World War I
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 wars" until World War II started, although the name "First World War" was coined as early as 1920 by Lt-Col # Court Repington in The First World War 1914-18.
Some scholars write of the First World War as merely the first phase of a 30-year-long war spanning the period 1914 - 1945.
Haut-Rhin, France 1917
Though triggered by the assassination (June 28, 1914) of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria in Sarajevo, Bosnia at the hands of a pro-Serbian nationalist assassin (a Bosnian Serb student named Gavrilo Princip), the war's origins lie in the complex relations of the European powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 had brought not only the establishment of a powerful and dynamic German Empire , but also a legacy of animosity between France and Germany following the latter's annexation of the formerly French territory of Alsace-Lorraine. Under the political direction of her first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, Germany secured her new position in Europe by an alliance with Austria-Hungary and a diplomatic understanding with Russia.
The accession (1888) of Emperor Wilhelm II brought to the German throne a young ruler determined to direct policy himself, despite his rash diplomatic judgment. After the 1890 elections, in which the centre and left parties made major gains, and due in part to his disaffection at inheriting the Chancellor who had guided his grandfather for most of his career, Wilhelm engineered Bismarck's resignation.
Much of the fallen Chancellor's work was undone in the following decades, as Wilhelm failed to renew the arrangement with Russia, presenting republican France with the opportunity to conclude (1891-94) a full alliance with the Russian Empire. Worse was to follow, as Wilhelm undertook (1897-1900) the creation of a German navy capable of threatening Britain's century-old naval mastery, prompting the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale of 1904 and its expansion (1907) to include Russia.
Rivalry among the powers was exacerbated from the 1880s by the scramble for colonies which brought much of Africa and Asia under European rule in the following quarter-century. Even the once hesitantly imperialistic Bismarck became an advocate of overseas Empire, adding to Anglo-German tension as German acquisitions in Africa and the Pacific threatened to impinge upon British strategic and commercial interests. Wilhelm's support for Moroccan independence from France, Britain's new strategic partner, provoked the Tangier Crisis of 1905. During the Second Moroccan or Agadir Crisis (1911), a German naval presence in Morocco tested the Anglo-French coalition once again.
A key ingredient in the emerging diplomatic powder-keg was the growth of powerful nationalist aspirations among the Balkan states, which each looked to Germany, Austria-Hungary or Russia for support. The rise of anti-Austrian circles in Serbia following a 1903 palace coup contributed to a further crisis in 1908 over Austria's unilateral annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, German pressure forcing a humiliating climbdown on the part of a Russia weakened (1905) by defeat at the hands of Japan and subsequent revolutionary disorder
Alarm at Russia's unexpectedly rapid recovery after 1909 fuelled feeling among German ruling circles in favour of a pre-emptive war to break alleged Entente "encirclement" before Russian rearmament could tip the strategic balance decisively against Germany and Austria-Hungary. By 1913 both France and Germany were planning to extend military service, while Britain had entered into a naval convention and military discussions with France during the previous year.
Austrian regional security concerns grew with the near-doubling of neighbouring Serbia's territory as a result of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Franz Ferdinand's assassination in June 1914 provided the opportunity sought by some Austrian leaders for a reckoning with the smaller Slav kingdom. The Sarajevo conspirators were alleged by the Austro-Hungarian authorities to have been armed by the shadowy Black Hand, a pan-Serb nationalist grouping with links to Serbian ruling circles.
With German backing, Austria-Hungary, acting primarily under the influence of Foreign Affairs Minister Leopold von Berchtold, sent an effectively unfulfillable 15-point ultimatum to Serbia (July 23, 1914), to be accepted within 48 hours. The Serbian government agreed to all but one of the demands. Austria-Hungary nonetheless broke off diplomatic relations (July 25) and declared war (July 28) through a telegram sent to the Serbian government.
The Russian government, which had pledged in 1909 to uphold Serbian independence in return for Serbia's acceptance of the Bosnia annexation, mobilized its military reserves on July 30 following a breakdown in crucial telegram communications between Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II, who was under pressure by his military staff to prepare for war. Germany demanded (July 31) that Russia stand down her forces, but the Russian government persisted, as demobilization would have made it impossible to re-activate its military schedule in the short term. Germany declared war against Russia on (August 1) and, two days later, against the latter's ally France.
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 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 mobilized Russian army. The German plan involved demanding free passage across Belgium. When this was denied, Germany invaded, occupying Luxembourg rapidly but encountering resistance before the forts of the Belgian city of Liege. 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.
- July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia;
- August 1, Germany declared war on Russia;
- August 2, German troops occupied Luxembourg;
- August 3, Germany declared war on France;
- August 4, Germany invaded neutral Belgium;
- August 4, The United Kingdom declared war on Germany after the latter failed to undertake to respect Belgian neutrality;
- August 20, German forces occupy Brussels.
- August 23, Japan declared war on Germany.
- September of 1914 a Unity Pact was signed by France, Britain, and Russia;
- October 9, Siege of Antwerp - Antwerp, Belgium fell to German troops.
- November 1-5, Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
- May 23, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary;
- October: Bulgaria entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
- August 27, Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary;
- 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 German Empire offered to give the American Southwest back to Mexico if Mexico would declare war on the United States
- April 6, the United States declared war on Germany;
- August 14, the Republic of China declared war on Germany.
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, though initially the Turks were successful in repelling enemy incursion. But in Mesopotamia, after the disastrous Siege of Kut (1915-16), the British reorganized and captured Baghdad in March 1917. Further to the west in Palestine, 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 (September 1918).
Italy, since 1882 notionally allied to the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires but with her own designs against Austrian territory in South Tyrol, Istria and Dalmatia, and a secret 1902 understanding with France effectively nullifying her alliance commitments, 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 eliminated Italy as a major threat.
After repulsing three Austrian invasions in August-December 1914, Serbia fell to combined German, Austrian and Bulgarian invasion in October 1915. Serbian troops continued to hold out in Albania and Greece, where a Franco-British force had landed to offer assistance and to pressure the Greek government into war against the Central Powers.
|Louvain, Belgium, 1915|
After their initial success on the Marne, Entente and German forces began a series of outflanking manoeuvres to try to force the other to retreat, in the so-calledRace 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 seeking to take the offensive while the Germans sought to defend the territories they had occupied. One consequence of this was that the German trenches were much better constructed than those of their enemy: the Anglo-French trenches were only intended to be '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.
Both the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele (1917) 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 Russian soldiers without much success in battle of Bolimow on January 1, 1915; more often quoted as first use is the 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.
Nieuport Fighter Aisne, France 1917
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 favourite Rasputin by conservative noblemen at the end of 1916.
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 followed in December 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 acceded to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, which took Russia out of the war and ceded vast territories including Finland, the Baltic provinces, Poland and the Ukraine to the Central Powers.
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 requested that the United States Congress declare war, which it did 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.
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 as 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.
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 12 the First United States Army, which had recently been organized from the American Expeditionary Force, eliminated the Saint-Mihiel 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.
Bulgaria was the first of the Central Powers to sign an armistice (September 29, 1918, followed by Turkey (October 30) Germany requested a cease-fire on October 3, 1918, followed by Austria-Hungary. The fighting ended with an armistice agreed on November 11 at Compiegne. Austria and Hungary had signed separate armistices following the overthrow of the Habsburg monarchy.
When Wilhelm II. ordered the German High Seas Fleet to sortie against the Allied navies, they mutinied in Wilhelmshaven starting October 29, 1918. On November 9, a German Republic was proclaimed, marking the end of the 1871 German Empire. The Kaiser fled the next day to Holland, which granted him political asylum. See Weimar Republic for details.
- Belgium: 13,700
British Empire: 908,000
- Australia: 60,000
- Canada: 55,000
- India: 25,000
- New Zealand: 16,000
- South Africa: 7,000
- United Kingdom: 715,000
- France: 1,240,000
- French Colonies: 114,000
- Greece: 5,000
- Italy: 650,000
- Japan: 300
- Montenegro: 3,000
- Romania: 336,000
- Russia: 1,700,000
- Serbia: 45,000
- United States: 50,600
- Austria-Hungary: 1,200,000
- Bulgaria: 87,500
- Germany: 1,770,000
- Turkey: 325,000
- Austria-Hungary: 300,000
- Belgium: 30,000
- Britain: 31,000
- Bulgaria: 275,000
- France: 40,000
- Germany: 760,000
- Greece: 132,000
- Romania: 275,000
- Russia: 3,000,000
- Serbia: 650,000
- Turkey: 1,000,000
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.Maxim machine gun. British forces used the Lewis gun and Webley. American forces used the Browning Automatic Rifle and M1911. German forces used the Karabiner 98k and Luger. French forces used the Chauchat. 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, and it was left to Germany and Austria-Hungary "to determine the future status of these territories in agreement with their population."
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 accidentally 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 considered 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 especially 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.
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 position between East Prussia and the rest of Germany. In addition the western powers helped Poland gain another huge chunk of land in western Ukraine. Britain and France occupied the vast majority of former German and Ottoman colonies as "League of Nations mandate s".
Russia also lost substantial land. The countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were created to accommodate 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 went to Italy. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and Vojvodina were joined with Serbia and Montenegro to form the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later 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 states of eastern Europe nearly all had large national minorities. 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 subordinate to Britain, leading to the growth of diplomatic autonomy in the 1920s.
Also extremely important was the participation of French colonial troops from Indochina, North Africa, and Madagascar without whom France might well have fallen. When these soldiers returned to their homelands and continued to be treated as second class citizens, many became the nucleus of pro-independence groups.
Many towns in the participating countries have a war memorial dedicated to local residents who lost their lives.Champagne region of France, quantities of unexploded shells and other ammunition have remained, some of which remains dangerous and continues to cause injuries and occasional fatalities into the 21st century. Some are still found nowadays, for instance by farmers plowing their fields. Some of this ammunition contains chemical toxic products such as mustard gas. Cleanup of major battlefields is a continuing task with no end in sight for decades more. Squads remove, defuse or destroy hundreds of tonnes of unexploded ammunition every year in France.
- Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
- Westminster Abbey, London, UK
- Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, USA
For more details on the subject, consult these histories:
- Barbara Tuchman: The Guns of August tells of the opening diplomatic and military manoeuvres.
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.