The German Chief of Staff, Field Marshal von Moltke the Younger was replaced by his rival FM Erich von Falkenhayn after the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in the autumn of 1914. In 1915, von Falkenhayn chose to solidify the trench lines stretching from the Swiss border to the North Sea and focus on defeating the Russians. After vast gains in the East that year, von Falkenhayn decided to focus back on the West and defeat the French in 1916.
His plan was to “bleed the French white” in a battle of attrition for the emotionally significant city of Verdun. Von Falkenhayn knew the French would never allow the Germans to keep Verdun, so he planned to destroy the counterattacking French with a concentration of artillery unseen in history. Moreover, the terrain around Verdun favored the Germans: the area was littered with natural choke points that could be exploited. The most significant being the single road the French had to use to supply their armies, and the location of Verdun on the east bank of the Meuse river, forcing the French to rely on just seven bridges, all within range of German artillery. Finally the French forts protecting the city, robust and built after the French loss in 1870, were criminally undermanned after being stripped for fighting in Flanders the year before. The centerpiece of which were the massive twin forts of Vaux and Douaumont.
At 0715, 21 February 1916, Unternehmen Gericht (Operation Execution Place) began with a 10-hour artillery bombardment by 808 guns. The German artillery fired over a million shells along a front just 19 miles long by 3 miles wide. Twenty-six super-heavy, long-range guns, up to 420 mm (16.5 in), fired on the forts and the city of Verdun; a rumble could be heard 99 miles away. The bombardment was paused at midday, as a ruse to prompt French survivors to reveal themselves. The main German attack was launched that afternoon. The Germans used flamethrowers for the first time and the infantry followed closely with rifles slung, to use hand grenades to kill the remaining defenders. The battle would eventually last ten months and cause almost a million casualties on both sides throughout the year.
1916 was one of those seminal years in Western history, comparing only to 440 BCE, 34 CE, 410, 843, 1066, 1096, 1492, 1648, and 1776. It can be argued (convincingly imo) that the culmination of 2500 years of recorded history occurred at the Battle of Verdun, and it’s two incestuous offspring: the Battle of the Somme and Brusilov’s Offensive. These battles pitted the four great Christian, rational, progressive, technologically advanced (all by the standards of the time) Westphalian states in an irrational, emotionally driven, nationalist, suicidal, industrial slaughter the effects of which our great great great grandchildren will still deal with.
Everything before Verdun led to it, and everything after Verdun was because of it. If Western civilization continues its slow slide back into barbarism, historians in the far distant future will look at 0715, 21 February 1916, as the moment the descent began.
On 10 February 1906, HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first modern battleship, was launched. The Dreadnought was a revolution in military affairs so rarely seen in history. The moment the Dreadnought slid into Portsmouth Harbor, every fighting ship in the world was immediately obsolete. Upon learning of it, US President Theodore Roosevelt sent America’s battle fleet, “The Great White Fleet” (because it was painted white, you bigot) to circumnavigate the world ostensibly to show America’s global commitment. But in reality because America’s pre-dreadnought battleships were no better than scrap metal in an actual fight, and only useful for showing the flag against colonies and nations whose resident professional naval personnel were ignorant of the new paradigm in naval warfare. It’s telling that the Great White Fleet only made one stop in Europe, Gibraltar.
At the turn of the century, naval battles were characterized by slow battleships initially firing at long range by a small amount of big guns in order to damage the enemy enough to put him out of position. Then the object was to close the range so many more smaller guns with higher rates of fires could do the killing damage. Advances in metallurgy meant the smaller guns had to get closer to penetrate. And the larger guns’ splashes couldn’t be identified among smaller guns’ splashes making correction difficult and marginalizing the bigger guns at close ranges. In any case, the widespread use of the torpedo in destroyers and cruisers kept distances long (in order give the ships time to avoid them). By the Russo-Japanese War, long distance gunnery reigned supreme and the first combatant to gain position usually won (as seen clearly in the Battle of Tsuchima).
The HMS Dreadnought was the first ship built specifically to these new realities. She had a uniform battery of ten 12” guns in five turrets and forewent the medium range 6” and 8” guns of her predecessors. She was the first ship with steam turbines which nearly doubled her speed. She had the latest fire control, and her armor was impenetrable to all but the largest guns and torpedoes of the day. (Shit quality steel was used in passenger liners… like the Titanic.)
The HMS Dreadnought was as fast as a cruiser, had as many torpedoes as a small destroyer squadron, had the long range fire power of five pre-dreadnought battleships, and the armor of Cthulhu. She set off a naval arms race across the world that wouldn’t slow down until after the First World War.
On 6 September, 1915, the prototype British Mark I Tank rolled off the assembly line. “Little Willie” was 14 tons, underpowered, routinely overheated, and couldn’t traverse a trench: its raison d’etre. Even though Littlle Willie was a far cry from the Battlefield Dominating, Fire Breathing Iron Leviathans we have today, he would eventually evolve into the British Mark IV tank that made its debut a year later on the battlefields of the First World War.
At the end of the First World War, three great empires collapsed in Eastern Europe: Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Imperial Russia. Out of that chaos, two states, of many, arose: the Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was born in the “Red” October Revolution of 1917 sparked by the initially successful then disastrous Brusilov campaign of 1916. By 1918, Russia was out of the war, and locked in its own brutal civil war between the Anti Bolshevik or “White” armies, and the Bolshevik Socialist i.e. Communist, “Red” armies. In 1919, Vladimir Lenin’s victorious Red Army invaded the newly independent Republic of Poland, formed from the pieces of the Central Powers at the end of World War One. Lenin’s intent was to spread the Communist International (COMINTERN) to a defeated Germany, which was ripe for Communist revolution.
The Polish-Soviet War was the last of an era, with the first glimpses of the next. Trenches, inexperienced peasant militias, armored trains, massed artillery barrages and vast sweeping maneuvers by hordes of lance and saber wielding cavalry coexisted with airplanes, tanks, armored cars, motorized infantry, and highly experienced professional soldiers. By mid-1920, the Red Army, under the brilliant 27 year old Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, was poised for a final offensive to capture Warsaw. Warsaw’s fall would end the war and allow Tuchachevsky a clear path to Berlin. Standing in his way was the massively outnumbered remainder of the Polish Army under Marshal Josef Pilsudski.
The advancing Red Army had five million men, Pilsudski had but one million under arms.
Pilsudski knew that his forces could not win in a protracted attritional fight: the Soviets were too many. Only a bold counterattack could disrupt the Bolshevik offensive. Pilsudski planned to make a stand along the Vistula River with Josef Haller’s “Blue Army” reinforced by almost the entire population of Warsaw. The “Blue Army” was named so because they were Poles whom fought for France in the First World War and wore old blue French uniforms. Among the Blue Army was a division of Polish-American volunteers recruited from recent immigrants to the United States. Pilsudski’s plan was for Haller to fix Tuchachevsky in front of Warsaw, as the Red cavalry to the north of the city inevitably took the path of least resistance and raced west on the North German Plain. General Wladyslaw Sikorski’s Fifth Army held the shoulder. Below the city to the south, Pilsudski secretly organized a 20,000 strong “Strike Force” under Gen Edward Smygly-Rydz, for the counterattack.
On 12 August 1920, Tuchachevsky arrogantly launched his armies directly at Warsaw. Despite bitter hand to hand fighting in the trenches against overwhelming odds, and much to the surprise of the French and British observers, Haller held the Wkra/Vistula River lines. The Soviet Cossacks and cavalry raced west as expected, which caused great panic, but they completely overextended themselves. Even worse for the Soviets, the Red cavalry victoriously galloped further away from the important battle in front of Warsaw.
On 14 August, Sikorski counterattacked north of city (in probably the first use of “blitzkrieg” style combined arms breakthrough tactics), cutting off the cavalry to the west and occupying Tuchachevsky’s reserves. Two days later, Pilsudski launched his coup d’eclat – Smigly-Rydz’s cavalry, tanks, and armored cars tore into the Soviet flank, as they were occupied fighting for the city and containing Sikorski. The Polish counterattack threw the Red Army into chaos. Unleashing his division commanders to operate independently in the breakout, the Poles tore deep into the Soviet rear areas. They captured the vital fortress city Brest-Litovsk, 70 miles behind the lines. In order to prevent the complete encirclement and destruction of the Red Army, Tuchachevsky ordered a general retreat. As the Communists withdrew, Pilsudski ordered a general offensive, but it was superfluous: Haller, Sikorski, and the population of Warsaw had already surged forward. The Communist retreat turned into a rout on 18 August.
The COMINTERN was stopped at the Polish border and the Red Army, with its commissars and secret police, wouldn’t advance that far west for another 25 years. The Miracle on the Vistula spared vulnerable western and central Europe, severely weakened by four years of the First World War, from Communism, an ideology so heinous that it is responsible for 150,000,000 deaths and untold suffering by billions.
Had the Poles failed at the gates of Warsaw in August of 1920, we would be living in a different, and darker, world today.
“For our freedom and yours” – The motto of Polish revolutionaries and unofficial motto of Poland
In 1915, the British Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany began to have an effect. In response, the Germans attempted to blockade the British Isles with submarines. Previously, German U Boats would surface, stop a target ship, board it, search it, and if it was carrying war materials, allow the crew and passengers to abandon ship. This was known as “Prize Rules” or “Cruiser Rules”. However in the spring of 1915, Germany dropped the traditional Prize Rules, and began unrestricted submarine warfare. U Boat captains no longer had to warn or search their targets beforehand. They could just approach stealthily and fore a torpedo. Furthermore, neutral ships were no longer off limits. Any ships near the British Isles were fair game.
In early May 1915, the passenger liner RMS Lusitania was on her way from New York to Liverpool with 1,952 civilian passengers on board, including 197 Americans, and was secretly transporting munitions for the British war effort. However, her captain, William Turner, did not believe the U Boat threat was serious. The Lusitania didn’t need any escorts because she was fast enough to outrun any U boats, but Turner had only three of his four boiler rooms working to save coal which reduced his speed. He also didn’t zig zag because he felt it was a waste of time. Finally, he neither checked reports of recent U Boat activity in his area, nor avoided their traditional hunting grounds. The stage was set for a disaster.
On the morning of 7 May, U-20 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Walter Schweiger spotted the Lusitania off of the coast of Ireland. He fired a single torpedo which struck the Lusitania’s starboard side. The Lusitania sank in just eighteen minutes and 1198 passengers died, including 128 Americans. It was the second largest loss of life at sea up to that time, behind only the Titanic which struck an iceberg three years before.
In 1915, America was not participating in the Great War and had no plans to. The prevailing mood among Americans was that this war was no different than the many small continental wars that occurred over the last 50 years in Europe, like the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Furthermore, the largest immigrant group in America at the time was German, and although slim, there was still the possibility that America would join the Great War on the side of Germany. More likely though, their immense political pull would keep America out of the war altogether. They left Germany to escape the continental feuding not get involved in it. The sinking of the Lusitania changed all of that.
International opinion, particularly American opinion, turned irrevocably against Germany after the Lusitania was sunk. Unrestricted submarine warfare kept the Great War on the front pages of American newspapers. As long as Germany continued unrestricted submarine warfare, it was not a matter of if America would join the war, but when.
On 24 April 1915, Muslim Turkish authorities of the Ottoman Empire detained 250 Christian Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in the Ottoman capital Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Although there had been many massacres of Armenians in the past, 24 April saw the start of a systematic, well planned, and state sponsored scheme to remove Christians, mostly Armenian, and to a lesser extent Greek and Assyrian, from the Ottoman Empire.
The Armenian Genocide was done under the pretext that they formed a fifth column inside the country after the Ottoman Empire joined the side of German and Austria-Hungary in the First World War. 1.5 million Armenians were murdered or starved to death over the next five years, but most in 1915. The US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, extensively documented the genocide, and routinely called it “race extermination”
Thirty years later, Hitler used the world’s non-reaction to the Armenian Genocide to move ahead with his Final Solution of the Jews and other undesirables.
In 1814, the British East Company invaded the aggressive Gorkha Kingdom of Nepal in order to prevent them from distracting the Company from their expansion into the Kingdom of Marathas. During the hard fought Anglo-Nepalese War, the British recognized that their best irregular troops were the wielders of the distinctive inwardly curved knife, the khukuri, whom were actually deserters from the Gorkha Army.
Impressed by their loyalty, courage, stoicism, resilience, and military efficacy, the British formed the Gorkhas into the First Nusseree Battalion on 24 April 1815. By the end of the war (which was fought to stalemate) there was an entire regiment of Gorkhas and an agreement with the Kingdom of Nepal to continue recruitment in the future. Living up their motto “Kayar Hunu Bhanda Marnu Ramro” (Better to die than live like a coward), the Gorkhas quickly formed the backbone of the East India Company’s, and eventually Great Britain’s, Indian Army.
For the next two hundred years, the Gurkhas served faithfully in every conflict involving the Indian or British Army. They were one of the few indigenous units to remain loyal during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. 200,000 served in the First World War, including in the trenches on the Western Front and in the landing at Gallipoli in 1915. At the height of the Second World War, the Gurkhas contributed 250,000 men from their home villages in the Himalayan foothills, which were neither a part of the British Empire nor a protectorate of Great Britain. In 1947, the Gurkha regiments were split between the newly independent Indian Army and the British Army.
Currently 3500 Gurkhas serve in the British Army in the Brigade of Gurkhas. Tens of thousands of young Gurkha men apply during recruitment events in Nepal for the few hundred training slots. They also serve in the armies of India, Brunei and Singapore.
One of my favorite Gurkha stories. From the Second Battle of Monte Cassino:
On the night of 12 February 1944, one of the Gurkha battalions sent out a reconnaissance patrol to identify German positions around the town of Cassino. The small patrol came across six German infantrymen in a house: two awake and alert, and four asleep. The Gurkhas snuck up on the German sentries and slit their throats without waking the others. They then decapitated two of the sleeping soldiers and let the others to slumber so they can find their comrades in the morning.
A friend of mine said of the Gurkhas he worked with in Afghanistan, “They react to contact (with the Taliban) the way my kids react to Christmas morning.”
Jaya Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali! (Glory to the Great Kali! Gorkhas Approach!) –Gurkha war cry, then and now.
By the end of 1914, the Western Front in the First World War had stabilized, and trenches ran from the North Sea to Switzerland. During the winter the armies dug in even further. A stalemate existed that both sides were desperate to break. On 22 April 1915, the Germans released chlorine gas in front of their trenches and a favorable wind blew it west into the French, Canadian, and British lines at the Ypres Salient. Mild contact with chlorine gas causes irritation to the eyes and chest, a heavy dose causes a person to drown in their own lungs. The gas cloud affected the French sector the worst and soon thousands were killed and tens of thousands more fled to the rear. A five mile gap formed in the Allied lines
Fortunately, the Germans could not exploit the gap fully due to poor staff planning and a lack of reserves to exploit the breach. (The Second Battle of Ypres is one of the great “What if? Moments of history. If they would have broken through, the First World War would have almost definitely ended in a German victory in 1915.) Also, chlorine gas is water soluble. Allied soldiers used improvised masks of cloth, usually handkerchiefs, which soldiers soaked or urinated to protect themselves from the gas. This allowed the Allies to hold the line where the gas was less prevalent. Instead of a breakthrough, the hard fought Second Battle of Ypres raged for almost a month with over 100,000 casualties from both sides.
The attack spawned a chemical warfare arms race that would last for the rest of the war.
With the German failure at the First Battle of the Marne, both the Allies and the Germans began “The Race to the Sea” with each army moving north from Paris in an attempt to outflank each other, all the while leaving a line of trenches to their rear. The race came to an end at the Flemish city of Ypres (pronounced “ee-priss”), near the channel coast.
The French Army was overextended occupying the trenches all the way to the Swiss border so the inevitable battle was fought by the Belgian Army which had just recently escaped the capture of Antwerp, a single French army, and “The Old Contemptibles” of Sir John French’s British Expeditionary Force (Kaiser Wilhelm made an offhand comment that he would “destroy French’s contemptible little army”, the name stuck.) The highly trained and experienced British Expeditionary Force was comprised of all volunteers, seasoned veterans from colonial campaigns, and reinforced by tough Indian troops.
In mid-October 1914, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Sir John French, and German Field Marshal Erick Von Falkenhayn all came to the same conclusion: this was the last chance to maneuver before winter set in and the trenches solidified. Both sides attacked.
On 19 October 1914, the Allies struck first and ran directly into German troops staging in their assault positions. The two sides hammered at each other for a month. The First Battle of Ypres was characterized by failures of command and control, leadership, logistics, fratricide, and tactics. It was confusement of the highest order. The First Battle of Ypres was the wake up call that 19th century systems could not keep up with 20th century warfare. Veterans on both sides referred to it as “The Battle” for the rest of their lives, including a young Austrian corporal in the German Army, Adolf Hitler, who received the Iron Cross 2nd Class during the battle for rescuing a comrade under fire.
The British, Germans, Belgians and French were spent by the middle of November. Von Falkynhahn had done the Kaiser’s bidding and destroyed the Old Contemptibles, but he had not broken through. British veterans of “The Battle” were disbanded and they formed the cadres for a larger British Expeditionary Force with Lord Kitchener’s “New Armies”. The battle cost the four armies nearly 300,000 casualties, or almost 9,000 a day. The British, Belgian, Canadian, German, Indian, and French soldiers spent the rest of the cold and wet maritime winter in the brown, barren, and bleak moonscape around Ypres digging the trenches that became a symbol of what they would call “The Great War”.
The next spring the soldiers were greeted with what would become another of the First World War’s symbols: the poppy flower. In those Flanders’ fields, the first flower to bloom every year is the poppy. In May 1915, the shattered fields around Ypres were a sea of blood red poppy flowers. Canadian Lt Col John McCrae was inspired by the sight to write the hauntingly beautiful poem “In Flanders Fields” that would come to define the war. It begins:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…”
Germany’s plan in the event of war with both Russia and France in the beginning of the 20th century was to defeat France with the Schlieffen Plan and then concentrate on Russia. The Schlieffen Plan was named for the former German Chief of Staff Count Alfred Schlieffen. The idea was to let the French advance in the south and then seize Paris unexpectedly from behind from along the Channel coast. First, German armies on the left in the south would fix French forces in Alsace/Lorraine and the Saar, and even allow them to advance. Using this as a hinge, the Germans on the right in the north would swing like a door through Belgium, then along the channel coast, then finally down around the concentration of French forces and seize Paris from behind. On his death bed in 1913, just before the First World War, Schlieffen’s last words were, “Keep the right wing strong!” (The attack through Belgium and along the Channel coast.)
Unfortunately for Germany, the egos of the various German commanders couldn’t accept their roles. The prestigious commands were obviously on the right (those that were to seize Paris). These went to two very competent, but not very ambitious commanders: Generals Karl Von Buelow and Alexander Von Kluck. The commander on the left wing, i.e. the one who was supposed to let the French advance so they would be encircled by the right wing, was a very ambitious and out spoken Erick Von Falkynhahn. Finally, the commander in East Prussia, the stately Paul Von Hindenburg who was pulled out of retirement for the job of facing the Russians, also had an outsized influence on the Schlieffen Plan.
When the war started, the Russians mobilized much more quickly than expected and the proud Hindenburg refused to abandon East Prussia. So he essentially bullied the Chief of Staff, Helmuth Von Moltke the Younger (the Elder was his uncle who won the Franco Prussian war in 1870) for more forces. Naturally, they needed to come from Falkynhahn for the Schlieffen Plan to work. But Von Moltke was not his uncle. At the mere suggestion of giving up troops, Von Falkynhahn threw a fit, so Von Moltke the Younger took them from Buelow on the right wing, Moreover, Von Falkynhahn couldn’t contemplate the possibility of letting the French advance into his territory: It would look like he was losing in the newspapers. So instead of defending as per the Schlieffen Plan, he attacked… and kept attacking… and kept winning… and winning some more. Von Falkynhahn insisted that Von Moltke reinforce success, not Von Buelow who couldn’t even reach the sea without over extending himself (thanks to Hindenburg). More importantly though, Falkenhahn’s success pushed the French back – towards Paris.
Despite Schlieffen’s dying words, the German right wing was so weak that in the beginning of September, 1914, instead of attacking Paris from behind (north), Von Buelow and Von Kluck could only attack it from the front (east). Von Moltke still thought this would be good enough to seize Paris, except that Falkynhahn was too successful. Von Falkynhahn had basically bulled his way through the horrible terrain of the Ardennes forest, and was now spent. The French facing him were then in a perfect position to be sent to face Von Kluck and Von Bulow, a short cab ride away.
On 5 September 1914, the French commandeered 600 Parisian taxi cabs in a desperate attempt to move troops to the front along the Marne River in order to save Paris from the Germans. In actuality, only about 6000 French soldiers were ferried to the front in cabs, but afterwards hundreds of thousands would claim it. For the next week, more than one million British and French fought 1.5 million Germans to a standstill in the First Battle of the Marne. By 12 September, the German advance was stopped and Paris was saved. Over the next month, the front was solidified, and millions of soldiers dug their trenches. The war of maneuver was over , and the war of attrition began. The front line, which extended from the North Sea to Switzerland, wouldn’t change significantly for another four years.