A Brief History on the First Year of the “Korean War”

The “Korean War” never really ended.  North and South Korea did not make peace and the rogue North Korean regime which has nuclear weapons, and a massive army, continuously engages in sabre rattling and provocations even nearly 70 years after the conflict ended.  As volatile as the situation seems now it was much worse in 1950-1953 when civil war between both Koreas pulled in America and China and arguably could have unleashed nuclear war.  What was suppose to be a quick conflict became America’s first major war of the “Cold War” and saw dramatic advances and retreats, major victories and setbacks, and ultimately stalemate within a single year.  However, despite its forgotten status and indecisive ending the “Korean War” arguably had a better legacy than most of America’s major wars of the 20th Century.

Korea is like the Poland of East Asia being sandwiched between great nations which have historically wanted to occupy it either as a buffer zone, or launch pad, against enemy states.  The Mongolians tried to invade Japan from Korea, China and Japan went to war over Korea in 1894-1895, Japan and Russia did the same in 1904-1905, and Mao was motivated to intervene in late 1950 during the “Korean War” when American forces approached the Yalu River.  From 1910 to 1945 Korea was a de-facto colonial possession of the Japan which used it to support her occupation of Manchuria in 1931, her brutal war of conquest against China from 1937-1945 and skirmishes against the Soviet Union.

Korea’s fate after “World War 2” was settled at the “Yalta Conference” in early 1945 where America offered the Soviet Union many enticements in the Far East to join the War against Japan which the former assumed would last a few years.  America would continue the island hopping campaign across the Pacific to Japan as well as intensify its firebombing campaign against Japanese cities and naval blockade to starve the Japanese islands of food and resources.  Meanwhile the Russians would attack the Japanese in Manchuria and advance down the Korean Peninsula to further tighten the stranglehold around Japan.

The Soviets invaded Manchuria and crushed the Japanese army there but Japan was forced to surrender unexpectedly via the late development of nuclear weapons which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 as the Soviet Union entered the war.  With Japanese forces surrendering en masse Russia and America rushed to liberate Japanese occupied territory and it was arbitrarily agreed to split their occupational zones in Korea at the 38th parallel.  As such Korea was divided at this line between what became a communist regime in North Korea backed by the Soviets and a pro-west dictatorship backed by the Americans in South Korea.

With the “Cold War” heating up in Europe, China, Vietnam and elsewhere from 1945-49 Korea was not preordained to become a major flashpoint between Communism and the West.  America and the Soviet Union were concentrated on Europe and the Chinese Communist Party had just taken over China and were focused on consolidating their rule.  However, the North Korean regime was obsessed with reunifying the Korean Peninsula and wanted a green light from the Soviets and Chinese to do so via military means.  This was given as America seemed unlikely to fight for Korea as they had provided little military aid and resources to South Korea versus the considerable modern forces the Soviets built up in North Korea.  America’s failure to include South Korea in their pacific defensive perimeter as articulated by Secretary of State Dean Acheson in early 1950 probably supported this impression.  Thus the Communist Bloc gambled North Korea would swallow up her southern neighbour without serious complaint, or retribution, from America and her allies.

The “Korean War” began June 25, 1950 when the much stronger forces of North Korea invaded South Korea.  The North Korean forces made quick headway against southern forces who fell back in disarray.  Against Soviet expectations America joined the war to help South Korea because they did not want to give the impression America would tolerate blatant communist aggression.  However, the small US forces sent initially from Japan suffered reverses against the well equipped North Korean forces and fell back as well.  Soon only a small bridgehead around Pusan on South Korea’s coast was all that remained as many expected a Dunkirk like situation where American forces would retreat to Japan in defeat.  

Yet things began to tell against North Korea.  America quickly gained aerial supremacy and started providing close air support for allied forces as well as interdicting North Korean supplies.  Additionally, the North Koreans began to suffer logistical difficulties as their lines of communication became severely stretched during their impressive advances.  American and UN reinforcements also slowly trickled into what was left of South Korea to hold the line.  After several close calls during aggressive North Korean attacks against the Pusan perimeter the US and South Korean forces rallied and managed to prevent what was left of South Korea from falling.

What really doomed the North Korean campaign was America’s daring amphibious assault at Inchon in September 1950.  This was risky given the treacherous tides around Inchon, the fact the area was far behind enemy lines, and lack of intelligence regarding the area.  However, General MacArthur’s gamble paid off as the operation went brilliantly and defeated the few local North Korean forces as most of their army was fighting around the Pusan perimeter.  MacArthur remains a controversial figure in military history but he deserves credit in this case.

The results were nearly instantaneous as the North Korean forces in South Korea became cut off from support and resupply and were quickly routed while American forces liberated South Korea.  Of the 130,000 North Korean soldiers who crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea only 30,000 managed to retreat to safety.  At this point American and South Korean forces could have stopped at the 38th parallel and declared a ceasefire.  However, the UN and American government gave MacArthur the green light to cross the border and invade North Korea.  

While MacArthur is generally blamed for the subsequent Chinese intervention and expansion of the war this is not completely fair.  Rather than order MacArthur to halt at the 38th parallel while they debated their options the American government and UN goaded him on.  Unlike today in 1950 the 38th parallel was not an internationally recognized border and Truman and his advisors were tempted by the prospect of unifying Korea under a pro-American state and to roll back communism there.  Therefore Defence Secretary George Marshall told MacArthur to be “unhampered” by moving across the de facto Border, the UN set up a commission of re-unification and re-habilitation for Korea, and South Korean forces initially crossed the 38th parallel to be followed by American forces a week later.

Meanwhile China became nervous as American forces advanced up the Korean Peninsula.  While MacArthur had initially been told to only have South Korean forces near the Chinese border this was later relaxed as American officials assumed Chinese warnings about intervening in the war if allied forces kept moving north were bluffs.  This would prove to be a grave miscalculation.  Mao Zedong and the CCP had only just taken over China in 1949 after decades of fighting against the often western backed Chinese Nationalists as well as Japanese forces in “World War 2.”  As previously noted Japan used Korea as a spring board to occupy Manchuria in 1931 and support her war against China from 1937-45.  As such it is understandable that Mao was afraid not only of a potential unified Korea allied to America but that it could also potentially serve as a base for America to attack Communist China.

On the other hand Mao and the Communist Bloc were hardly innocent bystanders.  The Soviet Union and Communist China had given North Korea the necessary material support and green light to invade South Korea while America had more or less forgotten South Korea to focus on Europe.  North Korea and the Communist Bloc started the war and while Truman made the decision to come to South Korea’s aid there were never any American plans to expand the war into China.  Admittedly MacArthur was tempted by this but there was never any real chance of America doing this as the war came as a surprise to Truman and Americans wanted the war ended as quickly and cheaply as possible.  Given that America’s defence budget in 1950 was a mere tenth of what it had been in 1945 America would not have been able to seriously attack China even if she had wanted to.

In many histories of the conflict MacArthur gets a disproportionate amount of blame instead of American policymakers, and the UN, that did not adequately gauge the likely consequences of crossing the 38th parallel which obviously worried the Chinese.  In the event despite China’s recent turbulent history, and wariness of Western powers, Mao’s advisors were generally against intervention in the war but he overruled them and gambled America would not escalate the war unduly if China entered the conflict.  This suggests a more prescient allied policy regarding Korea and stopping at the 38th Parallel might have had a good chance of ending the war in late 1950.  On the other hand since Mao was tempted to intervene in Korea even before the UN forces crossed the 38th parallel and made the decision to do so well before these forces came close to the Yalu river suggests that both sides did not do as much as they could have to avoid escalating the conflict.  While Sun Tzu recommends in “The Art of War” to “know the enemy and know yourself” it is clear America and China in 1950 knew themselves but not each other, especially regarding intentions.

Either way Chinese forces, lightly equipped and mobile, mostly escaped American detection while being mobilized near the Yalu river in late 1950 and after being unleashed produced a series of reserves on American, and allied, forces and made them retreat from North Korea and much of South Korea once more.  America’s mechanized forces were relatively spread out, their lines of communication stretched, and at a disadvantage in North Korea’s broken terrain while the Chinese foot borne army utilized their numerical superiority, and mobility, to exploit the terrain to often surround and ambush American forces.   However, while Chinese forces deserve credit for inflicting reverses on a superior equipped and technological army the extent of the damage has often been exaggerated.  Certainly battles such as “Chosin Reservoir” suggests that parts of American retreat (especially regarding American marines) were conducted with considerable skill, the Chinese took disproportionate casualties throughout this campaign and whatever defeats the US Army suffered it was never routed or lost a significant amount of prisoners.  During the whole war approximately 7000 American soldiers were captured and this was a small number compared to the other major combatants as well as the total number of American soldiers who served in Korea.

Perhaps the worst American losses were political and symbolic.  Not for the first time in history was it promised American forces would be home by Christmas and given North Korea collapsed in the autumn of 1950 this did not seem impossible.  But China’s intervention in the war upset this expectation and as American forces fell back, and suffered significant losses, the American people were shocked.  In this period MacArthur failed in his capacity; not only did he fail to foresee and prepare for Chinese intervention (having dismissed numerous intelligence reports) but his conduct of the American retreat was not stellar either as he alternated between despair and arrogance.  Luckily for MacArthur Truman did not sack him as he felt American soldiers in Korea, as well as the American people, would be demoralized and lose confidence in the war effort if such a legend was fired during an ongoing battle.

Unfortunately instead of being grateful MacArthur committed one of the gravest sins a military commander can do in wartime:  Publicly criticizing his political superiors’ policies.  MacArthur was by all accounts an egotistical primal Donna used to getting his way and being publicly adored.  At this point he forgot his place and criticized Truman for not giving him the power to expand the war against China and do measures he felt would improve the military situation.  Yet whereas MacArthur’s ideas would have made sense in an expanded war against China Truman wanted to limit the war and de-escalate the conflict.  Unsurprisingly America, and her allies, were not keen on starting World War 3 over Korea and disagreed with MacArthur’s suggestions.  Therefore MarArthur was sacked for his impropriety and replaced by General Matthew Ridgway who had a solid military career, had done an excellent job managing the retreat of American forces, and was politically astute not to question the American government regarding policy.

In the spring of 1951 things looked bleak for America and South Korea as Chinese forces crossed the 38th parallel, took Seoul and kept advancing south.  However, Communist forces suffered logistical difficulties once more as their lines of communication became stretched, America and her allies continued bringing in more manpower and resources, and Ridgway revitalized his forces.  If MacArthur defeated the North Koreans by a brilliant maneuver at Inchon Ridgway would stop the Chinese cold with attrition via firepower.  Chinese forces may have done well against complacent American forces that were dispersed, and at the end of their supply lines in North Korea, but the farther south they advanced the harder resistance became.  The numerous but lightly armed Chinese forces soon became cannon fodder against reorganized American forces with prodigious firepower from a menagerie of armour, artillery and airpower.

Thus for the fourth time in the war an army was defeated and forced to retreat across the Korean Peninsula which became accustomed to misery, suffering and death.  Ridgway, more methodical and sensible than MacArthur, moved carefully and managed to liberate Seoul and advance up to a line roughly along the 38th Parallel.  There his forces dug in, consolidated and waited for an expected Chinese counter-offensive.

At this point the Chinese misread the situation as badly as MacArthur had in late 1950 and felt confident they could attack and repeat their successes of the previous autumn and winter.  Unfortunately for them with a few exceptions such as the eventual over running of the brave Gloucestershire Regiment in the “Battle of Imjin River” their attacks were broken up by superior firepower and well manned defences by America and her allies.  Given China did not have the industry, expertise and technology in 1951 point to create a modern military to tackle these obstacles there was no chance she could break the deadlock.  On the other side America had plenty of these assets but not enough troops, or political capital, among her populace or leaders to make the requisite efforts, or sacrifices, needed to break the stalemate either.  The only conventional power that could have broken the stalemate were the strong armoured forces of the Soviet Union which probably could have intervened and kicked American forces out of Korea but at the risk of seeing American nukes falling on Moscow and Leningrad.

As such after China’s failed attempt to win a decisive victory in the spring of 1951 both sides knew the war would probably end in stalemate.  What is really absurd, and sad, is that the war continued on, although on a much smaller pace and intensity, for two years.  There were many skirmishes, America napalmed Korean cities to ash, and both Korean regimes committed many war crimes and atrocities but the last two years became increasingly anti-climatic.  Eventually the death of Josef Stalin, China and North Korea conceded on a few negotiation points, and subtle American threats regarding nuclear weapons finally resulted in a ceasefire that effectively ended the war but did not lead to peace between North and South Korea.  Regarding prisoner exchanges over 20,000 Communist prisoners refused to be repatriated versus 300 South Koreans and 20 Western soldiers which perhaps illustrates even at this early stage of the “Cold War” that Communism was not seen as a pleasant form of governance.

Although the war did last 3 years most of the crucial events and fighting occurred in the first year.  This period saw incredible advances and retreats up and down the Korean Peninsula.  Like the “Western Desert Campaign” of 1940-1943 territory switched hands multiple times as North Korea initially overran all of South Korea except the Pusan perimeter only to be defeated at Inchon and lose all but a small corner of North Korea to American and allied forces.  Then China attacked America’s over extended forces and pushed them out of North Korea, took Seoul and was seemingly on the verge of overrunning South Korea as well.  However, American forces were reinforced, rallied and then first stopped the Chinese advance and then counter-attacked, liberated Seoul a second time and regained much of the line at the 38th parallel.  Finally China launched a fifth round of major fighting by attempting to gain a decisive victory and once this failed stalemate was inevitable.  Therefore in less than a year the fortunes of war turned no less than 4 times between the respective sides, favouring one and then the other in numerous successions.  This is a rarity in military history.

Pyongyang was taken by American forces then re-taken by Chinese forces while Seoul changed hands four times!  Unsurprisingly most battles, serious fighting and casualties occurred during this first year.  Forty percent of all allied casualties occurred under MacArthur’s brief tenure which did not include China’s “Fifth Phase Offensive” in the spring of 1951 or Ridgway’s subsequent counterattacks which pushed the Chinese north of much of the 38th Parallel.  Meanwhile North Korean forces had been gutted during the first year and as China became more sensible regarding tactics her forces suffered less casualties in the last two years as well.  Thus the period from late June 1950 to July 1951 witnessed at least more than 50% of all military casualties during the war.  

After this the tempo of the war slowed down and later events of the conflict are not rememberer as well.  Even military history enthusiasts who know the main battles and events during the first part of the war would be hard pressed to detail the chronology from mid-1951 onwards.  Given after mid-1951 no impressive advances or victories occurred this is understandable but also regrettable.  Perhaps it is one reason why the “Korean War,” sandwiched between America’s finest hour in “World War 2” and her ultimate humiliation and failure in Vietnam, is a mostly forgotten conflict.

What about the results of the war?  Unsurprisingly everyone claimed victory.  America claimed victory despite losing her chance to unify both Koreas and China claimed victory although failing to overrun South Korea.  South Korea claimed victory despite much of her territory being overrun four times while North Korea claimed victory even though her invasion failed, she had to be bailed out by China and most of her urban centres were levelled by bombs and napalm (America dropped more bombs on North Korea than she used in the “Pacific War”).  As such Jan Halliday and Bruce Cumings’ observation that “Each side proclaims that it won, yet each actually seems to feel that it lost” initially appears indisputable.

In an operational sense the war resulted in stalemate as neither side decisively defeated the other and territorial changes were minor (both sides roughly occupied the 38th Parallel again but the Americans and South Korea gained a bit more territory overall).

China was able to present the war as a victory to her people by claiming she had saved North Korea from occupation as well as fighting the American superpower to a standstill.  Certainly North Korea was secured as a buffer zone to protect China against foreign aggression and China’s reputation was enhanced by the war.  Meanwhile Americans were less satisfied by the war’s outcome as they were disappointed by the stalemate, heavy casualties, and indecisive results so soon after “World War 2.”  Indeed Harry Truman’s approval rating fell as low as 22% during the war and was only 32% by the time he left office.

These are among the lowest approval ratings of American Presidents in modern times.  Only Nixon had it worse with a 22% approval rating in January 1974 and 24% when he left office.  George Bush Junior did better than both with an approval rating that never went below 25% even during the worst days of the “Iraq War” and left office with a 34% rating.  Even the erratic, divisive Donald Trump has so far beat these figures with initial approval ratings hovering in the 40s but admittedly falling into the lower 30s recently.  Ironically Lyndon Johnson, the architect of America’s most divisive war in Vietnam beats all of them as his lowest approval rating was at 34% but he left office with 49%.  To be fair to Truman he is well regarded in more recent times (much more so then the other Presidents listed here) and is generally cited among the top ten most effective American Presidents.

Despite Truman’s poor approval ratings America and South Korea were the real winners in terms of strategic objectives and long term effects.  The “Korean War” was an attempt by North Korea, and her communist supporters, to change the status quo in East Asia by force whereas the main strategic goals of South Korea and America were generally defensive (the abortive effort to reunify Korea in late 1950 being mostly opportunistic).  Therefore a stalemate technically benefited American and South Korean interests.  Seen from the context of 1950 where Russia had just acquired nuclear weapons, the CCP had recently triumphed in the “Chinese Civil War,” and where Communist insurgencies were popping up from Malaysia to the Philippines the “Korean War” gave America a chance to draw the line in the Far East.  From 1950 onwards America responded more to Communist actions including defending Taiwan, supporting nations against communist insurgencies, intervening more in the war in Indochina and tripling her defence budget.  If the Communist Bloc hoped the “Korean War” would gain them an advantage they clearly miscalculated.  To be fair this was a double edged sword considering the end game in Vietnam but with the eventual “Sino-Soviet Split” (whose genesis arguably dates from the “Korean War”) and end result of the “Cold War” no one doubts America and her allies won in the end.

Likewise for South Korea the war was terrible and tragic but at least she escaped the conflict free from North Korean occupation.  Fast forward several decades later and South Korea’s dictatorship transferred to a democracy while the nation became rich and prosperous.

Ironically given she did the most to provoke the conflict North Korea was the biggest loser in the “Korean War.”  By failing to overrun South Korea, her cities reduced to ruin, becoming a virtual vassal state of Communist China, and most of her captured soldiers refusing to return home, North Korea’s results in the war were less than satisfactory.  As North Korea continues to be the last holdout of Stalinism, and is associated with concentration camps, famine and oppression no reasonable or objective person could credit her with victory of any sort.

What of the costs of war?  While the “Vietnam War” is disproportionately cited as a bloody, dirty war the mostly forgotten conflict in Korea was worse.  Whereas the “Vietnam War” saw 2-3 million casualties in a decade of war the conflict in Korea saw 3-4 million casualties in 3 years (with a disproportionate amount caused in the first year).  As in most conflicts casualty figures are varied and controversial but there is no doubt China and North Korea suffered the worst casualties whereas South Korean casualties were a bit lower and America and other combatants got off much lighter.  

Chinese casualties were almost exclusively militarily and are estimated between 400,000 and 900,000 dead, wounded or captured.  North Korea probably lost between 650,000-750,000 military casualties while South Korea likely suffered 600,000 military casualties (although some estimates suggest approximately 900,000).  Both Koreas had disproportionate civilians casualties numbering perhaps 1 million for the South and maybe as high as 1.5 million for the North (in the North mostly due to American bombing and privations and in the South due to most of the land war being fought on her soil).  American casualties were roughly 50,000 dead which was similar to Vietnam.  America’s UN allies and a few Soviets airmen should not be forgotten but their casualties were minuscule versus the main combatants.

Finally we should compare the “Korean War” to America’s other major wars of the 20th Century.  Regarding both World Wars, Vietnam and the “Gulf War” only “World War 2” can be said to have benefited America as much as the “Korean War.”  “World War 1” boosted America in the short term economically but America quickly withdrew into isolationism, the subsequent “Great Depression” set back America by a decade and she found herself fighting Germany and Japan twenty years later.  The “Vietnam War” was not only a political failure for America but severely undermined her confidence in war making which she has never really regained.  Meanwhile America’s best military showing in the “Gulf War” did not result in the expected settlement of Middle Eastern issues in her favour but instead helped usher in decades of terrorism, wars and instability which still plagues the region, and much of the world, today.  Despite the looney rogue state in Pyongyang the legacy of the “Korean War” appears favourable to these outcomes indeed given the Far East has been relatively stable and growing more prosperous, and democratic, ever since.

The “Korean War” was America’s first major war of the “Cold War” and despite the dramatic advances and retreats, triumphs and tragedies, disappointments and stalemate America and South Korea can claim victory.  The Communist Bloc wanted to change the status quo in East Asia with this war and by meeting the challenge, and holding South Korea, America contained communism in the region and reassured her allies.  The war was disproportionately bloody, even more so than the “Vietnam War,” but since South Korea is a prosperous democracy while the North is a Stalinist nightmare it is clear the South benefited more in the end.  Thus despite being America’s forgotten war of the 20th Century the conflict in Korea had a better legacy than Vietnam, the “Gulf War” and “World War 1” whose long term affects were more mixed and less beneficial to American interests.


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Yes Germany Did Lose “World War 1”

“World War 1” is among the most controversial conflicts of the 20th Century. Regarding causes, prosecution, and legacy there exists no overall consensus in the academic community. The question regarding whether or not Germany was really defeated in the war is one example. Whereas most scholars agree Germany lost decisively there is still a school of thought that questions this. Citing that the German Army was not completely destroyed in 1918, that Entente forces never sat foot on German soil in 1918, and that Germany had massive territorial gains in Eastern Europe, and Russia, at the end of the war this school of thought suggests Germany did not decisively lose the conflict. However, while such claims have some validity there is little doubt given Germany’s desperate straits in 1918, and the fact her leaders were so desperate to accept such an unfavourable armistice, there is no doubt Germany had little chance to continue the war for much longer. For various military, economic, political and other issues, Germany decisively lost “World War 1.”

While apologists of German militarism in “World War 1” tend to point out factors such as those listed above they forget more decisive factors. These include that the German Army was indeed decisively defeated in battle, all of Germany’s allies had surrendered by the end of 1918, the British blockade of Germany severely compromised Germany’s homefront and economy, the German Navy had mutinied, revolutions and uprisings were breaking out across Germany, her leaders like the Kaiser and General Ludendorff had sued for peace and then fled abroad to avoid the consequences of German aggression, and Germany knowingly accepted the armistice terms in 1918 despite its harshness.

Perhaps the biggest myth is that the German Army was never beaten in the field during “World War 1.” The German spring, and summer, offensives in 1918 arguably had a chance to defeat France, and Britain, at key points but by the end of the year the German Army was hanging on by a thread. During the last months of the war the Entente powers on the Western Front launched a series of attacks, known as the “Hundred Days Offensive” which decisively broke the back of the German army. In three months the Entente powers captured approximately 385,000 German prisoners, as well as nearly 6600 artillery pieces, besides inflicting scores of killed and wounded, upon the German Army. These stats are not only significant in themselves, but they illustrate the point that the German Army, like most armies, only suffered such a lopsided amount of prisoners, and artillery pieces, when they were being routed. Such a military phenomenon is confirmed by not only countless military studies, but the great military theorist Clausewitz who noted “guns and prisoners have always counted as the real trophies of victory: they are also its measure, for they are tangible evidence of its scale. They are a better index to the degree of superior morale”, of the enemy army he meant, “than any other factors.”

German losses also include considerable territory, and the overrunning of the vaunted Hindenburg line. While critics of Entente forces point out that German advances during the spring of 1918 took far more land then all Entente offensive on the Western Front since late 1914 to autumn 1917 they forget that not only did the Entente recover the losses from this offensives, but considerable more territory in Belgium and France by the end of the war. Had the Germans not pleaded for an armistice, and the war continued passed November 1918, the Entente would have entered Germany probably sometime in early 1919. Meanwhile the Hindenburg line, which at the time was the greatest defensive line constructed in history, and which the Germans hoped would stop the Entente forces, was breached relatively quickly by the British Army, at which point Germany fell back irrevocably towards the German border. Critics of the Entente point out that the Entente forces never reached German soil in 1918, and that the war on the Western Front was fought in Belgium and France. However, there is no doubt had the war continued the Entente, backed by millions of fresh American soldiers, and thousands of new tanks and airplanes, would have overrun Germany in 1919.

German military losses in 1918 were simply too high for them to continue the war for long. Perhaps most damning is that whereas in the spring of 1918 the Germans outnumbered the Entente on the Western front 192 to 156 divisions by the armistice the Entente forces had almost twice as many soldiers as the German forces who had been decisively routed. As seen by the chart below the Entente rifle strength of their forces started out inferior in early 1918 but dominated the Germans by the end of the war by nearly 2 to 1.

However, German military defeat on the Western Front was only one part of Germany’s overall defeat. Germany also lost all of her allies in late 1918. Of course one could suggest that German allies like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Turkey and Bulgaria were obviously not in the same league of stronger powers like France, Russia, an America, but whatever their weaknesses Germany’s allies were vital for Germany in many ways. Bulgaria gave the Central Powers (Germany and her allies) the edge in the Balkans and was important in defeating Serbia in 1915, Romania in 1916, containing the Entente forces at Salonica, as well as acting as a bridgeway to Turkey, and the Middle East, for German resources and military power. Turkey distracted considerable Entente forces away from the European battles by adding 3 more fronts to the war (against the Russians in the Caucasus, and the British in the Levant and Palestine; four if you include Gallipoli). Turkish involvement in the war also hampered Russia by closing the Bosporus straits, and preventing Entente material aid from reaching Russia in significant quantities. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, perhaps the most criticized, and least reliable, ally of Germany was still more of an asset for the Central Powers than a liability. She may have been often humiliated, and defeated, by Russian and Serbian forces, but she held down countless of their forces, and this should not be dismissed as there is no way way Germany could have held out against France, Britain and the whole Russian army. Besides which the Austrian army often fought better than is thought, especially when given German support and leadership, and the Austrian force fighting against Italy contained the latter nearly 4 years, inflicting prohibitive costs, despite being severely outnumbered and outgunned.

No German allies would have meant no fighting fronts against Entente forces in the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, the Levant, Galicia and the Carpathians, or the Balkans. It means no Austrian, Bulgarian, and Turkish manpower to fight the war. The Central Powers mobilized approximately 20-22 million soldiers during the war, with Germany providing roughly half of this. It is hard to suggest that losing half of a war alliance’s manpower would not be detrimental to its war effort. It meant that all of the Entente manpower and resources, already at an advantage, could have been brought against Germany. In addition to the forces the Entente powers had to devote to contain Germany’s allies the Entente also often devoted too many others to these fronts, as well in campaigns they hoped would win the war despite the fact it could only be done by defeating Germany. Germany was not propped up by her allies (as Lloyd George thought), her allies were propped up by her; Austria had to be saved from a Russian forces from 1914-16, and Italy in 1917, via infusions of German forces, and Turkey needed German arms, and material, to continue the war. There was simply never a time during the war where Germany needed Austrian, Bulgarian or Turkish forces to save them from defeat; the opposite was the case. It is no coincidence that Germany’s allies collapsed in late 1918 after Germany had focused as much of her armed might on the Western Front as possible, thus denying her allies German resources, especially divisions, to save them from Entente offensives.

Thus in late 1918 when her allies fell one by one Germany’s chances of continuing the war became worse and worse. Bulgaria fell first in late September when the Entente Salonica force finally did something useful and attacked forcefully enough to defeat the Bulgarian army. This had a knock on effect because with Bulgaria collapsing the Entente forces from Salonica could now advance towards Constantinople. Given that British forces had also crushed Turkish forces in the Levant, and Mesopotamia, and Turkey had few soldiers left, meant Turkey had little choice but to surrender. Finally, Austria decisively lost the war in Italy in late October when her army, starving, demoralized and no longer loyal, disintegrated in the face of a strong Italian attack. By early November Germany’s allies were gone. While it is foolish to suggest that British forces in the Middle East, or Entente ones in the Balkans or Italy, posed a direct, or at least, immediate, threat to Germany, and could have invaded her from these areas considering the topographical and logistical factors, the collapse of Germany’s allies meant that all Entente resources would eventually be focused on her, while the morale effect of losing all of ones’ allies could not have been pleasant either.

Then there was the British blockade of Germany. In a predominately land war with trenches, attrition and massive casualties for a few miles, or meters, of gain per offensive the naval war can be forgotten or downplayed. However, the blockade was, eventually, a major factor in German defeat. After the British Empire Germany was the second biggest economy in 1914. Given that naval trade provided a disproportionate amount of resources, revenue and especially food for Germany it is obvious she would suffer eventually when fighting a superior maritime power like Britain. While Britain, and most of her allies, received countless weapons, resources and supplies via naval trade Germany, and her allies, became more denied of all of these, despite overrunning some countries, and territory, and getting some trade from neutrals like Sweden, Holland and Denmark. At the beginning of 1915, German imports had fallen by 55% from pre-war levels. This would only get worse as the British blockade became more effective at limiting neutral shipping, especially American, from reaching Germany.

Besides bland economic considerations a few other factors are worth mentioning. The British blockade of Germany resulted in between 400,000 and 800,000 German civilians deaths during the war. This was potentially more costly than the combined bomber offensive against Germany in “World War 2.” Both are obviously not proud points the Entente, or Allies, talk about but they nevertheless had decisive effects. Besides the potential nearly million German civilian deaths from the blockade has to be added the General starvation, and morale decline, of the German population. During the winter of 1916-17, often referred to by Germans as the “Turnip Winter,” food scarcity was so bad that the German diet consisted mostly of turnips. It also meant German military power would suffer. With fewer resources, money, and weapons, and bad civilian morale German arms suffered. Germany had far less planes, artillery, tanks, trucks and other war assets by 1918 compared to her enemies on the Western Front. Even the German Army’s food situation was terrible by 1918 and this became decisive when during the “German Spring Offensives” in 1918 German soldiers stopped to loot British, and French, food and wine, stores because they had been so deprived of good food and other luxuries. It obviously did not help German soldiers’ morale when their leaders had suggested the British, and French, were suffering just as many privations only to realize this was a lie. On the Entente side none of the major powers suffered such starvation, misery, or desperation even when German submarines were devastating British merchant shipping in 1917.

In the last days of the war the German Navy also mutinied. Told by German leaders to fight the Royal Navy in a do or die fashion the German sailors had had enough and refused. No doubt the already starving, demoralized, sailors were not keen on fighting a Royal Navy that had reformed since Jutland and was now backed by American naval power. The result would have been the unequivocal destruction of the German High Seas Fleet. Instead the German navy first mutinied, then seized Kiel and other cities, and helped spread revolution, and uprisings, across Germany. Such mutiny was unprecedented in German and Prussian military history. Even during the Nazis’ worst excesses, and German defeats, in “World War 2” no sizeable German forces rebelled.

This brought chaos to the German home front as Bavaria declared independence, German workers and soldiers formed soviet style councils which took over many cities, and some German army units mutinied and took control of the Rhine crossings. This helped to bring down the Kaiser, and the militarist government, in Berlin to be followed by a weak civilian government. It should be noted that the Entente refused to negotiate with Germany as long as the Kaiser remained in power.

Therefore the Kaiser was told in no uncertain terms, by his generals no less, that he should abdicate and let the civilians make peace with the Entente. Thus the Kaiser, whose misguided ambitions, and foreign policy, brought the rival British, French and Russian empires into an alliance against Germany, and who did so much to provoke the war, fled Germany and escaped justice. He would be offered asylum in 1940, ironically by Churchill of all people, when the Nazis invaded Holland but refused. Meanwhile Ludendorff, the German army’s de-facto military leader in 1918, and virtual dictator of Germany, also fled to Sweden. It is only fair to note that both of these men wanted unlimited sacrifice from their soldiers, and the German home front, and wanted them to fight to the end, but ultimately fled to save their skin. While no one likes to compare Hitler favourable to anyone at least he stayed in Berlin at the end of the war in 1945.

Such was the state of Germany in November, 1918. Vast amounts of German soldiers, and artillery pieces, being captured, the Germans army went from outnumbering the Entente forces by a significant margin to being outnumbered nearly 2 to 1 itself, all while falling back and losing the greatest amount of territory on the Western Front during the entire war (including the Hindenburg line). Usually when an army surrenders countless soldiers, and artillery, to its enemy, loses numerical superiority quickly after having previously enjoying it, and has to abandon considerable territory, as well as its key defensive line, it is considered a decisive military defeat. Yet the apologists of the German army disagree. Somehow the Germans could have recruited enough German soldiers from a manpower pool that had been bled white to fight, and amass enough military means from a nation starved of money, and resources, due to the British blockade to fight an Entente army that would have had millions of British, French and American soldiers, and 1000s of tanks, planes, and artillery if the war had gone into 1919.

Somehow a country that had been reduced by starvation, and despair, via naval blockade by 1918, which lost all of her allies in the same year, which saw the mutiny of her navy, uprisings and revolution spread across her home front, and the collapse of her unstable monarchy and militaristic government, did not lose the war according to bitter German Generals, and apologists for German militarism ever since. In fact very few countries have suffered such decisive defeats in war as Germany did in “World War 1.” The fact that the German military leaders, despite what they said in their memories and later on, literally begged for an armistice, and accepted its harsh terms, despite leaving Germany defenceless proves this.

The Entente’s armistice terms were devastating, uncompromising and were dictated to the German envoys in early November 1918, who were given no option to negotiate any of the relevant points. Some of the harshest terms included:

Germany had to abandon all occupied territory in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Alsace-Lorraine within 2 weeks.

The Rhineland was to be demilitarized by the Germans, and Entente forces would occupy bridgeheads on the Rhine itself to occupy part of German territory.

Germany would have to abandon all territory taken from Russia, as well as renounce the unfavourable treaties she had forced upon Russia and Romania. This was a massive blow to the German military elite which naively thought Germany might be able to keep her eastern gains.

The Lion-share of the German fleet would be interned in Entente ports.

The German army would have to hand over 5000 artillery guns (remember it had also already lost nearly 7000 in the last 3 months of the war), 25,000 machine guns and even 2000 warplanes. 5000 trucks, 150,000 rail cars, and 5000 locomotives, would also be given to the Entente.

The Naval Blockade would continue until a peace treaty was signed.

Germany was held responsible for the war and would pay considerable reparations for its cost.

While these terms did not destroy Germany as an independent state, and in the long run did not fatally weaken Germany in terms of territory, resources and population, they did fatally neutralize what was left of German military power in 1918. Hindenburg, what was left of the military elite, as well as the new civilian government in Germany, knew the armistice as presented would leave Germany defenceless. However, given that the Entente would not negotiate any of the terms, and since Germany was tearing itself apart, they had no choice but to accept the armistice and end the war.

Finally, it is not superfluous to remember Clausewitz’s famous maxim that “war is nothing but a continuation of politics by other means.” War is fought for political goals and the attainment, or denial, of such goals are a big part in determining which side wins. Of the Entente side Britain, France, America and Italy generally accomplished their war aims, albeit often at terrible human and financial cost. Britain prevented the English channel ports from falling into enemy hands, effectively guaranteed Belgium’s freedom, neutralized the growing threat of German naval power, and maintained the balance of power in Europe. France liberated the territory Germany took in 1914, regained Alsace-Lorraine, avenged the “Franco-Prussian War,” and replaced Germany as the strongest military power in Europe until 1940. America’s goals of a Wilsonian peace that would bring a more free, and fair, world obviously did not bear fruit but given that America replaced Britain as the foremost financial power during the war, and given American rising clout in international opinion meant that America gained the most from the war with hindsight. Italy effectively annexed the Italian speaking territories she coveted from Austria, and saw the dismemberment of her Austrian enemy’s empire, but was frustrated in other areas by British and French false promises. It is worth mentioning that Russia did not have a good war, lost more men, and territory, that any other power, suffered revolution and the beginning of communism that would plagued her for decades. However, Russian despair did not compensate for Germany, or her allies, failures.

What about the political goals of the Central Powers?

Bulgaria, who joined the war to avenge losses in the “Second Balkan war,” take territory in the Balkans, and become that region’s greatest power, had nothing to show in the end for her efforts but considerable losses of men, and territory, which were disproportionately detrimental for a small power like herself. Turkey’s ambitions to stop the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and acquire land against Russia in the Caucasus, and the British in the Middle East were also effectively quashed. Britain conquered the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon and Syria) as well as Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), the Ottoman Empire surrendered in October 1918 and her capital was invested by Entente troops, and any territory the Turks gained against Russia had to be evacuated after the war. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire, perhaps the country most responsible for starting the war, even more than Germany, was effectively destroyed by the conflict. Unable to defeat either Russia, or Serbia, the Austrians relied on Germany to prop them up constantly throughout the war. Ironically by the Spring of 1918 it seemed as though Austria’s political goals had been accomplished; Serbia had been conquered, Russia stymied and kicked out of the war, and Italy beaten back and contained. However, a few months later the Austrian army collapsed, her various peoples’ had rebelled, or declared independence, and what remained of Austria after 1919 was a small country of little geopolitical significance.

What of German political aims and results? While on one hand it is debatable what the German political, and military, elite wanted to accomplish, on the other hand it is easy enough to determine their basic goals. This included Preemption against Russian military, and economic, power that they felt would become unassailable in the near future. It also included either reducing France to a vassal state, or at least to an insignificant military threat against her, backing up Austria against Serbia, and potentially Russia in 1914. Certainly German war aims included breaking out of the real, or imagined, German view of being encircled by hostile powers all around her, as well as not only remaining the strongest power in Europe, but effectively dominating the continent.

To be fair Germany accomplished her goal against Russia; while the latter had been growing stronger each year the war stopped this and by 1917 Russia’s economy was in shambles, her military scattered and routed, her political system overturned, and much of her territory and population overran and occupied. This set back Russia years, maybe decades, and it would take until the 1940s for her to pose a real threat to Germany again. However, Germany failed miserably in her other goals. French independence, and military power, was not crushed, the Austrian Empire was destroyed, Germany not only failed to break out of her encirclement but lost her military power and suffered Entente occupation of the Rhineland. Needless to say Germany was not only not the strongest power in Europe by 1919 but far from dominating it. The Entente powers more or less accomplished their political aims of the war, but Germany and her allies unequivocally failed to accomplish theirs.

Germany lost “World War 1” decisively. In terms of military, political, economic, and morale, she lost in every regard. Germany’s Army was beaten, her allies deserted her, the German people became starved, hopeless and engaged in revolt, her navy mutinied and even her strongest leaders, the Kaiser and Ludendorff, fled abroad at the end of the conflict while her war aims clearly failed. Germany was not stabbed in the back by a weak kneed Homefront in 1918 with her army undefeated. In fact the army had been so defeated by the autumn of 1918 that her leaders, including Ludendorff, panicked and suggested an armistice to protect Germany before she was overrun. Germany’s military leadership, and the Kaiser, fled, and willingly gave over power, to a novice, and hesitant civilian government, that had to make peace with the Entente. In no way did the civlilian leadership in Germany challenge, or coerce, the militarists to sue for peace, the exact opposite is true. Germany lost the “World War 1” according to every measure of warfare.


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