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World War I

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World War I or the First World War, 1914 - 1918, was the first war that involved nations spanning more than half the globe, hence world war.

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 The 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.

Haut-Rhin, France 1917

Table of contents

Origins of War

It is accepted that the triggering event for the war was the death (June 28, 1914) of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, and his morganatic wife Sophia in Sarajevo, Bosnia at the hands of a pro-Serbian nationalist assassin (a Bosnian Serb student named Gavrilo Princip).

Princip was one of a band of seven assassins present that day in Saravejo[?]. All were members of the Black Hand anarchist society[?]. He and his six accomplices were arrested and tried by the authorities. According to an account published by one of his Black Hand associates, there were 21 assassins involved, but this statement has not been confirmed.

Imperial interests

A complex situation existed amongst the predominantly monarchical countries and empires that existed in 1914 Europe. Disagreement exists amongst historians as to when and where this situation began, but there is agreement that it is an important factor in understanding how the assassination led to unprecedented bloodshed in a war involving nations that had no direct involvement whatever with Franz Ferdinand's assassination or his country.

Many of these European empires and countries also has colonies overseas. 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, and capital".

The absolutist Central Powers, led by a newly unified, dynamically industrializing German Empire, 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 ( or Friedrich) III inherited the crown of Prussia and the throne of the German Empire. He died shortly after succeeding to the throne of cancer of 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 the British and German Empires 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, the German Empire 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 the German Empire 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 the German Empire. 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, enemy, France.

The network of European alliances formed along the lines of imperial interests.

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:

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, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, acting primarily under the influence of Foreign Affairs Minister Leopold von Berschtold, sent an effectively unfulfillable ultimatum containing fifteen demands to Serbia (July 23, 1914), to be agreed to within 48 hours. The latter agreed to all but one of these terms. The Austro-Hungarian Empire nonetheless broke off diplomatic relations (July 25) and declared war (July 28) through a telegram sent to the Serbian government.

The Russian government, which saw itself as a guarantor of Serbian independence, mobilized[?] on July 30. This mobilization was ordered by Nicholas II who was under pressure by his military staff to do so. This followed a breakdown in crucial telegram communications between Nicholas and Wilhelm II. The German Empire, allied by treaty to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, demanded that Russia stand down its forces (July 31), but the Russian government persisted, as demobilization[?] would have made it impossible for her to re-activate her military schedule in the short term. The German Empire declared war against Russia (August 1) and, two days later, against the latter's ally France.

The Outbreak


  • July 28, The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia;
  • August 1, The German Empire declared war on Russia;
  • August 3, The German Empire declared war on France;
  • August 4 -
    • Germany invaded first tiny Luxembourg and then commenced invading neutral Belgium;
    • Britain declared war on the German Empire after the Germans refused to respect the neutrality of Belgium;
    • Australia declared war on the German Empire;
    • Canada declared war on the German Empire;
    • New Zealand declared war on the German Empire;
  • August 23, Japan declared war on the German Empire.
  • September of 1914 a Unity Pact was signed by France, Britain, and Russia;


  • May 23, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary;


  • August 28, Italy declared war on the German Empire;


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 mobilization 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 the German Empire (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.

The German Empire'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 mobilized 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 mobilization 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 (the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires) 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.

Italian Participation

Italy, until now notionally allied to the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires 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...."

Recruitment to the British army during WW I

The Trenching Begins

After their initial success on the Marne[?], Entente and German forces began a series of outflanking maneuvers to try to force the other to retreat, in the so-called Race to the Sea[?]. France and Britain soon 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.

In the trenches

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.

Poison Gas

Not even an initially devastating array of new weapons achieved the required victory: poison gas (first used by the Germans on Russian soldiers without much success in battle of Bolimow[?] on January 1, 1915. More known and often quoted as first usage is attack 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.

German Victories in the East

The Russian initial plans for war had called for simultaneous invasions of Austrian Galicia and German East Prussia. Although Russia's initial advance into Galicia was largely successful, they were driven back from East Prussia by the victories of the German generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes[?] in August and September 1914. Russia's less-developed economic and military organisation soon proved unequal to the combined might of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. In early 1915 the Russians were driven from Galicia, and in May the Central Powers achieved a remarkable breakthrough on Poland's southern fringes, capturing Warsaw on August 5 and forcing the Russians to withdraw from all of Poland.

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 against the Austrians, 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 only 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. Meanwhile, internal unrest grew in Russia, as the Tsar remained out of touch at the front, while the Empress's increasingly incompetent rule drew protests from all segments of Russian political life, resulting in the murder of Alexandra's favorite Rasputin by conservative noblemen in December 1916.

The Russian Revolution

In March 1917, demonstrations in St. Petersburg culminated in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the appointment of a weak centrist provisional government, which shared power with the socialists of the Petrograd Soviet[?]. This division of power led to confusion and chaos, both on the front and at home, and the army became progressively less able to effectively resist the Germans. Meanwhile, the war, and the government, became more and more unpopular, and the discontent was strategically used by the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, in order to gain power. The triumph of the Bolsheviks in November was immediately by followed by an armistice and negotiations with the Germans. At first, the Bolsheviks refused to agree to the harsh German terms, but when the Germans resumed the war and marched with impunity across the Ukraine, the new government acceeded to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, which took Russia out of the war and ceded vast territories in the east - including Finland, the Baltic provinces, Poland, and the Ukraine - to the Central Powers.

Entry of the United States

Early in 1917 Germany resumed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare[?]. This, combined with public indignation over the Zimmerman Telegram[?], led to a final break of relations with the Central Powers. 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. However, General John J. Pershing[?], American Expeditionary Force commander, resisted breaking up American units and using them as reinforcements for British and French units, as suggested by the Allies.

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 in Hutier tactics (after Oskar von Hutier[?]) to infiltrate 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 everywhere.

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.

Allied victory

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 Paris.

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 1919.

On October 24 the Italian Army, with very limited American assistance, began the Vittorio Veneto[?] offensive against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which lasted until November 4.

End of the War

Germany requested a cease-fire[?] on October 3, 1918, followed by Austria-Hungary on November 8, 1918. The fighting ended with an armistice agreed on November 11 at Compiègne[?].

When Wilhelm II. ordered the German High Seas Fleet to sortie against the Allied navies, they mutinied in Wilhelmshaven starting October 29, 1918. The Kaiser fled to Holland, which granted him political asylum. On November 9, the Republic was proclaimed, marking the end of the 1871 German Empire. See Weimar Republic for details.

The consequences of the War were long lasting. The June 1919 Treaty of Versailles put an official end to the war with Germany. The treaty required that Germany accept responsibility for starting the war and pay heavy reparations. 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:

Central Powers Soldiers Killed:

Civilians Killed:

Notable Infantry Weapons





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 (http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/war-list.htm) 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?


Paris Peace Conference of 1919[?]


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. See also: Spanish Flu

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. This was especialy acute in France where a huge number of their young men were killed or injured during the conflict. For the next few years the nation became obsessive in its mourning and thousands of memorials were erected, one for each village in France.

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. 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.

Also extremely important was the participation of French colonial troops from Indochina, North Africa, and Madagascar without these soldiers France would almost certainly have fallen. When these soldiers returned to their homelands and continued to be treated as second class citizens they became the nucleus of many indpendentist groups.


Many towns in the participating countries have a war memmorial dedicated to local residents who lost their lives.

Tombs of the Unknown Warrior[?]:


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 first major television documentary on the history of the war was the BBC's The Great War (1964), made in association with CBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and The Imperial War Museum. The series consists of 26 forty-minute episodes featuring extensive use of archive footage gathered from around the world and eyewitness interviews. Although some of the programme's conclusions have been disputed by historians it still makes compelling and often moving viewing.

See also:

External links

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