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1916: The Breaking Point

  • The Great War by Hunt Tooley

Tags U.S. HistoryWar and Foreign PolicyWorld History


The First World War was ferocious in its first years. But the combination of sustained and enormous losses of the enormous battles of 1916 and the strains on the home fronts brought the "deeper forces" to emerge, in the words of historian René Albrecht-Carrié. The number of enormous battles—and casualties—across the military theaters in the year 1916 staggers the imagination: Verdun, the Somme, Jutland, the Brusilov Offensive, the Siege of Kut, and five of the Isonzo front battles, as well as other actions. The death toll was barely fathomable. General Aleksei Brusilov's offensive alone, ended with a death toll (not casualty toll) of over a million men (when deaths from both sides are combined). These Brusilov deaths occurred over a period of just under four months.

But 1916 had its own logic, really. Stalemate was the hallmark of the Western Front and some other fronts, but in all theaters, a kind of larger stalemate had held sway already by 1915. On all fronts, 1915 was a period of intensive experimentation for breaking the deadlock: poison gas; undermining and explosion of enemy trenches; flamethrowers; proliferation of machine guns, trench mortars, and more. Above all, the dramatic rise in artillery shelling to prepare for breakthrough dominated the thinking of high commands. But breakthrough to "the green fields beyond" remained illusive nearly everywhere in 1915.

In the case of the Western Front, Allied representatives met at Chantilly, France, in early December 1915 to coordinate offensives for the coming year, all agreeing to attack on a large scale as soon as possible. The Germans got there first, however, and delivered a massive blow at Verdun. This disruption delayed the Allied attacks somewhat, but the British and French were able to launch the Somme Offensive on July 1, 1916.

The well-known human result on the Somme was slaughter.  More on that in weeks to come. But the result was also slaughter in these other terrible conflicts.

The changes resulting from this transition to enormously increased armaments and material production went far beyond the battlefield. Indeed, in this Higgsian crisis related to war emergency and war production, almost all belligerents made fundamental changes in the size and extent of state intervention into their societies, in particular in economies. Since the labor force available for making all the artillery shells had been reduced by war recruitment and conscription, governments drew whole new ranges of the population into munitions plants. Women, older people, teenagers, etc. Some munitions plants exploded because of espionage, others because of accidents on the part of the young, inexperienced, and tired munitions workers.

Men like David Lloyd George in Britain and Albert Thomas in France came to fore as ministers of munitions who could break the old limitations on government acquisition of private wealth through taxes, inflation, confiscation, etc. in order to produce the shells now thought to be needed in the war. The 1916 Hindenburg Program in Germany did the same but went much further in eroding individual rights and creating the total war system.

Although the war became even more ferocious before the end, 1916 stands as the year that finally broke the old world.

More analysis on the home front and battle front aspects of 1916 may be found in the new and expanded edition of my book, The Western Front (now retitled The Great War: Western Front and Home Front).


Contact T. Hunt Tooley

Hunt Tooley teaches History at Austin College. He is the author of The Great War: Western Front and Home Front. 

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