World War I

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World War I (also known as the First World War , the Great War, and the "War to End All Wars") was a conflict that lasted from 1914 to 1918. Chemical weapons were used for the first time, the first mass bombardment of civilians from the sky was executed, and some of the century's first genocides took place during the war. No previous conflict had mobilised so many soldiers, or involved so many in the field of battle. Never before had casualties been so high. The First World War was the first total war. World War I was also a war of change, a last blow to the old order in Europe to pave way for the new. Dynasties such as the Habsburgs, Romanovs, and Hohenzollerns, who had dominated the European political landscape and had roots of power back to the days of the Crusades, all fell after the 4 year war. Many of the events and phenomena that would dominate the world of the 20th century can trace their origins to this war--including Communism, World War II and even the Cold War.

World War I proved to be the decisive break with the old world order, marking the final demise of absolutist monarchy in Europe. It would prove the catalyst for the Russian Revolution, which would inspire later revolutions in countries as diverse as China and Cuba, and would lay the basis for the Cold War confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. The defeat of Germany in the war and failure to resolve the unsettled issues that had caused the Great War would lay the basis for the rise of Nazism, and thus the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Most significantly, it laid the basis for a more modern form of warfare that relied heavily on technology, and would involve non-combatants in the horrors of war as never before. From this point on, all people of all classes would have to see the true color of war. War was no longer a "polite" battle where men lined up and showed their strength on some distant battlefield. World War I showed the new direction war was headed where each side would begin to use desperate and sometimes horrific strategies to gain any advantage, even at the expense of the innocent.

It was commonly called "The Great War" or sometimes "the war to end all wars" until World War II started, although the name "First World War" was coined as early as 1920 by Lt-Col à Court Repington in The First World War 1914-18. Some scholars write of the First World War as merely the first phase of a 30-year-long war spanning the period 1914 - 1945.

Over 9 million men would die on the battlefield, and nearly that many more persons would die on the homefront from food shortages, starvation, genocide, and simply being the unfortunate family living right on the battlefront. Of all the questions regarding the war, these come first: How did it happen? And why?

Haut-Rhin, France 1917

1 Diplomatic origins

2 The outbreak

3 The first battles

4 The spread of war

5 Southern theaters

6 Early stages: from romanticism to the trenches

7 The Eastern Front and Russia

8 Turning of the tide

9 End of the war

10 Distinguishing features of the war

11 Aftermath

12 Links and references

13 External links

Table of contents

Diplomatic origins

On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb student. Though triggered by this assassination, the war's origins lie in the complex relations and turn of events that can be traced over a century earlier during the French Revolution.

By the late 1700s in France, society was on the verge of revolution. The old monarchy was ruling France by birthright and absolute authority. The fabric of France's society was clear: King on the top, the people on the bottom, with Church and Nobles somewhere at the upper-end. This was a problem because economic changes were creating a new social class, the Bourgeoisie. This new middle class often were the reformers of French society who demanded to be treated as well as the Aristocracy. Along with this, France was in trouble economically. Since Louis XIV, France had been engaged in a series of wars which drained financial reserves. Many of the middle class were outraged when taxes were on the rise for everyone except the Aristocracy. What began as a movement to fix France's broken economy and society became a continental war. The French Revolution resulted in chaos and the ascent of Napoleon to power. Napoleon's armies marched all over Europe, bringing not only French control, but French ideas. The rise of ideas of Nationalism, devotion and love for one's common people and ethnicity, had begun in the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon tapped into this new idea of Nationalism, which he saw in his troops, to better the French war machine. The French people began to feel pride in their culture and ethnicity. The world watched Nationalism for the first time and saw the power the French gained from it. Following the Napoleonic Wars, all of Europe was sharing these ideas.

The Congress of Vienna in 1815 followed. The congress was organized by the main victors of the Napoleonic Wars: Britain, Prussia, Russia, Austria. The key figure of the congress was Austria's representative, Klemens von Metternich. Metternich advocated restoring Europe to the way it was before the French Revolution. He urged Europe to create a Balance of Power, where no European nation was stronger than another. He also created the concert of Europe, a system where nations would help each other to keep the old aristocracy in power. By preventing the single monarchy in a country from falling to nationalism, it would prevent the entire continent from going up in flames under social revolution. If that were to ever happen, according to Metternich, Europe would be thrown into another Continental war as Napoleon and French Nationalism had shown. Metternich feared Nationalism as a force that could tear apart multi-ethnic nations like Russia and the Austrian Empire.

In the years that followed the Congress of Vienna, conflicts began springing up all over Europe between those who cried out for change, and those who resisted it. By the mid-1800s, Nationalism had become an evident force. 1848 saw a wave of unrest across the continent in the Revolution of 1848. The 1860s and early 1870s saw two great changes to the map: the unification of Italy and the unification of Germany. These two nations were formed off the backs of Nationalism. German Unification was brought about by Prussia's iron chancellor Otto von Bismarck through a series of wars from 1864-1871. Bismarck's famous speech in 1862 as minister of Prussia was:

"Germany is not looking to Prussia's liberalism, but to her power. The great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches and majority decisions, this was the mistake of 1848, but by iron and blood."

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 had brought not only the establishment of a powerful and dynamic German Empire, but also a legacy of animosity between France and Germany following the German annexation of the formerly French territory of Alsace-Lorraine. Under the political direction of her first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, Germany secured her new position in Europe by an alliance with Austria-Hungary and a diplomatic understanding with Russia. Bismarck began pursuing alliances and peace treaties. He made peace with almost every nation in Europe except France. He feared greatly that a war might destroy the newborn nation he had created in the 1860s. By the time of Wilhelm I's death, a system of alliances kept a tight peace in Europe.

The accession (1888) of Kaiser Wilhelm II brought to the German throne a young ruler determined to direct policy himself, despite his rash diplomatic judgment. After the 1890 elections, in which the centre and left parties made major gains, and due in part to his disaffection at inheriting the Chancellor who had guided his grandfather for most of his career, Wilhelm engineered Bismarck's resignation.

Much of the fallen Chancellor's work was undone in the following decades, as Wilhelm failed to renew the 1887 Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, presenting republican France with the opportunity to conclude (1891-94) a full alliance with the Russian Empire. Worse was to follow, as Wilhelm undertook (1897-1900) the creation of a German navy capable of threatening Britain's century-old naval mastery, prompting the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale of 1904 and its expansion (1907) to include Russia in the Triple Entente.

Rivalry among the powers was exacerbated from the 1880s by the scramble for colonies which brought much of Africa and Asia under European rule in the following quarter-century. Even the once hesitantly imperialistic Bismarck became an advocate of overseas Empire, adding to Anglo-German tension as German acquisitions in Africa and the Pacific threatened to impinge upon British strategic and commercial interests. Wilhelm's support for Moroccan independence from France, Britain's new strategic partner, provoked the Tangier Crisis of 1905. During the Second Moroccan or Agadir Crisis (1911), a German naval presence in Morocco tested the Anglo-French coalition once again.

A key ingredient in the emerging diplomatic powder-keg was the growth of powerful nationalist aspirations among the Balkan states, which each looked to Germany, Austria-Hungary or Russia for support. The rise of anti-Austrian circles in Serbia following a 1903 palace coup contributed to a further crisis in 1908 over Austria's unilateral annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, German pressure forcing a humiliating climbdown on the part of a Russia weakened (1905) by defeat at the hands of Japan and subsequent revolutionary disorder.

Alarm at Russia's unexpectedly rapid recovery after 1909 fueled sentiment among German ruling circles in favour of a pre-emptive war to break alleged Entente "encirclement" before Russian rearmament could tip the strategic balance decisively against Germany and Austria-Hungary. By 1913 both France and Germany were planning to extend military service, while Britain had entered into a naval convention and military discussions with France during the previous year.

The outbreak

Austrian regional security concerns grew with the near-doubling of neighbouring Serbia's territory as a result of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Many in the Austrian leadership, not least Emperor Franz Joseph, and Conrad von Hötzendorf, worried about Serbian nationalist agitation in the southern provinces of the Empire; they were still haunted by the memories of the Piedmontese inspired campaigns against the Austrian Italian provinces in 1859. Just as France had backed Piedmont in the campaign culminating in the Battle of Solferino, they worried that Russia would back Serbia to annex Slavic areas of Austria. The feeling was that it was better to destroy Serbia before they were given the opportunity to launch a campaign.

Some members of the Austrian government also felt that a campaign in Serbia would be the perfect remedy to the internal political problems of the Empire. Many of them were frustrated by the power of the Hungarian government in the Empire. In 1914 the government of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a "dualistic" structure. Austria and Hungary had essentially separate governments under one monarch. The Austrian government retained control over foreign policy, but was still dependent on the Hungarians for such things as budgetary approval. Often the Hungarian leadership, under István Tisza refused Austrian requests for things such as increased military spending. In hopes of ending the political gridlock that this caused, many hoped to form a federation, or at least trialistic monarchy. The solution was seen in increasing the numbers of Slavs in the Empire to balance the Magyar population.

Franz Ferdinand's assassination in June 1914 provided the opportunity sought by some Austrian leaders for a reckoning with the smaller Slav kingdom. The Sarajevo conspirators were alleged by the Austro-Hungarian authorities to have been armed by the shadowy Black Hand, a pan-Serb nationalist grouping with links to Serbian ruling circles. These links have proven to be somewhat dubious since then. In fact, Serbian government officials were eager not to antagonize their stronger northern neighbour and had ordered border officials to ensure Serbian radicals could not enter Bosnia or other portions of Austria-Hungary. However, since they were looking for an excuse, these considerations mattered little to Austro-Hungarian politicians.

With German backing, Austria-Hungary, acting primarily under the influence of Foreign Affairs Minister Leopold von Berchtold, sent an effectively unfulfillable 10-point ultimatum to Serbia (July 23, 1914), to be accepted within 48 hours. The Serbian government agreed to all but one of the demands. Austria-Hungary nonetheless broke off diplomatic relations (July 25) and declared war (July 28) through a telegram sent to the Serbian government.

The Russian government, which had pledged in 1909 to uphold Serbian independence in return for Serbia's acceptance of the Bosnia annexation, mobilized its military reserves on July 30 following a breakdown in crucial telegram communications between Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II, who was under pressure by his military staff to prepare for war. Germany demanded (July 31) that Russia stand down her forces, but the Russian government persisted, as demobilization would have made it impossible to re-activate its military schedule in the short term. Germany declared war against Russia on (August 1) and, two days later, against the latter's ally France.

The outbreak of the conflict is often attributed to the alliances established over the previous decades - Germany-Austria-Italy vs. France-Russia; Britain and Serbia being aligned with the latter. In fact none of the alliances was activated in the initial outbreak, though Russian general mobilization and Germany's declaration of war against France were motivated by fear of the opposing alliance being brought into play.

Britain's declaration of war against Germany (August 4) was officially the result not of her understandings with France and Russia (Britain was technically allied to neither power), but of Germany's invasion of Belgium on August 4, 1914, whose independence Britain had guaranteed to uphold in the Treaty of London of 1839, and which stood astride the planned German route for invasion of Russia's ally France. Unofficially, it was already generally accepted in government that Britain could not remain neutral, since without the cooperation of France and Russia her colonies in Africa and India would be under threat, while German occupation of the French Atlantic ports would be an even larger threat to British trade as a whole.

The first battles

The plan that Germany had made with Austria-Hungary was to let Austria-Hungary focus the majority of its troops on Russia so as to hold them off while Germany dealt with France on the Western Front. However, Austria did not follow this plan and focused the majority of its forces on Serbia to the south. The Serb army however, which was coming up from the south of the country, was gaining numbers and would meet the Austrian army at Cer on August 12th 1914.

The Serbians had set up defensive positions over the Austrians. The first attack came on August 16th, which would end in catastrophic results for the Austrians, who literally walked into an artillery trap set up by the Serbians. Three days later the Austrians retreated across the Danube. This marked the first allied victory of the war. The Central Powers (the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires) suffered greatly from this. The Austrians had not achieved their main goal of eliminating Serbia and the Eastern Front was poised for a quick defeat if the Russian forces were to charge.

Germany's plan (named the Schlieffen plan) to deal with the Franco-Russian alliance involved delivering a knock-out blow to the French and then turning to deal with the more slowly mobilized Russian army. Rather than attack France directly, it was deemed prudent to attack France from the north. To do so, the German army had to march through Belgium. Germany demanded this free passage from the Belgian government, promising that Belgium would be Germany's firm ally if this was agreed to. When Belgium refused, Germany invaded and began marching through Belgium anyway, after first invading and securing tiny Luxembourg. It soon encountered resistance before the forts of the Belgian city of Liège. Britain sent an army to France, which advanced into Belgium.

The delays brought about by the resistance of the Belgian, French and British forces and the unexpectedly rapid mobilization of the Russians upset the German plans. Russia attacked in East Prussia, diverting German forces intended for the Western Front. Germany defeated Russia in a series of battles collectively known as the (second) Battle of Tannenberg, but this diversion allowed French and British forces to finally halt the German advance on Paris at the First Battle of the Marne (September 1914) as the Central Powers were forced into fighting a war on two fronts.

The first Allied occupation of enemy territory was not in Europe but in Africa: South African forces attacked and captured the German administrative seat in what is now Namibia, at the time a German colony.

The spread of war




  • September 15: Battle of the Somme, 2 men die for every cm of land captured


Southern theaters

Entry of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in October - November 1914, threatening Russia's Caucasian territories and Britain's communications with India and the East via the Suez canal. British action opened another front in the South with the Gallipoli (1915) and Mesopotamia campaigns, though initially the Turks were successful in repelling enemy incursion. But in Mesopotamia, after the disastrous Siege of Kut (1915-16), the British reorganized and captured Baghdad in March 1917. Further to the west in Palestine, initial British failures were overcome with Jerusalem being captured in December 1917 and the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under Edmund Allenby going on to break the Ottoman forces at the Battle of Megiddo (September 1918).

Italian participation

Italy, had been nominally allied to the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires since 1882, but had her own designs against Austrian territory in the South Tyrol, Istria and Dalmatia, and a secret 1902 understanding with France effectively nullifying her alliance commitments. Italy refused to join Germany and Austria-Hungary at the beginning of the war and joined the Entente against Austria-Hungary in May 1915, declaring war against Germany only fifteen months later.

In general, the Italians enjoyed numerical superiority, but were poorly equipped; instead, the Austro-Hungarian defense took advantage of the mostly mountainous terrain. So, the 1915 Italian offensives on the Soča (Isonzo) front (the part of the border which was closest to Trieste, a major Italian objective) was repelled. The Austro-Hungarians counter-attacked from the South Tyrol in the spring of 1916 (Strafexpedition), but they made little progress. In the summer, the Italians took back the initiative, capturing the town of Gorizia. After this minor victory, the front remained practically stable for over one year, despite several Italian offensives. In the fall of 1917, thanks to the improving situation on the Eastern front, the Austrians received large reinforcements, including German assault troops. On October, 26, they launched a crushing offensive that resulted in the victory of Kobarid (Caporetto): the Italian army was initially routed, but after retreating more than 100 km, it was able to reorganize and hold ground on the Piave river. In 1918 the Austrians repeatedly failed to break this Italian line, and surrendered to the Entente powers in November.

Throughout the war Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf had a deep hatred for the Italians because he had always perceived them to be the greatest threat to his state. Their betrayal in 1914 enraged him even further. His hatred for Italy blinded him in many ways, and he made many foolish tactical and strategic errors during the campaigns in Italy.

The fall of Serbia

After repulsing three Austrian invasions in August-December 1914, Serbia fell to combined German, Austrian and Bulgarian invasion in October 1915. Serbian troops continued to hold out in Albania and Greece, where a Franco-British force had landed to offer assistance and to pressure the Greek government into war against the Central Powers.

Early stages: from romanticism to the trenches

Louvain, Belgium, 1915
The perception of war in 1914 was almost romantic, and its declaration was met with great enthusiasm by many people. The common view was that it would be a short war of manoeuvre with a few sharp actions (to "teach the enemy a lesson") and would end with a victorious entry into the capital (the enemy capital, naturally) then home for a victory parade or two and back to "normal" life. There were some pessimists (like Lord Kitchener) who predicted the war would be a long haul, but "everyone knew" the War would be "Over by Christmas...."

See also: Recruitment to the British army during WW I

The trenching begins

After their initial success on the Marne, Entente and German forces began a series of outflanking manoeuvres to try to force the other to retreat, in the so-called Race to the Sea. France and Britain soon found themselves facing entrenched German positions from Lorraine to Belgium's Flemish coast. The sides took set positions, the French and British seeking to take the offensive while Germany sought to defend the territories they had occupied. One consequence of this was that the German trenches were much better constructed than those of their enemy: the Anglo-French trenches were only intended to be 'temporary' before their forces broke through the German defences. Neither side proved able to deliver a decisive blow for the next four years, though protracted German action at Verdun (1916) and Allied failure the following spring brought the French army to the brink of collapse as mass desertions undermined the front line.

In the trenches

Around 800,000 soldiers from Britain and the Empire were on the Western Front at any one time, 1,000 battalions each occupying a sector of the line from Belgium to the Arne and operating a month-long four stage system, unless an offensive was underway. The front contained over 6,000 miles of trenches. Each battalion held its sector for around a week before moving back to support lines and then the reserve lines before a week out-of-line, often in the Poperinge or Amiens areas.

The Somme and Passchendaele

Both the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele (1917) also on the Western Front resulted in enormous loss of life on both sides but minimal progress in the war. It is interesting to note that, when the British attacked on the first day of the battle of the Somme, and lost massive numbers of men to a continuous hail of machine-gun fire, they did succeed in gaining some ground. This caused the German command to order its soldiers to re-take this ground, which resulted in similar losses for Germany. Hence, instead of a lopsided engagement, with only British soldiers attacking, which would have resulted in large numbers of casualties only for the British, the volume of attacks was rather evenly distributed, which caused even distribution of the casualties.

Advances in military technology

Not even an initially devastating array of new weapons achieved the required victory: poison gas (first used by Germany on Russian soldiers without much success in the Battle of Bolimow on January 1, 1915; more often quoted as first use is the attack on Canadian soldiers at Ypres on April 22, 1915); liquid fire, (introduced by Germany at Hooge on July 30, 1915); and armoured tanks (first used by the British on the Somme on September 15, 1916) each produced initial panic among the enemy, but failed to deliver a lasting breakthrough.

See also Use of poison gas in World War I


Nieuport Fighter Aisne, France 1917
Military aviation achieved rapid progress, from the development of (initially primitive) forward-firing aerial machine-guns by the German air force in the autumn of 1915 to the deployment of bombers against London (July 1917).

See WWI Aviation
See List of aircraft by date and usage category


Main article: First Battle of the Atlantic.

More dramatic still, at least for Britain, was the use of German submarines (U-boats, from the German Unterseeboote, i.e., "undersea boats" ) against Allied merchant shipping in proscribed waters from February 1915. Germany's decision to lift restrictions on submarine activity (February 1, 1917) was instrumental in bringing the United States into the war on the side of the Allies (April 6). The sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania was a particularly controversial "kill" for the U-boats.

The Eastern Front and Russia

While the Western Front had reached stalemate in the trenches, the war continued to the east.

German victories in the East

The Russian initial plans for war had called for simultaneous invasions of Austrian Galicia and German East Prussia. Although Russia's initial advance into Galicia was largely successful, they were driven back from East Prussia by the victories of the German generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in August and September 1914. Russia's less-developed economic and military organisation soon proved unequal to the combined might of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. In the spring of 1915 the Russians were driven back in Galicia, and in May the Central Powers achieved a remarkable breakthrough on Poland's southern fringes, capturing Warsaw on August 5 and forcing the Russians to withdraw from all of Poland.

Russia unsettled

Dissatisfaction with the Russian government's conduct of the war grew despite the success of the June 1916 Brusilov offensive in eastern Galicia against the Austrians, when Russian success was undermined by the reluctance of other generals to commit their forces in support of the victorious sector commander. Allied fortunes revived only temporarily with Romania's entry into the war on August 27: German forces came to the aid of embattled Austrian units in Transylvania, and Bucharest fell to the Central Powers on December 6. Meanwhile, internal unrest grew in Russia, as the Tsar remained out of touch at the front, while Empress Alexandra's increasingly incompetent rule drew protests from all segments of Russian political life, resulting in the murder of Alexandra's favourite Rasputin by conservative noblemen at the end of 1916.

The Russian Revolution

In March 1917, demonstrations in St. Petersburg culminated in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the appointment of a weak centrist Provisional Government, which shared power with the socialists of the Petrograd Soviet. This division of power led to confusion and chaos, both on the front and at home, and the army became progressively less able to effectively resist Germany. Meanwhile, the war, and the government, became more and more unpopular, and the discontent was strategically used by the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin, in order to gain power.

The triumph of the Bolsheviks in November was followed in December by an armistice and negotiations with Germany. At first, the Bolsheviks refused to agree to the harsh German terms, but when Germany resumed the war and marched with impunity across the Ukraine, the new government acceded to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, which took Russia out of the war and ceded vast territories including Finland, the Baltic provinces, Poland and the Ukraine to the Central Powers.

Turning of the tide

1917 finally saw the entry of the United States into the war. And with Russia's defeat on the Eastern Front, Germany was free to deliver troops to the west. With both German reinforcements and new American troops pouring into the Western Front, the final outcome of the war was to be decided in that front.

President Wilson before Congress, announcing the break in the official relations with Germany. February 3, 1917Enlarge

President Wilson before Congress, announcing the break in the official relations with Germany. February 3, 1917

United States Neutrality

A long stretch of American isolationism left the country reluctant to involve itself with what was popularly conceived as a European dispute.

Entry of the United States

Early in 1917 Germany resumed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. This, combined with public indignation over the Zimmerman telegram, led to a final break of relations with the Central Powers. President Woodrow Wilson requested that the United States Congress declare war, which it did on April 6, 1917. The Senate approved the war resolution 82-6, the House with 373-50. One member of Congress, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, voted against both World War I and World War II.

Although the American contribution to the war was substantive, the United States was never formally a member of the Allies, but an "Associated Power."

The United States Army and the National Guard had mobilized in 1916 to pursue the Mexican "bandit" Pancho Villa, which helped speed up the mobilization. The United States Navy was able to send a battleship group to Scapa Flow to join with the British Grand Fleet, and a number of destroyers to Queenstown, Ireland, to help guard convoys. However, it would be some time before the United States forces would be able to contribute significant manpower to the Western and Italian fronts.

The British and French insisted that the United States emphasize sending infantry to reinforce the line. Throughout the war, the American forces were short of their own artillery, aviation, and engineering units. However, General John J. Pershing, American Expeditionary Force commander, resisted breaking up American units and using them as reinforcements for British and French units, as suggested by the Allies.

The reasons the United States got involved in the war are numerous and much-debated. In 1922, the US government created the Nye Committee to investigate the matter. The committee reported that between 1915 and April 1917, the US loaned Germany 27 million dollars ($27,000,000). In the same period, the US loaned Britain and its allies 2.3 billion dollars ($2,300,000,000), or about 85 times as much. They concluded that the US entered the war because it was in its commercial interest for Britain not to lose.

The decisive victory of Germany at the Battle of Caporetto led to the allied decision at the Rapallo Conference to form the Supreme Allied Council at Versailles to co-ordinate plans and action.

German offensive of 1918

The entry of the U.S. into the war the previous year had made the eventual arrival of U.S. troops certain, while Russia's withdrawal and the Italian disaster at Caporetto allowed the transfer of German troops to the West. With German troops arriving from the east to confront American troops arriving in France, it was clear to everyone that the ultimate outcome of the war would be decided on the Western Front.

On March 21 1918 Germany launched a major offensive, "Operation Michael", against British and Commonwealth forces. The German army developed new tactics involving stormtroopers, infantry trained in Hutier tactics (after Oskar von Hutier) to infiltrate and take trenches. Four successive German offensives followed, that of May 27 yielding gains before Paris comparable to the first advance.

With the Supreme Allied Council faltering, the Allies reacted by appointing French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch to coordinate all Allied activity in France, and then as generalissimo of all Allied forces everywhere.

The German offensive moved forward 60 km and pressed the British lines so much that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) commander, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, issued a General Order on April 11 stating "With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end." However, by then, the German offensive had stalled because of logistical problems. Counterattacks by Canadian and ANZAC forces pushed Germany back.

Allied victory

Throughout World War I, Allied forces were stalled at trenches on the [[Western FrontEnlarge

Throughout World War I, Allied forces were stalled at trenches on the [[Western Front

.]] The American Expeditionary Force, under General John Pershing, entered the battle lines in significant numbers in April 1918. At the Battle of Belleau Wood, from June 1 to June 30, 1918, the Second Division, including the United States Marine Corps, helped clear out the German offensive threatening Paris.

On July 18, 1918, at the Battle of Chateau-Thierry, French and American forces went on the offensive.

The British Army, using a large number of tanks, attacked at Amiens on August 8 causing such surprise and confusion that German commander-in-chief, General Erich Ludendorff, said it was "the blackest day of the German army."

On September 12 the First United States Army, which had recently been organized from the American Expeditionary Force, eliminated the Saint-Mihiel salient, which Germany had occupied since 1914. This salient threatened the Paris-Nancy railroad line. American forces were short of artillery support, which was provided by the French and British. This also was the first use of the U.S. Tank Corps, led by Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton. Four days later, the salient was cleared out.

On September 26 American forces began the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which continued until the end of the war. A key German observation post on Hill 305 in Montfaucon d'Argonne was captured on September 27. Approximately 18,000 Americans fell during this offensive. This was the first offensive conducted by the United States as an independent army. General Pershing's general thrust was the Rhine River, which he expected to breach early in 1919.

On October 24 the Italian Army, with very limited American assistance, began the Vittorio Veneto offensive against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which lasted until November 3. At this date, the Austrian armies were almost annihilated as an efficient force.

End of the war

Bulgaria was the first of the Central Powers to sign an armistice (September 29, 1918). Germany requested a cease-fire on October 3, 1918. When Wilhelm II ordered the German High Seas Fleet to sortie against the Allied navies, they mutinied in Wilhelmshaven starting October 29, 1918. On October 30 the Ottoman Empire capitulated. On November 3 Austria-Hungary sent a flag of truce to the Italian Commander to ask an Armistice and terms of peace. The terms having been arranged by telegraph with the Allied Authorities in Paris, were communicated to the Austrian Commander, and were accepted. The Armistice with Austria was granted to take effect at three o'clock on the afternoon of November 4. Austria and Hungary had signed separate armistices following the overthrow of the Habsburg monarchy.

Following the outbreak of the German Revolution, a Republic was proclaimed on November 9, marking the end of the German Empire. The Kaiser fled the next day to the Netherlands, which granted him political asylum. See Weimar Republic for details. On November 11 Germany signed in a railroad car at Compiègne, in France, an armistice with the Allies. The war was officially over.

Allied soldiers killed: 5,497,600

Central powers soldiers killed: 3,382,500

Civilians killed: 6,493,000

Distinguishing features of the war

The First World War was different from prior military conflicts: it was a meeting of 20th century technology with 19th century mentality and tactics. This time, millions of soldiers, both volunteers and conscripts fought on all sides. Kitchener's Army being a notable volunteer force. Casualties were enormous, mostly because of the more efficient weapons (like artillery and machine guns) that were used in large quantities against old tactics.

Although the First World War led to the development of air forces, tanks, and new tactics (like the Rolling barrage and Crossfire), much of the action took place in the trenches (trench warfare), where thousands died for each metre of land gained. The First World War also saw the use of chemical warfare and aerial bombardment, both of which had been outlawed under the 1907 Hague Convention. The effects of gas warfare were to prove long-lasting, both on the bodies of its victims (many of whom, having survived the war, continued to suffer in later life) and on the minds of a later generation of war leaders (Second World War) who, having seen the effects of gas warfare in the Great War, were reluctant to use it for fear that the enemy would retaliate and might have better weaponry.


British Weapons

German Weapons

United States Weapons

French Weapons

A deadly war

Many of the deadliest battles in history occurred in this war. See Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Marne, Cambrai, Somme, Verdun, Gallipoli. See Wars of the 20th Century for various totals given for the number that died in this war. For instance, is it proper to consider the Influenza pandemic (see below) as part of the overall death count for the war, given the important part the War played in its transmission?


The First World War ended with a Europe scarred by trenches, spent of resources, and littered with the bodies of the millions who died in battle. The direct consequences of WWI brought many old regimes crashing to the ground, and ultimately, would lead to the end of 300 years of European hegemony.

Though sometimes overshadowed by the even greater destruction wrought by World War II 20 years later, WWI is still in the eyes of many the most brutal war ever fought in human history. While WWII was a spiraling conflict of political ideology, evolving technology, and decisive military tactics, WWI is simply thought of as a meat grinder, where horrible numbers of lives were spent for the acquisition of the smallest amounts of land.

The great tragedy of World War I was both its seeming inevitability, yet total lack of necessity. For it was the direct consequence of the supposedly great nations of Europe, who should have, and some say, did realize what would be the cost of their colonial policies. Unfortunately, none of the men involved found it in themselves to act, and the eventual cost in blood was something the world had never even imagined possible.

Due to the length of this article, see the Aftermath of World War I for events and repercussions following the armistice, which includes:

Contents of Aftermath of World War I
1 The Blockade of Germany
2 The Treaty of Versailles
3 Influenza pandemic
4 Geopolitical and Economic Consequences
4.1 Revolutions
4.2 Germany
4.3 Russia
4.4 Austro-Hungarian Empire
4.5 Ottoman Empire
4.6 British Empire
4.7 United States
4.8 France
4.9 World Economy
5 Social trauma
6 Remains of ammunition
7 Memorials and Tombs

Links and references


For more details on the subject, consult these histories:

  • Hew Strachan ed.: "The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War" is a collection of chapters from various scholars that survey the War.
  • Barbara Tuchman: The Guns of August tells of the opening diplomatic and military manoeuvres.
The first major television documentary on the history of the war was the BBC's The Great War (1964), made in association with the CBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and The Imperial War Museum. The series consists of 26 forty-minute episodes featuring extensive use of archive footage gathered from around the world and eyewitness interviews. Although some of the programme's conclusions have been disputed by historians it still makes compelling and often moving viewing.

See also

External links