World War I
or the First World
, 1914 - 1918, was the first war that involved nations spanning
more than half the globe, hence world
It was commonly called The Great War or sometimes the war
to end all wars until World War II started, although the name "First
World War" was coined as early as 1920 by Lt-Col à Court Repington in
First World War 1914-18.
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, Franz 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.
Following the lead of Britain under Benjamin Disraeli, even the once hesitantly
imperialistic Otto von Bismarck was eventually brought to realize the value
of colonies for securing (in his words) "new markets for German industry,
the expansion of trade, and a new field for German, activity, civilization,
The absolutist Central Powers, led by a newly unified, dynamically industrializing
Germany, with its expanding navy, doubling in size between the Franco-Prussian
War and the Great War, were strategic threats to the markets and security
of the more established Allied powers and Russia.
The Entente Cordiale was thus a gentleman's agreement between Britain
and France designed to slow further German expansionism. The Entente Cordiale,
along with the Franco-Russian alliance, served a common geopolitical interest.
France and Britain were thus forced to end their centuries of longstanding
hostility. British policymakers feared the prospect of another German military
victory over France like the Franco-Prussian War, which could have reasonably
resulted in a German take-over of France's formal colonies, a sort of reversal
of the actual outcome of the Great War, after which Britain occupied the
vast majority of German and Ottoman colonies as "protectorates". This prospect
was especially frightening considering that French colonies tended to be
closely situated to Britain's; Nigeria, for instance, was surrounded by
French territory, India was near French Indochina, and so forth.
Following the death of Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1888, his son, Frederick
III inherited the crown of Prussia and the throne of Germany. He died shortly
after of cancer f the larynx, and was succeeded by his son, Wilhelm II.
A terrible diplomat and worse politician, Wilhelm II largely impeded the
aging Chancellor Bismarck's attempts to preserve the diplomatic balance
of power that kept France isolated, and hampered Bismarck's domestic realpolitik
that kept conservative parties in relative power in the Reichstag. After
the 1890 elections, in which the center and left parties made major gains,
and due in part to the disaffection of the Kaiser having the same Chancellor
that guided his grandfather for most of his career, Bismarck resigned.
Shortly thereafter he died, having been made a duke by his thankful Empire,
and perhaps fortunately for him, he died before he could watch Wilhelm
II destroy the diplomatic and military gains that he had achieved.
Strategic competition between Britain and Germany following the retirement
of Bismarck would intensify the drive to consolidate existing spheres of
influence and grab new colonies. Examples of these conflicts include the
Moroccan Crisis of 1905 and the Tangier Crisis. These conflicts began when
Kaiser Wilhelm's recognized Moroccan independence from France, Britain's
new strategic partner. During the Second Moroccan Crisis, Germany sent
its navy to Morocco, testing the precarious Anglo-French Entente once again.
The specific breakdowns of the alliance system that kept Bismarck's
Germany premier are almost unforgivable to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Russia had
entered a defensive agreement with Germany during Bismarck's time. Wilhelm
refused to renew it for indeterminate reasons. When England, which had
long been isolationist, content to rule her overseas empire, and the oceans
in general, came out of her isolation, she sought first to ally with Germany.
It might be remembered that the German monarchs were of the House of Hanover,
which was related to or intermarried with a great many of the German noble
houses, including the Hohenzollern rulers of the German Empire. Instead,
Wilhelm, disparaging England's "Contemptible little army", rebuffed their
offer, and started a pointless naval arms race. Wilhelm thus gained the
direct enmity of two of the major powers of Europe, which allied themselves,
as we will see, with Germany's third, and most venomous, albiet weakest,
The network of European alliances formed along the lines of imperial
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
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.
August 1, Germany declared war on Russia;
August 3, Germany declared war on France;
August 4 -
Britain declared war on Germany after the Germans refused to respect the
neutrality of Belgium;
Australia declared war on Germany;
Canada declared war on Germany;
New Zealand declared war on Germany;
September of 1914 a Unity Pact was signed by France, Britain, and Russia;
August 23, Japan declared war on Germany.
August 28, Italy declared war on Germany;
February 24 - United States ambassador to the United Kingdom, Walter H.
Page, was given the Zimmermann Telegram, in which Germany offered to give
the American Southwest back to Mexico if Mexico would declare war on the
April 6, the United States declared war on Germany;
April 7, Cuba declared war on Germany;
August 14, China declared war on Germany.
The outbreak of the conflict is often attributed to the 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 (named the Schlieffen 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 First 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,
intially the Turks were successful in repelling enemy incursion. But in
Mesopotamia, after the disasterous Siege of Kut the British reorganized
and captured Baghdad in March 1917. Further to the west in Egypt, initial
British failures were overcome with Jerusalem being captured in December
1917 and the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under Edmund Allenby going on
to break the Ottoman forces at the Battle of Megiddo.
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
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...."
Recruitment to the British army during WW I
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.
The sides took set positions, the French and British were the attackers
and the Germans were the defenders. One consequence of this was that the
German trenches were much better constructed than those of their enemy,
the Anglo-French trenches were only 'temporary' before their forces broke
through the German defences. Neither side proved able to deliver 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.
Around 800,000 soldiers from Britain and the Empire were on the Western
Front at any one time, 1,000 battalions each occupying a sector of the
line from Belgium to the Arne and operating a month-long four stage system,
unless an offensive was underway. The front contained over 6,000 miles
of trenches. Each battalion held its sector for around a week before moving
back to support lines and then the reserve lines before a week out-of-line,
often in the Poperinge or Amiens areas.
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 on Canadian soldiers 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.
Use of poison gas in World War I
Aircraft and U-Boats
Nieuport Fighter Aisne, France 1917
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 breakthrough 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).
Entry of the United States
Early in 1917 Germany resumed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.
President Woodrow Wilson then requested that the United States Congress
declare war. This was done on April 6, 1917. (Only one member of Congress,
Jeanette Rankin of Montana, voted against the war).
The United States Army and the National Guard had mobilized in 1916
to pursue the Mexican "bandit" Pancho Villa, which helped speed up the
mobilization. The United States Navy was able to send a battleship group
to Scapa Flow to join with the British Grand Fleet, and a number of destroyers
to Queenstown, Ireland, to help guard convoys. However, it would be some
time before the United States forces would be able to contribute significant
manpower to the Western and Italian fronts.
The British and French insisted that the United States emphasize sending
infantry to reinforce the line. Throughout the war, the American forces
were short of their own artillery, aviation, and engineering units.
German Offensive of 1918
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.
On March 21 1918 Germany launched a major offensive, "Operation Michael",
against British and Commonwealth forces. The German army developed new
tactics involving stormtroopers, infantry trained to attack and take trenches.
The Allies reacted by appointing French Field Marshal Foch to coordinate
all Allied activity in France, and then generalissimo of all Allied forces
The German offensive moved forward 60 km and pressed the British lines
so much that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) commander, Field Marshal
Sir Douglas Haig, issued a General Order on April 11 stating "With our
backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of
us must fight on to the end." However, by then, the German offensive had
stalled because of logistical problems. Counterattacks by Canadian and
ANZAC forces pushed the Germans back.
The American Expeditionary Force, under General John Pershing, entered
the battle lines in significant numbers in April 1918. At the Battle of
Belleau Wood, from June 1 to June 30, 1918, the Second Division, including
the United States Marine Corps, helped clear out the German offensive threatening
On July 18, 1918, at the Battle of Chateau-Thierry, French and American
forces went on the offensive.
The British Army, using a large number of tanks, attacked at Amiens
on August 8 causing such surprise and confusion that German commander-in-chief,
General Ludendorff, said it was "the blackest day of the German army."
On September 16 the First United States Army, which had recently been
organized from the American Expeditionary Force, eliminated the Saint-Mihel
salient, which the Germans had occupied since 1914. This salient threatened
the Paris-Nancy railroad line. American forces were short of artillery
support, which was provided by the French and British. This also was the
first use of the U.S. Tank Corps, led by Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton.
Four days later, the salient was cleared out.
On September 26 American forces began the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which
continued until the end of the war. A key German observation post on Hill
305 in Montfaucon d'Argonne was captured on September 27. Approximately
18,000 Americans fell during this offensive. This was the first offensive
conducted by the United States as an independent army. General Pershing's
general thrust was the Rhine River, which he expected to breach early in
On October 24 the Italian Army, with very limited American assistance,
began the Vittorio Veneto offensive against Austria Hungary, which lasted
until November 4.
End of the War
The fighting ended in 1918 with an armistice agreed on November 11. The
consequences of the War were long lasting. The June 1919 Treaty of Versailles
put an official end to the war with Germany. The humiliating treaty required
that Germany accept the sole responsibility for the war and pay heavy reparations.
Thus it prepared the ground for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the outbreak
of World War II. It 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.
Allied Soldiers Killed:
British Empire: 908,000
New Zealand: 16,000
South Africa: 7,000
United Kingdom: 715,000
French Colonies: 114,000
United States: 50,600
Central Powers Soldiers Killed:
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?
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.
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. See
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
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. Britain occupied the vast majority
of German and Ottoman colonies as "protectorates".
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.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken into many pieces. The new republics
of Austria and Hungary were established, disavowing any continuity with
the empire. Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia formed the new Czechoslovakia.
Galicia was transferred to Poland and South Tyrol and Trieste were to Italy.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and Vojvodina were joined with Serbia
and Montenegro to form Yugoslavia. Transylvania became part of Romania.
Because of the intermixed population and partly because of the interests
of great powers, the new borders did not always follow ethnic divisions.
The new Yugoslav peoples had large minorities in virtually all neigbouring
countries. Hundreds of thousands of Germans continued to live in the newly
created countries. A quarter of ethnic Hungarians found themselves living
outside 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.
The Cenotaph, London
Menin Gate Memorial
Montfaucon American Memorial
Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing
Verdun Memorial Museum
Vimy Ridge Memorial
Very many towns in the participating countries have a war memmorial dedicated
to local residents who lost their lives.
Tombs of the Unknown Warrior:
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Westminster Abbey, London, UK
For more details on the subject, consult these histories:
(list of histories here)
Hew Strachan ed.: "The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War"
is a collection of chapters from various scholars that survey the War.
Barbara Tuchman: The Guns of August tells of the opening diplomatic
and military maneuvers.
The war inspired many great novels and poems. They include:
Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front
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
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn August 1914
and the poetry of:
Laurence Binyon For the Fallen
Wilfred Wilson Gibson
World War II, Seven