World War I, also known as the Great War, was the first truly global conflict involving over twenty countries spanning six continents. The Triple Entente, consisting of Britain, France, and Russia, formed the Allies, while the Triple Alliance, comprising Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy, formed the Central Powers. Throughout the war, alliances shifted: Italy changed sides, the United States, Japan, and many other nations joined the Allies, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined the Central powers, and Russia withdrew due to revolution back home.
Tensions in Europe, particularly in the Balkans, had been building for years before World War I erupted. The assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914, was the catalyst. Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia and sought support from Germany. With Germany’s assurance, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, leading to a rapid collapse of peace as other countries joined the conflict.
Europe before WWI. By Delaware Historical and Cultural Affairs.
Within a week, World War I had started, with Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Serbia opposing Austria-Hungary and Germany.
Germany implemented the Schlieffen Plan, a military strategy, to fight World War I on two fronts: invading France through Belgium (Western Front) and confronting Russia (Eastern Front).
On August 4, 1914, German troops entered Belgium, capturing the fortified city of Liege by August 15. As they advanced toward France, they caused destruction, often shooting civilians. In the First Battle of the Marne, on September 6-9, 1914, French and British forces halted the German advance and launched a successful counterattack. The defeat marked the end of Germany’s hopes for a swift victory. The war then devolved into a long, brutal stalemate on the Western Front, causing immense casualties.
Aerial view of ruins of Vaux-devant-Damloup, France, 1918
On the Eastern Front, Russian forces invaded German-held territories in East Prussia and Poland but were halted. Anyway, this compelled Germany to redirect troops from the Western Front, contributing to their loss in the Battle of the Marne. Despite Russia’s repeated offensives on the Eastern Front, they couldn’t break through German lines. In the meantime, Russia’s instability inside the country led to the revolution in 1917, ending their participation in the war.
The United States, at first remaining neutral and selling weapons to both sides, shifted toward war due to Germany’s submarine attacks, including the sinking of several US commercial and passenger vessels. President Woodrow Wilson called for a declaration of war in April 1917.
A WWI US Army recruiting poster depicts Uncle Sam pointing his finger at the viewer, urging them to enlist in the US Army
In late 1918, the Central Powers were facing collapse on all fronts. Austria-Hungary, plagued by internal nationalist movements, reached an armistice on November 4. Germany, grappling with resource shortages, domestic discontent, and the surrender of its allies, was compelled to seek an armistice on November 11, 1918, effectively ending World War I.
Europe after WWI. By Delaware Historical and Cultural Affairs.
While the Allied powers emerged as victors, both sides suffered greatly. Advanced technologies such as chemical gas and long-range artillery, and the emergence of airplanes and bombers, inflicted unprecedented cruelty. The war resulted in the death of approximately nine million soldiers, with civilian casualties likely surpassing ten million. Infectious diseases spread widely, infrastructure was decimated, and the financial impact was enormous, leaving Europe in a state of economic turmoil.
World War I also triggered significant social changes, with millions of women joining the workforce to replace men who fought or perished in the war. Additionally, the war contributed to the spread of the deadly Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, resulting in an estimated death toll of 20 to 50 million people worldwide.
World War I brought immense devastation. Yet perhaps its most tragic outcome was that the so-called “war to end all wars” failed to achieve its purpose. Instead, the war and its aftermath set the stage for a second, even more catastrophic global conflict just two decades later.
Words of wisdom
“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” ―Sun Tzu, The Art of War
“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” ―Ernest Hemingway
“Our knowledge of life is limited to death” ―Enrich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
“Two armies that fight each other is like one large army that commits suicide.” —Henri Barbusse