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World War One: Breaking the trench stalemate

article-2226235-0F7F8D0300000578-696_964x682As the commemorations of World War One grind on, there’s a pattern that seems to have been ignored by almost all media and historians. Curious? Then read on…

One of the fears of Germany prior to the war was potentially becoming surrounded by hostile nations. So Germany was constantly looking for diplomatic ways to ease this pressure. This resulted in exotic sounding plans of revolution on at least three different continents. It is a reminder of two important facts about the conflict of 1914-18.

1)      It genuinely was a World War (and didn’t just happen in trenches in France/Belgium).

2)      All the high commands were aware of the trench warfare stalemate and did try and come up with novel plans to break the deadlock.

The British Empire, was such a myriad of cultures it was potentially the easiest one to cause trouble in, so in 1915 Kaiser Wilhelm II encouraged the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet V as “Caliph” to declare jihad and for all Muslims to rise up against their British imperial overlords. At the time the British Empire contained millions of Muslims in places like India (this is before Pakistan and Bangladesh were created) as well as other territories. Looking back to the Indian Mutiny in the mid19th century and you can see the potential turmoil a Muslim uprising in the subcontinent could potentially create for Britain. It would force a complete readjustment of British priorities and tip the balance in favour of Germany on the Western Front. However nobody joined in. The reality was that while the Ottoman Sultan had been claiming to be the spokesperson for all Muslims for centuries, he was really only the spokesperson of the Muslim subjects in his own empire.

Germany wasn’t deterred, the lure of an Indian insurrection was just too great. The German secret service went as far as sending delegates to Afghanistan to encourage the king to attack India. Habibullah Khan was however smart and knew that if the Germans failed he would be without allies and would be faced with a hostile India and Russia which would likely see the end of his days as king. So the British outmaneuvered the Germans diplomatically in Afghanistan and it all came to nothing.

The plan was simply too ambitious. And dealt with political and religious issues that a Prussian high command had no idea about, so in 1916 the Germans supported the Irish in their long quest for independence. This was a much safer bet because while Britain had successfully resisted all attempts of invasion since 1066, Ireland had regularly be seen as an area ripe for foreign interference- be it Spanish Kings, French Emperors or in this case a German Kaiser. While the Easter Uprising was “made in Ireland” it was armed by Germany. One of the uprisings biggest supporters, Roger Casement, was even shipped over to Ireland in a German U-boat. The plan was solid and there had been centuries of low level fighting going on between the British and Irish. However on this occasion while it was a distraction for Britain, it didn’t last long enough or distracted the British High Command enough to fulfill the German goal of opening up a new front. Ultimately the Easter uprising was not as big as Germany needed.

In 1917 the Germans went for two plans. The most famous was allowing Lenin into Russia on the “sealed train” and this worked spectacularly well. With Russia in a civil war, Lenin signed a peace treaty with Germany on very favourable terms for Germany. It released over a million fighting men from the Eastern Front and allowed one last German offensive in 1918 called the Kaiserschlacht which very nearly worked. It was also a little ironic that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had accused the Tsar of wanting to sign a separate peace with Germany only to do that very thing.

The other plan was an offer for Mexico to invade America. If the U.S.A entered the war in 1917 it would pose a huge potential threat as millions of fresh troops would be available to the allies. A war on its southern border however would ensure America stayed out of the war in any meaningful way. The Germans promised weapons and to back the annexation of areas like New Mexico. This was the most fanciful of all the plans as Mexico was having a civil war at the time, and wasn’t in any position to help Germany even if it had wanted to.

The coded message sent from the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmermann, to the Mexicans was intercepted by the British and given to the American authorities. It was so blatant an act of war that initially many American Congressmen thought it was a British fake designed to bring America into the war. However at a press conference Arthur Zimmermann confirmed that the message was genuine ensuring that America joined the war the allied side. Ironically a plan designed to keep America out of the war, ensured it declared war on Germany.

Reviewing these four diplomatic plans, the Russian plan worked spectacularly well, the Irish plan was moderately successful, the Muslim revolution didn’t happen but it cost almost nothing to try and the Mexican plan was a catastrophe of epic proportions.

 

About Jem Duducu

Jem Duducu
Jem Duducu is an historian and the founder of the hugely popular @HistoryGems . He is soon to publish his next history book.

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