Taking into account all the countries across the globe, it is estimated that just under 9,722,000 soldiers died through military action in the war. In addition, roughly 21 million were injured. These figures do not really take into account the mentally traumatised, ranging from shell-shocked men who would never be sane again to the millions suffering from what we would now recognize as PTSD. The figures also fail to consider the civilians killed by the war – approximately 950,000 who died from direct military action, but also a shocking 5,893,000 civilians who died from the impact of war-related famine and disease. These statistics are sobering indeed.
Germany had been at the very heart of the Great War. An unfortunate combination of bellicosity and inept diplomacy had left Germany facing war on two fronts. The military establishment, as represented by the Chief of General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger), had staked everything on the gamble that in 1914 the superbly trained and disciplined German Army could swiftly defeat France and then use its central communications to move its armies over to smash the Russians in the east. In the end the gamble failed and the Germans were defeated.
The legacy of the war weighed heavily on American President Woodrow Wilson, but it also changed the world. Some regions of Europe, particularly northwestern France and Belgium, lay in devastated ruin from battles, with whole towns and villages entirely destroyed. Returning veterans included not only the physically wounded but millions whose psychological scars would never heal. Troubled by nightmarish flashbacks to the scenes of horror they had witnessed, many veterans in all the combatant nations could not participate normally in social and economic life. As late as the 1970s, for people who lived through the experience, the expression ‘before the War’ meant ‘before 1914’.
If there was a futility in the Great War, it was not the actions of the Entente in countering German aggression, but rather the futility of Germany trying to provoke, fight and win a war in circumstances that always militated against success. This is not to say that the Entente were blameless. France and Russia had their own motives for going to war and did little to sidestep it, while all three members of the Triple Entente were aggressive imperialist colonial powers seeking to consolidate everything they held and make further gains wherever possible.
The French Army was of paramount importance to the Entente, particularly in the first two years of the war. In 1916 they withstood the ultimate German challenge at Verdun, a battle that truly plumbed the depths of human misery. The French fought on, playing a significant part in the Battle of the Somme, before the failure of the Nivelle offensive in April 1917 triggered mutinies. Yet even this debacle did not mark the end: they made a solid contribution during the Third Battle of Ypres later in 1917 and helped prop up the British line during the German Spring Offensives of 1918. Then they rebuffed the final German summer assaults before launching the first of the counterattacks that ultimately would win the war.
The Russian role is also sometimes downplayed, masked by their ultimate defeat and the sullen acrimony of the post-war years. But from 1914 to 1917 the Russians fought hard, rebounding time and time again from shocking defeats, along the way bludgeoning the Austro-Hungarians almost to the point of defeat and forcing the Germans to deploy ever more troops to the Eastern Front.
The Italians took a gamble and joined the war with an eye to the possible territorial gains that victory would bring. Their motives may have been questionable, but they fought hard and, in the end, completed the demolition of the Austrians begun by Russia.
The Americans arrived late in the war but had an enormous impact. They left the Germans with little or no realistic hopes of victory, forcing the last gamble of the Spring offensives. Like the British, the Americans were totally unprepared for a continental war and were unconscionably slow in deploying troops in significant numbers. But, by the summer of 1918, they were in situ, slowly learning the brutal art of modern war. After initial problems they proved adept pupils. The AEF would have been the dominant force had the war stretched into 1919.
We are left with the British role which was surely crucial: indeed Britain’s very involvement in the war was a sickening blow to German hopes of victory. At a stroke, the oceans of the globe became an Entente domain. For the first two years of the war the British military involvement on land was largely symbolic, before the gradual mobilization of the Empire brought millions of troops to the battlefield.
The French and Belgian governments tried to make plans for the next war. The plan finally adopted bore a curious resemblance to the one from the 1870s: given France’s losses, and the loss of confidence in the army, the best way to defend France was through building more fortifications. Thus the Maginot line was born, a series of fortifications built to protect France from a future German invasion. The Belgians strengthened their defenses by building Eben Emael, at the time the most modern fortification in the world. In the next war these measures would prove to be very ineffective, due to changing realities in the nature of warfare.
It is has often been contended that Germany was not really defeated in the Great War, but that her heroic armed services were somehow ‘stabbed in the back’ by revolutionary factors or other mysterious forces. This theme was widely used by the Nazis in the 1920s and 30s in order to gain political capital. This is utter nonsense. Rarely has a nation been so comprehensively defeated in the field as Germany was in 1918. Her armies were reeling back and were totally unable to defend the German frontier. Her allies, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria, had all been brought to their knees. There was no hope anywhere for Germany: this was a total defeat writ large.
After the Armistice, the German state fell apart. Nominally a republic, its Army had almost ceased to exist, the units fragmenting once they crossed the German border as the men simply went home. This left a dangerous power vacuum. The political factions of the left soon fragmented, and when the Communists took to the streets during the Spartacist Uprising of January 1919, they were countered with devastating brutality by unofficial Freikorps made up of ex-servicemen, bound together by their military past and an unswerving adherence to right-wing politics.
By the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the German Weimar Republic was already in dire trouble. Racked by raging inflation and economic turmoil, the Weimar Republic would spend the 1920s torn apart by competing visions of left and right-wing ideologues, all peddling their different visions of the future designed to have mass appeal. In the end it would be the right that won, with the advent of Hitler and the Nazi Party. And so the wheel of history turned again.
The Russians, too, had been set on a new and challenging course by the Great War. The tyranny of the Tsars had been usurped by the Bolsheviks and the advent of the Communist state. After the war several of the Entente states intervened to assist the counter-revolutionary forces. The Soviets felt themselves attacked from all sides and became afflicted by a defensive and harshly repressive outlook which corrupted any lingering hopes for a more democratic future for the Russian people. The damage done would endure for the best part of the twentieth century.
Italy had suffered losses in battle of 600,000 dead and had high hopes of reward from the Entente. These were soon dashed; apart from a grudging grant of some Austrian territory there were to be no gifts of ex-German colonies. Britain and France did not feel generous toward Italy, which was plagued by social and political turmoil after the war. It was in this context that the rise of fascism and Benito Mussolini took place, who formed a government in 1922.
The combined effect of the Treaties of Saint-Germain (10 September 1919), Neuilly (27 November 1919) and Trianon (4 June 1920) was the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, this and the partial loss of territory by the Soviet Union did not resolve the complex nationalistic tensions festering in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Some would never be resolved, resulting in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.
The emerging countries, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia; the defeated countries, such as Hungary and Bulgaria; and the newly triumphant Italy, Romania and Greece – all found themselves in a state of flux surrounded by powerful enemies and often still containing aggrieved nationalistic minorities within their borders. The Balkans certainly remained a powder keg, but now Eastern Europe became equally unstable.
The prostrate remnants of the Ottoman Empire witnessed a feeding frenzy from the colonial empires. After the war the web of conflicting agreements led to almost everyone being disappointed and provoked many bitter – and vengeful – accusations of bad faith. In essence, the British and French continued to pursue their own long-term colonial aims, freed from competition from Russia. The result was the birth of many of the Middle East problems that exist to this very day, not just over the question of Jewish or Arab control of Palestine/Israel, but also over the arbitrary nature of the borders drawn for Iraq, Syria and Turkey. This is all part of the grim legacy of the Great War.
The British and French finished the war in a seemingly impregnable position, whereby they appeared to have it all. Their main enemy, Germany, had been stamped down, while the old enemy, Russia, was in a state of turbulent flux. It is true that they made considerable colonial gains in Africa, the Pacific and the Middle East. Yet the war would prove the high tide for both the old empires. At first nothing much seemed to have changed: both were still energetic in pushing forward their imperial and colonial claims, and were aggressive in their dealings with smaller powers who got in their way. Yet behind the facade, the imperial structures were crumbling away.
The United States remained aloof from the League of Nations, but nevertheless, even in its isolation the nation still echoed with the political, social, and cultural changes brought by the war. With autocratic and dictatorial regimes flourishing in Europe, Wilson’s goals and words seemed hollow and naïve. Those who had favored joining the League were disappointed with the failure of the Senate to approve the treaty and the covenant; those who opposed it believed the continuing conflicts in Europe demonstrated only that, if the United States had joined, it would have been immersed in entangling alliances and the further sacrifice of American military lives for foreigners’ ambitions.
America in the 1920s took an isolationist stance. Despite the refusal of the United States to become involved in the League, the legacy of World War I left important issues in the realm of international affairs that the Republican administrations of the era could not entirely ignore. The United States became heavily involved in a series of international conferences devoted to limitations on armaments, beginning with the Washington Naval Conference that took place in 1921-22, followed by one in Geneva in 1927 and another in London in 1930.
And what of the performance of the generals in the Great War? They had tried their best, many of them quickly making complex tactical changes, incorporating huge technical developments into their plans and all the while training, deploying and maintaining the morale of millions of men in this most dreadful of wars. Some generals failed utterly, their reputations shattered by their own innate conservatism, personal flaws or sheer stupidity. But these were in the minority; most generals coped as well as could be expected. The exercise of command in battle was a terrifyingly complex business.
In the miserable aftermath of the Great War there was a desperate search for scapegoats for all the suffering that had been endured. In Britain, the more devious politicians and their fawning commentators managed to transfer most of the responsibility onto the backs of their generals, culminating in the ‘lions led by donkeys’ construct.
War was not a straightforward progression towards success for the British or anyone else. In truth, the Entente eventually won on the battlefields because of a massive superiority in numbers and resources. It cannot be denied that the performance of the German Army was incredible; indeed, its soldiers fought with a sustained heroism and a high degree of military skill right to the end.
During the war the phrase ‘The war to end all wars’ became popular in referring to the war that was ongoing. First coined by H.G. Wells, its proponents blamed German imperialism for starting the war and believed that defeating Germany was the only way to stop war. Unfortunately the Great War never was a war to end wars and proved an efficient catalyst in sowing the seeds for the numerous conflicts which have disfigured human history ever since. Within twenty-one short years the world would be at war again.
Liberal regimes in Europe and North America had adopted total-war methods: in Germany, Britain, France, and Russia traditions of economic liberalism and laissez faire gave way to statism; free-enterprise yielded to state control; and, in country after country, the total economy and population became dedicated, through laws and propaganda, to serving national interests.
For Europeans and Americans, the war years represented the end of innocence, a transition from one cultural era to another. Defining that change was no simple matter, partly because of the diversity of reactions against the old order and partly because some of the intellectual and cultural trends that marked the 1920s had been under way well before the war. Across Europe and the Americas, new styles of art, architecture and music caught the flavor of a new era.
The Second World War irrevocably demonstrated that the First World War was not, after all, the war to end all wars. Liberalism’s comparative failure in the inter-war years was in large part due to its own fundamental decency. It lost the determination to assert itself in the internal politics of states that deviated from democratic norms. The issues of course did not present themselves in such clear-cut fashion. One reason why Adolf Hitler could appeal to the German people in 1933 was precisely because many genuinely convinced themselves that they had been wronged in 1919. But that in itself does not explain the Second World War.
In many ways the Second World War set terrible new benchmarks for horror. Yet somehow a more potent folk memory of the Great War lingers still – even now all the last active participants have died. The sense of tragedy, of futility, of a slaughter of the innocents: these sentiments still pervade our popular culture. The decimation of a generation is not forgotten. Meanwhile the problems left unsolved or created by that terrible conflagration persist to threaten the peace of the world to this very day.