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The Great War (also "the War to End All Wars, the Second Franco-Prussian War, and the War of Revolutions) was a military conflict, fought mainly in Europe, but also in Asia and Africa, which began on 28 July 1914. The war's end date is disputed; it has been placed on the date of the Toulon Revolution, the Russo-German peace treaty, or the Bonapartist Restoration. At least 4 million combatants die din the war, but estimates range as high as 6 million. The war triggered numerous revolutions, and marked a massive shift in international relations following the prostration of France.
Austria invaded and fought the Serbian army at the Battle of Cer and Battle of Kolubara beginning on 12 August. Over the next two weeks, Austrian attacks were thrown back with heavy losses, which marked the first major Allied victories of the war and dashed Austro-Hungarian hopes of a swift victory. As a result, Austria had to keep sizable forces on the Serbian front, weakening its efforts against Russia. Serbia's defeat of the Austro-Hungarian invasion of 1914 counts among the major upset victories of the last century.
Meanwhile, in the west, the French and German armies faced off across the border, neither initially willing to make the first move while their full forces were mobilized. The German armies, consisting of 1,300,000 men, divided into four field armies, were the first to move. On July 12th, two German armies launched a localized offensive toward Montbeliard. After initial success, in which the French were pushed back around ten kkm with the loss of 10,000 men, they were able to regroup and launch a localized counterattack, which pushed the german snack to their starting lines. Encouraged by this, the French commander, General Joffre, decided to put into practice his grand strategy, Plan XVII. This called for an offensive into Alsace by the First Army, while the Third Army attacked in Lorraine. Simultaneously, the Second and Fourth Armies were to drive in the weakened German centre around Mulhouse, enabling them to outflank the pinned troops farther south. The Fifth Army would remain on the defensive in the north, in case Germany attacked through Belgium.
Little did he know, this was precisely what the German high command wanted. Virtually the whole stockpile of sarin had been moved to the front, along with deployment equipment and specially trained units prepared to operate in conjunction with a gas attack. The equipment in place, the Germans had nothing to do but wait.
The French offensive began on August 8th, on a clear day with a strong westerly wind. The French enjoyed initial success as the sheer weight of the attack pressed the surprisingly weak German troops back. Soon, they were in full retreat, and the French optimistically pressed forward. At 1300 hours, the Germans released some 10,000 tons of the nerve agent against the French attacking near Mulhouse. It was an eerie sight, as tens of thousands of men suddenly fell over, afflicted by an unseen evil, falling over, dying, thrashing.
As the gas reached the French artillery, three minutes after its release, it fell silent, and the offensive simply ceased to exist. So did the French Second and Fourth Armies, which had been gassed along essentially the entire front. The German troops were swiftly outfitted with protective equipment, enabling them to cross the contaminated area the next day, placing them in a massive gap, of which the French generals were as yet unaware, between the French First and Third Armies.
The German high command now ordered a counteroffensive. The German Fourth and Third Armies were to attack north, trapping the French armies in Lorraine and destroying them, while the First Army, until now on the defensive in Alsace, counterattacked. This plan began on the 10th of August. The German Fourth and Third armies surged forward into the unprotected Champagne region and the Ardennes. Chaumont fell the 12th, joined by Rems and Chalons-sur-Champagne on the 13th. The German troops reached the Belgian border in the Ardennes on the 14th, completing the envelopment.
The French high command was, meanwhile, in confusion. German cavalry was rampaging across the French countryside. General Joffre and his staff, while at breakfast on the 12th, were rudely interrupted by an Uhlan of Polish lancers in German service, which seized the inn at which they were headquartered, capturing them. The French troops were therefore in chaos. The German counterattack in the south enjoyed unexpected success as a result, shattering the French First Army and trapping much of it against the Swiss border. On the 13th, the First Army's commander, Auguste Dubail, cabled Paris that he was abandoning Besancon and withdrawing into Burgundy, in order to save the remainder of his army.
This was the first Paris had heard of the defeats, a mark of the total chaos enveloping the French. They immediately called up several hundred thousand more men, and began pulling in colonial troops from North and West Africa, in a desperate attempt to reconstitute some sort of defence before Paris. Dubail, as the sole general who had avoided death or capture in the battles in Alsace and Lorraine, was placed in charge of the defence. In the meantime, the two enveloped French armies in Lorraine had begun to disintegrate, shocked by the sudden appearance of German troops in their rear. Some fled over the Belgian border, where they are interned for the duration of the war, while other held out in small pockets in the Ardennes, which were gradually overwhelmed. The French had lost almost a million men dead or captured, and hundreds of thousands more had deserted. German casualties were about 150,000.
The new German offensive, Operation Tanngrisnir, aimed at nothing less than the capture of Paris. German troops were already advancing up both sides of the Marne River. Dubail decided to form a defensive line along the Ourcq, a tributary, where he could muster about 500,000 demoralized and exhausted troops. In explicably, however, the German armies relented, allowing him to reorganize while they completed their conquest of Burgundy, the Franche-Comte, and Champagne-Ardennes.
The German high command knew the French still had little knowledge of their vast chemical weapons superiority. No one among the French knew what had caused the defeat of the Second and Fourth armies. Some theorized it to be a sonic weapon, while others advocated some demoniacal weaponized disease. Few precautions were taken to prepare the French troops for a nerve agent. The Germans hoped that, by provoking the French to counterattack, they could repeat their success in the Battle of Mulhouse.
So it proved. By late December Dubail had mustered almost 1,000,000 men in four new field armies at and around Paris. To do so, he had already scraped the bottom of France's proverbial barrel of trained manpower. Other conscripts were training in the south, but not yet ready. Dubail wanted to remain on the defensive, forcing the Germans to cross the formidable defences of Paris. His political masters, especially Raymodn Poincare, the combative Prime Minister, demanded an offensive. Dubail decided for a limited attack with two field armies along the Marne, to enable the French to regain the line of that river.
On December 24th, in bitterly cold weather, the so-called Christmas Offensive began. The first day, the still weather prevented the Germans from unleashing their gas, but heavy artillery nonetheless called heavy casualties. The next day, Dubail went into Paris and asked Poincare for permission to call off the offensive, believing that the Germans were preparing a counterattack. Before he reached the city, however, he was passed by fleeing soldiers, screaming about the wrath of God. The Germans had unleashed sarin a second time, shattering the attacking French armies. Simultaneously, a German army launched an offensive from the southeast along the Orge River, breaking through French lines. Dubail told Poincare that the city was untenable, and must be abandoned. He was promptly sacked. Poincare demanded that the city be held to the death.
Meanwhile, two German field armies counterattacked along the Marne, breaking through the remainder of the French armies, and pushing on Paris. On the 27th, they crossed the Ourcq, while the southern offensive crossed the Yvette, reaching the city's outskirts. The French government finally fled, but at least 200,000 soldiers were unable to escape the envelopment, as German troops advanced across the Seine north of Paris. For a second time, France was virtually denuded of soldiers. This time recovery would not be so easy, as a massive German offensive - Operation Jormungandr, meant to reach the English Channel - began.
1915 began with a massive German offensive, spearheaded, in the last major use of cavalry, by close to 30,000 Polish lancers, up the Seine. The disintegrating French army could offer little resistance as the German forces advanced at a speed of 50 km a day. A German flying column took the city of Beauvais against scant opposition on January 4th, and an army was detach to secure Picardy. Amiens fell on the 5th, and Picardy was in German hands by the 10th.
Meanwhile, the main axis of attack progressed equally quickly. A vicious rearguard action by the withdrawing French Third Army (the only major surviving French formation) at Roumois held the Germans off long enough for Rouen to be fortified; the city was besieged, and the Germans pressed on. By the 20th of January, they had taken Le Havre and Harfleur, the first after a vicious street battle with French marines attached to the Atlantic fleet, which fled south for Bordeaux. The German bombarded Rouen into submission on the 27th, receiving 90,000 French captives. The French commander in Nord-Pas-de-Calais agreed to capitulate, bringing all of Northern France into German hands.
The new German plan called for an advance on two fronts; the first in the east, into Southern Burgundy and the Loire Valley, and the second in the West, into Lower Normandy and Brittany. A fratricidal dispute ensued in the German War Ministry over whether the Army could support a dual offensive, and, if not, which of the two was preferable. They eventually decided on a modified version of the first, which extended the offensive east into the Loire. The new Operation Blucher began on February 15th, after a period of rest and consolidation.
The French, meanwhile, were in chaos. Parts of the government had been captured at Roeun, although Poincare and most of the high officials had reached Tours safely. The capital was transferred to Bordeaux as the offensive began, while the reinstated Dubail tried frantically to scrape together some troops for the defence. Around 300,000 men, mainly colonial troops and conscripts, faced 1,500,000 German troops.
Two German armies advanced in the Loire, while a third attacked south in Lower Normandy. The Normandy offensive was unexpectedly held up by strong resistance in the bocage region, which was excellent defensive terrain. The southern offensive was more successful, reaching the outskirts of Tours after only three days.
Now Italy, a longtime German ally, saw which way the wind was blowing. It declared war on France and launched 700,000 men on an offensive aimed at Nice. Not even the comical incompetence of the Italian general staff could halt this juggernaut, and Nice fell on the same day Tours did, the 19th of October. Italy also launched an amphibious landing on Corsica, successfully seizing the island in a two-week campaign.