During the beginning of the 20th century, various political powers across Europe had come face to face in what became one of the deadliest wars in human history.
The various battles fought among the world powers between 1914 to 1918 are collectively known as World War I or the Great War.
Over 9 million military personnel and 13 million civilians died in the destruction caused by World War I. It was the first time machines were used on a large scale in military operations.
This war also saw the use of navy and airforce as independent military operations. Various new innovations were made to airplanes and submarines to support the cause of either side.
On 28 June 1914, a Bosnian-Serb nationalist called Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
This event sparked the outbreak of war between the European countries, however, soon many world powers like Japan and the United States of America also joined on either side.
The historical enmity between the European powers, the internal political instability, the existence of secret treaties among the nations, and the ambition to expand territories of their respective empires are considered as main causes for the outbreak of the Great War.
The two blocks that fought the war initially were formed by the agreements of Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance. They were meant to be defensive in nature with the goal of balancing power in Europe.
Russia, Britain, and France had created a coalition in order to check the rising aspirations of Germany, and Germany, in turn, had made arrangements with Italy and Austria in case of a war waged by France or Russia.
However, despite several peace treaties and compromises, the great powers of Europe were not able to find a middle ground resulting in carnage and destruction at a never before seen scale caused due to trench warfare and new military technologies.
Over 70 million military crew were mobilized all over the globe out of which 60 million of the military personnel involved were of European ethnicity. The First World War was one of the biggest wars in history.
Historical Background and Context
The European landscape toward the end of the 19th century had rapidly changed due to industrialization and modern science. Several nations had heavily invested in innovation, technology, trade, and colonialism.
Britain was mainly concerned with the expansion of its colonies across the globe and ignored the politics of Europe in what they called the ‘splendid isolation’.
Russia had grown its military to compete with the other European powers, however, economically Russia was the most backward and faced internal political challenges.
France had lost the territory of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. This had given rise to revanchism in France, wherein their foreign policy revolved around the reversal of the loss due to their defeat against Germany.
Germany, on the other hand, was successful in establishing the Prussian Hegemony due to their victory against Austria-Hungary in 1866 and later in 1871 by defeating France. The victory against France gave birth to the German Reich.
Austria-Hungary was under tremendous pressure due to the rising nationalism in her territory.
Furthermore, the region of Balkans had become a contentious issue resulting in tensions between Russia and Austria-Hungary and also Italy and Austria-Hungary as both believed that they had a justifiable claim on the said regions.
Italy was concerned with colonizing parts of Africa and needed alliances to fight against the French presence in the region.
None of the European powers had solid friendships due to their violent past and often conflicting ambitions. They all were suspicious of each other and heavily invested in securing themselves in case of further attacks.
This gave rise to the signing of various secret pacts among the European nations. Chancellor Bismarck of Germany constructed an intricate web of alliances to protect Germany’s interests mainly against France and Russia.
The League of Three Emperors was formed in 1872 to unite the Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and Russians. The main goal of this treaty was to isolate France.
The Russians agreed to the treaty because it supported Russia against the anarchist unions. However, the compromise with Austria-Hungary over the Balkan issue soon became the reason for the deterioration of this alliance.
Due to Russia’s victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, many parts of the Balkan had been given to Russia according to the Treaty of San Stefano. However, the Austro-Hungarians strongly opposed it.
Germany then attempted to reverse the provisions of the Treaty of San Stefano in the Treaty of Berlin formed in 1878, severely restricting Russia’s political gains from the war.
This resulted in tensions with Russia, which Chancellor Bismarck attempted to soothe with the Reinsurance Treaty in 1887.
However, the treaty lapsed and all hope of reconciliation died when Chancellor Bismarck was forced to resign by the new German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The Weltpolitik of the new German Emperor propelled him to challenge rival powers in the area of navy and colonialism.
At the suggestion of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the German Navy Laws were created. This led to the exponential growth of the country’s navy and by 1914 it had become the second-largest in the world.
They had 17 modern dreadnoughts, 5 battlecruisers, 25 cruisers, and 20 battleships, 10 diesel-powered U-boats, and 30 petrol-powered submarines.
These developments in Germany woke Britain up from her ‘splendid isolation’ and many attempts were made to form a treaty between the two competing naval forces.
However, due to rumors about a possible alliance between Russia and Britain, the progress was thwarted and Britain chose to ally with Russia instead.
Russia and Britain also had several issues. Both nations had claims in the regions of the Middle-East and India.
However, for the sake of protecting their position in Europe, both countries agreed to put their differences behind and reach a compromise.
Similarly, France and England had to cross several bridges resulting from their historical wars and competing claims in Africa. They too decided to assist each other against the growing threat of the central European alliances.
With the signing of the Entente Cordiale in 1904 between Britain and France and the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, a formidable force called the Triple Entente was formed.
This treaty was mainly an agreement and not an obligation to fight one another’s war. It was a direct result of the formation of the Triple Alliance which did promise the signing nations military support in case of aggression by any other state.
The Triple Alliance was formed on 20 May 1882 between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. It promised Germany and Austria-Hungary military support against France and Russia. It also promised neutrality from Italy if Russia were to attack Austria-Hungary.
Other Causes of World War I
The Balkan issue was the most serious to the political situation in Europe before the outbreak of the war. It was known as the ‘power keg of Europe’ due to the various competing claims on the region and its territories.
In 1908, the Bosnian Crisis began because Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia from the Ottoman Empire. This outraged the Kingdom of Serbia and the Orthodox Russian Empire.
The Italo-Turkish War between 1911 and 1912 gave birth to nationalism in the Balkan states and led to the Balkan Wars.
The first two of the Balkan Wars were controlled by the European powers, however, the third one spread in a global war almost as soon as it began.
In 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand who was the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary traveled to the capital city of Bosnia called Sarajevo with his wife Sophie.
A group of 6 assassins belonging to the Yugoslavian Youth Group called Mlada Bosna planned to kill Franz Ferdinand. They were armed with pistols and grenades supplied by the Serbian Black Hand.
The first attempt to assassinate the Archduke failed as the grenade missed the target and ended up hurting the bystanders. However, just an hour later Gavrilo Princip shot both Franz and Sophie with a pistol when they were returning from the Sarajevo hospital.
This event did not provoke any strong reactions in Vienna, however, it did have a cathartic reaction in the politics of Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary accused the Serbian government and made the decision to settle the issue of Serbian nationalism for good.
Important Details of World War I
The decision to wage war against Serbia was strengthened when Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm assured Austria-Hungary of its support as a ‘carte blanche’ or a blank check.
Austria-Hungary proceeded to make impossible demands from the Serbian government and Serbia in retaliation sought assistance from Russia.
Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia on 28 July 1914 and from then on, the political situation in Europe rapidly devolved.
On the one side of the conflict were Austria-Hungary and Germany and the other side included Russia, Britain, Belgium, France, and Serbia.
The aggression on Serbia by Austria-Hungary was retaliated by the deployment of Russian forces in support of Serbia. This did not, however, deter Germany from joining the war on the side of Austria-Hungary.
Germany was following a military strategy known as the Schlieffen Plan. It was masterminded by German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen.
According to the plan, Germany would fight the war on two fronts to gain a quick victory against France by invading neutral Belgium and weaken Russian Forces by fighting on the eastern front.
The German army invaded Belgium on August 4, 1914, causing massive destruction on its way. The city of Liege was attacked with siege cannons and many civilians including a Belgian priest were killed by the army.
The British and French forces fought against the German forces in the Battle of Marne when the German forces had invaded northeastern France as close as 30 miles from Paris.
The resistance put up by the British and French armies forced Germany to retreat back to the Aisne River. The plan for a quick victory in France was effectively thwarted.
Both sides then dug trenches and engaged in a 3-year long war of attrition. The resulting battles fought in Verdun and Somme cost the German and French troops over a million casualties and hundreds and thousands of deaths.
On the east, Russia invaded Germany in East Prussia and Poland, however, they were stopped by the German and Austro-Hungarian army in the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914.
Russia’s ability to mobilize its war machinery in the east forced Germany to move two corps to the eastern front from the western front. This weakened Germany in the Battle of Marne and the long war effort crushed the plans made by Schlieffen.
The Russian Revolution and the American Entrance
The grueling warfare against the German forces came at great costs to Russia. The poverty-stricken workers resented the economic instability caused by the continued war efforts against Germany.
Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks staged the Russian Revolution in 1917 which brought an end to the rulership of Czar Nicholas II and paused Russia’s involvement in the Great War.
An armistice was reached between Russia and the Central powers which allowed the Germans to concentrate their war effort only on the western front.
They declared that the water around the British Isles is a warzone and consequently sunk many commercial and passenger vessels.
Some of these vessels were US ships or ships carrying American passengers. Under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson America had stayed neutral and conducted trade with both sides.
However, the increasing protests in America over the sinking of the U-boat called Lusitania brought the US into the first world war as well. Congress had passed a $250 million arms appropriations bill for the purpose in February 1917.
In April 1917, after Germany sank four more U.S vessels President Wilson declared war against Germany.
On the western front, Britain and France were finding it difficult to resist the German forces. Germany had launched another offensive in the Second Battle of Marne.
However, the reinforcements supplied by the US and Britain helped the Allied forces push the Germans back and also stage a counteroffensive in just 3 days.
This led to Germany calling off any further planned offensives and the Allies were able to regain large territories of France as well as Belgium.
By this time the central powers had weakened on all fronts and their internal political instability forced them to reach a settlement with the Allies and end the First World War.
On November 11, 1918, Germany officially surrendered and on June 28, 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed between both sides.
The war had caused the death of over 13 million people. Over 2.64 million more deaths were caused in Europe due to the outbreak of the Spanish Flu during 1918.
The signing nations hoped that the destruction and carnage of the First World War will deter the world from ever warring again.