Monday, December 26, 2016

"These Deeply Momentous Things": United States Intervention into World War I (No. 1)

"These Deeply Momentous Things"
United States Intervention into World War I

     Introduction--The Great War in Late 1916

     In this month of December 2016 we are moving toward the hundredth anniversary of direct American intervention into the Great War in April 1917. This intervention became one of those pivotal aspects of the conflict that the Great War a kind of motor of modern world history, a war that altered everything it touched and everyone who touched it.
Brusilov Soldiers
     Over the next few weeks, I want to comment on the usual aspects of Wilson and House, "neutrality," and U-boats, but I also want to connect some episodes and trends of this piece of history that are less often seen as context to the decisions and the process of American intervention. Context, I hope it will be seen, is essential.

First, some points about the fighting itself. A hundred years ago at this time, the terrible battles of 1916 were over or winding down: Verdun, the Somme, the Brusilov Offensive, to name the biggest. The losses to both Entente and Central Powers were scarcely imaginable: over a million and half soldiers died in these three campaigns alone. The most prolific killer was artillery. These expensive big guns and their expensive shells really defined the war as it had developed by late 1916. In all three of these major offensives, artillery saturations, walking barrages, and various other new artillery techniques were at the core of nearly all tactical plans. At the same time, accelerated production was required to supply these armaments, putting still more strains on the already groaning fiscal systems of the belligerent governments. These and other costs of the war mounted as both British and French used up the loans negotiated and renegotiated since the fall of 1914.
     Who was winning in December 1916?
     Arguably, the real losers were simply all normal individuals in the populations of all belligerent countries. The state itself was winning. More on this issue later.
     But the question of which side was winning is still an important one to ask. It certainly merits its own post in this series of informal historical reflections. Many historians have tried to address this issue, including me in my recently expanded and revised book, The Great War: Western Front and Home Front (1916).

     At the outset, one thing is quite clear. However we evaluate Woodrow Wilson's actions and motives, he was absolutely right in his April 1917 War Message to Congress: the vast network of processes involved in American intervention represented "deeply momentous things."

Friday, July 1, 2016

A hundred years ago, British units (alongside a smaller French force) attacked the Germans on an eleven-mile wide front in Picardy, straddling the Somme River. The attack was the attempt to break through on the Western Front, and in accordance with emerging artillery doctrine and practice, the German lines were saturated with shells for a week in advance. But when the artillery stopped to allow the British to attack, the Germans raced out of their deep dugouts, manned their machine guns, and mowed down the British attackers. Nearly 20,000 British soldiers died on this day, July 1, a hundred years ago.
Many historians of World War I today argue that this battle was a kind of victory, since it kept the Germans from breaking through at other places. Or that it showed that the Allies could mount a huge assault. Or that it was part of "learning curve" in the process that finally won the war for the Allies. 
It certainly was in many ways a triumph for the state in the abstract. It represented the ability of the modern state at best to gamble the lives of hundreds of hundreds of thousands, at worst to waste them, in an attack that was only marginal in terms of its potential success. True, the Somme Campaign eventually made some headway: the German were pushed back as much a few hundred yards by November, in a few places more.  All of these gains, however, would be wiped out at the latest in the 1918 German Spring Offensive, another success of the modern state in inducing "sacrifice" among the masses.
The First Day of the Somme Battle was a human disaster.  But the state, after a few years of trying to sweep this affair under the carpet, now uses the episode as an example of "sacrifice," not state incompetence or callousness.

Here's to the memory of the 20,000 British subjects along with the few thousand French and Germans who died in this frenzy of state power. From whichever side of No Man's Land, they were tough, determined, and uncomplaining. The state didn't deserve them.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Break in the Action for the Fatigued History Buff : My New Novel

If you are reading this series of blog entries on World War I, you are probably reading and researching the war in other ways too. This is wonderful, and certainly fulfilling as we plow through the Centennial of this massive event.

But if you want to take a break in the action (and some of you may well have battle fatigue at this point!), I would like to suggest checking out my new novel. It is a historical novel, but set well before World War I, in 1883. You can find out more by heading over to the listing at Smashwords.

 It is called Anima and the Goat, and it is some history, some adventure, some mystery, and a somewhat unusual take on the British Empire.

The electronic book is on pre-order right now with Smashwords, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, etc., and it will be available on June 20, 2016.

The hard copy will be a paperback offered at Amazon. The listing will be there in a day or two, and will also be available on June 20.

A little history, but maybe a relief from the flamethrowers, white feathers, munitions plants, and financial manipulations of World War I!

1916--The Breaking Point

The First World War was ferocious in its first years. But the combination of sustained and enormous losses of the enormous battles of 1916 and the strains on the home fronts brought the "deeper forces" to emerge, in the words of historian René Albrecht-Carrier. The number of enormous battles—and casualties—across the military theaters in the year 1916 staggers the imagination: Verdun, the Somme, Jutland, the Brusilov Offensive, the Siege of Kut, and five of the Isonzo front battles, as well as other actions. The death toll was barely fathomable. General Aleksei Brusilov's offensive alone, ended with a death toll (not casualty toll) of over a million men (when deaths from both sides are combined). These Brusilov deaths occurred over a period of just under four months.

But 1916 had its own logic, really. Stalemate was the hallmark of the Western Front and some other fronts, but in all theaters, a kind of larger stalemate had held sway already by 1915. On all fronts, 1915 was a period of intensive experimentation for breaking the deadlock: poison gas; undermining and explosion of enemy trenches; flamethrowers; proliferation of machine guns, trench mortars, and more. Above all, the dramatic rise in artillery shelling to prepare for breakthrough dominated the thinking of high commands. But breakthrough to "the green fields beyond" remained illusive nearly everywhere in 1915.

In the case of the Western Front, Allied representatives met at Chantilly, France, in early December 1915 to coordinate offensives for the coming year, all agreeing to attack on a large scale as soon as possible. The Germans got there first, however, and delivered a massive blow at Verdun. This disruption delayed the Allied attacks somewhat, but the British and French were able to launch the Somme Offensive on July 1, 1916.

The well-known human result on the Somme was slaughter.  More on that in weeks to come. But it was also slaughter in these other terrible conflicts.

But the changes resulting from this transition enormously increased armaments and material production went far beyond the battlefield. Indeed, in this Higgsian crisis related to war emergency and war production, almost all belligerents made fundamental changes in the size and extent of state intervention into their societies, in particular in economies. Since the labor force available for making all the artillery shells had been reduced by war recruitment and conscription, governments drew whole new ranges of the population into munitions plants. Young women in England whose livers were compromised by assembling toxic artillery shells were blithely called "Canary Girls." Some munitions plants exploded because of espionage, others because of accidents on the part of the young, inexperienced, and tired munitions workers.

Men like David Lloyd George in Britain and Albert Thomas in France came to fore as ministers of munitions who could break the old limitations on government transfers of private wealth through taxes, inflation, confiscation, etc. in order to produce the shells now thought to be needed in the war. The 1916 Hindenburg Program in Germany did the same but went much further in eroding individual rights and creating the total war system.

Although the war became even more ferocious before the end, 1916 stands as the year that finally broke the old world.

More analysis on the home front and battle front aspects of 1916 may be found in the new and expanded edition of my book, The Western Front (now retitled The Great War: Western Front and Home Front

Thursday, January 21, 2016

1916 and the Health of the StateHin

In Planning for Freedom, we find Ludwig von  commenting once more on the ravages of World War I as he discusses the Hindenburg Program: had it had time to come to fruition, he suggests, “it would have transformed Germany into a purely totalitarian commonwealth.” Well, the war ended two years later, and the military dictatorship of Hindenburg and Ludendorff had indeed done much to create a totalitarian commonwealth. Within two years, as well, the Hindenburg Program had suggested to the Bolsheviks a practical program for achieving dissolution of capitalism. As Paul Johnson put it in Modern Times:  “So one might say that the man who really inspired Soviet economic planning was Ludendorff. His ‘war socialism’ certainly did not shrink from barbarism. It employed slave-labourers. In January 1918 Ludendorff broke a strike of 400,000 Berlin workers by drafting tens of thousands of them to the front in "labor battalions."
Hindenburg and Ludendorff
Hindenburg’s famous Quartermaster-General, Erich Ludendorff, was the chief promoter of the “Hindenburg” Program, but it was in fact a group of bureaucrats, army officers, technocratic intellectuals, and a crony capitalists who shaped it.
It was still a “mixed economy” affair, but one that Mises came back to more than once to demonstrate the easy continuity from mixed economy to omnipotent government.
Nineteen-sixteen once again. A major boost to the health of the state.

Hunt Tooley is the author of The Great War: Western Front and Home Front
(see also Hunt Tooley's two blogs, Design of Violent Century and The World At War and the World That Was)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Remembering the First World War: the Centennial of the 1916 Slaughters

Thiepval Memorial, the Somme
Historians have long recognized the importance of “memorialization” and other forms of remembering World War I. The current edition of this memorialization began, of course, in 2014, and Europeans in particular have shown the reach of their historical memory in highlighting a variety of aspects of the Great War. Americans have done some of this, but the US didn’t intervene until 1917, and in any case, Americans are famous for the shortness of their historical memories. Owing in part to the profoundly anti-historical tenor of American public education since Dewey, no doubt. But ever since the whopping classic by Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), historians have indeed thought about how participants and later generations see this huge event in human history.

Fussell, by the way, appeared at a Ludwig von Mises Institute event in the mid-nineties, the very conference that resulted in the revisionist classic, edited by John Denson, The Costs of War. Also speaking at the conference was Fussell’s friend, the greatest of WWII memoirists, Eugene Sledge. There were other great speakers at that conference, but for my money Fussell and Sledge justified the price of attending many times over.

But I digress. The point I want to make here is that the public memory of the Great War in the United States inevitably takes on the triumphalist spin doctoring practiced by administration after administration since McKinley. Remembering the great battles and famous victories. Remembering the “Great Wars and Great Leaders,” to borrow Ralph Raico’s wonderful irony. And remembering the Sacrifice of the great war soldiers, who willingly plodded to their destruction for... for... excuse me... for freedom!

But of course the “Great War” was like all the other “great wars” in this dynamic of spin or “narrative creation.” As with the fairly recent phrase, “Support Our Troops.” Very much a 2000s thing, with a specific reference to Iraq and Afghanistan. We all know how the phrase operates: the common folk gushingly support our troops by a few keystrokes on social media, and meanwhile the administrations from Bush to Obama to whomever comes next will publicly honor and privately sneer at the soldiers they put in harm’s way. To take only one example, the “support” given by the Veterans Affairs Administration is shot through with corruption, lies, and scandal, and worst of all, abuse of patience—the very “troops” VA officials are paid to support. Just Google News “Veterans Affairs.” I am talking about up-to-the minute news items on new and old scandals, lies to Congress, lies to patients, patient neglect and on and on. Shameful.

Yet a cursory CNN timeline of the VA’s dreadful history shows that this pattern is not an accident, but a tradition.

We could go on. 

My larger point here is that the opposite to this memorialization is not just forgetting or ignoring.  The opposite to “spin” is careful thought, attention to human action, and vigorous critical analysis, in great detail if necessary. It is getting past the state’s desire to manipulate every aspect of human existence it can and finding out the actual human dynamics involved.

Now, this time a hundred years ago was the eve of the beginning of the great slaughters of the twentieth century: Verdun, the Sommes, the Brusilov Offensive, and more. It is also the time when, as historian Rene Albrecht-Carrier put it, “deeper forces began to break through.” And for “deeper forces,” we may well read, “the triumph of the all-encompassing modern state.” But what of the human beings caught in this vortex?

More on 1916 to follow.