World War I

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World War I was the first war that involved nations spanning more than half the globe, hence "world" war. It lasted from 1914 to 1918 and was called "The Great War" or "the war to end all wars" until World War II started.

Origins of War

Ostensibly, the triggering event for the war was the death (28 June 1914) of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo at the hands of a Serbian-backed assassin (a student named Gavrilo Princip), but the real reasons were far more complex.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Europe had a delicate balance of power, which was undermined by a series of events: Germany's challenge to British naval supremacy; British gravitation toawards the Franco-Russian alliance; subsequent German and Austrian challenges to the Anglo-French-Russian "Triple Entente"; German alarm at Russia's rapid recovery from her 1905 defeat by Japan and subsequent revolutionary disorder; and the rise of powerful nationalist aspirations among the Balkan states, which in turn looked to Berlin, Vienna or St. Petersburg for diplomatic support.

Austrian regional security concerns grew with the near-doubling of neighbouting Serbia's territory as a result of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian Empire sent an effectively impossible ultimatum to Serbia (July 23, 1914), and when the Serbs failed to meet this ultimatum, Austria broke off diplomatic relations (July 25) and declared war (July 28).

Russia, which saw itself as a guarantor of Serbian independence, mobilized (July 30). Germany, allied by treaty to Austria-Hungary, warned Russia that they should stand down (July 31), but Russia persisted as demobilisation would make it impossible for her to re-activate her military schedule in the short term. Germany declared war against Russia (August 1) and, two days later, the latter's ally France.

The outbreak of the conflict is often attributed to the network of European alliances established over the previous decades - Germany-Austria-Italy vs. France-Russia, Britain and Serbia being aligned with the latter. In fact none of the alliances was activated in the initial outbreak, though Russian general mobilisation and Germany's declaration of war against France were motivated by fear of the opposing alliance being brought into play.

Britain's declaration of war against Germany (August 4) was officially the result not of her understandings with France and Russia (Britain was technically allied to neither power): but of Germany's invasion of Belgium, whose independence Britain had guaranteed to uphold in 1839, and which stood astride the planned German route for invasion of Russia's ally France.

Germany's plan to deal with the Franco-Russian alliance involved delivering a knock-out blow to the French and then turning to deal with the more slowly mobilised Russians. The German plan involved demanding free passage across Belgium and Luxembourg: when this was denied, Germany invaded.

The delays brought about by the resistance of the Belgians, French and British forces and the unexpectedly rapid mobilisation of the Russians upset the German plans. Russia attacked in East Prussia, diverting German forces intended for the Western Front, allowing French and British forces to halt the German advance on Paris at the Battle of the Marne (September 1914) as the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary) were forced into fighting a war on two fronts.

The Ottoman Empire joined the "Central Powers" in October-November 1914, threatening Russia's Caucasian territories and Britain's communications with India and the East via the Suez Canal. British action opened another front in the South with the Galipoli (1915) and Messopotamian campaigns, but both ended in Turkish sucess in repelling enemy incursion.

Italy , util now notionally allied to Germany and Austria-Hungary but with her own designs against Austrian territory in south Tyrol, Istria and Dalmatia, joined the Allies in May 1915, declaring war against Germany fifteen months later. Italian action along the Austrian border pinned down large numbers of enemy troops, though the crushing German-Austrian victory of Caporetto (October 1917) temporarily removed Italy as a major threat.

After repulsing three Austrian invasions in August-December 1914, Serbia fell to combined German, Austrian and Bulgarian invasion in October 1915. Serbian troops continued to hold out in Albania and Greece, where a Franco-British force had Landed to offer assistance and to pressure the Greek government into war against the Central Powers.

Early stages: from romanticism to the trenches

The perception of war in 1914 was almost "romantic", and its declaration was met with great enthusiasm by many people. The common view was that it would be a short war of manoeuvre with a few sharp actions (to "teach the enemy a lesson") and would end with a victorious entry into the capital (the enemy capital, naturally) then home for a victory parade or two and back to "normal" life. There were some pessimists (like Lord Kitchener) who predicted the war would be a long haul, but "everyone knew" the War would be "Over by Christmas...."

After their initial success on the Marne, France and Britain found themselves facing entrenched German positions from Lorraine to Belgium's Flemish coast. Neither side proved able to deiver a decisive blow for the next four years, though protracted German action at Verdun (1916) and Allied failure the following spring brought the French army to the brink of collapse as mass desertions undermined the front line.

Not even an initially devastating array of new weapons achieved the required victory: poison gas (first used by the Germans at Ypres on 22 April 1915), liquid fire (used by the Germans at Hooge on 30 July 1915) and armoured tanks (first used by the British on the Somme on 15 September 1916) each produced initial panic among the enemy, but failed to deliver a lasting breakthrough.

Military aviation achieved rapid progress, from the development of (initially primitive) forward-firing aerial machine-guns by the German air force in the autumn of 1915 to the deployment of bombers against London (July 1917): more dramatic still, at least for Britain, was the use of German submarines (U-boats, from the German Unterseebooten) against Allied merchant shipping in proscribed waters from February 1915. Germany's decision to lift restrictions on submarine activity (February 1, 1917) was instrumental in bringing the United States into the war on the side of the Alllies (April 6).

Russia: defeat and revolution

Following her initial success in stalling enemy invasion (August 1914), Russia's less-developed economic and military organisation proved unequal to the combined might of Germany and Austria-Hungary. In May 1915 the latter achieved a remarkable breakthough on Poland's southern fringes, capturing Warsaw on August 5.

Dissatisfaction with the Russian government's conduct of the war grew despite the success of the June 1916 Brusilov offensive in eastern Galicia, when Russian success was undermined by the reluctance of other generals to commit their forces in support of the victorious sector commander. Allied fortunes revived temporarily with Romania's entry into the war on August 27,: German forces came to the aid of embattled Austrian units in Transylvania, and Bucharest fell to the Central Powers on December 6.

In March 1917, demonstrations in St. Petersburg culminated in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the appointment of a weak centrist government, whose continued adherence to the Allied cause provoked opposition led by the Bolshevik ("majority") wing of the divided Social-Democratic Party. The triumph of the latter in November foreshadowed Russia's removal from the war, allowing Germany to turn her full military might to the West with the Russo-German Treaty of Brest-Litowsk (March 3, 1918).

Allied victory

Germany's great offensive in France opened on March 21, 1918, with a dramatic breakthrough on the Marne, though the Allied lines held before Paris.

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(significant events here?)

End of the War

The war ended on 1918, but its consequences were long lasting. The June 1919 Treaty of Versailles put an official end to the war with Germany. The treaty required that Germany pay heavy /reparations, and included a clause that would create a League of Nations, an international organization that should prevent a new war. The U.S. Senate never ratified the treaty, however, despite Woodrow Wilson's campaign to support the treaty and his idea for a League of Nations. The U.S. instead negotiated a separate peace with Germany (August 1921) which included no requirement to join the League.

Distinguishing features of this War

The First World War was different from prior military conflicts: it was a meeting of twentieth century technology with nineteenth century mentality and tactics. This time, millions of soldiers fought on all sides and the casualties were enormous, mostly because of the more efficient weapons (like artillery and machine guns) that were used in large quantities against old tactics. Although the First World War led to the development of air forces, tanks ,and new tactics (like the rolling barrage), much of the action took place in the trenches, where thousands died for each square metre of land. The First World War also saw the use of chemical warfare, and aerial bombardment, both of which had been outlawed under the 1909 Hague Convention. The effects of gas warfare were to be long lasting, both on the bodies of its victims (many of whom, having survived the war, continued to suffer in later life) and on the minds of a later generation of war leaders (Second World War) who, having seen the effects of gas warfare in the Great War, were reluctant to use it for fear that the enemy would retaliate and might have better weaponry.

Many of the deadliest battles in history occurred in this war. See Ypres, Marne, Cambrai, Somme, Verdun, Gallipoli.


Revolutions: Perhaps the single most important event precipitated by the privations of the war was the Russian Revolution. Socialist and explicitly Communist uprisings also occurred in many other European countries from 1917 onwards, notably in Germany.

As a result of the Bolsheviks' failure to cede territory, German and Austrian forces defeated the Russian armies, and the new communist government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litowsk in March 1918. In that treaty, Russia renounced all claims to Couronia, Livonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Finland, and Poland (which had been a province of Russia).

Influenza pandemic: A separate, but related event was the great influenza pandemic. A new strain of Influenza, originating in the U.S.A. (but misleadingly known as "Spanish Flu") was accidentially carried to Europe with the American forces. The disease spread rapidly through the both the continental U.S. and Europe, spreading, eventually, around the globe. The exact number of deaths is unknown, but in excess of 20 million people worldwide is not an overestimate.

Social trauma: The experiences of the war lead to a sort of collective national trauma afterwards for all the participating countries. The optimism of 1900 was entirely gone and those who fought in the war became what is known as "the Lost Generation" because they never fully recovered from their experiences.

Geopolitical consequences: Approximately 25 percent of the land of the German Empire was ceded at Allied insistence various countries. The largest confiscated part of Germany was given to Poland; this part was called the "Polish Corridor" because of its access to the sea. In addition the western powers helped Poland gain another huge chunk of land in Ukraine.

Russia also lost substantial land. The countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were created to accomodiate ethnic groups. Also, land was taken for addition to Poland, and Romania.

Other countries were also cut severely. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken into many pieces. Austria changed from a monarchy to a republic. Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia became part of the new Czechoslovakia. Galicia was transfered to Poland and south Tyrol to Italy. Bosnia-Herzegovnia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Vojvodina were joined with Serbia to form Yugoslavia. Transylvania became part of Romania. Overall 60 percent of ethnic Hungarians found themselves living outside of the new independent country of Hungary.

Less concrete changes include the growing assertiveness of commwealth nations. Battles such as Gallipoli for Australia and New Zealand, and Vimy Ridge for Canada lead to increased nation pride and a greater reluctance to remain inferior to the British.


For more details on the subject, consult these histories: (list of histories here)


The war inspired many great novels and poems. They include:

and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfied Sassoon

See also: World War II, Seven Years War