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Contains many hundreds of images, all with explanatory captions, from the period of the Great War 1914-1918.

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A short history of World War One

Short video of the start of World War I

World War I or the First World War 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. Some scholars consider the First World War merely the first phase of a 30-year-long war that spans the time frame of 1914 to 1945.

Origins of War

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

The Balance of Power

At the beginning of the 20th century, Europe had a delicate balance of power, which was undermined by a series of events:

  • British gravitation towards the Franco-Russian alliance, fuelled by alarm at Germany's challenge to British naval supremacy.
  • subsequent German and Austro-Hungarian 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
  • the rise of powerful nationalist aspirations among the Balkan states, which in turn looked to Berlin, Vienna or Saint Petersburg for diplomatic support.
Austrian regional security concerns grew with the near-doubling of neighbouring Serbia's territory as a result of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. After the Sarajevo assassination, Austria-Hungary sent an effectively unfulfillable ultimatum to Serbia (July 23, 1914), and when the latter failed to comply with all of its terms, 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, demanded that Russia stand down its forces (July 31), but Russia persisted, as demobilisation would have made 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, against the latter's ally France.

The Outbreak

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 (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 Russian army. The German plan involved demanding free passage across Belgium and Luxembourg. When this was denied, Germany invaded, occupying Luxembourg rapidly but encountering resistance before the forts of the Belgian city of Liège. Britain sent an army to France, which advanced into Belgium.

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 and Austria-Hungary) were forced into fighting a war on two fronts.

Entry of the Ottoman Empire

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 Gallipoli (1915) and Mesopotamia campaigns, but both ended in Turkish success in repelling enemy incursion.

Italian Participation

Italy, until 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 invalidated Italy as a major threat.

The Fall of Serbia

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

Louvain, Belgium, 1915 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...."

The Trenching Begins

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.

The Somme and Passchendaele

Both the Battle of the Somme and Passchendaele also on the Western Front resulted in enormous loss of life on both sides but minimal progress in the war. It is interesting to note that, when the British attacked on the first day of the battle of the Somme, and lost massive amounts of men to a continuous hail of machine-gun fire, they did succeed in gaining some ground. This caused the German command to order its soldiers to re-take this ground, which resulted in similar losses for the Germans. Hence, instead of a lopsided engagement, with only British soldiers attacking, which would have resulted in large amounts of casualties only for the British, the volume of attacks was rather evenly distributed, which caused even distribution of the casualties.

Poison Gas

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

Aircraft and U-Boats

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 Allies (April 6). The sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania was a particularly controversial "kill" for the U-boats.

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.

Russia unsettled

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.

Abdication of the Tsar

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 on the West with the Russo-German Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918).

Allied victory

Germany's great offensive in France opened on March 21, 1918, with a dramatic breakthrough on the Somme, though the Allied lines held after a 60km enemy advance. The entry of the U.S. into the war the previous year had made the eventual arrival of U.S. troops certain, while Russia's withdrawal and the Italian disaster at Caporetto allowed the transfer of German troops to the West. Four successive German offensives followed, that of May 27 yielding gains before Paris comparable to the first advance.

End of the War

The fighting ended in 1918 with an armistice agreed on November 11, 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 20th century technology with 19th 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 and Crossfire), much of the action took place in the trenches, where thousands died for each square metre of land gained. 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 prove 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.

A deadly war

Many of the deadliest battles in history occurred in this war. See Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Marne, Cambrai, Somme, Verdun, Gallipoli. See Wars of the 20h Century for various totals given for the number that died in this war. For instance, is it proper to consider the Influenza pandemic (see below) as part of the overall death count for the war, given the important part the War played in its transmission?


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 and Hungary.

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-Litovsk in March 1918. In that treaty, Russia renounced all claims to Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland (specifically, the formerly Russian-controlled Congress Poland of 1815) and Ukraine.

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, reaching, 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

Nearly 15 percent of the land area of the German Empire was ceded at Allied insistence to 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 transferred to Poland and South Tyrol to Italy. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and Vojvodina were joined with Serbia to form Yugoslavia. Transylvania became part of Romania. Overall 25 percent of ethnic Hungarians found themselves living outside of the new independent country of Hungary.

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

Video about World War One


The war inspired many great novels and poems. They include:
  • Barbara Tuchman: The Guns of August tells of the opening diplomatic and military maneuvers.
  • Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms
  • Mark Helprin: A Soldier of the Great War
  • Robert Graves: Goodbye to All That
  • John McCrae: In Flanders' Fields
  • Frederic Manning: Her Privates We
  • Dalton Trumbo: Johnny Got His Gun
  • Richard Aldington: Death of a Hero
  • Siegfried Sassoon: Memoirs of an Infantry Officer
  • E. E. Cummings: The Enormous Room
  • Edmund Blunden: Undertones of War
  • T E Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"): The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
  • Lawrence Binyon: For the Fallen
  • Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn: August 1914
and the poetry of:
  • Laurence Binyon
  • Edmund Blunden
  • Rupert Brooke
  • Wilfred Wilson Gibson
  • Julian Grenfell
  • Wilfred Owen
  • Isaac Rosenberg
  • Siegfried Sassoon
  • Charles Sorley

Video of World War One with audio with veteran's interview of their experiences during World War One

To learn more - use these online Internet resources


  • Association 1914-1918 - A French association which aims to provide a better knowledge of World War I for everyone interested in this period, covering not only the French aspect of the war but also aspects of the other nations involved.
  • BBC Online - History - World War I - Virtual tours, contemporary newspaper articles, and overviews of each stage of the war.
  • The Great War Series - A collection of all War Times Journal resources relating to the First World War. Includes historic archives, photo galleries and specially written articles.
  • The Great War Society Homepage - The Great War Society encourages discussion, learning, scholarship and independent research on the events surrounding the First World War.
  • The Heritage of the Great War - Extensive site in English, French, Dutch and Flemish, providing articles and images of the First World War.
  • The Battle of Verdun, 1916 - The German siege of Verdun and its ring of forts, which comprised the longest battle of the First World War, has its roots in a letter sent by the German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, to the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, on Christmas Day 1915.
  • Western Front Association - An international organisation formed to further interest in the period 1914-1918.
  • The Western Front Museum (1914 - 1918) - Privately owned Dutch museum dedicated to the First World War, exhibiting an extensive collection of battlefield relics which have been personally retrieved from the various battlefields in Europe.

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