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Book Review:
Pandora's Box continues with
a hard look at 1917-1918: 

Pandora's Box: A History of the First World War

By Jorn Leonard, 2018

In this second part of my review of Jorn Leonard's book, Pandora's Box: A History of the First World War (2018) we explore developments in 1917-18 and the aftermath of the war around the world. Leonard is a great historian with a terrific story to tell. In addition, his comments regarding the effects of the war are judicious, balanced and extraordinarily insightful. 


The failure of the battles of the Somme and Verdun to achieve a breakthrough on the western front and the immense losses of Russian soldiers in the Brusilov offensive on the eastern front in 1916 had led to depletion of military forces, food shortages on home fronts and widespread exhaustion among all countries which entered the war in 1914. Leonard asserts that the Brusilov offensive "led to breakthroughs in the enemy front and territorial gains that would have been decisive on the western front but which may have cost Russia close to a million dead, wounded and missing, and captive, plus 58,000 desertions.” The extent of these losses demoralized the Russian army and led to widespread mutinies among units beginning in October 1916. Russia proved unable to sustain the territorial gains of the Brusilov offensive or recover from its losses. By early 1917, the Russian army and political leadership was "on the ropes " and close to total defeat. 


The Russian revolution occurred in two phases, February and October 1917.  Russia's provisional government, headed by Kerensky, refused to concede defeat, whereas the Bolsheviks advocated for an end to Russia's involvement in the war at whatever cost, due to Lenin's understanding that this was the only way the Bolsheviks could muster the popular support necessary to consolidate the October revolution. The Brest-Litovsk treaty, signed in March 1918, ceded a huge part of Russia to Germany, which created a protectorate in eastern Europe and western Russia twice the territorial size of Germany itself. In effect, Germany won the war on the eastern front in early 1918, which freed up much needed military resources for the western front.  Russia's surrender also increased the confidence of military and political leaders that Germany would eventually prevail on the western front. German leaders were unwilling to consider any peace settlement that did not leave Germany with considerable territorial gains after Russia's exit from the conflict.


There were widespread mutinies in the French army in 1917; for a few months it appeared that the French army was about to collapse. The French army did not collapse; and fought bravely during the last year of the war despite huge losses during spring and summer of 1918 when Germany came close to winning the war for the second time (the first time was August 1914). However, the French army was incapable of mounting large military offenses from the time of the mutinies. 


By 1917, all European combatants were nearing exhaustion both in resources and morale.  Food shortages exacerbated social and political tensions in every country that had been fighting the war for three years. Inequities in access to adequate food supplies led to deep resentments of anyone whose wealth, political influence or occupation allowed escape from the general privation. Soldiers at the front line in all armies resented, or hated, top officers who were protected from death or mutilation resulting from artillery strikes. In these circumstances, leaders or factions of liberal parties began to advocate for peace without victory based on the principle of no territorial gains from the war. Despite huge losses of soldiers, severe food shortages and general exhaustion, advocacy for peace without victory politically weakened liberal parties in all European countries except Russia. Only peace through victory could justify the immense losses of the war. Leonard comments:


The year 1917 had been one of mutinies and strikes, war weariness and collective exhaustion, social polarization, and political reorientation - culminating in a radical utopianism bound up with violent revolution and the passage from world to civil war in Russia. But this development did not continue in 1918 in the belligerent countries.  Rather, a growing readiness to continue the war was discernible ... the final period of the war witnessed a renewed military, economic and political mobilization.  


At the beginning of 1918, German military leaders believed that their armies had potentially decisive advantages: Germany had already virtually knocked Russia out of the war, thereby eliminating the need to fight a war on two fronts. Victory on the eastern front had strengthened the belief of many influential Germans that Germany would win the war in Western Europe if Germany could defeat France before the resources of the

United States could save the Allies. There were only 175,000 American troops in Europe in January 1918; these troops were poorly trained and poorly armed. German war planners did not believe that the U.S. 

army could have a major effect on the war until the summer of 1918, at the earliest.  Both the French and British armies appeared incapable of major offenses in 1918, due to mutinies in the French army and devastating British losses at the third Battle of Flanders in 1917. The German military decided to go "all in" on one last major offensive, the Michael campaign, which began in mid-March 1918 across a vast front. The Germans avoided a frontal assault on Allied forces and achieved a breakthrough that eventually took their army to within 90 kilometers of Paris. According to Leonard, the war on the western front was decided between mid-March and the end of July 1918. Leonard believes that only the infusion of U.S. forces prevented an Allied defeat.  U.S. forces filled the gap created by huge French and British casualties. The German army held nothing back in their offensive which military leaders understood to be their last chance to win the war before American forces tilted the balance to the Allies. The Germans suffered more than 600,000 dead, wounded and missing in the first 10 weeks of the Michael offensive. Furthermore, the "bleeding" of the German army continued until the end of the war. Leonard asserts that Germany lost about 20,000 men per month on average during the last 6 months of the war. These losses were not sustainable; the Germans ran out of soldiers in 1918 when 17-year-olds were drafted and sometimes sent to combat units. 


Other factors also contributed to renewed stalemate just as German victory appeared imminent: 


  • The French army which would not engage in further offensive attacks fought tenaciously to prevent a German victory in France. The French army suffered about 27,000 dead, lost or missing each month during the last 6 months of the war.                                                              

  • The Germans had difficulty supplying their armies as they approached Paris.  German soldiers were living and fighting on 2500 calories per day. German soldiers were shocked at the physical health and naive self-confidence of American prisoners whose food rations included 4000 calories per day. By summer 1918, the German army was barely hanging on despite huge gains in France. American soldiers were flush with resources and surprisingly willing to engage in costly attacks on German forces.


German political leaders were not advised by the German high command of the military 'state of play' until early October 1918. They were thoroughly shocked and appalled. Their country had won the war on the eastern front, brought the Bolsheviks to their knees at Brest-Litovsk, and were on the verge of victory in France in late July 1918.  Suddenly, political leaders were advised that the war was virtually lost even though not a day of the war to that point had been fought on German soil. The German army never mutinied as had the French and Russian armies. German leaders believed their soldiers had the steadiest nerves, i.e., the most courage, of all the armies in the war, and on average were better soldiers. Germany was not occupied in late 1918 in the way Germany was occupied in 1945. What was happening could not be true! Enemies of the nation were to blame in the view of the German Right, an explanation that served the interests of German military and political leaders who had made an "all in" bet on the Michael offensive and lost.  




World War I in western Europe ended on November 11, 1918, but Leonard argues persuasively that there was no clear demarcation between war and non-war in eastern and southeastern Europe, or in the Baltic or Middle East.  In these parts of the world, global war gave way to civil wars, national liberation struggles, pogroms, paramilitary operations, and ethnic cleansing. After a brief lull following Russia's exit from the war, and during the Bolshevik's consolidation of power, Russia erupted into a civil war that went way beyond Whites vs. Reds; the civil war more like the war of all on all in which the only strategy of survival for various groups was predatory violence. The Russian civil war led to more deaths in Russia than WWI.  Turkey continued to expel, persecute and kill Armenians until 1923.


Leonard argues that "the victor of the world war was not a nation, state or empire.  The true victor was war itself - the principle of war and the possibility of total violence." (p. 893) Post-war, organized violence flourished around the world, Leonard asserts.  He writes that violence “was not random, since there was a habit of its acceptance, an assumption that massive use of violence was justified in emergency situations." (p.893) Furthermore, multiple parties, nations and factions engaged in "attempts to legitimize violence by reference to the right of self-defense." 


If, as Leonard maintains, the true victor of the Great War was war itself, and subsequent organized violence in its many forms, the perpetrator of the war was surely nationalism. Nationalism is an abstraction, but nationalism as it existed in Europe in the early 20th century had specific features: proud, invested in colonial expansion, racist, determined to dominate other less powerful countries, and political elites whose claim to power ultimately depended on the capacity and will to defend the nation in  times of war. Citizens of all social classes and political beliefs supported entry into the war in 1914 and were resistant to any peace without victory for the duration of the war. Leonard asserts that after the war, "the character of nationalism became associated with a culture of violent empowerment." (p.898) Following the war, “full-fledged nationalist horizons took shape, especially in the societies of the multinational empires.” (p. 903) Nationalism of the type that led to and was strengthened by WWI had nativist features.  According to Leonard, "struggle against the common enemy was compounded by widespread suspicion of supposedly hostile aliens … the Irish in Britain… Jews in Germany or left wingers in a number of countries were also looked upon as disloyal elements ..." Nationalism of the type that existed in 1914-18 fed on boundaries, on conflict with other nations or groups, and on strict criteria for determining who belonged and who was alien.  "Ugly" could be its middle name. 


Leonard is surely correct that WWI in its beginning was contingent on many events and decisions that were not inevitable.  If Russia and Germany had refused to come to the rescue of Serbia and Austria-Hungary following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, there might have been another contained, largely forgotten war in the Balkans in August 1914. Nevertheless, given the malignant nationalism just described, and the improvement in the technology of war, a hugely destructive conflict in Europe was inevitable at some point not too far distant from 1914. 


One of the most distinctive and peculiar features of a world war that killed, maimed and emotionally damaged so many, and that consumed the world for four years is that none of the countries which entered the war in 1914 benefited in a geopolitical sense or in an increase of national pride and confidence. Some countries were destroyed, e.g. Austria- Hungary. Germany was humiliated without being wiped out, a violation of Machiavelli's maxim that a victor in war must destroy or rehabilitate the vanquished enemy.  France and England each suffered a million or more combat deaths for no compelling reason other than hatred of Germany that anyone after the war could clearly articulate. The Great War led to bitter disillusionment of veterans and the young in countries that won the war. The only country that benefited politically from WWI was the United States, which entered the war at a critical moment and whose immense resources of men and materials led to Allied victory. The U.S. ended WWI as a great power and as a country which for a couple of years had the power and moral authority to create and/or reshape national borders around the world. Woodrow Wilson, however, eventually disappointed all parties in how he applied the principle of national self-determination; and his two strokes ended his political influence. Nevertheless, the U.S. discovered that a commercial society, multiethnic and individualistic, could mobilize for total war and determine the outcome of the war.  In retrospect, Germany's major strategic mistake was to engage in submarine warfare in a way that brought the U.S. into the war. If Germany had not made this disastrous misjudgment, England and France could not have won the war.          


In the final paragraphs of his monumental history, Leonard quotes Thomas Mann regarding the events of 1914: 


 "At that very moment, a swarm of evils rushed out and spread in a flash over the earth ... And now misery in all its forms filled

 land, air and sea; all manner of fevers laid siege to the earth, and death, which used to creep up slowly on mortals, quickened its step."


Pandora's Box, once opened by the Great War, has never been securely closed. According to Leonard, “we are still today heirs of that war." 

See part one of this review

© Dee Wilson

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