‘Beyond Human Nature to Bare’
Yet the Slaughter Continues Into Another Year
Special to The Great War Project.
(24 December) Here’s where things stand in the Great War as 1917 turns to 1918.
As 1917 comes to an end, reports historian Martin Gilbert, “there is no prospect of peace in Europe.”
Even the ceasefire in Russia and on the Eastern Front only turn out to be a prelude to civil war “with its own horrors and excesses,” Gilbert reports.
Behind the lines, “those nations whose food imports were being stopped by a naval blockade begin to suffer greatly.
The number of dead continues to rise. In Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, “as many as 10,000 of the city’s inhabitants had died of privation in 1917,” reports Gilbert.
“In Austria-Hungary hunger, led to strikes and food riots in Vienna and Budapest that forced the government to recall seven army divisions from the front, and to do so permanently at the beginning of 1918, to prevent violence at the front.”
Germany is not spared “In Germany,” writes historian Gilbert, “more than a quarter of a million civilians had died in 1917 as a result of hunger, directly attributed to the British blockade.
“Not only the troops on the battlefield, the sailors at sea, the airmen and the growing numbers of men in the prison camps, but also the once prosperous cities of Europe were suffering the torments of prolonged war.”
And knowledge of the cruel nature of the war, writes Gilbert, “could not be entirely confined to the war zones. On December 27th a century ago, the noted war correspondent Philip Gibbs returns to London from the front. In a lecture to a large gathering of politicians and journalists on the nature of life in trench warfare, his picture of the war shocked some of the listeners.
One writer in the audience took good notes. “This thing is horrible,” he writes in his diary, “and beyond human nature to bare.”
Yet, Gilbert writes, “it was going to continue, and to be borne, into yet another year.”
The Allies see salvation in the arrival of the Americans. But even there, the American commander General John J. Pershing proceeds with great caution.
On the first day of January, a century ago, “General Pershing successfully opposed an urgent request from British Prime Minister David Lloyd George to send over as many surplus troops as possible and incorporate them immediately on their arrival into British and French units.”
Lloyd George argues the Germans are planning a knock-out punch before the Americans’ arrival and before the Americans are fully trained.
Pershing disagrees, and for the moment that’s where things stand as 1917 turns to 1918.