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During World War I, the German Empire was one of the Central Powers that ultimately lost the war. It began participation with the conflict after the declaration of war against Serbia by its ally, Austria-Hungary. German forces fought the Allies on both the eastern and western fronts, although German territory itself remained relatively safe from widespread invasion for most of the war, except for a brief period in 1914 when East Prussia was invaded. A tight blockade imposed by the British Navy caused severe food shortages in the cities, especially in the winter of 1916-1917, known as the turnip winter.


The German population responded to the outbreak of war in 1914 with a complex mix of emotions, in a similar way to the populations in other countries of Europe; notions of overt enthusiasm known as the Spirit of 1914 have been challenged by more recent scholarship.[1] The German government, dominated by the Junkers, thought of the war as a way to end Germany's disputes with rivals France, Russia and Britain. The beginning of war was presented in authoritarian Germany as the chance for the nation to secure "our place under the sun," as the Foreign Minister Bernhard von Bulow had put it, which was readily supported by prevalent nationalism among the public. The Kaiser and the German establishment hoped the war would unite the public behind the monarchy, and lessen the threat posed by the dramatic growth of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which had been the most vocal critic of the Kaiser in the Reichstag before the war. Despite its membership in the Second International, the Social Democratic Party of Germany ended its differences with the Imperial government and abandoned its principles of internationalism to support the war effort.

It soon became apparent that Germany was not prepared for a war lasting more than a few months. At first, little was done to regulate the economy for a wartime footing, and the German war economy would remain badly organized throughout the war. Germany depended on imports of food and raw materials, which were stopped by the British blockade of Germany. Food prices were first limited, then rationing was introduced. The winter of 1916/17 was called "turnip winter" because the potato harvest was poor and people ate animal feed especially vile tasting turnips. During the war from August 1914 to mid-1919, the excess deaths over peacetime caused by malnutrition and high rates of exhaustion and disease and despair came to about 474,000 civilians.[2][3]


German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914. A message on the freight car spells out "Trip to Paris"; early in the war, all sides expected the conflict to be a short one.

The German army opened the war on the Western Front with a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan, designed to quickly attack France through neutral Belgium before turning southwards to encircle the French army on the German border. The Belgians fought back, and sabotaged their rail system to delay the Germans. The Germans did not expect this and were delayed, and responded with systematic reprisals on civilians, killing nearly 6,000 Belgian noncombatants, including women and children, and burning 25,000 houses and buildings.[4] The plan called for the right flank of the German advance to converge on Paris and initially, the Germans were very successful, particularly in the Battle of the Frontiers (14–24 August). By 12 September, the French with assistance from the British forces halted the German advance east of Paris at the First Battle of the Marne (5–12 September). The last days of this battle signified the end of mobile warfare in the west. The French offensive into Germany launched on 7 August with the Battle of Mulhouse had limited success.[5]

In the east, only one Field Army defended East Prussia and when Russia attacked in this region it diverted German forces intended for the Western Front. Germany defeated Russia in a series of battles collectively known as the First Battle of Tannenberg (17 August – 2 September), but this diversion exacerbated problems of insufficient speed of advance from rail-heads not foreseen by the German General Staff. The Central Powers were thereby denied a quick victory and forced to fight a war on two fronts. The German army had fought its way into a good defensive position inside France and had permanently incapacitated 230,000 more French and British troops than it had lost itself. Despite this, communications problems and questionable command decisions cost Germany the chance of obtaining an early victory.


1916 was characterized by two great battles on the Western front, at Verdun and Somme. They each lasted most of the year, achieved minimal gains, and drained away the best soldiers of both sides. Verdun became the iconic symbol of the murderous power of modern defensive weapons, with 280,000 German casualties, and 315,000 French. At Somme, there were over 400,000 German casualties, against over 600,000 Allied casualties. At Verdun, the Germans attacked what they considered to be a weak French salient which nevertheless the French would defend for reasons of national pride. The Somme was part of a multinational plan of the Allies to attack on different fronts simultaneously. German experts are divided in their interpretation of the Somme. Some say it was a standoff, but most see it as a British victory and argue it marked the point at which German morale began a permanent decline and the strategic initiative was lost, along with irreplaceable veterans and confidence.[6]


Enthusiasm faded with the enormous numbers of casualties, the dwindling supply of manpower, the mounting difficulties on the homefront, and the never-ending flow of casualty reports. A grimmer and grimmer attitude began to prevail amongst the general population. Morale was helped by victories against Serbia, Greece, Italy, and Russia which made great gains for the Central Powers. Morale was at its greatest since 1914 at the end of 1917 and beginning of 1918 with the defeat of Russia following her rise into revolution, and the German people braced for what Ludendorff said would be the "Peace Offensive" in the west.[7][8]


In spring 1918, Germany realized that time was running out. It prepared for the decisive strike with new armies and new tactics, hoping to win the war on the Western front before millions of American soldiers appeared in battle. General Erich von Ludendorff and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg had full control of the army, they had a large supply of reinforcements moved from the Eastern front, and they trained storm troopers with new tactics to race through the trenches and attack the enemy's command and communications centers. The new tactics would indeed restore mobility to the Western front, but the German army was too optimistic.

During the winter of 1917-18 it was "quiet" on the Western Front—British casualties averaged "only" 3,000 a week. Serious attacks were impossible in the winter because of the deep caramel-thick mud. Quietly the Germans brought in their best soldiers from the eastern front, selected elite storm troops, and trained them all winter in the new tactics. With stopwatch timing, the German artillery would lay down a sudden, fearsome barrage just ahead of its advancing infantry. Moving in small units, firing light machine guns, the storm troopers would bypass enemy strongpoints, and head directly for critical bridges, command posts, supply dumps and, above all, artillery batteries. By cutting enemy communications they would paralyze response in the critical first half hour. By silencing the artillery they would break the enemy's firepower. Rigid schedules sent in two more waves of infantry to mop up the strong points that had been bypassed. The shock troops frightened and disoriented the first line of defenders, who would flee in panic. In one instance an easy-going Allied regiment broke and fled; reinforcements rushed in on bicycles. The panicky men seized the bikes and beat an even faster retreat. The stormtrooper tactics provided mobility, but not increased firepower. Eventually—in 1939 and 1940—the formula would be perfected with the aid of dive bombers and tanks, but in 1918 the Germans lacked both.[9]

Ludendorff erred by attacking the British first in 1918, instead of the French. He mistakenly thought the British to be too uninspired to respond rapidly to the new tactics. The exhausted, dispirited French perhaps might have folded. The German assaults on the British were ferocious—the largest of the entire war. At the Somme River in March, 63 divisions attacked in a blinding fog. No matter, the German lieutenants had memorized their maps and their orders. The British lost 270,000 men, fell back 40 miles, and then held. They quickly learned how to handle the new German tactics: fall back, abandon the trenches, let the attackers overextend themselves, and then counterattack. They gained an advantage in firepower from their artillery and from tanks used as mobile pillboxes that could retreat and counterattack at will. In April Ludendorff hit the British again, inflicting 305,000 casualties—but he lacked the reserves to follow up. Ludendorf launched five great attacks between March and July, inflicting a million British and French casualties. The Western Front now had opened up—the trenches were still there but the importance of mobility now reasserted itself. The Allies held. The Germans suffered as many casualties as they inflicted, including most of their precious stormtroopers. The new German replacements were under-aged youth or embittered middle-aged family men in poor condition. They were not inspired by the elan of 1914, nor thrilled with battle—they hated it, and some began talking of revolution. Ludendorff could not replace his losses, nor could he devise a new brainstorm that might somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The British likewise were bringing in boys and men aged 50, but since their home front was in good condition, and since they could see the Americans arriving steadily, their morale was higher. The great German spring offensive was a race against time, for everyone could see the Americans were training millions of fresh young men who would eventually arrive on the Western Front.[10][11]

The attrition warfare now caught up to both sides. Germany had used up all the best soldiers they had, and still had not conquered much territory. The British were out of fresh manpower, the French nearly so. Berlin had calculated it would take months for the Americans to ship all their men and supplies—but the U.S. troops arrived much sooner, as they left their supplies behind, and relied on British and French artillery, tanks, airplanes, trucks and equipment. Berlin also assumed that Americans were fat, undisciplined and unaccustomed to hardship and severe fighting. They soon realized their mistake. The Germans reported that "The qualities of the [Americans] individually may be described as remarkable. They are physically well set up, their attitude is good... They lack at present only training and experience to make formidable adversaries. The men are in fine spirits and are filled with naive assurance."[12]

By September 1918, the Central Powers were exhausted from fighting, and the American forces were pouring into France at a rate of 10,000 a day. The decisive Allied counteroffensive, known as the Hundred Days Offensive, began on 8 August 1918—what Ludendorff called the "Black Day of the German army." The Allied armies advanced steadily as German defenses faltered.[13]

Although German armies were still on enemy soil as the war ended, the generals, the civilian leadership—and indeed the soldiers and the people—knew all was hopeless. They started looking for scapegoats. The hunger and popular dissatisfaction with the war precipitated revolution throughout Germany. By 11 November Germany had virtually surrendered, the Kaiser and all the royal families had abdicated, and the Empire had been replaced by the Weimar Republic.

Home front

Germany had no plans for mobilizing its civilian economy for the war effort, and no stockpiles of food or critical supplies had been made. Germany had to improvise rapidly. All major political sectors supported the war at least at first, including the Socialists.

The "spirit of 1914" was the overwhelming, enthusiastic support of all elements of the population for war in 1914. In the Reichstag, the vote for credits was unanimous, with all the Socialist joining in. One professor testified to a "great single feeling of moral elevation of soaring of religious sentiment, in short, the ascent of a whole people to the heights."[14] At the same time, there was a level of anxiety; most commentators predicted the short victorious war – but that hope was dashed in a matter of weeks, as the invasion of Belgium bogged down and the French Army held in front of Paris. The Western Front became a killing machine, as neither army moved more than a few hundred yards at a time. Industry In late 1914 was in chaos, unemployment soared while it took months to reconvert to munitions productions. In 1916, the Hindenburg Program called for the mobilization of all economic resources to produce artillery, shells, and machine guns. Church bells and copper roofs were ripped out and melted down.[15]

The German economy was severely handicapped by the British blockade that cut off food supplies. The mobilization of so many farmers – and horses – steadily reduce the food supply. Supplies that had once come in from Russia and Austria were cut off.[16]

The concept of "total war" in World War I, meant that supplies had to be redirected towards the armed forces and, with German commerce being stopped by the British blockade, German civilians were forced to live in increasingly meager conditions. Food prices were first controlled. Bread rationing was introduced in 1915 but apart from Berlin it never worked well.[17] Hundreds of thousands of civilians died from malnutrition—usually from a typhus or a disease their weakened body could not resist. (Starvation itself rarely caused death.)[18]

Conditions deteriorated rapidly on the home front, with severe food shortages reported in all urban areas. The causes involved the transfer of so many farmers and food workers into the military, combined with the overburdened railroad system, shortages of coal, and the British blockade that cut off imports from abroad. The winter of 1916-1917 was known as the "turnip winter," because that hardly-edible vegetable, usually fed to livestock, was used by people as a substitute for potatoes and meat, which were increasingly scarce. Thousands of soup kitchens were opened to feed the hungry people, who grumbled that the farmers were keeping the food for themselves. Even the army had to cut the rations for soldiers.[19] Morale of both civilians and soldiers continued to sink.

The drafting of miners reduced the main energy source, coal. The textile factories produced Army uniforms, and warm clothing for civilians ran short. The device of using ersatz materials, such as paper and cardboard for cloth and leather proved unsatisfactory. Soap was in short supply, as was hot water. All the cities reduced tram services, cut back on street lighting, and close down theaters and cabarets.

The food supply increasingly focused on potatoes and bread, it was harder and harder to buy meat. The meat ration in late 1916 was only 31% of peacetime, and it fell to 12% in late 1918. The fish ration was 51% in 1916, and none at all by late 1917. The rations for cheese, butter, rice, cereals, eggs and lard were less than 20% of peacetime levels.[20] In 1917 the harvest was poor, and the potato supply ran short, and Germans substituted almost inedible turnips; the "turnip winter" of 1917–18 was remembered with bitter distaste for generations.[21]

German women were not employed in the Army, but large numbers took paid employment in industry and factories, and even larger numbers engaged in volunteer services. Housewives were taught how to cook without milk, eggs or fat; agencies helped widows find work. Banks, insurance companies and government offices for the first time hired women for clerical positions. Factories hired them for unskilled labor – by December 1917, half the workers in chemicals, metals, and machine tools were women. Laws protecting women in the workplace were relaxed, and factories set up canteens to provide food for their workers, lest their productivity fall off. The food situation in 1918 was better, because the harvest was better, but serious shortages continued, with high prices, and a complete lack of condiments and fresh fruit. Many migrants had flocked into cities to work in industry, which made for overcrowded housing. Reduced coal supplies left everyone in the cold. Daily life involved long working hours, poor health, and little or no recreation, an increasing fears for the safety of loved ones in the Army and in prisoner of war camp. The men who returned from the front were those who had been permanently crippled; wounded soldiers who had recovered were sent back to the trenches.[22]

Defeat and revolt

Many Germans wanted an end to the war and increasing numbers of Germans began to associate with the political left, such as the Social Democratic Party and the more radical Independent Social Democratic Party which demanded an end to the war. The third reason was the entry of the United States into the war in April 1917, which changed the long-run balance of power in favor of the Allies.

The end of October 1918, in Kiel, in northern Germany, saw the beginning of the German Revolution of 1918–19. Civilian dock workers led a revolt and convinced many sailors to join them; the revolt quickly spread to other cities. Meanwhile, Hindenburg and the senior generals lost confidence in the Kaiser and his government.

In November 1918, with internal revolution, a stalemated war, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire suing for peace, Austria-Hungary falling apart from multiple ethnic tensions, and pressure from the German high command, the Kaiser and all German ruling princes abdicated. On 9 November 1918, the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed a Republic, in cooperation with the business and middle classes, not the revolting workers. The new government led by the German Social Democrats called for and received an armistice on 11 November 1918; in practice it was a surrender, and the Allies kept up the food blockade to guarantee an upper hand. The war was over; the history books closed on the German Empire. It was succeeded by the democratic, yet flawed, Weimar Republic.[23]

Seven million soldiers and sailors were quickly demobilized, and they became a conservative voice that drowned out the radical left in cities such as Kiel and Berlin. The radicals formed the Spartakusbund and later the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

Germany lost the war because it was decisively defeated by a stronger military power; it was out of soldiers and ideas, and was losing ground every day by October 1918. Nevertheless it was still in France when the war ended on Nov. 11 giving die-hard nationalists the chance to blame the civilians back home for betraying the army and surrendering. This was the false "Stab-in-the-back legend" that soured German politics in the 1920s and caused a distrust of democracy and the Weimar government.[24]

War deaths

Out of a population of 65 million, Germany suffered 2.1 million military deaths and 430,000 civilian deaths due to wartime causes (especially the food blockade), plus about 17,000 killed in Africa and the other overseas colonies.[25]

The Allied blockade continued until July 1919, causing severe additional hardships.[26]


  1. Jeffrey Verhey, The Spirit of 1914: Militarism, Myth and Mobilization in Germany (Cambridge U.P., 2000).
  2. N.P. Howard, "The Social and Political Consequences of the Allied Food Blockade of Germany, 1918-19," German History (1993) 11#2 pp 161-88 online p 166, with 271,000 excess deaths in 1918 and 71,000 in 1919.
  3. Hew Strachan (1998). World War 1. Oxford University Press. p. 125. 
  4. Jeff Lipkes, Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914 (2007)
  5. Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (1962)
  6. Fred R. Van Hartesveldt, The Battles of the Somme, 1916: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography (1996) pp 26-27
  7. C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, A History of the Great War: 1914-1918 (1935) ch 15-29
  8. Holger H. Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918 (1997) ch 4-6
  9. Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918 (1989) pp 155-70
  10. David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (2011) pp 30-111
  11. C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, A History of the Great War: 1914-1918 (1935) pp 505-35r
  12. Allan Millett (1991). Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps. Simon and Schuster. p. 304. 
  13. Spencer C. Tucker (2005). World War I: A - D.. ABC-CLIO. p. 1256. 
  14. Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918 (1998) p. 14
  15. Richie, Faust's Metropolis pp 272-75
  16. Feldman, Gerald D. "The Political and Social Foundations of Germany's Economic Mobilization, 1914-1916," Armed Forces & Society (1976) 3#1 pp 121-145. online
  17. Keith Allen, "Sharing scarcity: Bread rationing and the First World War in Berlin, 1914-1923," Journal of Social History, Winter 1998, Vol. 32 Issue 2, pp 371-93
  18. N. P. Howard, "The Social and Political Consequences of the Allied Food Blockade of Germany, 1918-19," German History, April 1993, Vol. 11 Issue 2, pp 161-188,
  19. Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918 (2004) p. 141-42
  20. David Welch, Germany, Propaganda and Total War, 1914-1918 (2000) p.122
  21. Chickering, Imperial Germany pp 140-145
  22. Alexandra Richie, Faust's Metropolis (1998) pp 277-80
  23. A. J. Ryder, The German Revolution of 1918: A Study of German Socialism in War and Revolt (2008)
  24. Wilhelm Diest and E. J. Feuchtwanger, "The Military Collapse of the German Empire: the Reality Behind the Stab-in-the-Back Myth," War in History, April 1996, Vol. 3 Issue 2, pp 186-207
  25. Leo Grebler and Wilhelm Winkler, The Cost of the World War to Germany and Austria-Hungary (Yale University Press, 1940)
  26. N.P. Howard, N.P. "The Social and Political Consequences of the Allied Food Blockade of Germany, 1918-19," German History (1993) p 162



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