World War I: A History in Documents

By Frans Coetzee; Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee | Go to book overview

Chapter Six
Strains

By 1917 the original participants in the war were nearing exhaustion. The great offensives of the previous year (Verdun, the Somme, the Brusilov) had done nothing to bring the war closer to an end but had, for many people, brought it even closer to home. Under the stress, Britain had witnessed the replacement of its last Liberal government by a coalition administration. The imposition of a military draft in January 1916 marked another extension of government regulation at the expense of a cherished voluntary ethic. In Germany, the challenge of fighting on two fronts, and the disruptive impact of the Allied blockade, forced the military authorities to implement a draconian “Hindenburg Program” (named for a German field marshal) to conscript labor and accelerate production. Russia and France teetered near collapse, the seemingly inexhaustible population of the former and the finite manpower of the latter both squandered in bloody attacks.

In an atmosphere of mounting frustration, declining living standards, and increasingly intrusive governmental regulation, signs of discontent and vocal dissent escalated as 1917 wore on. In Germany, work stoppages in metalworking factories threatened to undermine an already fragile economy. Together with demonstrations against high food prices, such strikes indicated that workers were becoming increasingly frustrated. Dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the war and impatience with its unfulfilled promises of domestic reform led to a split within Germany’s Social Democratic party (now known as the Majority Social Democratic party or MSPD) and the formation of the more radical Independent German Sociala Democratic party (USPD) in April 1917.

The Russian Revolution was the most spectacular manifestation of unrest, but it was not the only one. There were bread riots, labor strikes, pacifist demonstrations, and mutinies throughout Europe. Suspicious governments were apt to see behind all these the work of socialist agitators, and indeed the Germans had explicitly transported Lenin in a sealed boxcar from Swiss exile to spread the revolutionary virus in Russia. Socialists had been meeting throughout the war, often

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