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First World War home page The First World War, 1914 - 1918
Origins of the conflict
Over by Christmas
Britain and the outbreak of the war
German ascendancy
Stalemate and change : the war 1916 -18
The final stages of the war 1917 -18
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The final stages of the war, 1917-18

While the new Glossary - opens new windowProvisional Government vainly attempted to revive the Russian war effort, and American troops were withheld from battle by the commander of the Glossary - opens new windowAmerican Expeditionary Force, Glossary - opens new windowGeneral John Pershing, fresh attempts to break the deadlock on the Western Front were undertaken in the summer and autumn of 1917.

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Despite the sobering experience of the Battle of the Somme and the misgivings of many politicians, the commander-in-chief of the British army in France, Glossary - opens new windowDouglas Haig, launched a renewed assault on the Ypres salient. At the Battle of Glossary - opens new windowPasschendaele (July-November 1917), the Allies gained more ground (4.5 miles) at less cost of life than at the Somme. Even so, some 250,000 French and probably a higher number of German soldiers lost their lives. The 'appalling casualty lists', as even Lloyd George conceded, brought into question the true worth of such 'great victories'.

Battle of Passchendaele - opens new window
Battle of Passchendaele

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False optimism

A similar sense of false optimism was aroused by the first large-scale deployment of tanks on the Western Front, at the Battle of Glossary - opens new windowCambrai in November 1917. Despite the creation in the same month of a Glossary - opens new windowSupreme War Council to co-ordinate Allied military affairs, it was the Central Powers that seemed closer to victory.

Austro-German forces finally made a breakthrough on the Italian front at the Battle of Glossary - opens new windowCaporetto in October 1917. Most importantly, the Glossary - opens new windowBolshevik revolution ended Germany's 'war on two fronts'. Wanting no part in an 'imperialist' war, Soviet Russia signed an armistice with the Central Powers on 15 December 1917.

Allied Supreme War Council - opens new window
Allied Supreme War Council (266k)

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War weariness

Both the continuation of the war and the Russian revolution exerted influences that extended beyond the battlefield. War weariness manifested itself on all sides in 1917: labour unrest in Britain; widespread anti-war sentiments in Italy and Austria; and mutiny in the French army (May-June) and the German navy at Wilhelmshaven (2 August). The desire on both sides for new allies provided opportunities for aspirant national and religious minorities in the Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian empires to argue for new freedoms.

However, the principles of 'national self-determination' outlined in President Wilson's 14-point 'Glossary - opens new windowpeace programme' (January 1918) sat uncomfortably alongside the 'secret treaties' that had been published two months earlier by the Bolshevik foreign minister, Glossary - opens new windowLeon Trotsky. These showed the war aims of Britain, France and Russia in a less flattering light.

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Turn of the tide

Russia's withdrawal from the war, confirmed in the Glossary - opens new windowTreaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918, heralded a renewed German offensive on the Western Front. Its initial success during the spring of 1918 forced the Entente into desperate defensive measures. These included the appointment of Glossary - opens new windowGeneral Foch as commander-in-chief of the Allied armies on the Western Front, and there was even talk of extending conscription to Ireland. It seemed that the Allies' best hope was to withstand the German onslaught and await the protracted entry of American forces into the conflict.

However, after the failure of the last great German push in mid-July 1918, the tide rapidly turned in the Allies' favour. Thanks to major tactical, command, organisational and technological improvements in the British and French armies, and the presence of nearly one million American troops now available in France, the Germans were pushed back towards their own defensive marker, the Glossary - opens new windowHindenburg Line. The Battle of Glossary - opens new windowAmiens (8-11 August), in which the German army lost 27,000 men killed or captured, heralded a new, more mobile war on the Western Front.

The alliance of the Central Powers now collapsed on all fronts. In the autumn of 1918, as Bulgaria, Turkey, Austria and Germany sued for peace with the victorious Allies, thoughts turned from fighting the war to ending it.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

CAB 21: Various material from on the Allied Supreme War Council, 1917-19.
FO 371/2863-2864: Austria-Hungary and the war, 1917.
WO 32/5095B: Report by Sir Douglas Haig on operations at Cambrai, 1917-18.
WO 158/351: Tank Corps scheme for offensive at Cambrai, Nov 1917.
WO 317/22: Canadian Corps photographs of Passchendaele, Oct-Nov 1917.
WO 106/847: Report on the Battle of Caporetto (12th Isonzo), 1917.

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