Was it worth it? The all-out U-boat offensive did sink 880,000 tons of shipping in April 1917 alone and endangered the seaborne trade that Britain depended on. Unfortunately, it also helped U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to persuade Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917. The intervention of more than a million fresh American soldiers by late 1918 heartened the British and French armies battered by years of war and the devastating German 1918 offensives.
When it comes to alternative history, the Second World War is king. Dozens of books and wargames suggest how history would have changed if Hitler had invaded Britain or not invaded Russia. Want to know what happens when a Nimitz-class supercarrier goes back in time to battle the Japanese fleet at Pearl Harbor? There's a movie for that . What would the world be like if Nazi Germany had won? Plenty of novels paint a dark portrait. Would the Third Reich have triumphed if it had developed jet fighters sooner? Such topics are like incendiary bombs on Internet chat forums.
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Yet fascinating as these questions are, why are they any more fascinating than asking what would have happened if Imperial Germany had not invaded Belgium in 1914, if the Kaiser had built more U-boats, or if America had not entered the war? If it is plausible to imagine a historical timeline where Hitler won, then why not one in which the tsars still rule Russia, the British Empire was never exhausted by war, and the Ottoman Empire still controls the Middle East?
Perhaps it is the grim aura of fatalism that discourages speculative history of the Great War. The sense that no matter what, the conflict would have been one long, miserable slaughter, a four-year live performance of " Paths of Glory ." But the combatants were not drones or sheep, and the conflict was more than mud, blood and barbed wire. There was mobile warfare in Russia and Poland, amphibious invasions in Turkey and guerrilla campaigns in East Africa.
It is also easy to assume that German defeat was inevitable at the hands of an Allied coalition richer in manpower, weapons and money. Yet Germany nearly captured Paris in 1914, crushed Serbia and Romania, bled the French Army until it mutinied, drove Russia out of the war, and then came oh-so-close to victory on the Western Front in 1918. Don't underestimate the power of Imperial Germany. Until the armistice was signed in a French railway carriage on November 11, 1918, Germany's enemies didn't.
So with this year marking the 100th anniversary of the War to End All Wars (but didn't), let's look at what might have been. Here are a few possibilities in which history could have been very different for Germany:
Avoiding a two-front war
If twentieth-century Germany had a tombstone, it would say "This is What Happens to Those Who Fight on Two Fronts". Much as kung-fu movies make fighting multiple opponents look easy, it's generally better to defeat your enemies one at a time.
That was the idea behind Germany's Schlieffen plan, which called for concentrating on France in the opening days of the conflict while keeping weaker forces in the East. The key was to defeat France quickly while vast and underdeveloped Russia still mobilized, and then transfer forces by rail to settle accounts with the Tsar.
However, Russia did attack into East Prussia in August 1914, only to be surrounded and annihilated at the Battle of Tannenberg. They lost 170,000 men to just 12,000 Germans in one of history's most famous battles of encirclement. Yet the Russian advance also frightened German Army Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke into transferring three corps from France to East Prussia. They arrived too late for Tannenberg, while depriving the Western offensive of vital troops at Germany's best time to overcome France and possibly end the war.
From then on, Germany had to spread its forces between West and East, while supporting its Austro-Hungarian and Turkish allies. Just what Germany could have accomplished—had it been able to concentrate on just one front—became painfully clear in 1918. After forcing the new Soviet government to sue for peace, the Germans quickly transferred 500,000 troops to France. They also unleashed innovative new stosstruppen (stormtrooper) infiltration tactics—an early form of blitzkrieg without the tanks—that enabled them to break the trench-warfare deadlock.
Kaiserschlacht ("Kaiser's Battle") offensives shattered several British armies and compelled British commander Douglas Haig to warn his troops that their backs were "to the wall." After four years of unrelenting combat and economic blockade, Germany still had the strength to achieve more in weeks than four years of bloody Allied offensives at the Somme, Passchendaele and Chemin des Dames.