To celebrate episode 100 I asked listeners for questions, and here is what they came up with.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 100. A huge part of me cannot believe that we have made it to 100, and yet here we are. I will just start off today by thanking everybody who supports the podcast on Patreon, a group of people joined by Dave and Ben this week, anybody who has donated to the show over the last 2 and a half years, everybody who has shared an episode on their social networks, anybody who has reached out to me via email or any other means to comment, correct, or congratulate me on the podcast, and finally, to everybody out there who is listening right now, thank you. It has been a long journey so far, and we probably are not even halfway there yet! About a month ago I reached out on Facebook, Twitter, and Patreon to try and round up some questions or topics that listeners would like discussed and that resulted in a list of about 7 topics to be discussed today. They are sort of all over the place but I think they should be interesting. If you have any questions or topics you think I should discuss on the show, feel free to hit me up at any time. Believe it or not there are things I forget about all the time. If listeners provide a good steady stream of questions I will do episodes like this more often. One final thing before we jump in, to listeners Joe and Michael who both asked about weapons and equipment, I will not be hitting that topic today and have instead pushed it to a larger discussion that should hopefully occur early next year
Our first topic comes from listener Scott who asks What about the Medical Corps? There were lots of soldiers who needed them, how were they providing care? The medical corps were definitely important for all of the armies. There were critical concepts that modern medicine has at its disposal that did not exist in 1914 like pencillin, which would only come to be used after the war, and blood transfusions which would only start to be used right at the end of the war. On the Western Front the British had a highly oranized system to get wounded men off the battlefield and get them various levels of care based on their needs. The first stop for any wounded soldier was the Regimental Aid Post which was usually just a tent or a dugout near the front line where a medic was able to provide a very basic level of medical attention. If the wound was not at all serious the man would be sent back to the front, but if it was more serious the job of the aid Post was to get the man stabilized and ready for transport to the next stop, the Casualty Clearing Station. These were designed to move with the troops but on the Western Front they rarely moved. While this stalemate was a problem for the armies, it made the job of the Casualty Clearing stations much easier. The goal of these stations was to perform surgeries as required, like amputation and then to either stabilize the wounded and let them heal for up to a month before sending them back to the front or to once again get the wounded ready for transport to the stationary hospitals far behind the lines. These hospitals usually had larger holding capacities and better tools to diagnose and correct more complicated issues. This included equipment like X-Ray machines. The majority of wounded men who would recover and go back to their units stopped at either the Casualty Clearing Station or the Hospital. There were some that would go across the channel to Britain and recover and come back, but that was not the norm. Most of the men that were sent across the channel for more specialized care in hospitals at home were out of the war for good. As soldiers moved higher up this chain from the front to the hospitals generally their chances of survival increased. This was both because the care got better, but also simply because if they had survived long enough to get beyond the Regimental Aid Post then they were at least not in the worst shape. For the Medics, Doctors, and Nurses, many of which were female and were placed as close to the front as the Casualty Clearing Stations, just the sheer number of wounded who would pass through all of the steps in the chain created a sense of mind numbing carnage. When reading their accounts you will often see them just sort of stop talking about it, or talking about the worst wounds and the worst situations in the most blasé tone. Here is Medical Officer Charles McKerrow of the 10th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, 23rd Division “Death is a very dreadful thing to those who are not flung into slaughter. It will take months for me to gain a truer perspective. When the dead lie all around you, and the man next to you, or oneself, may puff out, death becomes a very unimportant incident. It is not callousness, but just too much knowledge. Like other things, man has ignored death and treated it as something to talk of with pale cheek and bated breath . When one gets death on every side, the reaction is sudden. Two chaps go out for water and one returns. Says a pal to him, ‘Well, where’s Bill?’ ‘A bloody “whizz-bang” took his bloody head off’ may not appear sympathetic, but it is the only way of looking at the thing and remaining sane. You may be certain however, that the same man would carry Bill 10 miles if there was any chance of fixing his head on again.” This type of attitude would be present in any war, but as we discussed back in the Verdun episodes the type of helplessness men felt under fire from artillery, and the concern for the fact that they could be obliterated in an instant was coupled with the type of mutilation that artillery shells could cause to a human body. These were not nice clean wounds, when artillery shells exploded into shrapnel and hit a human body they just bludgeoned their way through. Then of course there were all of the gas victims, some blind, some barely able to breath, just the worst suffering that you can imagine. If you want to know more about the medical situation during the war, but do not want to fall into the endless morass of academic papers, I suggest picking up a copy of Wounded by Emily Mayhew, it is a great overview book that is not too long or too dry.
Next up on the docket is Spain, listener Antonio asked simply what was happening in Spain during the war. Spain was neutral and it had made the decision to be neutral very early on. The country as a whole was just in no position to enter a large military conflict because for several decades, and really even over a century, it had been a declining empire even more than the other empires in the war like the Ottomans or Austria-Hungary. Before 1914 what had once been a huge Spanish empire had shrunk down to just a small area in Morocco. The Spanish military was less potent than many much smaller Balkan countries and had not acquitted itself well in the Spanish-American war or the Moroccan Crisis in the early 20th century. Even though the military was not very potent, Spain was still dumping a lot of money into it, and this was due primarily to the power and numbers of the officer corps. They were highly influential and the entire organization was just very top heavy, a lot of chiefs, not a lot of Indians. Even if Spain would have wanted to enter the war, it would have been difficult to find a side that really wanted them. For the Central Powers it was difficult to see how the Spanish could really assist them. Sure it might have opened a small second front into France, but the Pyrenees were a serious obstacle. Also the Spanish would have found themselves almost instantly blockaded by the British, causing huge problems for what would prove to be a very fragile economy and society. The British and French would have gotten even less from a Spanish entry into the war. The citizens of Spain were also split on who they supported in the war, with some supporting Germany and others France. This created a lot of friction that both sides sought to use to make sure that Spain stayed neutral, but also was not too much help to the other side. The Germans especially were adept at this by quickly finding their way into control of some of the largest Spanish newspapers which let them sway public opinion during the war. The Spanish government, while understanding that they would have to be neutral at the beginning were hoping that they could play a part in the war as a mediator between both sides, bringing them to the peace table, one led by Spain. This would go a long way to restoring some of the prestige that Spain had completely lost in the decades leading up to the war. Unfortunately, this would be a role played by the United States and Spain never really played any real role in peace talks. So that is why Spain became and stayed neutral, but what about how the war effected Spain. I find this topic, and the discussion of how the war effected all of the neutral countries around Europe to be extremely fascinating, even a quick survey of the available research points to huge consequences for all of the neutral countries of Europe even though their armies stayed at home. For Spain everything started off so well, and there was a huge boom in the Spanish economy as they were able to both increase their exports as well as greatly decrease their imports, making domestic businesses far more successful, especially in finished goods. However, while this was initially very good, it would quickly begin to cause inflation that would continue for the rest of the war. This would catastrophically reduce the purchasing power of normal Spanish citizens. This hardship would combine with an unsteady social situation before the war to create a nation that was anything but stable, and already on the long road to the Spanish Civil War. The first problem was that the economic benefits of the war, and the greatest hardships, were not evenly spread around the country with the economic benefits focused on the urban industrial areas while the hardships were felt by those in more rural areas. This then caused many rural individuals to move into these cities, a number that was pushed higher by the fact that migration out of Spain and into other countries like the United States was greatly decreased during the war years. Before the war this movement had been a safety valve for rural population growth, but now it was decreased by 75%, and many of these people found their way into urban areas to try and find work and food. Once these groups were in the cities, and they did not magically find a panacea, they would slowly be organized into real movements for change. This movements would grow in power as the war progressed, especially after 1917 and the example set by the Russian revolution. These groups would be co-opted by the military before the end of the war and used to force the creation and acceptance of military juntas that would create enough instability to eventually lead to the Spanish Civil War. So overall, the war crippled and eventually began the death spiral of Spain, a country that was already poorly equipped as a society to handle the incredible stress put upon it from the war. This has been just a quick overview, and if you want a much deeper dive into Spain during the war, and into the other neutral countries of Europe, I did two pretty lengthy episodes for Patreon supporters on the topic a few months ago.
Our next topic comes from listener Marc, who has always been very active on the podcasts Facebook page, which is awesome. His question was about the Dominions and their contribution to the war so far. However, before I get there, I do have one very recent comment, a correction really, from Doris who I think is from Australia, or at the very least one of Doris’ facebook messages ended by calling me “mate” which seems like a dead giveaway. Anyway, Doris is a new listener and just finished up the Gallipoli episodes and sent me a Facebook message that sort of puts me in my place. I am just going to read all of it because Doris does a good job of describing my mistake in detail “In Australia and New Zealand, it is generally used as a plural as in Anzacs. The singular is mostly used as an adjective, as in the Anzac troops, and rarely as a noun, eg. just, they landed at Anzac or he was an Anzac. Every other time it is plural noun, eg. the Anzacs landed, the Anzacs fought at Lone Pine, the Anzacs are commemorated on Anzac Day, the Anzacs went on to fight on the Western Front.” I find this comment humbling, but also very interesting because I find it fascinating how throughout the years so many words that start as acronyms, like ANZAC, eventually find their way into common words that have plural, verb, and noun forms, language is so weird. So to Doris and the Australians and New Zealanders everywhere, I apologize, and I will attempt to do better in the future. Back to the Dominions, which we will start with Australia and New Zealand which we have already covered quite well I think back in the Gallipoli episodes. After they had been evacuated from Gallipoli they made their way to Egypt for training and then eventually to the Western front where they are even now reappearing in our narrative, they will be here to stay. The next group were the Canadians, which we have ran into a few times. They were at Second Ypres where they played a role in keeping the effects of the gas attack in check. They were then at Neuve Chapelle. The Canadians will reappear in our story very soon, probably in 2 weeks, when they make their debut on the Somme to relieve non-other than the Australian divisions that we discussed last episode. It would be in their actions on the Somme that the Canadians would get their reputations as absolutely superb assault troops. This then led them directly into, what I don’t think is controversial to say, was their most important battle of the war when they made their assault on Vimy Ridge. Because of its importance it would be at Vimy that the Canadians would erect their largest monument to the sacrifices made by their soldiers. Why this action was important was because it was the first time that all 4 Canadian divisions, the Canadian Corps, were making an attack together and because of this it seems to occupy the same place in Canadian culture as Gallipoli does in Australia and New Zealand. It was a new nation becoming a nation, instead of just another British colony or dominion. They also succeeded in the attack, where many other attacks had failed before them, and success, while not essential to fixating it in Canadian history certainly helps. These three dominions are the most well known but there were two others in 1914, South Africa and Newfoundland. At this point Newfoundland was not a part of Canada and was in fact a separate dominion with its own military units. They were present on the first day of the Somme and attacked with the 29th Division against Beaumont-Hamel. The South Africans were also present on the Somme, we talked about them at Deville Wood, and they would stay on the Western Front for the rest of the war. The reason you hear so little about them is that they would never have as many troops as the larger dominions and they get lost in the shuffle a lot. Finally, I feel like India has to be included in this conversation even though it would not technically be a dominion during the war. The biggest role for India would be in the Middle Eastern theater where they would essentially run the war from the beginning all the way until the end. We will be discussing these actions quite a bit next year. Overall the dominions would play a critical role in the British being on the winning side during the war, by the end of the war the Canadians and Australians would be THE premier allied troops on the Western Front, but all of that came with a cost. The New Zealanders would have the highest casualty rates a bit over 1.5% of their 1914 population, the Australians were close behind. However there were also deeper scars that just numbers will never tell the tale of, like the rift that widened between French and British Canadians over conscription in 1917 or the punishment of conscientious objectors in New Zealand and elsewhere. There are a lot of stories, both good and bad, around all the countries in World War 1, and I hope to cover those of the dominions, and other European colonies, more in the future.
Our next question comes from Joshua who asks What was the United States doing up to this point? How much were they helping? This is a topic I do not want to dive too deep into, if only because it is going to be covered quite well next year, however a bit of an overview never hurts. The basic version is that since the beginning of the war and most of the way through 1916 the United States had been seen as the Great Neutral. This was not just because it was a big country that was neutral and might possibly join the war, but because it was probably the only country with enough international standing and economic power to really have an effect on the war. It would interact with the belligerents almost constantly through the first two years of war in a variety of ways. For example in 1914 and 1915 they heavily criticized Great Britain for its blockade policies that were breaking international laws by preventing the flow of humanitarian goods to the blockaded countries. These complaints would not end, even after the United States entered the war. This did not prevent the American government or American businesses from working with the warring countries in Europe, especially Britain and France. America would become a critical piece in supplying Britain, France, and other European countries with raw and manufactured materials that were essential to sustaining the war effort. This made many businessmen in the United States quite a bit of money, and I doubt they were all that sad about it. One thing that would remain constant through all of their years of neutrality was the desire of the American government, and especially President Wilson to try and get a negotiated settlement for the war. This quixotic effort by Wilson would continue right up until the United States entered the war. This involved reaching out to the various governments several times in an effort to get them to agree to begin discussions about ending the war. This went through several different phases with Wilson trying various ways of trying to get the countries to agree to discussions. One big problem was that it was very difficult to get any country to make their specific war aims public. What precisely were they fighting for? What did they want out of a peace settlement? There were ideas and thoughts floating around every government in Europe but nobody wanted to specifically state what their countries official stance was because nobody wanted to be pinned down with a public statement that might be too lenient on their enemies, or too harsh to make them seem like the aggressors. This would be the world that the United States existed in before 1917. In that year the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare would finally kick the country into the war. That story will be told in full probably next summer.
Our final topic today is about what life was like on the Homefronts around Europe. This question and topic was suggested by both Oscar and Andrew. The situation on the homefronts, especially for the Central Powers would be extremely important during the last two years of the war. Many countries would have issues getting enough food to their citizens, with Britain beginning serious rationing in 1917 and other countries from almost the start of the war. France would be mostly immune to the food shortages, but the other countries on the continent would be hit hard. In Germany and Austria-Hungary rationing and shortages became a fact of life for nearly all members of society. In Germany the winter of 1916-1917 was particularly challenging, and in what would become known as the turnip winter food was extremely hard to find. This created tensions within the society because the cities, where most of the war manufacturing was done was almost always the hardest hit by these shortages. The blamed the rural citizens, especially the farmers, for these problems. The producers did not want to sell their food too cheaply, especially as demand continued to increase and the cost of doing business in the form of equipment, seed, and labor, went up along with it. This created an antagonism between the city dwellers and the rural families that would just get worse as time went on. The government attempted to step in to take care of this by enforcing price ceilings and other controls where possible, but this just made black market sales more appealing. In almost all major cities soup kitchens were setup to try and get some minimum amount of food out to the populous, and the number of these kitchens continued to increase. This did not prevent strict rationing from taking place from the beginning of the war and in 1916, and 17, and 18 the rations would be cut, and then cut again, and then cut again as supplies just could not meet demand. This was almost entirely caused by the British blockade but maybe not in the ways that you would expect. One big problem for Germany was that much of the fertilizer that German farms used before the war was imported, and these supplies were cut off after 1914 which meant that the farm land that the Germans did have was not nearly as productive. There were many other mistakes made along the way, but those mostly just hastened the problems and that was probably nothing that the Germans or Austrians could have done to prevent the food shortages. However, the British blockade did make a good scapegoat for all of the problems, and this was used by the governments heavily in propaganda during the war. This was a big contributing factor for the widespread public support for the unrestricted submarine warfare campaigns of 1915 and 1917 as the public just wanted the military to do something, anything, to hit back against the British. Austria-Hungary was feeling all of the same effects as Germany but just amplified. This meant that there was less food, more movements on the black market, more societal antagonism, and on top of all of that was layered ethnic, cultural, and class differences. The German military thought they had at least a partial solution to this problem in the form of conquest in the East, and it was true that there was a lot of land that they occupied, some of it very capable farming land, but it just never quite panned out for them. Usually these areas were devastated by war, stripped of a good portion of their populations as people became refugees to escape the fighting, and then they were not exactly thrilled to help the Germans. There was generally little motivation for the indigenous people to work hard trying to make food that they knew the Germans would just requisition. There were areas that were lucrative, like when the armies conquered Romania and took mountains of grain, livestock, and raw materials, but these were often fleeting gains that could not be reproduced year after year. Even late in the war after the Russian revolution and areas like Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Russian empire, had achieved at least a fleeting autonomy, they were never able to supply Germany and Austria-Hungary with the level of supplies that were hoped. That was a pretty quick answer to that question and all that we have time for during this episode. However, you can expect a MUCH deeper dive into the situation on the home fronts of all of the nations involved in the war early next year. There should be about 4 or 5 episodes looking at how the war was causing immense stress on every country from 1914 to the end of 1917. If you want to know more about the occupied lands in the east, and what it was like for the people who lived in those areas that were put under German control, we will be starting a series of Patreon episodes on the Occupied lands at around the same time next year.
As we come to the end of episode 100, I would like to thank everyone once again for listening, and here is to 100 more.