WORLD WAR I OVERVIEW

a. Causes, military course and consequences of World War I

Click here for World War One timeline

One the most devastating events in twentieth century world history was World War I. It lasted from July 1914 until November 1918 and involved all the industrialized great powers of Europe. It pitted the Triple Entente powers or the Allies (Great Britain, France and Russia) against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). By 1915-16, this essentially European war became a world war when Turkey and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers and Italy, Japan and Romania joined the allies. (war atlas)

The event that initiated the conflict was the assassination of the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a member of the Serbian nationalist "Black Hand" organization in the city of Sarajevoin the Balkans on June 28, 1914 (interactive history of this event) Despite attempts at diplomatic settlement, this event triggered the two armed alliences into war a month later.

Historians continue to debate the long range causes of the war and remain divided on identifying a single dominant cause. (commentary on the cause of the war). Most historians, however, agree that a number of combined long range causes ultimately led to the First World War:

  • the breakdown of the "concert of Europe" established at the Congress of Vienna (1815) and the realignment of the Great Powers after 1870 into hostile armed alliences based on nationalist interests, historical animosities and fears, and territorial differences.
  • the emergence of an "arms race" between industrialized nations in Europe, particularly a naval arms race between the historically dominant British navy and the newly developed German navy.
  • the rise of the newly unifed nation of Germany in Central Europe and its aggressively nationalistic and militaristic leader Kaiser Wilhelm I.
  • the competition between European powers over colonial possessions, particularly in Asian and Africa during the period of the New Imperialism (1880-1914).
  • the increasing influence of military staffs and war planning within the civilian governments of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia.

(overview of competing interpretations of the long-range causes of WWI)

While almost all nations involved expected a short, decisive war, World War I proved to be a lengthy and costly "total war" that required the commitment of all of the nation state's resources including money, labor, material and human life. It transformed the industrialized economies of Europe from the production of peactime manufacturing and consumer products to military hardware--rifles, ammunition, artillary and shells, and new technological weapons including poison gas, tanks and war-fitted aeroplanes. Total war also transformed the "homefront" and the social and political life of European nations. Women went to work in munitions factories for the duration of the war, mobilized resentment of the enemy through state-sponsored propaganda, (propaganda analyzed)and the centralized government began a process of regulation over the private economy and private life that continues to the present day. (propaganda posters of WWI)

John Nash "Over the Top"

On the military front, the war transformed soldiers, the nature of modern warfare, and the very meaning of "western civilization."(WWI photo archive) On the Western Front, when the French and British forces stopped the advancing German/Austrian-Hugarian forces outside Paris at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, the war bogged down into a "stalemate" with either side unable to land a knockout blow to the opposing side. This situation led to a defensive strategy known as "trench warfare" characterized by defenders digging protective trenches and attackers attempting to overtake the opponents trench by frontal attacks. (detailed information on trench warfare) With the introduction of modern technological weapons such as long-range artillery, repeating rifles and machine guns and later poison gas and tanks, such attacks led to tremendous casualties on both sides.(chart of war casualities by nation) On the Eastern Front, the initial advances of the Russian forces were reversed and Germans won a tremendous victory over Russia at the Battle of Tannenberg in late 1914. In order to weaken Turkey, the British launched an ill-conceived attack on the Dardenelles at Battle of Gallipoli in 1915-16 that cost over 150,000 Allied lives. (details and photos of Gallipoli) On the Western Front, the Germans lauched an offensive on French forces at the Battle of Verdun (February-March 1916) and the Allies launched a counteroffensive at the Battle of the Somme (November-December 1916). The only result was enormous casualties on both sides. (information on individual battles) These battles came to represent the death, destruction and futility associated with World War One. War poets such as Rupert Brook, Siegfried Sassoon (poems) and Wifred Owen and artist such as Otto Dix, C.R.W. Nevinson and Paul Nash immortalized the experience in their art. (art of WWI)

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C. R. W. Nevinson, French Troops Resting, 1916, Imperial War Museum, London. Imperial War Museum. Anne Patterson.

1917 would be a decisive year in the war. In that year, Russia experienced a communist revolution under the Bolshevik leadership of Lenin and Trotsky and settled for peace with Germany at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This brief moment of German superiority was countered with the United States of America's decision to enter the war in 1917. While the miltary role of American forces in turning the tide of war is debated, the psychological impact of fresh U.S. troops and America's industrial might weakened the resolve and hopes of the Central Powers. In 1918, Germany gambled the war on a massive counteroffensive to capture Paris, but again were stopped at the Marne. With this defeat, the Germany army disintegrated, Kaiser Wilhelm II's government collapsed and Germany spriraled into a series revolutions during 1918-19.


City of Ypres, Belgium after 4 years of total war

World War One marks a watershed in modern world history. Traditionally, historians have used this event to mark the symbolic end of the optimistic, progressive, rationalist nineteenth century and the beginning of the pessimistic, violent, and irrational twentieth century. It would usher in a new period of international relations, political systems and ideologies, dramatic social changes, and cultural and artistic experimentation.