Buildup to War
On June 28, 1914, in the streets of Sarajevo, a young Bosnian terrorist named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This single event triggered a chain reaction that slowly drew every major European nation and many other nations around the world into the bloodiest war yet known to humanity, a war now known as World War I. But World War I was not caused by a single gunshot. It arose out of tensions that had gripped Europe for nearly fifty years. To understand how and why the war began, one must first understand the conditions in Europe before the war.
Though it is known as World War I, the conflict that shook the world from 1914 to 1918 had its roots in a European conflict. When it began, the Great War, as it was first known, pitted the Dual Alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary against the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Great Britain in a dispute over Serbian interference in Austro-Hungarian affairs. (Upon entering into war the opposing sides are known in this work as the Central Powers and the Allies, respectively.) The most important and bloody battles of the war were fought
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Setting the World on Fire: The Start of World War I
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863–1914) of Austria, the heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife, Countess Sophie, paid an official visit to Sarajevo, the provincial capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia and Herzegovina had been annexed (claimed) by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908, but Serbians within Bosnia-Herzegovina, encouraged by the neighboring country of Serbia, rebelled against Austro-Hungarian rule in frequent protests and civil disturbances. The Serbs did not like Austria-Hungary's claim to Bosnia-Herzegovina, which they thought should belong to them. Archduke Franz Ferdinand's visit, which included a review of Austrian troop strength in the province, was intended to remind protestors of the power of Austria-Hungary. Instead, it offered Serbian rebels the chance they needed to start a war.
Franz Ferdinand and his wife set off on their tour of Sarajevo in a convertible car with the top down. Despite warnings of an assassination plot, the couple had little protection. Soon the warnings became reality. A member of the Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist group, launched a small bomb toward
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Settling in: The First Years on the Western Front
World War I began on August 4, 1914, with Germany and France launching their attacks according to the war plans they had carefully laid out during peacetime. Germany crossed Belgium and began its attack on France along that country's northeastern border; France sent its forces against German foes in the Alsace region; Great Britain sent help across the English Channel to bolster French forces. Within weeks, however, it became obvious that this war would not go as planned. The warring armies faced each other along a front that was known at the western front, a line that stretched northwest from Switzerland and eventually reached the Belgian coast. Along the western front German troops were stalled by stiff resistance from the Allies; and French attacks were being repulsed by German machine guns. And there they sat, brutally fighting over small stretches of land, gaining a mile here, 300 yards there, in a bloody confrontation that would last for four more years.
This chapter covers the fighting along the Western Front during the first two years of the war, from the opening of the war in August 1914 to the end of the Battle of the Somme in the autumn of 1916. Despite the important battles that were fought
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Changing Tides of War on the Western Front
By the spring of 1917 World War I had been raging for over two years, yet little had been decided. In the first few months of the war German troops had stormed across Belgium, hoping to win a quick victory over the French. But the Germans had run into the determined resistance of British, French, and Belgian troops—known as the Allies—along a long line known as the Western Front (which stretched 475 miles across Europe from the North Sea in Belgium southeast to the border of neutral Switzerland). For two years, these bitter enemies had fought fiercely in battles that claimed many, many lives but little territory. Soldiers on both sides wondered what the new year of war would bring. Would there be more death and destruction as men fell to the killing power of machineguns, artillery, and poison gas? Or would their leaders devise some new way to win a war that many people thought was now not winnable?
Behind the lines, politicians and generals looked for ways to break out of the habits that had led to a war of stalemate. Both Britain and France experienced major changes in leadership. British prime minister Herbert Asquith (1852–1928),
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The War in the East
World War I opened in the east as it did in the west: with massive mobilizations of men and matériel (military supplies, including guns and ammunition). The Russians, with their massive population, had millions of men in their army, but it was widely believed that Russia would be slow in getting its soldiers ready for battle. In fact, the German war plan—called the Schlieffen plan—counted on Russian sloth. The Germans expected that they could concentrate on defeating the French in the west before turning their attention eastward to the Russians. Surprisingly speedy Russian mobilization made this impossible and nearly cost Germany the territory of East Prussia. But Russian military organization and efficiency never compared to that of the Germans, and in a little over two years of warfare, the Germans had pushed Russia to the brink of defeat.
While Germany and Russia clashed in the northern half of the Eastern Front, Austria-Hungary fought a two-front war in the south. Austria-Hungary's primary concern was the border it shared with the Russian Empire; this border stretched east to west in a region known as Galicia. Russian assaults early in the war pushed Austria-Hungary back in this area, but with German support Austria-Hungary eventually regained all of the lost territory. In addition to Russia, Austria-Hungary had to deal with Serbia to its southeast, with Italy to its...
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The Far-Flung War: Fighting on Distant Fronts
World War I began as a European war. The spark that started the war came from Eastern Europe. The major combatants—the Central Powers (led by Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the Allies (led by France, Russia, and Great Britain)—entered the war to protect their territory and their interests in Europe. And the majority of the fighting and the deaths came on two European fronts. But soon after the war started, fighting spread to far-flung European colonies in the Pacific Ocean and in Africa, to the Italian border with Austria-Hungary, and to key strategic points in the Middle East and in western Asia, in what was then known as the Ottoman Empire and is now known as Turkey. Though much of the distant fighting had little bearing on the war, the fighting in Turkey and Italy was especially intense and destructive. As with every aspect of this wide-spread war, it was also very disruptive. This chapter surveys the various distant theaters of operations (areas where combat took place) that turned a European conflict into the first war to be fought all over the world.
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The War at Sea
World War I was a land war, with its biggest and most important battles fought on the battlefields of Europe. There were relatively few naval battles in the war, and the important ones were won by the British navy, which succeeded in keeping the German navy pinned down in its ports on the North Sea. This does not mean, however, that affairs of the sea were not crucial to the waging of war. One of the key elements of the Allies' strategy was a naval blockade of Germany; the Allies hoped to starve Germany of the food and raw materials it needed to wage war. Equally key to the Central Powers' war aims was the campaign of submarine warfare that struck at Allied shipping. Although no naval battle decisively influenced the course of the war, the war for control of the seas was vital to the winning of the war.
If one thing seemed certain at the beginning of World War I, it was that Great Britain would rule the seas. With the world's biggest and most powerful navy, Britain seemed likely to continue its long dominance of naval warfare. The German navy was also large and powerful, but German leaders, especially Kaiser Wilhelm, did not want to risk a direct confrontation
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The First World War caused more death and destruction than all the wars that came before it. The reason for the slaughter was twentieth-century firepower. Powerful new weapons such as the machine gun halted military movements and killed men by the thousands. A British officer, quoted in William G. Dooly Jr.'s Great Weapons of World War I, observed the effects of machine-gun fire at the Battle of Mörhange-Sarrebourg in 1914:
Whenever the French infantry advance, their whole front is at once regularly covered with shrapnel and the unfortunate men are knocked over like rabbits. They are brave and advance time after time to the charge through appalling fire, but so far it has been to no avail… The officers are splendid; they advance about 20 yards ahead of their men as calmly as though on parade, but so far I have not seen one of them get more than 50 yards without being knocked over.
Machine guns were not the only weapons to radically reshape the nature of modern warfare. Tanks, flamethrowers, airplanes, and submarines—all products of advanced technology—changed the way armies faced each other in battles on land, on the sea, and in the air.
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The Home Front: Fighting a Total War
Life for the soldiers fighting on the Western Front in World War I was a terrible ordeal. Pinned down in muddy trenches for days on end, bombarded with exploding shells from a nearby enemy, and subject to violent and painful death at any moment, soldiers were plunged into what seemed like an endless struggle for survival. Civilians rarely faced the possibility of violent death, but these people back home did suffer severe disruptions in their lives as a result of war. During World War I, while soldiers fought on battlefronts, all civilians were said to be fighting on a front of their own—the "home front."
The idea of a home front was created by the complete mobilization of both soldiers and civilians in the major combatant nations that fought in World War I. In previous conflicts, armies met on battlefields that were removed from civilian population centers and noncombatants were rarely touched by the war unless a member of their family was killed. Wars were short and armies were comparatively small and manned by professional soldiers. World War I changed all this. Armies fought in and around population centers, disrupting daily life in battle areas. Huge numbers of men were conscripted into (forced to join) the armies. The governments of Great Britain, France, and Germany reordered their economies to serve the war effort. Civilians were asked to perform new jobs and give up...
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Reluctant Warriors: The United States in World War I
For the United States, World War I was a short war. The United States did not join the Allies in their war against the Central Powers until April 6, 1917, thirty-two months after the war began, and U.S. troops did not see action until well into 1918. Then, just a few months after America's active entry into the war, the war was over. Though U.S. participation in the war was brief, it was vitally important. The United States tipped the balance of the war in the Allies' favor and brought the long struggle to an end. The agony of committing to a European war, the difficulties of managing mobilization and shaping public opinion, and the anguished debate about signing the Treaty of Versailles (the document that officially ended the war and re-established peace in Europe) were crucial moments in American history.
Watching the War from Afar
When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, Americans watched with a combination of dismay and relief. Many Americans had deep cultural ties with the major combatant nations, and it was difficult to watch those nations enter into a costly and terribly bloody war. Like the rest of the world, the United States had been enjoying a time of great peace and prosperity, and the war upset these tranquil times. Yet because of its great distance from the...
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The Failed Peace
On January 8, 1918, nine months after the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allies, American president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) stood before the U.S. Congress to deliver the "Fourteen Points Address." In this speech he outlined a plan that would end the war and provide the structure for a lasting world peace after the war. Though this plan was greeted with praise from many, it did not impress the leaders of the warring nations. The Germans rejected the Fourteen Points out of hand, for they still expected to win the war. The French ignored the Fourteen Points, for they were sure that they could gain more from their victory than Wilson's plan allowed. Even the British, who were otherwise allied most closely with the United States, had doubts about Wilson's grand plans for world peace. As the war moved to a conclusion during the summer and fall of 1918, Wilson's Fourteen Points helped guide each country's thinking about how the postwar world might look. But when the warring countries actually sat down to settle their differences, the results were far from what Wilson imagined. The treaties that finally ended World War I reflected all the bitterness and hatred that had started the war; in fact, these treaties would pave the way for another generation of conflict.
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Conclusion: The Costs of War
No matter how they are measured, the costs of World War I were enormous. Undoubtedly, the most tragic and devastating of the losses caused by the war was the loss of life. Millions of soldiers died in battle, and countless civilians were killed by the side effects of the war: starvation, disease, or—in the case of the Armenians in Turkey—genocide. Even greater numbers of lives were disrupted. Millions of soldiers survived the war with grave injuries, and families across the world were ripped apart by the destruction of war. The monetary losses associated with the war were equally enormous. The combatant countries threw millions of dollars into the war effort, straining their economies during the war and for years thereafter.
Were the sacrifices in lives and money worth it? Was anything settled by this four-year killing contest? In the aftermath of the war, Europe was in worse shape than it was when the war began. Empires were shattered, governments fell, and violent and destructive regimes came to power in several of the combatant countries. Perhaps the only country to truly benefit from the war was the United States, which emerged as the world's greatest power. Almost every other combatant was drained nearly to destruction by the conflict. In the end, World War I settled nothing. It merely set the stage for a war that would surpass it in its measures of death and...
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