|Print by British Soldier-Artist-Poet David Jones|
The year 1917 was the most important, the most historically influential, and the most horrible of the Great War. It's well understood that 1917 was a pile-up of disasters and miscalculations, from Germany's decision to implement unrestricted U-boat warfare in January to the Bolsheviks' triumph in the autumn, and with the ill-fated Nivelle, Kerensky, and Passchendaele offensives, plus the Italian collapse at Caporetto strung out in between. These events were the subjects of our issues earlier this year. But how, you might ask, can it be argued that 1917 was worse than other years of the war, some of which had higher death tolls? Or, to focus on one comparison as an example, how was Passchendaele (244,000 British casualties) worse than 1916's Battle of the Somme (416,000 British casualties)?
The answer to this has two dimensions: one physical, one of morale. That popular and highly quotable military philosopher, Sun Tzu, addressed the first of these: "There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare." By the end of 1917 every one of the war's original belligerents had suffered horrendous casualties and had made debilitating expenditures of their nation's wealth. Anxiety over this was building on everyone's home front as shortages were experienced in factories and at dinner tables. On the battlefields, all the generals were growing deeply concerned about the fighting spirit and discipline of the men and about how they would replace the massive losses.
Accumulated physical losses were the lesser factor, however, in what happened in 1917. As another military authority, Napoleon Bonaparte, reminds us—[in war] "Morale is to the physical as three to one." In 1917, the morale of heads-of-state, citizens, and soldiers bottomed out. Futility, mindlessness, and tragedy started to be the defining aspects and heritage of the First World War, even while the fighting carried on. This burden of morale in the war is still with us. Something less tangible, in the area of mass psychology, lasting and open-ended, started coming into play during 1917, and it stayed around to shape the next century. Defeats like Caporetto, and failed, costly endeavors like the Allies launched on the Chemin des Dames, in Flanders, and Galicia, were felt no longer as mere setbacks but as national humiliations discrediting the governing classes and—for the troops—defining the war as purposeless, futile betrayals. MH
Originally presented in the December 2017 issue of OVER THE TOP.