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Volume 23: 1918, An Alternative History

This was not a fun war to be in.

What if the Allied Line Had Broken?

It has been a close run thing – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life,” – Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, 1815.

If the goal of a war is to be remembered in history, World War I suffers from its proximity to the only war of greater size and scope. Of course, despite military leaders’ desire for fame since time immemorial, we don’t generally fight for only glory. In the famous words of von Clausewitz, “war is politics by other means.”

But this is little solace to the historians; if a war is not remembered, or is misremembered, how can we hope to gain from its political lessons? Much like its bigger brother 25 years later, World War I became a fight between two incompatible systems of government: those that allow popular involvement and those that give nearly all power to a hereditary monarch. One result of the Great War was the extinguishing of the latter from the Western world. There are still kings and queens in Europe, but they hold little power.

Today we often forget that the outcome of World War I was in serious doubt until its final 100 days, causing us to wonder what would have happened had events evolved with a few slight differences. Perhaps the systems of government in the following decades would have been very different. Perhaps this would be true in the present day.

In our first foray into fiction, we consider precisely this. Could the Central Powers have won the war? What would such a victory have looked like? Would the ensuing global geopolitical events of the last 100 years have still occurred?

  • [if !supportLists][endif]We set the scene: Amiens, France, 1918.

  • [if !supportLists][endif]We change the battle – slightly.

  • [if !supportLists][endif]We think about what happens next.

We set the scene: Amiens, France, 1918.

The Battle of the Marne. The Race to the Sea. Trenches, “over the top,” mustard gas, gains measured in yards, at the cost of thousands of lives. This had been the life on the Western Front for nearly four years of war. A lack of strategic vision and creative tactics had produced a gruesome, horrifying standoff. But this was about to change.(1)

The greatest stalemate the world had ever known was about to come to an end, due to the exit of one ally and the entrance of another. Starting in 1917, a series of revolutions had left Russia in a state of civil war: White versus Red. Far too preoccupied to carry on a fight with a strong external enemy, the nominally-in-control Communists were forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Cleaving off much of Russia’s eastern territory,(2) the treaty not only greatly increased the German sphere of influence, but also freed 50 divisions to be redeployed against the French and English on the Western Front.(3) This would create a numerical advantage, but the German High Command knew it would be a temporary one.

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917,(4) it had a pitiably small standing army. Thirteen belligerents had larger militaries at that moment. The logistical requirements to move an army across the Atlantic Ocean meant that General John Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force (AEF) wouldn’t fire its first shot until October. By the end of 1917, only four American combat divisions were in France.

Both the Allies and the Central Powers knew this situation was soon to change. While deliberate, the AEF’s buildup carried great momentum. The Americans were laying telephone lines and railroad track. They were building new ports at which they would soon unload masses of men and materiel. A draft would soon swell the military ranks to more than four million men. The Yanks were coming indeed, fresh divisions of Yanks, as many as 10,000 per day by June 1918. The German numerical advantage would be short-lived. Their optimal strategy was in little doubt: they must end the war while they had the chance.

Figure 1 - Relative Strength, Eastern Front, 1918

Thus was devised the Spring Offensive. In its first phase, it would consist of four German armies, more than 1,200,000 soldiers.(5) The location of the battle provided a stark reminder of the risks involved. The fiercest fighting would take place in the same fields as the Battle of the Somme, where the British had attempted a breakthrough in 1916. That move “over the top” had caused more than 57,000 casualties in a single day, the deadliest in British history.(6) A repeat of that debacle, taking ground by the yard rather than the mile while losing a generation of her finest soldiers, would soon have left Germany unable to defend itself.

German planning focused on avoiding this outcome. Troops were told to advance rapidly, quickly crossing the repeating lines of trenches. The strike would happen at the textbook weak point of any military force: the joint between two commands. In this case, the spear would point directly at the spot where the British right flank touched the French left; German command expected that the Allied lack of a supreme command would impair coordination. German forces would drive west and then north; should they reach the ports on the English Channel, the British would be isolated and could be pushed back into the sea. The key intermediate objective would be the city of Amiens. Although it was more than 40 miles from the coast, the loss of this key transportation hub would severely inhibit the ability of the British and French to mutually reinforce.

On the morning of March 21, the Germans began an artillery barrage, eventually launching 3,500,000 shells in a span of just over five hours.(7) The initial attack went well and German soldiers began to occupy the first line of trenches. At this point, however, the retreat was orderly; a defense in depth had been the British plan. But the advance kept coming. In just nine days, the front lines had advanced more than 30 miles. The outskirts of Amiens were in sight for advance German units.

It is on this date, March 28, 1918, when we will depart onto our alternate timeline.

Figure 2 - Start of Spring Offensive

We change the battle – slightly

First, some housekeeping.(8) On exactly this date, an otherwise entirely unremarkable French artillery scored a lucky hit on the headquarters of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. Among those killed was an unknown 28-year-old private of Austrian birth. His death was of no importance to the outcome of the war, although his later absence simplifies our narrative.(9)

The inability of the French and British to agree on an overall command structure was critical. General Erich Ludendorff, the driving force behind the offensive, was counting on exactly this. Rather than bring fresh French troops from sectors to the South, a stretch of line between Albert and Montdidier was held by portions of the weary British Fifth Army. Despite quickly depleting German supplies, the onslaught was simply too great. Outnumbered nearly four to one, the heroic British stand on the Ancre River could not hold. By the first of April, the Allies were forced to abandon Amiens, a city that they would never retake.

But the five days on the Ancre proved crucial. Unlike in the “real” 1940, the British Expeditionary Force understood the potential for the Germans to reach the sea. Using the Somme River rail and road bridges to their fullest, the British (and some Belgians) abandoned Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne.(10) They planned to hold the port of Dieppe, or, in the worst case, a line along the Somme anchored on the port of Le Havre and the city of Rouen.

Figure 3 - German breakout to the Seine

Unfortunately, British pride, hubris, or stupidity prevented their high command from admitting the severity of their situation to their French counterparts. Four years of stasis will do that; having previously counted gains and losses in yards, they didn’t believe that dozens of miles could be taken and held in a single movement. Just as the British were retreating toward the southwest in order to protect the lifeline of Channel ports, the French retreated to the southeast, behind the River Oise. The strength of that barrier proved to be an ironically double-edged sword; the German Army was able to form a strong defensive line quickly on the opposite side of the Oise. It proved to be one flank of a 25-mile-wide hole in the Allied lines. Rather than sprint to the (abandoned) Channel coast, the Germans aimed instead for the Seine itself. Several bridges over this winding river were intact and nearly unguarded.

Even with little opposition, moving the great Imperial Army from the Somme to the Seine was an immense task. Compared to what we today call blitzkrieg, advancing 75 miles in 15 days was downright pedestrian. But with one flank secure and the other challenged only by the remnants of the British Army, the Germans had some time to spare. Crossing the Seine in force on April 25th, German dreams were soon to be realized. A bloody battle would be fought in Paris’s southern environs, but for the second time in a half century, the City of Light would fall to the Germans.

With a strong German force on both sides of the Seine as far south as Fontainebleau by the end of May, many Allied positions became untenable. A British Army, stiffened with the American divisions, retreated south through Normandy and Brittany. The French, retreating to the southeast, fought valiant rearguard actions on the Seine and around Troyes. But the great fortress at Verdun, held at the cost of 163,000 Poilus in 1916, would soon be abandoned. So would the northeast of France, the city of Nancy, and all of Alsace.

This advance, leaving German armies in control of half of French territory, came at the cost of time, materiel, and casualties. And it did little to slow the advance of the AEF, who arrived at a rate of 100,000 troops each month via ports on the Bay of Biscay. Precisely as the Germans feared, the Americans proved decisive. Moving quickly forward from bases near Bordeaux, they soon held a line stretching from the port of St. Malo as far east as Tours on the Loire River. The regrouped British stood fast on the south bank of this river, around Orleans, and controlled the critical Seine tributaries. The French formed a strong line in the Rhone valley, protected by mountains on both sides. By July, both sides began digging trenches again. By August, the systems were nearly as intricate as those in Flanders had been five months earlier. And there, they waited.

Figure 4 - German advance; New lines established

But we must not forget, the Western was not the only front in this war. We’ve said that we plan to make only small changes to the real timeline. The Italian advance at Vittorio Veneto would still have occurred. The great victory—nearly 500,000 soldiers of the multinational Austro-Hungarian Army taken prisoner—was just as great. Only ten days after the initial advance, the remainder of the once-great Austrian force laid down its arms. Rioting began in Vienna and Budapest. Austrian Emperor Charles I abdicated his throne. The Habsburg family had controlled much of Europe for more than 500 years.(11) Karl was the final sovereign.

This was a serious problem for Germany. A vast area to its southeast, the cauldron from which this whole war had begun, was controlled not by an ally but by mobs on the verge of ethnic war. On the other side of this was the Italian Army, a force of 1,500,000 riding a great victory. There was nothing but mountains separating them from Munich. Should they reach the Bavarian plains, the options were endless. At this point, the Germans (not to mention the British and French) decided the war had gone on long enough.

Figure 5 - Italian front, Fall 1918

The Italians were on the verge of a crushing victory. The Americans, despite having “lost” their front, were not in any sense defeated; that force was still growing and itching for a fight. But the casualties suffered by the French, English, and Germans left them in no position to continue. When these three powers agreed to an armistice, everybody else had little choice but to do the same. The cease fire began at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month.

Early in 1919, the former belligerents would meet in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam to negotiate what would be called the Treaty of Sanssouci.(12) This was still the era when great powers did not annex great pieces of each other’s territory (usually).(13) Still, the winners, Germany and Italy, would receive the spoils.

Belgium and Luxembourg, occupied by Germany for four years, were officially added to its sphere of influence. The King of the Belgians remained nominally independent, but the Duke of Luxembourg swore loyalty to the Emperor. The Netherlands, scrupulously neutral through the conflict, was not spared.(14) Queen Wilhelmina, now surrounded by Germany and her satellites, quickly joined this alignment. France gave up all rights to the provinces Alsace and Lorraine (which were enlarged); the Pas de Calais was demilitarized, and Germans were given leases on naval bases at three major Channel ports.(15)

The changes in Eastern Europe were even more dramatic. For the fourth time,(16) Poland was partitioned. Germany gained the populous, relatively industrialized western portion, as far as Warsaw and Lublin, as another official satellite. Latvia and Lithuania, both newly independent, also gained territory. The rump of Poland was disbanded and divided into a patchwork of duchies and small republics, a buffer state between Germany and the east.(17)

But the great changes to the map were in Central Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Collapse of the Ottoman Empire, in addition to the Austrian Empire, allowed Italy to reign supreme over the Mediterranean, just as it had 1500 years previously. Italy may have been a poor country relative to the other major powers, but great victories have a way of pulling a country together. For this reason, and because Germany had other issues, the Italians were permitted to do as they wished with the entire region.(18)

Victor Emmanuel III, King of Italy, proved himself more enlightened than his German counterpart.(19) In 1918, Italy was the only victor whose government had significant popular representation. The King unilaterally decided to go further, taking the armistice as an impetus to declare Italy a true constitutional monarchy, of which he would merely be caretaker until a government could form. Unlike the parties at Versailles in the real-life timeline, Victor Emmanuel divided his protectorates based on historical ethnic and cultural lines, rather than in his own best interests.(20) The map of the Balkans looked strikingly similar to the one of today. The new countries experienced the usual fits and starts that all nations face at their inception, but most soon formed stable democracies, republics, or constitutional monarchies.

The Middle East did not split nearly as cleanly. Ibn Saud successfully conquered Najd and the Hejaz, forming Saudi Arabia; Mustafa Kemal similarly took his rightful place as Father of the Turks. But in between, through the Jordan River valley and around the Fertile Crescent, warring nations, little more than clans, fought over what is today Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One modern nation that never comes into existence in our timeline is Israel.(21) The defeat of Britain meant the cancellation of the Balfour Declaration. The lack of a League of Nations meant no Palestine mandate, and prevented the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Aliyahs.(22)

We think about what happens next

The war was over and the spoils divided. The peace in our timeline had elements that were both more and less enlightened than those in the real world. The fact that virtually none of the fighting had occurred within her borders gave Germany no reason to pursue the sanctions that backfired in the real interwar era. On the other hand, with Wilson on the other side from the victors, there was no movement toward self-determination and no attempt at collective security.(23) This peace went far toward preserving the status quo ante: a Great Power fight focused on spheres of influence, as opposed to outright annexation of each others’ territory.