The First World War, also called the Great War, was a war fought on a global scale from 1914 to 1918. Embroiling the nations of Europe mainly, it also included Russia, the Middle East, and the United States of America. Certain other regions were involved as well. The First World War was fought by the Central Powers, namely Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, with the Allied Powers, France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy and Japan. The United States of America joined the war on the Allied side in 1917. In the end, the Central Powers were defeated. This was the first time the world had witnessed such an unprecedented war, in terms of the carnage, slaughter and devastation. The world, after the war, was destroyed, not just physically, but in spirit as well.
Bound to happen
As the Industrial Revolution had already begun in most parts of Europe, mainly in Germany and Great Britain, goods began to be manufactured at a rapid rate. Countries also started to invent new weapons and manufacture them. Great Britain and Germany were already involved in a naval and military arms race. This made some kind of conflict inevitable. In the earlier Franco-Prussian War, Germany had seen a major success and this only served to encourage the belief of Prussian supremacy. After this war, Germany annexed Alsace and Lorraine, arousing a spirit of revenge in the people of France. Europe was just on the brink of conflict and needed a final match to ignite one. World War I claimed the lives of 16 million people and drastically changed the map of Europe.
A number of alliances between the nations of Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Russia and other states had been prevailing for several years. Nonetheless, the Balkan region was politically unstable, specifically Bosnia, Serbia and Herzegovina. This fact played an incidental role in exacerbating a war-like atmosphere.
The last straw
More than a century ago, in 1914, a Serbian, Gavrilo Princip, killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, in Sarajevo. He was shot in his carriage, with his wife Sophie, on a visit to the country. Princip was a Serbian nationalist who was in league with co-conspirators who wanted to end the rule of Austria-Hungary in Serbia. This incident acted as the catalyst for the inception of World War I. After this, as many other countries also did, Austria-Hungary blamed the government of Serbia.
A chain of causative events
Russia was considered a mighty power and pledged help to Serbia. Austria-Hungary didn’t want to declare war till the Kaiser Wilhelm I, the German ruler, assured support. Austria-Hungary believed that Russian allies, France and Great Britain would get involved. The Kaiser gave his support to Austria-Hungary in case of war. Then the rulers of Austria-Hungary sent a harsh ultimatum to Serbia. The terms of this were absolutely unacceptable to Serbia.
Serbia was sure that Austria-Hungary we’re making preparations for a war, especially after receiving the ultimatum. As a result, the forces of Serbia began mobilization and asked for Russia’s help. On July 28, 2014, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. In the span of a week, Russia, France, Belgium, Great Britain and Serbia were all set for the greatest war the Earth was to witness – the First World War.
World War I – Dual Fronts
In accordance with a strategic military plan, the Germans began to fight in World War I on dual fronts. They invaded France by way of Belgium, a neutral country, in the West. Additionally, they conflicted with Russia in the East. In early August 1914, German soldiers trooped into Belgium. They captured a city called Liege, using huge cannons. They advanced through Belgium mercilessly destroying everything in their way, including priests and churches.
Battle of the Marne
From September 6 to 9, 1914, France and Britain fought against the invading army of Germany. The Allies curbed the attack by German troops, making them turn back to the northern part of the River Aisne. German plans to gain a quick victory in France were foiled at Marne. Both German and allied troops took part in trench warfare. The Western Front was the scene of a horrific war that would continue for three years more.
Noteworthy battles fought on the Western Front were undertaken at Verdun, from February to December 1916, and the Battle of the Somme, from July to November, 1916. At Verdun alone, both sides experienced nearly a million in casualties. From these battles of the Great War, emerged the inspiration of poets, who were also soldiers. These were mainly British troops, writing about their authentic and gut-wrenching experience.
War on the Eastern Front
In the East, Russian soldiers attacked German-dominated regions of Poland and Eastern Prussia. Nonetheless, the Russians were defeated by the Central Powers in the Battle of Tannenberg in the latter part of August 1914. In spite of this, the Russian attack had compelled the Germans to move corps from the Western Front to the Eastern Front. This resulted in German losses on the Western Front.
World War I and the Russian Revolution
Until 1916, Russia, though steadfastly battling German forces, wasn’t able to weaken the German offensive. Defeat in war, and poor economic conditions and poverty, resulted in growing dissatisfaction among the Russian people at home. The majority were poor laborers and peasants. Their aggravation was clearly aimed at Czar Nicholas II. What made the situation worse was that his wife, Alexandria, was a German by birth.
In 1917, the people of Russia openly revolted against the injustices of the rulers. The Russian Revolution was led by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks. This brought czarist rule to an end and halted Russia’s involvement in World War I.
The First World War and America
When the First World War began, America just watched from the sidelines. The nation, powerful as it was, chose to stay neutral, according to its then President Woodrow Wilson. America continued to trade with the Europeans. Nonetheless, this stance was becoming harder and harder to stick to due to the unbridled German submarine attacks on ships that were neutral. Germany, in the year 1915, declared that the water bodies around the British Isles would be zones of war. German U-boats went on to sink many cargo and passenger ships in the area. This included some American vessels.
The Lusitania, a British passenger ship, sailing from New York to Liverpool, was sunk by a German U-boat. There were hundreds of Americans on board. Throughout America, this spurred protests. Finally, in 1917, the American Congress passed a bill for appropriating arms worth $250 million to prepare for war. Following this, Germany sank four more American cargo ships. President Wilson officially called for a declaration of war with Germany. With this, America entered the Great War.
Campaign at Gallipoli
After Great Britain failed in its attack on the Dardanelles – the strait joining the Aegean Sea to the Marmara Sea – the British-led Allied forces undertook another invasion on a massive scale. This was in the Penninsula of Gallipoli, in April 1915. The invasion was a miserable failure and the Allies had to retreat from the coast, losing 250,000 troops in the bargain.
The Isonzo Battle
In the battles at Isonzo, soon after Italy joined to aid the Allies, German troops, along with Austro-Hungarian forces, won decisive battles against the Italians. Nonetheless, the British and French forces came in to help the Italians and regained victories on the Italian side.
World War I at Sea
Before the First World War started, Great Britain’s naval prowess was unmatched throughout the world. Nevertheless, after many years of research and engineering, Germany showed great strides in bridging the gap between itself and the British. The German forces showed powerful gains in the high seas with its unbeatable U-boat submarine warfare. After victories against the Germans in the North Sea, the German forces chose to disengage from battle on the sea with British vessels. They shifted their strategy on the sea by relying on their U-boats instead. In possibly the most relevant sea battle of World War I, the superiority of the British Navy was maintained, and Germany had no further engagements with Great Britain and the Allies.
World War I in the Air
This was the first war in which warfare was conducted through planes. Aviation was a new field, but advanced quite fast. During the Battle of the Marne, pilots passed information vital to the victory of the Allied forces. Mounted atop planes, the first machine guns were created in the United States in 1912. These were less than perfect. Nonetheless, the French corrected this imperfection and British, French and Russian warplanes used weaponry in the First World War. Though the Germans also used new technology and built warplanes, by the end of the war, Great Britain had more aircraft than the Germans. They also created the Royal Air Force, as a separate branch of the armed forces.
The Second Battle of the Marne
In 1918, German forces attacked French and American troops at Marne. The Germans were defeated and suffered a huge number of casualties. They retreated and called off a planned attack at Flanders as well. The tide of the war turned in favor of the Allies, who got back French territory as well as a lot of Belgian areas. The war ended soon after, with Austria-Hungary slowly defeating itself from within. Nationalist sentiment was growing here too, as there were diverse people in its empire. Germany was broken, as far as troops were concerned, and at home, facing a huge economic depression. In November 1918, Germany surrendered to the Allied forces and this ended World War I.
In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed as a document to “end all wars”. Nonetheless, this very treaty was the cause of World War II. It laid down very stringent terms to which Germany, already wounded in more ways than one, had to adhere. Germany was saddled by war guilt, major war reparations, denied entry to the League of Nations (an organization set up to promote peace), and had to give up territory. The First World War made sure that World War II would follow as Germany would seek revenge.
World War I caused massive upheaval in social life and was economically destructive to France as well as Germany. The destruction of life and property was irreplaceable. It brought out new ways of warfare, with tanks, planes, submarines, and radio communication. Germans also used gas warfare, with mustard gas and phosgene as attack weapons. This was used on soldiers and civilians alike. The Geneva Convention of 1925 prohibited the further use of biological and chemical warfare. This remains in effect in the present day as well.