First World War Galleries Table of contents

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12.Breaking Down

By 1917 war was putting ever greater strain on armies and home fronts.

A growing number of civilians, politicians and soldiers were looking for a way out.
Statesmen thought about negotiating an end to the war. On the battlefield soldiers went on strike and deserted. On home fronts there was hardship and often hunger. Public calls for peace became louder.
Austria-Hungary and Turkey began to crumble. But Russia, one of Britain’s allies, broke first. Gripped by revolution, Russia left the war. By 1918 Germany could concentrate its army on the Western Front.
It would gamble on one last offensive to defeat Britain and France.

The war cannot go on

No material thing can ever justify this war nor afford any compensation. This war cannot go on.

Captain Frederick Chandler, 17 August 1917
As the war dragged on, some politicians and intellectuals made public calls for peace.
Meanwhile, governments secretly explored the possibility of a negotiated settlement. America, while neutral, had urged this publicly. But compromise proved impossible.
Why did more people not demand peace?
The price already paid in blood by all the fighting nations meant that anything but victory would mean defeat.
By the end of 1917 800,000 men from Britain and its empire had been killed. To bargain with Germany would seem like they had fought for nothing.
On both sides, as long as people believed victory possible, they were prepared to keep fighting.

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Wooden figure

Allied and German attempts to negotiate peace centred on the idealistic US President Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson saw it as his mission to bring ‘just and lasting’ peace to the world. This wooden figure of the President who became a celebrity in Britain after American entry into the war, was made by a wounded British serviceman.
Summary caption

Since 1914 some political figures and intellectuals in Britain and Germany had looked to end the slaughter. Most voices against the war were not outright pacifists but instead urged negotiation.
In Germany breakaway socialists led opposition to the war. In Britain the Union of Democratic Control (UDC) condemned the secret decisions and treaties which had, in its view, taken the world to war and were now prolonging it.
But the public dismissed the UDC as a bunch of ‘peace prattlers’.
Sassoon’s protest letter

In July 1917 Siegfried Sassoon, a British army officer and poet, wrote this protest letter against the continuation of the war.
The letter was read out in Parliament. Sassoon risked heavy punishment for questioning the conduct of the war. To dampen the controversy, the Army diagnosed him with ‘shell shock’ and sent him for treatment. He voluntarily returned to the Western Front in 1918.
Sassoon’s poems

Sassoon’s The Old Huntsman and Other Poems was published in 1917.
He was one of a number of soldier-poets which included Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden. In their writing, they expressed horror at the fighting and at public ignorance of its realities, as well as frustration with the way the war was being fought. At the time their poetry did not reach a wide audience.
Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary and Kaiser Wilhem of Germany

This photograph shows the newly-crowned Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.
Karl came to the throne after the death of Emperor Franz Josef in November 1916. Franz Josef had reigned for 68 years. Karl had new ideas. He was desperate to withdraw his failing empire from the war, and enraged the Germans by attempting to negotiate separately with the Allies.
Photo caption

Kaiser Wilhelm with the new Austrian emperor, Karl


This poster gives the Kaiser’s response to the Allies’ rejection of his December 1916 ‘peace note’ and an assurance to his people of ultimate victory.
To quieten growing opposition at home to the war, Germany had publicly approached the then neutral USA to find out what peace terms the Allies might accept.
But German leaders knew negotiation was unlikely and hoped the Allies would be blamed for continuing the war.
Photo caption

German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg reads the ‘peace note’ to the Reichstag

We are men and not beasts

‘…we are men and not beasts to be led to the abattoir to be slaughtered … we demand peace.’

French soldier, 1917
By 1917 war-weary soldiers began to mutiny or desert in increasing numbers.
After a disastrous spring offensive, the French Army mutinied and refused to mount further senseless attacks.
Defeat at Caporetto, on Italy’s Alpine front, prompted mass surrender and desertion by Italian soldiers.
Turkey’s army in Mesopotamia and Palestine unable to stop British advances and plagued by sickness and hunger, began to crumble.
Why did soldiers keep fighting at all?
A sense of duty, patriotism, comradeship and hatred of the enemy kept soldiers fighting. Refusal to fight risked punishment – including execution.
Wiser commanders treated soldiers as people, with rights as well as duties.
Soldiers with food, rest and the hope of victory was more likely to keep fighting.
Jerusalem sign

This sign was put up to point the way to Jerusalem. At Christmas 1917 the city was captured from Turkish control by British and Empire troops led by General Sir Edmund Allenby. It was a terrible blow for the Turks. A Turkish writer, Falih Rifki Atay, recorded that, ‘The words “Jerusalem has fallen” spread like news of a death in the family’.

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Illustrated London News

This issue of the ‘Illustrated London News' reports the appointment of General Philippe Pétain as French commander-in-chief. By the summer of 1917 the French Army was in turmoil. Many soldiers refused to obey orders and called for peace. Pétain, the hero of the Battle of Verdun, restored order. He mended morale by offering the soldiers incentives, such as regular leave.

Souvenir shell case

This souvenir shell case was brought back from Italy by a British soldier. British and French troops were rushed to the Italian Front after the near collapse of the Italian Army in late 1917. Italian soldiers suffered huge casualties and harsh discipline. They surrendered or deserted in their thousands after defeat at the Battle of Caporetto. Italy, a sought-after ally in 1915, had now become a liability.


This dress bayonet commemorates the service of a soldier from the Austrian 27th Infantry Regiment who fought against the Italians. The Austro-Hungarian Army badly needed a morale boost to keep them fighting. It came late in 1917 when Austro-Hungarian troops, with German support, shattered the Italian Army at the Battle of Caporetto.

German P08 pistol

In 1917 British Empire troops invaded Palestine, then part of the Turkey’s empire.
This German P08 pistol was captured there by an Australian soldier of Queensland’s 5th Light Horse Regiment. Already a desirable souvenir, the soldier has personalised it by having the grips decoratively carved, probably by a Turkish prisoner of war.
TE Lawrence’s agal

Encouraged by British promises of self-government, Arabs revolted against Turkish rule in 1916.
Britain sent advisers to assist them. One of them, TE Lawrence, wore Arab dress including this agal (head-rope).
The track section is from the 800-mile-long Hejaz railway, which ran from present day Syria to Saudi Arabia. Lawrence encouraged Arab guerrilla attacks on the railway to denying Turkish forces of food, water and supplies.
Photo caption

Colonel TE Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’

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