France's commander-in-chief designate, Victor Michel, had advocated fighting the Germans from defensive positions, but he was ostracized and demoted. France's military command believed that the best defense was an offense, that victory would be achieved by the fighting spirit that went with offensives, and this included putting aside machine guns because machine guns were defensive weapons. The military command was opposed to discontinuing the use of the army's red trousers and blue jackets, colors it thought matched the army's élan and glory. And it believed that Russia's vast army — the "Russian steamroller" — would provide the French army with effective help.
France's offensive began on August 12, 1914, with the high command believing France's five armies were going all the way to Berlin. Russian armies crossed into 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 — where wounded German soldiers (who had been cheering on their way to war) could now be heard moaning and crying from their mothers. But by August 23 the German 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Armies had broken the French offensive which had advanced no more than 50 kilometers into Lorraine (south of Belgium and Luxembourg). And the Germans were driving the French back, Germany's machine guns having contributed to France's loss already of approximately 200,000 wounded and 100,000 dead.
Germany's offensive into France was following the old tactic of finding an enemy force to defeat, and going after that force the German offensive 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 12. 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 stopped and 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 positions. Defensive warfare was demonstrating its superiority over offensives.
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. Choosing defensive warfare would have served the Germans well. There would have been no march through Belgium, and in addition to their victories against the Russians at Tannenberg there might have been no British entry into the war in 1914 or US entry into the war in 1917, and fewer German casualties.
Having failed to achieve the early victory, the Germans could have tried negotiations. Germany's chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, wanted a negotiated settlement. The Kaiser was depressed by events and favored peace. Seeing the strength of defensive warfare, the Germans could have to offered to pull back to defensive positions at its own border in exchange for a reasonable response. But the same nationalistic fervor and chauvinism that had distorted 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 — in other words, 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. They were ready to sacrifice more German young men to justify the thousands already 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 interested German strategists were the kind that would produce an appearance of military victory.
German strategists planned to stay on the defensive in the West in 1915 while trying to knock the Russians out of the war, hoping that Britain and France would then be more inclined to negotiate a peace in Germany's favor. 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 the Germans were out of Belgium and until German militarism was destroyed (whatever that meant). Britain's military still believed in offensives and for 1915 planned for ground offensives, thinking the public would accept nothing less. A member of Britain's admiralty, Winston Churchill, 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 its military failures in 1914. For Tsar Nicholas to admit failure, to cut his losses and negotiate a settlement with Germany, was unthinkable. With enemy troops now inside his empire, he was determined to keep his vow to fight on to victory. Nicholas clung to an illusion of expected benefits from the war. He had seen nothing of the conditions at the front. His contact with his armies until now had been on parade grounds where he had been impressed by their splendid appearance.
CONTINUE READING: Stupifying Ground War, to December 1916
Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.