145: The Beginning of the End


Nobody at the time knew that 1918 would be the last year of the war, but we do, so lets talk about what you can look forward to over the next 11 months.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 145. This episode is just a quick overview of what we will be discussing over the next 40 or so episodes over the coming year. I will also be introducing some questions that we will be trying to answer over those episodes. The final year of the war would be very different than the two yeras that proceeded it. The year can be broken up into two different stages, the first stage would see the Germans attacking on the Western Front for the first time since Verdun. During this time they would make seemingly tremendous gains, and cause serious concern among the French and British that this could be the end. It would not be the end, and instead there would be the second stage of the year. During this stage, essentially, everything would fall apart for the Central Powers. The Italians would finally launch an offensive after recovering from Caporetto, the Allied troops would attack out of Salonika, the British would advance in Palastine, and even the Germans, the glue that held the alliance together, would begin to crumble on the Western Front. These events would then lead into the end of the war, and the end of the war would result in the negotiations at Versailles, the infamous negotiations at Versailles. At those negotiations the map of Europe would be rewritten, and we will be sure to cover all of those decisions. Before we start with our overview today I would like to also give a quick preview of what Patreon supporters can expect over the coming months. Remember, Patreon support makes this podcast possible, and as thanks to those supporters I offer Patreon only episodes every month. This eyar will start with a set of episodes looking into the Medical services during the war, and it will take 4 episodes to go through the various logistical problems of providing enough doctors to the front and then discussing what they did when they got there. After those episodes we will spend a single episode each on the German East Africa Campaign and what was happening in China during the war. Then we will have a multipart series on the Czech Legion and Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War in late 1918 and beyond. I think the story of the Czech Legion might be one of the craziest stories of the war, so you will not want to miss it. There will be more episodes to finish out the year, but I have not quite settled on a topic yet. One final administrative not ehere, before the end of the year I want to do another Q&A episode, and this time any topic from any point of the war is fair game, but to do that episode I need your help, I need your questions. So if you have a question about anything before, during, or after the war, send me an email at historyofthegreatwar@outlook.com, or hit me up on facebook at facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar, or tweet me at twitter.com/historygreatwar. The sooner you send me your question the more time I will have to prepare a, hopefully, awesome answer.

We will start today with just a brief overview of the situation at the end of 1917. On the Western Front 1917 had been exhausting for the British and French. They had both launched large offensive efforts which had been incredibly damaging in terms of casualties and morale. Both armies were now short of men, with the French already having to disband divisions to fill the ranks of others before the end of the year. For the Germans, 1917 had been an okay year, the defenses in Arras and Flanders had been costly, but there were successes on other fronts to compensate for the casualties that were experienced. The Germans had not launched any attakcs in the West, with the focus instead placed on other fronts, which would begin to pay dividends on those other fronts in early 1918. 1917 would also see the United States enter the war, and they would immediately make an impact by financing the Allied war effort and bringing their resources into play. By the end of the year the one area they had not made an impact was on the battlefield, and as the year ended nobody knew when they would, some of the leaders in Europe were hoping the new American Expeditionary Force would make an impact by mid 1918, but other believed that they would not do so until the spring of 1919. The precise date of this impact would be important to determining when the Allies could look to resume their attacks.

On the Italian front, 1917 had been a year of disaster for the Italian Army. For most of the year they had continued their attacks against the Austro-Hungarian armies on the Isonzo with only a few limited successes, like the capture of Gorizia. These attacks had been larger, better supported, and most costly than ever before and so the fact that they did not produce any great results was even more disappointing. These failures would not have been a huge problem for the Italians though, the real problem came near the end of the year when the disaster known as the Battle of Caporetto occurred. In this attack the German troops would make their first large scale appearance in the theater. With their help the Austrians would push back the Italians, to the point where there were serious discussions about abandoning Venice. This disaster would put the Italians back into a purely defensive posture until they could recover, and it would be wel into 1918 before that would happen. For the Austrians, while they certainly welcomed the success, it did not solve their primary problems. They did not have enough food, supplies, or high enough morale to continue the fight indefinitely, and the Caporetto attack had left them with fewer men and longer supply lines. These problems would soon cause the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian army in late 1918.

It has been awhile since we caught up with the situation in the Middle East, the last topic discussed on the podcast was the British defeat at Kut al-Amara. Because of this long absence we will be covering the events of 1916, 1917, and 1918 in upcoming episodes. In short, by the end of 1917 the situation was beginning to greatly deteriorate for the Ottomans. By Christmas the British had advanced into Palastine and captured Jerusalem. They would continue this advance into Syria in 1918. In Mesopotamia they would also capture Baghdad. In the Caucasus things were, actually, pretty positive for the Ottomans. The disarray and then removal of Russia from the war allowed them to retake most of their lost territory in late 1917, a task for which they diverted far too many resources, which caused some of the problems in Palastine and Mesopotamia. The war would not end well for the Ottomans in 1918.

So, about the situation in Russia, it was, complicated. After the February Revolution, then the failed Summer Offensive, then the October Revolution and the rise of the Bolsheviks, the Russians would basically be out of the war by the end of 1917. In mid-December an armistice was signed with Germany and Austria-Hungary and peace negotiations began. It would not be signed until March 1918, at which point the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk would officially see the Russians exit the war. That did not mean that peace broke out all over Russia, instead fighting was just beginning as the Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik forces would be fighting for many years to come, with some American, French, British, Japanese, and Czech troops thrown in the mix as well. The most immediate impact of the Russian exit from the war, was the fact that it allowed the Germans to shift troops to the West in preparation for their attacks on that front in 1918.

That brings us to our discussion of what the future holds for this podcast, what I am classifying as part one of the actions in 1918, the German offensives. These attacks would begin in late March with Operation Michael and then go on for several months as the Germans first attacked here, then there, trying to find a way to meaningfully impact the situation in the West. In all of these attacks the Germans were driven by two desires. The first as the desire to stop the seemingly endless cycle of defensives in the West. Ludendorff had learned of the situation at Verdun and on the Somme after Hindenburg took over as Surpeme Command in late 1916. Then they had seen the defenses of 1917 first hand. Ludendorff, and many of the German leaders, knew that if the Germans just sat and did nothing they would slowly be ground down by Allied attack. They were basically winning their way to defeat, they could win every battle in terms of casualties and ground gained or lost, and still lose the war due to their manpower and supply disadvantages, a situation that was far worse due to the fact that the Americans were now in play. The second desire that drove these attacks was the hope that a few big victories would trigger peace talks. If the Germans could start these talks after a brilliant battlefield success, they had a much better bargaining positions. They did not have to completely destroy their enemy, just beat them enough to get them to the negotiating table.

The Germans had some tools in place that made them beleive that the attacks could be successful. The first was that they had more troops on the Western Front than the British and French combined, a situation that had not occured since 1914. Second, they had developed new offensive techniques during their time on the Russian Front, and then those techniques had proven effective at Caporetto. Third, they knew that the French were low on manpower, although they did not know the specifics, and they knew that the British had lost many men in late 1917. Finally, they knew that the Americans were not yet ready to be involved, at least for the initial attacks, and so it was important to strike soon before they were ready. We will, of course, cover these attacks in great detail, but it will suffice to say now that they did not win the war for the Central Powers. They would achieve great initial success but they would eventually run into the exact same problems that every attack in the West had ran into, a simple lack of mobility. No matter how wide the Germans punched a hole in the line, the defenders were able to move in reinforcements to stabilize the situation faster than the Germans could destabilize it with further advances. As the German supply lines, and the length of the front, extended the offensives slowly became less potent, and were eventually stopped. At the end of their attacks the Germans had made impressive geographical gains, but were no closer to victory, and they had paid a heavy price, in blood.

With the offensive capabilities of the German army expended, and since they had managed to absorb those attacks, it was time for the Allies to strike back. Once these attacks started rolling, they would not stop. The Second Battle of the Marne, Amiens, then all along the front, they would grind on endlessly. With the German hopelessly overextended, and far from their well-prepared defenses, mobile warfar returned to Western Europe for the first time in 4 years. The resulting offensives, called the 100 days, would see the German army almost fall apart. Unfortunately for the Central Powers, the Western Front was not the only problem. In the Middle East the ottomans were unable to stop the British as they advanced on Damascus and beyond. In the Balkans the Bulgarians and Austro-Hungarians were unable to hold the British, French, Greek, and Serbian forces from advancing, finally, out of Salonika. On the Italian Front, just weeks before the armistice, the Italians launched their final attack of the war, and the Austro-Hungarian army began to fall apart. In all of these cases a combination of lack of supplies, overextended armies, and war weariness at home would force the countries to begin to search for a way out of the war. This would lead to different armistice dates around Europe, but the one that everyone remember would be 11AM on November 11th, 1918, at that point the war on the Western Front was over.

After the armistice was signed, the question became what would come next. That question would be answered with the Paris Peace Conference, and eventually the Treaty of Versailles. In this document the map of Europe would be completely changed. Empires were broken apart almost arbitrarily. The Ottoman Empire? gone. The Austro-Hungarian Empire? Gone. The Russian Empire? Gone. The German Empire? Shrivelled. In all of these cases new states were created to occupy the former territory of the empires. In some cases this bit of nation building would be a success, in other it would set these areas up for long term instability and conflict. But why these changes were made, who influenced them, is a lengthy story full of twists, turns, heroes, and villains. On the other side of the lengthy discussions would be an overriding legacy of completely and total failure. Failure to properly setup the world for a lasting peace. Failure to organize the Balkans in an appropriate way. Failure to properly deal with Germany, setting up for another war in just 20 years. And perhaps most noticeably today, a failure to properly understand the complex situation in the Middle East, setting the region up for a century of conflict that lasts to this very day. The real question is, in my mind, was there any way that it could have ended well? Was there any chance of a lasting peace?

At the end of the negotiations, with all the documents being signed, there was hope for peace, but even as the ink dried conflict raged in Europe. Russia was still in the midst of its civil war, a conflict that would soon spill into the Baltics and Poland. The fighting in China between the Chinese and Japanese would start as early as 1931, just a decade after Versailles. The Spanish Civil War would begin just 15 years later, in 1936, and this of course we all know what came next. When Wilson and the Americans came into the war they preached for a Peace without Victory, or a peace without punishment for the loser to setup for greater stability in the future, this was a concept the Europeans never really bought into. Instead, what was achieved at Versailles was not a Peace without Victory, or even a Peace with Victory, what was crafted at Versailles was imply a Victory without Peace.

All of that is far in the future for us though. The next several months of episodes will be setup like this. First we will be clearing the decks of action outside of Western Europe. That means we will spend about a month and a half covering the second half of the war in the Middle East. Then we will finish up our story on the Italian Front and the Air War. At that point we will be pretty much caught up on everything, and it will be time to begin the main event. It will take us several months to cover the Spring Offensives and then the 100 Days attacks which will then lead us right into the armistice and finally the peace talks at Versailles. I hope you are looking forward to an action packed, and information dense, year, I know I am. Remember, I am looking for questions to do some Q&A Episodes at some point so send your questions over the historyofthegreatwar@outlook.com, facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar, or twitter.com/historygreatwar. Thank you for listening, and I hope you will join me next episode.