Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The War in 1916

Manufacturing Coffins, 1916

By Editor/Publisher Mike Hanlon

One of the most fascinating aspects of the First World War is how it evolved from year to year. It started out as a sort of European civil war between two large coalitions that quickly expanded to other continents and most of the world's oceans, making it a world war. Concurrently, as the initial war plans failed, what all the belligerents hoped would be a quickly resolved war of movement surprisingly got locked into a positional, attritional war.

Trench warfare—or rather, breaking through the trenches—required stupendous amounts of artillery and shells. Industrial production quickly became a critical element of each nation's war-making capability. Those civilians who worked in those factories were understood by the war leaders to be collectively as important as the soldiers on the battlefields. So, weren't they, also, legitimate targets? Thus were blockades, aerial bombardment of cities, and starvation of populations justified. It was a very logical slide into what is called "Total War."

This was the arc of the Great War through, say, the start of 1916. But the evolutionary process did not cease then. In World War II, Marshal Stalin had a quote pertinent to the 1916 campaign, "Quantity has a quality all of its own." The chapters on the year 1916 in some histories have a title something like: "The Year of the Big Battles." Well, here's a quantity/quality of big battles—they kill lots of people. The greatest strategic and human disaster of 1916 was that by its end, the combatants were starting to run out of able-bodied men. New drafts of the unwilling, teenagers, and geezers made out of desperation were no long-term solution. Besides, they would run out of these bodies, too, soon enough.

By the end of 1916 it was dawning on the various war leaders that defeat through sheer exhaustion of manpower—and willpower—was a real possibility. The life and death of nations and empires were at stake now. The answer to "What had happened in 1916?"—the war afterward became a more intense and desperate matter of survival for the belligerents, leading them in 1917 to double down on their bets (even bigger battles or unrestricted submarine warfare) or to collapse from within as in Russia. 

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