7.2: From Check-Mate to Stalemate to Armistice

The spark that set it all off was a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist terrorist. Serbia and Austria-Hungary had had a long rivalry and so, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was on a tour through Sarajevo (the capital of Serbia), the terrorist made a statement by assassinating him in his car on June 28, 1914. Austria-Hungary then used this event—committed by the terrorist group “The Black Hand” and not the Serbian government—to invade Serbia. Serbia called on its allies, starting with Russia, and the dominoes all fell. By September, every power in Europe was at war. The first dodgeball was thrown, and the game was on.

Like dodgeball, each side felt that the game would be swift and there would few serious casualties on any side. The winning “team” would gain greater territory and more power over the losing “team” and, perhaps by Christmas, the treaty would be signed.

After a century of nationalistic, imperialistic, and militaristic build-up, the two sides were pretty evenly matched in terms of military technology, though, with the biggest military power—Germany—strong enough to wage a two-front war. However, that situation was nowhere near ideal, especially if Germany and its allies were to gain any territory. So a plan was developed by a high officer in the German army named Schlieffen, who used his knowledge of “good-factor” and “bad-factor” countries like an A+ Modern World History student. The Schlieffen Plan relied on a one-two punch and assured a check-mate pretty quickly—or so the Central Powers thought.

Kaiser Wilhelm

However, with Russia’s huge population and absolute monarchy, it was able to move troops to the Eastern Front a lot sooner than expected. The English and French troops were upping the ante as well on the Western Front; so, by Christmas, both fronts were stalled in a stalemate. The nearly-four-year struggle of trench warfare began. This type of fighting was not only destructive for human lives but for the ideals behind fighting war: traditional ideas of fighting for the honor of one’s country were literally blown apart by the random violence of the trenches. Hand-to-hand combat was now very rare—and so the idea of “let the best man win” was no longer applicable. Instead, one had to be lucky enough to make it to the “end-zone” through a barrage of artillery, machine gun fire, land mines, tank attacks, bombs from the air, and barbed wire fencing to face the enemies’ rifles, bayonets, and tear gas.

It took political events outside of the trenches to rescue the Europeans from this industrialized “factory of death”: 1) The Russian Revolution of 1917, and 2) the proposed Mexican-German alliance that same year, which led to the United States joining the Allied Powers. Russia reached an early peace with Germany thanks to the world’s first successful Communist-inspired revolution, ending the Eastern Front and turning the absolute monarchy of Russia into the U.S.S.R. The addition of the U.S. to the Allied Powers led to the Western Front’s permanent advance towards Germany. By 1918, the German fighting population was so decimated that 16-year-old boys were fighting in the trenches. Therefore, at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the armistice went into effect and the guns stopped firing—for the first time in over four years. (November 11th is still commemorated in the United States, though the name was changed from “Armistice Day” to “Veterans’ Day.”)

Trench Warfare: the “Assembly Line of Death”

With the rapid advances in industrialization during the 19th century, a big war like WWI was bound to be more destructive. However, no one could probably imagine just how efficient a “death machine” like trench warfare would be. Trenches were dug on either side of the front, and the goal was to occupy the opposing army’s trench. Sounds like capture-the-flag, right? The problem is that, in order to occupy that enemy trench, you have to cross through “no-man’s land,” the zone between the two trenches that is filled with land mines and barbed wire. A soldier also had to dodge machine-gun fire, artillery, poison gas attacks and (later) tanks and airplanes in order to reach a trench—and could capture it only if he could successfully bayonet the occupants of the trench. Then, after that hard-fought victory for a few football fields, the whole struggle starts over again, because the trenches extended for miles and miles and miles along both fronts. Add to this the fact that all of these battles were fought outside 365 days a year (with the exception of the brief “pause” of Christmas 1914) and you can see why WWI killed more people than all other conflicts before in human history combined.

Trench warfare