Annals of War: How Woodrow Wilson Cost Europe a Century – Part II
Did American intervention in WWI help destabilize the European continent?
- Wilson’s pretexts for war on Germany are not half what they are cracked-up to be as causes for war.
- Wilson's intervention in WWI radically re-channelled the contours of 20th century history. And not in a good way.
- The four years of war ultimately claimed more than 4 million casualties on the Allied side and 3.5 million on the German side.
- By early 1917, in a matter of months a peace of exhaustion and a European-wide political revolt against the war makers would have occurred.
To get the facts straight on the fallout of the ill-advised U.S. World War I, let’s consider two more propositions:
Proposition #3: Protecting Freedom of the Seas?
Wilson’s pretexts for war on Germany – submarine warfare and the Zimmerman telegram — are not half what they are cracked-up to be as causes for war.
As to the so-called freedom of the seas and neutral shipping rights, the story is blatantly simple. In November 1914, England declared the North Sea to be a “war zone.”
It threatened neutral shipping with deadly sea mines, declared that anything which could conceivably be of use to the German army — directly or indirectly — to be contraband that would be seized or destroyed and announced that the resulting blockade of German ports was designed to starve it into submission.
A few months later, Germany unsurprisingly announced its submarine warfare policy designed to stem the flow of food, raw materials and armaments to England in retaliation. It was the desperate antidote of a land power to England’s crushing sea-borne blockade.
Accordingly, there existed a state of total warfare in the northern European waters. The traditional “rights” of neutrals were irrelevant and disregarded by both sides.
In arming merchantmen and stowing munitions on passenger liners, England was hypocritical and utterly cavalier about the resulting mortal danger to innocent civilians — as exemplified by the 4.3 million rifle cartridges and hundreds of tons of other munitions carried in the hull of the Lusitania.
Likewise, the German resort to so-called “unrestricted submarine warfare” in February 1917 was brutal and stupid, but came in response to massive domestic political pressure during what was known as the “turnip winter” in Germany. By then, the country was starving from the English blockade — literally.
Before he resigned on principle in June 1915, U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan got it right. Had he been less diplomatic, he would have said: Never should American boys be crucified on the cross of Cunard liner state rooms, so that a few thousand wealthy plutocrats could exercise a putative “right” to wallow in luxury, while knowingly cruising into harm’s way.
As to the Zimmerman telegram, it was never delivered to Mexico, but was sent from Berlin as an internal diplomatic communiqué to the German ambassador in Washington, who had labored mightily to keep his country out of war with the United States.
The telegram was intercepted by British intelligence, which sat on it for more than a month, waiting for an opportune moment to incite America into war hysteria.
In fact, this so-called “bombshell” was actually just an internal foreign ministry rumination about a possible plan to approach the Mexican president regarding an alliance, in the event that the United States first went to war with Germany.
Why is this surprising or a casus belli? Did not the entente bribe Italy into the war with promises of large chunks of Austria? Did not the hapless Rumanians finally join the entente when they were promised Transylvania?
Did not the Greeks bargain endlessly over the Turkish territories they were to be awarded for joining the allies? Did not Lawrence of Arabia bribe the Sharif of Mecca with the promise of vast Arabian lands to be extracted from the Turks?
Why, then, should the Germans — if at war with the USA — not promise the return of Texas?
Proposition #4: A Pyrrhic victory
Europe had expected a short war and actually got one. It happened as soon as the Schlieffen plan offensive bogged down 30 miles outside of Paris on the Marne River in mid-September 1914.
Within three months, the Western Front had formed and coagulated into blood and mud — a ghastly 400-mile corridor of senseless carnage, unspeakable slaughter and incessant military stupidity that stretched from the Flanders coast across Belgium and northern France to the Swiss frontier.
The next four years witnessed an undulating line of trenches, barbed wire entanglements, tunnels, artillery emplacements and shell-pocked scorched earth that rarely moved more than a few miles in either direction. It ultimately claimed more than 4 million casualties on the Allied side and 3.5 million on the German side.
If there was any doubt that Wilson’s catastrophic intervention converted a war of attrition, stalemate and eventual mutual exhaustion into a Pyrrhic victory for the allies, it was memorialized in four developments during 1916.
First, the Germans wagered everything on a massive offensive designed to overrun the fortresses of Verdun — the historic defensive battlements on France’s northeast border that had stood since Roman times and that had been massively reinforced after the France’s humiliating defeat in Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
But notwithstanding the mobilization of 100 divisions, the greatest artillery bombardment campaign every recorded until then, and repeated infantry offensives from February through November that resulted in upwards of 400,000 German casualties, the Verdun offensive failed.
Second, an event that was Verdun’s mirror image — the massive British and French offensive known as the battle of the Somme, which commenced with equally destructive artillery barrages on July 1, 1916, and then for three months sent waves of infantry into the maws of German machine guns and artillery. It, too, ended in colossal failure, but only after more than 600,000 English and French casualties including a quarter million dead.
Third, in between these bloodbaths, the stalemate was reinforced by the naval showdown at Jutland that cost the British far more sunken ships and drowned sailors than the Germans, but also caused the Germans to retire their surface fleet to port and never again challenge the Royal Navy in open water combat.
Fourth, by year end 1916, the German generals who had destroyed the Russian armies in the East with only a tiny one-ninth fraction of the German army — Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff — were given command of the Western Front.
Hindenberg Line bled the Entente dry
Without hesitation, they radically changed Germany’s war strategy. They recognized that the growing allied superiority in manpower, owing to the British homeland draft of 1916 and mobilization of forces from throughout the empire, made a German offensive breakthrough well nigh impossible.
The result was the Hindenburg Line — a military marvel based on a checkerboard array of hardened pillbox machine gunners and maneuver forces, rather than mass infantry on the front lines.
This intricate labyrinth consisted of highly engineered tunnels, deep earth shelters, rail connections, heavy artillery and flexible reserves in the rear. It was also augmented by the transfer of Germany’s eastern armies to the western front — giving it 200 divisions and 4 million men on the Hindenburg Line.
This precluded any hope of Entente victory. By 1917, there were not enough able-bodied draft age men left in France and England to overcome the Hindenburg Line, which, in turn, was designed to bleed white the Entente nations’ armies until their governments sued for peace.
Thus, with the Russian army’s disintegration in the east and the stalemate frozen indefinitely in the west by early 1917, it was only a matter of months before mutinies among the French lines, demoralization in London, mass starvation and privation in Germany and bankruptcy all around would have led to a peace of exhaustion and a European-wide political revolt against the war makers.
Wilson’s intervention thus did not remake the world. But it did radically re-channel the contours of 20th century history. And, as they say, not in a good way.