Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

The Campaign of 1916

The fortunes of war in 1915 had taught the Allies that a speedy victory was perhaps too much to hope for. They had learned that the character of modern warfare required a sort of preparation which they had not had time to make. It required an unlimited amount of ammunition which the British had made elaborate plans to produce in May, 1915, but which could not arrive on the battlefield for some time. The British army was training rapidly and rounding into form but experience had shown that it was not yet the sort of offensive instrument the Allies were going to need.

The Allied generals and statesmen were more convinced than ever that the advantage of numbers lay on their side. General Joffre, who was still in command, thought that "nibbling" was a possibility still and sure to bring results. If the Germans would only attack, the French could kill a few more Germans each time than they lost themselves and thus the German army would wear away little by little. The initial success of the Germans was ascribed to superiority in numbers and not to superiority of equipment, preparation, organization, or training. Now as the new British and Russian troops arrived, the Allies would grow stronger each month, and the Germans, inasmuch as they were being killed, must be getting weaker each month. There was therefore some disposition among the Allied generals and statesmen to play a waiting game, to let the numbers pile up a little; to wait until unlimited ammunition should arrive; until the new big guns should be finished, and the new British army should be thoroughly trained.

Allied Gains, 1915


Much also was expected from the blockade which, by the end of 1915, was extraordinarily efficient. The fleet in the North Sea was doing its work well and the German submarine did not seem as yet to be particularly dangerous. Certainly no one believed in England that the submarine could break the blockade. As time went on, therefore, the German supplies of all the things they did not produce must be getting lower and lower. The rubber, cotton, and copper were being used up. The food supplies were diminishing. The majority in London and Paris felt that a moment must come when the economic pressure must make itself felt on the German battle line and weaken the strength of the army for attack and for defense. When that moment came the Allies would know that victory was at hand. For this reason also there was a certain disposition to wait and not to attack too soon in 1916. There was as well the tradition of the Marne. By not forcing the issue, by not attacking too soon, by choosing the right moment, Joffre had in the end won a smashing victory. The same sort of tactics men thought would have the same result in 1916.

But when the British army should be ready and the ammunition should arrive, the Allies proposed to deliver a simultaneous attack on three fronts, and they proposed this time to keep it up, week in and week out, until they broke through the German defense. If the attack only was simultaneous, if there was only enough artillery behind it and enough men, and if only it was kept up long enough, they did not believe that the Germans could resist it. The sustaining of the attack until the Germans broke was to be the great factor.

The German plan for the year was based upon the knowledge, brought them of course by their spies, that the British were not ready to fight. Probably, too, they were aware of the Allied decision not to open the offensive until summer. They also felt that the Russian army had been beaten in the preceding year and was no longer dangerous. They could therefore afford to draw considerable strength from the eastern armies to use in the west, which should give them an effective superiority in men and in artillery. To deliver a smashing attack on the British, who were not yet ready, was of course possible and the result would probably be the defeat of the British army. But this would leave the Germans face to face with the strong, competent French army and would use up time and strength without promising to effect a decision. The German general staff argued that it was better to let the British alone and to throw the entire German strength upon the French. Once the better army was beaten and the bigger army was destroyed, the British would be at the mercy of the Germans.

Total Allied Gain, 1916


The assault had to be delivered of course on the French prepared positions and it had to be a frontal attack. It would therefore cost many lives and a vast amount of ammunition, but the German generals felt that if only enough guns and men were available, they could not fail. Being compelled to attack the French positions from the front anyway, they decided to assail the very key of the French line—Verdun. Here the great fortresses constructed in the past had been rendered useless by the new artillery and the French had abandoned them. The Germans, therefore, would have to reckon only with defenses of a type universal along the trench line. To carry Verdun ought to be no more difficult than to break any other part of the trench line, while the results would be proportionately more significant.

The German spies also reported that the French generals were not in favor of holding Verdun in case a great attack should be delivered upon it. Verdun would cost a tremendous toll in lives to hold and was no better defense to Paris than the new positions to which the French could move without sacrificing a man. Probably, therefore, the Germans expected to get Verdun very cheaply and then to advertise the tremendous success which the valor of their armies had won. They therefore made elaborate preparations for the attack, put the Crown Prince in command so that he might take the credit for the expected victory, and in February began a vast assault, miles wide, along the French center in front of Verdun.

The French statesmen appreciated better than the generals the moral effect of surrendering Verdun, even assuming that the generals were right that it possessed no military value which other positions did not have. It possessed a meaning for the French people which no other position could have. It had for centuries been considered the key to Paris, and the Germans would naturally advertise that because the key to Paris had fallen, the road to victory was open. It would not be true, but the French people might believe it and that would shake their confidence in the army. It would indeed be absolutely false, but the German people would also believe it and that would strengthen their confidence in their own army and in the Kaiser. Such moral results could not fail to be disastrous. Therefore the order went forth to hold Verdun at all costs. And Verdun was held. Month after month the German assaults broke upon it and failed. The famous watchword came true; they did not pass.

But when June came and the German attacks on Verdun still continued, the Allies deemed it wise to begin a tremendous offensive against Austria along the Carpathian front. In that month the Russians under Brusiloff made such progress indeed and defeated the Austrians so many times, that the Germans did diminish their efforts against Verdun in order to send men to the east. When, therefore, the magnitude of the German defeat was clear, the Allies felt that the German army in France had been tremendously weakened. Had it not lost hundreds of thousands of men before Verdun? Had it not sent hundreds of thousands to the rescue of the Austrians? Hundreds of thousands of British had now arrived in France; the English factories were pouring out an endless stream of munitions. The time had come when a great offensive must succeed if only undertaken on a sufficiently large scale and continued long enough. The Allies therefore launched along the river Somme a tremendous concentrated assault, which continued week after week, month after month, from July until November. All this time the Russian assault in the Carpathians was continued.

The Austrians had attempted in May and June to weaken the Allied resistance at Verdun by an assault upon the Italians. This they had had to abandon in order to send troops to the Carpathians and to resist the British and French along the Somme. In August, therefore, the Italians also took advantage of the German perplexity to deliver an attack upon the Austrians in Italy. Thus the summer of 1916 found the Allied armies fighting with tremendous intensity on all three fronts.

So confident were they that a movement had been at last launched which promised success, that they now made every effort to bring the Rumanians into the war. If only an additional push could be given the Germans on the east, something must crumble. Rumania, they thought, was in exactly the position to strike that blow. The Russians were already attacking in the Carpathians, and if the Rumanians came through the mountains into Hungary they would strike the flank and rear of the Austrians opposing the Russians. One of two things would be sure to happen, and either would be disastrous. The Austrians would be compelled to detach troops to meet the Rumanians, which ought so to weaken their armies facing the Russians that the latter would be able to win a victory. On the other hand, if the Rumanians were quick enough, they themselves might win the victory by striking the Austrian rear before the latter could reorganize their lines.

The campaign promised much for the Rumanians, for across the mountains in Hungary were some millions of people of Rumanian blood who had long wished to be joined to their compatriots. The Allies promised to add this territory to Rumania when the war should be won. At the end of August, therefore, the Rumanians did enter the war. They did deliver a great attack on Hungary, did penetrate the mountains, and did make some progress across the plains into Transylvania.

The magnitude of the peril aroused the Germans. Hindenburg was now made commander-in-chief of the German armies. He at once changed many of the dispositions of the troops, and soon had the situation in hand. In September both the Russians and Italians were driven back; the Austrian lines were reorganized to meet the Rumanians; and the catastrophe for which the Allies had hoped never eventuated. In France the German lines yielded a little here and there but on the whole held stoutly. The British and French casualties were heavy; the amount of ammunition they expended was indeed unlimited; but the German defense system was not pierced, and the gains they did make were out of proportion to the cost in lives and material. If the war had to he won at that rate, they saw that the cost was going to be prohibitive. They could not ransom the soil of France by the expenditure of any such amount of blood and treasure. When the bad weather came, therefore, in November, and the winter set in, the British and French gave up the attempt along the Somme and settled down to another winter of defensive warfare.

Then, as if to avenge themselves for their drubbing at Verdun and for the terrible punishment they had received along the Somme for so many months, the Germans fell upon Rumania to rend her limb from limb. Her king had previously promised both Kaisers that he would assist them in the war, or at least remain neutral. He had not been able to keep his promise and the Kaisers proposed to punish him for it. The fields of Rumania were fertile, broad, and desirable. Great harvests of grain were ready for reaping and the hungry people of Germany and Austria would be able to use that food during the coming winter. There were also great oil wells in Rumania; gasoline was as useful to the Germans as to the Allies; and the Germans had no supply of it. There were a good many reasons why the Germans were anxious to get possession of the lower Danube.

They therefore sent south one of their best generals, Von Mackensen. He allowed the Rumanians to come as far into Hungary as they wished. Every mile they advanced they put themselves in his power. He then attacked their left wing at the Vulkan Pass with great force, pushed through the mountains with tremendous rapidity, and thus flanked the Rumanian army in Hungary. It was forced to retreat at all speed in order to save itself from capture. The Germans were moreover in a position which compelled it to retire on its own capital. No sooner had the Rumanians reached the defensive lines before Bucharest than Von Mackensen crossed the Danube on their flank and rear with another army and thus caught them between two fires.

The Rumanians were not expert soldiers and were none too well equipped. They had expected to fight a reasonably easy war in which the Allies in Greece at Saloniki and the Russians in the Carpathians were to do the bulk of the work. The Allied campaign in Greece had not amounted to much; the Russians had been beaten by the Germans; and the Rumanians were now left to pay the penalty. The greater part of their country was evacuated and the wheat fields and the oil wells fell into the hands of the Germans. Whether this conquest materially aided the Germans in prolonging the war has been questioned by Allied authorities, but, while it may not have resulted in as great accessions of food as the enthusiastic newspaper reporters in Berlin and Vienna led the people to hope, it must have been of real consequence and value.