World War I

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World War I montage

World War I, also known as the Great War, the First World War and the War to End All Wars, was fought between 1914 and 1918.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Europe was the economic, political, and cultural leader of the world. This unprecedented prosperity came to an end in four years of attritional warfare that disillusioned a generation and left the continent weary and impoverished.

The fighting was largely a stalemate. Large conscripted armies were slaughtered as artillery and machine guns dominated the battlefields, and extensive trench systems were set up for defense. Communications and logistics were insufficiently developed to force a breakthrough. New weapons were brought into widescale use, including poison gas, the airplane, the submarine, and the tank.

World War I left unstable conditions throughout Europe. Germany was forced to give up its colonies, cede territory to France and Poland, pay reparations, and accept war guilt. Meanwhile Russia emerged from revolution with Joseph Stalin, a communist dictator, in control. Scarcely twenty years after World War I, Germany attacked again, starting World War II.

Combatants[edit]

For a full list, see World War I Combatants

Allied or Entente Powers[edit]

Central Powers[edit]

Commanders[edit]

Allied[edit]

Central[edit]

Background[edit]

In the late 19th century, Prussia became dominant over the rest of Germany, eventually leading to the unification of all the various German states. Simultanously the population and industrial production increased, while that of France remained relatively flat.

Napoleon III of France saw this as a threat, and incited a war against Prussia in 1870. The Prussians invaded northern France, surrounded Napoleon III's army at Sedan, and captured the Emperor himself. The war continued for another few months but it was an overwhelming defeat for the French as the better organized and equipped Prussian army managed to surround Paris. Following the war there was a socialist uprising in Paris, the Paris Commune. A small border territory known as Alsace-Lorraine was transferred to Germany, leading to years of bitterness in France.

Shortly following the war the Germans unified, with Kaiser Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck leading it into a golden age. Germany tried to carve out a colonial empire in Africa, but was frustrated because the other Great Powers had already taken most of the good opportunities. When Kaiser Wilhelm II acceded to the throne, he dismissed Bismarck, and embarked on a military spending program where he built a large, powerful navy to rival the British.

With the French challenged on land and the British at sea, they concluded an alliance with each other. This left Germany somewhat isolated, and to remedy this it allied with Austria-Hungary and Italy.

In the East, there had been competition between Russia and Austria-Hungary over control of the Balkan region, with relations between the two countries relatively sour following the Austrian betrayal of the Russians during the Crimean War in the 1850's. Turkey, smarting from repeated defeats at the hands of the Russians and the loss of almost all of Turkey-in-Europe through rebellions by its Slavic subjects, was known as the "Sick Man of Europe". By entering the war on the Central Powers side, it looked to regain lost territories.

One of these was Serbia, which having recently become independent from Turkey was inciting Serb nationalists in the Austro-Hungarian territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A secret group, the Black Hand, assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914.

Battles[edit]

1914[edit]

Austria-Hungary's initial invasion of Serbia was thrown back. Forces were split betwen facing the Russians in the northeast and Serbia in the south.

Germany followed the Schlieffen Plan, which meant it had to violate Belgian neutrality. With a strong right wing the German armies marched through Belgium and into northern France, hoping to knock France out of the war before Russia could mobilize. A French offensive across the French-German border was thrown back in disarray, and the French retreated.

With the Belgians holding a small slice of Flanders in the northwest, and a modest British expeditionary force on their left, the French managed to retreat in good order and assemble a mobile reserve. Meanwhile the German right wing drifted eastward, persuing the retreating French to the east of Paris rather than going to the west as originally intended. This led the main German thrust into a funnel between the fortress cities of Paris and Verdun, and opened up a dangerous gap between units on the German right. The French attacked into this gap, leading to the Miracle of the Marne and a retreat of the Germans to more defensible positions in northern France. A "race to the sea" ensued, leading to entrenchments all along a line extending from the Swiss border to the North Sea.

On the Eastern Front, the Russians mobilized and attacked weeks earlier than the Germans had anticipated, but met disaster at the Battle of Tannenberg. The poorly-coordinated Russians ran into German units defending their homes in East Prussia, and fighting in a wilderness lake area were quickly thrown back. The German generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff became famous during this battle.

Italy defected from the Central Powers to the Allies, with an eye on Austro-Hungarian territory in the Tyrol. Turkey, on the other hand, came into the war on the Central Powers side.

German colonies around the world were quickly overrun. In China, the German colony of Tsingtao was attacked by Japan. After a token resistance, the garrison surrendered. German East Africa was the only German colony to resist for a significant amount of time. There a small, highly mobile force under General Lettow-Vorbeck fought in the bush for the duration of the war.

At sea some German cruisers were able to raid British commerce and cause disruption to international trade. They were eventually hunted down and captured or sunk.

The German submarine menace threatened Great Britain with starvation, but the institution of a convoy system prevented the loss of too many ships.

1915[edit]

The Austro-Hungarian army fought a series of very bloody conflicts with the Russians in Poland from 1914-1915, eventually leading to the fall of Przemysl and capture of the Austro-Hungarian garrison. The enormous losses during this period represented the cream of the Austro-Hungarian army, and it never recovered.

A British-French naval attack through the Dardanelles towards Constantinople was repulsed. Following that, Churchill's idea for amphibious landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula didn't work. British forces landed and tried to advance up the peninsula to take out the Turkish artillery that was preventing passage of the fleet. Along with them were Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) forces. People in those countries usually consider it the first battle they fought as independent nation-states.

In order to prop up Austria-Hungary, German forces were sent to help in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive. It was a success for the Central Powers, and temporarily averted the threat of Russia breaking over the Carpathian mountains into Hungary.

1916[edit]

Having weathered 1915 mostly on the defensive on the Western Front, and having temporarily handled the Russians in the East, Germany decided to attack again in the West in 1916. General Erich von Falkenhayn came up with a plan to "bleed the French white" with an attack on their fortress-city of Verdun, on the Meuse River. The concept of the plan was acceptance that large breakthroughs were probably impossible. However, if the Germans attacked a place that the French found psychologically valuable, then the French would fight there even if the material circumstances favored the Germans. Verdun was surrounded on three sides by German positions, and it was close to railheads so that the Germans could resupply. On the other side, the only way the French could bring up reinforcements was by a single road, what became known as the Voie Sacree (Sacred Road). Falkenhayn planned to have his forces conduct a limited bite-and-hold operation, and then butcher the French as they launched suicidal counterattacks. Under such conditions he expected a 2:1 loss exchange ratio, and with Germany's larger manpower reserves this meant that France would soon be exhausted.

The French obliged by removing their commander soon after the offensive started and replacing him with General Henri Petain, who resolved to fight to the last and poured reinforcements into the salient. The undermanned Fort Douaumont was captured by a single German blown into the entranceway by an artillery shell.

However French resistance and counterattacks proved almost as deadly to the Germans as they advanced beyond the protection of their guns, and further use of artillery rendered the casualty counts on both sides enormous. The loss exchange ratio was somewhat closer to 1:1, and the Germans broke off the attack when the British attacked at the Somme. Falkenhayn was removed as commander and replaced by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who had become national heroes from their victories over the Russians on the Eastern Front.

With the French struggling to hang on at Verdun, the British launched their long-planned attack early. The first day of the Somme, British soldiers left their trenches and ran into uncut wire, machine gun, and artillery fire. Upwards of fifty thousand men were killed outright, with many more woulded. It was the bloodiest single day in British military history. Attacks would continue for a few more weeks but progress was measured in yards.

In the East, the Russian Brusilov Offensive against the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia proved very successful. The Russians used stormtroopers to infiltrate enemy positions, leading to a breakthrough along a wide front. The Germans rushed reinforcements in by rail and were able to contain the Russians as they reached the Carpathian mountains.

1917[edit]

The situation in Russia deteriorated, with massive famines and shortages, leading to the Czar being deposed. A democratic government under Kerensky attempted to stay in the war, with limited success, but the Russian army collapsed with desertions and in October 1917 the Communists under Lenin took over. The Czar and his family were executed, and Russia signed a treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk granting huge concessions and taking itself out of the war.

The situation in the Central Powers was also growing desperate. Germany, frustrated by the British blockade and ineffectiveness of its own submarines, declared unrestricted submarine warfare. Since this would likely lead to the sinking of neutral American ships the Germans knew that this could bring America into the war. Germany sent the Zimmerman Telegram, proposing an alliance with Mexico, that was discovered. The Kaiser was assured that the American troop transports would be sunk before they could disembark in Europe, but as it turned out not a single transport ship was sunk, and American participation in the war quickly ramped up as an expeditionary force under John Pershing arrived in France.

Meanwhile there were widespread mutinies in the French army. French leaders granted the troops extra leave and improved conditions, and promised not to mount any major offensives for a while. In the end some ringleaders were executed.

At the Battle of Cambrai, the British sent a group of tanks at the Germans, making quick progress but failing to capitalize on it. Most of the tanks broke down after several days.

1918[edit]

All of the European nations were reaching the end of their manpower reserves, with the British army actually shrinking towards the end of the war. The Americans, however were arriving at a rate of ten thousand a day.

With Russia out of the war, Germany had a temporary window where it outnumbered its enemies. By the end of the year, the American reinforcements would give the Allies permanent numerical superiority.

Rather than face further attrition, the Germans mounted a final, desperate Spring Offensive. They attacked at the junction of the British and French, making good progress at first. The use of stormtroopers helped. At Chateau-Thierry, fresh American troops were thrown into the breach and fought the Germans to a standstill.

In Italy, the Germans sent units to support the Austro-Hungarians. This combined force routed the Italians at the Battle of Caporetto, taking many prisoners and at one point threatening Venice.

In the summer, the German offensive in France stalled as the stormtroopers were used up, supply lines were outrun, and Ludendorff repeatedly changed the direction of the attack. From July onwards, they fought defensively, eventually having to give up the hard-won salient and returning to the heavily-fortified Hindenburg Line. In September, the Allies launched a general attack along the length of the Hindenburg Line using tanks, and forced the Germans to abandon it. In October, the German army recovered somewhat, fighting various holding actions and grudgingly falling back towards the border.

The Italians attacked the Austro-Hungarians again, this time achieving a stunning breakthrough at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. With various parts of their empire seceeding, the Austrians sued for peace, but the Italians continued the war for another few days until the outcome could no longer be in doubt.

The Ottoman Empire suffered defeats to the Russians in the Caucasus, and the British under General Allenby in Palestine. An Arab revolt encouraged by Lawrence of Arabia also undermined Turkish resistance.

Bulgaria faced starvation as the Germans were taking food from it, and its army had the highest casualty rate of any Central Power.

With the various Central Powers crumbling, severe shortages, and no hope of winning due to the influx of American troops, the political situation in Germany became critical and the Kaiser was forced to abdicate. On November 11, 1918, 11:00 AM, an armistice went into effect.

The morning of November 11th, hours from the armistice, Allied commanders ordered attacks that resulted in tens of thousands of unnecessary casualties. This led to an investigation in the United States Senate.

War Crimes[edit]

Aftermath[edit]

Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points were not entirely adopted, but the principle of ethnic self-determination was applied across Europe and countries such as Poland, the Baltics, and Yugoslavia emerged independent.

Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, in which it was forced to give up its colonies, cede territory to France and Poland, pay reparations, and accept war guilt.

Austria-Hungary dissolved, breaking up into Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and losing some territory to Poland and Italy.

The Ottoman Empire lost its Arab territories, but was able to retain the Turkish core around Asia Minor and a narrow strip of Europe around Constantinople.

The Weimar Republic arose in Germany, but was troubled by high inflation, unemployment, and civil unrest from both fascists and communists. In the early 1930's, the Nazi's took power and eliminated the democratic government.

The Russian Civil War ended with the Communists victorious. Vladimir Lenin died soon after and a feud between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin erupted. Stalin took control and led the country for the next thirty years.

A Russo-Polish War resulted in Soviet defeat, with Poland establishing borders well to the east of its present day frontiers.

The World Powers attempted to maintain peace in the following years through disarmament. This failed when Germany and Japan broke the treaties in the 1930's. This allowed them a sufficient head start in building so as to make them very dangerous during World War II.

Greece and Turkey went to war. The Greek army successfully took the coast of Turkey on the Aegean Sea, mainly around the city of Smyrna, where a large population of Greeks had lived for thousands of years. The Greek army was then routed during an overambitious drive towards Ankara. In the Treaty of Lausanne, Greece and Turkey agreed to exchange populations, leading to the end of Greek civilization in Asia Minor.