After four years of carnage, the First World War finally came to an end when the Central Powers collapsed and revolution spread to Germany, writes Neil Faulkner.
Revolution broke out in Russia early in 1917 because it was the weakest of the great powers. But it soon spread. By the third winter of the war, the experience of modern industrialised warfare was imposing massive strain on the whole of European society.
The disasters of 1916 brought down governments and generals. General Nivelle replaced General Joffre as head of the French Army. Nivelle launched a new offensive proclaiming, ‘We have a formula … victory is certain.’
He did not. The French lost 120,000 men in five days. A month later, Nivelle was sacked. By that time, a wave of mutinies was sweeping across the French Army. The poilus – the French rank-and-file soldiers – had had enough.
The revolt started in late April 1917, grew in May, and peaked in June. Desertion became an epidemic, entire units refused to go back into the line, and demonstrations were held in which soldiers sang revolutionary songs. Around 40,000 men were directly involved, and 68 divisions were affected. During one two-week period, the front-line was virtually denuded of French troops.
The mutinies were suppressed, but only 49 of 554 death sentences were carried out, conditions in the trenches were improved, and the French Army remained on the defensive for the next year.
In October 1917, the Italian Army cracked. Between May 1915 and September 1917, General Cadorna had ordered no less than eleven separate offensives on the Isonzo.
Each one had failed. Italian casualties had been a third of million in the two 1917 offensives alone.
When the Austrians and Germans counterattacked in late October, the Italian Army collapsed. The rout continued for 70 miles. Twice as many men deserted as were lost in battle. Tens of thousands discarded their rifles and streamed away from the front chanting ‘The war’s over! We’re going home! Up with Russia!’
A new line was improvised deep inside north-eastern Italy. But Cadorna was sacked, soldiers’ conditions greatly improved, and no new offensive was attempted before the second half of 1918.
On the opposite side of no-man’s-land – in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire – conditions were even worse. Total war meant murderous offensives and a ‘war of munitions’ at the battle-fronts. It also meant blockade and an attempt to starve the enemy into submission.
Germany lost 1.8 million soldiers in the First World War, but a further 750,000 civilians died of starvation at home. Food production fell as the land was stripped of labour by the draft. War production took priority over consumption needs. German trade was crippled by a naval blockade. By the second half of the war, the diet of the average German worker averaged only two-thirds of the calories needed for long-term survival.
Around 200,000 German engineering workers struck against cuts in the bread ration in April 1917. Disaffection spread to the sailors of the High Seas Fleet at Kiel. Resentment at poor conditions, harsh discipline, and the caste privileges of officers boiled over when rations were cut.
The sailors elected ‘food committees’ and demanded recognition from the authorities. But the movement was crushed. Two of the leaders were executed and others imprisoned with hard labour.
Then a fresh wave of strikes swept Germany in January 1918, with 500,000 out in Berlin and a dozen other industrial centres. Embryonic workers’ councils emerged to co-ordinate the action. Anti-war socialists played leading roles. Activists made direct comparison between events in Germany and the revolution in Russia.
But the authorities cracked down hard, and again the movement subsided.
Germany’s rulers had been given one last chance. The Russian Revolution and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had ended the war on the Eastern Front. It was now possible to reinforce the Western Front and go onto the offensive against the British and the French.
But the USA had entered the war and was ferrying hundreds of thousands of troops across the Atlantic. Germany’s opportunity would be brief.
In spring 1918, General Ludendorff launched five separate offensives. The Allied line was almost broken. The British Commander-in-Chief, Douglas Haig, issued an order stating, ‘With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end.’
But the line held, and when the offensives ended in July, the Germans had lost half a million men. The Allies had lost more, but American troops were now arriving at the rate of 300,000 a month.
The Allies went onto the offensive and began to make massive gains. The fighting on the Western Front reached an unprecedented ferocity. The Germans suffered a succession of defeats and lost large swathes of the territory they had conquered in 1914.
The First World War had the character of a gigantic siege of the Central Powers. By autumn 1918, there was heavy and mounting pressure on all fronts. Between September and November, all four of the Central Powers collapsed.
The Ottoman Turkish line in Palestine was broken at the Battle of Megiddo on 19-21 September. Two entire armies broke and fled northwards. The rout continued to the modern Turkish-Syrian border.
Arab nationalist guerrillas had played a central role in the victory, liberating the Arabic-speaking territories east of the Jordan. The war in the Middle East was ended by the Armistice of Mudros on 30 October.
The Bulgarian line in Macedonia was broken by a combined army of British, French, Serbian, Greek, and Italian troops in a sustained two-week offensive in late September.
Bulgaria was a small, underdeveloped country. It had lost a higher proportion of its military manpower during six years of war (1912-1918) than any other belligerent state. Its agriculture had collapsed. Its infant industries had been yoked to the German war-machine. Bulgaria’s leaders had led its people to national disaster.
By the time an armistice was signed on the Salonika Front on 29 September, much of the army had disintegrated and a revolution had broken out at home.
The Austro-Hungarian line was broken by the Italians at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (24 October-4 November). An armistice was signed the day after the Italians captured the Adriatic port of Trieste. The military defeat destroyed the ramshackle Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The army broke up into national fragments, and liberal politicians seized power in dozens of cities – Czechs and Slovaks in Prague, Brno, and Bratislava; ‘South Slavs’ in Zagreb and Sarajevo; Poles in Cracow.
The twin capitals of the Habsburg ‘Dual Monarchy’ – German-speaking Vienna and Magyar-speaking Budapest – were also swept by the revolutionary tide. A coalition led by Social Democrats took power in Vienna, a liberal aristocrat in Budapest.
On 29 September, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the leading German generals, informed the Kaiser that the war was lost. They demanded an armistice, a compromise peace, and a new government including Social Democrats, explaining that ‘it is necessary to prevent an upheaval from below by a revolution from above’.
The Kaiser was too stupid to comply and attempted to continue the war. The High Seas Fleet was ordered to sea in a last desperate do-or-die bid to defeat Britain’s Royal Navy. Germany’s sailors were to be a final sacrifice to the God of War.
On 29 October, the sailors began to mutiny. This time, instead of simply sitting tight on their ships, they went onto the offensive, organising armed demonstrations to spread the revolt through the fleet and the docks. By 3 November, Kiel was controlled a revolutionary council.
Kiel was the trigger. Huge demonstrations broke out across Germany. Within days, scores of German towns were controlled by councils of workers, soldiers, and sailors.
On 9 November, the revolution reached Berlin. Hundreds of thousands were on the streets. The city was awash with red flags and socialist banners. The anti-war revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht addressed the crowds from the balcony of the imperial palace and proclaimed a ‘socialist republic’ and ‘world revolution’.
The German Revolution had begun. Russia had had its February Days. Now Germany had its November Days. The film of 1917 was being re-run in the heart of Europe.
The First World War – the bloodiest carnage in human history up to that time – had been ended by the revolutionary action of millions of workers, soldiers, sailors, and peasants across Europe.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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