Bentley, chapter 33 The Great War



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Bentley, chapter 33



The Great War

  1. The First Blush of War: At first the war was popular. Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin witnessed ‘the mad delirium…patriotic street demonstrations…singing throngs, coffee shops with their patriotic songs…violent mobs ready to whip themselves into delirious frenzy over every wild rumour…trains filled with reservists…pull out amid the joyous cries of enthusiastic maidens’ Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary, wrote, ‘The patriotic enthusiasm of the masses in Austria-Hungary seemed especially surprising… I strode along the main streets of the familiar Vienna and watched a most amazing crowd fill the fashionable Ring…porters, laundresses, shoe-makers, apprentices and youngsters from the suburbs.” In London ‘an immense and tremendously enthusiastic crowd’ gathered outside Buckingham Palace’ on 4 August. Victor Serge, in a French prison, described how ‘passionate singing of the “Marseillaise”, from crowds seeing troops off to the train, drifted across even to our jail. We could hear shouts of “To Berlin! To Berlin!’ Even in St Petersburg the strikes and barricades of only a few days earlier seemed forgotten. The British ambassador Buchanan later spoke of ‘those wonderful early August days’ when ‘Russia seemed to have been completely transformed’.



  1. Selling a War: It has been said that "Truth is the first casualty of war." The comment means that during war, the mobilization of the public's mind in support of the war effort tends to promote exaggerated use of language and resort to stereotypes. In World War I, official agencies and popular culture painted a black and white, good versus evil portrait of the opposing sides in the war. This oversimplification of the struggle and the wartime effort to sustain it is revealed in the Espionage and Sedition acts, Hollywood movies, and expectations of self-censorship of the press.


  1. “Home by Christmas”: The belief in a quick victory proved completely misplaced. In the first months of the war the German army did manage to race through Belgium and northern France to within 50 miles of Paris, and the Russian army advanced far into German East Prussia. But both were then forced back. The Germans retreated before the French and British armies at the Battle of the Marne to form a defensive line of trenches some 30 miles back. The Russians suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Tannenberg and were driven from German territory. The ‘war of maneuver’ (of quick-moving armies) became a war of attrition, with each side suffering enormous losses as it attempted to break through the strongly entrenched positions of the other side. The expected four months of hostilities turned into more than four years, and spread from the eastern and western fronts to Turkey, Mesopotamia, the Italian-Austrian border and northern Greece.


  1. Unprecedented Brutality: The war was the bloodiest yet in human history, with about ten million dead—1.8 million in Germany, 1.7 million in Russia, 1.4 million in France, 1.3 million in Austria-Hungary, 740,000 in Britain and 615,000 in Italy. France lost one in five males of fighting age, Germany one in eight. Over 23 million shells were fired during the five month Battle of Verdun—two million men took part, and half of them were killed. Yet neither side made any gains. One million died in the four month Battle of the Somme in 1916, with Britain losing 20,000 men on the first day.


  1. Trench Warfare: From the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, the war entered a stalemate that lasted four years. The stalemate led to the invention of a new form of trench warfare, which claimed high casualties. In addition, a technological revolution in weaponry, including the invention of the machine gun, made existing strategies obsolete. All these events combined to create a war of staggering casualties with no foreseeable end; it was a war of attrition in fact and in theory. The eastern front did not have the same trench warfare but had equally high casualties.


  1. Wilfred Owen: An English officer and front-line soldier, Owen is perhaps the greatest of the wartime poets, spoke of life during wartime in his poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" – Owen himself was killed in the closing weeks of the war, at just 25 years of age


Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,


Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,


Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,


He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace


Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


  1. United States and “neutrality”: At the beginning of World War I, the Wilson administration considered the United States above fighting to solve political problems, and considered that the United States didn't have any major stake in the outcome of the war. Wilson also hoped to mediate a peace settlement between the belligerents. The British blockade of Germany, and German retaliation through the use of submarine warfare, however, made it impossible for the United States to remain uninvolved.



  1. The United States, Profit and Patriotism: President Wilson's administration offered incentives to American businesses to mobilize the economy for war. The primary incentive was the promise of high profits gained from setting prices high and avoiding any threat of nationalization or new regulation of war industries. The combination of the Committee on Public Information, Hollywood movies, celebrity speakers, and the public's willingness to allow a suspension of civil liberties attest to the effective mobilization of patriotism during the war.



  1. “The Great War” as a worldwide phenomenon: While the major activity of the Great War took place among the six European nations of the Entente (England, France, and Russia) versus the Triple Alliance of Germany, Italy, and Austro-Hungary, the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire allowed the war to spread to the Near East. The Ottoman Empire joined in on the side of the Alliance to prevent partitioning by the European powers, a process that had actually begun with the Congress of Berlin some forty years earlier (as the Ottoman Empire was deemed “the sick old man of Europe”). British imperialist policies in Egypt and the creation of the state of Palestine, in accordance with the Balfour Declaration, supported interests in British Petroleum in Iran as well as access to the Suez Canal for maintaining an easier route to India. In Asia, although not typically considered a part of the Great War, there was an ongoing conflict between China and Japan, as well as internal struggles within each country. Japan had worked at industrialization in the late nineteenth century and had developed a significant manufacturing industry, but it was limited by the lack of plentiful natural resources (either for industrialization or agriculture) except water, which allowed it to develop hydroelectric technology. Japan became somewhat “open” to Western influences in education and technology. China was considered less “modernized” by comparison, retaining its links to the traditional political and social structure, but it collapsed in the wake of increasing population pressures, antiquated taxation systems, and a lack of infrastructure maintenance; it also resisted westernization, as demonstrated by the Boxer Rebellion. The Western response of suppressing the Chinese attempt to expel foreign influences led to an occupation and seizure of Beijing, which subsequently proved an impetus for the Chinese to start a revolution and modernize. Two leaders in China, Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek (as well as the military leader Yaun Shikai) set up various plans to lead China into revolution and modernization (including flirtation with communism), but the presentation of Japan's Twenty-one Demands in 1915 and Japan's seizure of German assets in Asia (including from China) led to ongoing war between China and Japan, which was in part settled at the Paris Peace Conference ending the hostilities in Europe. Hence, because of the involvement of Asia and the Near East (as well as colonial states in Africa fighting particularly for Britain and France), this was truly a world war.



  1. Impact of the War on Western Europe: New territory to some countries and losses to others; collapse of empires; creation of new states; assignment of blame to Germany; reparations to Britain and France; pariah status for Russia; general weakening of Europe  deaths and destruction of industrial property; some changes in structure of colonialism.



  1. Impact of the War Outside of Western Europe: Africa: little actual fighting, but participation in war exposed colonies to nationalism, created pan-African movement in 1919, led to decolonization. U.S.: emerged as war power through intervention, gained central role in global trade network through creditor status. Japan: emerged as imperial power in Asia, not a major factor in peace negotiations, led to distrust of West. India: like Africa exposed to Western nationalism, independence leaders supported war in hopes of freedom after, frustrated by Western failure to decolonize.



  1. The Impact of the War on Western Women: Women's participation in the workforce increased greatly; better wages; higher confidence; broader liberation; increased political activism and the right to vote in some countries.



  1. The Treaty of Versailles: Treaty of Versailles was a unilateral document dictated by France, Britain, and the United States. The treaty had very little input from other European countries, and none at all from nations such as Japan. The Central Powers took no part in the treaty except to sign it. The treaty's punitive measures included large but undefined monetary reparations, a “guilt clause” in which Germany accepted all blame for the war, and the loss of German territory. Woodrow Wilson's plan for self-determinism called for new European nations to be formed along ethnic and linguistic lines. Germany returned Alsace and Lorraine to France, and the Polish state was recreated from eastern Germany. Austria-Hungary and Russia lost territory that became Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and almost a dozen other new nations. Many of these new nations were unstable and fragile entities. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire also left that region unstable, with Allied nations weaker than they had been even before the war.



  1. The Russian Revolution: During the Great War (World War I), Russia was still controlled by the tsar and a wealthy aristocracy. The poorly led and equipped Russian army suffered crushing losses in fighting the Germans. Starvation and shortages led to rebellions throughout Russia. Citizens formed councils (called soviets), and seized army barracks and factories. Amid the turmoil, the tsar abdicated power to a new Provisional Government. Students should recognize the competing groups that fought for control, including the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (the two wings of the Social Democratic Party) and the Social Revolutionaries. Lenin's Bolsheviks ultimately took control and expanded their power during the October Revolution. The Communists, as the Bolsheviks were called then, defeated their enemies thanks to the new Red Army and the leadership of Leon Trotsky. The new government first recognized the independence of many regions and then combined with them to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.



  1. WWI and British Colonial Policy: Diplomatic “promises” made by the British during World War I to the Arabs and the Zionists. After the Ottoman Empire victory at Gallipoli, the British decided to defeat the Ottoman Empire from within by offering the prince of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali, a kingdom of his own in the Middle East if he led a revolt against the Ottomans. Hussein's son, Faisal, led an Arab army against the Ottoman Empire in the Arab Revolt of 1916, which contributed to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Students should recognize that the Arabs and Ottomans were both Muslim, and therefore the Christian British convincing these Muslim parties to fight each other clearly shows that the motives were political and not religious. Meanwhile, other promises were made to another group, European Zionists. The European Jewish population developed a nationalist movement called Zionism. This movement, led by Theodore Herzl, had the goals of combating anti-Semitism and returning to the ancestral homeland in Palestine or the Jewish “homeland.” In 1917, Foreign Secretary Sir Alfred Balfour issued the Balfour Declaration, which stated that the British government supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The current conflicts in Palestine were not born out of religious differences but instead are the result of political choices and promises made by the British at the conclusion of the First World War.



  1. Britain and India: Britain did not grant India “Home Rule.” In the aftermath of the war, M.K. Gandhi and other Indian nationalists begin non-cooperation and resistance to British colonial rule. The non-violent approach of Satyagraha encouraged peaceful boycotts, strikes, noncooperation, and mass demonstrations



  1. Impact of the War on the Middle East: During the Great War (World War I), the Ottoman Empire controlled most of the Middle East. The Ottoman desire to use World War I as a means to gain Russian territory led to the Ottomans signing an alliance with Germany. After a disastrous defeat at Gallipoli, Britain allied itself with Arab leaders in an attempt to defeat the Ottomans. Britain offered Prince Hussein ibn Ali his own kingdom in exchange for Arab assistance. A revolt led by Hussein's son Faisal weakened the Ottoman Empire but did not affect the war in Europe. While that intrigue was being carried out, the Zionist movement was seeking a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Zionists received widespread sympathy and the support of the British government in the Balfour Declaration. Turkey, led by Mustapha Kemal, established itself from the remains of the dismantled Ottoman Empire and instituted many progressive reforms, turning into a secular republic. The Arab-speaking areas of the former Ottoman Empire were reorganized under the mandate system, as were Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq. British dominance over Egypt continued, in spite of a declaration of Egyptian independence in 1922. Encouraged by the Balfour Declaration, Jews moved in large numbers to Palestine, creating the root of a long-standing Middle Eastern dispute.



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