World War One, also known as the Great War, was a global conflict that lasted from 1914 to 1918. It involved many of the world’s major powers, including Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers), who fought against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Canada, Japan, and the United States (the Allied Powers). The war resulted in unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction, with more than 16 million people, both soldiers and civilians, losing their lives.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of war
Tensions had been brewing throughout Europe for years before World War One began, with political instability in the Balkan region of southeast Europe threatening various alliances involving European powers, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, and other parties. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on 28 June 1914 ignited the spark that led to the war.
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, was part of a wider plot by Serbian nationalists to end Austro-Hungarian rule over Bosnia and Herzegovina. The assassination set off a rapidly escalating chain of events. Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government and sought to use the incident to justify settling the question of Serbian nationalism once and for all.
Kaiser Wilhelm II and the “Blank Check”
Austria-Hungary’s leaders feared that Russian intervention in support of Serbia would also involve Russia’s ally, France, and possibly Great Britain. German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II secretly pledged his support to Austria-Hungary on 5 July, giving them a so-called carte blanche, or “blank check” assurance of Germany’s backing in case of war. This assurance led Austria-Hungary to issue an ultimatum to Serbia with harsh terms that were nearly impossible to accept.
World War I begins
Convinced that Austria-Hungary was preparing for war, the Serbian government ordered the Serbian army to mobilise and appealed to Russia for assistance. On 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the fragile peace between Europe’s great powers quickly collapsed. Within a week, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Serbia had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, marking the beginning of World War I.
The Western Front
Germany began fighting World War I on two fronts, invading France through neutral Belgium in the west and confronting Russia in the east. The German invasion of Belgium prompted Great Britain to declare war on Germany, while France and Russia honoured their alliance with Serbia. The Western Front, which stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border, became the primary theatre of war, with both sides digging into trenches and fighting a brutal war of attrition.
The Schlieffen Plan
Germany’s initial strategy, known as the Schlieffen Plan, called for a rapid invasion of France through Belgium, intending to defeat France quickly before turning their full attention to Russia. However, the plan failed to achieve its objectives, as the German advance was halted at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914. This defeat marked the end of German hopes for a quick victory in France, and the war on the Western Front settled into a deadly stalemate that would last for more than three years.
The Eastern Front
While the Western Front was characterised by trench warfare and attrition, the Eastern Front saw more mobile engagements between the Central Powers and Russia. In August 1914, German and Austrian forces achieved a decisive victory over the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg, forcing them to withdraw from East Prussia. Despite this setback, Russia’s ability to mobilise its vast war machine quickly ensured that the conflict would not be resolved swiftly.
From 1914 to 1916, Russia launched several offensives against the Central Powers on the Eastern Front, but they were unable to achieve a breakthrough. The difficulties faced on the battlefield, combined with economic instability and scarcity of food and other essentials, led to mounting discontent among the Russian population. This unrest culminated in the Russian Revolution of 1917, which ended czarist rule and led to Russia’s withdrawal from the war.
America Enters World War I
Initially, the United States remained neutral in the conflict, adopting a policy of non-intervention while continuing to engage in commerce and shipping with both sides. However, Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare campaign against neutral ships, including those carrying American passengers, led to growing public outrage in the United States. Following the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania in May 1915 and further German attacks on American merchant ships, the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917.
The Gallipoli Campaign
In an effort to break the stalemate in Europe, the Allies launched a large-scale invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in the Ottoman Empire in April 1915. The campaign aimed to secure a sea route to Russia and weaken the Central Powers, but it ultimately proved to be a costly failure, with the Allies suffering more than 250,000 casualties before retreating in January 1916.
The Battle of the Isonzo
Meanwhile, on the Italian Front, a series of 12 battles were fought along the Isonzo River between Austrian and Italian forces. The First Battle of the Isonzo occurred shortly after Italy entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1915. The Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, also known as the Battle of Caporetto, saw German reinforcements help Austria-Hungary achieve a decisive victory in October 1917. In response, the Allies increased their support for Italy, with British, French, and later American forces arriving to help stabilise the front.
The War at Sea
Throughout the conflict, both sides sought to disrupt each other’s commerce and supply lines. While the British Royal Navy maintained a blockade of Germany, the Germans relied on their U-boat fleet to target Allied shipping. The unrestricted submarine warfare campaign, which targeted military and civilian vessels, ultimately drew the United States into the conflict and played a significant role in Germany’s eventual defeat.
The Naval Arms Race
Prior to the outbreak of war, a naval arms race had been underway between Great Britain and Germany. The British sought to maintain their dominance at sea, while the Germans hoped to challenge British supremacy. This competition led to the development of new warship designs and technologies, such as the dreadnought battleship, which would play a crucial role in the naval warfare of World War One.
The War in the Air
World War One saw significant advancements in aviation technology, with both sides using aircraft for reconnaissance, ground support, and strategic bombing. Initially, aeroplanes were used primarily for observation and artillery spotting, but as the war progressed, they were adapted for offensive roles, such as dogfighting and bombing enemy positions. The war also saw the development of new aircraft, such as the German Fokker and British Sopwith Camel, which became iconic symbols of the conflict.
Aces and Air Warfare
The war produced a new breed of fighter pilots, known as “aces,” who became celebrated heroes for their aerial victories. Among the most famous were the German “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen, and the French ace René Fonck. The air war also saw the development of new tactics and strategies, such as using air superiority to gain an advantage on the battlefield.
The role of women in World War One
The war had a profound impact on gender roles and expectations, as women took on new responsibilities both on the home front and in the workforce. With millions of men away at the front, women stepped in to fill jobs in factories, offices, and farms, contributing to the war effort and challenging traditional notions of femininity. Many women also served as nurses and volunteers, providing essential support to the troops.
The Suffrage Movement
The wartime contributions of women helped to bolster the suffrage movement, which sought to secure voting rights for women. In many countries, including the United States and Great Britain, women’s wartime efforts were recognised with the granting of voting rights in the years following the war.
The aftermath of World War One
The end of the war brought about significant changes to the global political landscape, with the collapse of several major empires, including the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, imposed harsh penalties on Germany, including significant territorial losses, economic reparations, and military restrictions. These punitive measures, combined with the economic and social upheaval caused by the war, contributed to widespread resentment in Germany and laid the groundwork for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the outbreak of World War Two.
The League of Nations and the quest for peace
In an effort to prevent future conflicts, the League of Nations was founded in 1920 as an international organisation dedicated to maintaining peace and security. Despite its lofty goals, the League ultimately proved ineffective, as it lacked the power to enforce its decisions and could not prevent the outbreak of World War Two.
World War One was a complex and devastating conflict that reshaped the world in numerous ways. From the trenches of the Western Front to the battlefields of the Eastern Front, the war exacted a terrible human toll and left lasting scars on the nations involved. The war’s legacy can still be felt today, as the events of the conflict continue to influence global politics and shape our understanding of war and peace.