[Book] The First World War – A Marxist Analysis of the Great Slaughter

13. 1916-17: The Turning of the Tide

Dialectics explains how, sooner or later, things can change into their opposite. The First World War is a very good example of this. In the first period of the war, reaction was firmly in the saddle.

In 1914, the popular mood was determined by a tidal wave of patriotism and war fever, fanned by optimistic news of successful military operations in the government-controlled media. But, as the war dragged on and conditions worsened, a mood of disillusionment set in. Everybody hoped that war would end soon, but the optimistic predictions of a decisive breakthrough were postponed time and time again.  

Popular disillusionment and war-weariness was manifested in growing labour unrest and food riots, which were becoming increasingly common. Conversations on the street corner, in the marketplace, and in the factories turned to the injustice, not just of the war, but of an economic system that put all the burdens on the shoulders of the poor and the working class while the rich got ever richer. Talk of everybody making sacrifice sounded hollow to a woman standing in the bread queue while the rich drank champagne and went to parties.  

The thick curtain of censorship and propaganda, which downplayed or denied defeats were regarded increasingly with scepticism or ridicule. Soldiers on leave told a very different story, and they were believed. The loss of life and the growing economic hardship now shaped the popular consciousness far more than the official propaganda.

For the men in the trenches, life was hard: harsh discipline and brutal punishments, bad food, low wages, insanitary living conditions, substandard weapons and uniforms, and few opportunities for recreation. The danger of being sent to be slaughtered like cattle for a cause that seemed increasingly pointless was ever-present. All the ingredients were present for an explosion.

In the beginning, morale was maintained by a constant stream of patriotic propaganda. The soldiers of every army were told that the war would soon be over, that the enemy would crumble and fall. Later, the message was that ‘one last push’ would settle the matter. But the result of every ‘final push’ was always the same: a few metres of ground lost or won at the cost of thousands of dead and wounded.  

The war had an enormous economic, political, and human cost. Some 65 million men were mobilised; of those, over 8 million were killed and another 21 million wounded over fifty-two months, from August 1914 to November 1918. It dislocated economic life, destroying the means of production on a massive scale and condemning millions to hunger and privation.  

It resulted in the dissolution of the Austrian, Ottoman, German, and Russian empires, and culminated in a wave of revolutions between 1917 and 1920. Sailors and soldiers mutinied, while massive strikes broke out everywhere: from Berlin to Vienna, from Paris to Brussels to Glasgow, and stretching across the Atlantic to Chicago, San Francisco, and Canada.

The World War prepared the ground for world revolution.


The year 1916 can be seen as a turning point. Civilian morale was undermined by the stark contrast between the huge loss of life at the front and the meagre results achieved. The first cracks in domestic morale appeared in Italy, tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire during the winter of 1916-17. At the same time, in France and Germany, the social truce was coming under increasing strain as soldiers on leave brought back dispiriting news from the front.

The Western Front forces were locked in an endless war of attrition at the start of 1916. Here the war was characterised by a particularly bloody and brutal stalemate. To break it, the Germans launched an offensive on a series of forts around the town of Verdun. This was yet another ‘final push’ that was supposed to knock France out of the war, leaving Britain isolated. It turned out to be the longest single battle of World War One, lasting for nine long months and characterised by unparalleled savagery.  

Verdun was targeted by General Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of the General Staff and Germany’s principal strategist, because of its position on the Allied line and its psychological significance to the French people. Convinced by 1916 that the war could only be won on the Western Front, he hoped that the French would throw huge resources into defending it, only to be annihilated. Then he could turn his attention to the British.

The excessively optimistic Falkenhayn thought that this attack would not require big German forces. The opening bombardment would be sufficient to liquidate the French defences. During the first eight hours alone, the Germans fired 2 million shells. Tens of millions more were fired over the course of the following 300 days. But as so often happens in war, the plans of the generals did not work out as expected. Verdun proved to be a hard nut to crack.

The battle for Verdun became a matter of national prestige for the German General Staff, but for the French it was a question of national survival. With their backs against the wall, fighting with the courage of desperation, they put up unexpectedly stiff resistance. The fighting often degenerated into ferocious hand-to-hand combat that resembled the butchery of medieval battlefields, as desperate men lunged with their bayonets at other men’s bodies. German losses piled up, little territory was gained, and Falkenhayn was forced to throw many more men into the meat-grinder.

Divisions began to appear in the top echelons of the German army as the conflict ground on. The Kaiser’s son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, wanted to call a halt, while others urged Falkenhayn to keep attacking. In July, Falkenhayn finally halted the offensive and resigned. He was replaced by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. They upheld the decision to suspend attacks at Verdun, but decided to defend the positions they had won. The conflict therefore dragged on for four more bloody months.

Paris put heavy pressure on Russia to launch an attack on the Eastern Front to relieve some of the pressure on the French Army. The tsar duly obliged his French creditors, ordering an offensive under the command of General Aleksei Brusilov in June and July. But this latest sacrificial offering of Russian lives for French gold did not halt the slaughter at Verdun, which lasted from 21 February until 19 December 1916.

In the end, the Germans had to admit that they had failed to break through. It is estimated that the battle of Verdun cost more than 700,000 casualties – dead, wounded, and missing. But neither side had much to show for the losses incurred. The largest area of territory gained amounted to a mere five miles. France was pronounced the victor. But the word ‘victory’ had a hollow sound when France had paid for it with the flower of her youth.

The Somme

While the French army was being bled white at Verdun, the French General Staff was angrily demanding that the British launch a new offensive on the banks of the River Somme. They complained bitterly that their allies were leaving all the fighting to the French. Stung by this criticism, General Haig, British Commander-in-Chief, decided that the time had come for him to fight to the last drop of his men’s blood.

Thus began one of the largest and bloodiest conflicts of World War One. It was supposed to be part of a massive joint offensive by the Allies on their fronts in France, Italy, and Russia. Following the same erroneous idea as his German counterparts, Haig hoped to end the deadlock on the Western Front with ‘one last push’. He was convinced that a massive artillery bombardment would silence the German guns and allow his infantry to break through. The Allies used their eighteen-pounder field guns to blast the German trenches with high explosives for seven days, after which 100,000 men would attack the German lines with little or no resistance – or so it was hoped.

A bombardment on such a scale had never yet been seen in modern warfare. To the British troops waiting anxiously in their trenches for the whistle that would send them ‘over the top,’ it seemed as though nothing could have survived that inferno. What they did not know was that the German troops, buried deep in underground bunkers, had mostly escaped destruction. The artillery barrage did not even succeed in cutting through the barbed wire defences, and the British troops had to cross masses of barbed wire under enemy fire to attack impregnable defences.

To make matters worse, the British artillery, which was meant to be covering the advance, fired too far ahead and also ceased firing too soon. This enabled the Germans to clamber out from their underground bunkers, ready to fight for their lives. The British soldiers advancing across ‘no man’s land’ were easy targets for the German machine gun fire and shrapnel. Most of them were cut down before they got anywhere near the enemy trenches.

The first of July, 1916, was a disaster for the British Army. On that day, 720 men of the Eleventh East Lancashire battalion went into action, and 584 became casualties. Many other units suffered a similar fate. By the end of the day 20,000 were killed, British casualties amounted to some 60,000 – the biggest scale of losses in British military history.

The carnage on the muddy fields of the Somme, as in Verdun, dragged on for months. It finally drew to a close as the winter downpours turned the battlefield into a muddy swamp, officially ending on 18 November. The British had advanced just seven miles in 141 days. They had failed to break through the German defences. And every metre of ground that was conquered was paid for by thousands of lives. In total, the Battle of the Somme cost over 1 million killed, wounded, or captured.

Reaction against the War

On all sides, the strains of the war were now showing. Acute manpower shortages forced governments throughout Europe to begin deploying women in what were hitherto male-only jobs in industry and agriculture. Strikes broke out to protest against low wages and exploitation.

A fresh supply of young blood was needed to make up for the colossal loss of life. Ever more lambs were being driven to the European slaughterhouse. Britain, the only major combatant with a volunteer army, was forced to introduce conscription in early 1916. This was the spark that ignited the Irish powder keg, the Easter Rising in Dublin, brutally suppressed by the British Army.

While Britain and France were formally democracies, Germany and the other Central Powers were open or partially disguised dictatorships. The same was true of tsarist Russia. Even sharper were the contradictions in those states. They were the same contradictions that existed everywhere. Governments increased surveillance on the population, fearful of popular unrest.

In Germany the authorities prepared secret monthly reports (Monatsberichte) on civilian attitudes (Stimmungsberichte) and morale (Geist). They acquired their information from an army of paid informers, spies, and military and police officials. Public mood was categorised by nationality by the censorship boards of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fearing, justifiably, that the non-German citizens of the Empire were not entirely loyal to the ruling Habsburg monarchy.

In Russia the tsarist authorities compiled the detailed reports of spies. They categorised the mood of the population as ‘patriotic’, ‘depressed’, ‘indifferent’, and so on. The agents of the Okhrana penetrated every nook and cranny of society, infiltrating political movements (including the Bolsheviks) even at leadership level. Italy and France also developed their own surveillance systems, spy networks, and censorship boards. But in the moment of truth, all these measures proved to be completely ineffectual.


The discontent in society was reflected in the armies, and expressed itself as a series of mutinies. The disasters suffered by the French army in 1916 produced a collapse of morale, which French Commander in Chief Joffre obstinately refused to see. He promoted Robert Nivelle to commander of the armies of Northern and North-Eastern France, despite the fact that he had only six months of experience as an army commander.

Nivelle, like Joffre, had big ideas. He planned a massive Allied offensive for spring 1917. But French troops refused to obey the order to advance when a new offensive was ordered in April. This was the signal for a wave of mutinies, which the French officers preferred to describe as “collective acts of indiscipline.” The mutinies spread like wildfire until they affected nearly half the French frontline forces.

Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun and future head of the pro-German Vichy regime in the Second World War, was brought in to replace Nivelle and restore order. The ringleaders were court-martialled, and 554 death sentences were handed out to French soldiers, though only forty-nine were actually executed. Measures were taken to improve the men’s living conditions, and a gradual return to order was achieved.  

In the end, French soldiers chose to obey orders and return to the trenches, with a tacit agreement that no further futile offensives would be launched. Fearful of the mood of his men, Pétain kept his soldiers’ losses to a minimum by engaging in only limited engagements. The French army conducted no further major offensives in 1917. There were mutinies in the Italian army, which Cadorna described as “naked treason.”

The situation was becoming critical in Germany by the end of 1916. Allied naval blockades of the North Sea and the Adriatic caused food shortages. Bread, meat, sugar, eggs, and milk were rationed. For the first time, signs of internal unrest were noticeable. Hindenburg told the Chancellor that “the military position could hardly be worse than it is.”

A British military historian described the situation thus: “The fear lurking everywhere in the minds of the rulers was of revolution through war weariness.” As the Austrian Foreign Minister Czernin had put it, “The bow was being strung too tight.” The bowstring finally snapped in Russia.

The year 1917

Lenin-addressing-crowd 1918The war created an ever-more unbearable situation for the masses. Upon the nightmare of war was superimposed the horrors of a deep economic crisis. Tsarist Russia was the first to fall. Military defeats, class conflict, economic exhaustion, war-weariness, and the national question all combined to produce an explosive cocktail. In the words of Lenin, in Russia, capitalism broke at its weakest link.

Thirty-nine Petrograd factories were at a standstill for lack of fuel by December 1916, and eleven more because of power cuts. The railways were on the point of collapse. There was no meat, and a shortage of flour. Bread queues became a normal condition of life. To all this must be added the constant news of military defeats and the whiff of scandal emanating from the court, the Rasputin clique, and the Black Hundred monarchist-landlord government.

A regime dominated by aristocratic crooks, speculators, and assorted riff-raff openly paraded its rottenness before an increasingly disaffected people. On Thursday 23 February, meetings were held to protest against the war, the high cost of living and the bad conditions of women workers. This in turn developed into a new strike wave.

The women played a key role. The first day of the revolution was 23 February [in the Old Style calender, 8 March in the New Style calender], International Working Women’s Day. Working women, driven to despair by their hard conditions, prey to the torments of hunger, were first to come out on to the streets demanding ‘bread, freedom, and peace’. They marched on the factories, calling the workers out. Mass street demonstrations ensued. Flags and placards appeared with revolutionary slogans: ‘Down with the war!’ ‘Down with hunger!’ ‘Long live the revolution!’

Street orators and agitators appeared as if from nowhere. Many were Bolsheviks, but others were ordinary workers, both men and women, who had discovered suddenly they had a tongue in their head and a mind that thinks, after years of enforced silence. Within a few days, from 25 to 27 February, Petrograd was in the grip of a general strike.

On paper, the regime had ample forces at its disposal. But in the moment of truth, these forces just melted away. The desperate calls for reinforcements went unanswered. Fraternisation between troops and strikers was widespread. Workers went to the barracks to appeal to their brothers in uniform. Most of the capital was in the hands of the workers and soldiers after 27 February, including bridges, arsenals, railway stations, the telegraph and the post office.

The workers had power in their hands, but, as Lenin explained later, were not conscious and organised sufficiently to carry the revolution through to the end. This was the central paradox of the February Revolution. It required a further nine months of experience, combined with the tireless work of the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, for the abortion of dual power to be brought to an end by the October Revolution.

The discontent erupted simultaneously all over Europe. The war exacerbated social tensions that were already at the point of exploding. The same tendencies made themselves felt in France in April-November and even more so in Italy in the spring and summer. Unrest culminated among workers and peasants in the Turin insurrection in August 1917. Workers’ strikes also shook the French and British governments.


Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a famous maxim: “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.” On 21 November, 1916, the old Emperor Franz Josef died. His successor, Karl I, promised to institute reforms, but his efforts merely opened the floodgates to disorder and dissent.

Count István Tisza, Hungarian Prime Minister, was a prominent defender of the Austro-Hungarian dualist system of government. He opposed voting reform in Hungary and was a loyal supporter of the monarchy and its alliance with Germany. Consequently, he was associated in the mind of the Hungarian public with a war effort that most people saw as hopeless.

On 1 May, 1917, socialists and revolutionaries staged mass demonstrations on the streets of Budapest, together with supporters of Karolyi. Fearing revolution in Hungary, the emperor asked Count Tisza to stand down, which he did on 22 May. He was later assassinated by members of the Red Guard. Tisza was succeeded by Moritz Esterhazy, who expressed his desire to build ‘Hungarian democracy’ – a clear attempt to prevent revolution from below by making reforms from the top. But by now, events were moving fast.

The state struggled to prevent soldiers in the field from learning of the discontent on the home front. Letters from home that mentioned food shortages and hunger were confiscated so as not to ‘endanger the discipline of front troops and negatively affect their spirits’. The press censors were working overtime. Left-wing newspapers often appeared with large ‘white spaces’. But all these measures were in vain. Discontent was already approaching boiling point on the home front.

Shortages, combined with war-weariness and political discontent, fuelled revolutionary and national agitation in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Vienna was suffering from severe food scarcity. Ration cards introduced for various foodstuffs were originally supposed to supply 1,300 calories per day, but by 1917 this had fallen to a mere 830 calories. By the end of the war, a medical study found that ninety-one per cent of Viennese school-children were mildly to severely undernourished.

Scarcely a week had passed since Count Tisza’s resignation when the first of a series of mutinies broke out in the army. The first mutiny, led by a group of Slovenes, was suppressed, but then others broke out, led by Serbs, Rusyns (or Ruthenians), and Czechs.

The sailors, being mainly drawn from the proletariat, were particularly active as a revolutionary force, not only in Russia but also in Austria-Hungary and Germany. The warships were like floating factories, and close contact with the officers bred a class hatred that was all the more intense for that. In Austria-Hungary, the first naval revolts began in July 1917 over a disruption of food supplies. An Austrian submarine defected to Italy in October 1917, provoking fear that Austro-Hungarian forces might succumb to the revolutionary moods that affected the Russians.

In early 1918, a series of workers’ strikes broke out in Austria. Daimler plant employees struck in Wiener, Neustadt, after the flour ration was drastically reduced on 14 January. Then 113,000 workers struck in Vienna, 153,000 in Lower Austria, and 40,000 in Styria. Two waves of strikes in January and June threatened to paralyse Austrian industry.

Revolutionary sailors actively supported the striking workers at the Pola arsenal. The Slovene, Serbian, Czech, and Hungarian troops in the armed forces mutinied. In February, a naval mutiny broke out at Cattaro in which the captain of the cruiser, Sankt Georg, was shot in the head. Mutineers demanded better food and a ‘just peace’ based on President Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

The arrival of three light battleships forced the mutineers to surrender, but the uprising was a warning signal to the government. More than 400 sailors were imprisoned for their role in the mutiny, four of whom were executed.

A memo sent to the Emperor from the Interior Ministry attributed the labour unrest to insufficient food supplies, but warned that it was spreading into the “political realm.” This prediction was vindicated when 550,000 workers from around Austria took part in anti-war demonstrations. The strikes were mainly spontaneous, and not necessarily welcomed by the labour leaders.

New and hitherto unorganised layers of the working class were moving into action. As in Russia, the women workers were in the vanguard. In one huge demonstration, the shocked Socialist Party leaders complained that there were elements “unknown to the Party” and comprised of agitated, “sensation-hungry womenfolk.”

The hardships caused by the war enormously exacerbated the tensions between the different nationalities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The introduction of government rationing in Hungary in 1915 caused serious food riots. A foreign press account from February 1915 noted, “Travelers from Austria… report that they have witnessed riots and demonstrations at Budapest, Prague, and other smaller towns of Hungary and Bohemia, against the continuation of the war.”

Price inflation hit the poor and working class hard. Between 1915 and 1916, workers’ wages rose by fifty per cent, but food prices rose more than 100 per cent. Demonstrations, bread riots, and strikes were increasingly common in Hungary. In the autumn of 1917, a new wave of strikes paralysed rail transportation for a week. The petty bourgeoisie was being drawn to the side of the workers. There were reports that middle-class organisations were beginning to behave like trade unions, demanding improvements. Sections of the avant-garde artists and intellectuals also found common cause with workers. This widespread social and national ferment was laying the basis for the Hungarian Revolution of 1918-19.

The situation was similar in the Czech-speaking part of the Empire. By August 1917, potatoes, fruits, and vegetables were no longer available in Bohemia. The weekly meat, milk, and bread ration could also not be covered fully. On 13 April, two days after the new ration had been implemented, angry crowds destroyed the mayor’s house, the food depot, restaurants, and hotels, or anywhere else where food could be found.

Prague erupted into massive, violent, and widespread demonstrations that the police were unable to control when further flour rationing was announced in August. The disturbances quickly spread to the factories. Soon, all the major factories in the Prague area were on strike, and the municipal transit system had to be shut down. There were instances of sabotage on the railways as workers began to destroy equipment and trains.

Intrigues between robbers

When Karl came to the throne, he promised to take Austria-Hungary out of the war as soon as possible. Faced with a desperate position at home and at the front, the new emperor decided to stake everything on a gambler’s throw of the dice. In complete secret (he did not even inform Foreign Minister Czernin), he made approaches to the Allies, with the aim of getting a deal that would enable Austria-Hungary to extricate itself from the war.

President Poincaré demanded not only the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine, but also that France should be given the German Saar and Landau territories. In fact, the French had recently arrived at a secret deal with Russia, unknown to Britain, that would give them not only the above-mentioned territories, but also the much-coveted Left Bank of the Rhine, which would provide France with a new frontier and a buffer zone against Germany in the future.

The reason Britain was not informed of this deal was that London was not very keen on strengthening France at Germany’s expense. Lloyd George was even ambivalent about giving Alsace-Lorraine back to France, although he kept his opinions to himself in public. To please their friends in St. Petersburg, Poincaré also demanded that Constantinople should be handed over to Russia – one of the prime objectives of tsarist Russia in the war.

The terms he offered were highly tempting to the British and French, who were eager to detach Austria-Hungary from Germany. Feeling the fire under his backside, Karl was only too pleased to agree to almost all their demands – almost, but not quite. For Lloyd George and Poincaré had a little problem, and that problem was called Italy.

When Italy agreed to join the war on the side of the Entente in 1915, it did so on the basis of a series of promises that were contained in the Treaty of London. Now Italy wanted its pound of flesh. The men in Rome wanted the Tyrol and several other big slices of Karl’s lands. In vain, the British and French attempted to persuade the Italians to accept Somaliland in exchange for dropping their demand for Trentino, Tyrol, and Istria. The Italian Foreign Minister, with admirable frankness, said that Italy had entered the war to destroy Austria, and could not be expected to help her.

Emperor Karl did not mind giving away territory belonging to Germany or the Ottoman Empire. But his spirit of generosity suddenly vanished when it was a matter of giving away the lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was not prepared even to consider Italy’s demands. Nor was he prepared to declare war on Germany, as the Allies were pressing him to do. The whole purpose of his intrigues with the Allies was to get out of the war, not to start another, even more dangerous one.

The Austrian Foreign Minister had no idea that the Emperor was planning to ditch Germany, and he would have been horrified if he had known. He thought that the idea was to negotiate a general peace. But he was wrong. Karl would have sacrificed his own grandmother if he could only save his throne. Thus, he was quite prepared to sacrifice the interests of the men in Berlin, whom he did not like in any case. Who did those Prussian upstarts think they were, anyway? They were always giving orders and sneering at the fighting qualities of his armies.

To stab the German Kaiser in the back would be sweet revenge for all the insults and humiliations he had suffered. But Karl was mortally afraid of the men he secretly despised and detested. And he was right to be afraid. The German General Staff was seriously considering declaring war on Austria-Hungary at one point, fearing that it was about to drop out of the war or change sides. That proved unnecessary in the end. The Austrian peace plan fell to pieces, shattered by the violence of inter-imperialist rivalries, as a boat with rotten timbers is shattered by the waves.

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