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Roland G. Usher

A Bird's-Eye View of the War

This war was so different in character from those that preceded it that most people find it difficult to understand. They do not at first watch for the right thing. This was in particular a world-wide war. By Christmas of 1914, it was being fought in Europe, on the sea, in Africa, in the Near East, and in the Far East. There was in France a long double trench-line, six hundred miles long, every yard of it occupied by men. In Poland and all down along the Carpathians, there was a similar trench-line with Russians on one side, and Germans and Austrians on the other. Again, for a couple of hundred miles, down in the Balkans and around Constantinople were more trenches, more troops.

The British and French fleets were down in the Mediterranean, getting ready to attack Constantinople. British fleets were fighting the Germans off South America. The Japanese were helping the British capture the Germans all through the Pacific. The Turks were fighting the British around the Suez Canal and down in Mesopotamia in the district of the Bagdad railroad. Up in the North Sea, amid the fogs of Scotland, was the Grand Fleet, hundreds of vessels, constantly steaming back and forth to prevent the German fleet from getting out or other ships from getting in.

The most important thing to grasp is that the fighting was continuous on all these fronts almost from August, 1914, to the day of the Armistice on November 11, 1918. This was not so in past wars. There would be fighting here and then fighting there. 91 There would be months, and sometimes years, when in any particular district there would be no fighting at all. Indeed, even in such long wars as those fought by Napoleon, the steady fighting was short, confined usually to a few months. A whole campaign, with all its preparations and marching, might consume only a few weeks, and the actual fighting between the armies be only a few days during the whole period.

But in this war the fighting never stopped anywhere, night or day. Over every foot of the hundreds of miles in France, for four years or more, there was never a moment's real interruption. The fighting became simply more or less intense. Instead of sending over an occasional shell every little while to make sure that the enemy did not go to sleep, they might send over hundreds or thousands of shells within an hour, but the firing never wholly stopped. We have therefore not one story to tell, but half a dozen continuous stories to follow.

The firing was moreover simultaneous  on all these fronts all the time. While we are describing what goes on in France, something was at that same moment happening in Poland, very often of even more importance. Something else was taking place in Italy; other things in the Balkans, in Asia Minor, in the North Sea with the Grand Fleet. Every one of then may have had a vast influence on the history of the war and its outcome. It is impossible to tell about them all at the same time, but we must not forget that important things are happening in several places at once. This is particularly essential, because the fundamental plan of the Allies was to fight the Central Powers on all fronts, at the same time, for long periods. The Allies had more men than the Central Powers and they expected thus to wear them down by what General Joffre called "nibbling." Very often the main point of the campaign was not merely an attack in one place, still less the fact that there was an attack in any place, but a simultaneous attack in France, in Poland, and in Italy.

The real trouble with understanding the war is this manifold character. "It" is multifold. There were really hundreds of wars, all of them as big as any of the past conflicts, hundreds of heroes, hundreds of experiences. The war cannot in any true sense be described. It was too big to see, in a sense too big to be understood. There was too much in it to be told in a single volume. Besides, we need to know at once everything that went on everywhere, and it is impossible to describe more than one thing at a time.

The bigness of the war was appalling. Here in Flanders were men making trenches in the mud, piling up sandbags, building timber walls to keep back the mud and to keep out the water; up to their waists in water, much of the time. Then there were men on the hills of the Aisne, where they had solid ground under their feet, and could make trenches with concrete some thirty feet and more deep in the ground. Up in the Vosges and in the Alps were men fighting in the mountains, with deep precipices in front of them and high mountain crags behind them, compelled to climb about like goats in order to reach such positions at all. They must drag great cannon up the mountain sides, and often have ammunition and food sent up on cables or elevators. Down in the sand about the Suez Canal were men fighting in the heat. Up in the ice around Archangel at the same minute would be men fighting in the cold. The ice in the harbor was broken daily with dynamite in order that ships might get in, at the same time that men were shivering in the mud of Flanders, stamping their feet in the snows of the Alps, and suffering with thirst in the heat and sand of the desert. Negroes in Central Africa, Hindus in India, the Japs in China, were also fighting the war.

Throughout the world, far from battle fronts, were millions of people also fighting the war. Some were raising beef and chickens, others were planting wheat, making automobiles, or weaving cloth. All were essential to keep the war going and were also as important, though in a different way, as the continual fighting in the trenches. Indeed, the people in France who baked the bread in bakehouses where a million loaves were turned out in a day; the women who sat hour after hour sewing sandbags, thousands of which might be needed at any moment to repair some trench broken by a German shell; or the men and women engaged in making shoes for the armies; all of these were in a strict sense fighting.

That is a new idea to most people, for certainly such occupations would have not been considered fighting in past wars. Even mending shoes—millions of them—was a part of the business of war, just as the selling of bonds, the buying of thrift stamps by children, subscriptions to the red Cross, the making of bandages. The world worked like a beaver. Every man, woman, and child for over four years did something which played its part in fighting the war on one side or the other. A moment's thought will show how impossible it is that any one mind should ever be able to see all that happened in detail, or that any one book could ever say more than that the stupendous affair took place.

The real fascination of the war for most people who fought in it was due to this very sense of bigness. It was a greater game than had ever been played before in the world. There had never been so many millions of men all trying to do the same thing at the same time. It had never been so important that no one of these millions should fail to do his task in the proper way. Over hundreds of miles of trenches, everyone must be alert. Battles lasted months. Single incidents consumed a week.

The dramatic quality of the old wars came from the individual exploits. There are few who do not thrill to read of Richard, the Lionhearted, clad in full armor, spurring his charger into the midst of the Saracens. Joan of Arc, dashing forward on horseback at the head of the charge, or Henry of Navarre, with a white plume in his helmet so that his men might see how far ahead of them in the press of the enemy the king was, are figures which kindle one's imagination. Their exploits were frequently the important fact of the battle. All was being lost, when some one individual, like the king, would do something which made the difference between victory and defeat. It became therefore the essential thing in the battle to describe.

But thousands of men in the present war have done things which required a great deal more courage than any of these exploits of the past because they incurred a much greater risk of death; but they do not sound so dramatic when described and really did not affect the issue of the battle as a whole, and therefore did not affect the outcome of the war. In this war no incidents or personal exploits form an important part of its history. The real conflict took place in movements so big that the individual was lost and his exploits were not even incidents. One hundred thousand men were very often concerned in a movement occupying perhaps a week's time, which will appear eventually in history as a very minor incident of a battle consuming months of time. We are indeed to watch charges made by a million men, more magnificent by a thousand times than the old charges of a few thousand, but too big for the mind to grasp, for the eye to see, or for the historian to describe, so that an ordinary imagination, which works in terms of individuals, can take it in at all. The campaigns of this war were in reality many times more exciting than those of past wars, but there were so many men concerned in them that they lose their personal appeal.

At the same time, the history of the war is very simple and not at all difficult to understand. There is really no more to describe in the movement of the armies in its whole four years, in France certainly, than Napoleon frequently accomplished in six weeks. In the American Revolution, Washington's armies were moving constantly, and five thousand men in the course of a single year gave the historian more to describe which is intelligible to the reader than the whole of the last four years in France. Battles then were battles of movement. Napoleon would march so many miles; meet some army; a battle would take place; there would be a further shift of operations; all of which is interesting to read about.

But the war in France was like a great football game where the two elevens fell into a scrimmage in the fall of 1914, and, without ever stopping the scrimmage, pushed and pushed for four years, neither side gaining much ground or losing a great deal. If we look at the movements in France over the battlefields as a whole and over the four years as a whole, it looks very much as five minutes of a football game might look, when the teams moved back and forth across the center of the field, first one a little in the other's territory, then thrown for a loss, and presently gaining again.

The dramatic quality of the war was due for the Allies to the consciousness of its rightness. In no war in history had more been as clearly at stake. Every Frenchman, every Englishman, and most Americans felt that the whole future of the world was in jeopardy. To most of them the war was a great crusade. When the men in the trenches felt that the war was dull or dangerous, they would remember the starving Belgians, beaten and abused by the Germans, the little children slaughtered by German soldiers simply because they got in the way. They would remember the face of a child floating in the green floods of the Atlantic after the sinking of some ship by a submarine. Immediately their fear and fatigue would fall from them.

Or they would remember the Zeppelins dropping bombs upon London, killing innocent children, old men and women, or they would think of the German aim to conquer the world and compel all people to copy German methods. The war would become important, exciting, and a glorious thing. A young French soldier and art critic, a man of extraordinarily sensitive mind and hatred of bloodshed, wrote to a friend soon after he went into the war: "I have no wish to die, but I can die now without regret; for I have lived through a fortnight which would be cheap at the price of death, a fortnight which I had not dared to ask of fate. History will tell of us, for we are opening a new era in the world." "A splendid thing it is to fight with clean hands and a pure heart and defend divine justice with one's life."

The general movement of the war was so simple that it can be told in a few paragraphs, although it is so complex that perhaps the world will never understand it. There was for four years in France this deadlock of the two trench lines which shifted only a few miles one way or the other until the very end of the war. Tremendous attacks were delivered by both sides, often for months at a time, without shifting the position of the line to a perceptible degree. That was one phase of the situation. Simultaneous with it we have a succession of tremendous German victories in eastern Europe. In 1914 and 1915 Poland was conquered and the Russian army really broken. In the fall of 1915 Serbia was crushed and laid waste; in 1916, Rumania; and in 1917, Italy was invaded. In the east, in the course of four years, all was lost to the Allies. The Russians, defeated and disorganized, ceased to be a factor in the war at all; so of the Rumanians and the Serbians. The Italians were badly beaten and forced back into a dangerous position; but Italy was never crushed nor defeated, though for a time in very grave peril.

Outside Europe proper the war also went on for four years, and, although the Germans and the Turks at first seemed to have won in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, they were at the very outset thoroughly beaten in South Africa, in Egypt, in India, and in China. Then eventually in the latter years they were beaten in Armenia and about Bagdad and Jerusalem, and at the very end of the war Constantinople would have been captured, if the Turks had not surrendered. So for the four years the Germans seemed to be able to hold their great gains at the beginning of the war in France, to pile victory upon victory in eastern Europe; but were beaten everywhere outside of Europe.

On the sea, the Germans were defeated at the outset. The few warships outside German harbors were promptly destroyed or captured; the few commerce raiders were taken by the British and Japanese; and the blockade by the British fleet was made effective. Once or twice, the German fleet ventured out for a few miles, but found the British so extremely vigilant that it scuttled back into the harbor a good deal faster than it came out. The British in the last two years of the war did their best to tempt the Germans out by sending forth small squadrons of weak ships, apparently not protected or supported, in the hope that the Germans would try to capture them. Preparations of course had been made to pounce upon the Germans with a great force if they did come out, but the Germans were too wary. Eventually, the great German fleet sailed forth and surrendered without as a whole having fired a gun or fought a battle. It was one of the most colossal demonstrations of supremacy on the sea the world has ever seen. The Germans admitted British superiority to be so great that they did not dare to try the issue in battle.

Then in 1918 the Germans made a very great attempt to break the Allied lines in France, which nearly succeeded. The Allies attacked in their own turn in July, 1918, broke the German line, followed up the German retreat so fast and won so many battles that the Germans were forced to surrender. It would almost seem as if everything which happened outside of France had not been able to affect the end of the war at all. Whatever the Germans did in eastern Europe, they could not win. The important part of the war in France seemed like one long draw of four years, and then two battles, each several months long. We must therefore watch a great many things in a great many places, but remember, for all that, the important thing is the fact that the war was continuous and that the war was simultaneous. It was fought in a great many places in the world and it was fought all the time and at the same time.