27 FEBRUARY, 1915: How Goes the War?

With the fighting season for 1915 getting fully underway, this seems a good moment to offer a quick overview of Hell’s progress. How had the War been going for the major belligerents, and where were they headed?

The simple answer is that, for Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Serbia and any smaller European states swept into the conflict (Belgium and Luxembourg, for instance, or Montenegro), the War was not going to plan. It had, in fact, defied all expectations, producing no swift, decisive glories on land or sea, and had already raged for longer than any rational observer in 1914 thought possible.

With the sole exception of British war minister and military icon, Lord Kitchener (who predicted a stalemate lasting for years but wouldn’t tell anyone why), strategists everywhere had assumed that the sheer cost of twentieth-century warfare would force European powers to stop fighting after a few months. The alternative seemed to be economic atrophy and loss of the accumulated capital wealth that had fuelled the Age of Progress throughout the nineteenth century. So why was it that, once the flurry of mobile warfare that opened the War had subsided into a form of stalemate on each of the Western, Eastern and Southern fronts, all of Europe’s ‘great powers’ came into 1915 determined to prolong and, if possible, extend the conflict?

First and foremost, they’d discovered that they could. Galloping technology and rampant bureaucracy were enabling them to continue a fight that was evolving into ‘total war’ between whole societies. The social and economic cost of deploying and supplying massive armed forces began a rapid expansion of the role of governments that would have been unthinkable a year earlier. Governments in France, Germany and Britain were taking on powers that would surely have provoked massive unrest among politically aware peacetime populations, while the Austrian, Russian and Ottoman regimes were achieving levels of national mobilisation that, while neither efficient nor sustainable, were off the scale by pre-War standards.

Enduring popular approval in those countries where it mattered, and political approval elsewhere, was another factor permitting European governments to carry on fighting. The frenzied enthusiasm that marked Europe’s march to war had, very generally speaking, matured into a grittier popular and political determination to get the job done – but uncritical faith in military judgment had been severely undermined by serial failure.

The French invasion of Germany had failed, as had Germany’s invasion of France, Russia’s invasions of East Prussia and Galicia, Austria-Hungary’s invasions of Galicia and Serbia, and Turkey’s invasion of the Caucasus. The British may have entered the land war for defensive purposes, but its subsequent invasion of Ottoman Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) was hardly going smoothly, and its enormous navy had conspicuously failed to win the War in short order by blockading and stifling its enemies’ supply lines. Fed a constant stream of victories by burgeoning propaganda machines, but denied the total victory they’d been led to expect, voting populations made loud demands for better leadership, but knuckled down and accepted the orthodoxy that one more, even greater effort would be enough to decide the conflict in their favour.

Military leaders felt the same way. A fateful advantage for defenders over attackers had been established and recognised on all the European fronts by the beginning of 1915, yet commanders on almost every front went into the new year with attack plans that assumed greater weight of arms would succeed against enemies perceived as overstretched.

On the Western Front, bitter trench warfare was defined by French c-in-c Joffre’s enduring belief that German defences were ready to collapse, a faith strengthened by Germany’s need to commit forces Russia, and expressed in an almost continuous series of massed, French-led offensives between November 1914 and the following March.  Focused on the Artois region to the north of the front line, these achieved nothing, but Joffre was already planning a similarly attritional campaign further south, in Champagne.

In the East, both sides imagined that fresh offensives would decide ongoing battles for East Prussia, Poland and Galicia, and the promise of swift victory given to the German High Command by influential front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff convinced Berlin to divert forces from the west for a really big effort in 1915. It wouldn’t make any difference to the pattern for stalemate on the Eastern Front, where rapid advances and retreats took place on a regular basis, but were reversed as soon as attackers with extended supply lines came up against pre-prepared defensive positions.

In the south, deadlock had followed from Austrian ineptitude and the ruggedness of Serbian national resistance in mountainous country ideally suited to defensive warfare. Here at least, the spring of 1915 promised to pass quietly, while the Serbian Army fought against utter exhaustion and Vienna prepared a major offensive for the autumn.

Meanwhile, the war had been expanding around the world. All the major powers were looking for allies among Europe’s smaller nations, hoping that their contribution might tip the balance on one front or another. The first victory in this diplomatic beauty contest went to Germany in early November, when the Ottoman Empire joined the War on the side of the Central Powers, but competition continued for the allegiance of all neutral states, and the desire to attract them by looking like the War’s probable winners was another factor encouraging big guns to go on the attack in 1915. Ottoman Turkey’s involvement had already prompted the opening of indecisive hostilities in the Caucasus, the Persian Gulf and Gallipoli, and new battlefronts were already being planned as ambitious neutral nations considered ever more lavish offers of territory and aid.

The main force for expansion of the War had been, and continued to be the British Empire, which was rich enough to focus more and more resources on the Western Front while maintaining a global perspective. Britain had brought the War to Africa, by way of taking over the continent’s German colonies, to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, while its navy brought aggressive policing to the world’s seas on the Empire’s behalf. This dual perspective was reflected in a division of opinion among British strategists – clear by late 1914 and analogous to the east/west divide in German strategic thinking – between ‘Westerners’ bent on all-out commitment to victory in France, and ‘Easterners’ convinced the War could be won by aggressive thrusts from other directions. The Easterners were hoping to win the War via Gallipoli in 1915, and were a constant, growing voice for expansion elsewhere.

The War’s indirect impact on the rest of the world had been varied but almost always significant. The populations of European colonies everywhere – black, brown and white – were fighting or working for their ‘mother countries’, often with far-reaching sociopolitical consequences at home. Japan was using the War to further its plans for conquest in China and the Far East, while South American political and economic landscapes were being transformed by the disappearance of European money. And the United States, though still strictly neutral, was gearing up to inherit the wealth that, as spring gathered in 1915, Europe was preparing to squander in what was supposed be a final, Herculean surge to victory.

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