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The Stupefying Ground War, to December 1916

On 23 August 1914, Japan joined their ally Britain in declaring war on Germany, and it sent a force of 30,000 men to overrun the Germans in China's Shandong province. Also entering the war on the side of Britain were Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Turkey's leader, Enver Pasha, viewed war among the European powers as an opportunity to take back Islamic lands that decades before had been absorbed by the Russian Empire. He hoped to reinvigorate the Ottoman Empire and he feared that if Britain, France and Russia won the war they might deprive the empire of more of its territory. So he gambled and chose to take the empire into the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. France and Britain declared war on the Turks on November 5, and Britain found this an opportune time to annex Cyprus and Egypt — lands that had been nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire while being administered by the British. The Turks closed the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, preventing Russia from exporting its wheat or receiving shipments of materials from its allies. Britain moved a military force up the Persian Gulf to Iraq to protect its oil wells and began engaging Turkish forces. The Turks began an assault into Russia's Caucasus Mountains, led by Enver Pasha himself, an offensive that the Russians would smash in a five-day battle end on January 3. Of the 95,000 men in Turkey's force, only 18,000 returned — about 50,000 of them having frozen to death. The Turks blamed the failure on the treason of Armenians, the beginning of massacres of Turkey's Armenians.

Meanwhile, some in Italy wanted their country to gain territory at the expense of Austria-Hungary or perhaps the Ottoman Empire. In a treaty signed in London in April 1915, Italy was promised Tyrol, Trieste, northern Dalmatia and numerous islands in along Austria's Adriatic coast, and Italy was promised a share of what today is Turkey. In agreeing to join the war, Italy was promised loans and it was supposed to pressure the Pope into refraining from making peace initiatives.

Also in April, the British began their invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli — a force that included troops from New Zealand, Australia, India, and Newfoundland. A landing was made, and a second wave of invaders was sent in during August. There was stalemate, and in December the British withdrew from the area. Their forces had suffered 219,000 wounded and approximately 46,000 killed.

In 1915, on French territory against the Germans, French, British and colonial troops from India tried to break through the German line. For the year, the French suffered 1.9 million casualties and the British about a million, with no ground having been gained. Where they broke through the German line, counterattacks had quickly driven them back and plugged the breach.

While the Germans were holding to defensive warfare in France, they joined Austria-Hungary in chasing the Russians eastward from Lithuania and Poland. A huge army of refugees moved ahead of the advancing Germans. In Lithuania, Jews had been accused of supporting Germany and waiting for the arrival of German troops, and there had been widespread looting of Jewish shops and homes.

The retreating Russians burned crops, killed cattle and left their wounded without medical attention. By the end of September the Germans were in possession of the Russian empire's frontier fortresses. Russia's armies still suffered from shortages of supplies, including boots and ammunition. Only a third of its infantry had rifles. Hygiene among the Russians was low, and typhus and cholera spread wherever the Russian soldiers went.

Russia's plan to help their Serb brothers by entering the war against Austria-Hungary was not working well (not as well perhaps as it might have had they merely helped the Serbs with supplies.) In late 1914, without Russia's help, the Serbs had driven the Habsburg forces back across their border (after frustrated Habsburg forces had rounded up and shot male civilians, massacred children and raped women at the town of Šabac and had rounded up and shot 150 peasants at the town of Lesnica.)

In early October 1915, Bulgaria entered the war on the side of Austria-Hungary and Germany, with Germany having promised Bulgaria land at the expense of their old territorial rival in the 1913 war, Serbia. And that month, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Bulgaria invaded Serbia, their troops entering Belgrade on October 9. In late November the Serbian army collapsed and retreated to the Adriatic Sea, to be evacuated by the Italian and French Navies.

For the year 1916, Britain, France, Italy and Russia assumed that their combined offensives would overwhelm the Germans. The Germans lured the French to fight at a narrow salient by the famous fortress of Verdun. The German strategy was to inflict mass casualties on the French rather than to win ground. Public opinion in France accommodated the Germans by pressuring their politicians to defend Verdun. The French began their offensive there in February. With the sensation of fighting at Verdun, the German public demanded a more aggressive effort and German forces left what as supposed to be a defensive strategy and went on the offensive, led by the son of Kaiser Wilhelm, Crown Prince Wilhelm, who was eager for glory. The Battle of Verdun ended on 20 December. Artillery fire and rain had turned the area into a wasteland of mud and dead bodies. The French suffered from 156,000 to 162,000 killed. Some were shot for desertion or refusing to fight. The Germans lost 143,000 killed.

The Italian offensive that began in March 1915 lasted through the year, the Italians losing 147,000 men and Austria-Hungary 81,000. A French and British offensive that began in July, to be known as the Battle of the Somme, was not gaining ground. The British lost 60,000 men on the first day. It was too much for the British and French commanders to admit their error in judgment. They continued the fighting to mid-November. The Battle of the Somme was to be described as one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The British, according to Britannica, lost 420,000 men, the French 195,000 and the Germans roughly 650,000

A Russians offensive in June, timed to partner with the offensive at the Somme, was another failure. It is named after the Russian commander, Brusilov, and took place in what today is Western Ukraine. (In 2014, President Vladimir Putin would describe it as a reason for Russian pride.) The offensive lasted into September and drove the Austro-Hungarian forces back fifty miles. It wrecked the Austro-Hungarian army, and the Germans felt compelled to send troops that were facing the French to face the Russians. Austria-Hungary's total casualties (wounded, prisoners, killed) has been estimated at 1,325,000. Russia's casualties according to Wikipedia, drawing from Russian sources, were 440,000 dead or wounded and 60,000 lost as prisoners. Russia's drive for victory was leaving it drained, and the tsar's regime would not make it through the coming winter.

CONTINUE READING: War at Sea and the United States

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.