World War I (1914-1918) has often been described as "the war to end all wars." Instead, it was the harbinger of a completely new type of warfare in which technological advances enabled belligerents to kill or injure vast numbers of soldiers and civilians and to destroy cities with greater efficiency By the end of the war in November 1918, tens of millions of people were dead for no clear purpose. Rather than ending all future warfare, the dissatisfaction that grew out of peace treaty negotiations led in great part to the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
The causes of World War I are nebulous. At the time, European foreign policy was a tangle of alliances, imperialist rivalries, nationalist chauvinism, and xenophobia mixed with memories of old slights and humiliations between nations. The last general war in Europe had taken place 99 years earlier with the defeat of Napoleon. From time to time international crises had arisen, causing nations to expect war at any moment, but these events had been resolved at least temporarily by diplomatic means.
The German empire, only in existence since 1871, was ruled by the autocratic Wilhelm II (1859-1941), who was determined that Germany would be respected and feared by the other Great Powers. This determination led to a naval buildup prior to World War I supported by successive acts of legislation, intended to create a fleet of ships that would rival Great Britain's. The result of this naval escalation was the formation of the German High Seas Fleet, followed by Great Britain's adoption of HMS Dreadnought, the first of a new and more powerful type of battleship. The British were alarmed at Germany's intentions and the balance of power in Europe. The Germans were suspicious that the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia intended to encircle their nation and limit Germany's role as a European and colonial power. The military buildup that stemmed from their mutual suspicions, as well as those of the other European nations, did much to increase the likelihood that some international incident or other would lead to open warfare.
The event that served as the catalyst to the war was the June 28, 1914, assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, who were making an official visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a young Serbian nationalist affiliated with the secret society the Black Hand, a nationalist group that worked toward the goal of uniting Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Austrian officials argued that Serbia must be held accountable for the assassination, and at any rate, Austrian leaders were willing to take advantage of the opportunity to suppress Serbia's nationalist groups with force.
On July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia, reassured of the support of their German allies. Over the next few days European diplomacy broke down, the major powers mobilized their armies, and the continent was divided into armed camps. Russia sided with Serbia, and France and Great Britain sided with their ally, Russia. Germany declared war on Russia on August 1 and France on August 3. On the following morning, Germany also declared war on Belgium in order to send troops through Belgian territory on their way to France. Great Britain, which, with Prussia, France, Russia, and Austria, had guaranteed Belgium's neutrality in 1839, had pledged to support Belgium if it was invaded by Germany and resisted. Germany's invasion and Belgium's resistance brought the British into the war on August 4. Thus, Germany and Austria-Hungary supported by Turkey, became the major Central Powers; the major Allied Powers were Great Britain, France, and Russia from 1914 until the Bolshevik Revolution ended Russia's participation in late 1917, by which time the United States had abandoned its neutral stance and had entered the war on the Allied side.
At the time the war began, there was a rush for civilians to join up and go to war before it ended; popular opinion in the belligerent nations supported the idea that the war would last for only a few months. Instead, the Great War, as it was known as the time, dragged on for more than four years, and more than 65,000,000 troops were mobilized. Governments discovered that they must carefully control enlistments in order to avoid draining crucial industries of their workers, and many jobs were opened to women for the first time so that male Workers who had enlisted could be replaced, at least temporarily. The years of warfare resulted in over 37.5 million casualties, many from the new technological innovations in poison gasses, machine guns, high-explosive shells, tanks, airplanes, and artillery. These new technologies completely changed the nature of warfare to one in which large numbers of people could be injured or killed at great distances.
The Great War finally ended on November 11, 1918, when the Allies forced Germany to agree to an armistice. In January 1919 peace negotiations began in Paris, led by the "Big Four": Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States; David Lloyd George, prime minister of Great Britain; Vittorio Orlando, premier of Italy; and Georges Clemenceau, premier of France. Wilson insisted upon shaping the peace treaties according to the "Fourteen Points" he had produced the year before, an idealistic plan for "Peace Without Victory." This plan, to include freedom of the seas, open covenants between nations, self-determination for the subject peoples of the now-defunct Central Powers, and a reduction of armaments, was at odds with the postwar aims of the other Allied Powers, who were more concerned with containing Germany than with noble causes. Wilson's 14th point, a "general association of nations," led to the creation of the League of Nations.
In the long run, the resulting Versailles Treaty with Germany was almost entirely selfdefeating. While it was only one of the five peace treaties negotiated between the Allies and the former Central Powers, it was arguably the most important. The harsh terms dictated to Germany in the Versailles Treaty were a major factor in the subsequent rise of Adolf Hitler and the outbreak of World War II.Bibliography
- World War I. New York: Facts On File, 2007.
- The Origins of the First World War. 2nd ed. London: Longman Group UK, 1987. .
- The First World War. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998. .
- World War I: A Student Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006. , and .
The Outbreak of World War I
Leadership of the Great Powers in 1914
Men, Munitions, and Supply
World War I—In the Trenches
Major Battles of World War I
World War I —Propaganda and Espionage
World War I—Paris Peace Conference
Consequences of World War I
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