The Importance of World War I

Discussion in 'General Military Arms & History Forum' started by Pistolenschutze, Mar 28, 2008.

  1. It is somewhat rare these days to hear much discussion about World War I, mostly, I think, because that conflict is so powerfully overshadowed by the even larger conflagration that was essentially its continuation, the so-called Second World War, or as many historians are now calling it, The World War, Second Phase.

    Yet I would argue that the First World War was the true historical cusp for the modern world, for the events which so shaped the 20th century were made possible by this conflict. Had World War I ended differently--as I maintain it might well have--it seems unlikely there would have been a rise of Nazi Germany, nor would a revolution in Russia have likely occurred in 1917. Without a Bolshevik revolution in Russia, would the later events in Korea and Vietnam, the whole Cold War confrontation, likely have occurred?

    Granted, the thesis I propose here is entirely speculative--indeed it might well be argued that the whole argument is what logicians call a "slippery slope," yet I think it bears examination. Anyone who has studied the "Great War" in any significant depth comes away very quickly with the inescapable conclusion that World War I could easily have ended in a German/Austrian victory instead of one for the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, and joined only much later in the War, by the United States. What if Gen. Helmuth von Moltke had NOT sent extra divisions to the Russian front and had kept "the right wing strong" as Alfred von Schlieffen had envisioned? If those divisions had been available to Germany at the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, I would argue that the Germans would have taken Paris and knocked France entirely out of the war. Had that happened, I think it likely Britain--only lukewarm to the war in any event--would probably have pulled out, leaving Russia alone to face the full weight of the Wehrmacht in the East--with predictable results.

    USMC, you mentioned in another thread that you have an interest in this conflict. What say you?
  2. Millwright

    Millwright Well-Known Member

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    I can't disagree with your "continuation" theory, as any examination of the interregnum shows ample evidence the seeds of WW 2 were sown at Versailles. Certainly the reparations schedule did as much to advance the Bolshivick cause in Germany, as it did for the Nazi's later. Nor was America isolated from the 'Bolshi Influence' as several have termed it.

    There's a school of thought, had we, (the U.S.) held fast to our neutrality and let Hitler take his run at the Soviets, we could have negotiated much better terms with his successor. Without the complication of an USSR war machine hyped with its harvest of German/English/American technologies........>MW
  3. Marlin

    Marlin *TFF Admin Staff Chief Counselor*

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    Interesting conjecture, y' all.

    Pistol, I can't disagree with you but also am a believer that things occur in a very planned way, not haphazardly as many think.

    I won't get too deeply involved for reasons with which you are familiar..... Now would not be a good time to test my mantle since its been a rather rough last couple weeks. Don't know why but I don't want to push it.
  4. CampingJosh

    CampingJosh Well-Known Member

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    It's been a couple years since I've done much reading on this one... I think I'll brush up for a few days before jumping into the middle of this.
  5. Terry_P

    Terry_P New Member

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    I think there are a couple of things that really shaped the future to come. I have done some reading on the war. One book was entirely devoted to the 10 days preceeding the war and how the monarchies of europe with entangling alliances snowballed down the road to hell. It was quite interesting. Could Germany have won, with some of the giant missteps of the French possibly. The British showed their mettle in WWII so they may not have been quick to sue for peace. The subsequent entry of the US was by no means guaranteed but it's difficult for me to say Germany would have acted differently than it did to bring us in. With our entry the war for Germany was headed for defeat. All it would take is time and American resources.

    The couple of things I alluded to earlier happened after the war was over. The Treaty of Versailles, with it reparations, made Germany ripe for a Hitler to rise. He gave them pride and hope which are powerful forces of nationalism. The Allies were determined that Germany should not rise again and created an environment whereby the opposite effect was almost guaranteed. The second factor, and one that I am less committed to is the League of Nations was not ratified and hence nutured by the US. If this organization would have been stronger could it have changed the history to follow? To this I say meekly maybe. The abismal failure of the United Nations gives me pause to reply enthusiastically.
  6. USMC-03

    USMC-03 New Member

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    Great topic, Pistol, right up my alley. Spring break is officially over so I have a bit of time now.

    So, where to begin...

    As Pistol pointed out, I stated in an earlier thread that I have been studying the Great War for some time. My focus has been more on the soldiers than on the macro scale. I've mainly been interested in how they fought and how they survived, and concentrated on the AEF in particular and the 4th Marine Brigade in specific. Ok, so I'm biased…

    Pistol is right in that we don't hear much about the Great War these days because it has been overshadowed by more recent conflicts. Just about every family still has a grandfather or great-uncle that at least served during WW2, so there is something of a personal connection. There are very few WW1 vets left and the close connection is almost gone. In a way this is an advantage for historians who can now take a dispassionate look at the events of nearly a century ago and examine them with a critical eye.

    Pistol, I think you're also right that WW1 is the event that really shaped the modern world, much more than did WW2. I also agree that, had Germany been the victor, the Nazi Party would have never come to power. I disagree though that the Russian Revolution would not have taken place. The die had been cast, the Romanov's had been too unresponsive to a changing world and the Russian monarchy was doomed. I actually think that the war held off the Bolshevik Revolution with a short-lived wave of patriotism and support from the Russian people. The end result, however, was even more drastic as magnitude of the war turned the people against the ruling class than it may have been otherwise.

    Unlike WW2, the outcome of most WW1 battles and the war itself were never a given. Fortune played a significant role and anything could have really happened. Had the German commanders not blundered at the First Battle of the Marne as Pistol described, or the French been unable to take advantage of it, the war could have easily been over in 1914. The determining factor for the allies was that, as the war progressed, they were quicker to bring their way of thinking into the 20th century than were the Germans. Germany may have started the war with an edge on weapons and tactics, but they were not as adaptive as the allies in the long run.

    Terry P is right; it really was the entry of the U.S. that caused the German defeat. The 1918 spring offensive was launched with the idea of finishing France and Britain before American armies and material could be brought to bear. When the offensive failed, Germany was never able to recover.
  7. nightfighter

    nightfighter New Member

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    I watched a documentary on DVD from netflix a few months ago that went into much detail about WWI. I do not remember the name but it would be worth looking into for those who want a good account of the conflict. One of the things I got a kick out of was a quote by a German official: "Having the Austro-Hungarian Empire as an allie is like trying to fight while shackled to a dead man."
  8. lefty48

    lefty48 New Member

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    Interesting subject Pistol. Good analysis USMC. Yeah the Germans messed up. My dad took the Lusitania in 1912 as a baby. Too bad it got sunk. I was just reading about the guy who pulled the trigger. He got sunk in the North Sea a couple of years later.

    Mill: I disagree about "letting the Germans take their run" at the Soviets in WWII. My understanding is that when US got involved, they were already washed up on the Eastern Front and it was already becoming mostly a question of who was going to get to Berlin first. That was obviously one race the Soviets won.

    I tried to re-read "Guns of August" again recently after 20 years, but was disappointed that in the first 50 pages there wasn't a wider context for the story.

    I dimly remember Tuckman's book covering Europe of the 1890s was more to my taste (back when I still could taste) although she can spin a good yarn about history regardless of the subject matter.

    --
  9. You may well be right on that aspect, USMC. The Tsar and the Russian aristocracy simply couldn't see the forest for the trees. The uprising of 1905 never really sank in to them; they didn't realize that it was merely a symptom of a much larger problem. I suspect revolution might well have happened anyway, BUT--and this is a big BUT--I am not at all sure it would have been the Bolsheviks who won it, or even started it. The Reds won mostly by filling a vacuum after the abdication of the Tsar in 1917, and that occurred as a direct result of World War I and the Russian defeats by the Germans at Tannenberg and elsewhere on the eastern front. Had it not been for the war, a more moderate regime might well have emerged from the chaos.

    I could argue with that a bit, USMC. :D It was the Germans who first saw the effectiveness of the submarine and its use against merchant shipping as a means of defeating Britain; it was the Germans who first used poison gas as an effective weapon of war; and finally, it was the Germans who developed siege guns large enough to take out the Belgian forts around Liege and indeed the so-called "Paris Gun." They were, I think, innovative enough in comparison to the Allies. What they didn't have, and this proved critical, were two things: First, a large enough population to take on the powers allied against them; and second, they had no real means of confronting the blockade the Royal Navy imposed on German right from the outset. The Germans knew that to win, they must win quickly due to the potential forces arrayed against them. That was the whole basis of the Schlieffen Plan. German expected a war that would last 6 weeks to two months, not the war of attrition that actually developed. Germany's greatest problem during the war was simply acquiring enough raw materials to keep its army in the field. Foodstuffs especially went quickly into short supply, not to mention metals and other war materials. Toward the end of the war, Germany was melting down church bells to manufacture cartridge casings for their Mausers.;)

    The U.S. entry was indeed "the straw that broke the camel's back" in the end, but I think realistically, the U.S. entry only hastened the end; it was not the factor that wholly decided it. Germany "shot its wod" during the Ludendorff Offensive in the spring of 1918. As you suggest, when that failed, eventual capitulation became inevitable. Germany simply did not have the resources left in men or material to continue the war much past that time. Their armies were forced over onto the defensive, and defense never wins wars. It is true that both France and Britain were exhausted by 1918, but they still had sufficient forces available to have processed the war to a conclusion, albeit a much slower one than it would have been without the help of the U.S.
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 31, 2008
  10. USMC-03

    USMC-03 New Member

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    Agreed. In a sense Lenin came to power by accident; He was in the right place at the right time. Had Tsar Nicolas more time and resources, not to mention initiative, to combat the revolutionaries, the Bolshevik leadership may not have lived long enough to assume power.

    Correct, the Germans were very innovative technologically and especially with their manufacturing processes. German helmets were considered about twice as effective, not because of the shape or metallurgy, but because they developed a process to shape them at an even thickness, with no dangerous thin spots.

    I was mainly referring to their slower adaptation to maneuver warfare in 1917-18. After three years of stagnant front lines, quickly adapting to fluid battle situations was almost a lost art to European armies.

    Germany may have developed the Stoßtruppen doctrine, but the 1918 Spring Offensive was for the little more than an en mass charge to take Paris and on to the English Channel. When they hit the first real opposition in French colonial troops and the AEF's untested 2nd Division (thrown into the fray because the French army was either fighting for their lives or in full retreat) at Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood, the German army simply tried to plow through, and paid the price.

    The French and British were much quicker to readapt to maneuver warfare, I think in large part to General Pershing's insistence on maintaining that doctrine in the AEF and the example of American troops.

    After Russia made peace they the were equal to the task but including the U.S. you are correct.

    Correct on both counts.

    Correct again. German industry has always been at the cutting edge but natural resources lacking.

    Remember though, the Ludendorff Offensive nearly succeeded and had it done so "Black Jack" Pershing would have had essentially no place to martial and train the AEF.
  11. user

    user Active Member

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    I don't know. The idea of WWI being the watershed was well illustrated in "The Grand Illusion", but that shift in the socio-economic structure wasn't so profound, I thought, as the development of nationalism in Europe following the so-called Renaissance, which in my mind culminated in the Congress of Vienna, 1815. I thought that was the end of feudalism, it just didn't know it yet, and continued to kick for another century. And the trans-national, polyglot, nonterritorial state that is "The Holy Mother Church" hasn't given up, yet, so I'm not placing any bets on the outcome.
  12. lefty48

    lefty48 New Member

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    This shift in socio-economic structure was indeed very profound in WWI, an event which only came to a conclusion, maybe, in 1989. Read the epic novel of intellectual history, "The Magic Mountain" from about 1920, and you can see it was the utter and irrevocable collapse of the "old Europe."

    As for the "Holy Mother Church," despite it's profound history, I'd say for all intents and purposes, it's a dead letter in Europe.
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2008
  13. 17thfabn

    17thfabn New Member

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    World War I saw the first LARGE SCALE use of:

    Machine guns,

    Rapid Fire artillery, with improved high explosive shells.

    Gas warfare,

    Submarines,

    World War I was the first "modern war".

    Pistole, you ask if latter events would have happened with out World War I. I think of the 'Butterfly Effect". Change one thing, and the ripple effects are felt through out history. If World War I had not occured in 1914 would the pressures that caused it just have bubbled over in 1918 instead?

    If World War I started in 1918 it would be the same time the Spanish Flu broke out. If the opening days of the war were accompanied by the out break of a pandemic that hit military age people especialy hard how would that have effected history?
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2008
  14. I tend to agree, 17th. In my mind, the First World War was essentially inevitable given the European political context in the early 20th century. Had it not broken out in 1914, I do believe it would have happened soon thereafter. My speculation though, was focused more on what the world would have been like had the Germans won instead of the Allies, a distinct possibility if only a few things had happened differently.

    As for the Spanish Flu pandemic you mention, you must remember that the primary reason it became so widespread--and so deadly--was because it was so widely spread by troops returning home at the end of the war all over the world. Of course, the flu might have happened anyway even without the vector of returning troops, but I doubt it would have reached the pandemic levels that it did.
  15. 17thfabn

    17thfabn New Member

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    Pistole, I've also seen the theory that the allies were on the verge of total collapse, and the timely arrival of the Americans saved the day. How much of a differnce did the arrival of the U.S. Army + 1 brigade of U.S. Marines make in blunting the German spring offensive of 1918?

    I have always been somwhat confused by the events that led the U.S. to declair war. The Lusitania was sunk in 1915, and is listed as one of the main causes of the U.S. entry into the war. But the U.S. didn't declair war until 1917. The "Zimmerman telegram" seems to have had more of an effect.
  16. Actually, 17th, the Ludendorff Offensive in the spring of 1918 was launched before the Americans truly got into the fray. The Germans launched their offensive on March 21, 1918; the U.S. declared war April 23, 1917, but we were by no means ready for war. Our military was small and very under equipped, and still had to be transported across the Atlantic and trained to fight the kind of war going on there. While a few troops were sent earlier, mostly as a token, real US power did not get to Europe and make ready to fight until the summer of 1918 Indeed, the basic reason the offensive was launched at all--desperate gamble that it clearly was from the German perspective--was because it had become clear that the Americans were very likely to declare war and the Germans could see that if they did, the balance would be tipped decisively in the Allies' favor within a few months. Their only hope for victory was to force a conclusion before America could become decisively involved. Where the involvement of the US become important was that it made possible the Allied counteroffensive that followed in the summer and fall of 1918.

    President Wilson was essentially a pacifist 17th, that's part of it. In addition though, during the earlier stages of the war American opinion did not strongly favor the Allied side as many believe today. There was (and still is) a large German and Austrian population in the US, not to mention an strong Irish contingent, and they generally favored the German side of the conflict. In addition, many Americans considered the war in Europe to be none of America's affair, a purely European conflict in which we had no interest or business. Another factor, not often considered, is that the US in the early years of the war was making money hand over fist selling munitions and foodstuffs to both sides. Why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? I've always believed that had the Germans not acted so very stupidly by threatening American shipping and commercial interests with their submarine campaign, and then later, by that absurd telegram to Mexico sent by the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann in March 1918, the US might well have stayed neutral. Had that occurred, I think the conflict could still have ended in a German victory.
  17. USMC-03

    USMC-03 New Member

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    17th, the usual analogy is that The Great War was fought with 20th Century weapons and 18th century tactics. I think this sums it up very well.

    Pistol is right. Just a brief examination of the events of 1914, after the assignation of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, shows how the European nations had really set the stage to let a major war quickly go out of control.

    June 28 Archduke Ferdinand assonated.
    July 23 Austria issues a set of punitive demands to Serbia.
    July 27 Serbia agrees to all but one demand, and asks for mediation on that.
    July 28 Austria declares war.
    July 31 Russia mobilizes to aid Serbia but plans do not allow a limited deployment and Russian troops take position on the German border as well as in the south.
    August 1 Using the Russian mobilization as just cause, Germany declares war on Russian
    August 3 Because the German war plans call for a for an attack against France at the same time as an invasion of Russia, Germany declares war against France.
    August 4 Germany violates Belgium's neutrality as a path of least resistance into France and the British Empire Declares war on Germany.

    The dominoes had been set for some time, all that was needed was a slight push.


    The AEF units that saw the most action during the spring of 1918 were the 1st Infantry Division, made up of experienced Army regulars, the 2nd Infantry Division, with Army regulars and the 4th Marine Brigade, and the 42nd Infantry (Rainbow) Division, made up of National Guard units from numerous states.

    Exactly right. I would only ad that the Meuse-Argonne Offensive would not have been successful if France and Brittan had prevailed in having the AEF broken up and U.S. troops used as replacements for their units. General Pershing was the one who stood firm against this plan and slowly built the AEF into a separate American army.

    That may be Pistol, but he certainly had little qualms about using Gun Boat Diplomacy when it served his needs. Wilson's campaign slogan of 1916 was "He kept us out of war." At the same time the U.S. Cavalry was chasing Pancho Villa on his orders and in 1914 the American naval forces had occupied Veracruz. Both of these expeditions were called for and served as wonderful preparation for the cadre and senior commanders of the AEF and Atlantic Fleet, but certainly sent a mixed signals when contrasted with Wilson's neutrality rhetoric.
  18. 17thfabn

    17thfabn New Member

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    USMC-03, wasn't the Marine Brigade paired with an Army Brigade to form a Division?

    One of the biggest winners in World War I was Japan. They declared war on Germany on 23 August 1914. They quickly seized German held islands in the Pacific, and expanded their areas of control in China. While suffering minimal casualties they made great gains. The islands they seized from Germany would be key out posts of Japan in World War II.
  19. USMC-03

    USMC-03 New Member

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    Yes it was. The 3rd Infantry Brigade, which consisted of the 9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments, was paired with the 4th Marine Brigade, composed of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments.

    The first combat units to reach France, 1st, 2nd, 26th and 42nd Divisions were made up of what regular Army and National Guard units that could be scraped together. At the beginning of the war the Marine Corps was basically organized into small ship's detachments and security companies for naval installations and could only field a brigade of regulars for the initial deployment. By the time enough marines could be trained, organized into a division and blessings given by the powers that be, the war was over.

    Here is a link to an excellent article on the subject by Maj. Richard Culver:
    http://www.bobrohrer.com/sea_stories/legacy_to_the_marines.pdf

    As a side note, the Great War saw the only two times that an Army division was commanded by Marine Corps officers. Brigadier General Charles A. Doyen and Major General John A. Lejeune both commanded the 2nd Infantry Division. Doyen for less than one month in the fall of 1917 before poor health forced his return to the U.S. (he died a year later). Legeune commanded the division from July 1918 until August 1919, when it was deactivated, and went on to be Commandant of the Marine Corps.
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2008
  20. Your point is well taken, USMC. Wilson indeed had few qualms about using force in the Western Hemisphere when it suited his purpose. With regard to Mexico though, it should be remembered that Wilson had a strong personal distaste for the Mexican president of that time, Victoriano Huerta, whom he saw as both petty dictator and a threat to US interests in Mexico. It does seem clear, however, that Wilson strongly believed the US should stay out of the European war and did everything in his power to maintain neutrality right up until 1917. Even after the sinking of the Lusitania and the Sussex by German submarines, Wilson did not call for war, even though the majority in the US would likely have supported it. It seems almost comical today, but much of the reason the US population turned against Germany was because they view its use of submarines as "unfair" or "ungentlemanly," while at the same time thousands were dying daily in the trenches of northern France.
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