World War I is the most common name given to the great international conflict of 1914-18, which began in Europe with the alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary against the alliance of Britain, France, Russia, and Serbia, and eventually involved over 30 nations in theaters around the globe. The war ended in the defeat of Germany and its allies, but the rivalries were renewed a mere twenty years later. The cost of World War I was enormous, with battle deaths approaching the 10 million mark.
The war had profound impact on the political and economic structure of the world and is generally considered to be the pivotal event in the decline of European influence in the world.Origins of the WarDespite the accusations and hatred generated during the war, no single nation desired or planned the conflagration. Europe blundered into a war that proved to be far different from what most experts had anticipated.AlliancesFrom the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) until the outbreak of World War I, European nations aligned themselves in increasingly rigid military alliances. While such brilliant politicians as Bismarck (German chancellor, 1871-90) could keep national commitments amazingly fluid, the politicians of the turn of the century were less enlightened. The major nations of Europe gradually coalesced into two military alliances: the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) and the Entente Powers, or Allies (Britain, France, and Russia). Many of the agreements between nations were secret (in some cases even the governments were unaware of the full extent of their countries’ military commitment), and the flexibility of governments to operate in an international crisis became increasingly restricted.
National Rivalries and Popular EmotionsThe general air of animosity was reinforced by a strong sense of nationalism throughout Europe. National identities and sensitivities became a powerful element of the mass culture. The opportunity for expression of national pride was extensive, from colonial competition to military spending.Legacy of the Franco-Prussian WarThe most recent major war in Europe had been the conflict between France and a uniting Germany in 1870-71. Although restricted to these two powers, the apparent lessons of that war were widely digested by European powers during the long period of peace to 1914.
One of the most compelling lessons from the war had been the importance of rapid mobilization of a nation’s forces in accordance with a comprehensive strategic plan.Immediate Cause of the WarThe war could well have been started over any number of incidents, but the immediate cause was a terrorist (or patriotic, depending on one’s point of view) incident in a restless part of Austria-Hungary.The AssassinationThe heir to the Hapsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was shot and killed (as was his wife) by a Serbian nationalist at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. The small nation of Serbia was implicated in the assassination, and Austria-Hungary was intent on punishing it. Once Austria-Hungary began to mobilize, an irreversible process began wherein most members of the alliances (Italy was the exception) began to mobilize. National leaders were faced with the terrible realization that so heavily did military success depend on rapid mobilization and execution of movement plans that no one would risk putting a stop to the process.Nations Go to WarThe continental powers, with the lesson of the Franco-Prussian War in mind, hurried to assemble their mass armies.
British politicians agonized over the prospects of war and decided to alert the fleet and send the small British professional army to France. Germany, facing belligerents on two fronts, began to execute a bold and intricate plan, the Schlieffen Plan, in which a relatively small force would hold the Russians in the east while a huge concentration of forces swept through Belgium and Luxembourg into the heart of France. (This was a classic case of the German tendency to hazard everything on one throw, for the German armies violated Belgian neutrality, assuring British entry into the war.) Thirsting for revenge from the Franco-Prussian War, France, with a much-improved mobilization system, hurled its armies directly against the German border. Russia appeared to be able to muster her ponderous resources faster than expected, while Austria-Hungary had an embarrassingly difficult time crushing tiny Serbia.1914Western FrontThe first major battles occurred in August 1914 as the German forces swept through Belgium and Luxembourg.
The German forces were enormous (and larger than the Allies had expected) because the Germans had integrated their well-trained reserves into the standing army. Seven field armies were arrayed against France, and the German chief of the general staff (Helmuth von Moltke, nephew of Field Marshal von Moltke) had great difficulty in directing these large formations. While the French vainly hurled their forces against the Germans in Alsace-Lorraine, the bulk of the German forces wheeled through Belgium into northern France.
By late August, it appeared as if the German plan would work and Paris would be encircled. But German confusion about the movement of their field armies in France, and the incredible steadiness of the French commander, Gen. Joseph J. C. Joffre, combined to produce the Battle of the Marne (5-10 September 1914), in which the German wheel was stopped before Paris. The armies in northern France, including the small British Expeditionary Force, began to consolidate their positions and extend their lines toward the channel, each side vainly attempting to outflank its opponents. As positions were established, the power of the machine gun and, more importantly, artillery required extensive defensive fieldworks.Eastern FrontAs the Austrian forces attacked Serbia, and found the task extremely costly, the Russians mobilized with a speed that alarmed the Central Powers.
The Austrians deployed forces in Galicia, where the Russians inflicted such severe casualties on them that Austria never fully recovered. Two Russian field armies crossed the border into northeast Germany. After some confusion on the German side, a newly appointed command team of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff inflicted a crushing defeat on one of the Russian armies at Tannenberg (26-31 August).
Other ActionsThe German navy was effectively swept from the high seas by Britain’s Royal Navy, with the bulk of the German fleet being bottled up in the North Sea. German cruisers, especially the SMS Emden, enjoyed some success as commerce raiders, but in the end all were sunk or captured. Likewise, Admiral von Spee’s Asiatic Squadron smashed a British force at Coronel (1 November 1914), but in the end fell victim to Admiral Sturdee’s battlecruisers at the Falklands (8 December 1914).
The Germans began to explore the uses of the submarine as a means to break the British naval blockade that was strangling German access to the seas. The Japanese, siding with the Allies, seized German outposts in the Pacific and China by early November 1914. The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) joined the war on the side of the Central Powers, and in response, the British occupied oil facilities in Mesopotamia.1915Western FrontThe belligerents began to recognize that the course of the war was taking turns that no one had anticipated. In the west, it was solidifying into a war of position characterized by trench warfare where the defense had most of the advantages. Germany decided to remain on the defensive in the west. The French and the British (whose armies increased in size) threw their forces against the German positions and suffered heavy casualties.
The year 1915 was the most costly of the war for the French in terms of casualties. Artillery continued its dominance and a severe munitions shortage developed. The Germans employed poison gas at Ypres.Eastern FrontAs the Austrian forces were depleted, the Germans came to dominate operations in the east, but cooperation between the two powers was often strained. In contrast to the stalemated situation in the west, the battles in the east included bold maneuvers and great movements.
By the end of 1915, the Russians had been driven deeper into Russia and had suffered enormous casualties, perhaps as many as 2 million in 1915 alone.Other FrontsSerbia was finally crushed by the combined efforts of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Bulgaria (which had joined the Central Powers). Italy entered the war on the side of the Allies but could do very little against the Austrian defensive positions along the common border.Great Britain (with the reluctant acquiescence of France) decided upon an “eastern” strategy designed to: (1) knock Turkey out of the war, (2) bring succor to the hard-pressed Russian armies, and (3) provide the western Allies with access to the rich granary of the Russian Ukraine. This was to be accomplished by a powerful Allied naval thrust from the Mediterranean to the Bosphorus. The plan was based on a bold and brilliant strategic concept formulated by Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.However, the Allied naval effort was repulsed (barely) by Turkish coastal defenses in the Dardanelles. Thereupon the Allies decided to implement this eastern strategy by an amphibious assault to seize the land shores of the Dardanelles strait.
The main effort was made by forces of the British Empire, including an Australian and New Zealand army corps (ANZAC) landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula, north of the strait. Bad naval-ground forces, inept field leadership, and the quick reactions of the Turks and Germans (notably the actions of Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk) confined the British troops to shallow beachheads, where they languished. The forces of the British Empire were eventually evacuated (8-9 January 1916).In Mesopotamia, a British expedition pushing to Baghdad was surrounded by the Turks at Kut (December) after the failure of an offensive against Baghdad in November.At the urging of their German allies, the Turks launched an attack across the Sinai against the vital Suez Canal.
The assault was repulsed by British troops in a series of engagements (14 January-3 February), although at one point Turkish advance forces crossed the canal in assault boats provided by the Germans. The Turks withdrew and made no further attacks that year, and the British began a gradual buildup of their forces in Egypt for a counteroffensive.In Africa, British and South African forces conquered German Southwest Africa (now Namibia), capturing the town of Windhoek in May and securing the surrender of all German forces in July.
Operations in the Cameroons were hampered by terrain, climate, and stubborn German resistance. Although French and British forces overran the coastal areas by autumn, the capital at Yaoundé did not fall until New Year’s Day, 1916, after a bitter eight-week campaign. German forces in German East Africa (now Tanzania) were led by the able and resourceful Gen. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Although his forces were outnumbered and outgunned, he employed what resources he had to frustrate a British invasion at Tanga in November 1914. East Africa was not high on Britain’s list of strategic priorities, and there was no major offensive action there until 1916.
1916Western FrontUnder the direction of the chief of the general staff, Gen. Erich von Falkenhayn (who had succeeded Moltke in 1914), the Germans attacked French positions around Verdun (February 1916). While trying to draw the French into a battle of attrition and wear them down, Falkenhayn’s German forces also suffered heavy casualties as the campaign dragged on for many months. Verdun came to symbolize the relentless and grinding nature of combaton the western front. Perhaps more soldiers were killed in combat in the area of Verdun than on any other battlefield in history.
To relieve the French forces (which were now beginning to suffer considerably from the losses of the war), the British army, now a large mass army fed by conscription and commanded by Gen. Sir Douglas Haig, launched an offensive on the Somme (July). This massive effort, particularly the tremendous use of artillery, inflicted severe casualties on the Germans and diverted German efforts at Verdun. The British, however, never achieved the breakthrough for which they had hoped, and suffered over 400,000 casualties in the process. The British also introduced a new weapon, a tracked armored vehicle known by its deceptive name, the tank. Like other technological innovations introduced during the war (such as poison gas), the tank was committed to battle before an effective method of employment, in conjunction with surprise and reinforcement, had been developed.
Eastern FrontThe summer of 1916 saw the last great Russian offensive of the war. General Brusilov, in a well-planned attack, crushed the Austrian forces opposite him. German forces (including some originally destined for Verdun) were rushed in to stop the collapse, and Brusilov’s offensive was finally contained. The Austrian army was ruined, and the Russian forces were exhausted.Other ActionsIn May, the German High Seas Fleet made its one attempt to break into the open sea. The British Grand Fleet made contact with the German fleet and, after a tactical draw near Jutland, the Germans withdrew. The frustration of the British blockade and the German surface fleet’s inability to break it made the use of submarine warfare (which the Germans were increasingly employing) even more appealing to the German High Command.
In Mesopotamia, the British force at Kut surrendered to the Turks in April after relief efforts failed.On the Sinai front, the British gradually constructed a combined water pipeline and railway across the desert to support projected operations in Palestine. A Turkish attack against the British railhead at Rumani, again made at German urging, was repulsed handily on 3 August. The British were also involved in sending support to the anti-Turkish Arab revolt in the Hejaz and in suppressing the anti-Allied Senussi revolt in Libya.
By the start of 1916, Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces in East Africa totaled nearly 15,000. Operations began in earnest when South African general Jan Smuts took command in February. Mounting an offensive in daunting conditions of terrain and climate, his forces had driven the Germans from the northern half of East Africa by early autumn, but Allied casualties had been heavy and Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces remained intact. Smuts’s troops continued to push south, joined by Belgian troops from the Congo and British forces from Nyasaland (now Zambia). Lettow-Vorbeck evaded them and inflicted several sharp defeats on individual columns, but superior Allied numbers compelled him to retreat farther.Home FrontsBy the end of 1916, the frustration with the war was immense among the population of all the participants.
Germany and Austria-Hungary were suffering from the effects of the Allied blockade. Russia was exhausted and politically restless. In France and Britain, however, the governments would eventually be dominated by politicians–Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George–who had the ruthless energy to continue the war. While political leadership in Germany was weaker, it was dominated by the successful military team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and thus Germany was equally determined to fight through to victory. The societies of all combatants were harnessed for the prodigious war effort by industrial organization imposed on the nations at large. Britain was probably the most successful in this regard.
1917Western FrontThe Germans opted to remain on the defensive in the west. The German High Command was now directed by the team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, recently having arrived in France from the eastern front. Ludendorff, the more brilliant (but also erratic) of the two, carefully examined the tactical experiences of the western front in order to redirect tactical efforts in France. The test of German skill came in two major Allied offensives in 1917–a French offensive in April and a British offensive (Third Ypres) in the summer and autumn.After the failure of the French offensive, French units began to mutiny out of frustration and resentment.
Henri Pétain, the hero of Verdun, became commander of French forces and skillfully defused the desperate situation. By the end of 1917, the German forces still maintained a coherent defense in northern France and had inflicted considerable casualties on the Allies.The Allies, however, now had a new partner. The United States had entered the war against Germany, principally because of the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.
This was a significant turning point in the history of the United States, which had previously avoided political entanglements in Europe.One of the most important Allied developments of this time was the convoy system, which proved successful in mitigating the effects of the German submarines. The manpower of America was thus able to reach France.
Eastern FrontIn March, moderate Russian politicians forced Czar Nicholas II to abdicate. In the confusion that followed, a party of Marxists known as Bolsheviks (led by Vladimir Lenin) asserted themselves and by November had taken over the government in the capital (Petrograd, since renamed Leningrad). The German army continued to press against the Russians, so the Bolsheviks concluded an armistice with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk in December.
Russia was now out of the war. (A peace treaty was signed on 3 March 1918.)Other ActionsThe Italian front broke wide open as the Austrians and Germans inflicted a serious defeat on the Italians at Caporetto in October. With French and British help, the Italians stabilized the front along the Piave River. While 1917 was frustrating for the Allies on the western front and disastrous for them on the eastern and Italian fronts, in other theaters they enjoyed considerable success.
Following the disaster at Kut, the British had revamped their military efforts in Mesopotamia, bringing in reinforcements from India and placing Gen. Frederick Maude in command. Maude captured Baghdad in March, and by autumn was driving on the Mosul oil fields when he died of cholera (18 November); he was replaced by Gen. William R. Marshall.
On the Sinai front, British forces under Gen. Archibald Murray opened offensive operations, but British efforts against Gaza were repulsed twice (26 March and 17-19 April) because of supply problems and cautious generalship on the part of Murray and Gen. Charles M. Dobell. Concerned about another stalemate, the British sent Gen. Sir Edmund Allenby, one of their ablest field commanders, to replace Murray. Allenby captured Gaza and Beersheba on 31 October, outflanking Turkish defenses from the southwest and then driving northward.
Allenby’s forces entered Jerusalem on 9 December, giving the Allies a valuable victory.British-South African operations continued against Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces in East Africa. Under heavy British pressure, Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces were gradually hemmed into the southeast corner of the country, but the Germans continued to maul British columns. In October, Lettow-Vorbeck invaded the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, largely to secure supplies of food, medicine, and munitions for his troops, which now numbered barely 2,000. By year’s end, he and his increasingly ragged troops were still unbeaten.
1918–Year of DecisionWestern FrontThe question before the Germans was how to end the war before the full potential weight of the United States (which was pitifully unprepared for war) could be brought to bear against Germany. After harsh peace terms were imposed on the Russians, the Germans transferred units from the east to the western front and gained temporary advantage before the bulk of U.S. forces reached Europe. Ludendorff, who had assumed responsibility for the direction of the German war effort, decided to make one last attempt to defeat the French and British forces in France. The German offensives of the spring of 1918 were a masterpiece of tactical planning. New techniques of attacking in depth, coordinating various arms (particularly artillery and infantry), and directing fluid battle were derived from the experiences of the western front.
The initial results were spectacular, but the strategic direction of the effort was flawed. The efforts of German field armies were not complementary. The Germans simply could not afford any wasted effort.The Allies had developed a Supreme Command under Gen.
Ferdinand Foch that gave coherence and unity to Allied actions. The forces of the British Empire had developed tactics employing tanks and surprise. The Americans were beginning to arrive in France in force, and they plugged critical gaps in the Allied line when the issue was in doubt during the German assaults. By the summer of 1918, the German forces were exhausted and the home front was demoralized.
The Allies displayed new determination and began to drive the German forces back decisively. With revolution brewing at home and their army clearly outmatched, the German High Command asked for an armistice. On 11 November 1918, the war in Europe ended.Africa and AsiaAs 1918 began, Turkish armies in Palestine and Mesopotamia, despite expanded German assistance, were growing less capable of resistance. In Mesopotamia, British attention was diverted by events in southern Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution. The British launched a final offensive in late October and eventually captured Mosul, although not until after the armistice (14 November). Operations in Palestine were more extensive. Determined to liberate Palestine and Syria, General Allenby launched a major offensive near Megiddo on 19 September, and within a week had completely ruptured the Turkish front in a spectacularly successful attack.
Allenby’s forces, acting in cooperation with Arab irregulars, captured Damascus on 1 October and Aleppo in northern Syria on 25 October.In the winter of 1917-18, nearly 70,000 Allied troops were arrayed against Lettow-Vorbeck’s 2,000 troops in Mozambique. But the canny German commander continued to elude Allied forces, overwhelming isolated garrisons and chewing up outlying columns. In late September, Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces reentered German East Africa; at the time of the armistice, his forces, still unbeaten, were operating in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). When Lettow-Vorbeck heard of the armistice (14 November), he opened negotiations and surrendered to the British at Abercorn on 25 November, the last German force to surrender.
LegacyThe hatred that had characterized the war affected the peace. Despite the counsel of the U.S. president Woodrow Wilson (who is still either condemned for being naive or praised for being farsighted), a harsh settlement was imposed on Germany. The resentment of the Germans, in combination with the economic disruption caused by the Great Depression in the 1930s, led to the emergence of National Socialism in Germany and World War II. In military matters, World War I had a profound impact. New weapons–tanks, airplanes, submarines, chemical munitions, assault guns, and machine guns–all became part of the world’s arsenals.
More important was the fact that the full weight of mobilized national industry was dedicated to war. This is what gave the war its terrible scope. In many respects, World War II was simply a continuation of World War I.