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JOHN KEEGAN - THE FIRST WORLD WAR NOTEs

"All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole
populations were thrust into the midst of them. The mighty educated States involved
conceived - not without reasons - that their very existence was at stake. Neither peoples
nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win.
Germany, having let Hell loose, kept well in the forefront of terror; but she was followed
step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every
outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals - often of a greater
scale and of longer duration.

No truce or parley mitigated the strife of the armies. The wounded died between the lines;
the dead moldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were
sunk on the seas and all on board left to their fate, or killed as they swam. Every effort was
made to starve whole nations into submission without regard to age or sex. Cities and
monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down
indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was
projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smothered often slowly
in the dark recesses of the sea.

The fighting strength of armies was limited only by the manhood of their countries. Europe
and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of
struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism
were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to
deny themselves: and they were of doubtful utility."
- Winston Churchill, 1920.

CONTENTS
00 Prologue - A European Tragedy
01 The Crisis of 1914
02 The Battle of the Frontiers
03 Victory and Defeat in the East
04 Stalemate (1915)
05 Beyond the Western Front
06 The Year of Battles (1916)
07 The Breaking of Armies (1917)
08 America and Armageddon (1918)
EP Epilogue

# PROLOGUE: A EUROPEAN TRAGEDY

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of
events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks
of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a
voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million
human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and
optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four
years later, a legacy of political rancor and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of
the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots. The Second
World War, five times more destructive of human life and incalculably costlier in material
terms, was the direct outcome of the First. On 18 September 1922, Adolf Hitler, the
demobilized front fighter, threw down a challenge to defeated Germany that he would
realize seventeen years later: "It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in
vain... No, we do not pardon, we demand - vengeance!"

Over half those who died in the Great War were lost as corpses to the wilderness of the
battlefield. So numerous were those missing bodies that, in the war's immediate aftermath,
it was proposed that the most fitting of all the memorials to the War dead would be a
disinterment and reburial of one of those unidentified in a place of honor. A body was
chosen, brought to Westminster Abbey and placed at the entrance under a tablet bearing
the inscription, 'They buried him among the Kings because he had done good toward God
and toward His house'.

It is true that the Great War, by comparison with that of 1939-45, did little material
damage. Yet it damaged civilization, the rational and liberal civilization of the European
enlightenment, permanently for the worse and, through the damage done, world civilization
also. Pre-war Europe, imperial though it was in its relations with most of the world beyond
the continent, offered respect to the principles of constitutionalism, the rule of law and
representative government. Post-war Europe rapidly relinquished confidence in such
principles. They were lost altogether in Russia after 1917, in Italy after 1922, in Germany in
1933 and in Spain in 1936.

Within fifteen years of the war's end, totalitarianism, a new word for a system that rejected
the liberalism and constitutionalism which had inspired European politics since the eclipse of
monarchy in 1789, was almost everywhere on the rise.

Less than twenty years after the end of the Great War, the 'war to end wars', Europe was
once again gripped by the fear of a new war, provoked by the actions and ambitions of war
lords more aggressive than any known to the old world of the long 19th century peace. It
was also in the full flood of rearmament, with weapons - tanks, bombers, submarines -
known only in embryo form in the First World War and threatening to make a Second an
even greater catastrophe.

The Second World War was unquestionably the outcome of the First, and in large measure
its continuation. Its circumstances - the dissatisfaction of the German speaking peoples with
their standing among other nations - were the same, and so were its immediate causes, a
dispute between a German-speaking ruler and a Slav neighbor.

The states of Europe proceeded, as if in a dead march and a dialogue of the deaf, to the
destruction of their continent and its civilization.

[Full text of this chapter available at The New York Times ]

#1 THE CRISIS OF 1914

Secret military plans determined that any crisis not settled by sensible diplomacy would, in
the circumstances prevailing in Europe in 1914, lead to general war. Sensible diplomacy had
settled crises before, notably during the powers' quarrels over position in Africa. Such
crises, however, had touched matters of national interest only, not matters of national
honour or prestige. In June 1914, the honor of Austria-Hungary, most sensitive because
most weakest of European powers, was touched to the quick by the murder of the heir to
the throne at the hands of an assassin.

It was as if, 60 years later, the United States Strategic Air Command had enjoyed the
freedom to write plans for nuclear war against Russia without reference to the State
Department, Navy or Army and to leave the President to circulate within government such
details of it as he saw fit.

Statesmen were filled with foreboding by the coming of war but its declaration was greeted
with enormous popular enthusiasm in the capitals of all combatant countries. Crowds
thronged the streets, shouting, cheering, and singing patriotic songs.

#2 THE BATTLE OF THE FRONTIERS

The Prince de Ligne, one of the leading generals of the 18th century fortress age, had
written, 'The more I see and the more I read, the more I am convinced that the best
fortress is an army, and the best rampart a rampart of men.' Ramparts of men, not steel or
concrete, would indeed form the fronts of the First World War.

The 'Rape of Belgium' served no military purpose whatsoever and did Germany untold
harm, particularly in the United States, where the reputation of the Kaiser and his
government were blackened from the outset by reports of massacre and cultural
despoliation. Innocent civilians were shot and villages burnt. At Andenne there were 211
dead, at Dinant 612. The victims included children, women and priests.

At Mons, the British, if only for a moment, were to be cast into the role of opposing both the
concept and the substance of the Schlieffen Plan - 'Keep the right wing strong' were
allegedly Schlieffen's dying words - at the crucial point. The British Expeditionary Force was
equal to the task. Alone among those of Europe, the British army was an all-regular force,
composed of professional soldiers whom the small wars of empire had hardened to the
realities of combat. The Germans, who outnumbered them by six divisions to four, were
unprepared for the storm of fire that would sweep their ranks.

'The British had converted every house, every wall into a little fortress; the experience, no
doubt, of old soldiers gained in a dozen colonial wars.'
- Captain Walter Bloem, 12th Brandenburg Grenadiers

The Allies began in optimistic mood. Wilson, British Deputy Chief of Staff thought their
armies would be on the Belgian frontier with Germany within a month. They were shortly to
discover that the days of 'open warfare' were over.

#3 VICTORY AND DEFEAT IN THE EAST

The Russians repeated the mistake, so often made before by armies apparently enjoying an
incontestable superiority in numbers, the mistake made by the Spartans at Leuctra, by
Darius at Guagemala, by Hooker at Chancellorsville, of exposing themselves to defeat in
detail; that is, of allowing a weaker enemy to concentrate at first against one part of the
army, then against another, and so beat both.
The opening months of the war marked the termination of 200 years of a style of infantry
fighting which, with decreasing logic, taught that drill and discipline was the best defense
against missile weapons, however much improved. Within a few months, most armies will
have adopted the steel helmet, the first reversion to armor since its disappearance in the
17th century.

The 1914 battles on the Eastern Front therefore closely resembled those fought by Napoleon
a 100 years earlier, as indeed did those of the Marne campaign, with the difference that
infantry lay down rather than stood up to fire and that the fronts of engagement extended
up to widths a hundred times greater.

The plans of the Russian Supreme Command characterize a distinctively Russian style of
war making, that of using space rather than force as a medium of strategy. No French
general would have proposed surrendering the cherished soil of his country to gain military
advantage; the German generals in East Prussia had taken the defense of its frontier to be a
sacred duty. In their war with Napoleon, whole provinces had been lost, only to be regained
when distance and the durability of the peasant soldier defeated the enemy.

#4 STALEMATE

The exhaustion of all the combatants' armies offensive force during the winter of 1914
brought Europe by the spring of 1915 a new frontier. It was quite different in character from
the old, lazy, permeable frontier of pew-war days. The new frontier resembled the limes of
the Roman legions, an earthwork barrier separating a vast military empire from the outside
world. Nothing, indeed, had been seen like it in Europe since Rome - nor would it be seen
again until the outbreak of the Cold War thirty years later.

Unlike the limes and the Iron Curtain, however, the new frontier marked neither a social nor
ideological border. It was quite simply a fortification separating warring states. The line of
earthworks stretched for 1,300 miles. In the west, no man's land was usually two to three
hundred yards wide.

On 1 May, when the soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the Dorset regiment clung to the fire
step of their trenches as gas seized their throats and the German infantry pounded towards
them across no man's land, the scene must have been as near to hell as this earth can
show.

#5 BEYOND THE WESTERN FRONT

By the end of 1915, none of the original combatants was fighting the war that had been
wanted or expected. Hopes of quick victory had been dashed, new enemies had appeared,
new fronts had opened. The war that men were already beginning to call the Great War was
becoming a world war and its bounds were being set wider with every month that passed.

New Zealanders' settler independence and skills with rifle and spade would win them a
reputation as the best soldiers in the world during the 20th century. Yet of all the
contingents which went to Gallipoli, it was the Australians who were most marked by the
experience and who remembered it most deeply, remember it indeed to this day. Citizens of
an only recently federated country in 1915, they went as soldiers of the forces of six
separate states. They came back, it is so often said, members of one nation.
The ANZAC ordeal began to be commemorated at home in the following year. Today the
dawn ceremony on 25 April has become a sacred event, observed by all Australians of every
age, and ANZAC cove has become a shrine.

Most poignant of all Gallipoli memorials, perhaps, is that of the white marble column on the
Cape Helles headland, glimpsed across the water from the walls of Troy on a bright April
morning. Troy and Gallipoli make two separate but connected epics, as so many of the
classically educated volunteer officers of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force had
recognized and recorded. It is difficult to say which epic Homer might have thought the
more heroic.

#6 THE YEAR OF BATTLES

'Even if we cannot perhaps expect a revolution in the grand style, we are entitled to believe
that Russia's internal troubles will compel her to give in within a relatively short period...
The strain on France has reached breaking point - though it is certainly borne with
remarkable devotion. If we succeed in opening the eyes of her people to the fact that in a
military sense they have nothing more to hope for, that breaking point would be reached
and England's best sword knocked out of her hand... attack at a vital point that would
compel the French to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will
bleed to death.'
- General Erich von Falkenhayn, German Chief of Staff, Christmas Day 1915.

The coming year of 1916, all parties to the war recognized, would bring crisis on land, east
and west, and at sea also. It would be a year of great battles between armies and navies.

If the war of 1914 was not a war which the armies of Europe were ready to fight, that was
not so with Europe's great navies. 19th century admirals are commonly thought to have
opposed transition from sail to steam as fiercely as generals opposed the abolition of scarlet
coats. Nothing could be further from the truth. When the admirals of the Royal Navy were
persuaded that sail had had its day, they displayed a ruthless lack of sentimentality for the
beauty of pyramids of canvas. Warrior, the Royal Navy's first steam ironclad of 1861, was
not an experimental but a revolutionary ship, which surpassed several intermediate stages
of naval design in a single leap.

HMS Dreadnought, launched in 1906, the brainchild of Admiral Sir John Fisher, was as
revolutionary as HMS Warrior had been and the decision to build her brave, for, like
Warrior, she made all contemporary battleships obsolete, including the Royal Navy's own.
Only a nation as rich, as fiscally efficient and as committed to its maintenance of maritime
predominance as Britain could have taken such a risk and only a navy as technically
adaptable as the Royal Navy could have seen a need to do so. The armies of 1914 may not
have been very efficient battle-winning organizations; the Dreadnought fleets were as
efficient as they could be made within the constraints of available technology.

The Dreadnought in those years became a symbol of a state's international standing,


whether or not it served an objective national purpose.

Jutland, as the impending battle would be called promised not only to be the largest naval
encounter of the war but of naval history thus far. No sea had ever seen such a large
concentration of ships or of ships so large, so fast and so heavily armored. The German
High Seas Fleet consisted of 16 Dreadnoughts, 6 pre-Dreadnoughts, 5 battlecruisers, 11
light-cruisers and 61 destroyers. The British Grand Fleet included 28 Dreadnoughts, 9
battlecruisers, 8 armored cruisers, 26 light-cruisers, and 78 destroyers. Jutland was to be
both the biggest and the last purely surface encounter of main fleets in naval history.

Jutland falls into 5 phases: in the first Beatty's Battle Cruiser Fleet made a 'run to the south'
on encountering the weaker German battlecruiser force; then a 'run to the north' when, on
meeting the German Dreadnoughts, it turned back to draw them into Jellicoe's Grand Fleet;
then two encounters between the Dreadnoughts, broken by a German 'turning away' as
heavier British firepower told; and finally, after the German Dreadnoughts had sought
escape from destruction, a night action in which the light forces of both sides sought to
inflict crippling damage by torpedo attack.

Jutland was not a German victory. Though the High Seas fleet had lost fewer ships than the
Grand Fleet, it had suffered more damage to those that survived. It could not risk
challenging the Grand Fleet for several months. It had accepted the verdict of Jutland,
pithily summarized by a German journalist as an assault on the gaoler, followed by a return
to gaol.

The simple truth of 1914-18 trench warfare is that the massing of large numbers of soldiers
unprotected by anything but cloth uniforms, however they were trained, however equipped,
against large masses of other soldiers, protected by earthworks and barbed wire and
provided with rapid-fire weapons, was bound to result in very heavy casualties among the
attackers. The effect of artillery added to the slaughter, as did that of bayonets and
grenades when fighting came to close quarters in the trench labyrinths. The basic and stark
fact, nevertheless, was that the conditions of warfare between 1914 and 1918 predisposed
towards slaughter and that only an entirely different technology, one not available until a
generation later, could have averted such an outcome.

The holocaust of the Somme was subsumed for the French in that of Verdun. To the British,
it was and would remain their greatest military tragedy in their national military history. A
nation that goes to war must expect deaths among the young men it sends and there was a
willingness for sacrifice before and during the Somme that explains, in part at least, its
horror. Whatever harm Kitchener's volunteers wished the Germans, it is the harm they
thereby suffered that remains in British memory, collectively, but also among the families of
those who did not return. There is nothing more poignant in British life than to visit the
ribbon of cemeteries that marks the front line of 1 July 1916 and to find, on gravestone
after gravestone, the fresh wreath, the pinned poppy and the inscription to 'a father, a
grandfather and a great-grandfather'. The Somme marked the end of an age of vital
optimism in British life that has never been recovered.

#7 THE BREAKING OF ARMIES

Is destruction of life ever bearable? By the beginning of 1917, that was a question that
lurked beneath the surface in every combatant country. Soldiers at the front, subject to
discipline, bound together by the comradeship of combat, had means of their own to resist
the relentless erosion. Behind the lines, the ordeal of war attacked senses and sensibilities
in a different way, through anxiety and depravation. The individual soldier knows, from day
to day, minute to minute, whether he is in danger or not. Those he leaves behind - wife and
mother above all - bear a burden of anxious uncertainty he does not.

The fundamental truth underlying dissatisfaction with systems and with personalities in all
countries was that the search for anything or anyone better was vain. The problem of
command in the circumstances of the First World War was insoluble. Generals were like men
without eyes, without ears and without voices, unable to watch the operations they set in
progress, unable to hear reports of their development and unable to speak to those whom
they had originally given orders once action was joined. The war had become bigger than
those who fought it.

They were men presented by an almost insuperable problem - how to break a strong
fortified front with weak, indeed inadequate means - and none was any much worse a
general than another.

All armies have a breaking point. It may come when those in the fighting units are brought
to calculate, accurately or not, that the odds of survival have passed the dividing line
between possibility and probability, between the random chance of death and its apparent
statistical likelihood. That dividing line had been crossed for the French at the beginning of
1917, when the number of deaths suffered already equaled that of the infantry in the front-
line divisions. A survivor might therefore compute that chance - the 'stochastic' factor - had
turned against him, and that, in the British Tommy's phrase, his 'number was up'.

Day 1 of Operation Michael had undoubtedly been a German victory... The loss of 10
infantry lt. colonels killed testifies to the desperate fight put up some British units; but it is
also evidence of the degree of disorganization that it required commanding officers to place
themselves in the front line, and by setting an example to their stricken soldiers, pay the
supreme sacrifice. Well-prepared units do not lose senior officers in such numbers, even in
the circumstances of a whirlwind enemy offensive, unless there has been a collapse of
morale at the lower level or the failure to provide support by higher authority. Both
conditions were present in the British 5th Army on 21 March 1917... they may simply have
passed beyond the point of what was bearable by flesh and blood.

#8 AMERICA AND ARMAGEDDON

'Retreat? Hell, we just got there.'


- Captain Lloyd Williams, US Marine Corps

It was immaterial whether the Americans fought well or not, the critical issue was the effect
of their arrival on the enemy. It was deeply depressing. After 4 years of a war in which they
had destroyed the Tsar's enemy, trounced the Italians and Romanians, demoralized the
French, and, at the very least, denied the British clear-cut victory, they were now
confronted with an army whose soldiers sprang, in uncountable numbers, as if from soil
sown with dragons' teeth. Past hopes of victory had been predicated on calculable ratios of
force to force. The intervention of the United States Army had robbed calculation of point.

A German army unable to make good its losses was now confronted by a new enemy, the
US Army, with 4 million fresh troops in action or training. More pertinently, its old enemies,
the British and French, now had a new technical arm, their tank forces, with which to alter
the engagement. Germany's failure to match the Allies in tank development must be judged
one of their worst military miscalculations of the war.

During July, Foch and Haig were concentrating an enormous force of armor, 530 British
tanks, 70 French, in front of Amiens, with the intention of breaking back into the old Somme
battlefield. The blow was struck on 8 August, with the Canadian and Australian Corps
providing the infantry support for the tank assault. Within four days most of the old
battlefield had been retaken and by the end of August the Allies had advanced as far as the
outworks of the Hindenburg Line.

On 26 September, in response to Foch's inspiring cry, 'Everyone to battle', the British,


French, Belgian and American armies attacked the Hindenburg Line with 123 divisions, and
57 in reserve, against 197 German divisions of which only 51 were classed by Allied
intelligence as fully battle worthy.

Ludendorff had called 8 August, when the British and French tank armada had overwhelmed
the front at Amiens, the 'black day of the Germany army'. It was 28 September, however,
that was his own black day. He told Hindenburg that there was no alternative but to seek an
armistice. The position in the west was penetrated, the army would not fight, the civilian
population had lost heart, the politicians wanted peace.

On 21 June 1919, the German High Seas Fleet, interned at the British anchorage at Scapa
Flow, had been scuttled by its crews. There was historic irony in the Kaiser's naval officers
choosing a watery grave for his magnificent battleships in a British harbor. Had he not
embarked upon a strategically unnecessary attempt to match Britain's maritime strength,
fatal hostility between the two countries would have been avoided; so, too, in all possibility,
the neurotic climate of suspicion and insecurity from which the First World War was born.
The unmarked graveyard of his squadrons inside the remotest islands of the British
archipelago, guarding the exit from the narrow seas his fleet would have had to penetrate to
achieve true oceanic status, remains as a memorial to selfish and ultimately pointless
military ambition.

# EPILOGUE

The chronicle of the Great War's battles provides the dreariest literature in military history;
no brave trumpets sound in memory for the drab millions who perished from Picardy to
Poland; no litanies are sung for the leaders who coaxed them to slaughter. The legacy of the
war's political outcome scarcely bears contemplation: Europe ruined as a center of world
civilization, Christian kingdoms transformed through defeat into godless tyrannies,
Bolshevik or Nazi, the superficial difference between their ideologies counting not at all in
their cruelty to common and decent folk.

All that was worst in the century which the First World War had opened, the deliberate
starvation of peasant enemies of the people by provinces, the extermination of racial
outcasts, the persecution of ideology's intellectual and cultural hate-objects, the massacre
of ethnic minorities, the extinction of small national sovereignties, the destruction of
parliaments and the elevation of commissars and warlords to power over voiceless millions,
had its origins in the chaos left behind. Of that, at the end of the century, little thankfully is
left. Europe is once again, as it was in 1900, prosperous, peaceful and a power for good in
the world.

The First World War is a mystery. Its origins are mysterious, so is its course. Why did a
prosperous continent, at the height of its success as a source and agent of global wealth
and power and at one of the peaks of its intellectual and cultural achievement, choose to
risk all it had for itself and all it offered to the world in the lottery of a vicious and local
internecine conflict?
How did the anonymous millions, indistinguishably drab, in differentially deprived of any
scrap of the glories that by tradition made the life of the man-at-arms tolerable, find the
resolution to sustain the struggle and to believe in its purpose? That they did is one of the
undeniable facts of the Great War. Comradeship flourished in the earthwork cities of the
Western and Eastern fronts. Men whom the trenches cast into intimacy entered into bonds
of mutual dependency and sacrifice of self, stronger than any of the friendships made in
peace and better times.

That is the ultimate mystery of the First World War. If we could understand its loves, as well
as its hates, we would be nearer understanding the mystery of human life.

# BEYOND THE BOOK

The cemeteries were originally laid out and planted by British gardeners, trained at Kew,
who then settled in the vicinity of their work in France and Belgium. As might have been
expected, these exiles often married local girls, thus setting up what have become
gardening dynasties. Their descendants, now sometimes in the fourth generation, speak a
distinctive form of "Commission English", perfectly fluent but in an accent that is neither
quite English nor quite local. In Egypt, Burma and India, commission gardening jobs, valued
because of the regular pay and pensions they attract, have become virtually hereditary. The
gardeners display extraordinary loyalty, as was recently discovered by British troops in
Baghdad, where the head gardener, though unpaid for many years, had defended the Great
War cemetery against vandalism and kept it as tidy as possible.

The almost autonomous and self-governing status of the war cemeteries abroad is likely to
diminish as families now opt to repatriate the remains of servicemen killed overseas. The
practice, authorized by Margaret Thatcher, is likely to become universal, as it is in America,
because of the growing desecration of foreign soldiers' graves in the new battlegrounds of
the "war on terror". That is entirely understandable. Something will be lost, however, from
British culture in the process. The overseas cemeteries are islands of something distinctively
British in the countries where they exist. They plant replicas of British country churchyards
in foreign climes and reproduce the style of British cottage gardening in places far from
home. The French call the lawns which surround the graves "English grass". No British
visitor easily stifles the catch in the throat that entering a commission cemetery provokes.
Brooke's "corner of some foreign field that is forever England" palpably exists inside the trim
stone walls that the Commonwealth maintains in places as far apart as Crete, Zimbabwe,
the former Soviet Union and Central America.
- John Keegan, on the work of the War Graves Commission, "The Telegraph"