You had questions, I have some answers.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 166. Welcome to our second listener questions episode of the year. Once again, this does not finish off the listener question queue, or even get through all of the execellent questions that were sent in earlier this year. That means that there will be yet another questions episode later this year. So if you have sent in a question but it still is not in this episode, it is still coming, I just eneded up being a bit more long winded than I expected, again. Also, send in your questions! You can hit me up at twitter.com/historygreatwar, facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar, or good old fashioned email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, for those who want to know more about the future plans of this very podcast, stick around a bit after the final questions where I will talk about them.
Let’s jump right in with the first question from listener Andrew: “My question has to do with the rapid rate of technological advancement and how quickly even basic tactics had to change to confront and use them. This is what makes me so interested in this war. Is there any future plans on the discussion of this?” I am going to start off this answer with a bit of a disclaimer, then I am going to talk about some technology, then a bit about future plans for this stuff. Technology, and especially technological innovation, did have an impact on the war, that is undeniable. However, the forward march of technological progress was in some ways less impactful than is sometimes imagined. It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that technology drove the course of the war, when in fact it was the war that drove the technological changes. On top of this, many of the most critical advancements during the war were in simply figuring out better ways of doing things. A really good example of this is in the artillery. Before the war, and in the early years to get the artillery to hit specific targets the old technique of ranging was used. Essentially you would put your gun in position, and spend some time figuring out the exact settings you needed to hit the target, pretty simple. However, the need for surprise in bombardments meant that this was not desirable and so solutions had to be found. On the German side this meant a complex series of ranging for every gun behind the front, more focused on muzzle velocity and math than anything else. I have often found it difficult to find a way to properly present these types of innovations because they often happen slowly over time instead of as a big jump that makes them stand out. This is something I am hoping to change in the future and to that end I am working on some episodes that focus strictly on how something changed over the course of the war, like how artillery hit targets, or the sight and sound ranging techniques that we talked about during the Vimy episodes. Before I end this answer though I am going to talk about three things I have been wanting to discuss for awhile but have not found a great place to insert them into episodes. These three topics are Helmets, Radios, and Grenades. Each of these are just small pieces of fighting the war, but each of them would make their either first appearance in a major conflict or would be reimagined in a way that would set the stage for the last 100 years of usage.
Lets start with the helmet. For people in the post-World War 2 generations it is almost weird to think about the fact that the armies went to war in 1914 without helmets. Each country had their own type of head covering, generally some kind of hat or cap, but they provided basically no protection on the battlefield. This made soldiers very vulnerable to shell fire and shrapnel, especially in places like Italy where they were fighting on rocky mountains. This situation would continue for all of the fighting in 1914 and into 1915 with the French being the firs tto start introducing helmets to most of their soldiers about halfway through 1915. The British helmet would come later. Probably the most iconic helmet of the war, which would become synonymous with the German military for the next 40 years the stallhelm would not appear until Verdun. This means that for a third of the war, and at battles like the Marne, Mons, Gallipoli, and every other battle in that early period nobody had protective helmets. By 1916 they would be widely adopted and much like tanks and planes helmets would become ubiquitous on the battlefield, and that trench would begin in the trenches of 1915.
The First World War would also see radio occupy and very important role within the conflict. To put it simply, there were a lot of radio signals sent during the war, and some of them were on the continental wide scale, and the very presence of these radio signals would change the course of the first few years of the war. In 1914 the Germans had several colonial posessions throughout the world and lacking a navy to rival the Royal Navy, and out of fear that their telegraph wires might be interdicted by the British, which they were, they wanted to find a way to communicate with their colonies in Africa and Asia in the event of war. To do this they began using Radio towers. The most important reason for these radio towers was for Germany’s commerce raiding strategy where surface ships all over the world would hopefully be raiding enemy commerce to interrupt supplies coming into Europe. To make this strategy a reality there had to be a way for the ships, the German government, and the German colonies to all communicate and coordinate things like coal deliveries. High Power radio towers would make this a reality. The Germans were not special in their use of high power radio, for example the French had one that would allow them to communicate with Russia and the United States had several on the east coast that could communicate with other towers in Europe. There were also several in Germany that could communicate with others in East and West Africa, and from there to territories in the Pacific. There were also radio towers in South America that would be used by the Germans. When the war started the British and their allies began hunting these towers down. Troops from Australia and New Zealand hit the Pacific Islands, taking out German possessions in places like Samoa to deny its use as a radio relay and resupply port. Then invasions were launched into Germany’s african colonies with one of the goals being to shut down the ability of the Germans to use them to communicate around the world. There were other areas that they could not just invade, but they used intimidation of South American countries to get them to stop allowing German traffic. All of these efforts, when combined with cutting all of Germany’s undersea communication cables completely isolated Germany from the wider world. This hindered some of their military plans but also allowed the Entente to control the message on the war, and it made sure that the world was hearing the Entente story, and not Germany’s. So that is radio on a macro level, but it would also have effects on a micro level as well. One area where radios would impact the war on a smaller level would be at sea. Weight and size were not a problem on everything larger than a destroyer and so almost all ships were equipped with radio. This allowed ships to communicate and work together better than ever before, and even outside of visual range, but it came with some problems which were difficult to solve. The first was the small problem of a radio broadcast being roughly equivalent to announcing to the world that you were in the area. The second was one of communication security. Encryption had been practiced in various forms since the ancient world, but never before had the enemy had such easy access to everything that was said like with radio. This made encryption critically important, and it failed a lot. The most famous example of this would be the Zimmermann Telegram and the work done by the British, but it would happen all the time. The Germans constantly knew what the Russians were saying, the French often knew what the Germans were saying, code breaking was everywhere. This is part of why, when I think of radio during the war, I think of a technology that the nations around the world had some level of mastery in but they had no experience using it in a war and all of the problems that came with it and all of the benefits that it provided. This made them more likely to fall into those problems, like not maintaining security, and less likely to take advantage of its utility.
Another item that saw a tremendous amount of evolution during the war was the grenade. Grenades had existed since basically the introduction of gunpowder, but they had generally looked different, and were not in wide spread use when the war started. This would all change with the introduction of the German stick grenade and the British Mills bomb. The grenades ability to secure sections of trenches and dugouts was perfect to counter how the defenses had been built up over time. I feel like the German stick grenade is probably the second most recognizable piece of German equipment from the war, and the second world war as well, probably behind only the distinctive German helment design. It was designed with with long handle because it was easier for the German soldiers to throw them and by 1916 soldiers were going forward armed with almost nothing but sacks of grenades. There are also a lot of pictures of German soldiers with essentially their entire belt from from to back full of grenades. Rarely has a weapon fit so perfectly on the battlefield. On the other side of the front was the British Mills Bomb. The Mills bomb is maybe not quite as iconic, but it was incredibly long lived. It would first see action in 1915 and would be the primary grenade of the British army, with a few small modifications all the way to 1972. The makeup of the Mills Bomb would probably look very familiar to Americans as well since it closely resembles the classic world war 2 era pineapple grenade used by the American army. Basically, it was a cast iron shell that as designed to be obliterated into a whole bunch of shrapnel when the explosive went off. This explosive was activated by pulling the safety pin and letting the lever pop off. The bomb weighed a bit over a pound and a half, or around 750 grams, which should be roughly similar to a large can of soup, which is far heavier than I thought they would be. The pineapple shape with the ridged cast iron shell would go onto influence countless other grenades, although later it would be found that a smooth shell provided a more consistent explosive pattern.
Our next few questions come form listener John, who provided some relatively rapid fire questions, the first one is “How useful were the armies of Serbia, Albaina Montenegro and Belgium after they were occupied?” The Balkan states would take part in the fighting on the Salonika or Macedonian front after the fall of Serbia. The Serbians would play a large role in this fight, with Serbian divisions making up a quarter of all of the troops in the area. They would be a part of the most diverse army during the war with French, British, Greek, and Serbian troops all fighting together. Late in 1918 they would advance north pushing back Bulgarian and German troops. The Belgian presence on the Western Front was more important. After the German invasion of Belgium the Belgian army fell back to the West and they would take up their positions in the far north of the Western Front after the Battle of the Yser. For the next four years they would not participate in any offensive actions, but would play a critical role in holding the front with the British and French. They were not the largest army, but especially during 1915 they would have been roughly equal with the British forces on the continent before the BEF greatly expanded.
John’s next question is “Did the Greek Army see any combat in WWI?” As I just mentioned the Greek Army was present on the Macedonian front after the Greeks entered the war, and they would take part in the final offensives in 1918. However, they would be almost more important after the war, which is something we will discuss in great detail here in a few months. Basically, when the war ended they were seen as one of the strongest armies in the area, since they had not been hit hard by the war. When this was coupled with their willingness to work with the British and French meant that the Entente saw the Greeks as a useful tool to use when trying to shape and control the post war world. That story goes on some lengthy twists and turns but it ends up with the Greek army marching into Anatolia in 1919 resulting in the Greco-Turkish war, a conflict that would not go well for the Greeks. You can definitely expect more discussion of Greece in the future, currently we just have not arrived at the point where they have their greatest impact.
Third question “Were Italian troops deployed out side of Italy for WWl?” I don’t believe that Italian troops were deployed outside of the Italian peninsula during the typical confines of the war. Before the armistice their allies were far more concerned with sending reinforcements to Ialy instead of getting reinforcements from Italy. However, after the war things would change and the Italians would send their armies outside of Italy on excursions into Asia Minor and into the Balkans. Both of these regions had areas promised to them as part of the Treaty of London with the British and they were attempting to make good on the promises, which the British were trying to back out of. Much like the Greeks, these actions will definitely be well discussed in the coming months.
John’s fourth question “We’re there any Russian troops on the western front and were there any French or British troops on the eastern front?” Both of these things definitely happened. The French and British saw the Russians as a great manpower reserve and in 1917 there were Russian formations on the Western Front and under the command of the French army. They were not particularly effective, and it came at a bad time given the revolutions that would result in the Russian troops just kind of being stranded in the West, but they were there. French and British forces also made a small appearance in the East with some speciality units from the two armies being sent to assist the Russians. An example of this would be some armored car units which would be sent east early in the war due to the fact that they could have more impact in the east. In all of these cases the forces sent were far more symbolic than actually impactful, with both fronts having their own problems which prevented them from sending enough troops to really make a difference. Much like in World War 2, the amount of supplies sent to the Russians by the British especially was very important to keeping the Eastern Front going as long as it did.
Next question is from Noah of the excellent Histoy of the Vikings Podcast “Conflict on the Eastern Front during the Great War, is often not talked about, as it is greatly overshadowed by the horrific trench warfare, that occurred on the Western Front. What were the fighting conditions like on the eastern front? Was there much trench warfare or was that a western front thing? Was the Russian army underdeveloped? Was there use of cavalry, machine guns, etc.. " The best way to think about the Eastern Front during the war is that it was what the Western Front would look like with much smaller troops densities. This meant that the fighting looking quite similar actually, there were men in trenches on both sides, there were dugouts and machine guns a good amount of artillery, everything that is classically associated with the Western Front. The fighting was also quite static most of the time, although there were of course some huge swings in territory on various occassions. If you look at a place like the southern front here the Austrians and Germans developed first and second lines of defenses, with trenches and dugouts but there was just less of everything given the vast distances that had to be covered. There also were far fewer situations like you see at a place like Ypres where the fighting would happen for the entire war and so the land on the Eastern Front does not get obliterated in the same way. Cavalry would make an appearance and play a much larger role in the east but here they would have almost the opposite problem as in the West. In the west the core problem for the cavalry was lack of roome to maneuver and insane troops densities. In the East it was more about the limited range of the cavalry and their limited numbers not allowing them to make a decisive difference. I know I keep harping on the distances, but it really was an important factor. When considering the Western Front probably 90 percent of the fighting happened between Ypres and Verdun, about 200 miles or so apart. Meanwhile in the East there is a front upon when you could attack that is at various points in the war 3 times that or larger. There are also not as many geographical constraints on this fighting, there are large areas like the Pripet Marshes which sort of force fighting around them, but there is not much between the Carpathians and Moscow other than Rivers a lot of territory. As for an evaluation of the Russian army, mostly an opininon question but I will allow it. I think if you take the top two armies out of the conversation, those being the French and German armies, you end up with a lot of nations with militaries that all have problems, big serious problems. Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, even a lot of the Balkan States would have armies that were forced to grow to match the rising populations and the changes in warfare but their economy was not growing at a similar rate. This meant that even though they were spending just as much as the French and Germans when you look at defensive spending as a percent of GDP in raw numbers it was not as much money. They tried to make up this shortfall just in raw numbers, which the Russians had an advantage in, but they ended up with an army that was poorly equipped when it came to machine guns, artillery, and just technology in general. Then there was also the Russian geography which was sort of a double edged sword. Multiple times throughout history the Russian geography has proved to be its greatest defensive strength, but it also makes it incredibly difficult to defend on the frontiers due to how far away it is from the industrial areas. These distances also made it difficult for the Russians to properly fun railway development before the war since it made it so much more expensive. From a leadership perspective it was also not great, especially in the early years of the war, so no real excuses for them there. What would actually prove to be Russia’s biggest problem was not necessarily in their military though but instead in their society. The divisions without Russia, caused by the choices made by the Czarist regime meant that as the strain of the war increased, just like it did in all countries, there was just not enough holding the country together which just sent it into its revolution cycles of 1917.
The next question, or I guess questions come from listeners Spencer and John who asked similar enough questions that I am grouping them together. Spencer would ask “How did the Spanish manage to stay out of all the WW1 drama? I haven’t heard them mentioned once.” and John asked “The Germans tried to bring Mexico in the war vs the USA, why did not try to bring Spain in on their side?” This is a great question, and I actually did a dive into why the Spanish remained neutral for a Patreon exclusive episode, but here is a pretty good summary. Spain stayed out of the war for three primary reasons: they were not a strong country either militarily or economically, they were deeply divided as a society about what to do, and nobody wanted them. Lets start with the state of the country in 1914. At that point in history Spain was in a rough spot, over the previous decades, and even really centuries the Spanish empire had been in decline with the last great set of losses coming during the Spanish American war when they lost control of most of what was left of their overseas empire. Then in the early years of the century there were two Morroccan crises which pretty much proved that Spain was a second class nation and was not one of the big boys anymore. The country was also not very strong economically, with wide swaths of the country living in poverty which made it difficult to raise enough money to support a large modern army. The army that they did have was very top heavy, with an officer class which was far too large, but at the same time one with a lot of political influence which meant that they could not be properly downsized. Because of the amount of money going to this group of leaders it was difficult to find money to spend in other areas like training and equipment. When the war started the economical side of this problem actually improved, at least early on. This was a common trend among European neutrals as they found that the warring nations, and especially the Entente basically needed everything and so all of the countries not involved in the war were able to take advantage of this to increase exports. Unfortunately this postive trend would not last and it would be followed by crippling levels of inflation later in the war which would greatly destablize not just the Spanish economy but the country as a whole. The second primary reason they did not enter the war was simply the fact that the country was quite divided on who they supported. Most of the divisions came between the citizens that lived in the cities and those in the countryside with an added rift between those of low and high economic status. These differences would be exacerbated during the war due to the stress the whole situation put on the rural members of Spanish society. Before the war a big release valve for rural citizens, especially those just coming into adulthood, was migration outside the country with a large percentage moving to North America. However when the war started most of this immigration was stopped due to the war, mainly because of shipping shortages and the U-Boat threat. This then resulted in these young people piling into the cities searching for jobs, which resulted in overcrowding. These migrants were then able to be organized, along with the factory workers, these groups would then split based on ideology. So you would have anarchists, socialists, monarchists, all kinds of different ists. All of these would have different thoughts on the war. Some were Francophiles and wanted to join the Allies, others were Germanophiles and wanted to join on the German side. Then a big mass just did not want to be in the war at all. No matter which side they were on each could generally find newspapers sympathetic to their mind set, with both Germany and France using money to influence specific newspapers so that there was always positive coverage of each country, if you read the right paper. The final reason that the Spanish did not join in the war was due to the fact that nobody really wanted them, or needed them, on their side. The British and French had nothing to gain by bringing in Spain, their military was too weak and unlike a country like Romania or Italy they offered little in terms of geographic positioning. For the Germans, they did not really have anything to offer the Spanish, and so they always took the position of just trying to keep the country out of the war. The closest that the country came to entering the war was during the height of the unrestricted U-Boat campaign in 1917. During that time several Spanish ships were sent to the bottom, and many Spanish citizens were killed. But about as close as they came to the war was a strongly worded letter to the Germans. I think, on the whole, Spain was one of the great victims of the war. They did not join in the war, never really came super close, but the stresses put on its society due to economic disruption set it up for the Civil War which would happen just a few years after the war was over.
Our final question today comes from listener Chris who asks “How much of the war occurred in the Pacific or Indian Ocean? Maybe some discussion about how the Japanese benefitted? Were any US Navy ships damaged by combat during the war?” There were definitely actions in the Pacific and Indian oceans early in the war. Pretty much the entirety of these actions revolved around either German colonies or German commerce raiders, we will start with the colonies. When the war started the Germans did not have a large colonial empire, but they did have several possessions around the world including in East and West Africa, German Samoa, and Tsingtao in China. The East African campaign would go on for the entire war, with the German and native troops able to evade the British for the entire war, although only due to some British failures and a complete disregard for how many natives were killed due to the German actions, and man was it a lot. German Samoa, and other small German islands in the Pacific, were all captured early in the war by British and Commonwealth troops. This was considered critical to the effort due to the possibility of the islands being used for communications purposes, both through radio and undersea cable, and they might able to be used as stop over points for German commerce raiders. There were no serious resistance when the Australian, New Zealand, or Japanese troops arrived to take over the islands. There was however resistance when the Japanese tried to take the Chinese port of Tsigntao from the Germans. We talked a bit about this action when we discussed Admiral Spee’s great adventure in earlier episodes of the podcast. He would lead his ships all the way from China to the east side of South America where they would be sunk near the Falkland Islands. One ship, and the most famous, would actually split off from Spee on his way across the Pacific and would instead head to the Indian ocean. The Emden was a fast, light crusier and after it arrived in the Indian Ocean it would become probably the most famous surface raider of the war. Over the next two months the Emden would capture over 25 ships and during that time it was also a media sensation with any report of the ship making headline news all over the world. Eventually the Emden’s luck would run out and at the Cocos Islands the Emden would get into a fight with a larger Australian cruiser, which it would lose, and its raiding days would be over. The Emden is something that probably deserves its own episode, but before we talk about that, lets finish off Chris’ question around US Navy casualties. The total of both sunk and damaged ships was under 100, but almost all of these were smaller than destroyers with several transports, patrol boats, and minesweepers. There were a few capital ships that were severely damaged, all by mines. The USS Minnesota, a battleship, would be the largest of these capital ships after it hit a mine but the ship was able to be towed back to port and repaired. over the 100 damaged ships only 35 would actually sink, and of these again almost all were very small ships, the only larger ship being the USS San Diego. These numbers are pretty small mostly due to the fact that the American presence came quite late in the war, far after the large surface actions and the U-Boats were generally far more interested in hitting slow moving merchant ships. As for the final part of Chris’ question in terms of what the Japanese gained from the war. That is a topic I am going to hold off one for the moment, it actually turns out to be a very large topic of conversation and is currently slated to get its own episode during our discussions of Versailles, so you can expect a lot of discussion about what the Japanese hoped to the gain from the war, what they actually did, and how that would go on to influence future events in the Far East.
So that is all the questions this time, but since this is pretty close to the fourth anniversary of the show I thought it would be a good time to talk about the future. Let me start with what the plan was, and what it has been pretty much the whole time. When I started this podcast, I first of all assumed nobody would listen, but beyond that I became a bit fixated on releasing the last episode on November 11, 2018. Just the symmetry of starting on the centenary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and then ended on the day that the armistice was signed just seemed too perfect to pass up. However, as with so many other things over the last few years, I found out while researching for this years episodes that I have a lot more to say than would fit in that timeframe. What originally started as 4 or 5 episodes on Versailles has not turned into probably about 15, which already pushes the ended well into next year. Then something else happened, about 6 months ago I realized something really important, the story of the first world war does not end on November 11th 1918, or even when the treaty of Versailles was signed. That was just the beginning of a set of events that I like to call aftershocks that would occur all over the world. Some events were directly caused by the war and Versailles, like the complete reworking of Eastern Europe or the redrawing of the Middle East. Theere were also other events that would spool off of those like the Polish-Soviet War, the Greco-Turkish War, the Ruhr Crisis, the Arab Revolts, the list can go on and on. Some of them would have probably occurred without the war, like the Russian Revolution or the Irish Civil War but all of them were shaped by the world around them and the world around them, especially in Western Europe, was completely reshaped by 4 years of conflict.
These are stories that are often neglected but that need to be told, so that is the plan. After Versailles, and about a month off whenever that is, we are going to dive into all of these aftershocks. I’m not sure in what order or what precisely we will cover but I am currently eyeing the year 1923 as a pretty good cut off point for most of these stories. That does not mean that the podcast is going to last another five years, instead I estimate it probably pushes it out for another year. At that point it will be time to once again re-evaluate the situation, if things are still going well I will probably not continue on into the twenties and thirties because I feel like those eras are not the end of our story but the beginning of another one that this podcast is not meant to cover. The most likely option would be to go back in time and build up the foundation for the war a bit better. There are a whole bunch of events between essentially German unification in 1866 and 1914 that are critical to understanding the war. Conflicts like the Franco-Prussian War, Russo-Japanese War, and others. Or political events like the Morrocan Crises and the Naval Arms Race, all of these have been barely mentioned by me, especially during the first episodes of the show because lets be honest, those early episode are REAL bad. I have basically no definition around what those stories would look like right now, they are just too far in the future. So, there we go, the podcast will almost certainly continue to the beginning of 2020 covering the immediate aftermath of the war, with an option of going on further. I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this plan and I would like to profusely thank those who have supported me on Patreon, without them this extension never would have happened. Before we close out today I just want to address one thing, and it is something that I often get contacted about from listeners, I have no plans to move onto a World War 2 podcast in the near future. I am not saying that it never happens, but it certainly won’t in the near future, there are a lot of other World War 2 podcasts out there, and also the story is incredibly daunting, and not something I would to commit myself to right now. My guess would be that just the Russian front from 41-45 would take about the same amount of episodes as it has taken us from get from Sarajevo to Versailles, and that is just one piece of the war. So there we are, future plans, plans for the future, as always I love to hear from listeners, what you like, what you want to hear more of, questions you may have, anything really. So hit me up at twitter.com/historygreatwar, facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar, or at email@example.com. I hope you will join me once again next episode as the war reaches its climax with the Allies once again launching an offensive on the Western Front, only this time it will work.