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Stupefying Ground War, to December 1916

On 23 August 1914, Japan joined their ally Britain in declaring war on Germany, and it sent a force of 30,000 men to overrun the Germans on China's Shandong province. Also entering the war on the side of Britain were Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Turkey's leader, Enver Pasha, viewed war among the European powers as an opportunity to take back Islamic lands that decades before had been absorbed by the Russian Empire. He hoped to reinvigorate the Ottoman Empire and feared that if Britain, France and Russia won the war they might deprive the empire of more of its territory. So he gambled and chose to take the empire into the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. France and Britain declared war on the Turks on November 5, and Britain found this an opportune time to annex Cyprus and Egypt – lands that had been nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire while being administered by the British. The Turks closed the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, preventing Russia from exporting its wheat or receiving shipments of materials from its allies. Britain moved a military force up the Persian Gulf to Iraq to protect its oil wells and began engaging Turkish forces. The Turks began an assault into Russia's Caucasus Mountains, led by Enver Pasha himself, an offensive that the Russians would smash in a five-day battle end on January 3. Of the 95,000 men in Turkey's force, only 18,000 returned – about 50,000 of them having frozen to death. The Turks blamed the failure on the treason of Armenians, soon to be massacred.

Meanwhile, some in Italy wanted their country to gain territory at the expense of Austria-Hungary or perhaps the Ottoman Empire. In a treaty signed in London in April, Italy was promised Tyrol, Trieste, northern Dalmatia and numerous islands in along Austria's Adriatic coast, and Italy was promised a share of what today is Turkey. In agreeing to join the war, Italy was promised loans, and Italy was supposed to pressure the Pope into refraining from making peace initiatives.

Also in April, the British began their invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli – a force that included troops from New Zealand, Australia, India, and Newfoundland. A landing was made, but a second wave of invaders was sent in August. Stalemate continued, and in December the British directed forces withdrew. They had suffered 219,000 wounded and approximately 46,000 killed.

In 1915 on French territory against the Germans, French, British and colonial troops from India tried to break through the German line. For the year, the French suffered 1.9 million casualties and the British about a million, with no ground having been gained. Where they broke through the German line, counterattacks had quickly driven them back and plugged the breach.

While the Germans were holding to defensive warfare in France, they joined Austria-Hungary in chasing the Russians eastward from Lithuania and Poland. A huge army of refugees moved ahead of the advancing Germans. In Lithuania, Jews had been accused of supporting Germany and waiting for the arrival of German troops, and there had been widespread looting of Jewish shops and homes.

The retreating Russians burned crops, killed cattle and left their wounded without medical attention. They still suffered from shortages of supplies, including boots and ammunition. Only a third of its infantry had rifles. Hygiene among the Russians was low, and typhus and cholera spread wherever the Russian soldiers went. By the end of September the Germans were in possession of the Russian empire's frontier fortresses.

Russia's plan to help their Serb brothers – stimulating a wider war – was not working well. Without Russia's help, in late 1914 the Serbs had driven the Habsburg forces back across their border – after frustrated Habsburg forces had rounded up and shot male civilians, massacred children and raped women at the town of Šabac, and they had rounded up 150 peasants from the town of Lesnica and shot them.

In early October 1915, Bulgaria entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, with Germany having promising Bulgaria land at the expense of their old territorial rival in the 1913 war, Serbia. Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia again and their troops made it to Belgrade. Then the Serbs counterattacked and again drove the invaders back across their border.

For the year 1916, Britain, France, Italy and Russia assumed that their combined offensives would overwhelm the Germans. The Germans lured the French to fight at a dangerous place, a narrow salient at Verdun, with only symbolic significance. The German strategy was to inflict mass casualties on the French rather than to win ground. Public opinion in France followed the German initiative and pressured political leadership to fight there. The French began their Verdun offensive in February and it was to last until December. The German public demanded a more aggressive effort at Verdun, and German forces left what as supposed to be a defensive strategy and went on the offensive, led by the son of Kaiser Wilhelm, Crown Prince Wilhelm, who was eager for glory. The Battle of Verdun ended on 20 December. Artillery fire and rain had turned the area into a wasteland of mud full and dead bodies and forests turned the clay of the area to a wasteland of mud full of human remains. Shell craters became filled with a liquid ooze, becoming so slippery that troops who fell into them or took cover in them could drown. Forests were reduced to tangled piles of wood by constant artillery-fire and eventually obliterated into piles of wood. The French suffered 156,000 to162,000 killed). Some were shot for desertion or refusing to fight. That Germans lost 143,000 killed.

The Italian offensive began in the month of March and lasted through the year, the Italians losing 147,000 men and Austria-Hungary 81,000.

The French and British began an offensive in July, to be known as the Battle of the Somme. The British lost 60,000 men on the first day. it was too much for the British and French commanders to admit their error in judgment. They continued the fighting to mid-November. But with their artillery they managed to kill a lot of Germans. The British, according to Britannica, lost 420,000 men, the French 195,000 and the Germans roughly 650,000. The Battle of the Somme was to be described as one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

A Russians offensive in June, timed to partner with the offensive at the Somme, was another failure. It is named after the Russian commander, Brusilov, and took place in what today is Western Ukraine and lasted into September. (In 2014, President Vladimir Putin would describe it as a reason for Russian pride.) The Russians did drive the Austro-Hungarian forces back fifty miles. They wrecked the Habsburg army, the Germans felt compelled to send troops that were facing the French to face the Russians, and Austria-Hungary's total casualties (wounded, prisoners, killed) has been estimated at 1,325,000. But Russia's casualties according to Wikipedia, drawing from Russian sources, were 440,000 dead or wounded and 60,000 lost as prisoners. And Russia's drive for victory was actually taking Russia to revolution and collapse just a few months away. Russia was being drained, and the tsar's regime would not make it through the coming winter.


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