About World War I
"Total War I: The Great War"
by John Bourne
The First World War was truly the Great War. Its origins were complex. Its scale was vast. Its conduct was intense. Its impact on military operations was revolutionary. Its human and material costs were enormous. And its results were profound.
The war was a global conflict. Thirty-two nations were eventually involved. Twenty-eight of these constituted the Allied and Associated Powers, whose principal belligerents were the British Empire, France, Italy, Russia, Serbia, and the United States of America. They were opposed by the Central Powers: Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire.
The war began in the Balkan cockpit of competing nationalisms and ancient ethnic rivalries. Hopes that it could be contained there proved vain. Expansion of the war was swift. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914; Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August. Germany declared war on France on 3 August and invaded Belgium. France was invaded on 4 August. German violation of Belgian neutrality provided the British with a convenient excuse to enter the war on the side of France and Russia the same evening. Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia on 6 August. France and Great Britain declared war on Austria-Hungary six days later.
The underlying causes of these events have been intensively researched and debated. Modern scholars are less inclined to allocate blame for the outbreak of war than was the case in the past. They have sought instead to understand the fears and ambitions of the governing �lites of Europe who took the fateful decisions for war, particularly that of imperial Germany.
Fears were more important than ambitions. Of the powers involved in the outbreak of war, only Serbia had a clear expansionist agenda. The French hoped to recover the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine lost to Germany as a result of their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, but this was regarded as an attempt at restitution rather than acquisition. Otherwise, defensive considerations were paramount. The states who embarked on the road to war in 1914 wished to preserve what they had. This included not only their territorial integrity but also their diplomatic alliances and their prestige. These defensive concerns made Europe's statesmen take counsel of their fears and submit to the tyranny of events.
The Austrians feared for the survival of their multi-racial Empire if they did not confront the threat of Serb nationalism and Panslavism. The Germans feared the consequences to themselves of allowing Austria, their closest and only reliable ally, to be weakened and humiliated. The Russians feared the threat to their prestige and authority as protector of the Slavs if they allowed Austria to defeat and humiliate Serbia. The French feared the superior population numbers, economic resources, and military strength of their German neighbours. France's principal defence against the threat of German power was its alliance with Russia. This it was imperative to defend. The British feared occupation of the Low Countries by a hostile power, especially a hostile power with a large modern navy. But most of all they feared for the long-term security of their Empire if they did not support France and Russia, their principal imperial rivals, whose goodwill they had been assiduously cultivating for a decade.
All governments feared their peoples. Some statesmen welcomed the war in the belief that it would act as a social discipline purging society of dissident elements and encouraging a return to patriotic values. Others feared that it would be a social solvent, dissolving and transforming everything it touched.
The process of expansion did not end in August 1914. Other major belligerents took their time and waited upon events. Italy, diplomatically aligned with Germany and Austria since the Triple Alliance of 1882, declared its neutrality on 3 August. In the following months it was ardently courted by France and Britain. On 23 May 1915 the Italian government succumbed to Allied temptations and declared war on Austria-Hungary in pursuit of territorial aggrandizement in the Trentino. Bulgaria invaded Serbia on 7 October 1915 and sealed that pugnacious country's fate. Serbia was overrun. The road to Constantinople was opened to the Central Powers. Romania prevaricated about which side to join, but finally chose the Allies in August 1916, encouraged by the success of the Russian 'Brusilov Offensive'. It was a fatal miscalculation. The German response was swift and decisive. Romania was rapidly overwhelmed by two invading German armies and its rich supplies of wheat and oil did much to keep Germany in the war for another two years. Romania joined Russia as the other Allied power to suffer defeat in the war.
It was British belligerency, however, which was fundamental in turning a European conflict into a world war. Britain was the world's greatest imperial power. The British had world-wide interests and world-wide dilemmas. They also had world-wide friends. Germany found itself at war not only with Great Britain but also with the dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa and with the greatest British imperial possession, India. Concern for the defence of India helped bring the British into conflict with the Ottoman Empire in November 1914 and resulted in a major war in the Middle East. Most important of all, perhaps, Britain's close political, economic, and cultural ties with the United States of America, if they did not ensure that nation's eventual entry into the war, certainly made it possible. The American declaration of war on Germany on 6 April 1917 was a landmark not only in the history of the United States but also in that of Europe and the world, bringing to an end half a millennium of European domination and ushering in 'the American century'.
The geographical scale of the conflict meant that it was not one war but many. On the Western Front in France and Belgium the French and their British allies, reinforced from 1917 onwards by the Americans, were locked in a savage battle of attrition against the German army. Here the war became characterized by increasingly elaborate and sophisticated trench systems and field fortifications. Dense belts of barbed wire, concrete pillboxes, intersecting arcs of machine-gun fire, and accumulating masses of quick-firing field and heavy artillery rendered manuvre virtually impossible. Casualties were enormous.
The first phase of the war in the west lasted until November 1914. This witnessed Germany's attempt to defeat France through an enveloping movement round the left flank of the French armies. The plan met with initial success. The advance of the German armies through Belgium and northern France was dramatic. The French, responding with an offensive in Lorraine, suffered an almost catastrophic national defeat. France was saved by the iron nerve of its commander-in-chief, General J. J. C. Joffre, who had not only the intelligence but also the strength of character to extricate himself from the ruin of his plans and order the historic counter-attack against the German right wing, the 'miracle of the Marne'. The German armies were forced to retreat and to entrench. Their last attempt at a breakthrough was stopped by French and British forces near the small Flemish market town of Ypres in November. By Christmas 1914 trench lines stretched from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier.
Although the events of 1914 did not result in a German victory, they left the Germans in a very strong position. The German army held the strategic initiative. It was free to retreat to positions of tactical advantage and to reinforce them with all the skill and ingenuity of German military engineering. Enormous losses had been inflicted on France. Two-fifths of France's military casualties were incurred in 1914. These included a tenth of the officer corps. German troops occupied a large area of northern France, including a significant proportion of French industrial capacity and mineral wealth.
These realities dominated the second phase of the war in the west. This lasted from November 1914 until March 1918. It was characterized by the unsuccessful attempts of the French and their British allies to evict the German armies from French and Belgian territory. During this period the Germans stood mainly on the defensive, but they showed during the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April-25 May 1915), and more especially during the Battle of Verdun (21 February-18 December 1916), a dangerous capacity to disrupt their enemies' plans.
The French made three major assaults on the German line: in the spring of 1915 in Artois; in the autumn of 1915 in Champagne; and in the spring of 1917 on the Aisne (the 'Nivelle Offensive'). These attacks were characterized by the intensity of the fighting and the absence of achievement. Little ground was gained. No positions of strategic significance were captured. Casualties were severe. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive led to a serious breakdown of morale in the French army. For much of the rest of 1917 it was incapable of major offensive action.
The British fared little better. Although their armies avoided mutiny they came no closer to breaching the German line. During the battles of the Somme (1 July19 November 1916) and the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July-12 November 1917) they inflicted great losses on the German army at great cost to themselves, but the German line held and no end to the war appeared in sight.
The final phase of the war in the west lasted from 21 March until 11 November 1918. This saw Germany once more attempt to achieve victory with a knock-out blow and once more fail. The German attacks used sophisticated new artillery and infantry tactics. They enjoyed spectacular success. The British 5th Army on the Somme suffered a major defeat. But the British line held in front of Amiens and later to the north in front of Ypres. No real strategic damage was done. By midsummer the German attacks had petered out. The German offensive broke the trench deadlock and returned movement and manuvre to the strategic agenda. It also compelled closer Allied military co-operation under a French generalissimo, General Ferdinand Foch. The Allied counter-offensive began in July. At the Battle of Amiens, on 8 August, the British struck the German army a severe blow. For the rest of the war in the west the Germans were in retreat.
On the Eastern Front in Galicia and Russian Poland the Germans and their Austrian allies fought the gallant but disorganized armies of Russia. Here the distances involved were very great. Artillery densities were correspondingly less. Manuvre was always possible and cavalry could operate effectively. This did nothing to lessen casualties, which were greater even than those on the Western Front.
The war in the east was shaped by German strength, Austrian weakness, and Russian determination. German military superiority was apparent from the start of the war. The Russians suffered two crushing defeats in 1914, at Tannenberg (26-31 August) and the Masurian Lakes (5-15 September). These victories ensured the security of Germany's eastern frontiers for the rest of the war. They also established the military legend of Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, who emerged as principal directors of the German war effort in the autumn of 1916. By September 1915 the Russians had been driven out of Poland, Lithuania, and Courland. Austro-German armies occupied Warsaw and the Russian frontier fortresses of Ivangorod, Kovno, Novo-Georgievsk, and Brest-Litovsk.
These defeats proved costly to Russia. They also proved costly to Austria. Austria had a disastrous war. Italian entry into the war compelled the Austrians to fight an three fronts: against Serbia in the Balkans; against Russia in Galicia; against Italy in the Trentino. This proved too much for Austrian strength. Their war effort was characterized by dependency on Germany. Germans complained that they were shackled to the 'Austrian corpse'. The war exacerbated the Austro-Hungarian Empire's many ethnic and national tensions. By 1918 Austria was weary of the war and desperate for peace. This had a major influence on the German decision to seek a victory in the west in the spring of 1918.
Perceptions of the Russian war effort have been overshadowed by the October Revolution of 1917 and by Bolshevik 'revolutionary defeatism' which acquiesced in the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (14 March 1918) and took Russia out of the war. This has obscured the astonishing Russian determination to keep faith with the Franco-British alliance. Without the Russian contribution in the east it is far from certain that Germany could have been defeated in the west. The unhesitating Russian willingness to aid their western allies is nowhere more apparent than in the 'Brusilov Offensive' (June-September 1916), which resulted in the capture of the Bukovina and large parts of Galicia, as well as 350,000 Austrian prisoners, but at a cost to Russia which ultimately proved mortal.
In southern Europe the Italian army fought eleven indecisive battles in an attempt to dislodge the Austrians from their mountain strongholds beyond the Isonzo river. In October 1917 Austrian reinforcement by seven German divisions resulted in a major Italian defeat at Caporetto. The Italians were pushed back beyond the Piave. This defeat produced changes in the Italian high command. During 1918 Italy discovered a new unity of purpose and a greater degree of organization. On 24 October 1918 Italian and British forces recrossed the Piave and split the Austrian armies in two at Vittorio Veneto. Austrian retreat turned into rout and then into surrender.
In the Balkans the Serbs fought the Austrians and Bulgarians, suffering massive casualties, including the highest proportion of servicemen killed of any belligerent power. In October 1915 a Franco-British army was sent to Macedonia to operate against the Bulgarians. It struggled to have any influence on the war. The Germans mocked it and declared Salonika to be the biggest internment camp in Europe, but the French and British eventually broke out of the malarial plains into the mountainous valleys of the Vardar and Struma rivers before inflicting defeat on Bulgaria in the autumn of 1918.
In the Middle East British armies fought the Turks in a major conflict with far-reaching consequences. Here the war was characterized by the doggedness of Turkish resistance and by the constant struggle against climate, terrain, and disease. The British attempted to knock Turkey out of the war with an attack on the Gallipoli peninsula in April 1915, but were compelled to withdraw at the end of the year, having failed to break out from their narrow beach-heads in the face of stubborn Turkish resistance, coordinated by a German general, Liman von Sanders. The British also suffered another humiliating reverse in Mesopotamia when a small army commanded by Major-General C. V. F. Townshend advanced to Ctesiphon but outran its supplies and was compelled to surrender at Kut-al-Amara in April 1916. Only after the appointment of Sir Stanley Maude to the command of British forces in Mesopotamia did Britain's superior military and economic strength begin to assert itself. Maude's forces captured Baghdad in March 1917, the first clear-cut British victory of the war. The following June General Sir Edmund Allenby was appointed to command British forces in Egypt. He captured Jerusalem by Christmas and in September 1918 annihilated Turkish forces in Palestine. Turkey surrendered on 31 October 1918.
The war also found its way to tropical Africa. Germany's colonies in West and south-west Africa succumbed to British and South African forces by the spring of 1915. In East Africa, however, a German army of locally raised black African soldiers commanded by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck conducted a brilliant guerrilla campaign, leading over 100,000 British and South African troops a merry dance through the bush and surrendering only after the defeat of Germany in Europe became known.
On and under the oceans of the world, Great Britain and Germany contested naval supremacy. Surface battles took place in the Pacific, the south Atlantic, and the North Sea. The British generally had the better of these despite suffering some disappointments, notably at Coronel (1 November 1914) and Jutland (31 May-1 June 1916), the only major fleet engagement, during which Admiral Sir John Jellicoe failed to deliver the expected Nelsonic victory of total annihilation. Submarine warfare took place in the North Sea, the Black Sea, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Baltic. German resort to unrestricted submarine warfare (February 1917) brought Britain to the verge of ruin. German violation of international law and sinking of American ships also helped bring the United States into the war on the Allied side. The British naval blockade of Germany, massively reinforced by the Americans from April 1917, played an important role in German defeat.
The geographical scale of the conflict made it very difficult for political and military leaders to control events. The obligations of coalition inhibited strategic independence. Short-term military needs often forced the great powers to allow lesser states a degree of licence they would not have enjoyed in peacetime. Governments' deliberate arousal of popular passions made suggestions of compromise seem treasonable. The ever-rising cost of the military means inflated the political ends. Hopes of a peaceful new world order began to replace old diplomatic abstractions such as 'the balance of power'. Rationality went out of season. War aims were obscured. Strategies were distorted. Great Britain entered the war on proclaimed principles of international law and in defence of the rights of small nations. By 1918 the British government was pursuing a Middle Eastern policy of naked imperialism (in collaboration with the French), while simultaneously encouraging the aspirations of Arab nationalism and promising support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. It was truly a war of illusions.
Europe's political and military leaders have been subjected to much retrospective criticism for their belief that the war would be over by Christmas'. This belief was not based on complacency. Even those who predicted with chilling accuracy the murderous nature of First World War battlefields, such as the Polish banker Jan Bloch, expected the war to be short. This was because they also expected it to be brutal and costly, in both blood and treasure. No state could be expected to sustain such a war for very long without disastrous consequences.
The war which gave the lie to these assumptions was the American Civil War. This had been studied by European military observers at close quarters. Most, however, dismissed it. This was particularly true of the Prussians. Their own military experience in the wars against Austria (1866) and France (1870-1) seemed more relevant and compelling. These wars were both short. They were also instrumental. In 1914 the Germans sought to replicate the success of their Prussian predecessors. They aimed to fight a 'cabinet war' on the Bismarckian model. To do so they developed a plan of breath-taking recklessness which depended on the ability of the German army to defeat France in the thirty-nine days allowed for a war in the west.
Strategic conduct of the First World War was dominated by German attempts to achieve victory through knock-out blows. Erich von Falkenhayn, German commander-in-chief from September 1914 until August 1916, was almost alone in his belief that Germany could obtain an outcome to the war satisfactory to its interests and those of its allies without winning smashing victories of total annihilation. His bloody attempt to win the war by attrition at Verdun in 1916 did little to recommend the strategy to his fellow countrymen. The preference for knock-out blows remained. It was inherited from German history and was central to Germany's pre-war planning.
Pre-war German strategy was haunted by the fear of a war on two fronts, against France in the west and Russia in the east. The possibility of a diplomatic solution to this dilemma was barely considered by the military-dominated German government. A military solution was sought instead. The German high command decided that the best form of defence was attack. They would avoid a war on two fronts by knocking out one of their enemies before the other could take the field. The enemy with the slowest military mobilization was Russia. The French army would be in the field first. France was therefore chosen to receive the first blow. Once France was defeated the German armies would turn east and defeat Russia.
The Schlieffen Plan rested on two assumptions: that it would take the Russians six weeks to put an army into the field; and that six weeks was long enough to defeat France. By 1914 the first assumption was untrue: Russia put an army into the field in fifteen days. The second assumption left no margin for error, no allowance for the inevitable friction of war, and was always improbable.
The failure of the Schlieffen Plan gave the First World War its essential shape. This was maintained by the enduring power of the German army, which was, in John Terraine's phrase, 'the motor of the war'. The German army was a potent instrument. It had played a historic role in the emergence of the German state. It enjoyed enormous prestige. It was able to recruit men of talent and dedication as officers and NCOs. As a result it was well trained and well led. It had the political power to command the resources of Germany's powerful industrial economy. Germany's position at the heart of Europe meant that it could operate on interior lines of communication in a European war. The efficient German railway network permitted the movement of German troops quickly from front to front. The superior speed of the locomotive over the ship frustrated Allied attempts to use their command of the sea to operate effectively against the periphery of the Central Powers. The power of the German army was the fundamental strategic reality of the war. 'We cannot hope to win this war until we have defeated the German army,' wrote the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. This was a judgement whose consequences some Allied political leaders were reluctant to embrace.
The German army suffered from two important strategic difficulties. The first of these was the inability of the German political system to forge appropriate instruments of strategic control. The second was Great Britain. German government rested on the tortured personality of the Kaiser. It was riven by intrigue and indecision. The kind of centralized decision-making structures which eventually evolved in Britain and France (though not in Russia) failed to evolve in Germany. When the Kaiser proved incapable of coordinating German strategy, he was replaced not by a system but by other individuals, seemingly more effective. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg radiated calm and inspired confidence. This gave him the appearance of a great man but without the substance. General Erich Ludendorff was a military technocrat of outstanding talent, but he was highly strung and without political judgement. In 1918 his offensive strategy brought Germany to ruin.
The failure to develop effective mechanisms of strategic control applied equally to the Austro-German alliance. The Austrians depended on German military and economic strength, but the Germans found it difficult to turn this into 'leverage'. Austria was willing to take German help but not German advice. Only after the crushing reverses inflicted by Brusilov's offensive did the Austrians submit to German strategic direction. By then it was almost certainly too late.
Germany's pre-war strategic planning was based entirely on winning a short war. British belligerency made this unlikely. The British were a naval rather than a military power. They could not be defeated by the German army, at least not quickly. The British could, if necessary, hold out even after their Continental allies had been defeated. They might even have chosen to do this. They had in the past and they would again in the not-too-distant future. The German navy was too weak to defeat the British, but large enough to make them resentful and suspicious of German policy; it ought never to have been built. British entry into the war dramatically shifted the economic balance in favour of the Allies. Britain was one of the world's great industrial powers. Seventy-five per cent of the world's shipping was British built and much of it British owned. London was the world's greatest money and commodities market. British access to world supplies of food and credit and to imperial resources of manpower made them a formidable enemy, despite the 'contemptible little army' which was all they could put into the field on the outbreak of war. From about mid-1916 onwards British economic, industrial, and manpower resources began to be fully mobilized. Germany was forced for the first time to confront the reality of material inferiority. Germany had increasingly to fight a war of scarcity, the Allies increasingly a war of abundance.
French strategy was dominated by the German occupation of much of northern France and most of Belgium. At its closest point the German line was less than 40 miles from Paris. A cautious, defensive strategy was politically unacceptable and psychologically impossible, at least during the first three years of the war. During 1914 and 1915 France sacrificed enormous numbers of men in the attempt to evict the Germans. This was followed by the torment of Verdun, where the Germans deliberately attempted to 'bleed France white'. French fears of military inferiority were confirmed. If France was to prevail its allies would have to contribute in kind. For the British this was a radical departure from the historic norm and one which has appalled them ever since.
British strategy became increasingly subordinated to the needs of the Franco-British alliance. The British fought the war as they had to, not as they wanted to. The British way in warfare envisaged a largely naval war. A naval blockade would weaken Germany economically. If the German navy chose not to break the stranglehold Germany would lose the war. If it did choose to fight it would be annihilated. British maritime superiority would be confirmed. Neutral opinion would be cowed. Fresh allies would be encouraged into the fight. The blockade would be waged with greater ruthlessness. Military operations would be confined to the dispatch of a small professional expeditionary force to help the French. Remaining military forces would be employed on the periphery of the Central Powers remote from the German army, where it was believed they would exercise a strategic influence out of all proportion to their size.
The British never really fought the war they envisaged. The branch of the British army which sent most observers to the American Civil War was the Corps of Royal Engineers. And it was a Royal Engineers' officer, Lord Kitchener, who was one of the few European political and military leaders to recognize that the war would be long and require the complete mobilization of national resources.
Kitchener was appointed Secretary of State for War on 5 August 1914. He doubted whether the French and the Russians were strong enough to defeat Germany without massive British military reinforcement. He immediately sought to raise a mass citizen army. There was an overwhelming popular response to his call to arms. Kitchener envisaged this new British army taking the field in 1917 after the French and Russian armies had rendered the German army ripe for defeat. They would be 'the last million men'. They would win the war and decide the peace. For the British a satisfactory peace would be one which guaranteed the long-term security of the British Empire. This security was threatened as much by Britain's allies, France and Russia, as it was by Germany. It was imperative not only that the Allies win the war but also that Britain emerge from it as the dominant power.
Kitchener's expectations were disappointed. By 1916 it was the French army which was ripe for defeat, not the German. But the obligations of the French alliance were inescapable. The British could not afford to acquiesce in a French defeat. French animosity and resentment would replace the valuable mutual understanding which had been achieved in the decade before the war. The French had a great capacity for making imperial mischief. And so did the Russians. If they were abandoned they would have every reason for doing so. There seemed no choice. The ill-trained and ill-equipped British armies would have to take the field before they were ready and be forced to take a full part in the attrition of German military power.
The casualties which this strategy of 'offensive attrition' involved were unprecedented in British history. They were also unacceptable to some British political leaders. Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George (Prime Minister from December 1916), in particular, were opposed to the British army 'chewing barbed wire' on the Western Front. They looked to use it elsewhere, against Germany's allies in the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Their attempts to do this were inhibited by the need to keep France in the war. This could only be done in France and by fighting the German army. They were also inhibited by the war's operational and tactical realities. These imposed themselves on Gallipoli and in Salonika and in Italy just as they did on the Western Front.
Attempts to implement an Allied grand strategy enjoyed some success. Allied political and military leaders met regularly. At Chantilly in December 1915 and December 1916 they determined to stretch the German army to its limits by simultaneous offensive action on the western, eastern, and Italian fronts. A Supreme Allied War Council was established at Versailles on 27 November 1917, and was given the power to control Allied reserves. Franco-British co-operation was especially close. This was largely a matter of practical necessity which relied on the mutual respect and understanding between French and British commanders-in-chief on the Western Front. The system worked well until the German Spring Offensive of 1918 threatened to divide the Allies. Only then was it replaced by a more formal structure. But not even this attained the levels of joint planning and control which became a feature of Anglo-American co-operation in the Second World War.
Allied grand strategy was conceptually sound. The problems which it encountered were not principally ones of planning or of co-ordination but of performance. Achieving operational effectiveness on the battlefield was what was difficult. This has given the war, especially the war in the west, its enduring image of boneheaded commanders wantonly sacrificing the lives of their men in fruitless pursuit of impossibly grandiose strategic designs.
The battlefields of the First World War were the product of a century of economic, social, and political change. Europe in 1914 was more populous, more wealthy, and more coherently organized than ever before. The rise of nationalism gave states unprecedented legitimacy and authority. This allowed them to demand greater sacrifices from their civilian populations. Improvements in agriculture reduced the numbers needed to work on the land and provided a surplus of males of military age. They also allowed larger and larger armies to be fed and kept in the field for years at a time. Changes in administrative practice brought about by the electric telegraph, the telephone, the typewriter, and the growth of railways allowed these armies to be assembled and deployed quickly. Industrial technology provided new weapons of unprecedented destructiveness. Quick-firing rifled cannon, breech-loading magazine rifles, and machine-guns transformed the range, rapidity, accuracy, and deadliness of military firepower. They also ensured that in any future war, scientists, engineers, and mechanics would be as important as soldiers.
These changes did much to make the First World War the first 'modern war'. But it did not begin as one. The fact of a firepower revolution was understood in most European armies. The consequences of it were not. The experience of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) appeared to offer a human solution to the problems of the technological battlefield. Victory would go to the side with the best-trained, most disciplined army, commanded by generals of iron resolution, prepared to maintain the offensive in the face of huge losses. As a result the opening battles of the war were closer in conception and execution to those of the Napoleonic era than to the battles of 1916 onwards.
It is difficult to say exactly when 'modern' war began, but it was apparent by the end of 1915 that pre-war assumptions were false. Well-trained, highly disciplined French, German, and Russian soldiers of high morale were repeatedly flung into battle by commanders of iron resolve. The results were barren of strategic achievement. The human costs were immense. The 'human solution' was not enough. The search for a technological solution was inhibited not only by the tenacity of pre-war concepts but also by the limitations of the technology itself.
The principal instrument of education was artillery. And the mode of instruction was experience. Shell-fire was merciless to troops in the open. The response was to get out of the open and into the ground. Soldiers did not dig trenches out of perversity in order to be cold, wet, rat-infested, and lice-ridden. They dug them in order to survive. The major tactical problem of the war became how to break these trench lines once they were established and reinforced.
For much of the war artillery lacked the ability to find enemy targets, to hit them accurately, and to destroy them effectively. Contemporary technology failed to provide a man-portable wireless. Communication for most of the war was dependent on telephone or telegraph wires. These were always broken by shell-fire and difficult to protect. Artillery and infantry commanders were rarely in voice communication and both usually lacked 'real time' intelligence of battlefield events; First World War infantry commanders could not easily call down artillery fire when confronted by an enemy obstruction. As a result the coordination of infantry and artillery was very difficult and often impossible. Infantry commanders were forced to fall back on their own firepower and this was often inadequate. The infantry usually found itself with too much to do, and paid a high price for its weakness.
Artillery was not only a major part of the problem, however. It was also a major part of the solution. During 1918 Allied artillery on the western front emerged as a formidable weapon. Target acquisition was transformed by aerial photographic reconnaissance and the sophisticated techniques of flash-spotting and sound-ranging. These allowed mathematically predicted fire, or map-shooting. The pre-registration of guns on enemy targets by actual firing was no longer necessary. The possibility of surprise returned to the battlefield. Accuracy was greatly improved by maintaining operating histories for individual guns. Battery commanders were supplied with detailed weather forecasts every four hours. Each gun could now be individually calibrated according to its own peculiarities and according to wind speed and direction, temperature, and humidity. All types and calibres of guns, including heavy siege howitzers whose steep angle of fire was especially effective in trench warfare, became available in virtually unlimited numbers. Munitions were also improved. Poison gas shells became available for the first time in large numbers. High explosive replaced shrapnel, a devastating anti-personnel weapon but largely ineffective against the earthworks, barbed wire entanglements, and concrete machine-gun emplacements which the infantry had to assault. Instantaneous percussion fuses concentrated the explosive effect of shells more effectively against barbed wire and reduced the cratering of the battlefield which had often rendered the forward movement of supplies and reinforcements difficult if not impossible. Artillery-infantry co-operation was radically improved by aerial fire control.
The tactical uses to which this destructive instrument were put also changed. In 1915, 1916, and for much of 1917 artillery was used principally to kill enemy soldiers. It always did so, sometimes in large numbers. But it always spared some, even in front-line trenches. These were often enough, as during the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916), to inflict disastrous casualties on attacking infantry and bring an entire offensive to a halt. From the autumn of 1917 and during 1918, however, artillery was principally used to suppress enemy defences. Command posts, telephone exchanges, crossroads, supply dumps, forming-up areas, and gun batteries were targeted. Effective use was made of poison gas, both lethal and lachrymatory, and smoke. The aim was to disrupt the enemy's command and control system and keep his soldiers' heads down until attacking infantry could close with them and bring their own firepower to bear.
The attacking infantry were also transformed. In 1914 the British soldier went to war dressed like a gamekeeper in a soft cap, armed only with rifle and bayonet. In 1918 he went into battle dressed like an industrial worker in a steel helmet, protected by a respirator against poison gas, armed with automatic weapons and mortars, supported by tanks and ground-attack aircraft, and preceded by a creeping artillery barrage of crushing intensity. Firepower replaced manpower as the instrument of victory. This represented a revolution in the conduct of war.
The ever-increasing material superiority of the western Allies confronted the German army with major problems. Its response was organizational. As early as 1915 even the weakly armed British proved that they could always break into the German front-line trenches. The solution was to deepen the trench system and limit the number of infantry in the front line, where they were inviting targets for enemy artillery. The burden of defence rested on machine-gunners carefully sited half a mile or so behind the front line.
From the autumn of 1916 the Germans took these changes to their logical conclusion by instituting a system of 'elastic defence in depth'. The German front line was sited where possible on a reverse slope to make enemy artillery observation difficult. A formal front-line trench system was abandoned. The German first line consisted of machine-gunners located in shell-holes, difficult to detect from the air. Their job was to disrupt an enemy infantry assault. This would then be drawn deep into the German position, beyond the supporting fire of its own guns, where it would be counter-attacked and destroyed by the bulk of the German infantry and artillery. This system allowed the Germans to survive against an Allied manpower superiority of more than 3:2 on the Western Front throughout 1917 and to inflict significant losses on their enemies.
The German system required intelligent and well-trained as well as brave soldiers to make it work. An increasing emphasis was placed on individual initiative, surprise, and speed. In 1918 specially trained stormtroops', supported by a hurricane bombardment designed to disrupt their enemies' lines of communication and their command and control systems, were ordered to bypass points of resistance and advance deep into the enemy's rear. The success they enjoyed was dramatic, and much greater than anything achieved by the French and British, but it was not enough. Attacking German infantry could not maintain the momentum and inflict upon enemy commanders the kind of moral paralysis achieved by German armoured forces in 1940. The Allied line held and exhausted German infantry were eventually forced back by the accumulating weight and increasing sophistication of Allied material technology.
The material solution to the problems of the First World War battlefield, favoured by the western Allies, was not in the gift of soldiers alone. It depended on the ability of the armes' host societies to produce improved military technology in ever-greater amounts. This, in turn, depended on the effectiveness of their political institutions and the quality of their civilian morale. It was a contest at which the liberal democracies of France and Great Britain (and eventually the United States of America) proved more adept than the authoritarian regimes of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia.
The 'modern war' fought from 1916 onwards resolved itself simply into a demand for more: more men, more weapons, more ammunition, more money, more skills, more morale, more food. Some of the demands were contradictory. More men meant more men for the armies and more men for the factories. Balancing the competing demands was never easy. 'Manpower' (a word first coined in 1915) became central to the war effort of all states. The Allies were in a much stronger position than Germany. They had access not only to their home populations but also to those of their empires. 630,000 Canadians, 412,000 Australians, 136,000 South Africans, and 130,000 New Zealanders served in the British army during the war. Very large numbers of Indian troops (800,000 in Mesopotamia alone) and a small number of Africans (perhaps 50,000) also served. (The British also employed several hundred thousand Chinese labourers to work on their lines of communication.) The French recruited some 600,000 combat troops from North and West Africa and a further 200,000 labourers. And of course there were the Americans. American troops arrived in France at the rate of 150,000 a month in 1918. Truly the new world had come in to redress the balance of the old.
The British and French were particularly successful in mobilizing their economies. In Britain this had much to do with the work of David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions (May 1915-July 1916). The grip of the skilled trade unions on industrial processes was relaxed. Ancient lines of demarcation were blurred. Women replaced men in the factories. Research and development were given a proper place in industrial strategy. Prodigies of production were achieved. On 10 March 1915, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the British Expeditionary Force struggled to accumulate enough shells for half an hour's bombardment. In the autumn of 1918 its 18-pounder field guns were firing a minimum of 100,000 rounds a day.
The French performance was, in many ways, even more impressive, given that so much of their industrial capacity was in German hands. Not only did the French economy supply the French army with increasing amounts of old and new weaponry, but it also supplied most of the American Expeditionary Force's artillery and aeroplanes. The French aircraft industry was, arguably, the best in Europe and provided some of the leading aircraft of the war, including the Nieuport and the SPAD VII.
Morale was also a key factor. All sides tried to explain and justify the war and used increasingly refined techniques of propaganda to maintain commitment to the cause. Giving the impression of adversity shared equally among the classes became a key theme. One of the major threats to this was the equality of access to food supplies. In Germany this proved increasingly difficult to maintain. Morale deteriorated and industrial efficiency suffered as a result. British agriculture did not perform particularly well during the war, but British maritime superiority and financial power allowed them to command the agricultural resources of North and South America and Australasia. Food was one of the Allies principal war-winning weapons. The degree of active resistance to the war was low in most countries. But war-weariness set in everywhere by 1917. There were many strikes and much industrial unrest. In Russia this was severe enough to produce a revolution and then a Bolshevik coup d�tat which took Russia out of the war in 1918.
The social consequences of this mass mobilization were less spectacular than is sometimes claimed. There were advances for the organized working class, especially its trade unions, especially in Britain, and arguably for women, but the working class of Europe paid a high price on the battlefield for social advances at home. And in the defeated states there was very little social advance anyway.
The First World War redrew the map of Europe and the Middle East. Four great empires, the Romanov, the Hohenzollern, the Habsburg, and the Ottoman, were defeated and collapsed. They were replaced by a number of weak and sometimes avaricious successor states. Russia underwent a bloody civil war before the establishment of a Communist Soviet Union which put it beyond the pale of European diplomacy for a generation. Germany became a republic branded at its birth with the stigma of defeat, increasingly weakened by the burden of Allied reparations and by inflation. France recovered the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, but continued to be haunted by fear and loathing of Germany. Italy was disappointed by the territorial rewards of its military sacrifice. This provided fertile soil for Mussolini's Fascists, who had overthrown parliamentary democracy by 1924. The British maintained the integrity and independence of Belgium. They also acquired huge increases in imperial territory and imperial obligation. But they did not achieve the security for the Empire which they sought. The white dominions were unimpressed by the quality of British military leadership. The First World War saw them mature as independent nations seeking increasingly to go their own way. The stirrings of revolt in India were apparent as soon as the war ended. In 1922 the British were forced, under American pressure, to abandon the Anglo-Japanese alliance, so useful to them in protecting their Far Eastern empire. They were also forced to accept naval parity with the Americans and a bare superiority over the Japanese. 'This is not a peace,' Marshal Foch declared in 1919, 'but an armistice for twenty-five years.'
The cost of all this in human terms was 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded out of some 65 million men mobilized. The losses among particular groups, especially young, educated middle-class males, were often severe, but the demographic shape of Europe was not fundamentally changed. The real impact was moral. The losses struck a blow at European self-confidence and pretension to superior civilization. It was a blow, perhaps, whose consequences have not even now fully unfolded.
From The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War. Ed. Charles Townshend. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Copyright � 1997 by Oxford University Press.
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Facts, information and articles about World War I, aka The Great War
World War I Facts
July 28, 1914 – November 11, 1918
Europe, Mideast, Africa, Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean, North Sea, Baltic Sea
Allied Powers / Entente:
King George V
President Raymond Poincare
Tsar Nicholas II
King Victor Emmanuel III
King Peter I
King Albert I
Chief of General Staff Constantin Prezan
Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos
President Woodrow Wilson
Kaiser Wilhelm II
Emperor Franz Josef I
Minister of War Enver Pasha
Tsar Ferdinand I
Allied Powers casualties: 22 million
Central Powers casualties: 37.5 million
End of Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman & Russian empires
Harsh surrender terms forced on Germany major cause of WWII
Redrawing of borders in Europe & Mideast
World War I Articles
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World War I summary: The war fought between July 28, 1914, and November 11, 1918, was known at the time as the Great War, the War to End War, and (in the United States) the European War. Only when the world went to war again in the 1930s and ’40s did the earlier conflict become known as the First World War. Its casualty totals were unprecedented, soaring into the millions. World War I is known for the extensive system of trenches from which men of both sides fought. Lethal new technologies were unleashed, and for the first time a major war was fought not only on land and on sea but below the sea and in the skies as well. The two sides were known as the Allies or Entente—consisting primarily of France, Great Britain, Italy, Russia, and later the United States—and the Central Powers, primarily comprised of Austria-Hungary (the Habsburg Empire), Germany, and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). A number of smaller nations aligned themselves with one side or the other. In the Pacific Japan, seeing a chance to seize German colonies, threw in with the Allies. The Allies were the victors, as the entry of the United States into the war in 1917 added an additional weight of men and materiel the Central Powers could not hope to match.
The war resulted in a dramatically changed geo-political landscape, including the destruction of three empires: Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian. New borders were drawn at its conclusion and resentments, especially on the part of Germany, left festering in Europe. Ironically, decisions made after the fighting ceased led the War to End War to be a significant cause of the Second World War.
As John Keegan wrote in The First World War (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict … the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice.”
Casualties in World War I
In terms of sheer numbers of lives lost or disrupted, the Great War was the most destructive war in history until it was overshadowed by its offspring, the Second World War: an estimated 10 million military deaths from all causes, plus 20 million more crippled or severely wounded. Estimates of civilian casualties are harder to make; they died from shells, bombs, disease, hunger, and accidents such as explosions in munitions factories; in some cases, they were executed as spies or as “object lessons.” Additionally, as Neil M. Heyman in World War I (Greenwood Press, 1997) wrote, “Not physically hurt but scarred nonetheless were 5 million widowed women, 9 million orphaned children, and 10 million individuals torn from their homes to become refugees.” None of this takes into account the deaths in the Russian Civil War or the Third Balkan War, both of which directly resulted from World War I, nor the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed 50 million people worldwide, which was spread in part by conditions at the front and by soldiers returning home.
The highest national military casualty totals—killed, wounded, and missing/taken prisoner—in round numbers (sources disagree on casualty totals), were:
- Russia: 9,150,000
- Germany: 7,143,000
- Austria-Hungary: 7,000,000
- France, 6,161,000
- Britain & Commonwealth: 3,190,000
- Italy: 2,197,000
- Turkey (Ottoman Empire): 975,000
- Romania: 536,000
- Serbia: 331,000
- USA: 323,000
- Bulgaria: 267,000
For more information, click to see the Casualties of World War I.
Causes of World War I
Prime Minister of Germany Otto von Bismarck had prophesied that when war again came to Europe it would be over “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans.” Indeed, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Habsburg throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie, by a Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914, was the match that lit the fuse—but it didn’t create the powder keg. The outbreak of war between European nations was the result of several factors:
- Concern over other countries’ military expansion, leading to an arms race and entangling alliances
- Fear of losing economic and/or diplomatic status
- Long-standing ethnic differences and rising nationalism in the Balkans
- French resentment of territorial losses in the 1871 Franco-Prussian War
- The influence exerted by military leaders
Following their 1871 victory in the Franco-Prussian War, the German states unified into a single nation. Its leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, eldest grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria, envisioned an Imperial Navy that could rival Great Britain’s large and renowned fleet. This would increase German influence in the world and likely allow the country to expand its colonial holdings. Britain, fearful of losing its dominance of the seas, accelerated its naval design and construction to stay ahead of the Kaiser’s ship-building program.
Russia was rebuilding and modernizing its large army and had begun a program of industrialization. Germany and Austria-Hungary saw the threat posed by Russia’s large population and, hence, its ability to raise a massive army. They formed an alliance for self-protection against the Russian bear.
France, still stinging over the loss of Alsace and part of Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian war, made an agreement allying itself with Russia in any war with Germany or Austria-Hungary. Britain, after finding itself friendless during the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899–1902) allied itself with France and worked to improve relations with the United States of America. Russia, with many ethnic groups inside its vast expanse, made an alliance with Serbia in the Balkans.
The old Ottoman Empire was crumbling; “The Sick Man of Europe” was the phrase used to describe the once-powerful state. As its ability to exert control over its holdings in the Balkans weakened, ethnic and regional groups broke away and formed new states. Rising nationalism led to the First and Second Balkan Wars, 1912 and 1913. As a result of those wars, Serbia increased its size and began pushing for a union of all South Slavic peoples. Serbian nationalism led 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Habsburg throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie. Austria-Hungary, urged on by Germany, sent a list of demands to Serbia in response; the demands were such that Serbia was certain to reject them. When it did, the Habsburg Empire declared war on Serbia on July 28, exactly one month after the archduke’s assassination. Russia came in on the side of the Serbs, Germany on the side of the Habsburgs, and the entangling alliances between the nations of Europe pulled one after another into the war. Although diplomats throughout Europe strove to settle matters without warfare right up to the time the shooting started, the influence military leaders enjoyed in many nations won out—along with desires to capture new lands or reclaim old ones.
Combat in the First World War
German military planners were ready when the declarations of war began flying across Europe. They intended to hold off the Russians in the east, swiftly knock France out of the war through a maneuver known as the Schliefffen Plan, then throw their full force, along with Austria-Hungary, against the Russians. The Schliefffen Plan, named for General Count Alfred von Schlieffen who created it in 1905, called for invading the Low Countries (Luxembourg and Belgium) in order to bypass to the north the strong fortifications along the French border. After a rapid conquest of the Low Countries, the German advance would continue into northern France, swing around Paris to the west and capture the French capital. It almost worked, but German commander in chief General Helmuth von Moltke decided to send his forces east of Paris to engage and defeat the weakened French army head-on. In doing so he exposed his right flank to counterattack by the French and a British Expeditionary Force, resulting in the First Battle of the Marne, September 6–10, 1914. Despite casualties in the hundreds of thousands, the battle was a stalemate, but it stopped the German drive on Paris. Both sides began digging a network of trenches. The First Battle of the Marne was a window onto how the rest of the war would be fought: extensive trenchworks against which large numbers of men would be hurled, suffering extremely high casualties for little if any territorial gains. The centuries-old method of massed charges to break through enemy positions did not work when the men faced machine guns, barbed wire, and drastically more effective artillery than in the past.
The next four years would see battles in which millions of artillery shells were fired and millions of men were killed or mutilated. Click here to read about some of the costliest battles of the First World War. Deadly new weapons were responsible for the unprecedented carnage.
New Weapons of World War I
Among the lethal technological developments that were used for the first time (or in some cases used for the first time in a major conflict) during the Great War were the machine gun, poison gas, flamethrowers, tanks and aircraft. Artillery increased dramatically in size, range and killing power compared to its 19th-century counterparts. In the war at sea, submarines could strike unseen from beneath the waves, using torpedoes to send combat and merchant ships to the bottom. Click here for more information on Weapons of World War I.
War on the Eastern Front
On the Eastern Front, the German general Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff Erich Ludendorff engineered strategies that gave them dramatic victories over Russian armies. The war became increasing unpopular among the Russian people. Ludendorff, sensing a chance to take Tsar Nicholas II’s country out of the war, arranged for an exiled Marxist revolutionary named Vladimir Lenin to cross Europe in a special train and get back into Russia. As hoped, Lenin helped fuel the rising revolutionary fervor. The tsar was deposed and executed with his family in the March 1917 revolution. For the first time in Russian history a republican democracy was established, but its leaders underestimated the people’s resistance to continuing the war. When the new government failed to bring about a rapid peace, it was overthrown in November by a socialist revolution led by Lenin, following which Russia signed a peace agreement with Germany.
War in the Mountains
Fighting in the high elevations of the Balkans and Alps created additional agony for soldiers fighting there: bitterly cold winters and especially rugged terrain.
Serbia, whose countryman had fired the shots that gave rise to the slaughter taking place in Europe, was invaded twice by Austria-Hungary but repulsed both attempts. In the autumn of 1915, a third invasion came. This time the Hapsburgs were joined by Germany and Bulgaria. The outnumbered Serbs gave ground. Ultimately, the Serbian Army only escaped annihilation by a demanding march through Albania to the Adriatic Sea, where the French Navy rescued the survivors.
Romania remained neutral until August 1916 when it joined the Allies and declared war on Austria-Hungary in hopes of securing additional territories including Transylvania. As the poorly trained Romanian army advanced into Transylvania, German forces invaded and occupied Romania itself, quickly knocking the country out of the war.
Italy, wooed by both sides, entered the war on the Allied side in May 1915. Its efforts were concentrated on breaking through Austria’s mountain defenses, but its poorly equipped soldiers were ground up in a series of attacks at the Isonzo River, though their opponents also suffered severely. What gains the Italians made in the war were wiped out by a rout that began at Caporeto in October 1917 and unhinged the entire line.
The War Spreads Beyond Europe
While soldiers in Europe lived and died in the muddy, disease-ridden trenches, Britain attempted an attack in February 1915 against the Ottoman Empire, the “soft underbelly” of Europe, to aid the Russians and, ideally, force Turkey out of the war. An attempted invasion on the Gallipoli Peninsula resulted in a bloody repulse, but war in the interior of the Ottoman Empire met with greater success. Arab groups seeking to overthrow the empire waged a successful guerrilla war in the Mideast, led by Prince Feisal, third son of the Grand Sharif of Mecca. The revolt was aided by British liaison officer T.E. Lawrence of Wales, who became known as Lawrence of Arabia.
When the war ended, the Ottoman Empire was broken up. England and France drew borders for new countries in the Mideast without regard for ethnic and religious factions. The centuries-old tensions between the native inhabitants of the region led to many of the problems causing turmoil in the Mideast today, another irony of the War to End War.
Africa was home to a sideshow of the European fighting. European nationals and colonial troops of both sides fought against each other, but the German colonies were widely separated and unable to support each other. In German East Africa (Tanzania) an aggressive general named Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck waged a guerilla campaign against his British opponents until after the armistice was signed in Europe that ended the Great War.
In the waters of the Pacific Ocean German commerce raiders found prey among merchant vessels of Allied nations. Japan joined the Allies war effort on August 23, 1914, ostensibly in fulfillment of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1911. The Land of the Rising Sun seized German colonies such as the Marianas, Marshalls and Carolines island chains that would see intense fighting during the Second World War.
War at Sea
Among the causes of the First World War was the naval arms race that began with Britain’s deployment of HMS Dreadnought, a new design that eschewed small, secondary arms in favor of big guns heavily armored for protection. Every nation wanted a Dreadnought, and Germany sought to increase the size of its fleet to the level of Britain’s. Accomplishing that goal while supporting large armies engaged in warfare proved impossible for Germany, but World War I saw the last great battles fought entirely between surface ships. Notable naval engagements include the Falkland Islands and Coronel off South America, and the battles of Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland in the North Sea. Jutland would prove to be not only the largest naval battle up to that time but the last in which fighting would take place only between surface ships. In World War II, the aircraft carrier became the most lethal surface ship and allowed enemy fleets to engage in battle without ever seeing each other from a captain’s bridge.
The most significant advance in naval warfare to come out of the Great War was the development of submarines, which the German Imperial Navy called Unterseeboots (undersea boats). That got shortened to U-boats, a name that became synonymous with submarine. Subs could hide beneath the waves in shipping lanes to attack merchant or combat ships with torpedoes without ever being seen. Such attacks on merchant or passenger ships without giving the crews and passengers warning so they could escape in lifeboats was considered a violation of the laws of naval warfare, and became known as “unrestricted” submarine warfare. Germany engaged in such unrestricted warfare until U-20 sunk the British passenger liner Lusitania off Ireland in May 1915. Over 1,200 lives were lost, including 128 Americans, and the US threatened to break diplomatic relations with Germany. The Imperial Navy subsequently instituted strict regulations for U-boat attacks, but those went by the boards in 1917 as the Germans tried to cut off supplies to Britain and starve the island nation into submission. It was a bad decision. The renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare and subsequent sinking of three American ships brought the US into the war, after which Germany’s fate was all but sealed.
War in the Air
Airplanes had already seen limited military before World War I began. Italian aircraft were used for reconnaissance and small-scale bombing during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911. Aircraft during World War I continued to be used primarily for reconnaissance, including photo-reconnaissance missions. The first aircraft of the war weren’t even armed, since no serious effort had been made to create a fighting flying machine. Pilots began shooting at each other with pistols and rifles. Soon various schemes were attempted to attach machine guns to planes. The breakthrough came in 1915 when Holland’s Anthony Fokker developed a method to synchronize a machine gun’s fire with the rotation of the propeller on his Eindecker (single-wing) design for the German air force.
Early war planes were very light and used small engines with top speeds of less than 100 mph. On many designs the engine was in the rear and pushed the plane through the air. The demands of wartime, each side trying to outdo the other’s technological advances, created rapid improvements in aircraft design. Changes might occur within weeks; in the decades following the war, such changes would take years. By war’s end small, single-engine planes had been joined by multi-engine bombers such as the Giant, which Germany used to bomb British cities. Zeppelins were also used for reconnaissance and for bombing over land and sea. Tethered barrage balloons carried observers high above the front to watch enemy troop movements—and attracted the attention of the enemy’s airborne fighters.
While the war on the ground was a miserable existence in muddy, rat- and disease-infested trenches, and millions of lives might be spent to gain a few miles of territory, the war in the air captured the imagination of the world. Using this exciting new technology to maneuver through the skies and engage the enemy in one-on-one dogfights in which skillful pilots could rise to the status of ace gave the air war a sense of glamour that still hangs over the pilots of World War I.
America Joins the War
Most Americans saw little reason for the United States to involve itself in “the European War,” though some individuals—such as young pilots excited at the notion of flying in combat—enlisted through Canada or elsewhere. President Woodrow Wilson won reelection in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” That same year he tried to bring the combatant nations to the bargaining table to seek an end to the war that would be fair to all, but the attempt failed.
America was drawn into the conflict by the Zimmerman telegraph and unrestricted submarine warfare. On January 16, 1917, Foreign Secretary of the German Empire Arthur Zimmerman sent a coded message to the German ambassador in Mexico City, Heinrich von Eckart informing him Germany would return to unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, a policy that might cause America to declare war. “We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral,” Zimmerman wrote, but if those efforts failed, Eckart was to convince Mexico to become Germany’s ally. As an inducement, Eckart was authorized to offer the return of the US states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico after America was defeated.
The code was broken, and the contents of the telegram published on March 1. Americans were outraged. Two weeks later German U-boats sank three American vessels. Wilson asked Congress on April 1 to authorize a declaration of war against Germany, which it did four days later. War was declared on the other Central Powers shortly thereafter.
When American troops and war materiel began arriving in Europe later in 1917, it unalterably shifted the balance of power in favor of the Allies. A final German offensive began on May 21, 1918, an attempt to win the war before the full weight of American strength could arrive. The Spring Offensive (also called the Ludendorff Offensive and the Kaiser’s Battle) sputtered out when German supply vehicles couldn’t keep up with the rapidly advancing soldiers across the broken, cratered battleground, and the Kaiser’s troops were left in poor defensive positions. An Allied operation that became known as the Hundred Days Offensive pushed the enemy back to the German border by September. Germany’s allies began their own peace negotiations.
The German navy mutinied. Ludendorff, architect of many German victories in the east, was dismissed. Riots broke out, often led by German Bolsheviks. Prince Max, Chancellor of Germany, authorized negotiations for peace terms and stipulated that both military and civilian representatives be involved. He then turned his title over to Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Socialist Democratic movement. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated on November 9. An agreement between the combatants called for all guns to fall silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Yet, even on the morning of November 11, before the designated time for the armistice to begin, some field officers ordered their men to make attacks, which accomplished little except more bloodshed.
A series of peace treaties were signed between the combatant nations, but the most significant was the Treaty of Versailles, signed on July 28, 1919, five years after Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. Germany had hoped Woodrow Wilson would be a moderating factor that would allow for more generous peace terms, but the nations that had lost millions of young men to the weapons of the Central Powers were in no mood to be forgiving. As a result of the various treaties, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled. Austria-Hungary was broken into separate nations and forced to cede lands to successor states such as Czechoslovakia. Bulgaria was limited to a 20,000-man army, denied any aircraft or submarines and ordered to pay reparations over a 35-year period. Germany was restricted to a standing army of just 100,000 men, denied possession of certain weapons such as tanks, forced to pay reparations to its former enemies and give up all of its overseas colonies as well as some of its territories in Europe. In the coming years Germans would brood over the harsh terms and seek not only to overturn them but to inflict punishment on the nations that demanded them.
All combatant nations had concealed from their people the true extent of casualties during the war, but in Germany, where Hindenburg and Ludendorff were given control over virtually all aspects of civilian life as well as over the military, any negative reports about what was happening at the front were considered “defeatist” and were prohibited. Accordingly, much of the population believed it when they were told Germany was winning the war. The country’s sudden capitulation left them shocked and bewildered. Hindenburg claimed that the German soldier had been winning the war but was “stabbed in the back” by civilians who overthrew the monarchy. The popular old soldier was elected president of Germany, and his “stabbed in the back” myth was used to great effect by a rising political star, Adolf Hitler.
Articles Featuring World War I From History Net Magazines
Point of View: What a Century! Observing the Centenary of the First World War, by Michael S. Nieberg
Historians have a love-hate relationship with major anniversaries of historic events. The anniversaries bring new attention to a subject and offer a chance to educate the public, but they often become tainted by politics and dealt with in a superficial fashion.
World War I Resources
Historian Michael Neiberg recommends five books and three websites for those seeking to learn more about World War I
First Shot of World War I, by Christopher Clark
An excerpt from The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Rolls-Royce Armored Car: The Bulletproof Ghost, by Jim Motavalli
A luxury car becomes an effective armored fighting vehicle.
Interview with Gary Sheffeld
Professor Gary Sheffield, chair of War Studies at Britain’s University of Birmingham and a former instructor at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and at the British Joint Services Command and Staff College. Author of Forgotten Victory: The First World War, Myths and Realities, in this interview he answers questions about that conflict.
An International Red Line, by Christopher A. Warren
Following World War I the international community had intense debate over whether poison gas should remain a legitimate weapon of war or be banned.
The Carpathian Winter War, 1915, by Graydon A. Tunstall
Little Soldiers: A French photojournalist captures Paris children playing at war in the dark days of World War I, by Jennifer Berry
Includes 10 of Leon Gimpel’s photographs of children in Paris as they played at war while a real war raged in the world outside the city.
Veterans Day: History of a Symbol, by Karen Sutherland
A 15-line poem written in just 20 minutes became an enduring symbol because it speaks volumes about those who lost their lives near Ypres, Belgium.
The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher M. Clark, and July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean MeMeekin
The Great War Seen From the Air: In Flanders Fields, 1914
The Making of the First World War, by Ian F.W. Beckett
War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War, by William Philpott
Naval Aviation in the First World War: It’s Impact and Influence, by R.D. Layman
A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, by Geoffrey Wawro
More World War I Articles
More World War I Articles
Audio: The Incredible Story Of Sgt. Stubby, The World War I Service DogNancy Furstinger, author of 'Paws of Courage: True Tales of Heroic Dogs that Protect and Serve' tells the amazing story of Sgt Stubby, a World War I hero.
Ten Notable Women of World War ITen women whose roles in WW1 brought them praise. Some received medals. Some gave their lives.
Did Germany’s Allies Send Troops to the Western Front in WW1?Hello, During World War One on the Western Front I know from my military history that the Allies, Britain and France not only had units from their own countries and colonies but even Imperial Russian, then under the rule of Czar Nicholas, provided a token force in that theatre of war and perhaps even Imperial …
Two Deaths Led to the Deaths of MillionsThe deaths of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, sparked a war in which millions would die.
Defenders Lodge – Accessible Lodging for Veterans During Medical TreatmentA new facility provides lodging for veterans and caregivers during times of medical treatment.
Three World War 1 QuestionsDear Mr. History I have three questions about World War 1. It would be great if i could receive an answer on each but it would still be extremely helpful if you had time less. Anyway, I’m wondering: 1. Imperialism and Nationalism are the two main causes for WW1, but when, where and how do …
The Carpathian Winter War, 1915The "Stalingrad of World War I" was an epic bloodletting between the million-man armies of Russia and the inept Habsburg Empire
MHQ Reviews: The Great War Seen From the AirA marvel of a book reproduces and explain the most interesting early aerial images of WWI Flanders, showing us what the war looked like from above
American GasLate in WWI the U.S. Army developed its own deadly chemical weapons, which still haunt a D.C. neighborhood
MHQ Reviews: War of AttritionA fast-moving, richly detailed history of World War I
MHQ Reviews: A Mad CatastropheGeoffrey Wawro offers a fascinating addition to the military and diplomatic scholarship surrounding Austria-Hungary’s inept move toward war
Battling Beast DebutsThe first airplane to emerge from the new restoration hangar at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center was unveiled to the public on April 1: the Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver
Waiting for the Candy BomberSpirit of Freedom is one of hundreds of aircraft that delivered more than 200,000 tons of food and fuel during the airlift.
Kermit’s Curtiss-WrightsThe Curtiss-Wright CW-19 is a rare representative of the transitional days when U.S. aviation stepped fully into the mid-20th century.
What was the First “World War”?Dear Mr History, What and when was the first “world war,” in that fighting took place across all continents (excluding Antarctica)? Thanks, Mitchell ? ? ? Given the amount of global venues where the British and French navies fought, the Seven Years War (1756-1763) is often cited as the first world war worthy of the term. …
Mark I Lewis Gun: The Allies’ Mobile EqualizerDesigned by Americans and introduced by the British, the Lewis proved the most reliable and versatile Allied light machine gun of World War I.
The “Man of Force” Who Saved BelgiumBefore Herbert Hoover became the scapegoat for the Great Depression, he was an international hero who led one of the greatest humanitarian relief efforts in history
Mil Mi-24 Hind: A Russian Gunship With AttitudeDespite is susceptibility to Stingers, the Mi-24 assault gunship packs a sting of its own and has proved an enduring war machine.
What If Penicillin Had Not Been Developed?Without the mass-production of penicillin, thousands of personnel escaped death or amputation.
Adapting to Chemical Weapons in World War IGerman soldiers lay out lead pipes for releasing poison gas as the prelude to an assault on the Allied trench line in August 1917. The first chlorine gas attacks in April 1915 were spewed from canisters, but the vagaries of the wind and weather made that method of dispersal impracticable. (National Archives) A German 170mm …
USS Leviathan aka SS Vaterland(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command via Stephen Harding) A drawing of the dazzle camouflage pattern devised for Leviathan, used for reference in painting up the actual vessel. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command via Stephen Harding) While troops board from one side, a coal barge loads fuel aboard Leviathan. Until mechanical lifts were available, …
An International Red LineWhy chemical weapons are taboo
What a Century! Observing the Centenary of the First World WarHistorian and U.S. Army War College professor Michael S. Neiberg explains why the centenary of the First World War matters more than most
Spanish StorkEmilio Garcia-Conde's Fieseler Fi-156 "Storch" in Spanish Civil War Nationalist markings. For all its warlike mien and malevolent insignia, the Luftwaffe version of the Fieseler Fi-156 Storch (Stork) is somehow charming—all gawky gear legs, gaping overbite engine cowling, the cabin glazing of a tomato-grower’s greenhouse and an Argus inverted V8 that idles like a John …
First Shot of World War IHow seven bumbling terrorists nearly failed to carry out the 1914 murder in Sarajevo that sparked a global conflict
Was There a Crime in the Tragedy of the Great War?Two new books weigh the accountability of the European powers in bringing about the First World War
Were there plans for a Marine division in World War I?In World War 1, had Germany kept fighting did the Marine Corps have any plan on activating a full division? Also, was there ever any plan to activate a 7th Marine Div and or a 6th Marine Air wing if Japan had to be invaded in World War 2? John ? ? ? Dear John, …
World War I Intrigue: German Spies in New York!On the eve of America’s entry into World War I, saboteurs plotted—and carried out—attacks on the U.S. home front
The Gun That Should Have Changed EverythingAn 1864 battle in Denmark foretold the advent of mechanized death
Who was the highest ranking officer killed in action during World War I?Who was the highest ranking officer killed in action during World War I?
Shooting Down the Legend of the Red Baron’s TriplaneDespite its enduring fame, the Red Baron’s slow, crash-prone plane was no great fighting machine.
‘Great War in the Air’ – Interview with Documentary-Maker Jan GoldsteinSelf-taught filmmaker Jan Goldstein got tired of waiting for someone to make an in-depth documentary about pilots and planes of World War I and created 'The Great War in the Air' on his own.