It is difficult for contemporaries to assess the high-profile events taking place. The first global war, which covered most of the planet, is still shrouded in secrets.
Historians who plunge into the essence of the issue say that what happened in 1914-1918 is not quite correctly reflected in modern textbooks. And the civilian population suffered much more than in previous conflicts.
The First World War entailed an economic, social and political crisis. With the help of English and Russian historians, it is worth trying to consider the main misconceptions about that Great War.
It was the bloodiest conflict in history at the time. We often focus on the events taking place in the center of civilization, in Europe. At the same time, what is happening in distant and mysterious China is overlooked. But there was a much more bloody conflict there for half a century during the First World War. The Taiping Rebellion peasant war lasted 14 years, from 1850 to 1864. According to the most conservative estimates, it cost the lives of 20-30 million people. The number of victims of the First World War is estimated at 17 million people, with civilian casualties included. If measured in absolute numbers, the global conflict has become the bloodiest for the British in general in history. And in percentage terms, the civil war that took place in the 17th century became even more tangible for the inhabitants of the British Isles. Then about 4% of the inhabitants of England and Wales died, in Scotland and Ireland the ratio was even higher. And during the First World War, about 2% of the British died.
Most of the soldiers died in the war. Again, we can refer to the example of Great Britain. In total, about 6 million soldiers were called up. Of these, about 700 thousand people remained on the battlefields, which is about 11.5%. In fact, even during the Crimean War in the middle of the 19th century, the probability of death was higher. More than five million people served in the Russian army at the beginning of the conflict. The imperial army lost between 800 thousand and 1.3 million people killed. Additional mobilizations should also be considered. And although the percentage of casualties was clearly higher than that of the British, it is still not necessary to speak about the majority of those killed.
The soldiers had to spend several years in the trenches. The living conditions that reigned on the front line in the trenches did not allow them to stay there for a long time. It was a damp, cold place, poorly suited for fire protection. If the command left the soldiers in the trenches for a long time, they would quickly lose their fighting spirit. The same Englishmen were constantly replacing soldiers in their trenches. When major battles raged, military units were usually in the trenches for about 10 days a month. At the same time, the soldiers were not even more than three days on the front line. There were cases when subunits did not get to the front line for a whole month, waiting for their turn. And during the offensive, the British units could be in the trenches continuously for a week, but most often they were changed after a couple of days.
Representatives of the upper classes practically did not suffer from the war. It makes sense that the majority of those killed in that war belonged to the working class. But even among the political and secular elite there were many victims. In England, the sons of aristocrats became junior officers. They led the soldiers into the attack, becoming the first and main target of the enemy. If for ordinary soldiers the death toll was 12% of the total, for officers this ratio is higher - up to 17%. More than 20% of the graduates of the elite Eton College died on the battlefields, which amounted to more than a thousand people. British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost his son, and future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Lowe lost two at once. Another future prime minister lost two brothers, his third brother was seriously wounded, and his uncle was captured.
Donkeys commanded lions. This phrase was allegedly popular with German commanders. The implication was that the brave English soldiers were commanded by old and cowardly aristocrats who preferred to sit in castles. In fact, such words were invented by the historian Alan Clarke. It turns out that over the years of the war, more than 200 generals died, were taken prisoner or wounded. Most of them were on the front lines every day. And during the battles, the generals were much closer to the center of events than in the modern army. There were also those commanders who could not cope with their duties. But some turned out to be talented military leaders, you can recall at least the Canadian Arthur Kerry. A native of the middle class, in ordinary life, he could not prove himself even as an insurance agent and developer, and in the war he managed to become a brilliant general. It is worth considering the fact that the military leaders had to learn to resist hitherto unseen types of weapons and the conditions of warfare right in the course of battles. If earlier British commanders were told how to conduct small colonial wars and pacify the natives, then they found themselves drawn into a global conflict using the most modern technology. Previously, the army simply did not face this. But at the same time, it was the British who in three years invented that method of warfare, which is still adopted today on its basis. By the summer of 1918, most of the countries were exhausted by the war, and the British were at their peak and struck at the Germans blow after blow.
Australians and New Zealanders took part in the operation on the Dardanelles. Representatives of British colonies, exotic for Europe, fought on the Gallipoli Peninsula. But there were still more British people than Australians and New Zealanders combined. In that bloody operation, Britain lost four to five times more men than its distant overseas southern allies. Even the French were killed more than the New Zealanders. In Australia and New Zealand, the memory of those killed in that operation is especially honored, but it is also natural, given, firstly, the percentage of the fallen to the total number of troops, and secondly, the small number of the population of these colonies.
In spite of everything, the troops on the Western Front adhered to constant tactics. In the four years of war, tactics and technology have changed more than ever before. The World War was a period of great technical innovations, unfortunately designed to kill en masse. In 1914, the generals appeared on the battlefield on horseback, while the soldiers went on the attack without any fire cover. Both sides had rifles in their hands. And already four years later, the troops attacked in steel helmets, covered with artillery fire. In addition to rifles and grenades, the soldiers also had light machine guns with flamethrowers. If by the beginning of 1914 airplanes were a curiosity, by the end of the war the planes were already at war with each other. Aircraft appeared with experimental, but already wireless radio transmitters, which could conduct reconnaissance in real time. With the help of mathematical calculations and aerial photography data, even heavy artillery pieces were able to operate with high accuracy. In just a couple of years, the process of creating tanks stepped from blueprints to real samples on the battlefield. Thanks to armored vehicles, the course of hostilities has changed forever.
There were no winners in the First World War. During the war, most of Europe was covered with ruins, and millions of people either died or were injured. Those who survived were left with deep emotional trauma. The economies of the belligerent countries were undermined, Great Britain was ruined in general. The revolutions in Russia and Germany changed these countries. Is it possible in such a situation to talk about the winners at all? But from a military point of view, Britain and the Entente countries won a landslide victory. The German fleet was blocked by British forces, leading to riots among the German sailors. The German army was defeated by the concerted actions of the allies, who managed to overcome the seemingly invulnerable defense. By August 1918, the German Kaiser, along with his chief military adviser Erich von Ludendorff, realized that there was no hope of victory. Germany realized that the time had come for peace. His offensive on November 11, 1918, was essentially the capitulation of Germany. The German government, unlike Hitler in 1945, simply did not wait for the allied forces to enter Berlin. And this truce saved thousands of lives, while in Germany itself there was a myth that the war was not lost.
The Versailles Treaty was too humiliating for Germany. The peace agreement provided for the transfer of a tenth of Germany's territory to the victorious countries. But with all this, the Germans remained the richest and largest country in Europe. And the territory of Germany was practically not occupied. The repatriations that were assigned to Germany were associated with its solvency and were practically not carried out. The peace terms that Germany concluded were much easier than those previously concluded after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871 or World War II. The first of them entailed the transfer of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, where almost all French mining metallurgy was concentrated. They also demanded a considerable contribution from France, obliging it to pay immediately. And after World War II, Germany was generally occupied and divided into parts. Industry was either destroyed or exported. Millions of Germans were captured and rebuilt the victorious countries with their own labor. Everything that Germany received between the world wars was taken away, in addition to its ancestral territories. So don't think the Treaty of Versailles is so hard. This myth was in fact invented by Hitler, who created special revanchist sentiments, having come to power on their wave.
Everyone hated the war. It is customary to represent war as a cataclysm, which overturns the psychology of people, inflicting moral trauma on them. But there were those who benefited from the war. We can recall at least industrialists who have enriched themselves at the expense of army supplies. For many soldiers who did not receive a scratch, this period was generally one of the best in life. With a lucky coincidence, they were not thrown into the crucible of battles, and they lived in the war much better than at home. The same English soldiers were fed meat, which was impossible in a peaceful life. They received tea, cigarettes and even rum. The soldiers were supposed to consume 4 thousand calories daily. There were not many more people who were absent due to illness than in peacetime. This suggests that the morale of the soldiers was at the proper level, and they did not shy away from service. In addition to a guaranteed salary, many young soldiers made new friends, got used to responsibility and also received sexual freedom, which was unthinkable in their native Britain.
The war was immediately called the First World War. The term itself appeared on September 10, 1918. The Times' war correspondent, Colonel Charles Repington, then wrote this in his diary. And a couple of years later, he published a book, which he prophetically called "The First World War." The very same term "World War" appeared in 1904, when German writers dreamed of conquering Great Britain. In Germany itself, the war was called World War all the time. In France, England and Russia, the conflict was originally called the Great War, in America - the European War. When in 1915 the Austrians and Germans entered the territory of Russia, we began to call the war the Second Patriotic War. In the people, it was called German. Lenin announced a new name - Imperialist. And in the 1930s, with the approach of a new world war, the modern name took root in the West - the First World War.
Russia should not have gotten involved in a war at all. At that time, Russia was an active participant in European politics. She could not stay away from the events that were unfolding both at her borders and in her area of responsibility. And the point here is not at all in territorial claims, the allies simply would not have let us take possession of Constantinople. Russia was forced to enter the war in order to protect the results of its conquests in the northwest and south. Germany actively sought to reach the Mediterranean Sea through the Balkans and drive our country out of the Baltic. Such prospects would mean the deprivation of the status of a great power. Serbia's support had strategic reasons - otherwise the Germans would have received a foothold in the Balkans. And it was not we who declared war on Germany, but she against us.
Russia acted exclusively out of geopolitical interests. The ideological underpinnings should not be discarded either. The Orthodox monarchy fought for traditional European ideals - classical law, national sovereignty, religious and family values. Nicholas II generally stood at the origins of disarmament, calling for peace. Russia fought not only for its borders, but also for sovereignty, religion, and the fate of Christians.
Russia was supposed to side with Germany. There is a fairly popular myth that sees the roots of the 1917 tragedy in the wrong choice of allies by Nicholas II. However, the Germans themselves did not see Russia as an ally. Back in the 1890s, their strategic task was to push our country away from the Baltic and Black Seas and destroy its economy. And Kaiser Wilhelm himself hated the Slavs. In such conditions, it was impossible to talk about alliance and common goals.
Russia fought badly. In Soviet textbooks, Russia in 1914 appears as a country with a weak economy, doomed to failure. But all the participants in the war, including the mighty Great Britain, experienced difficulties. The unsuccessful offensive in East Prussia at the very beginning of the war was a response to the plea of the French government. The defeat of the unprepared Russian troops saved the Allies from defeat in the very first months of the war. It was on the Eastern Front that the fate of the war was decided. The unsuccessful offensive in Prussia laid down a further strategic picture, making possible the victory on the Marne. Russia not only showed loyalty to its obligations, having paid in blood for the victory of the Entente, but also showed the military world many brilliant military operations. The Brusilov Breakthrough is considered a classic example of strategic art.
In the First World War, Russia was defeated. This conclusion is a simplified view of events.Russia cannot be considered defeated, just because of the revolutionary changes that had begun, the country was unable to take advantage of the fruits of victory. The Bolsheviks withdrew Russia from the Entente, giving the former allies the opportunity to remake the world.
The East Prussian operation was carried out only to save France from a crushing defeat. A careful reading of the documents of that time allows us to look somewhat differently at the events. The offensive of the Russian troops began only after reconnaissance confirmed the transfer of the main units of the regular German army from East Prussia. In the region itself, there were essentially only border guards and militias. Russia could not resist the temptation to take advantage of this situation.
The defeat of the Russian army in East Prussia was due to the incompetent command. A careful study of the memoirs refutes this myth. The tragedy of General Samsonov's army occurred after a revolutionary pacifist rebellion broke out in the units. The soldiers began to smash their weapons and refused to continue the offensive.
Russia's failures at the front in 1915 were due to poor supplies. This reason was called in Soviet history textbooks. However, numerous eyewitnesses of those events say that the success of the Germans in the Gorlitsky breakthrough became possible due to the concentration of many times superior enemy forces on a narrow sector of the front. Even shelling enemy columns with direct fire from artillery guns had no effect. In other words, the reasons for defeat lie in tactical miscalculations.
Nicholas II blindly served the Entente. The communists declared the tsarist foreign policy in those years null and void. In fact, in 1914-1917, domestic diplomats forced England to recognize Russia's right to the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. A convention was signed with France that limited Britain's influence on the continent. An agreement was also signed with Japan. Thus, it is obvious that Nikolai pursued an independent policy aimed at protecting the interests of Russia.
On the lands recaptured from Austria-Hungary, the tsarist troops behaved cruelly. We are talking about Galicia, Bukovina and Transcarpathia, where, allegedly, Russian troops behaved like the invaders. But from the archives of the Provisional General Government of Galicia it follows that the army treated the local population quite humanely. But the Austrians and Hungarians here openly committed atrocities, trying to intimidate the pro-Russian-minded inhabitants of these lands.
During the First World War, cultural life in Russia fell into decay. Even modern Russian scientists are forced to admit that by the beginning of 1917 there were more cinemas in Moscow (and this is taking into account the difference in population!) Than today. Many peasant women had fashionable boots in their wardrobe, and even stiletto heels.