The Great War came as no surprise. Planned for in excruciating detail, its major players knew exactly how the scenario would play out, based on lessons from their earlier wars, the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. The Germans had their Schlieffen Plan, conceived in the 1890s, and the French had their Plan XVII, developed even earlier. Despite different objectives, both plans shared a strategic emphasis on attack in overwhelming force. Neither side expected a long war, given their timetables for lightning moves. All that held them back was the starting gun.
Alan Axelrod reveals in fascinating detail the background and progress of this great war, which failed to turn out as any initial combatant planned. A complex phenomenon that eventually embroiled some thirty-six nations, it requires his great skills of narrative and timing to take a reader successfully through its major campaigns and political skulduggery. Early on, Axelrod wonders why so few Americans really know in any detail this important war, which truly changed the course of human history—in contrast to the huge and knowledgeable following for the much earlier American Civil War. Perhaps a key to this puzzle lies in whatever has drawn some 20,000 Americans into regularly reenacting Civil War battles. No one could possibly be enticed into reliving the unspeakable horrors of trench warfare. Axelrod goes on to identify the palpable differences between the two wars when he characterizes World War I as “a conflict marked by stalemate and slaughter rather than movement and conquest.”
For the Germans the Schlieffen Plan worked as long as there was forward momentum. When progress was halted by the French at the Marne, the combatants finally discovered what differences advances in ordnance had forced on their tactics. Suddenly it was clear that fortune no longer favored the bold; the better part of valor was a good defensive position. Within months, both sides had dug in, creating trench networks straddling no man’s land from the Belgian coast to the borders of Switzerland. As 1915 began, four million soldiers occupied pestilential trenches along the front, and nothing would change their relative positions for nearly four years. A poet accurately characterized the Western Front this way:
Five hundred miles of Germans
Five hundred miles of French
And English, Scotch and Irish men
All fighting for a trench.
And when the trench is taken
And many thousands slain,
The losers, with more slaughter,
Retake the trench again.
What made the difference in ground warfare was the machine gun—and rifled, breech-loading field artillery.
More than half a century earlier, at the Battle of Gettysburg, about 15,000 men advanced in formation across open fields to charge an enemy position a mile away. Established upon a ridge and behind a low stone wall, the Union forces held their fire until the Confederates were well within range, a restraint Rebels laid to a two-hour barrage that prepared their way. What they didn’t know was that their guns had progressively overshot the target as each blast pounded a cannon’s tailpiece deeper into the soft earth. And because black powder created such billows of smoke, the gunners could rarely observe where their shots were falling.
When General Pickett’s men neared their objective, the center of the Union line, they advanced into point-blank fire; even so, a handful of Southerners did reach the stone wall—at least temporarily. That as many as 5,000 Confederates actually returned unhurt to their lines was something of a miracle, owed mostly to the inaccuracy of the day’s weapons and to firing time lost in reloading by muzzle.
There were many comparable infantry charges in World War I, but the outcome was quite different: Hardly anyone who charged over the top survived the defenders’ savage fire. With developments in smokeless powder and in high-velocity ammunition, the machine gun of 1914 could fire 600 rounds per minute at ranges that exceeded 1,000 yards. Two or three machine guns would have made quick work of a Pickett’s Charge. Robert E. Lee, who ordered the charge, would not make such a mistake again, but the generals of World War I did—again and again.
Axelrod further differentiates the two wars by pointing out that in World War I getting killed became a rather more impersonal event—“rarely was there any individual opponent to outwit, outrun, or outthink.” Breech-loading had shortened the interval between firings, and field guns now had recoil systems that took up the counterforce of propulsion without jolting the gun carriage, which saved time readjusting the aim. And rifled barrels and high-velocity shells had pushed possible targets far beyond human sighting—some seventy miles for Germany’s Paris guns. Death just dropped out of the sky—with no warning.
But some things had begun to change before the United States entered the fighting in late spring 1918. With Russia out of the war that winter, Germany took advantage of armies withdrawn from the Eastern Front to direct all efforts toward finally crushing the British and the French forces—before Americans arrived in threatening numbers. A series of five major German offensives against the Western Front brought both sides out of the trenches and into the open, which was just fine with General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, who had long resisted feeding his men as they arrived into the deadly trenches to die under foreign commanders. In 110 days of heavy combat, fighting at last under the American flag and now two million strong, the AEF played a decisive role in causing the defeat of the German Empire. Now let Alan Axelrod tell you in greater detail how it all unfolded.
Walton Rawls is the author of Wake Up, America!: World War I and the American Poster. His other books include Great Civil War Heroes and Their Battles, a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection, and Disney Dons Dogtags: The Best of Disney Military Insignia from World War II. He was a contributor to the Oxford Companion to American Military History.