The First World War began in 1914 after Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and lasted until 1918. Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers) battled against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the USA (the Allied Powers) during the conflict.

Summary of the World War I
Photo by British Library on Unsplash

World War I saw unparalleled amounts of bloodshed and devastation, due to the latest military technology and the horrors of trench warfare. More than 16 million people: soldiers and civilians alike were dead by the time the war was over and the Allied Powers declared victory.

What Caused World War I?

Researchers disagree about what caused World War I, but most attribute it to some degree to Germany’s growing influence. The power balance between Europe’s nations has become unstable and dangerous.

All over Europe, particularly in the troubled Balkan area of south-eastern Europe, tensions had been boiling for years before World War I actually broke out. A number of alliances had existed for years involving European powers, the Ottoman Empire, Russia and other parties, but political chaos in the Balkans especially Serbia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina threatened to break those agreements.

The spark that fueled World War I was struck in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where on 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand: heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was shot to death by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip along with his wife, Sophie. Princip and other nationalists fought to end the rule of Austro-Hungary over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Franz Ferdinand’s assassination set off a quickly growing series of events: Austria-Hungary, like other countries around the world, blamed the attack on the Serbian government and sought to use the crime as a pretext to resolve the issue of Serbian nationalism once and for all.

Because powerful Russia supported Serbia, Austria-Hungary waited to declare war until the German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II assured its leaders that Germany would support their efforts. Austro-Hungarian leaders feared Russia’s ally, France, and possibly Great Britain would also be involved in Russian intervention.

Kaiser Wilhelm secretly announced his support on 5 July, granting Austria-Hungary a so-called carte blanche or blank check guarantee of Germany’s support in the war situation. Then the Austria-Hungary Dual Monarchy sent an ultimatum to Serbia, with such harsh terms as to make it nearly impossible to accept.

The Beginning of the End, perhaps

The First World War began on 28 July 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia. This relatively small dispute between two countries rapidly spread: soon Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and France were all drawn into the war, mainly because they were involved in Treaties that required them to protect several other nations.

The Western and Eastern Fronts

Germany started fighting World War I on two fronts, attacking France in the west via neutral Belgium and facing Russia in the east. The first couple of weeks of fighting consisted of bold attacks on both fronts and rapid troop movements.

German troops crossed the frontier into Belgium on August 4, 1914. The Germans assaulted the heavily fortified city of Liege in the first battle of World War I, using the most advanced weapons in their arsenal enormous battle cannons to take the city by August 15.

Russian forces conquered the German-held regions of East Prussia and Poland on the Eastern Front of World War I, but were stopped short at the Tannenberg Battle in late August 1914 by German and Austrian forces. Despite this success, an attack by Russia had forced Germany to transfer two corps from the Western Front to the East, leading to the German defeat in the Marne War.

Combined with France’s strong Allied resistance, Russia’s enormous war machine’s ability to mobilize fairly rapidly in the East guaranteed a longer, more gruelling fight instead of the rapid victory Germany hoped to achieve under the Schlieffen Program.

Battle of The Marne

From September 6-9, 1914, in the Battle of the Marne, French and British forces confronted the invading army of Germany, which had penetrated deep into northeastern France at that time, within 30 miles of Paris. The Allied troops managed the German advance and launched a strong counterattack, pushing the Germans back north of the Aisne River. 

The defeat meant that German plans for a solid victory in France had ended. Both sides dug into trenches, and the Western Front was the setting for a terrifying battle of attrition which would last for more than 3 years.

At Verdun (February-December 1916) and at the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916), particularly long and costly battles were fought in this campaign. Alone in the Battle of Verdun German and French troops suffered nearly a million casualties.

Russian Revolution

From 1914 to 1916, the Russian army launched several offensives on the Eastern Front of World War I, but they were unable to break through German defences. 

Defeat on the battlefield, coupled with economic uncertainty and shortage of food and other vital elements, resulted in growing dissatisfaction among the majority of the Russian population, especially the poor-stricken workers and peasants. This growing animosity had been directed towards Czar Nicholas II’s imperial regime and his despised German-born wife, Alexandra. Russia’s timid instability exploded in the 1917 Russian Revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, which put an end to the Czarist rule and stopped Russian participation in the First World War. 

In early December 1917, Russia reached a peace treaty with the Central Powers, liberating German troops from the Western Front to face the remaining Allies. Continued Trench Warfare dominated the middle part of the war in both the east and the west, in 1916 and 1917. Soldiers battled with Machine Guns, Heavy gunships, and Chemical Weapons from dug-in positions. Although the soldiers died in brutal conditions by the millions, there was no substantive success or advantage for either side.

Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was also brought into the conflict late in 1914 after Germany fooled Russia into believing it had been hit by Turkey. As a consequence, allied actions against the Ottomans in the Mediterranean dominated much of 1915. 

Firstly, a failed attack on the Dardanelles was launched by Britain and France. Following this campaign was the British invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula. In Mesopotamia, Britain was also conducting a new campaign against the Turks. While the British had some victories in Mesopotamia, British losses have resulted in the Gallipoli campaign and the attacks on the Dardanelles.

Trench Warfare

Continued Trench Warfare dominated the middle part of the war in both the east and the west, in 1916 and 1917. Soldiers battled with Machine Guns, Heavy gunships, and Chemical Weapons from dug-in positions. Although the soldiers died in brutal conditions by the millions, there was no substantive success or advantage for either side. Two major issues in the war occurred in 1917, despite the stalemate on both fronts in Europe.

The Entry of the United States

Two major issues in the war occurred in 1917, despite the stalemate on both fronts in Europe. In February 1917, Congress passed a bill of $250 million in arms appropriations designed to prepare the United States for war. Widespread protest over the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by U-boat which was travelling from New York to Liverpool, England with hundreds of American passengers on board helped turn the tide of American public opinion against Germany in May 1915.

Angered by attacks on its ships in the Atlantic, the United States declared war on Germany in early April. The next month Germany sank four more U.S. merchant ships, and on April 2 Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress and voted for a declaration of war against Germany.

Gallipoli Campaign

The Allies tried to score a win against the Ottoman Empire, which managed to enter the conflict on the side of the Central Powers in late 1914, with World War I effectively settled in a stalemate within Europe. 

After a failed attack on the Dardanelles (the strait that linked the Marmara Sea to the Aegean Sea), British-led Allied forces launched a large-scale land invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in April 1915. The invasion also proved a dismal disaster, and after sustaining 250,000 casualties in January 1916 Allied forces staged a complete withdrawal from the peninsula’s shores. British-led forces also fought the Ottoman Turks in Mesopotamia and Egypt, while in northern Italy, Austrian and Italian troops faced off at the border between the two nations in a series of 12 battles along the Isonzo River. 

Battle of Isonzo

The Isonzo’s 1st Battle took place in the late spring of 1915, shortly after the Allied entry of Italy into the war. German reinforcements helped Austria-Hungary to win a decisive victory in the 12th Battle of the Isonzo, also known as the Battle of Caporetto (October 1917). Italy’s allies hopped in after Caporetto to offer increased assistance. British and French troops and later American ones arrived in the area, and the Allies began to take back the Italian Front.

The End of the War and Agreements

Even though both sides launched Renewed Offensives in an all-or-nothing effort to win the war in 1918, they both failed. The fighting between tired and demoralized troops continued to plod along until Germans lost a bunch of individual battles and continued to fall back very gradually. Meanwhile, a deadly Influenza epidemic took heavy tolls on both sides’ troops. Eventually, both Germany and Austria-Hungary governments started losing power as both countries witnessed numerous mutinies within their military systems.

 The conflict ended in the late autumn of 1918 after one by one the member states of the Central Powers signed Armistice Agreements. Germany was the last, on 11 November 1918 signing its armistice. Austria-Hungary was split up into several smaller countries as a result of those agreements. Germany was harshly punished under the Treaty of Versailles with large economic reparations, geographical losses and strict limitations on its right to military growth.

Casualties

More than 9 million people lost their lives in World War I; 21 million more were injured. Indirectly caused by the battle, the civilian casualties numbered close to 10 million. The two most affected nations were Germany and France, each of which sent some 80 % of the total of their male populations into combat between the ages of 15 and 49.

Also contributing to the fall of four venerable imperial dynasties was the political disruption surrounding World War I: Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey.

(Last Updated On: November 12, 2020)