The bloody summer of 1916: Pt 1

With my coursework finished, my qualifying exams done (and passed), and a number of other major tasks and events behind me, I finally find myself with enough time and inclination to add to my blog series on WWI. I have no illusions about making up for lost time or even maintaining a semi-daily schedule in the future. Instead, for now, I merely feel, strongly, that some attention should be drawn to the events of the summer of 1916.

As usual, some background must first be explored before we can properly understand what was going on.

In the winter of 1915-1916, the Supreme German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, found himself with a decision to make. Perhaps the biggest decision a German commander had to make since deciding selecting where and when to attack the Allies at the start of the war. Falkenhayn had to select the “sweet spot” which would knock one of the Allies out of the war.

Erich von Falkenhayn, supreme German commander, September 1914 – August 1916.

Selecting the enemy proved an easy decision. The Russians had turned out to be a numerous, though weak enemy. The Battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes in late 1914 – early 1915 had each decimated almost entire Russian armies (approximately 100,000 Russian casualties each, many of them captured by the Germans) at little cost to the Germans. 1915 proved even more disastrous for the Russians, as German offensives damaged, punctured, then crumbled the Russian lines. By the end of the year, the Eastern front had developed into a steady series of hasty Russian defenses and crushing defeats. They lost over 2,000,000 troops that year, a full half of them taken prisoner by the Germans. Tzar Nicholas became so desperate to turn the tide that he assumed personal command of the Russian armies, a decision which would only further solidify their doom. By the winter of 1915-16, Falkenhayn had dismissed the Russians as incapable of major offensive operations.

Russian prisoners wait for transportation, following the battle of Masurian Lakes.

Thus, there were only two major threats to German victory: The French and the British.
Interestingly, Falkenhayn did not view the French as the key opponent. France could be bombed, her troops could be killed, the very country itself was playing host to the war, gradually being transformed into a horrible moonscape sculpted by trenches and artillery. No, reasoned Falkenhayn, France stayed in the war because of Britain.
Britain played a much smaller price for her place in the war. Only those troops ready for the fight ever saw the meat of the conflict, as Britain herself was invulnerable to German invasion. As Falkenhayn saw it, the war went on because this invulnerability buffered the illusion that, by aiding, France, Germany could be beaten: “She is staking everything on a war of exhaustion. . . . We have not been able to shatter her belief that it will bring Germany to her knees. What we have to do is dispel that illusion.”
Falkenhayn saw two ways of potentially shattering the British illusion of victory. One was to threaten starvation on the island-nation through intensified submarine warfare. Though the Germans had reeled in their subs significantly after the sinking of Lusitania in early 1915 had threatened to bring a new enemy (America) into the war, Falkenhayn now decided that every tool had to be employed to the detriment of the British. As for potentially angering the Americans, Falkenhayn decided that they “cannot intervene decisively in the war in time.” Thus, German strategy risked much on winning the war in 1916.

The New York times helped spur American outrage at the conduct of the German submarines.

The other method of knocking Britain from the war, reasoned Falkenhayn, was to remove the French from the war. Here, the solution proved more difficult to identify: German armies had been fighting French armies since 1914 without any decisive battles being fought. Clearly, a wholly different strategy would have to be developed in order to manufacture such a victory against the French. Falkenhayn concluded that the static nature of the front lines prevented him from trying anything tactically novel, but instead, he could focus on a strategically significant region: In choosing where to launch his next major offensive, he could select a target region so intensely valued by the French that they would risk anything to protect it. In protecting this region, reasoned Falkenhayn, the French would empty themselves of their strategic reserve of troops, and remove themselves as a significant threat in the war. At that point, the British could either withdraw from the war, or wait until German had begun to crush France before withdrawing. Either way, argued Falkenhayn, the key to victory, Britain’s withdrawal, would be accomplished.
Falkenhayn therefore spent much of the winter of 1915-1916 on carefully selecting an area for his next offensive which would draw the French into a German-deathtrap. He needed a place which would be not only easily defensible from the German side, but also highly valued by the French side.

He selected Verdun.
(More on the events of the summer of 1916 in my next post)

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