Why do Americans succumb to British accents

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  • Captive British after the Battle of the Aisne, 1917

The strategic planning for the German warfare was based on the Schlieffen Plan and assumed a two-front war against France and Russia. The plans envisaged a quick military decision on the western front by means of a massive attack and the encirclement of the French army; thereafter the troops initially operating defensively on the eastern front should be reinforced and force a decision against Russia. By concentrating the troops on one front each, the numerical inferiority of the two Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, vis-à-vis the states of the Entente was to be compensated. At the beginning of the war in 1914, around 3.5 million soldiers from the Central Powers faced more than 5.7 million soldiers from the allied Entente powers.

The course of the war in 1914

The acts of war began on August 2, 1914, without an official declaration of war, with the occupation of Luxembourg by German troops. Then the right wing of the German army moved on the 3rd / 4th. August entered neutral Belgium. Despite the unexpectedly strong resistance, the Liège fortress was taken.

According to the also offensively oriented French deployment plan, the French concentrated their attacks on Alsace-Lorraine. The first offensives of the French armies were repulsed in the Battle of Mulhouse (August 19) and in the battles in the Vosges and Lorraine (August 20-22). The French offensive came to a standstill in the great border battles. The German armies made important breakthroughs. The British expeditionary force defeated at Mons had to withdraw towards the Channel coast.

The great offensive of the five German armies began on August 18th and went largely according to plan. Despite considerable losses in the various battles, the German troops reached the Marne on August 30th. In view of the top of the 1st German Army standing just 60 kilometers from Paris, the French government fled the threatened Paris to Bordeaux on September 3rd. But the German army did not achieve a decisive victory. Despite their defeats, the fighting strength of the Entente troops was not significantly weakened.

In front of Paris the French commander Joseph Joffre hastily formed a new army and ordered the counterattack along the whole line between Paris and Verdun. In this battle on the Marne (September 5 to 12) the wear and tear of the German offensive became noticeable. In addition, there was a lack of the necessary reserves. The German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke assessed the situation of his troops extremely skeptically and gave the order to withdraw. This broke the dynamism of the German offensive and the Schlieffen Plan failed. In place of the resigned Moltke, War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn took over the military command on September 14, 1914.

Attempts to break through by the French and English after the Battle of the Marne failed because the German front was consolidating. The German troops were then able to gain slight advantages in the fighting near Verdun (September 22nd to 25th). In Belgium they took Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and Ostend. In mid-October, Belgium was almost entirely in German hands and was placed under military administration.

In the "Race to the Sea", however, the German troops did not succeed in conquering the important canal ports on the French coast. The German advance brought heavy resistance from the British and French on the Yser Canal and in front of Ypres to a standstill. But even the Allies succeeded neither in an embracing movement nor a decisive breakthrough. In the west the war froze to trench warfare. From the Channel coast to the Vosges, both sides held their positions and built them into strong defensive bulwarks. Storming these entrenched bulwarks was almost impossible. The fierce machine gun fire from a fortified hill in the Battle of Langemarck (November 10) mowed down hundreds of young volunteers trying to storm them.

In the east, too, the fighting developed differently than expected by the Supreme Army Command (OHL). Russia mobilized its troops far earlier than expected. On the northern section of the front, the 8th Army stationed in East Prussia faced two Russian armies, and on the southern section of the front, with a focus on Galicia, the four Austro-Hungarian armies were also confronted with a clearly outnumbered enemy.

From a German point of view, the first battle in the east was extremely negative. For fear of being gripped, the Commander-in-Chief of the 8th Army broke off the Battle of Gumbinnen (August 19-20) and withdrew with his units from East Prussia behind the Vistula. The East Prussian population was thus exposed to the Russian invasion. The OHL disapproved of this withdrawal and appointed the reactivated Paul von Hindenburg as the new Commander-in-Chief of the 8th Army. He was joined by Erich Ludendorff, who had distinguished himself in taking Liège. With outnumbered forces, they succeeded in enclosing the 2nd Russian Army in the Battle of Tannenberg (August 26th to 30th), which was crushed. Around 92,000 Russian soldiers became prisoners of war. Two weeks later, the 1st Russian Army was also defeated in the Battle of the Masurian Lakes (September 8-15). The immediate danger for East Prussia was thus eliminated for the time being. An unprecedented cult developed around Hindenburg as "Held von Tannenberg".

But despite these successes in the east, the military situation did not correspond to the German plans, which had assumed a quick victory over France. Due to the frozen fronts in the west, the issue of supplies and supplies moved into the focus of strategic considerations.

Although the German troops were located deep in the enemy country and held important industrial areas, the situation for the Allies was more favorable in the long term: England declared the North Sea, which was controlled by its fleet, a war zone and built one on the line from the Shetland Islands to Norway ongoing naval blockade against the Central Powers. This remote blockade was withdrawn from the attack by the German fleet. While the Central Powers were cut off from essential raw material and food supplies, the Entente states could rely on the ever increasing supplies from the USA.

The German deep-sea fleet, equipped with a lot of propaganda and a strong anti-English accent, remained inferior to the British fleet throughout the course of the war. It could neither lift the sea blockade nor could it permanently disrupt the Allied supply connections. The only major meeting of the two fleets in the battle of the Skagerrak (May 31 to June 1, 1916) ended with losses for both sides. After that, the British fleet avoided any direct confrontation with larger German units. The German fleet, for its part, was not strong enough to force a battle on its British adversary. That is why the German naval command concentrated mainly on the use of mines and submarines.

Most of the German naval units operating overseas were sunk by the Entente. Without supplies and military protection, most of the colonies such as German Southwest Africa were quickly lost. Only the "Schutztruppe" in German East Africa offered bitter resistance until 1918.

The only success of the German fleet was the blocking of the Russian fleet in the Baltic Sea. To protect against attacks by German submarines, however, the Allies soon introduced convoys and also equipped their merchant ships with cannons. Despite the many reports of the sinking of enemy war and merchant ships, the German submarine fleet was too weak to permanently interrupt the Allied supply links.

The course of the war in 1915

The year 1915 did not bring any military decision either, although the dogged struggle drove the number of those killed into the millions. The battles fought with increasing artillery fire turned whole stretches of land into inanimate, inhospitable crater landscapes.

The war year began with the winter battle in Champagne (February 16 to March 20), in which the Germans succeeded in repelling attempts by France to break through. The use of poison gas, which the German army first used in the second battle near Ypres (April 22 to May 25), brought about an increase in the painful death of soldiers that was hardly thought possible. The number of fallen soldiers increased again dramatically when the autumn battle in Champagne (September 22 to November 6) was the first major material battle to be fought as part of the French "great offensive".

Since the military and economic forces of the Central Powers were unable to cope with a two-front war over a long period of time, the German war command tried to overthrow Russia with an offensive strike. With the victorious winter battle in Masuria, the Germans succeeded in driving the Russian army out of East Prussia. After changeable fighting, German and Austro-Hungarian troops fended off an impending incursion by Russian troops across the Carpathians into Hungary in the winter battle in the Carpathian Mountains (December 1914 to April 1915). In the subsequent breakthrough battle of Gorlice-Tarnów (May 1 to 3), under Colonel General August von Mackensen, there was a surprising breakthrough through the West Galician front of the Russians. After a number of other successes, a major offensive by the Central Powers began on July 1st, which led to the capture of Warsaw, Brest-Litovsk, Grodno and Vilna, among others. The German troops advanced over the Pripet swamps. The Austrian-Hungarian troops, which were also advancing, were stopped in eastern Galicia by a strong Russian counter-offensive in the battle of Tarnopol (September 6th to 19th). The subsequent attempts at breakthrough by the Russians, however, were unsuccessful. After the New Year's Battle (mid-December 1915 to mid-January 1916), the war in the East also increasingly froze into positional warfare.

The new southern front after Italy entered the war also proved to be rigid. On the Isonzo north of Trieste, Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops faced each other in almost unchanged positions, even after numerous battles. As a result of the Allied attack on the Dardanelles and Bulgaria's entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers, the war in the second half of 1915 increasingly concentrated on the Balkans. The Central Powers conquered Serbia, Montenegro and Albania by the end of the year and thus established the important land connection to the allied Turkey. In response, the Entente occupied Greece, which had been neutral until then, and took in the remains of the Serbian army there.

The course of the war in 1916

Both the Central Powers and the Entente sought a decision in the West again in 1916. The German Commander-in-Chief Falkenhayn rejected the decision-making offensive in the east desired by Hindenburg and Ludendorff and relied on a victory on the French front in connection with the submarine war. His French opponent Joffre promised victory from a great offensive on the Somme.

The German attack on the fortress of Verdun, the cornerstone of the French front, began on February 22, 1916 with a major offensive supported by an enormous use of artillery. With a huge use of materials, Falkenhayn wanted to make the French "bleed out". But despite the indescribably high losses, most of the French fortress under the command of Henri Philippe Pétain withstood the four-month attacks. Both sides lost over 700,000 men in the fighting for Verdun.

Due to the German attack on Verdun, considerable French forces were tied up there, but the Allies were able to throw 104 divisions into the Battle of the Somme (June 24th to November 26th). In this battle, which lasted more than five months, the losses were considerable with more than 500,000 German, around 200,000 French and over 500,000 British soldiers. However, the Allies had succeeded in gaining ground 40 kilometers wide and 12 kilometers deep. The war developed into a "war of attrition" - of people and material. The high numbers of losses were only offset by small gains in terrain in the short term. The parts of the fortifications of Verdun conquered by the Germans were lost again after successful French attacks between October 24th and December 16th.

In the east, too, there was no decision to go to war in 1916, despite the considerable loss of soldiers. In the spring, the Central Powers were able to repel several smaller attempts at Russian breakthroughs. With the first Brusilov offensive (early June to early September) to relieve the Allies at Verdun and on the Somme, the Russians not only succeeded in recapturing important railway junctions in Volhynia and Galicia, but also pushed the Austro-Hungarian troops far after several breakthroughs back. The second offensive under General Brusilov aimed to break through to Hungary, but was repulsed in the Carpathian Mountains. The third Brusilov offensive (mid-October to mid-December) to relieve the Romanian alliance partner was also unsuccessful. After the three Brusilov offensives with well over a million men killed, the Russian fighting strength was exhausted and the troops were demoralized. The course of the front in the east changed little until the outbreak of the Russian February Revolution. In contrast, the Central Powers were able to wage a successful war of movement in their joint campaign against Romania: Bucharest was conquered on December 6, 1916, and by the end of the year most of Romania with the oil regions was in the hands of the Central Powers.

One of Ludendorff's dubious "war lists" was the establishment of an independent Polish state, which was carried out on November 5th by a joint proclamation by the German Emperor Wilhelm II and the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I in the hope of support from Polish troops .

During the first Russian offensive, General Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was appointed Chief of the General Staff of the Field Army on August 26, and Lieutenant General Erich Ludendorff became the first General Quartermaster. Both together formed the 3rd OHL, which intervened in German domestic politics to a not inconsiderable extent in the further course of the war. The totality of the first mass war had its full impact on the "home front".

In view of the unsuccessful conduct of the French warfare, the command of the French army passed from General Joffre to Georges Robert Nivelle (1858-1924) on December 3rd.

The course of the war in 1917

The military development was significantly influenced by two events in 1917: On the one hand, the February Revolution broke out in Russia, which led to a considerable weakening of Russian combat strength; on the other hand, the entry of the United States into the war dramatically worsened the prospects of the Central Powers for military success. Using all available forces, the Central Powers wanted to force the military decision before the arrival of the first American soldiers in France.

In order to keep the own losses as low as possible in the defense against opposing attempts to break through, the German front in the west between Arras and Soissons was withdrawn from the fortified defense system of the "Siegfriedstellung". During the spring offensive, an attempt by the British to break through in the Battle of Arras (April 2 to May 20) failed on this line of defense, as did the French attempts to break through in the double battle of the Aisne and Champagne (April 6 to May 27) .

The unsuccessful attacks and the extremely high losses increased discontent in the French army and led to numerous open mutinies against the commanding officer Nivelle, whose ruthless use of soldiers as "slaughter" earned him the name "blood drunkard". In mid-May, Nivelle was replaced by Pétain as commander-in-chief. Pétain relied on defensive warfare and cracked down on the mutiny. At the same time, the French government reacted with numerous arrests to the pacifist and socialist agitation inside and outside the army.

The ongoing attempts by the English to break through the trench warfare, which resulted in extremely high casualties, also failed in their offensives in Artois (April 28 to May 20) and in their attempts to break through in Flanders (May 27 to December 3) targeted the German submarine base Zeebrugge. The "mechanization of war" continued with the use of armored vehicles to break through the enemy positions: When the British first used their tanks in the Battle of Cambrai (November 20), they initially shocked the German troops at the front . The German army command reacted to the use of the tanks with a more flexible warfare and the tactical abandonment of advanced positions.

While the war in the West in 1917 was fierce and sacrificed trench warfare, the Russian February Revolution had an increasingly crippling effect on the course of the war. After attempts at a Russian breakthrough under Brusilov had failed after initial successes, the Central Powers began a counter-offensive in eastern Galicia on July 19. Almost all of Galicia and Bukovina were recaptured. On September 3, Riga fell into German hands, and in October German units took the islands of Ösel and Dagö off the Liv and Estonian coasts. Since the Russian army was barely able to act, Leo D. Trotsky, as People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, proposed a peace conference to all warring states after the October Revolution. While the Entente states, which had committed themselves in the Treaty of London of September 1914 not to conclude a separate peace, refused to negotiate an armistice, the Central Powers agreed to negotiate accordingly. On December 15, an armistice was signed between Germany and Russia, and on December 22, the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations began between the two countries.

The war year 1917 was successful for the Central Powers in the south. After the Italians made slight gains in the 10th and 11th Isonzo battles (May to September), the Central Powers were able to force the breakthrough to the Piave on the upper Isonzo at the end of October, where they encountered English and French auxiliary troops. Around 275,000 Italians were taken prisoner. Mass desertions revealed the war weariness of the Italian army.

The course of the war in 1918

Even when Vladimir I. Lenin, who returned to Russia from his exile in Switzerland with the active support of the OHL, announced the dictatorship of the workers', peasants' and soldiers' councils in the course of the victorious October Revolution, Russia's departure from the Entente was foreseeable. In order to enforce the system of councils (Russian: soviets) and to overthrow counter-revolutionary forces, Lenin finally accepted the signing of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, which the OHL had enforced with dictatorial severity. With the treaty signed on March 3, Russia recognized its independence from Finland, Estonia, Livonia, Courland, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia and various Caucasian regions, but in order to prevent the spread of Bolshevik currents in these now independent countries, the OHL had to deploy troops, especially in Finland, the Baltic States and the Ukraine, to overthrow Bolshevik attempts at revolution. Despite the peace treaty with Russia, the German troops in France could not be significantly increased.

After combining all available forces for the decisive battle in the West, the 200 German divisions in France had over 3.5 million soldiers and were numerically almost equal to the French-English armed forces. In order to force the military decision before the arrival of the American troops, the major German offensive in Picardy began on March 21st with massive artillery and air support with more than 70 divisions over a width of 70 kilometers. The aim of the offensive was to separate the English troops from their French allies and to push them back to the canal.

After successful breakthroughs from a depth of 60 kilometers, two of the three German armies were so exhausted after a week that they were unable to prevent the opposing front from being closed despite the capture of 90,000 Englishmen. On the German side not only was there a lack of fresh reserve troops, but now the inadequate motorization of the German artillery and the lack of a powerful armored weapon were extremely detrimental.

The second German offensive south of Ypres (April 9th ​​to 29th) also brought a large gain in terrain and the storming of the Kemmelberg. But again, the initial success could not be used operationally due to a lack of reserves. In the third offensive between Soissons and Reims (May 27 to June 3), the Chemin des Dames was stormed. The German troops were able to advance across the Aisne to the Marne before the French succeeded in stabilizing their front. While the fourth German offensive between Montdidier and Noyon (June 9th to 14th) brought a gain in terrain and a large amount of enemy artillery, the fifth offensive on the Marne and in the Champagne region (July 15th to 17th) broke out shortly after their extremely low initial successes together.

On July 18, the Allied counter-offensive began under General Ferdinand Foch, who, in view of the successes of the first German offensive in Picardy, had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of all Allied troops in France and Belgium. The allied counter-offensive (July 18 to August 3) between Reims and Soissons was carried out as a result of the arrival of the Americans with a clear preponderance of troops and material against an exhausted opponent who only had to retreat.

The end came with the Battle of Amiens (August 8-11). Here the Allies deployed 450 tanks with which they achieved such a deep breakthrough on August 8th that Ludendorff spoke of the "black day of the German Army". The German resistance was broken.

The German troops were relocated to their starting positions at the beginning of September under constant attacks by the Allies. Without having their own tanks, another German offensive was out of the question. The Central Powers could no longer win the war. But they held their positions until November against an increasingly strong opponent. Only the Flemish coastal area fell to the British in mid-October.

Burkhard Asmuss, Manfred Wichmann
© German Historical Museum, Berlin