Brief History of the World Wiki
World War I
Period Late Modern Ages
Dates 1914-1918 AD
Preceded by
Road to WW1 and Russian Revolution
Followed by
Russian Revolution
Only the dead have seen the end of war.

–George Santayana

The World War 1 lasted from about 1914 AD until 1918 AD. It was directly triggered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia. It then ended with memorable precision, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.

A year before his death in 1898, Otto von Bismarck prophesied that when war again came to Europe it would be over “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans.” Seventeen years later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. Deaths of this kind were relatively common before 1914 and did not normally result in war; in recent years assassins had claimed the lives of a president of the USA, and kings of both Portugal and Greece. The decision to go to war over a relatively minor international crisis vividly demonstrates the tangle in which Europe’s major powers had tied themselves. The all-out war of World War 1 or the Great War or “the War to End All Wars” was virtually unprecedented in the slaughter, carnage, and destruction it caused. It was one of the great watersheds of 20th-century world history. It led to the fall of four great imperial dynasties in Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Ottoman Turkey, resulted in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, was pivotal milestone in the creation of the troubled Middle East, and in its destabilisation of European society laid the groundwork for World War II.


Causes of WW1[]


Was the outbreak of World War ! in 1914 an accident or design, caused by sleepwalkers or planned? No one doubts that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the catalyst, but whole libraries have been filled with the riddle of who root cause; if they prove anything it's that a definitive answer is an exercise in futility. Yet it is human nature to seek simple, satisfying answers, which is why the idea that Germany caused the war continues to be popular today; indeed Germany’s guilt was written into the Versailles Peace Treaty (1919). The real cause was the complex set of alliances that existed across Europe at the time, and the inflexible war-happy leaders in place; if it hadn't been the assassination then it would have been something else. All the great powers played a role in causing the war, both those considered the aggressors like Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia, as well as those who brushed aside diplomatic solutions and responded, France and Britain. The European Alliance System was a by-product of Bismarck’s foreign policy, wary of the French desire to avenge military and territorial losses in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). Yet without Bismarck’s considerable diplomatic skill, and with Kaiser Wilhelm’s habit of making rather bellicose public statements, it developed into a delicate but toxic polarisation of Europe between: the Triple Alliance (1882) of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy on the one hand; and the Triple Entente (1907) of France, Russia, and Britain on the other. The Alliance System both allowed relatively minor powers like Austria-Hungary and Serbia to act with irresponsible recklessness, and allowed minor local conflicts like the Moroccan Crisis (1905) and Bosnian Crisis (1908) to potentially escalate into a European-wide war, as it ultimately would in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

The war was no accident and it could have been avoided. However in the early 20th century, the idea of “the glory of war” was very popular all over Europe, with poetry celebrating heroic sacrifice and dying for the Homeland. Meanwhile, European nationalism increasingly stressed the historical differences between nations, rather than a rational faith in their common aspirations. No one nation deserves all responsibility for the outbreak of war, and none of Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, Britain and Serbia can escape blame:

  • Since the Franco-Prussian War, Germany's leaders shared a belief that another war with France was inevitable, and had been expanding her military and navy in preparation since 1898. Whether this was aggressive militarism or strong national defence depends on one’s perspective. Yet the diplomatic belligerence of Kaiser Wilhelm had left her surrounded by a hostile alliance, and desperate not to lose her last remaining ally, Austria-Hungary. Meanwhile by 1913, the industrial capacity of Germany had actually slightly surpassed Britain, while France and Russia still lagged behind; the United States constituted 36% of the world manufacturing production, Germany 16%, Britain 14%, France 6%, and Russia 5%. In the spring of 1914, the small group who ruled Germany decided that now was the time to act to fulfil Germany’s ambitions, rather than wait for France and Russia to catch-up and pose a greater threat. The German leadership reacted to the July Crisis with a hefty dose of wishful thinking, that Russia would back-down and that France and Britain would remain aloof, and then took the gamble on war rather than back down.
  • France’s foreign policy for the forty years after the Franco-Prussian War had been dominated by the idea of reclaiming her lost land and isolating Germany. It was predominantly successful French diplomacy that brought about the Triple Alliance. The resulting war, with Russia and Britain against the Germany and her allies, was France's desired outcome, not Germany's. As war loomed, Maurice Paléologue, France's ambassador in Russia, encouraged the Russian aggression towards Austria-Hungary, just as Germany condoned Austrian intransigence.
  • Britain could have done more to avert war by mediating as it had done in the Bosnian Crisis, or clarifying her position earlier. Britain went to war with Germany out of fear: a not entirely rational fear of her navy, since Britain had clearly won the naval arms-race by 1910; fear of Germany's economy which was now more powerful than Britain; and above all fear that the German army would smash France in a repeat of 1870, establishing German hegemony in Europe, and ending Britain's very privileged status-quo. Just as the German leaders favoured a war now before Russia posed a greater threat, some British leaders felt similarly about Germany. The British government made much of their duty to protect “gallant little Belgium” on entering the war, so it’s not without ironically that she would openly violate Greek neutrality during the course of the war.
  • Russia’s humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, was followed by her inability to stop Austria-Hungary from annexing Bosnia in the Bosnian Crisis. The Tsar feared that without some decisive action, Russia would never be taken seriously again in Europe, which would only fuel further domestic unrest. Russia put its armies on a war footing first, not Germany, and her diplomatic communications with Germany were unhelpful in resolving the crisis at hand. Germany could do little than assume that Russia's full mobilisation was a threat.
  • Austria-Hungary was consumed by fear of nationalism, both Serbia’s clear designs on Austrian Bosnia where there were many Slavs, as well as that domestic nationalism could fragment her ethnically diverse empire; as it would in 1918. Vienna seized the opportunity presented by the assassination of the heir to the Habsburg throne to declare war on Serbia, its Balkan rival and unstable neighbour, well understanding that such a conflict might escalate.
  • Serbia was a young nation and intensely nationalistic. Her brutal and often violent suppression of minorities, especially Muslims, had left her ostracised by much of Western Europe. Emboldened by her victory in the Balkan Wars and her alliance with Russia, the Serbian government’s backing of the Black Hand terrorists group in Austrian Bosnia was extraordinarily irresponsible; the group responsible for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Nevertheless, Serbia, exhausted after two Balkan wars probably did not want war in 1914.

Outbreak of WW1[]

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand illustrated in the Italian newspaper Domenica del Corriere.

The delicate but toxic balance in Europe eventually crumbled, when in Sarajevo, Bosnia on 28 June 1914 a Serbian nationalist assassinated Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, prompting the July Crisis. Despite limited evidence, Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the assassination and for seeding unrest among ethnic Serbs in Austrian Bosnia. Vienna decided that the solution to the Serbian problem was an all-out invasion of the country. However, with the danger that such an invasion may provoke war with Russia, they first sought assurances from Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II responded within days that the Austrian emperor should deal with Serbia however he saw fit; the so-called “black cheque” assurance of Germany’s backing in the case of war with Russia. Empowered by Germany’s support, the Austria’s foreign minister sent an ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July, with such harsh terms as to make it almost impossible to accept. Meanwhile, Germany urged the Tsar to leave the Serbian crisis as a local affair, but Russia ratcheted-up the tension by beginning her first steps to mobilisation on 25 July. The Serbian reply was as historian Christopher Clark describes it, "... a highly perfumed rejection on most points". Thus on 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war on its small neighbour, and in response, Russia began full mobilisation her army two days later. Germany warned the Russians to stand-down, but two days later on 1 August France mobilised its forces in support of Russia, and the same day Germany both mobilised and declared war; World War I (1914-1918) had begun. The decision to go to war over a relatively minor international crisis vividly demonstrates the tangle in which Europe’s major powers had tied themselves.


Since the Franco-Russian Alliance (1894), Germany had devised a two-stage plan to deal with a war on two fronts; the Schlieffen Plan. A massive and rapid flanking attack would be made on France through Belgium and southern France, while a relatively light force would hold the Russians at bay, who were expected to be slow to mobilise. France should then be defeated in time to redirect the full German might against Russia. With the Russians having already mobilised, Germany urgently declared war on Russia on August 1 and on France two days later. By August 3, German armies had already crossed the border into neutral Belgium. The Entente Cordiale did not commit Britain to come to the defence of France and Russia, but she was committed by a separate treaty to protect the independence of Belgium. Thus by 4 August 1914, a mere five weeks since the events in Sarajevo, all the major powers of Europe were officially at war with one another, on either side of the Allies or the Central Powers.

Opening Hostilities of WW1[]

Stabilization of Western Front WWI.PNG

In the opening hostilities, the German thrust through Belgium and southern France at first seemed destined to deliver “Victory by Christmas”. Although the Belgian army put up a heroic resistance, the Germans took Liège on 16 August, and Brussels four days later. Meanwhile, a small British force rushed across the Channel into Belgium. Confronted at Mons on 23 August by a much larger German army, the British force fought a successful rear-guard action and retreated. Meanwhile, the initial French defence against the central German thrust culminated in the disastrous Battle of Lorraine (14–25 August), with massive French dead and wounded. In the aftermath, the French redirected their efforts northwards towards Belgium. The German had intentioned to sweep west, and encircle Paris, but opposition in Belgium and northern France confined the Germans to the east of the capital. Yet by early September, with the Germans within 30 miles of Paris, the French government moved to Bordeaux. However, a mainly French force under General Joseph Joffre finally halted and then rolled-back the German relentless advance at the First Battle of the Marne (September); the battle saved Paris and kept France in the war. The German forces regrouped in Belgium, and then made an attempt to outflank the Allied armies to the north; at the same time the Germans transferred four divisions to the eastern front against early Russian advances. However, the Allies made a reciprocal attempt, resulting in the so called “race to the sea”. By November 1914, the demarcation lines were fixed, running roughly along the Belgian border and then down the German border to Switzerland. The flat fields of Flanders were the hardest to defend, thus each side began feverishly building defensive structures in the winter of 1914. These trenches would be home to hundreds of thousands of Europe’s young men for the next three years, as the fanciful notion of “Victory by Christmas” was transformed into a protracted nightmarish war of a kind never seen before in history.


On the eastern front, Russia's early mobilisation resulted in strong advances into eastern Germany and Austria-Hungary. However, events soon suggested that the Russians were ill-prepared for modern warfare. With ineffective military leadership, supply-lines overextended, and uncoded radio messages easily intercepted, a much smaller German force under Field Marshal Hindenburg and rising staff-office Ludendorff affected a devastating pincer movement at the Battle of Tannenberg (late August); about half the Russian army was destroyed, including the capture of 92,000 men. However further south, the Austria-Hungarians proved ineffectual, failing to dislodge the Russian force or crush tiny Serbia.

The Years of Stalemate[]


With no sign of a quick or easy victory, both sides began looking for new allies. Britain entered the war with the support of her dominions: Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, and South Africa. However, it was the Central Powers who were the first to win an unexpected ally; Russia’s traditional enemy, the Ottoman Turks bombarded the Russian ports in the Black Sea in October 1914. Portugal had joined the Allies in August 1914, in recognition of her long alliance with Britain, but it was not until February 1916 that Portugal took any kind of active role, seizing any German ships in Portuguese ports. Meanwhile, Italy would remain neutral until the spring of 1915; the Triple Alliance did not commit her to take part in a war of aggression. She eventually joined the Allies, when promised the Italian-speaking regions of Trentino and Trieste in Austria-Hungary. The prolonged trench warfare along the Isonzo river in northern Italy proved as futile and costly as the better-known western-front version; over the eighteen months there were half a million Italian casualties. Meanwhile, the nations of the Balkans split largely along the lines of the Second Balkan War, with Bulgaria joining the Central Powers against Serbia in September 1915, and Romania joining the Allies in August 1916. Meanwhile, Japan had diplomatic reasons for participating in the war due to her Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902), but also strong motives of self-interest in coveting the German enclave in China. In September 2014, the Japanese army and navy besieged German Qingdao, which fell after two months of heavy fighting. Later, the Japanese navy also appropriated some useful German staging posts; the Marianas, and the Caroline and Palau islands. Lastly, Greece would eventually join the Allies after a long period of neutrality in November 1916. Several European nations declared their neutrality; Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Spain. The United States, whose population came from all the countries at war, was determined to wash its hands of the belligerent Old World, although events would eventually conspire against this.

In February 1915, Germany's declared exclusion zone, where Allied ships were liable to search and attack

The war at sea immediately took on the aspect of a world war, because the fleets of Germany and Britain were already scattered across the globe. From the very first week of the war, the German light cruiser SMS Emden carried out a brilliant series of raids in the seas around India, preying on the British merchant and troop ships bringing supplies and men to the European theatre; it destroyed 23 vessels before it was sunk after three months. Despite some other German success stories, the British got the better of the naval engagement in the early part of the war, such as the sinking of the German battle-cruiser SMS Blücher at the Battle of Dogger Bank (January 1915). However, the German strategy soon shifted to a far more effective form of aggression; submarine warfare. The age of submarine warfare began during the American Civil War. From the start of the war both Britain and Germany had done their utmost to cut off the other’s maritime supply lines. For Britain this was relatively easy; a heavily mined English Channel could prevent vessels from reaching the Atlantic from the south, and fleets permanently patrolled the only other means of access around the north of Scotland. However, Britain’s assumption of easy access to the entire north Atlantic was disproved with astonishing success by the German U-boats. The first victim claimed was the British merchant ship Glitra in October 1914. By February 2015, Germany declared that all the waters round the British Isles were a war zone, in which not even neutral ships were immune from attack. In May 1915, came an event that would crucially shift the American perception of the war. The Lusitania, a British passenger liner which the Germans rightly claimed was also carrying ammunition, was sunk off the coast of Ireland with the loss of more than a thousand civilian lives, including 128 US citizens. This event caused the American committed neutrality to begin to shift to a growing sympathy for the Allied cause. The early summer of 1916 brought the only major sea battle of the entire war; the Battle of Jutland. Since the loss at the Battle of Dogger Bank, the German fleet had been content to leave the U-boats to carry on the war. However in 1916, the Germans devised a plan to entice a large British fleet into a trap: first a small force of cruisers would bombard some minor southern British ports to lure a naval response, and then the entire German fleet would move up the Norwegian coast to cut them off. However, a series of accidents would ultimately frustrate the plan. The British intercepted a message suggesting the German fleet was on the move, and sent a second fleet south from Scotland. In a chance encounter, the German fleet and this second British fleet met. In the gathering dusk, some 250 combat ships opened fire with their enormous guns. The chaos was such that neither side had a decisive advantage before night fell, and the Germans slipped away. In the event, both sides claimed victory; the Germans lost half as many men and tonnage, while the British still firmly controlled the North Sea.

Manfred von Richthofen, known known as the "Red Baron". He is considered the ace-of-Flying Aces of the war.

In 1914, war in the air was a relatively new phenomenon. In October, British planes bombed the railway station at Cologne and the Zeppelin shed at Düsseldorf. The Germans retaliated, bombing Dover in December, Great Yarmouth in January 1915, and London in May. The most intense of all the attacks was in September 1916, when fourteen Zeppelins dropped 35,000 lb. of bombs on London. Meanwhile, the development of fighter planes would prove an unexpected but increasingly significant factor in the battle for the skies. Early in the war, small unarmed planes were widely used for reconnaissance. During 1915, single-seater planes acquired a machine gun, cunningly synchronized with the revolving propeller. The fighter plane had arrived, and with it the glamour of the Flying Ace; no ace surpassed the German Manfred von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron, who shot down 79 British aircraft before being killed in action. As fighter planes improved, the great Zeppelins soon proved too vulnerable, so both sides developed heavy bombers during the latter part of the war. In February 1918, St Pancras railway station in London was bombed by heavy bombers, each carrying a crew of seven and a bomb load of 4,000 pounds. While the battle for the skies was not yet at the point of influencing the outcome of the war, its future role was unmistakable.

British wounded at Bernafay Wood during the Battle of the Somme, 19 July 1916.

On the western front by early 1915, in the insoluble deadlock of trench warfare both side tried to wear the opposing forces down in a ceaseless war of attrition, until a sudden strategic breakthrough could be achieved. Never in history have so many men, so heavily armed, remained for so long confronting each other. In a front stretching less than 200 miles the few major advances in either direction were less than 50 miles and soon reversed; most of the time it was winning, losing, or clawing back a few hundred yards of shell-churned mud. In this blighted area, millions of men lost their lives. The pattern of attack remained essentially the same throughout the war; first launch a preliminary bombardment to flatten the barbed wire protecting the opposing trench, and then the infantry “go over the top”, across no man’s land armed with rifles, bayonets and hand-grenades towards the machine guns awaiting them. That was unless the bombardment had persuaded the enemy to withdraw to a secondary line of defence. In early 1916, a German offensive thrust towards Verdun in the north of the line; the Battle for Verdun (February–December) lasted the rest of the year. To ease the pressure on Verdun, the Allies counter-thrusted in the valley of the Somme in the centre, in what became the most deadly single engagement of the entire war; the Battle of the Somme (July–November) cost 420,000 British lives, 195,000 French, and 600,000 Germans. In March 1917, the Germans made an unexpected withdrawal between Arras and Reims, to a newly prepared line of very effective concrete pillboxes; the Hindenburg Line. The territory abandoned was left as a heavily mined wasteland. While by this stage of the war the French and Germans had settled into a defensive stance, the British under Field Marshal Haig were still convinced that aggression must ultimately prevail. In July 1917, the British launched a massive offensive at the northern extremity of the line; the Third Battle of Ypres (July–November) ended after three months of horror with nothing achieved and a cost of 250,000 British lives. There were innovations on the western front, when radically new weapons were brought to the battlefield in an attempt to clear the enemy more effectively. The Germans were the first used poison gas at Ypres in April 1915 but with little advantage; in this case chlorine gas. The British followed suit at Loos in September, but the wind changed and blew the gas over their own men. By the end of the war, both sides were making frequent use of even more alarming gases like phosgene and mustard. However, the innovation that would transform modern warfare was the tank. It was a British innovation first used at the Somme in September 1916. On their early outings, they made relatively little impression, but by November 1917 their value was unmistakable.

Armenian civilians, escorted by Ottoman soldiers, marched through Harput to a prison in nearby Mezireh, April 1915.

On the eastern front, by early 1915 Russia was at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Turks, while effectively cut-off from all her allies. The first major German campaign of the year began in May, breaking through the Russian trenches at Gorlice and advancing 150 miles. With another push in September, by the end of the year the Russians had lost Poland and the Germans were 200 miles into Russian territory; in addition to heavy casualties, 750,000 Russian troops had been taken prisoner. In the south, Romania and Bulgaria were at this point still neutral, thus the Russo-Turkish front ran through the Caucasus from the Black Sea to the Caspian. With the Russian navy controlling the Black Sea, by July 1915 they were making gradual though difficult progress towards Ottoman Armenia. However, this Russian success triggered one of the worst atrocities of the war; the Armenian Genocide. With a proud history of independence, the Armenians had no wish to be part of either empires, but as Christians were somewhat more inclined to the Russians. Fearing that the Armenians in Turkey represented a threat, the decision was made to move the entire Armenian population from their homeland to the desert regions of Syria. In the rush to implement the policy and faced with inevitable resistance, Ottoman troops massacred many tens of thousands of Armenians. Many more perished on the drive south from hunger, disease and exhaustion. There are no reliable figures for the number who died, but a probable estimate is between half and three quarters of a million.


Isolated from her allies, Russia urged the British and French to attack the Ottomans, and the Allies responded with an audacious plan to capture Istanbul. There were many advantages beyond relieving pressure on Russia fighting on three fronts: relief could be brought to beleaguered Serbia; Austria-Hungary could be attacked up the Danube; and this demonstration of power might persuade Greece, Bulgaria and Romania to end their neutrality. The scheme was opposed by Lord Fisher, the British Admiral of the Fleet, but Winston Churchill’s strong support prevailed. The first attempt ended in disaster, when ten British and French battleships with minesweepers tried to force their way through the Dardanelles Straits, only for three ships to be sunk by mines. The catastrophe causes a change of plan. Instead a land invasion would clear the Ottoman defences from the Gallipoli peninsula to the north of the Dardanelles. In April 1915, a multinational force arrived: Australian and New Zealand troops landed to the west at Anzac Cove, and British troops came ashore to the south, while a French contingent took up a position on the other side of the straits as a diversion. The Anzacs and the British beachheads were confronted by strong opposition; the Anzacs lost 2,000 men on just the first day. Even larger reinforcements arriving in August, but it made little difference. In December, the campaign was abandoned after costing more than 200,000 casualties. In the aftermath, Churchill resigned from the government, and served for six months as a lieutenant colonel on the western front.

On the Balkan fronts, after Serbia proved surprisingly resilient in keeping the armies of Austria-Hungary at bay, neutral Bulgaria became a high priority for both sides. For the Central Powers, if Serbia could be occupied and Bulgaria brought into the alliance, then a crucial railway link would be established with the Ottomans. In September 1915, Bulgaria took the plunge and declared war with the Central Powers against Serbia. In response, French and British divisions were rushed from Gallipoli to Salonika in northern Greece, completely ignoring then Greek neutrality. However, by the time they landed, the Austrian and Bulgarian armies had already overrun Serbia. In August 1916, Romania did join the Allies, but they too were overrun by the Austro-Hungarian army after four months.

Lieutenant Colonel T. E. Lawrence in 1919

On the Middle Eastern front, since the start of the war, the campaign in the region had been focused on protecting the precious oil refineries. However, with the collapse of the Gallipoli campaign, the Allies turned to attacking the Ottomans in the Middle East. In June 1915, British and Indian forces moved north towards the mesmerising prize of Baghdad. Finally meeting strong Ottoman opposition some twenty miles from Baghdad, the Allies were forced to withdraw with heavy losses to Kut, where they found themselves besieged and surrendered after five months. This humiliating event may have been the last of the Middle Eastern front, but for a new development in Arabia. Hoping to free his homeland from Ottoman rule, Husayn ibn Ali, the hereditary emir of Mecca, launched an Arab revolt along the Red Sea coast. The most effective part of the uprising was conducted by his son Faisal and T.E. Lawrence, a young British officer seconded as a liaison to the Arab forces. Together they attacked the most strategically important target in the region, the railway from Damascus to Medina. The policy succeeded, and by the summer of 1917 the Arabs captured the strategically important Aqaba after a surprise overland attack with the loss of just two lives. Faisal’s army were now well placed to support a British thrust on Palestine. After two bungled attempts, Gaza was captured in November followed by Jerusalem a month later. Meanwhile, British fortunes further east had also been transformed, with Kut re-captured in February 1917, and Baghdad in March. Yet, the ultimate goal of Istanbul was still far far away.


The early months of the war also saw energetic attacks on the four German territories in Africa. In the north, Togo fell to the French and British in August 1914, and Cameroon by February 1915. In the south of Africa, Namibia eventually fell in July 1915, despite many of the former Boers switching to the German side. In Germany’s only east coast colony, Tanzania, the action was much more prolonged, owing to the astonishing skill and persistence of one man; Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the German army in the colony. The first British force of 8000 troops from Bombay landed in November 1914. It was such an embarrassing fiasco, that news of it was kept from the British public for several months. Next the British tried to blockade Tanzania into submission, but Lettow-Vorbeck managed to transform his colony into a self-sufficient territory. In February 1916, a second British army of 20,000 invaded from Kenya. This force was too strong for Lettow-Vorbeck to confront head-on, so he transformed his men with great success into a guerrilla force. For two years, he tied down as many as 130,000 Allied troops, about half of whom died in action or of disease. Lettow-Vorbeck was still active, and elusive as ever, when news reached him that Germany had agreed to an armistice in 1918.

Turning Point of WW1[]

By 1917, there seemed to be two main opportunities of victory for the Central Powers. Firstly, by April the German all-out submarine warfare was sinking 430 Allied and neutral ships a month; one in four merchant vessels leaving British ports never returned. If these losses continued, the Allies could be starved into submission by the end of the year. Yet, the British came up with a solution; merchant ships would cross the Atlantic in convoys. While logic suggests this would simply provide a larger target, it proved more effective than dotting the ocean with separate targets which U-boats were much more likely to encounter, especially when combined with armed escorts. There was an immediate and dramatic fall in the number of ships sunk. Meanwhile, the Allies took much more vigorous steps to retaliate against the U-boats, with vast numbers of mines laid in the Channel and North Sea, bringing their own underwater victims.

Western front 1918 german.jpg

The second opportunity for victory was on the western front. The year 1917 brought two major developments which in very different ways profoundly altered the equation of the war: the Russian Revolution (1917) freed up large numbers of German troops from the eastern front, and the United States joined the Allies. With American-German relations already damaged over their indiscriminate submarine warfare that resumed in January 1917, Germany made overtures to bring Mexico into the Central Powers alliance; the decryption of the Zimmermann Telegram was the most significant intelligence triumph for Britain during World War I. The United States declared war on Germany on 7 December 1917. Erich Ludendorff, the command of the German forces, was well aware that a decisive blow was essential before the arrival of US troops tipped the balance irretrievably. The German spring offensive of 1918 launched three massive offensives on different parts of the front, and succeeded as few others had done in three long years of war. Thrusts towards Amiens brought the Germans forty miles into France within a few days, while the other two thrusts created similar great bulges. However, Ludendorff failed to make the breakthrough he required, and in July and August the Germans suffered two critical reverses. Now under the unified Allied command of French general Ferdinand Foch, making extremely effective use of tanks in the Second Battle of the Marne (July-August) and the Battle of Amiens (August) the German forces were driven back.

With these German defeats, Ludendorff concluded that the German cause was hopeless. The tide of had turned against the Central Powers, and autumn would only bring more victories for the Allies. In September, the Allied troops long bivouacked uselessly in Greece, rapidly advanced north with the remnants of the Serbian forces determined to recover their homeland. By the end of the month, the Bulgarians asked for an armistice. Meanwhile in Syria, Faisal and T.E. Lawrence kept a large Ottoman army occupied in a guerrilla war campaign. In October, the British took Damascus and were on the verge of capturing Mosul, when the Ottoman government sued for peace. That same month on the long-static Italian front, a sudden Italian advance pushed the front some 70 miles north against the demoralised Austrians. It triggered the disintegration of Austria-Hungary; declarations of independence were made in Budapest, Prague, and Zagreb of their respective parts of the empire. By the end of the month, the Austrian authorities also asked for an armistice, and Germany was now on her own. The Germans withstood the Allied September counter-offensive at Verdun and Ypres, but the British in the centre broke through the much vaunted Hindenburg Line. On 3 October 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed Max of Baden as chancellor, an internationally respected statesman; during the war he had worked with the Red Cross for the welfare of prisoners on both sides. He was tasked with winning Germany a just peace.

Aftermath of WW1[]

Ferdinand Foch, second from right, pictured outside the carriage in Compiègne after agreeing to the armistice that ended the war.

It was agreed that Woodrow Wilson, who had spoken frequently of the necessity of a just and lasting peace in Europe, should arbitrate the peace based on his Fourteen Point plan. Yet, even the armistice pre-conditions on Germany were harsh to the point that General Ludendorff actually arguing for Germany to fight on, but with mutinous rumblings in the military it was not an option. Thus as demanded: Germany would endured the economic effects of a continued Allied blockade until the peace treaty was signed; renunciated the advantageous German treaty with Russia; and Kaiser Wilhelm II was deposed, with power handed to the chancellor over an elected Reichstag parliament as a German Weimar Republic (1918-33). With Woodrow Wilson’s fine instinct for the drama of the occasion, both sides signed the formal armistice in a railroad carriage at Compiègne at 5 a.m. on 11 November 1918, with the document stating that hostilities would cease six hours later; thus the Great War ended, with memorable precision, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

The heads of the "Big Four" nations at the Paris Peace Conference, 27 May 1919. From left to right: David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States

Over the next six months, President Wilson struggled to maintain his idea that Germany should not be treated too harshly, with David Lloyd George of Britain and especially Prime Ministers Georges Clemenceau of France arguing that punishing Germany adequately and ensuring its weakness was the only way to justify the immense costs of the war. In the end, Wilson compromised on the treaty in order to push through the creation of his pet project; the League of Nations. The German representatives were almost entirely excluded from the peace conference until May 1919, when they were presented with a draft of the Treaty of Versailles as a fait accompli. The treaty bore no real resemblance to the Fourteen Point plan that Germany thought it had signed up to in the armistice. Having put great faith in Wilson, the Germans were deeply disillusioned by the treaty, especially the infamous Article 231 forcing Germany to accept sole blame for the war. Yet they won few concessions, and the Treaty of Versailles was finally signed at Versailles on 28 June 1919; the very room which had been sullied by the proclamation in 1871 of the German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War. Germany’s national frontiers were restored with some exceptions; Alsace-Lorraine was returned to the French, and substantial eastern districts were ceded to an independent Poland. Meanwhile, 50 km of German territory east of the Rhine was stipulated a demilitarised zone to be controlled by Allies for fifteen years including the rich coal-fields of Saar. All German overseas colonies would also be redistributed among the victorious powers. Germany’s naval fleet including submarines would be transferred to the Allies; this decree was frustrated in a splendid act of defiance by the German sailors who scuttled every one of the fifty German battleships. Her land and sea armed forces were to be permanently reduced to very low levels, and she was allowed no air-force at all. And finally, there was the contentious matter of war-reparations, which were eventually settled at $33 billion; the final instalment would not be paid until 2010. Historical assessments of the terms imposed on Germany at the end of World War 1 generally range from vengeful and short-sighted to bewilderingly harsh. Even the French General Ferdinand Foch said at the time, “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years"; his words proved prophetic, World War II started twenty years and 64 days later. The profound injury to the German nation’s pride was of a different order. The German people felt humiliated, resentful, and impoverished, and Germany became a tumultuous place, teetering on the brink of violent revolutions from both the right and the left, and vulnerable to take-over from extremist elements like the Nazi Party. A few decades would prove that the Allies had made a misjudgement that created precisely the conditions required to launch Europe into an even more horrible war. Meanwhile, the belief that the Versailles settlement had been unjust, led to the policy of Appeasement so that Europe did not wake up to the danger until it was too late.


World War 1 redrew the map of Europe and beyond. Poland re-emerged as an independent country, after more than a century, carved out of parts of Germany and Russia. From the disintegration of Austria-Hungary emerged the new nations Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and an enlarged Serbia (the future Yugoslavia), as well as Austria itself. While much vaunted at the time, in at least two regions the wishes of the majority of the local inhabitants were consciously disregarded: the German-speaking region of South Tirol was brought within Italy to fulfil the agreement that brought them into the war; and the German-speaking Sudetenland became part of Czechoslovakia since they had been part of Austria. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Turkish Empire was also dismantled: the Ottoman heartland emerged as the republic of Turkey; Saudi Arabia became an independent kingdom; Iraq and Palestine became a British protectorate; and the French were given control of Syria. Many Arabs felt that this was a betrayal of British and French promises made during the war, to fulfil their own imperial ambitions. Meanwhile, the unilateral carving-up of the Middle East by the colonial powers with little regard for sectarian, tribal, or cultural distinctions exacerbated further turmoil in an already ethnically diverse region. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire became a pivotal milestone in the creation of the modern Middle East, the consequences of which we still live with today.

The official opening of the League of Nations, 15 November 1920

The most high-profile achievement of the Paris peace conference was the establishment of the League of Nations (1920-46); the forerunner of the United Nations. The organization was based in Geneva, the capital of Europe’s most consistently neutral country. The council was intended to have as permanent members the five major Allied powers (France, Britain, Italy, Japan, United States), who would be joined in due course by Russia and Germany, and two rotating temporary members. However, this scheme was frustrated by the US Congress who refused to ratify the covenant, their seat was left empty throughout the life of the League; to Woodrow Wilson’s profound disappointment.

No war up to this point in history had brought such a high cost in human life. It was a war characterised by the rotting unrecovered bodies which littered the pounded earth of no man's land, and by the Tombs of the Unknown Soldier in Paris and London. The dead are usually estimated in the region of 8 million: 1.8 million Germans, 1.7 million Russian, 1.55 million French, 1 million Austro-Hungarians, 900,000 from Britain and her empire, 650,000 Italians, and 117,000 Americans. And these figures do not include civilians. Seven million civilians world-wide is the figure usually quoted, with victim groups such as the Armenians featuring largely in this total. To add to the devastation of an entire generation of predominantly young men, nature delivered a devastating new blow in the autumn of 1918. In the last two months of the war, an influenza pandemic broke-out, bringing death in vast numbers to troops and civilians alike. Women were mobilised in the war in unprecedented numbers on all sides, with the vast majority drafted into the civilian work force to replace conscripted men or work in greatly expanded munitions factories. It helped pave the way for women's suffrage; New Zealand was the first country to grant women the right to vote in 1893.