Lessons from the Great War: The Will to Fight

Canada Troops WWI

Canadian Troops go over the top in World War I

This is my fourth post on Lessons from the Great War.

  • The first raised four questions.
  • The second addressed one of the questions – why did the war end? The answer was that the Allies on the Western Front had finally devised a strategy and tactics that consistently kept the German troops under pressure and pushed them back. There was no breakout, but it was clear that eventually the Germans would run out of men or territory. Meanwhile the Allies had a small but growing army of Americans that would be ready to carry the war into Germany. Confronted with these facys, the military leadership – which in Germany was also the political leadership – became convinced that they had lost the war, and so lost the will to fight. The troops of the Central Powers likewise began to realise that defeat was the likely result, although they never abandoned the battlefield in significant numbers. Knowing this, the various leaderships of the Central Powers asked for an armistice.
  • The third post examined why the war began, and highlighted how the characteristics of individual political and military leaders combined with fear, honour, and national interests.

Why did the war last so long?

Having considered why the war began and how it ended, this post is about why the two sides continued the war after September 1914 despite a stalemate on the Western Front. Until August 1918 there was no decisive movement on the Western Front, just the exchanges of small amounts of territory at a great cost. The answer, simply, is that both sides had the will to fight, and determined that the cost of fighting on did not outweigh the unknown result of suing for peace. In retrospect we know that they did not have the tactics, strategy, and resources to force an end until the beginning of the Hundred Days in August – November 1918, but the leadership did not know that then.

The Germans in September 1914 had not defeated the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force, but they stood almost on French and Belgian land and could adopt a defensive posture and wait for the Allies to attack. As attacks were always more costly in material and lives than defense, they expected the Allies to be ground down, and eventually determine that they would not be able to overcome the German lines, and so blink first. The Allies did attack, again and again through 1915, 1916, and 1917. In 1917 the French Army mutinied, but the generals and politicians successfully managed to keep this secret. As a result the French went on the defensive for a long time. The British took over the weight of the offensive, fighting several massive battles in Belgium, all without achieving any significant result.

The important thing to note in this is that neither side lost the will to fight. Indeed, as the war went on the politicians and generals felt that after the already spent cost in lives that only victory could justify continuing on – negotiating a settlement to bring about peace between equals was no longer acceptable – there had to be a victor and a loser.


A Russian Poster from 1916

Why the war in the east ended in early 1918

In the East it was a somewhat different story. The Russians initially advanced into German Prussia, but were then expelled after the Battle of Tannenberg. In 1915 the joint German-Austro-Hungarian armies drove the Russians out of Russian Poland. In 1916 the Russians had some success with the Brusilov offensive, However, the war was grinding down the various belliegerants in the East, especially Austro-Hungary and Russia, and neither Empire was able to contemplate such an offensive in the future. The cost of the war affected the massive peasantry and the smaller industrial working class with food scarcity and the loss of millions of their young sons. Dissatisfaction with the course of the war and domestic policies resulted in mass demonstrations and the turning of the middle classes and urban elite against the Tsar and the Tsarina, resulting in his abdication and their replacement with a Provisional Government, eventually led by the socialist Alexander Kerensky; this is the first revolution in Russian, known as the February Revolution. Kerensky continued the war against the Central Powers, but his authority was challenged by the Petrograd Soviet, which sought to undermine the hierarchy of the armed forces by creating committees (in Russian, “Soviets”) that would speak on behalf of the military and participate in governing the nation. The Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky conspired to use the Petrograd Soviet as the launching pad for a second revolution. The armed forces had little if any enthusiasm for continuing a war that was perceived to belong to the old regime, and looked for peace. In October 1917 (Old Style Julian Calendar – actually November in the rest of the world) the October Revolution took place, removing the Provisional Government. Soviet-style Bolshevik led governments spread from Petrograd to the rest of the country, and Lenin asked for peace terms. The Germans imposed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty in which Russia lost Finland, the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine. Finland became independent and the rest was to be controlled by the German Empire.

Looking, then, at the Eastern Front, we see that a belligerent will continue with a war as long as a) the army still exists and is in the field and b) the political leadership believes it is in their interests to continue i) on the defensive until the situation improves, or ii) on the offensive when there is an opportunity of victory, local or ultimate. The Russian army remained in the field, but there was a serious question at home about the cost of the war. When the Provisional Government failed to end the war, a revolution took place which established a government that would make peace, even if the cost in territory was massive.

Germany’s great hope

Peace in the East freed up men and equipment for the East, and the German leadership knew that this presented an opportunity that they would not see again. The British and the French appeared to be exhausted after multiple battles in which the Germans withstood, maintaining the stalemate. However, the USA had entered the war, and while having to build up an army from practically nothing, were well on their way to putting a million men in Europe by the end of 1918 and millions more in 1919. The Germans transferred troops from the now peaceful Eastern borders to the Western Front and launched the Spring Offensive of 1918. At first their numbers overwhelmed the defensive, and there was a real possibility of a breakthrough, but after more than three months of battle the onslaught was stopped by the Allies and their depth of defense. The German’s, depleted and occupying land not easily defended, were forced to fall back on the defensive.

Looking then, at the Western Front, we see that the Germans stayed in the war because they thought until the summer of 1918 that they had a good chance of breaking out and destroying either the British or the French armies, if not both. Having achieved victory in the East and gained vast territories they now wanted to secure those gains. Having had success in the East, they hoped to accomplish the same in the West.


The Allies will to fight

Their were any number of nations involved as the Allies on the Western Front, but the chief were the British Empire and the French Republic. Unlike the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, or the Russian Empire on the Allied side, France and Britain could and did change its political leadership during the war. Thus in Britain Asquith was pushed aside because of a failure of trust (and a marked inability) to lead the government in wartime, and Lloyd George came into power at the head of a coalition government. In France there were some five Prime Ministers during the course of the war, but this kind of revolving door was fairly natural even in times of peace during the Third Republic. Also, both the French and the British changed their military leadership, finally arriving at a unified command under Marshal Foch, which was one factor in the victory in the autumn of 1918. The governments of the two countries, dependent on electoral support in the UK and Britain, were sensitive to the needs of the people, especially concerning food. Lloyd George actually demanded more from the British people than Asquith did by converting the economy to a total war economy, but this just increased his level of popular support. Thus, at no time did the general population or the political leadership seriously consider asking for peace terms. In the armies, as mentioned, significant numbers the French troops mutinied and refused to fight offensive battles, but this only lasted from May 1917 until the German Spring Offensive. By Autumn 1918 they were fully returned to offensive capabilities.

The Allies on the Western Front, then, never saw the cost of continuing the war as outweighing the cost of making peace with the Central Powers. As well, being both colonial empires, they saw nothing but upsides as the Ottoman Empire appeared to collapse. They were aware of the human cost in lives and wounded, and the material costs, but they recognised that if war was to be fought in that era lives would be lost and the government would run up great debts. It was only after the war, as the trauma of battle became generally known, as people felt free to express their anguish at the loss, and the results of “victory” seemed so meagre, that people in Britain began to seriously question the cost that had been expended.


About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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