German Empire of World War 1
During World War I, the German Empire was one of the Central Powers that lost the war.
It began participation in the conflict after the declaration of war against Serbia by its ally, Austria-Hungary.
German forces fought the Allies on both the eastern and western fronts, although German territory itself remained relatively safe from widespread invasion for most of the war, except for a brief period in 1914 when East Prussia was invaded.
A tight blockade imposed by the Royal Navy caused severe food shortages in the cities, especially in the winter of 1916–17, known as the Turnip Winter.
At the end of the war, Germany’s defeat and widespread popular discontent triggered the German Revolution of 1918–19 which overthrew the monarchy and established the Weimar Republic.
The German population responded to the outbreak of war in 1914 with a complex mix of emotions, in a similar way to the populations in other countries of Europe; notions of overt enthusiasm known as the Spirit of 1914 have been challenged by more recent scholarship.
The German government, dominated by the Junkers, thought of the war as a way to end Germany’s disputes with rivals France, Russia, and Britain.
The beginning of the war was presented in Germany as the chance for the nation to secure “our place under the sun,” as the Foreign Minister Bernhard von Bülow had put it, which was readily supported by prevalent nationalism among the public.
The Kaiser and the German establishment hoped the war would unite the public behind the monarchy, and lessen the threat posed by the dramatic growth of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which had been the most vocal critic of the Kaiser in the Reichstag before the war.
Despite its membership in the Second International, the Social Democratic Party of Germany ended its differences with the Imperial government and abandoned its principles of internationalism to support the war effort.
It soon became apparent that Germany was not prepared for a war lasting more than a few months.
At first, little was done to regulate the economy for a wartime footing, and the German war economy would remain badly organized throughout the war.
Germany depended on imports of food and raw materials, which were stopped by the British blockade of Germany.
Food prices were first limited, then rationing was introduced.
In 1915 five million pigs were massacred in the so-called Schweinemord to both make food and preserve grain.
The winter of 1916/17 was called “turnip winter” because the potato harvest was poor and people ate animal food, including vile-tasting turnips.
During the war from August 1914 to mid-1919, the excess deaths over peacetime caused by malnutrition and high rates of exhaustion and disease and despair came to about 474,000 civilians.
The German army opened the war on the Western Front with a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan, designed to quickly attack France through neutral Belgium before turning southwards to encircle the French army on the German border.
The Belgians fought back and sabotaged their rail system to delay the Germans.
The Germans did not expect this and were delayed, and responded with systematic reprisals on civilians, killing nearly 6,000 Belgian non-combatants, including women and children, and burning 25,000 houses and buildings.
The plan called for the right flank of the German advance to converge on Paris and initially, the Germans were very successful, particularly in the Battle of the Frontiers (14–24 August).
By 12 September, the French with assistance from the British forces halted the German advance east of Paris at the First Battle of the Marne (5–12 September).
The last days of this battle signified the end of mobile warfare in the west. The French offensive into Germany launched on 7 August with the Battle of Mulhouse had limited success.
In the east, only one Field Army defended East Prussia and when Russia attacked in this region it diverted German forces intended for the Western Front.
Germany defeated Russia in a series of battles collectively known as the First Battle of Tannenberg (17 August – 2 September), but this diversion exacerbated problems of insufficient speed of advance from rail-heads not foreseen by the German General Staff.
The Central Powers were thereby denied a quick victory and forced to fight a war on two fronts. The German army had fought its way into a good defensive position inside France and had permanently incapacitated 230,000 more French and British troops than it had lost itself.
Despite this, communications problems and questionable command decisions cost Germany the chance of obtaining an early victory.
1916 was characterized by two great battles on the Western front, at Verdun and the Somme.
They each lasted most of the year, achieved minimal gains, and drained away from the best soldiers of both sides.
Verdun became the iconic symbol of the murderous power of modern defensive weapons, with 280,000 German casualties, and 315,000 French. At the Somme, there were over 400,000 German casualties, against over 600,000 Allied casualties.
At Verdun, the Germans attacked what they considered to be a weak French salient which nevertheless the French would defend for reasons of national pride.
The Somme was part of a multinational plan of the Allies to attack different fronts simultaneously. German woes were also compounded by Russia’s grand “Brusilov offensive”, which diverted more soldiers and resources.
Although the Eastern front was held to a standoff and Germany suffered fewer casualties than their allies with ~150,000 of the ~770,000 Central powers casualties, the simultaneous Verdun offensive stretched the German forces committed to the Somme offensive.
German experts are divided in their interpretation of the Somme.
Some say it was a standoff, but most see it as a British victory and argue it marked the point at which German morale began a permanent decline and the strategic initiative was lost, along with irreplaceable veterans and confidence.
In early 1917 the SPD leadership became concerned about the activity of its anti-war left-wing which had been organising as the Sozialdemokratische Arbeitsgemeinschaft (SAG, “Social Democratic Working Group”).
On 17 January they expelled them, and in April 1917 the left-wing went on to form the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (German: Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands).
The remaining faction was then known as the Majority Social Democratic Party of Germany.
This happened as the enthusiasm for war faded with the enormous numbers of casualties, the dwindling supply of manpower, the mounting difficulties on the homefront, and the never-ending flow of casualty reports.
A grimmer and grimmer attitude began to prevail amongst the general population.
The only highlight was the first use of mustard gas in warfare, in the Battle of Ypres.
After, morale was helped by victories against Serbia, Greece, Italy, and Russia which made great gains for the Central Powers.
Morale was at its greatest since 1914 at the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918 with the defeat of Russia following her rise into revolution, and the German people braced for what Ludendorff said would be the “Peace Offensive” in the west.[
In spring 1918, Germany realized that time was running out.
It prepared for the decisive strike with new armies and new tactics, hoping to win the war on the Western front before millions of American and British Empire soldiers appeared in battle.
General Erich Ludendorff and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg had full control of the army, they had a large supply of reinforcements moved from the Eastern front, and they trained storm troopers with new tactics to race through the trenches and attack the enemy’s command and communications centers.
The new tactics would indeed restore mobility to the Western front, but the German army was too optimistic.
During the winter of 1917-18, it was “quiet” on the Western Front—British casualties averaged “only” 3,000 a week.
Serious attacks were impossible in the winter because of the deep caramel-thick mud.
Quietly the Germans brought in their best soldiers from the eastern front, selected elite storm troops, and trained them all winter in the new tactics. With stopwatch timing, the German artillery would lay down a sudden, fearsome barrage just ahead of its advancing infantry.
Moving in small units, firing light machine guns, the stormtroopers would bypass enemy strongpoints, and head directly for critical bridges, command posts, supply dumps, and, above all, artillery batteries.
By cutting enemy communications they would paralyze response in the critical first half hour.
By silencing the artillery they would break the enemy’s firepower.
Rigid schedules sent in two more waves of infantry to mop up the strong points that had been bypassed. The shock troops frightened and disoriented the first line of defenders, who would flee in panic.
In one instance an easy-going Allied regiment broke and fled; reinforcements rushed in on bicycles. The panicky men seized the bikes and beat an even faster retreat.
The stormtrooper tactics provided mobility, but not increased firepower.
Eventually—in 1939 and 1940—the formula would be perfected with the aid of dive bombers and tanks, but in 1918 the Germans lacked both.
Ludendorff erred by attacking the British first in 1918, instead of the French.
He mistakenly thought the British to be too uninspired to respond rapidly to the new tactics. The exhausted, dispirited French perhaps might have folded.
The German assaults on the British were ferocious—the largest of the entire war. At the Somme River in March, 63 divisions attacked in a blinding fog.
No matter, the German lieutenants had memorized their maps and their orders.
The British lost 270,000 men, fell back 40 miles, and then held.
They quickly learned how to handle the new German tactics: fall back, abandon the trenches, let the attackers overextend themselves, and then counterattack.
They gained an advantage in firepower from their artillery and from tanks used as mobile pillboxes that could retreat and counterattack at will.
In April Ludendorff hit the British again, inflicting 305,000 casualties—but he lacked the reserves to follow up.
Ludendorff launched five great attacks between March and July, inflicting a million British and French casualties.
The Western Front now had opened up—the trenches were still there but the importance of mobility now reasserted itself.
The Allies held.
The Germans suffered twice as many casualties as they inflicted, including most of their precious stormtroopers.
The new German replacements were under-aged youth or embittered middle-aged family men in poor condition.
They were not inspired by the elan of 1914, nor thrilled with battle—they hated it, and some began talking of revolution. Ludendorff could not replace his losses, nor could he devise a new brainstorm that might somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The British likewise were bringing in reinforcements from the whole Empire, but since their home front was in good condition, and since they could see inevitable victory, their morale was higher.
The great German spring offensive was a race against time, for everyone could see the Americans were training millions of fresh young men who would eventually arrive on the Western Front.
German troops in Kiev, March 1918
The attrition warfare now caught up to both sides. Germany had used up all the best soldiers they had, and still had not conquered many territories.
The British were out of fresh manpower but still had huge reserves from the British Empire, whereas the French nearly exhausted their manpower.
Berlin had calculated it would take months for the Americans to ship all their men and supplies—but the U.S.
troops arrived much sooner, as they left their supplies behind, and relied on British and French artillery, tanks, airplanes, trucks, and equipment.
Berlin also assumed that Americans were fat, undisciplined, and unaccustomed to hardship and severe fighting.
They soon realized their mistake.
The Germans reported that “The qualities of the [Americans] individually may be described as remarkable.
They are physically well set up, their attitude is good… They lack at present only training and experience to make formidable adversaries.
The men are in fine spirits and are filled with naive assurance.”
By September 1918, the Central Powers were exhausted from fighting, the American forces were pouring into France at a rate of 10,000 a day, the British Empire was mobilised for war peaking at 4.5 million men and 4,000 tanks on the Western Front.
The decisive Allied counteroffensive, known as the Hundred Days Offensive, began on 8 August 1918—what Ludendorff called the “Black Day of the German army.” The Allied armies advanced steadily as German defenses faltered.
Although German armies were still on enemy soil as the war ended, the generals, the civilian leadership—and indeed the soldiers and the people—knew all was hopeless.
They started looking for scapegoats.
The hunger and popular dissatisfaction with the war precipitated revolution throughout Germany.
By 11 November Germany had virtually surrendered, the Kaiser and all the royal families had abdicated, and the German Empire had been replaced by the Weimar Republic.