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The Guns of August Previous Next
Digital History ID 3474


Faced by Russia to its east and France to its west, Germany believed that its only hope for victory was to strike first. The German military had formulated a blueprint (known as the Schlieffen Plan) for victory in Western Europe in 42 days, before the Russians would have time to advance from the east. The plan called for a preemptive strike at France through Belgium.

Germany's plan involved a violation of international law. Belgium was a neutral country and Britain was committed to its defense. Thus, a German invasion was certain to bring Britain into the war. Germany asked for permission to move its troops through Belgium, but King Albert, the country's monarch, refused, saying, "Belgium is a nation, not a road." Germany decided to press ahead anyway; its forces invaded Belgium on August 3.

The German military strategy worked better on paper than it did in practice. While fierce resistance by 200,000 Belgian soldiers did not stop the German advance, it did give Britain and France time to mobilize their forces. Meanwhile, Russia mobilized faster than expected, forcing Germany to divert 100,000 troops to the eastern front. German hopes for a quick victory were dashed at the first battle of the Marne in September 1914, when a retreating French army launched a powerful counter-attack, assisted by 6,000 troops transported to the front by 1,200 Parisian taxicabs.

After the Allies halted Germany's massive offensive through France and Belgium at the Marne River, the Great War bogged down into trench warfare and a ghastly stalemate ensued. Lines of men, stretching from the English Channel to the Swiss border, formed an unmovable battle front across northern France. Four million troops burrowed into trenches that were 6-to-8 feet deep and wide enough for two men to pass each other. The trenches stretched for 450 miles. The soldiers were ravaged by tuberculosis and plagued with lice and rats. They stared at each other across barren expanses called "no-man's land" and fought pitched battles over narrow strips of blood-soaked earth.

To end the stalemate, Germany introduced several military innovations in 1915. But none proved decisive. Germany dispatched submarines to prevent merchant ships from reaching Britain; it added poison chlorine gas to its military arsenal at the second battle of Ypres in northern France; and it dropped incendiary bombs over London from a zeppelin. Airplanes, tanks, and hand grenades were other innovations that distinguished World War I from previous conflicts. But the machine gun did most of the killing, firing eight bullets per second.

In a fateful attempt to break the deadlock, German forces adopted a new objective in 1916: to kill so many French soldiers that France would be forced to sue for peace. The German plan was to attack the French city of Verdun, a psychologically important town in northeastern France, and to bleed the French dry. The battle--the war's longest--lasted from February 21, 1916 through July. The battle also engaged two million soldiers. When it ended, Verdun had become a symbol of wartime futility. France had suffered 315,000 casualties, Germany 280,000. The town was destroyed; however, the front had not moved.

At the Somme River, a hundred miles northwest of Verdun, the British launched an assault in July 1916. When it was over in October, one million men on both sides had died.

With fighting on the western front deadlocked, action spread to other arenas. A British soldier and writer named T.H. Lawrence (better known as "Lawrence of Arabia"), organized revolts against the Ottoman territories in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula. With Germany preoccupied in Europe, Japanese and British Commonwealth forces seized German islands in the Pacific, while British forces conquered German colonies in Africa.

The military stalemate produced political turmoil across Europe. On Easter Monday, 1916, some 1,500 Irish Catholics seized buildings in Dublin and declared Ireland an independent republic. Fighting raged for a week before British forces suppressed the rebellion. British reprisals created great sympathy for the rebels. A two-year guerrilla war followed, which reached a climax in November 1920 when British troops fired at a soccer crowd, killing a dozen people--an event that became known as "Bloody Sunday." In 1921, Britain was forced to agree to the creation of a self-governing Irish Free State.

In Czarist Russia, wartime casualties, popular discontent, and shortages of food, fuel, and housing touched off revolution and civil war. In March 1917, strikes and food riots erupted in the Russian capital of Petrograd. Soldiers called in to quell the strikes joined the uprising; and on March 15, Czar Nicholas II abdicated. The czarist regime was replaced by a succession of weak provisional governments, which tried to keep Russia in World War I. On November 7, communist Bolsheviks led by V.I. Lenin overthrew the provisional government. Lenin promised "Peace to the army, land to the peasants, ownership of the factories to the workers."

In 1917, after two-and-a-half years of fighting, 5 million troops were dead and the western front remained deadlocked. This was the grim situation that awaited the United States.

Germany was desperate to break the stalemate and to end the war of attrition. In January 1917, they launched unrestricted submarine warfare, hoping to cripple the British economy. German subs sank a half million tons of Allied shipping each month, leaving Britain with only a six week supply of grain. But these German U-boats risked bringing the United States into the war.

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