Historical Perspective, World War I

A World War I

Named for its complex involvement of countries from Northern Europe to Africa, western Asia, and the U.S., World War I, called the Great War, was ignited by a single episode. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia. As the Austrian government plotted a suitable retribution against the Serbs, the effect on Russia was taken into consideration. Because Russia was closely allied with Serbia, Austrian officials worried that the slightest aggression against the Serbs would result in Russian involvement. As a precaution, Austria sought support from Germany, its most powerful ally. Kaiser Wilhelm II immediately vouched for Germany’s assistance, telling the Austrian powers that his nation would support whatever action the Austrian government might take.

On July 23, 1914, the Austrian empire presented an ultimatum to the Serbs, demanding that they suppress Serbian nationalist activity by punishing activists, prosecuting terrorists, squashing anti-Austrian propaganda, and even allowing Austrian officials to intrude into Serbian military affairs. Two hours before the expiration of the forty-eight hour deadline on the ultimatum, Serbia responded. However, its response fell short of complete acceptance of the terms and so was rejected by the Austrian authorities. As war between Austria and Serbia loomed on the horizon, both sides experienced a massive groundswell of optimism and patriotism regarding the impending conflict.

The Austrians declared war on Serbia and began shelling Serbian defenses. As these aggressions began, the Russian army started mobilizing to aid the Serbs, and it was soon clear that Russia was going to become involved in the war. Two days later, the German army began to mobilize and entered the war to support Austria. Germany was jubilant about the prospect of war and believed that its entrance into the conflict was perfectly justified. Kaiser Wilhelm II stated: “A fateful hour has fallen upon Germany. Envious people on all sides are compelling us to resort to a just defense… war will demand enormous sacrifices in blood and treasure but we shall show our foes what it means to provoke Germany.”

Germany began a heavy assault on France, an ally of the Russians. To facilitate this assault, the German troops marched through Belgium. Great Britain, Belgium’s ally, sent an ultimatum to the German army to withdraw from Belgian soil. When the ultimatum went unanswered, Britain entered the war, which had already included Czechs, Poles, Rumanians, Russians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Arabs, and eventually the Italians and Turks. Germany faced Russian, French, and British enemies, who outnumbered their army 10 million to 6 million.

B War in the Trenches

As Germany engaged the French and British armies in the West, it became clear that a decisive victory was not an immediate possibility. Both sides in the conflict settled themselves into trenches and dugouts in preparation for a war of attrition. New weapons such as the machine gun and more efficient artillery made the trenches a necessity. Soldiers on open ground would be decimated by the newfangled instruments of death. Opposing trenches were typically several hundred yards apart. The middle ground, which was laced with barbed wire, soon became known as “no-man’s land.” Constant firefights and artillery barrages removed all foliage from this area and made it nearly impossible to cross. Daring raids across this deadly no-man’s land became one of the chief pursuits of infantrymen in the trenches. During these raids, soldiers would cross the treacherous ground, penetrate enemy barbed wire either with well-placed artillery attacks or with special rifle attachments that gathered several strands of wire together and then fired a bullet, severing them. Upon reaching the enemy lines, soldiers would first throw a volley of hand grenades into the trenches and then attack the surprised defenders with bayonets. While these raids did not typically result in major casualties to defenders, they devastated enemy morale and bolstered the confidence of the attackers. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul Baumer participates in such a raid. Caught in a no-man’s land by shell-fire, Baumer takes shelter in a shallow hole. When a French soldier also seeks shelter there, Baumer stabs him and feels tormented by guilt as he watches the young man die. This scene especially illustrates the traumatic nature of the raids.

C The Western Front

The Western front was a 475-mile-long battle line between the Germans and the Allied forces. Along this line of fighting were 900,000 German troops and 1.2 million Allied soldiers, or roughly 1,900 and 2,500 men per mile of front. Overall, the Western front was not a continuous trench, but rather a string of unconnected trenches and fortifications.

The round of duty along the Western front differed little for soldiers on either side of the conflict. Most of the night would be spent at hard labor, repairing the trench wall, laying barbed wire, and packing sandbags. After the dawn stand-to, when every man would line up on the firing step against the possibility of a morning attack, the rest of the day would generally be spent in sleep or idleness, occasionally interrupted by sentry duty or another stand-to when enemy activity was suspected. Despite the sometimes lengthy periods of calm along the front, life in the trenches was filled with constant dangers. In addition to artillery attacks and surprise raids, soldiers suffered afflictions brought on by a daily existence in wet and unsanitary conditions. The lack of fresh foods and soggy environment in the trenches resulted in “trench foot,” an affliction that turned the feet green, swollen, and painful. Another ailment suffered by soldiers in the trenches was the debilitating, though not fatal, trench fever, transmitted by the lice that infested everyone after a day or two in the line. Baumer and his comrades in the novel take several trips to the delousing stations during their service on the front.

D The Human Cost of the War

On the Allies side, the total casualties suffered were as follows: Russia, 9,150,000; England, 3,190,235; France, 6,160,000; Italy, 2,197,000; the U.S., 323,018, and Serbia, 331,106. On the Axis side, Germany lost 7,142,558; and Austria-Hungary, 7,020,000.

E The Influence of the Older Generation

Central to Remarque’s novel is the attack on members of Germany’s older generation for imposing their false ideals of war on their children. The older generation’s notions of patriotism and their assumptions that war was indeed a valorous pursuit played a crucial role in the conflict. The chief sources of this pro-war ideology were the older men of the nation: professors, publicists, politicians, and even pastors. As the war began, these figures intensified the rhetoric, providing all the right reasons why killing the young men of France and Britain was a worthy endeavor. One Protestant clergyman spoke of the war as “the magnificent preserver and rejuvenator.” Government authorities in Germany did everything in their power to try and get the young men to enlist, even granting students special dispensation to complete final exams early so as to be able to join up sooner. As the war broke out, more than a million young men volunteered for service.

In his book, Remarque uses the character of the schoolteacher Kantorek to develop the novel’s attack against the older generation. Kantorek’s persistent encouragement of the young men to enlist prompted Baumer’s entire class to volunteer for service. With each successive death of Baumer’s classmates, the novel further condemns the attitudes and influences of the older generation. Baumer himself denounces the pressure they exerted. “For us lads of eighteen,” he observes, “they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress-to the future.”

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