Key Battles of World War One

World War One is the watershed moment in modern history. The Western World before it was one of aristocrats, empires, colonies, and optimism for a future of unending progress. After four years of hellish trench warfare, shell fire, 10 million combat deaths, and another 10 million civilian deaths, the world that emerged in 1918 was irrevocably changed. Nation-states came out of the rubble, along with a push for universal rights. New technologies emerged, such as tanks and fighter planes. But something was lost permanently in the Great War: a sense of optimism in mankind. This episode is the beginning of a 24-part series called Key Battles of World War One. In this series, history professors Scott Rank and James Early look at the 10 key battles that determined the outcome of the war between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire) and the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, United States).

 

Scroll down to listen to the episodes in this podcast series.

 

Check out the bottom of this page to see recommend films, books, and music about World War One

Episode 1:  Europe in 1914 Had Absolutely No Idea It Was About To Enter The Most Hellish War Ever

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In this first episode, Scott and James look at the state of affairs in Europe in 1914.  Europe was dominated by several major powers, most of which were multinational empires.  They called themselves the Great Powers.  There were 5 Great Powers, as well as two other nations who desired to be, although they lacked the military and economic power of the others.  Let’s go around Europe and take a look at each of these powers.

Episode 2: Europe’s Pre-WW1 Alliances Were a Doomsday Machine That Pulled the Entire Continent Into War

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An impossibly complex web of alliances that maintained a fragile peace in Europe (and surprisingly held it together since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815) always threatened to unravel. The 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, by Serbian nationalists, made Austria declare war on Serbia. A doomsday machine kicked into gear: Russia mobilized against Austria. Germany mobilized against Russia. France mobilized against Germany. Germany prepared long-held plans to attack France.

 

Episode 3: Germany So Completely Annihilated Russia At the WW1 Battle of Tannenberg That A Russian General Committed Suicide

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The Battle of Tannenberg was the first major battle of World War One, fought between Germany and Russia, who surprised everyone with its fast mobilization. Germany planned to quickly fight a two-front war against France and Russia, knock France out of the war, then focus its resources on Russia. The plan didn’t work, but Germany issued a crushing blow against Russia, largely due to its fast rail movements that allowed it to focus on two Russian armies at once (and Russia failing to encode its messages did nothing to help).  Germany named the battle after Tannenberg in order to avenge a defeat from 500 years earlier in which the proto-German Teutonic Knights were defeated by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  The past was alive and well in the minds of these combatants.

 

Episode 4: Germany’s Plans For Total French Defeat in 1914 Failed at the Battle of the Marne

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The beginning of World War One was marked the breakdown of the western powers’ war plans.  Leaders on both sides experienced surprises, shocks, and the failure of plans.  The first few months saw shocking violence on a scale never experienced before, at least not in Western Europe.  During the first few months of the war, an average of 15,000 lives were lost each day. (five times as much as the worst day in the Civil War). This happened at the Battle of the Marne, fought from September 6 to 12 in 1914. The Allies won a victory against the German armies in the West and ended their plans of crushing the French armies with an attack from the north through Belgium. Both sides dug in their trenches for the long war ahead.

Episode 5: The Average WW1 Soldier Was a 110-Pound Villager Who Would Eventually Suffer Disease, Hunger, and PTSD

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This episode is an overview of the profile of an average soldier in World War One. We will look at the backgrounds, training, and provisions allotted to troops in the British, French, German, Russian, and Ottoman armies. We will look at their lives in the trenches, which were with very few exceptions absolutely miserable. We will also look at the terrible experiences that they faced on the battlefield, trying desperately to survive artillery barrages or poison gas attacks. Many suffered “shell shock” from the experienced, what we know today as PTSD.

Episode 6: World War 1 Trenches Were A Labyrinth of Rats, Disease, Decaying Flesh, and the Omnipresent Threat of Death

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“Rats came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses, and multiplied exceedingly. A new officer joined the company and…when he turned in that night he heard a scuffling, shone his torch on the bed, and found two rats on his blanket tussling for the possession of a severed hand.” The scene that Captain Robert Graves described in his autobiography was common for that of many soldiers. There were perhaps few places in the history of warfare as miserable as the trenches. Unlike most armies, which are constantly on the move, the armies of WW1 stayed locked in positions for months or even years. There they festered in disease, cold, hunger, and the fear that the whistle would blow and they would have to go “over the top” and face a hail of enemy artillery as they tried to charge No Man’s Land.

Episode 7: The Battle of Gallipoli (1915) How Ataturk and the Ottomans Hurled the Allies (Including Winston Churchill) Into the Sea

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The Allies desperately wanted to take control of the Dardanelles (the straights connecting Constantinople with the Mediterranean). They were crucial to Russia and would make it possible for Russia to (in effect) have a warm-water port. The only problem is the Ottomans had controlled the Dardanelles for five centuries and were backed by Germany and the rest of the Central Powers. The Allies wanted to open the Dardanelles, open a second front against Austria, take Constantinople, and knock the Ottomans out of the war. One of the British leaders who championed the plan was Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty). The Ottomans were led at Gallipoli by a brilliant colonel named Mustafa Kemal. He would win an incredible victory for the Ottomans, save the empire from complete destruction, and keep them in the war for three more years. In 1922-23, he would fight and win the Turkish War of Independence, become the first president of the Republic of Turkey, and become one of the most influential statesmen of the 20th century.

Episode 8: 1915: World War One’s Year of Poison Gas, Genocide, and Millions of Refugees

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In 1915, the Central Powers and Allies dug in their heels and tried desperately to break the stalemate of the war, still hoping for a short conflict on the scale of a few months. Poison gas was used for the first time. Germans experimented with flamethrowers and armored shields, while the French began using hand grenades.In April, Germans began the Second Battle of Ypres and used 168 tons of chlorine gas.On the Eastern Front, Austria launched three offensives against Russian forces in the Carpathians.All three failed miserably. As many as 100,000 Austrian soldiers froze to death. Further north, Russian forces began to retreat from Warsaw and Riga.In Poland, Russian forces adopted a “scorched earth policy.”They forced Poles and other residents of Poland and western Russia to burn their crops and abandon their homes. This created millions of refugees. In December, the remains of the Serbian Army, along with several hundred thousand civilians, fled through the freezing mountains of Montenegro and Albania to the coast.200,000 died along the way (out of 700,000 initially). Finally, the Ottomans began the forced deportation of Armenians to Syria, which was actually a death march. It became known as the Armenian Genocide in which 1.5 million were slaughtered.

Episode 9: Verdun – The 299-Day Battle That Killed 300K Soldiers And Still Scars The Earth With Unexploded Shells

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The Battle of Verdun–fought from February 21-December 18 1916 in the Western Front of France–was horrifying and hellish even by the standards of World War One. Over a 299-day-period, there were 1 million total casualties. The French were bled white, but so were the Germans.

Of these, 300,000 were killed, which is about 1 death for every minute of the battle. The French most likely lost slightly more than the Germans. About 10% of all French war dead were from Verdun. Half of Frenchmen between 20 and 30 years old were killed. Although more men died at the Somme, the proportion of casualties suffered to the number of men who fought was much higher at Verdun than at any other battle in World War I.Also the number killed per square mile was the greatest at Verdun. To this day, the battlefield is still cratered and pockmarks.Many unexploded shells (maybe 12 million) still remain.Trenches can still be seen. Alistair Horne said, “Verdun was the First World War in microcosm; an intensification of all its horrors and glories, courage and futility.”

Episode 10: WW1 At Sea: The Battle of Jutland (1916)

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Although overlooked today, the war at sea was a crucial part of World War I overall. The German use of the Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (in which non-military ships could be blown up by submarines without the latter surfacing, making it impossible for innocent men, women, and children to abandon ship) against commerce not only threatened the Allied war effort, but also drew the United States into the conflict. In addition, the British economic blockade of Germany afforded by the Royal Navy’s command of the sea inflicted great damage on the war effort of Germany. Finally, the naval war held great ramifications for the future since many practices employed in the First World War were those pursued in the Second World War.

Episode 11: The Brusilov Offensive: Russia’s Mortal Blow to Austria-Hungary

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Russia had lost a great deal of territory to Germany and Austria in 1915, and they wanted to gain it back. Russian General Alexei Brusilov put together a plan in April 1916 to launch a major offensive against Austria. It ended up being Russia’s greatest feat of arms during World War I, and among the most deadly military offensives in world history. Brusilov hoped to take pressure off France and Britain and hopefully knock Austria out of the war. The plan was to attack along a broad front, preventing the Austrians from using reserves and minimizing the distance between Russian and Austrian lines. The result of the Brusilov Offensive was a terrible Russian blow against Austria-Hungary, which took 1,000,000 casualties. Russia could not hold onto its land gains, but it demonstrated its military capability on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution.

 

Episode 12: The Flying Aces of World War One

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Since the first successful flight of an airplane, people had imagined and dreamed of airplanes being used for combat. H. G. Wells’s 1908 book (The War in the Air was an example. When World War One broke out, there were only about 1000 planes on all sides. Planes were very basic. Cockpits were open, instruments were rudimentary, and there were no navigational aids. Pilots had to use maps, which were not always reliable. Getting lost was common. Sometimes pilots had to land and ask directions! At the beginning of the war, airplanes were seen as being almost exclusively for reconnaissance, taking the job formerly done by cavalry. Eventually, however, it became necessary for planes to eliminate the observation planes of the enemy, so air-to-air combat (dogfights) became common.

 

Episode 13: The Battle of the Somme Caused 1 Million Casualties But Was a Turning Point for WW1

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The 1916 Battle of the Somme caused a total of 1 million casualties on all sides. the total is over a million casualties. The Allies had gained very little ground. At the end of the battle, they had gained only 7 miles and were still about 3 miles short of their goal from the first day of the war. The Somme, along with Verdun and the Brusilov Offensive, were among the bloodiest in world history up to that point. According to John Keegan, the Battle of the Somme was the greatest British tragedy of the twentieth century: “The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.” For many, the battle exemplified the ‘futile’ slaughter and military incompetence of the First World War. Yet a more professional and effective army emerged from the battle. And the tactics developed there, including the use of tanks and creeping barrages, laid some of the foundations of the Allies’ successes in 1918. The Somme also succeeded in relieving the pressure on the French at Verdun. Abandoning them would have greatly tested the unity of the Entente. One German officer described the Battle of the Somme as ‘the muddy grave of the German Field Army’. That army never fully recovered from the loss of so many experienced junior and non-commissioned officers.

 

Episode 14: Why WW1 Was the Graveyard of Empires (Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian)

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World War One shattered the empires of Russia, the Ottomans, and the Austro-Hungarians, which had all existed in one form or another for centuries. That’s because it broke the fragile alliances that kept these Empires alive. In this episode, we explore the Southern Fronts of World War One in 1916-1917. Starting with Italy, since Italy’s entry into the war, Italy and Austria had fought several battles along their border in the Alps. Neither side was able to make headway until May 1916, when Austria launched the “Punishment Expedition,” which pushed the Italian army back. In the winter of 1915-16, the Serbian army, with many civilians along fled Serbia into the mountains of Albania toward the coast. 200,000 died along the way. By mid-January 1916, the Allies were taking thousands from the Albanian coast to the Greek island of Corfu. Also in January, Austria-Hungary invaded Montenegro. Within 2 weeks, the government surrendered, although the army retreated into Albania. The Austrians followed them there, occupying Albania. Things were no better in the Ottoman Empire. It was due to divisions between its Turkish-speaking populations and Arabic-speaking populations. The same centrifugal forces that pulled apart the Austro-Hungarian empire were affecting the Ottoman Empire.

 

Episode 15: The Russian Revolutions of 1917-1923–A Bigger Threat Than the Kaiser?

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We’ve looked at many battles in this series, but we’ve only tangentially touched on how this war fundamentally altered European society. The Great War is the watershed between the pre-modern and early modern era. As an example, all we have to do is look at Russia. Before World War One, it was an autocracy, very conservative, very religious, and only a few decades away from serfdom, which the rest of Europe abandoned in the Middle Ages. After the war, it was officially atheistic, communist, rapidly industrializing, and becoming one of two superpowers that dominated the 20th century. To Churchill, the Bolsheviks represented a greater threat to civilized Europe than did the reeking tube and iron shard of the Kaiser’s Reich. Bolshevism, he declared in the House of Commons, was “not a policy; it is a disease. It is not a creed; it is a pestilence.”

 

Episode 16: The Slog of War — the Passchendaele Campaign of 1917

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The best way to describe the Third Ypres (Passchendaele) Campaign of 1917. It’s ‘slog.’ When you think about a drudging act that seems to accomplish nothing, this battle is it. Mud. Mud to your waist. Everything sinks down several feet into mud. Tanks, Cars, guns, horses, everything stuck in mud. Images of a battlefield landscape with pockmarked holes and mist rising from the plains with shattered trees is characterized by the third battle of Ypres.

The battle took place on the Western Front from July to November 1917 over control of ridges near the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders.

Private R.A. Colwell described the scene in 1918 as follows: “There was not a sign of life of any sort. Not a tree, save for a few dead stumps which looked strange in the moonlight. Not a bird, not even a rat or a blade of grass. Nature was as dead as those Canadians whose bodies remained where they had fallen the previous autumn. Death was written large everywhere.”

 

Episode 17: The Yanks Are Coming — America Enters World War One

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Most Americans are indifferent about the nation’s involvement in World War One (under half say the U.S. had a responsibility to fight in the war; one-in-five say it didn’t). Many figure it entered the conflict too late to claim much credit, or intervention was discreditable. Some say the U.S. had no compelling national interest to enter the Great War; worse, U.S. intervention allowed Britain and France to force on Germany an unjust, punitive peace that made the rise of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party inevitable. But others argue that America’s involvement saved Europe from a militaristic dictatorship that would have resulted in a worse 20th century. We look at all these aspects of America’s involvement in the war in this episode.

 

Episode 18: Tank Warfare–How Military Tech Took a Quantum Leap at the Battle of Cambrai (1917)

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The British developed the tank in response to the trench warfare of World War I. In 1914, a British army colonel named Ernest Swinton and William Hankey, secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defense, championed the idea of an armored vehicle with conveyor-belt-like tracks over its wheels that could break through enemy lines and traverse difficult territory. The men appealed to British navy minister Winston Churchill, who believed in the concept of a “land boat” and organized a Landships Committee to begin developing a prototype. It all came together at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. The British saw it as their greatest victory. Church bells tolled throughout great Britain, the first time this had happened in the entire war.

 

Episode 19: The Empire Strikes Back: Germany’s Final Push to Win WW1 in Spring 1918

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Many thought that Germany was capable of winning World War One until the very end. Unlike World War 2, in which the Allies believed that victory was inevitable as early as 1943, this was not the case with the Great War. It is also easy to assume that German defeat was inevitable at the hands of an Allied coalition richer in manpower, weapons, and money. Yet Germany nearly captured Paris in 1914, crushed Serbia and Romania, bled the French Army until it mutinied, drove Russia out of the war, and then came oh-so-close to victory on the Western Front in 1918. One should not underestimate the power of Imperial Germany. Until the armistice was signed in a French railway carriage on November 11, 1918, Germany’s enemies didn’t.

 

Episode 20: The 1918 Battle of Meggido Shattered the Ottoman Empire and Created the Modern Middle East

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The Battle of Megiddo was the climactic battle of the Sinai and Palestine campaign of the First World War, with Germans and Ottomans on one side, and British and French forces on the other (with Arab nationalists led by T.E. Lawrence). The actions immediately after it were a disaster for the Ottomans. They now had permanently lost control over their Middle Eastern possessions. Historian Edward Erickson writes “The battle…ranks with Ludendorff’s Black Days of the German Army in the effect that it had on the consciousness of the Turkish General Staff. It was now apparent to all but the most diehard nationalists that the Turks were finished in the war. In spite of the great victories in Armenia and in Azerbaijan, Turkey was now in an indefensible condition, which could not be remedied with the resources on hand. It was also apparent that the disintegration of the Bulgarian Army at Salonika and the dissolution of the Austro–Hungarian Army spelled disaster and defeat for the Central Powers. From now until the Armistice, the focus of the Turkish strategy would be to retain as much Ottoman territory as possible.”

 

Episode 21: WW1 Ends With Armistice: The Moment of Silence That Sounded Like the Voice of God

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After Germany’s’ failed spring offensive, realized the only way to win was to push into France before the United States fully deployed its resources. The French and British were barely hanging on in 1918. By 1918, French reserves of military-aged recruits were literally a state secret; there were so few of them still alive. The British, barely maintaining 62 divisions on the Western Front, planned, in the course of 1918 – had the Americans not appeared – to reduce their divisions to thirty or fewer and essentially to abandon the ground war in Europe. But with the Americans, it renewed the fighting chances for the Allies. They decisively overtook the Germans at the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in September. In November, Kaiser Wilhelm, visiting Spa, was advised that he had no real control over much of the army. While there, he received a telegram from Berlin that read “All troops deserted. Completely out of hand.” Wilhelm decided to go to the Netherlands. There, he abdicated on November 9. The war officially came to an end on November 11, where all troops kept a moment of silence.

It was a religious experience. Here’s what novelist Kurt Vonnegut says about it: “I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”

 

Episode 22: The 1919 Paris Peace Conference Laid The First Bricks of the Road to World War Two

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The Paris Peace Conference opened on January 18, 1919. Its task was the writing of five separate peace treaties with the defeated separate powers: Germany, Turkey, Bulgaria, Austria, and Hungary (now separate nations). The defeated Central Powers were not allowed to participate in the negotiations. The terms would be dictated to them. Russia was also not allowed to come. The world had been remade. Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Wilson faced a daunting task. Even as they and all the other delegates sat down to their deliberations, borders and governments were being decided in tumult, anarchy, and armed conflict. Most of the crowned heads of Europe had been deposed. The Czar and his family had been murdered. The Kaiser was in exile in the Netherlands. Bavarian King Ludwig III had given way to a socialist revolt. Austria and Hungary had declared themselves republics, making Charles I an emperor without an empire (he would eventually go into exile in Switzerland, and later Madeira). The states of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland were reemerging from the past. Communist red flags popped up, however briefly, at points in the heart of Europe. German mercenary armies, the Freikorps, fought Bolsheviks in Germany, saving the secular, socialist Weimar Republic—and even tried to annex the Baltic States, in secular emulation of the Teutonic Knights.

 

Episode 23: The Sad Afterlives of WW1’s Leaders: The Humbling (and Exiling) of Generals, Emperors, and Sultans

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From 1914-1918, the leaders of World War One were generals who commanded millions of men, emperors who inherited dynasties with centuries of accumulated wealth, and Sultans who claimed a direct line of connection to the Prophet Muhammed. After the war, many of them lost all their money and power, and were forced into lonely exile. British Chief of Staff Henry Wilson left the army after the war and became a Member of Parliament.  He was murdered on his doorstep by the Irish Republican Army in 1922. Kaiser Wilhelm II went into exile in the Netherlands and died in 1941 at the age of 82.  When he died he was putting pins in a map to mark the progress of the German army. Enver Pasha fled to Germany after the war.  Then he fled to Moscow and then Turkmenistan, where he took command of anti-Soviet rebels and was killed in the fighting in 1922.

Episode 24: The Eternal Legacy of the First World War

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World War One was the most consequential social event in centuries. 10 million soldiers died, creating 3 million widows and 10 million orphans. Many Europeans felt disillusionment and even anger about the war. They questioned earlier notions of honor, duty, and bravery. Europe lost its economic centrality. New York replaced London as the financial capital of the world., and the US and the USSR emerged as proto-superpowers. But positive changes happened. The notion of what roles women could take on changed. Women proved themselves capable of doing much of what men came. Four empires were gone. Many new smaller nations were created from the Empires’ former territories.

Recommended Books, Movies, and Documentaries

Nonfiction Books (Titles in bold are James’ favorites)

Carroll, Andrew, My Fellow Soldiers: General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War (2017).

Fromkin, David, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2009).

Gilbert, Martin, The First World War: A Complete History (2004).

Graves, Robert, Goodbye to All That: An Autobiography (1929).

Keegan, John, The First World War (2000).

Larson, Erik, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (2016).

Meyer, G. J., A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 (2007).

Meyer, G. J., The World Remade: America in World War (2018).

Strachan, Hew, The First World War (2005)

Tuchman, Barbara, The Guns of August (1962).

Yockelson, Mitchell, Forty-Seven Days How Pershing’s Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in WWI (2016).

Novels

Hemingway, Ernest, A Farewell to Arms (1929).

Myrer, Anton, Once an Eagle (1968).

Remarque, Erich Maria, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929).

Shaara, Jeff, To the Last Man (2005).

Movies and Miniseries (Titles in bold are James’ favorites)

1917 (2019)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930 and 1974 versions)

Beneath Hill 60 (2011)

Gallipoli (1981)

Gallipoli (Australian series, 2015)

Journey’s End (2018)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

The Lost Battalion (2001)

Paths of Glory (1957)

Regeneration (1997)

Sergeant York (1941)

The Passing Bells (2014)

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

Warhorse (2011)

Documentary Series

The First World War (10 part series, 2003)

The First World War: The People’s Story (3 part series, 2018)

The Great War, 1914-1918 (5 part series, 2015)

The Great War (American Experience 3 part series, 2017)

The Long Shadow (3 part BBC series, 2014)

The War At Sea (2 part BBC series, 2015)

Lecture Series

World War I: The Great War by Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius (The Great Courses series)

Music

Sabaton: The Great War

 

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