Facts, information and articles about World War I, aka The Great War
World War I Facts
July 28, 1914 – November 11, 1918
Europe, Mideast, Africa, Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean, North Sea, Baltic Sea
Allied Powers / Entente:
King George V
President Raymond Poincare
Tsar Nicholas II
King Victor Emmanuel III
King Peter I
King Albert I
Chief of General Staff Constantin Prezan
Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos
President Woodrow Wilson
Kaiser Wilhelm II
Emperor Franz Josef I
Minister of War Enver Pasha
Tsar Ferdinand I
Allied Powers casualties: 22 million
Central Powers casualties: 37.5 million
End of Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman & Russian empires
Harsh surrender terms forced on Germany major cause of WWII
Redrawing of borders in Europe & Mideast
World War I Articles
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World War I summary: The war fought between July 28, 1914, and November 11, 1918, was known at the time as the Great War, the War to End War, and (in the United States) the European War. Only when the world went to war again in the 1930s and ’40s did the earlier conflict become known as the First World War. Its casualty totals were unprecedented, soaring into the millions. World War I is known for the extensive system of trenches from which men of both sides fought. Lethal new technologies were unleashed, and for the first time a major war was fought not only on land and on sea but below the sea and in the skies as well. The two sides were known as the Allies or Entente—consisting primarily of France, Great Britain, Italy, Russia, and later the United States—and the Central Powers, primarily comprised of Austria-Hungary (the Habsburg Empire), Germany, and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). A number of smaller nations aligned themselves with one side or the other. In the Pacific Japan, seeing a chance to seize German colonies, threw in with the Allies. The Allies were the victors, as the entry of the United States into the war in 1917 added an additional weight of men and materiel the Central Powers could not hope to match.
The war resulted in a dramatically changed geo-political landscape, including the destruction of three empires: Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian. New borders were drawn at its conclusion and resentments, especially on the part of Germany, left festering in Europe. Ironically, decisions made after the fighting ceased led the War to End War to be a significant cause of the Second World War.
As John Keegan wrote in The First World War (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict … the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice.”
Casualties in World War I
In terms of sheer numbers of lives lost or disrupted, the Great War was the most destructive war in history until it was overshadowed by its offspring, the Second World War: an estimated 10 million military deaths from all causes, plus 20 million more crippled or severely wounded. Estimates of civilian casualties are harder to make; they died from shells, bombs, disease, hunger, and accidents such as explosions in munitions factories; in some cases, they were executed as spies or as “object lessons.” Additionally, as Neil M. Heyman in World War I (Greenwood Press, 1997) wrote, “Not physically hurt but scarred nonetheless were 5 million widowed women, 9 million orphaned children, and 10 million individuals torn from their homes to become refugees.” None of this takes into account the deaths in the Russian Civil War or the Third Balkan War, both of which directly resulted from World War I, nor the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed 50 million people worldwide, which was spread in part by conditions at the front and by soldiers returning home.
The highest national military casualty totals—killed, wounded, and missing/taken prisoner—in round numbers (sources disagree on casualty totals), were:
- Russia: 9,150,000
- Germany: 7,143,000
- Austria-Hungary: 7,000,000
- France, 6,161,000
- Britain & Commonwealth: 3,190,000
- Italy: 2,197,000
- Turkey (Ottoman Empire): 975,000
- Romania: 536,000
- Serbia: 331,000
- USA: 323,000
- Bulgaria: 267,000
For more information, click to see the Casualties of World War I.
Causes of World War I
Prime Minister of Germany Otto von Bismarck had prophesied that when war again came to Europe it would be over “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans.” Indeed, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Habsburg throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie, by a Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914, was the match that lit the fuse—but it didn’t create the powder keg. The outbreak of war between European nations was the result of several factors:
- Concern over other countries’ military expansion, leading to an arms race and entangling alliances
- Fear of losing economic and/or diplomatic status
- Long-standing ethnic differences and rising nationalism in the Balkans
- French resentment of territorial losses in the 1871 Franco-Prussian War
- The influence exerted by military leaders
Following their 1871 victory in the Franco-Prussian War, the German states unified into a single nation. Its leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, eldest grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria, envisioned an Imperial Navy that could rival Great Britain’s large and renowned fleet. This would increase German influence in the world and likely allow the country to expand its colonial holdings. Britain, fearful of losing its dominance of the seas, accelerated its naval design and construction to stay ahead of the Kaiser’s ship-building program.
Russia was rebuilding and modernizing its large army and had begun a program of industrialization. Germany and Austria-Hungary saw the threat posed by Russia’s large population and, hence, its ability to raise a massive army. They formed an alliance for self-protection against the Russian bear.
France, still stinging over the loss of Alsace and part of Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian war, made an agreement allying itself with Russia in any war with Germany or Austria-Hungary. Britain, after finding itself friendless during the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899–1902) allied itself with France and worked to improve relations with the United States of America. Russia, with many ethnic groups inside its vast expanse, made an alliance with Serbia in the Balkans.
The old Ottoman Empire was crumbling; “The Sick Man of Europe” was the phrase used to describe the once-powerful state. As its ability to exert control over its holdings in the Balkans weakened, ethnic and regional groups broke away and formed new states. Rising nationalism led to the First and Second Balkan Wars, 1912 and 1913. As a result of those wars, Serbia increased its size and began pushing for a union of all South Slavic peoples. Serbian nationalism led 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Habsburg throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie. Austria-Hungary, urged on by Germany, sent a list of demands to Serbia in response; the demands were such that Serbia was certain to reject them. When it did, the Habsburg Empire declared war on Serbia on July 28, exactly one month after the archduke’s assassination. Russia came in on the side of the Serbs, Germany on the side of the Habsburgs, and the entangling alliances between the nations of Europe pulled one after another into the war. Although diplomats throughout Europe strove to settle matters without warfare right up to the time the shooting started, the influence military leaders enjoyed in many nations won out—along with desires to capture new lands or reclaim old ones.
Combat in the First World War
German military planners were ready when the declarations of war began flying across Europe. They intended to hold off the Russians in the east, swiftly knock France out of the war through a maneuver known as the Schliefffen Plan, then throw their full force, along with Austria-Hungary, against the Russians. The Schliefffen Plan, named for General Count Alfred von Schlieffen who created it in 1905, called for invading the Low Countries (Luxembourg and Belgium) in order to bypass to the north the strong fortifications along the French border. After a rapid conquest of the Low Countries, the German advance would continue into northern France, swing around Paris to the west and capture the French capital. It almost worked, but German commander in chief General Helmuth von Moltke decided to send his forces east of Paris to engage and defeat the weakened French army head-on. In doing so he exposed his right flank to counterattack by the French and a British Expeditionary Force, resulting in the First Battle of the Marne, September 6–10, 1914. Despite casualties in the hundreds of thousands, the battle was a stalemate, but it stopped the German drive on Paris. Both sides began digging a network of trenches. The First Battle of the Marne was a window onto how the rest of the war would be fought: extensive trenchworks against which large numbers of men would be hurled, suffering extremely high casualties for little if any territorial gains. The centuries-old method of massed charges to break through enemy positions did not work when the men faced machine guns, barbed wire, and drastically more effective artillery than in the past.
The next four years would see battles in which millions of artillery shells were fired and millions of men were killed or mutilated. Click here to read about some of the costliest battles of the First World War. Deadly new weapons were responsible for the unprecedented carnage.
New Weapons of World War I
Among the lethal technological developments that were used for the first time (or in some cases used for the first time in a major conflict) during the Great War were the machine gun, poison gas, flamethrowers, tanks and aircraft. Artillery increased dramatically in size, range and killing power compared to its 19th-century counterparts. In the war at sea, submarines could strike unseen from beneath the waves, using torpedoes to send combat and merchant ships to the bottom. Click here for more information on Weapons of World War I.
War on the Eastern Front
On the Eastern Front, the German general Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff Erich Ludendorff engineered strategies that gave them dramatic victories over Russian armies. The war became increasing unpopular among the Russian people. Ludendorff, sensing a chance to take Tsar Nicholas II’s country out of the war, arranged for an exiled Marxist revolutionary named Vladimir Lenin to cross Europe in a special train and get back into Russia. As hoped, Lenin helped fuel the rising revolutionary fervor. The tsar was deposed and executed with his family in the March 1917 revolution. For the first time in Russian history a republican democracy was established, but its leaders underestimated the people’s resistance to continuing the war. When the new government failed to bring about a rapid peace, it was overthrown in November by a socialist revolution led by Lenin, following which Russia signed a peace agreement with Germany.
War in the Mountains
Fighting in the high elevations of the Balkans and Alps created additional agony for soldiers fighting there: bitterly cold winters and especially rugged terrain.
Serbia, whose countryman had fired the shots that gave rise to the slaughter taking place in Europe, was invaded twice by Austria-Hungary but repulsed both attempts. In the autumn of 1915, a third invasion came. This time the Hapsburgs were joined by Germany and Bulgaria. The outnumbered Serbs gave ground. Ultimately, the Serbian Army only escaped annihilation by a demanding march through Albania to the Adriatic Sea, where the French Navy rescued the survivors.
Romania remained neutral until August 1916 when it joined the Allies and declared war on Austria-Hungary in hopes of securing additional territories including Transylvania. As the poorly trained Romanian army advanced into Transylvania, German forces invaded and occupied Romania itself, quickly knocking the country out of the war.
Italy, wooed by both sides, entered the war on the Allied side in May 1915. Its efforts were concentrated on breaking through Austria’s mountain defenses, but its poorly equipped soldiers were ground up in a series of attacks at the Isonzo River, though their opponents also suffered severely. What gains the Italians made in the war were wiped out by a rout that began at Caporeto in October 1917 and unhinged the entire line.
The War Spreads Beyond Europe
While soldiers in Europe lived and died in the muddy, disease-ridden trenches, Britain attempted an attack in February 1915 against the Ottoman Empire, the “soft underbelly” of Europe, to aid the Russians and, ideally, force Turkey out of the war. An attempted invasion on the Gallipoli Peninsula resulted in a bloody repulse, but war in the interior of the Ottoman Empire met with greater success. Arab groups seeking to overthrow the empire waged a successful guerrilla war in the Mideast, led by Prince Feisal, third son of the Grand Sharif of Mecca. The revolt was aided by British liaison officer T.E. Lawrence of Wales, who became known as Lawrence of Arabia.
When the war ended, the Ottoman Empire was broken up. England and France drew borders for new countries in the Mideast without regard for ethnic and religious factions. The centuries-old tensions between the native inhabitants of the region led to many of the problems causing turmoil in the Mideast today, another irony of the War to End War.
Africa was home to a sideshow of the European fighting. European nationals and colonial troops of both sides fought against each other, but the German colonies were widely separated and unable to support each other. In German East Africa (Tanzania) an aggressive general named Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck waged a guerilla campaign against his British opponents until after the armistice was signed in Europe that ended the Great War.
In the waters of the Pacific Ocean German commerce raiders found prey among merchant vessels of Allied nations. Japan joined the Allies war effort on August 23, 1914, ostensibly in fulfillment of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1911. The Land of the Rising Sun seized German colonies such as the Marianas, Marshalls and Carolines island chains that would see intense fighting during the Second World War.
War at Sea
Among the causes of the First World War was the naval arms race that began with Britain’s deployment of HMS Dreadnought, a new design that eschewed small, secondary arms in favor of big guns heavily armored for protection. Every nation wanted a Dreadnought, and Germany sought to increase the size of its fleet to the level of Britain’s. Accomplishing that goal while supporting large armies engaged in warfare proved impossible for Germany, but World War I saw the last great battles fought entirely between surface ships. Notable naval engagements include the Falkland Islands and Coronel off South America, and the battles of Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland in the North Sea. Jutland would prove to be not only the largest naval battle up to that time but the last in which fighting would take place only between surface ships. In World War II, the aircraft carrier became the most lethal surface ship and allowed enemy fleets to engage in battle without ever seeing each other from a captain’s bridge.
The most significant advance in naval warfare to come out of the Great War was the development of submarines, which the German Imperial Navy called Unterseeboots (undersea boats). That got shortened to U-boats, a name that became synonymous with submarine. Subs could hide beneath the waves in shipping lanes to attack merchant or combat ships with torpedoes without ever being seen. Such attacks on merchant or passenger ships without giving the crews and passengers warning so they could escape in lifeboats was considered a violation of the laws of naval warfare, and became known as “unrestricted” submarine warfare. Germany engaged in such unrestricted warfare until U-20 sunk the British passenger liner Lusitania off Ireland in May 1915. Over 1,200 lives were lost, including 128 Americans, and the US threatened to break diplomatic relations with Germany. The Imperial Navy subsequently instituted strict regulations for U-boat attacks, but those went by the boards in 1917 as the Germans tried to cut off supplies to Britain and starve the island nation into submission. It was a bad decision. The renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare and subsequent sinking of three American ships brought the US into the war, after which Germany’s fate was all but sealed.
War in the Air
Airplanes had already seen limited military before World War I began. Italian aircraft were used for reconnaissance and small-scale bombing during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911. Aircraft during World War I continued to be used primarily for reconnaissance, including photo-reconnaissance missions. The first aircraft of the war weren’t even armed, since no serious effort had been made to create a fighting flying machine. Pilots began shooting at each other with pistols and rifles. Soon various schemes were attempted to attach machine guns to planes. The breakthrough came in 1915 when Holland’s Anthony Fokker developed a method to synchronize a machine gun’s fire with the rotation of the propeller on his Eindecker (single-wing) design for the German air force.
Early war planes were very light and used small engines with top speeds of less than 100 mph. On many designs the engine was in the rear and pushed the plane through the air. The demands of wartime, each side trying to outdo the other’s technological advances, created rapid improvements in aircraft design. Changes might occur within weeks; in the decades following the war, such changes would take years. By war’s end small, single-engine planes had been joined by multi-engine bombers such as the Giant, which Germany used to bomb British cities. Zeppelins were also used for reconnaissance and for bombing over land and sea. Tethered barrage balloons carried observers high above the front to watch enemy troop movements—and attracted the attention of the enemy’s airborne fighters.
While the war on the ground was a miserable existence in muddy, rat- and disease-infested trenches, and millions of lives might be spent to gain a few miles of territory, the war in the air captured the imagination of the world. Using this exciting new technology to maneuver through the skies and engage the enemy in one-on-one dogfights in which skillful pilots could rise to the status of ace gave the air war a sense of glamour that still hangs over the pilots of World War I.
America Joins the War
Most Americans saw little reason for the United States to involve itself in “the European War,” though some individuals—such as young pilots excited at the notion of flying in combat—enlisted through Canada or elsewhere. President Woodrow Wilson won reelection in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” That same year he tried to bring the combatant nations to the bargaining table to seek an end to the war that would be fair to all, but the attempt failed.
America was drawn into the conflict by the Zimmerman telegraph and unrestricted submarine warfare. On January 16, 1917, Foreign Secretary of the German Empire Arthur Zimmerman sent a coded message to the German ambassador in Mexico City, Heinrich von Eckart informing him Germany would return to unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, a policy that might cause America to declare war. “We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral,” Zimmerman wrote, but if those efforts failed, Eckart was to convince Mexico to become Germany’s ally. As an inducement, Eckart was authorized to offer the return of the US states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico after America was defeated.
The code was broken, and the contents of the telegram published on March 1. Americans were outraged. Two weeks later German U-boats sank three American vessels. Wilson asked Congress on April 1 to authorize a declaration of war against Germany, which it did four days later. War was declared on the other Central Powers shortly thereafter.
When American troops and war materiel began arriving in Europe later in 1917, it unalterably shifted the balance of power in favor of the Allies. A final German offensive began on May 21, 1918, an attempt to win the war before the full weight of American strength could arrive. The Spring Offensive (also called the Ludendorff Offensive and the Kaiser’s Battle) sputtered out when German supply vehicles couldn’t keep up with the rapidly advancing soldiers across the broken, cratered battleground, and the Kaiser’s troops were left in poor defensive positions. An Allied operation that became known as the Hundred Days Offensive pushed the enemy back to the German border by September. Germany’s allies began their own peace negotiations.
The German navy mutinied. Ludendorff, architect of many German victories in the east, was dismissed. Riots broke out, often led by German Bolsheviks. Prince Max, Chancellor of Germany, authorized negotiations for peace terms and stipulated that both military and civilian representatives be involved. He then turned his title over to Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Socialist Democratic movement. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated on November 9. An agreement between the combatants called for all guns to fall silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Yet, even on the morning of November 11, before the designated time for the armistice to begin, some field officers ordered their men to make attacks, which accomplished little except more bloodshed.
A series of peace treaties were signed between the combatant nations, but the most significant was the Treaty of Versailles, signed on July 28, 1919, five years after Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. Germany had hoped Woodrow Wilson would be a moderating factor that would allow for more generous peace terms, but the nations that had lost millions of young men to the weapons of the Central Powers were in no mood to be forgiving. As a result of the various treaties, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled. Austria-Hungary was broken into separate nations and forced to cede lands to successor states such as Czechoslovakia. Bulgaria was limited to a 20,000-man army, denied any aircraft or submarines and ordered to pay reparations over a 35-year period. Germany was restricted to a standing army of just 100,000 men, denied possession of certain weapons such as tanks, forced to pay reparations to its former enemies and give up all of its overseas colonies as well as some of its territories in Europe. In the coming years Germans would brood over the harsh terms and seek not only to overturn them but to inflict punishment on the nations that demanded them.
All combatant nations had concealed from their people the true extent of casualties during the war, but in Germany, where Hindenburg and Ludendorff were given control over virtually all aspects of civilian life as well as over the military, any negative reports about what was happening at the front were considered “defeatist” and were prohibited. Accordingly, much of the population believed it when they were told Germany was winning the war. The country’s sudden capitulation left them shocked and bewildered. Hindenburg claimed that the German soldier had been winning the war but was “stabbed in the back” by civilians who overthrew the monarchy. The popular old soldier was elected president of Germany, and his “stabbed in the back” myth was used to great effect by a rising political star, Adolf Hitler.
Articles Featuring World War I From History Net Magazines
Point of View: What a Century! Observing the Centenary of the First World War, by Michael S. Nieberg
Historians have a love-hate relationship with major anniversaries of historic events. The anniversaries bring new attention to a subject and offer a chance to educate the public, but they often become tainted by politics and dealt with in a superficial fashion.
World War I Resources
Historian Michael Neiberg recommends five books and three websites for those seeking to learn more about World War I
First Shot of World War I, by Christopher Clark
An excerpt from The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Rolls-Royce Armored Car: The Bulletproof Ghost, by Jim Motavalli
A luxury car becomes an effective armored fighting vehicle.
Interview with Gary Sheffeld
Professor Gary Sheffield, chair of War Studies at Britain’s University of Birmingham and a former instructor at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and at the British Joint Services Command and Staff College. Author of Forgotten Victory: The First World War, Myths and Realities, in this interview he answers questions about that conflict.
An International Red Line, by Christopher A. Warren
Following World War I the international community had intense debate over whether poison gas should remain a legitimate weapon of war or be banned.
The Carpathian Winter War, 1915, by Graydon A. Tunstall
Little Soldiers: A French photojournalist captures Paris children playing at war in the dark days of World War I, by Jennifer Berry
Includes 10 of Leon Gimpel’s photographs of children in Paris as they played at war while a real war raged in the world outside the city.
Veterans Day: History of a Symbol, by Karen Sutherland
A 15-line poem written in just 20 minutes became an enduring symbol because it speaks volumes about those who lost their lives near Ypres, Belgium.
The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher M. Clark, and July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean MeMeekin
The Great War Seen From the Air: In Flanders Fields, 1914
The Making of the First World War, by Ian F.W. Beckett
War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War, by William Philpott
Naval Aviation in the First World War: It’s Impact and Influence, by R.D. Layman
A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, by Geoffrey Wawro
More World War I Articles
More World War I Articles
Audio: The Incredible Story Of Sgt. Stubby, The World War I Service DogNancy Furstinger, author of 'Paws of Courage: True Tales of Heroic Dogs that Protect and Serve' tells the amazing story of Sgt Stubby, a World War I hero.
Ten Notable Women of World War ITen women whose roles in WW1 brought them praise. Some received medals. Some gave their lives.
Did Germany’s Allies Send Troops to the Western Front in WW1?Hello, During World War One on the Western Front I know from my military history that the Allies, Britain and France not only had units from their own countries and colonies but even Imperial Russian, then under the rule of Czar Nicholas, provided a token force in that theatre of war and perhaps even Imperial …
Two Deaths Led to the Deaths of MillionsThe deaths of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, sparked a war in which millions would die.
Defenders Lodge – Accessible Lodging for Veterans During Medical TreatmentA new facility provides lodging for veterans and caregivers during times of medical treatment.
Three World War 1 QuestionsDear Mr. History I have three questions about World War 1. It would be great if i could receive an answer on each but it would still be extremely helpful if you had time less. Anyway, I’m wondering: 1. Imperialism and Nationalism are the two main causes for WW1, but when, where and how do …
The Carpathian Winter War, 1915The "Stalingrad of World War I" was an epic bloodletting between the million-man armies of Russia and the inept Habsburg Empire
MHQ Reviews: The Great War Seen From the AirA marvel of a book reproduces and explain the most interesting early aerial images of WWI Flanders, showing us what the war looked like from above
American GasLate in WWI the U.S. Army developed its own deadly chemical weapons, which still haunt a D.C. neighborhood
MHQ Reviews: War of AttritionA fast-moving, richly detailed history of World War I
MHQ Reviews: A Mad CatastropheGeoffrey Wawro offers a fascinating addition to the military and diplomatic scholarship surrounding Austria-Hungary’s inept move toward war
Battling Beast DebutsThe first airplane to emerge from the new restoration hangar at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center was unveiled to the public on April 1: the Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver
Waiting for the Candy BomberSpirit of Freedom is one of hundreds of aircraft that delivered more than 200,000 tons of food and fuel during the airlift.
Kermit’s Curtiss-WrightsThe Curtiss-Wright CW-19 is a rare representative of the transitional days when U.S. aviation stepped fully into the mid-20th century.
What was the First “World War”?Dear Mr History, What and when was the first “world war,” in that fighting took place across all continents (excluding Antarctica)? Thanks, Mitchell ? ? ? Given the amount of global venues where the British and French navies fought, the Seven Years War (1756-1763) is often cited as the first world war worthy of the term. …
Mark I Lewis Gun: The Allies’ Mobile EqualizerDesigned by Americans and introduced by the British, the Lewis proved the most reliable and versatile Allied light machine gun of World War I.
The “Man of Force” Who Saved BelgiumBefore Herbert Hoover became the scapegoat for the Great Depression, he was an international hero who led one of the greatest humanitarian relief efforts in history
Mil Mi-24 Hind: A Russian Gunship With AttitudeDespite is susceptibility to Stingers, the Mi-24 assault gunship packs a sting of its own and has proved an enduring war machine.
What If Penicillin Had Not Been Developed?Without the mass-production of penicillin, thousands of personnel escaped death or amputation.
Adapting to Chemical Weapons in World War IGerman soldiers lay out lead pipes for releasing poison gas as the prelude to an assault on the Allied trench line in August 1917. The first chlorine gas attacks in April 1915 were spewed from canisters, but the vagaries of the wind and weather made that method of dispersal impracticable. (National Archives) A German 170mm …
USS Leviathan aka SS Vaterland(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command via Stephen Harding) A drawing of the dazzle camouflage pattern devised for Leviathan, used for reference in painting up the actual vessel. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command via Stephen Harding) While troops board from one side, a coal barge loads fuel aboard Leviathan. Until mechanical lifts were available, …
An International Red LineWhy chemical weapons are taboo
What a Century! Observing the Centenary of the First World WarHistorian and U.S. Army War College professor Michael S. Neiberg explains why the centenary of the First World War matters more than most
Spanish StorkEmilio Garcia-Conde's Fieseler Fi-156 "Storch" in Spanish Civil War Nationalist markings. For all its warlike mien and malevolent insignia, the Luftwaffe version of the Fieseler Fi-156 Storch (Stork) is somehow charming—all gawky gear legs, gaping overbite engine cowling, the cabin glazing of a tomato-grower’s greenhouse and an Argus inverted V8 that idles like a John …
First Shot of World War IHow seven bumbling terrorists nearly failed to carry out the 1914 murder in Sarajevo that sparked a global conflict
Was There a Crime in the Tragedy of the Great War?Two new books weigh the accountability of the European powers in bringing about the First World War
Were there plans for a Marine division in World War I?In World War 1, had Germany kept fighting did the Marine Corps have any plan on activating a full division? Also, was there ever any plan to activate a 7th Marine Div and or a 6th Marine Air wing if Japan had to be invaded in World War 2? John ? ? ? Dear John, …
World War I Intrigue: German Spies in New York!On the eve of America’s entry into World War I, saboteurs plotted—and carried out—attacks on the U.S. home front
The Gun That Should Have Changed EverythingAn 1864 battle in Denmark foretold the advent of mechanized death
Who was the highest ranking officer killed in action during World War I?Who was the highest ranking officer killed in action during World War I?
Shooting Down the Legend of the Red Baron’s TriplaneDespite its enduring fame, the Red Baron’s slow, crash-prone plane was no great fighting machine.
‘Great War in the Air’ – Interview with Documentary-Maker Jan GoldsteinSelf-taught filmmaker Jan Goldstein got tired of waiting for someone to make an in-depth documentary about pilots and planes of World War I and created 'The Great War in the Air' on his own.
Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.
World War I has often been described as an “unnecessary war.” Why? Do you agree?
World War I has been called unnecessary because the original dispute that triggered the conflict was limited, yet it triggered a massive, global war. In short, the conflict stemmed merely from Austria-Hungary and Serbia’s disagreement over how to handle the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand: the Austro-Hungarian government believed that the Serbian government was connected with the assassination and therefore demanded to be involved in the investigation and judicial process within Serbia. No other countries had a direct interest in the matter. Russia and Germany were the next to get involved, not because of animosity toward each other but because of their intentions to protect Serbia and Austria-Hungary, respectively. France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire had even less interest in the matter. Thus, one could argue that much of the war could have been avoided if Russia and Germany had simply kept out of the matter.
On the other hand, real tensions existed among many of the principal nations prior to the war, and these conflicting ambitions contributed to the war’s escalation. In particular, the naval arms race between Germany and Britain was intensifying, and growing German colonial ambitions raised the tension level further. Additionally, the spread of nationalism in southern Europe was destabilizing Austria-Hungary, making the country dangerously vulnerable to minority uprisings. Thus, many observers and strategists felt that an armed conflict between the European powers was inevitable; the disagreement over the archduke’s assassination simply provided a spark and an outlet.
2. What, if any, are the connections between the causes of the war in 1914 and the reasons that the war was still going on in 1918?
In many ways, World War I in mid-1914 and World War I in mid-1918 are unrelated. What started as a local conflict over a political assassination had become an unbelievable bloodbath: the Indian troops fighting in Mesopotamia, the Australians fighting in Gallipoli, and the Americans fighting in France had little invested in the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. The same was largely true at the government level in many of the warring nations. For the Allied Powers, the fight was mostly about Germany, not Austria-Hungary. By 1918, those who were still fighting were doing so because they could not find a way to stop without facing unacceptable losses.
On the other hand, some of the roots of the original conflict—factors that predated Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination—were still present and still unresolved. Nationalism, which was spreading rapidly through southern and eastern Europe, became the major cause of mutinies in the Austro-Hungarian army. Ultimately, these mutinies caused Austria-Hungary’s collapse, isolating Germany and helping bring about the war’s end. Thus, one could argue that the same problem that had started the war was at least partly responsible for ending it.
Consider the role of diplomacy in World War I. How was it a positive influence? How was it a negative one?
Although diplomacy traditionally is used to prevent armed conflicts from happening, in the case of World War I, it in many ways played the opposite role, whether intended or not. Few of the combatant nations in World War I were directly interested in the disputes between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and in many cases they became involved only because of treaties obligating them to defend other countries. Although some of these treaties were publicly known, many had been made in secret, preventing potential enemies from ascertaining the consequences of their actions.
This opaqueness of diplomacy was arguably one of the main factors that led Germany to make such aggressive moves early in the war, as many German leaders believed that Britain would never enter the war against them. Russia likewise pursued a number of secret treaties and agreements both before and during the war. Italy even went so far as to shop around secretly when trying to decide which side offered the greatest potential benefits. Ultimately, these secret diplomatic maneuverings escalated the war to catastrophic levels. As a result, one of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points policy was that henceforth, all treaties and trade agreements between nations be held with full public disclosure.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. What is trench warfare, and why was so much of World War I dominated by this method of fighting? Consider such elements as technology, strategy, attitudes of leaders, and any other factors you can think of. How did trench warfare affect the duration of the war?
2. After the war, Germany was punished much more severely than were the remnants of Austria-Hungary. Do you think this was reasonable? In your answer, consider the roles each country shared in starting and escalating the war. Also consider the roles of Serbia and Russia.
3. How did the use of new technologies during World War I influence the war? Which sides benefited the most from which technologies? Did any of them play a role in either lengthening or in shortening the war? Which technologies were the most important?
4. Discuss the U.S. policy on American troops serving in Europe during World War I. Why do you think American commanders were hesitant to allow U.S. soldiers to serve in British and French regiments? What effect did this policy have on America’s relations with the other Allied countries?
5. What was the Schlieffen Plan and why was it unsuccessful during World War I?