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 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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:
Wilfred Wilson Gibson
Video of World War One with audio with veteran's interview of their experiences during World War One
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.
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.
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.
Lawrence of Arabia, 1918 - "Before 1914, twenty-six-year-old T.E. Lawrence worked for the British Museum digging among the Hittite ruins in Mesopotamia. The Oxford graduate had spent years in the desert developing an intimate knowledge and love of the Bedouin tribes that roamed the region. At the outbreak of war Lawrence was rejected as physically unfit for military service but his unique knowledge of the area made him a perfect candidate for the Intelligence Service at Cairo."