disastrously split his army.

Foch commented that Ludendorff’s failure to develop tanks was an error. Also, although brilliant in the field, he lacked contingency plans. He referred to the German army as a “wild charging buffalo”, striking out blindly gorging at its enemy in one place and then another. The buffalo was too strong to defeat all at once, but all one had to do was wait until it was exhausted.

The allies launched a counter offensive, aided in the southern region by newly arrived fresh American troops. Although seeing little action, they were a morale boost for the allies, and the final nail in the coffin of the exhausted Germans.

They also effectively used tanks (Monash) to punch holes in the German lines.

The German home front was collapsing with leftwing revolution in the air.

11th November an armistice is called for peace negotiations to begin.

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