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Mindsets against Negotiation, to January 1915

France's military had its idea as to how the next war should be fought. A commander-in-chief designate, Victor Michel, had anticipated that Germany's drive against France would come through the lowlands of Belgium, and he had advocated taking defensive positions against the Germans, but he would be ostracized and demoted. A rival view among France's generals prevailed – that the best defense was an offense, that victory would be achieved by fighting spirit that went with offensives, and this included putting aside machine guns because, they believed, machine guns were defensive weapons. They were opposed to discontinuing the use of the army's red trousers and blue jackets, colors they thought that matched the army's élan and glory. Also they believed that Russia's vast army – the "Russian steamroller" – would provide effective help.

France's offensive began on August 12, the French generals believing their five armies were going all the way to Berlin. Russian armies had entered Germany on the 17th. The Germans met the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg on German soil beginning on the 23rd. Also by the 23rd Germany's armies had just made it through Belgium to the French border and were fighting the French and British in the Ardennes forest. And by August 23 the Germans had broken the French offensive, which had advance no more than 50 kilometers into Lorraine. The Germans were driving the French back, the French already having suffered about 200,000 wounded and 100,000 dead. In the Ardennes, confident young German soldiers, cheering on their way to war and bragging that they would soon be eating British beefsteak, could be heard moaning and crying from their mothers as they lay wounded and unattended during the night.

Germany's offensive into France was following the old tactic of finding an enemy force to defeat, and it swung southward short of Paris. The German troops were exhausted after weeks of marching. Gaps appeared in the German positions. Regrouped French and British forces south of Paris counterattacked in what became known as the Battle of the Marne, between September 5 and 12th. In those seven days the British and French are said to have suffered 263,000 casualties including 81,700 killed, and the Germans 263,000 casualties. The tired German soldiers were driven back, the British and French finding holes in their line. The Germans dug in. in October, the French armies were unable to penetrate Germany's new defensive positions. The Germans, in turn, were unable to punch through or sweep around the French and British. Defensive warfare's superiority warfare was manifesting its superiority.

The war had not ended by autumn as Germany's military planners had anticipated. By mid-November a line of trenches and barbed wire stretched from the English Channel, in Belgium south to Swiss border. Sticking to the defensive warfare would have served the Germans well. There would have been no march through Belgium, maybe no British entry into the war or US entry into the war in 1917, and fewer German casualties.

Having failed to achieve the early victory they thought was theirs, and seeing the strength of defensive warfare, the Germans might have chosen to bargain with the British, French and Belgians, agreeing to pull itself to defensive positions at its own border.

Germany's chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, wanted a negotiated settlement and the Kaiser was depressed and favored peace. But the same nationalistic fervor and chauvinism that had messed up German diplomacy years before had been intensified by the war. Public opinion, the press and Germany's military high command were opposed to what they called a rotten peace – a compromise settlement. They believed that German superiority would prevail. The German public favored war until the fatherland won a peace that offered it lasting protection against its enemies and a peace that justified the nearly 300,000 German soldiers that had already been killed.

Some German strategists preferred a separate peace with France, splitting France from the British, but the French were determined to drive the Germans from their soil, and Bethmann-Hollweg, under pressure from people around him and public opinion, was unwilling to negotiate a withdrawal of German troops from France or Belgium.

Negotiations that German strategists remained interested in were the kind that had an appearance of victory. Germany's plan for 1915 was to stay on the defensive in the West while trying to knock the Russians out of the war, hoping that Britain and France would then be more inclined to negotiate a peace to Germany's favor. victory

The British, meanwhile, believed that the war should be fought to total victory for their side. Like the Germans, they wanted the sacrifices that had already been made to account for something. From the British government came word that there could be no peace until German militarism was destroyed and Belgium restored. The British planned for ground offensives in 1915, believing the public opinion would accept nothing less. A member of Britain's admiralty, Winston Churchill, looked on and in a secret memo predicted that the war would be ended "by the exhaustion of nations rather than the victory of armies."

Russia was also sticking to war despite military failures in 1914. For Tsar Nicholas, to admit failure, cut his losses and negotiate a settlement with Germany was unthinkable. With enemy troops now inside his empire, he was determined to keep his recent vow to fight until the invader was driven back. Nicholas still expected benefits from the war. He had seen nothing of the conditions at the front. His contact with his armies to this time had been on parade grounds, where he had been impressed by their splendid appearance. He didn't know he had chosen a path that would end in revolution against his rule.

CONTINUE READING: Stupifying Ground War, to December 1916

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.