Through War Torn Europe: An official trip after WWI told in the words of James Gordon Steese
Number Thirty-Two
Army & Navy Club, Washington,
November 1st, 1919.
I have received the letters and am amazed at their volume. I do not see how I ever had time to write so much. I have also received over three hundred films covering most of the itinerary. Some of the best ones I took in Italy have not shown up yet. It will be a task to select only fifteen or twenty to be representative of the whole lot.

In yesterday’s mail, I received two more decorations: Officer d’Instruction Publique, or Palmes Universitaires, of France; and the Cross of Commander of the Order of Prince Danilo I of Montenegro. The latter represents a promotion from the grade of Officers, which I had received before leaving Paris.

This makes a total of eight War Medals and I have ordered a set of miniatures through our Military Attache in Paris. They are made up about the size of a dime and strung from a fine gold chain which is stretched across the lapel of a civilian dress coat. Would make a fine set of bangles for a girl.

In this letter I shall attempt to give a general summary of the military situation prior to July 1st, 1917. A summary of the general situation as it existed upon our entering into the war is necessary not only in connection with any attempt to appreciate, at its true value, the American effort, but also in order fully to understand many important decisions reached in the early days of the American Expeditionary Forces. 

Year 1914.

Although the German onslaught of 1914 failed in its primary purpose of crushing France, yet German arms had before the close of 1914 realized successes which were of decisive importance on the future course of the war. On December 31st, 1914, German armies stretched from Switzerland to the English Channel, and, with her forces within forty-eight miles of Paris, Germany retained the initiative in the west. With her own resources intact and secure, Germany was in full possession of all the resources of Belgium and occupied the richest industrial provinces of France, --provinces which contained 7.4 per cent of France’s population, 78 per cent of her iron, and 65 per cent of her coal.

In the east, the rapidity of the Russian mobilization came as a surprise and Germany was forced before the Battle of the Marne to reduce her forces in France in order to meet the Russian menace against East Prussia. By the close of 1914, however, the Russian armies had been driven out of East Prussia, while farther south they had been thrown back on Warsaw. Neither France nor Russia was ever able to repair the losses of 1914. 

Year 1915.

Looking back on 1915, it is easy to see that Germany's plan for the west, while her main effort was to be directed against Russia in the east and to aid her allies in the southeast. The entry of Italy (May) into the war on the side of the allies, more than counterbalanced the adhesion of Turkey (1914) to the German cause and definitely drew approximately one-half of Austria's strength from the eastern and southeastern theatres of war.

In the west, the French and English launched several offensives against the German defense; these offensives were, however, so limited in extent and in objectives that they were foredoomed to failure.

Against Russia, German arms achieved a remarkable series of successes; Mazurian Lakes; Mackensen in Galicia; Fall of Warsaw; Fall of Brest-Litovsk; Fall of Vilna. In the southeast the central powers overran Serbia and Montenegro; the Allied Dardanelles expedition was wrecked, it being withdrawn in January, 1916, and in Mesopotania, Allied interests went from bad to worse. On the sea the British fleet had established its superiority, but on February 18th, Germany had established the so-called submarine blockade which constantly developed its menace to the Allies.

Year 1916.

The developments of 1916 leave no doubt but that Germany, satisfied that Russia would remain quiet, decided before the close of 1915 upon a decisive offensive in the west as the task of 1916. The great German offensive against Verdun was accordingly begun on February 21st, 1916.

French heroism and the lavish expenditures of British blood on the Somme were not the only causes of the failure of the decisive offensive in the west which Germany had planned for 1916. Russia again astonished the world by her powers of recuperation and, at the beginning of June, Brussiloff had commenced the great offensive which was virtually to destroy the Austrian army of Galicia and to menace the very existence of Austria. Austria was powerless to meet this threat, for in Italy her armies were also defeated, the Italians taking Goritzia on August 9th, while Roumania entered the war (August 26th) on the side of the Allies and immediately undertook a promising offensive against Austria.

Once again, it was essential to Germany that she rescue Austria, and so quickly did the German Great General Staff abandon the offensive and assume the defensive in the west that, on September 15th, Hindenburg was able to begin the great eastern offensive which was the beginning of the end for Russia, while, by October, Mackensen and Falkenhayn had been furnished the forces with which they eliminated Roumania before the close of 1916.

First Half of 1917.

Germany evidently concluded to remain on the defensive in the west and to keep in the east the forces which she deemed necessary for the final conquest of Russia. So successful were these plans with reference to the eastern front that, aided by the Russian revolution, by midsummer of 1917 the end of Russia was in sight.

In the west, the Allies had at last decided to undertake an offensive on a scale large enough to obtain results in the event of success. The Allied attacks were launched during April and, although heavy losses were suffered, nothing was accomplished. The French attack at Chemin des Dames was particularly unfortunate in its reaction on the French morale. In this attack the French are said to have lost 25,000 killed and 95,000 wounded without accomplishing anything. Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1st, 1917, and the extent of this peril is shown by the fact that, by June 30th, 1917, more than three and one-quarter million tons of shipping had been sunk.

Resume of the Situation in June, 1917.

During the nearly three years which had elapsed since the beginning of the war, Germany had seen practically all her offensives crowned with great success. Her battle lines were on foreign soil, her own resources untouched, and wherever she had assumed the defensive, she had inflicted crashing reverses to every attempted Allied attack.

Naturally the German morale was high, while the Allied morale, especially the French after the Chemin des Dames failure, was low. French Statesmen and great newspaper owners were suspected of aiding in the campaign of defeatism, even when they were not more or less openly accused of dealing with the enemy. Certainly, as early as June, 1917, the German Great General Staff could look forward to the early elimination of Russia, the possibility of crushing Italy before the end of the year, and, finally, to the great campaign of 1918, which was to crush the French and English and make good the cry of "Deutschland ueber alles".

Moreover, leaving aside for a moment the new factor of America, it can not be said that these German ideas of final victory were extravagant either in June, 1917, or, in the light of history, at the present times Italy still had men, but her finances and supplies were in the most serious difficulties, and the occurrences of the fall of 1917 were to show that serious shortcomings existed in her armies. France had sacrificed much of her best blood; discouragement ran like wildfire through her civil population, as well as among her soldiers; many of her leaders were distrusted and, always thrifty. Her people had already begun to complain of the vast sums that France had expended.

Although she rang true to her traditions with her back to the wall, England was, except perhaps for morale, scarcely in any better condition than was France. England, too, had spent her best blood and had endangered her dominant position in the financial world, but, worst of all, the submarine war had brought about critical conditions of food and other shortages so that the very existence of England seemed to be threatened. The French and English superiority on the western front during the last half of 1916 and the first half of 1917 had proven totally insufficient to break down the German defense.

Now, in June, 1917, it was hopeless to expect that the French-and British could increase their armed strength, and it was doubtful if they could maintain that strength. On the other hand, Germany, with the end of Russia in sight and with the possibility of eliminating Italy, could look forward to bringing her whole weight against France and England; black, indeed, were the Allied prospects, ----except for America!

End Notes and Bibliography