The listeners asked questions, I found answers.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 231, Listener question extravaganza number 4. Thank you to Peter, Joshua, Richard, and Brendan for Patreon. This is our fourth and final listener question episode, and there are 20 questions to answer. Stick around to the end for news on the future of this podcast, and the future of podcasting for me, which hopefully some people will be excited about.
First up with have some Trivia from Mark: An interesting fact that I recently learned which you might find interesting, was around which country declared war on Germany twice? The answer is Romania, who declared war a second time immediately after being liberated in 1918. Whilst it was purely a political ploy to seek an advantage during the peace talks I though it would make for a good WWI pub quiz question! This is indeed a fantastic bit of trivia! My favorite piece of trivia is when did the last German troops stop fighting the Allies forces? The answer being November 25th in East Africa. I think I like the one about Romania better though.
Spencer has our next question fresh off of Twitter: “Can you talk about the Agadir Crisis and other events that almost sparked the war?” The Agadir Crisis would occur in 1911, and it was an event that would greatly escalate tensions between Britain and Germany. In April of 1911 there was a rebellion in Morrocco, which is why you will sometimes hear the Agadir crisis referred to as the Second Morrocan Crisis. Germany was at this point far more involved in African affairs, and wanted to become more involved. When the rebellion broke out the German Navy would sent the small gunboat SMS Panther to Agadir. This set off all kinds of alarm bells in London. Any projection of naval power around the world was bound to get the Royal Navy’s attention, but this has the extra importance due to the state of relations between the Royal Navy and the German Navy at this point in history. In 1911 the British and Germans had been in a naval building war for several years. The creation of the HMS Dreadnought in 1905, and then the German 1908 Naval Law, and the reactions of both sides to both events had triggered a naval arms race that would not really end until the First World War. The German Navy, led by Tirpitz, was directly and pubicly targetting the Royal Navy with their building program, and at this point in history if you wanted to get on the bad side of London, challenging the supremacy of the Royal Navy was the easiest way to do so. All of this additional tension just added fuel to the Agadir Crisis, which on its own probably would not have been a notable event. After the Crisis was started, it would in fact not end in war, but it would cause the Royal Navy to reevaluate both its preparedness and its strategic situation, making it more prepared for war in 1914.
Next up we have two questions that are sort of along the same topic so I am going to combine the answers. The first is from Ed who says “I am interested in the role of the Canadian expeditionary units - my wife’s grandfather was their and i have pictures and shell art from him during that time.” and then Noah who asks “My question concerns the commonwealth troops in WWI. I have heard that they where better soldiers than their British and French comrades, what made them better soldiers?” Canadian and Commonwealth forces played an important part in the British and therefore the allied war effort. The first big battle that the Canadians would take part in was at the Second battle of Ypres in early 1915, which would also be the first use of poison gas on the Western Front. The Australians and New Zealanders would obviously be at Gallipoli in early 1915. From that point forward all of the troops from around the empire would be engaged in most of the major fighting in which the British Army was involved. Towards the end of the war they would be treated as premiere troops, and often played important roles in offensives. This practice actually got some criticism from the dominions, they were being put a position of I guess honor, but as the troops put at the center of offensives and given the most difficult objectives they also suffered higher casualties. As for relative quality, I generally believe that they were not drastically better than other British units. One of the big advantages that the commonwealth had was that their greatest contribution came late in the conflict, and especially in the last year of the war. I think this has a tendency to skew their reputation, because just in general they start appearing in larger numbers as the Allies start to become better at launching offensives. Most of the youngest, fittest soldiers from the home islands had been spent in the battles of 1915 and 1916, which would see some of the greatest failures of the British army. This meant that by the time you get to 1918 the standards for British draftees had been lowered to allow more men to be brought into the ranks. Given the lower percentage of casualties among the commonwealth forces when compared to their total population, when the war turned and the Allies finally began to find some material superiority and more appropriate strategies the successful offensives at the end of the war often featured these commonwealth soldiers, who were generally younger and fitter, in primary roles. So just to summarize, the Commonwealth soldiers were very important to the Allied victory, but I generally do not feel that their soldiers should be considered head and shoulders above the other British soldiers.
Next question is from Noah again, who by the way is Noah Tetzner of the History of Vikings podcast. His next question is “Also being a Winnipeger, what was the effect of the end of the war on the Winnipeg General strike in 1919.” The Winnipeg general strike was probably more influenced by events in Russia and the general wave of increase in support for socialism and worker’s rights around the world. However, the postwar strike was an event that happened in many countries, even those on the winning side of the war. Each strike had different specific causes and consequences, but most of them were rooted in the economic downturn after the war, pent up labor unrest from during the war, and then a rise in support for socialism and its different view of the role of workers in society. Even when strikes were not necessarily politically motivated, in many cases the violent reaction to them by those in power was politically motivated. Red Scare probably is not the right word, but there were definitely concerns about socialism and communism and it possibly spreading to other countries. In many cases this allowed political leaders to paint the striking workers with a very unflattering brush, which has in some cases, like in Winnipeg, remained to this day. It also gave the political leaders and excuse to quickly escalate to violence in an attempt to control the worker’s actions, which often resulted in people being killed. I would say that the way that the war changed the relationship between workers and the political and industrial leaders in the country around the world probably is not discussed enough, and it is an area I would love to read more about.
Noah has one more question: “Anyways my next question is, what affect did the royal family have on the British war effort and Versailles?” The British royal family did not really play an active role in the war. By this point in history the relationship between the Royal Family in the British Empire was not drastically different than it is today. This meant that most of the power within the Empire rested in the civilian leadership and parliament. The Royal family were figureheads, but technically still heads of state. They did contribute to several morale boosting causes though, for example they sent Christmas gifts from the Queen and Princess to the men in the trenches, and they sponsored and supported hospitals at home and at the front.
Next question is a somewhat common one from Francis: “I would still like to know the exact relationship between Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Why Hindenburg is the boss of Ludendorff but doesn’t seem to do anything.” In some ways Hindenburg and Ludendorff has a special relationship, but in some ways they were sort of just a typical General and Chief of Staff relationship with it augmented by the personalities of the two people involved. All German army units above a certain size had a General Officer who was in charge, and he would have a chief of staff. When the war started Hindenburg was a very famous and popular general, but he was retired, and was probably quite happy living the good life in East Prussia. however, when the war started many retired generals were called back into the army to lead the expanded German army, Hindenburg was one of these. Ludendorff was skilled, experiences, and very willing to take control of a situation. This meant that when they were paried together Hindenburg slipped into a role where he was participating in leading the army, but in many instances was more than willing to defer to Ludendorff’s plans and ideas. The particulars of how this happened was kind of unique in the German army, but the outcome was not. I would compare the arrangement to some of the armies commanded by German royalty. Crown Prince Wilhelm, son of the Kaiser, and Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria were both military leaders that relied hevily on their experienced and well respected Chiefs of Staff when it came to planning and execution. In all of these cases the Chief of Staff was seen as the professional and was a technically skilled leader, the big difference for Ludendorff is that he was more than willing to take a very open and outspoken role. I also think that the contributions of Ludendorff at the time were perhaps a bit more masked at the time than they are today. We have the benefit of hindsight, but during the war Hindenburg often received a lot of the credit for all of the actions of men he lead, which is part of why he never made any serious moves to change the relationship he had with Ludendorff until after the war when the two of them would break off contact.
Next question is from John: “Given the sheer scale of casualties in WWI, I have been quite curious about the fate, handling and logistics of prisoners of war, which sometimes are a surprisingly high fraction of the casualties. To elaborate, here are some of the questions I’ve had as I think about it: Where do they go first when captured? Where do they end up long term? For how long? Were there ever mass prisoner exchanges? Or by the end of the war did each side have tens or hundreds of thousands of the others’ men stowed away in camps and such? Given the horribly low resources of Germany and Austria-Hungary, I shudder to think how they could even try to take care of so many men. Was it expected that aid would be sent by the prisoners’ countries to sustain them? That seems like a fascinating political and logistical knot right there. And if food is being sent to prisoners, wouldn’t the Central Powers just take that food for their own starving men? Also, how soon did prisoners get returned after the armistice was signed? Was it an immediate flood into each country of those pent up men?” Okay, there are a lot of questions there, which I will sort of treat as a rapid fire set of questions. When first captured the men would generally be sent to a colleciton point behind the lines, often far enough back that they were not in danger. They would then be transferred to prisoner of war camps, and yes there were many of them. I have seen numbers as high as 9 million total prisoners spread among all of the countries involved in the war. That number if fuzzy due to the breakdown of official statistics in place in some countries like Russia. There were no large prisoner transfers that I know of, at least until countries started dropping out of the war. Food was definitely a problem, but there was at least some effort to take care of the prisoners in almost all of the countries. Obviously the economic situation within a country would cause this to be better or worse depending on the availability of food. Food shortages in Germany and Austria-Hungary caused problems. There were efforts by the Red Cross and organizations within both Britain and France to ship food to their prisoners in Germany. This was done with the permission of the British and German government, and was often in the form of parcels to specific prisoners. Families would also send food to the camps, which would arrive just like normal mail. This did result in situations where the allied soldiers were eating better than the guards tha were guarding them. Soldiers from other countries were not as lucky, and would have only what their hosts provided for them, which was often barely enough to live on. Notably the Italians refused to allow any food to be sent to their prisoners in Austria-Hungary. They did this out of the belief that soldiers who had surrendered were not worth the support, and should be sort of punished for surrendering. There were almost certainly instances where soldiers in any country took some, lets call it a tax on the goods sent to the prisoners, but this does not seem to have been a common occurence. I think from an administrative perspective they were glad that they were not totally on the hook for given food to the prisoners, meaning more for everybody else. And it was also a really easy way to keep the prisoners happy. Prisoners were largely released almost as soon as the armistices were signed among the countries, although they were not always given means of transport. An immediate flood was probably a good description as former prisoners walked, rode, or found any way possible to make their way back home. Some of these journeys took longer than others, like the Czech soldiers who had to traverse the entire length of Siberia, or the German and Austrian prisoners who were housed in Canada during the war.
Next up is one from Mark: “I recently read a brief article online that mentioned that during the eastern front campaigns there was an instance where both Central Powers and Russian forces agreed to a short term ceasefire and actually teamed up against large packs of wolves which had been harassing both armies, attracted by the numerous dead and injured soldiers?” I have seen some articles referencing this event, or events like it from time to time, they all seem to point back to artilies that floated around American newspapers in 1917. Given the nature of the reports, I am generally inclined to believe that such stories are apocryphal. I am sure that solves were at times problematic, but I do not see why a truce would ever be necessary to handle them. There were literally thousands of soldiers, with an equal number of guns on both sides, surely either side could have easily handled a wolf problem. There were some truces between the armies for other reasons, like the disposal of the dead, truces that were generally far more common outside the Western Front. If anybody out there has an article with more information on the wolves send it over, but I find the story very hard to believe.
Next question form Same: “One question I have is the role of the Vatican in the Great War. People always talk about their role in WW2, but is hardly ever mentioned in reference to the First World War.” The Vatican did not play much of a role in the war beyond their pushes early in the conflict to get the two sides to negotiate a peace. They would also attempt to get all of the beligerents to agree to truces on major Christian holidays like Christmas. Neither of these efforts were successful, and they would be almost entirely ignored throughout the conflict.
Next is from Mark, a different Mark from the previous Mark: “I am interested to know more about Switzerland and how they were impacted during the conflict? Whilst they remained neutral I expect it was a difficult time for the country, particularly in terms of imports/exports, given that it was land locked on all sides by combatants?” Switzerland definitely experienced some difficulties during the war. As you mentioned they were of course neutral during the conflict and throughout the war they would struggle to both stay neutral and maintain essential relations outside of the country for importing items like food. The supply of food would become very problematic fairly early in the war, but the Swiss government would be one of the first to introduce rationing which helped carry the country through the later parts of the war when items were becoming more and more scarce.
Derek has our next question: “What did Japan do in WW1? I know they declared war on Germany in 1914, I think on the 6th of August, and that they came out of the war with an empire. So what all did they do? Maybe you already plan on doing an episode on it?” Japan definitely enetered the war right at the start. In the first months of the war they took over several German pacific colonies, and would end up gaining control of them in the Treaty of Versailles. Beyond these early actions they would not really be involved in very much fighting. They would send a few destroyers to work with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, and they would send some troops into Siberia late in the war, but that was about it. This is what the Japanese wanted, they wanted the benefits of being on the winning side with the absolute minimum possible investment. They were largely successful in this. They would even be the primary reason that China did not play a larger role in the fighting. The Japanese would actively prevent China from sending troops to fight on the Western Front because they feared that they would then have to send Japanese troops if they wanted to retain their position as the most important Ally on the Allied side during the war.
Philip asks “How effective were trench raids?” I think they would certainly be considered effective, and a success a good portion of the time. Definitive statemens are had to make about trench raids as a concept due to how varied they were during the war. They varied in both goals and size and throughout the war they morphed from almost ad hoc actions to large preplanned attacks that looked more like scaled down offensives. At the most basic level trench raid would involve an attempt to approach the enemy positions without alerting them, and then a hopefully brief bit of violence while trying to capture a prisoner or several prisoners, and then it was generally accepted that at that point the enemy would be notified. Or as British Private Walter Spence explains “Well, you’d try and get down to a part of the enemy trench where you thought it was least manned, you see, and you’d grab a prisoner if you could. And of course he’d give a gawk and that’s when the fun started.” As the war progressed raids also changed, and sometimes they were launched without any stealth component, and instead the artillery would just open up with a fire plan to box in some enemy positions which would be assaulted to try and capture the prisoners. It was almost universal that officers liked to launch trench raids, liked to “keep the men active” and thought that raids made for better soldiers. The men were often not quite as enthusiastic, here is one soldier Charles Quinnell “We knew it was a waste of time; it was a waste of time, we just hated it. But as time went on to get the information…There was some general about 30 mles behind the lines wanting to know who was on the opposite side. And he would send up a message “Raid so and so and get prisoners” just like that, you know. He out to have had the job himself…” Early on men often did not have specialized equipment when asked to go on raids, like large amounts of grenades and hand to hand weapons and they had to improvise. Later they would have both specialized equipment and more precise tactics on how to execute the raids to accomplish their goals. This specialized equipment at times greatly varied from what was used for more normal fighting. Here is a lengthy quote from orders given to German troops who were to launch a raid near Beaumont Hamel on the Somme front in 1916 “Dress and Equipment Field caps are to be worn. No shoulderboards or insignia. Identification marks on equipment are to be rendered illegible. No written material in pockets. Belt hooks are to be removed from jackets. As a recognition mark, all participants are to stitch white bands to both right and left arms. Two first field dressings are to be carried in the front jacket pockets. Gas masks are not to be taken. Each man is to carry six hand grenades (four stick grenades on the waist belt), two egg shaped grenades in the jacket pockets (tear-off hooks for these on waist belt). Two men of each patrol are to carry rifles, the remainder are to carry pistols, model 08, each with a filled reserve magazine and daggers.” Now back to the quiestion of how effective they were, I would say that they were probably generally effective, they had varied objectives and they often achieved them by capturing a few enemy soldiers or gaining information about their defenses. If nothing else the officers in charge certainly believed that they were effective.
Philip’s question on trench raids rolls very nicely into this question from Jean-Luc who asks “I’m very curious for you to elaborate on what actually happened when you say “the German army had learned the hour of attack from captured soldiers” and such. How was questioning done? Were soldiers ever judged by their peers or in military tribunals afterwards? Did some resist?” Often these situations would begin with trench raids, where the men would be captured, although it could also happen during an attack or really at any time the men were in the trenches. There would be an interrogation, and especially early in the war they were often able to lean a lot during these interrogations. I have not seen anything about widespread use of violent interrogation methods, or even truly forceful questioning. They were also not typically held for lengthy periods near the front, under the assumption that most of the men who were in a position to be captured did not often know very much information beyond the immediate situation. Working with prisoners was an area that evolved greatly during the war. Early in the fighting it would have just been whatever officers were present on that area of the front doing the questioning, and the amount of guidance they received on what to do was minimal. Later, better procedures, training, and even specialized intelligence groups were created to try and maximize the benefits of prisoners. I have not read anything about any widespread persecution of prisoners who did provide answers to enemy questions either during or after the war.
Next up are two questions on mostly the same topic, the first from Yitzhak “I don’t recall much talk of the warring parties clandestine services, or of the military intelligence beyond mostly interrogating captured enemy soldiers and other reactive activities (analyzing found documents, decoding intercepted messages). Were these branches just not active/impactful enough to be mentioned or have I missed something?” and from Alec “My question is about espionage in WWI. What were some espionage methods? How did these evolve as the war progressed? What/who were some of the spy networks or individuals?” I grouped these two questions together to discuss espionage in general during the war. One of the problems with espionage activities after the start of hostilities was one of communications. At the start of the war it was generally challenging to communicate in anything like real time from one region to another. This limited the ability of spy networks to enact some of what I would considre the classic variety of World War 2 and Cold War activities. There were networks of Allied informants mostly within the territories occupied by the German army in Belgium and northern France. In these areas the networks were curated, often by agent sent specifically for that purpose which were inserted via the neutrals in the Low countries early in the war. Their purpose was oriented toward intelligence gathering and far less towards sabotage or other forms of hostile resistance. The allied networks in German occupied territory might observe the railways and the traffic on them, but would very rarely actively interdict the traffic. The Central powers were in the slightly more difficult position, although the Germans did have an espionage network in the United States and in some other countries as well. I would say that it was almost a rule that the fears of espionage activities were always far greater than the actual impact of the existing espionage networks on events. The far more important area was in signals, or reactive activities as Yitzhak refers to them. This came in the form of wireless interception and decryption and other methods of gaining access to enemy communications at both the local and international level. I think this would change quite a bit after the war as the espionage services of all of the belligerents during the second world war would be able to take advantage of advances in communications equipment and mobility to be more impactful on the course of events.
Jonathan has the next question, about money: “As everyone has been talking about money and debt lately. I am wondering how much of a debt did each country that participated in the war go into at the end of the war. Or how much did they have before the war started and how much did they gain/lose depending on the outcome of the war?” The short answer on this one is a lot, like a lot a lot, like an unfathomably large amount of money. Before the start of the war the British empire was almost certainly the richest nation in the world, and they would basically bankroll the Allied war effort until late 1916. At that point it was reaching the end of its financial resources, and would have to start getting large sums of money from the United States, who then took over the task of paying the bills for the Allies when the United States entered the war in 1917. Most nations would go through a similar process, of spending through their nation’s gold reserves, and then they would go into debt to allies, and then they would try and reach out for foreign loans. Along the way many nations would try to find help from private citizens through the use of war bonds, but that often covered only a fraction of the total costs of the war. From everything I have seen estimates on the total cost of the war vary greatly, I do not know that I ahve really seen a final number for a lot of countries that seems well researched. There are tables of numbers that are floating around online, noen of which seem to have solid sources that are less than 90 years old. Any numbers that are determined then have to be ran through an inflation calculator, which seems kind of dubious when traversing 100 years of time. I think this is part of why answers to these questions are rarely boiled down to specific numbers and are generally spoken about in generalities and outcomes. What is known is that many of the European countries would start the war in a relatively stable financial position, many of them, like France, Germany, and Britain would be in a good financial position. They would end the war heavily in debt, mostly to the the British or the Americans. However, a lot of war debt would end up just disappearing after the war. For example Russia’s debt to both the public and private sectors in Britain would not be repaid, with the British government deciding to forgive the ebt during trade negotiatons. Similarly money lent to Austria-Hungary disappeared. The real outcome of this spending, in geopolitical terms, was a drastic reduction in the wealth of Europe, and especially the british Empire, and instead the shifting of global financial power to the United States. Many European countries, on the Allied side with war spending, and on the losing side due to reconstruction and reparation loans would find themselves in debt with the United States.
Raymond asks “I’m always wondering how European events from our period of study effect today’s European views of war, nationalist sentiment and relationships. It seems like war was a predictable fact of existence then but much in this century.” I think there were definitely different views towards war in 1914 when compared to after the war, and especially after the Second World War. In 1914 it had been almost a century since Napoleon had been defeated, and since that event, although there had been some regional conflicts, nothing had cascaded into a European wide war. This created a scenario where the public at large had kind of lost the memory of how bad a large war could be, and from a political perspective the statesment of the period focused mostly on the positives of what could happen for their countries and not the costs that had to be paid. Also, from a technical and military perspective there had been no way of testing many of the new technologies and tactics employed in 1914, which resulted in military leaders all over Europe drastically overestimating their forces abilities to decisively win a war. Four years of conflict would change this viewpoint, and after the war there would be a concerted push for some way of preventing a similar conflict in the future. This took a variety of forms, be it in attempts to make sure that Germany was not in a position to start another war, or through more cooperative efforts like the League of Nations. It was the beginning of the modern push for large international organizations to maintain world cooperation and peace, this trend would falter when confronted by the radical and violent ideologies of the interwar period, notably fascism and nazism, but then after the second world war, the international community would try again with the creation of the United Nations. I think it was a very similar mindset that would see the creation of the European Union. I think in recent years the rise of various nationalist parties around the world bely a sort o f general questioning by some people about the role that international bodies like the United Nations and European Union should play in the modern world. In my own country of the United States, I think you see this increase in questioning of bodies like the United Nations and NATO, which are organizations formed specifically due to hopes that they would prevent future large conflicts. I don’t want to make it sound like we are in a June 1914 situation, on the brink of some large war, but I do think we may be moving into another periiod of international uncertainty as the structures put in place after World War 2 begin to break down and as the memories of the the last great war start to fade.
On more a podcast structure note, Hendrik asks “You apparently did lots of reading for your research, but did you also use primary sources? At first glance I can’t see any on your sources list. And talking about books: do you know David Stevenson 1914-1918? If so, what so you think of it?” Primary sources are a challenge for me, I would say that I wish I could use more of them. There are three problems that reduced my ability to use primary sources, the first was access, the second language barriers, and third and most important was time. As a person on a very limiited podcasting budget, and without an academic affiliation, access to research material is always a problem for me. If something is not available online, or available through interlibrary loan, I pretty much just do not have access to it. This means that there are entire mountains of primary source material at various places around the world that are just unavailable to me. The second problem, and honestly least impactful, is that I only read and speak English, so anything in a foreign language is off the list. This has ended up not being a huge problem due to the other issues. The third problem and most important is time. I have a finite amount of time to work on the podcast and it competes with family, the job that pays the bills, and the occasional sleep. Because of this I often have to really consider bang for the buck on research. This means that while specific primary sources may be occassionally useful, a lot of the specific information from them would not end up in episodes where, even for how much content is in the podcast episodes, often end up being pretty high level. This often casuses me to rely far more heavily on academic second sources. I generally feel that it is more important for me to read that 200 page monograph by an actual historian rather than spend the same amount of time sifting through primary sources, only some small percentage of which will be beneficial to the episode. I am also always incredibly concerned, given the problems I have with access, that if I rely too heavily on primary sources I will form an inaccurate picture of events. I do really value secondary sources that pull very heavily from primary sources, and which present them directly, I generally point to books like those form Lyn MacDonald that contain huge amounts of just straight quotes form primary sources. I also think that it is important to say that this podcast does not represent, and was never intended to represent, some sort of new and groundbreaking set of research into the First World War. I am summarizinig events and concepts that are presented by real historians in a far more detailed manner. To close out this question, I will say that I think that this podcast would be better if I could rely more heavily on primary sources, but at the end of the day the most important thing about the podcast is that it exists, and that means that episodes gets released, and to make that happen I have to be realistic about the amount of research time I have, and that often means relying heavily on secondary sources from wonderful historians.
Next up is a common question when discussing any war in history, the question of whether there was a decision that could have changed the outcome, Paul brings up a very specific scenario: “I was listening to listener questions and one was did you think there was a single defining decision or action that was a turning point that would have changed the outcome of the war. You said that there really wasn’t and I tend to agree. However, one decision has come up in several sources that I think may be one of those watershed moments that may have influenced the whole war. The decision I am talking about is Moltke’s choice to send two divisions from western front to the Easter front in early aug 1914. They ended up not helping in the east and I argue that their absence contributed greatly the German offensive stalling and ultimately turned back on the marne. I was just wondering if you found moltkes decision to be as influential as I do?” I have also seen this specific decision come up a lot when this topic is introduced, Paul mentions two divisions, I think it was actually four that got sent to Eastern front, whch just makes the question even more relevant. The basic idea is that if the Germans concentrated more of their forces in the west, then the sort of grand strategic goal of their plan, which was to capture Paris and then trap the French armies in Eastern France could have happened. I think this is so persistent because of the general belief that if Moltke had operated under a more strict interpretation of the Schlieffen Plan, then the German attack would have been successful. This might have meant not transferring divisoins to the east, and it also would have required Moltke to not make the decision to move troops to the south to meet the French attacks there, a decision that was made well before the war began. As Moltke constructed the plan, there were about 70 German divisions in the west when the war started, for the purposes of this question I am going to say that we give them another 7 divisions to put on the right wing. For reference this would be about half of the total strength of von Kluck’s army which was on the far right of the German advance, and the most powerful of the German armies. I still don’t think even 7 divisions makes a decisive difference, honestly I think within the realistic constraints of the manpower in the German army, no amount of force on the right wing, with troops still present in the south to prevent the French from marching into the Ruhr and the Russians into Berlin, can make the plan in 1914 work. And this is because I believe that the problem that the Germans had in 1914 had little to do with manpower, and was firmly rooted in mobility and logistics. The entire problem with World War 1 offensives is not that there were not enough men available, that was rarely the problem, the problem was that it was impossible to project those men forward through and beyond the enemy lines fast enough to prevent a response. The Germans do very well in the initial stages in 1914, but only because the Entente completely misreads the play. Even with the advantage of the enemy doing completely the best thing for the German attack, by the time that the Germans reach the Marne they are running into the same problems as every other World War 1 offensive, essentially they were limited, both in movement of military soldiers and supplies, to how fast and far their men could walk. This put limits on how far and fast they could advance, and they found that limit during the march to the Marne. The stories of German soldiers almost falling over with exhaustion are well documented. The French and British did have similar problems at this point, their soldiers had been retreating from the Germans just as long as the Germans had been advancing. However, the critical part was that as the Germans advanced deeper into French territory, their ability to push forward supplies and reinforcements drastically decreased. At the very same time the ability of the French and British to move reinforcements and supplies to help in the defense only increased. I personally beleive that this problem prevents the Germans from ever taking Paris, and with Paris in French ands it would have been very difficult for the Germans to advance any further south to cut off the French army. More troops only makes the supply situation worse, and does not really solve the exhaustion problem. Due to issues with the railroads being damaged any German reinforcements would just have to make the same marches as everyone else. I hink I mentioned this in an answer in an earlier episode, but I have always been of the opinion that the First World War existed in a period where the armies were too large for the types of attacks that were being executed in 1914, armies were too big for the traditional flanking maneuvers to really work when there was nothing but the speed of the soldiers to propel them forward. The technological advances to help the attackers would come along a generation later. However, at ths same time the best defensive mobility technologies, specificallly the proliferation of rail travel, were already prevelant. This makes it far easier for the defending army to reinforce, reposition, and resupply their forces. Of course, all of this is just my opinion, as we are firmly off the map of historical fact and into the land of historical fiction, where opinions and theories are the rules of the game.
Next up is a question from Benjamin Jacobs of the Wittenburg to Westphalia podcast: “A running theme of the show has been the learning curve of generals coming to grips with new technology. The truism has become we always prepare to fight the last war. What lessons can we take about being adaptable and learning more quickly?” This is a really good question, because the learning and adaptation, or lack thereof by many military leaders during the war often comes under a lot of criticism. There is a tendency to push a lot of blame onto leaders like haig and Joffre for the absolute disasters that were the Entente offensives of 1915, 1916, and 1917. Some of these criticisms are absolutely justified, they were the leaders of their armies, when their armies made collosal mistakes, they should receive some of the blame. At the same time other commanders get praise due to their actions during the war, men like Ludendorff, or Petain or Plumer. It is tempting to point to those leaders, with Petain’s push for more conservative offensives with a different emphasis on artillery, Plumer with this bit and hold tactics, and Ludendorff for the German 1918 offensives and say, wwow those people really knew what they were doing. But in all of those cases those different strategies, just like those of other leaders did not win the war, Petain and Plumer’s slower offensives were ruinously expensive in artillery, and still resulted in large casualties while only capturing small pieces of territory. The German spring offensive in 1918 certainly gained a lot of territory, but only at the cost of massive casualties among the best troops in the army, and they still did not achieve objectives worthy of the costs. And even beyond that they were all operating in an environment, in late 1917 and early 1918 that was drastically different than the environment during the first two years of the war. It was only the arrival of an entirely new and fresh army, and the complete exhaustion of German manpower, that brought the war to a conclusion. So what lessons should the commanders in the first three years have learned? Or what should we learn from their seeming failure to learn? I believe what we should learn is that that sometimes, there is no right answer to a question, sometimes in both war and in life you will end up with a challenge that does not have an immediate solution. On the Western Front, from the point near the end of 1914 when the front was established until 1918 when the manpower pools on both sides began to simply run dry, I do not believe there was anything that the military leaders on either side could have done to quickly win the war. They simply did not have the offensive tools to deal with both the physical defenses that their armies would have to push through, and then to meet the ability of the defender to rush in reinfrocements. There were simply too many guns and too many men on both sides. Defensive mobility, using railways primarily, would always get the better of offensive mobility, which had to deal with transporting goods and reinforcements over a shattered battlefield. The solutions to these problems would only be available near the end of the war, and it would have far more to do with the economic changes than drastic changes on the military side. So, if there was not a correct answer to the puzzle of how to win the war by offensive action, then why did they continue to attack, well to understand that it is important to consider the political dimension of the conflict. It was very difficult for any of the major countries to justify doing nothing, and just biding their time, So they were almost universally put in a position where htey had to be proactive, and that meant to attack. I guess an important addition to the idea that we should realize that in some situations there is no good answer, is that it is very hard to know you are in such a situation at the time. The military and political leaders did not know that what they were trying to do was impossible. They did not know that there was not a good answer, which was obviously problematic, but an advantage that we have when looking back and evaluating their choices.
Our last question comes form Diane: “I just finished the second set of listener questions this year, so this may already be covered, but I thought I’d suggest it. Given the rather short amount of time between the 2 world wars, there seem to be a lot of people who were involved in both. Some of them (Churchill, Hitler, etc.) are well known, but I looked up. General Petain this evening and was distressed to discover he’d been a Nazi collaborator during WWII. I knew I recognized the name! I’m thinking a review of some of these people would be interesting and instructive. Just a thought.” One of the problems I have had in the last few months is where to end the podcast. I touched on this a bit last episode, but given how seemingly intertwined the First and Second World War are, it is hard to determine where one story ends and the other begins. This is especially true when it comes to discussing the people who were deeply involved in both. Churchill, Petain, Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and so many others further down the political and military ladder had experiences in the First and Second world wars. At some point I ended up with some rough outlines that covered basically exactly the group of people you are asking about, my problem was that the episodes on their actions after 1918 felt too abbreviated. None of those experiences, like for example Petain collaborating with the Nazis, are simple stories. So those episodes just sort of got dropped off the list because I could not make them work with a reasonable scope. I think to properly tell those stories, I would need a whole new podcast.
So lets talk about the future then, shall we. Next episode will be an interview with some representatives from the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial which is in Kansas City, Missouri. I think that will be very interesting, and then I will also be releasing five episodes from the Patreon feed that I am releasing onto the normal feed, and then there will be an epilogue episode to discuss the legacy of the First World War. Then I will be taking a few months off from releasing episodes, although that generally just means research gets kicked into overdrive, then sometime early next year I will be dropping several episodes onto this feed about the League of Nations. These will also be the first episodes of my next podcast which, you guessed it, is just continuing our story forward and into the Second World War. Precise details on that podcast are not really determined yet, but the goal will be to take the style of this show and just to move it forward in history by a few decades. We will be spending a good chunk of time, unlike in this podcast, in the lead up to the war before we get to the traditional start of the war narrative. What I am calling the Time to Panzers in Poland will be most likely several months. I don’t know the name yet, or precise timing details, other than some point in the near future, but if you want to be notified of when that new podcast is available, stay subscribed to this podcast and then at some point a few months from now you will have some new episodes waiting for you. As always thank you for listening, and I hope you will join me for my next journey when it begins.