BY HOLLY FISHER
For the UAS Whalesong
As many may be aware, we are in the midst of the centennial years of World War I. This part of the 21st Century recalls all that happened 100 years ago and the ways in which our societies were changed and rewritten along new lines. During those turbulent years, old empires toppled as new countries were born, the cavalry charged against the new machine guns, and the tragic word ‘Genocide’ was coined for the first time. The shockwaves of The Great War still reverberate today, echoed in many things we now consider to be the norm. To fully appreciate the magnitude of these changes, one needs to spend time with the events.
This year recalls 1916, the mid-point of the conflict. Two grueling years were over and two were still to come. Though many of the most famous parts of the war happened during 1916, a lot of people have trouble sorting the timelines and knowing exactly what happened. With this article, I hope to introduce you to a small sampling of some of the most pivotal moments and hope it will encourage you to learn more of this incredible and terrible affair. In this article, ‘casualties’ refers to the injured and missing as well as those killed in combat.
At the beginning of the year, the Gallipoli Campaign (also known as the Dardanelles Campaign) came to an end on January 9 with the Allies pulling the last of their troops back to Egypt. The assault and amphibious landing by French and United Kingdom troops was intended to capture Constantinople (Istanbul) and to open the waterway to the Allied power of Russia. However, the Ottoman troops were able to hold back the advance for more than 8 months. The evacuation began on December 7, 1915 and took just over a month to complete, ending with a massive casualty count on both sides. Despite no major military gains or losses on either side, the peoples of the involved countries were greatly affected. The Turkish commander Mustafa Kemal led the Turkish War of Independence eight years later, boosted by his national popularity from the successful defense campaign. This resulted in the declaration of the Republic of Turkey. The campaign was also the catalyst for the birth of national identities in Australia and New Zealand, whose troops described the experience as a ‘baptism of fire.’ These countries celebrate the day their troops joined the campaign in much the same way as we celebrate our Independence Day.
In France, the Battle of Verdun began with the Germans targeting the town of Verdun to “bleed the French white” by drawing in and destroying the enemy troops in masse. However, the French were able to counter these plans enough to halt the German advance after only some initial success. For 10 months the cycle of counter-attacks and bombardments stretched on with no sign of ending. The German troops came within two miles of the town by the middle of the year but called off their offensive soon after. The battle was not over though. French troops counterattacked and began an effort to retake their lost territory that lasted into December. Verdun was both one of the largest and longest engagements of the war, lasting from February 21 until December 8 with casualties estimated at 700,000-1,000,000. To put this in perspective, this estimate is over 30 times the population of Juneau.
The second of the famous French battles of 1916, the Battle of the Somme (also the Somme Offensive) began on July 1 and ran through November 18. It was a French-British contribution to a wider Allied plan from 1915 that was intended to break through Central lines all along the front. However, with the devastation of Verdun mounting rapidly, the aim was shifted to aim chiefly at bleeding the Germans of supplies and helping to relieve pressure on the other battlefield. There were three phases of the Somme which each consisted of 4-6 battles. It was originally planned for the French to make up the bulk of the forces, but Verdun forced the British army to take on the main weight of the offensive. The end result of the multi-staged campaign was an Allied gain of 6 miles, the greatest advance since the Battle of the Marne in 1914. The overall Somme campaign has been recorded as one of the bloodiest battles in human history with casualties estimated at over 1,000,000.
Moving from land to water, 1916 contained the largest naval surface battle of the entire war. During the rise of tensions prior to the outbreak of hostilities, it was generally assumed that any war would be decided “on the waves”. Multiple nations built up navies and introduced submarine warfare in preparation for these predicted decisive battles. However, the Battle of Jutland from May 31st to June 1st was the only full-scale marine battle involving warships. It was fought between the British Royal Navy and the German High Seas Fleet just off the coast of Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula. The Germans sought to lure out a portion of the Royal Navy in an effort to break the Allied blockade of Germany, while the British were concerned with possible attacks on their shipping lanes. During the day-long battle, 25 ships were lost with great loss of life. Both sides claimed victory of a sort but neither was able to do so concisely. This was the beginning of the end of surface naval encounters. The German fleet put out to sea only three more times before turning to commerce raiding as the preferred method of marine combat. Jutland is noted as the last major battle between warships in world history.
Another event on the waves that made a smaller but still notable impact on history was the sinking of the HMHS Britannic. One of two sister ships of the fateful RMS Titanic, she received retrofits that were intended to address the flaws that doomed her sister, including redesigning the lifeboat deployment system and moving multiple of the watertight bulkheads to higher levels in the ship. She was launched on February 26, 1914 but the war broke out before she could embark on her first trans-Atlantic voyage. In 1915, Britannic was requisitioned to serve as a hospital ship (HMHS stands for His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) in the Gallipoli campaign, for which she served 5 successful missions. On November 21, during the first portion of her sixth trip, she struck a German mine off the coast of Greece and sank within an hour. Of the 1,065 people onboard only 30 were lost, owing in part to the improvements on her design. The Britannic remains the largest ship lost during the war and is tied with her unfortunate sister for the largest passenger vessel currently on the ocean floor.
I will end the list here before it trails into infinity. Rest assured that there are many events that I was not able to even reference. The First Siege of Kut, the Easter Rising, the battles of Isonzo, and the sinking of the HMS Hampshire are just a handful more that you may or may not recognize. Information of this war is often less plentiful in the United States than that regarding World War II, owing to our much more personal involvement in the second conflict. But, like I mentioned at the beginning, if you want to find the seeds of our modern world, the events of 1914-1918 must be explored in detail.
If you caught even a spark of interest from this brief list, I strongly encourage you to follow it. I knew nothing about the First World War until I happened across a photo of an early tank crossing the trenches. The history is rich, terrible, and complex, and should not be forgotten for all it did to change and shape the societies we live in today. As people across the globe memorialize the events of 100 years ago, I hope that we can all learn of and remember The Great War and all that was done in its name.