World War I

World War I
Clockwise from the top:
Date28 July 1914 – 11 November 1918 (1914-07-28 – 1918-11-11)
(4 years, 3 months and 2 weeks)
Peace treaties
Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, China, Indian Ocean, North and South Atlantic Ocean

Allied victory

Allied Powers:
 British Empire
Central Powers:
Commanders and leaders
Total: 42,950,000[1]
  • Russian Empire 12,000,000
  • British Empire 8,842,000[2][3]
  • French Third Republic 8,660,000[4]
  • Kingdom of Italy 5,615,000
  • United States 4,744,000
  • Empire of Japan 800,000
  • Kingdom of Serbia 707,000
  • Kingdom of Romania 658,000
  • Belgium 380,000
  • Kingdom of Greece 250,000
  • First Portuguese Republic 80,000
  • Kingdom of Montenegro 50,000
Total: 25,248,000[1]
  • German Empire 13,250,000
  • Austria-Hungary 7,800,000
  • Ottoman Empire 2,998,000
  • Kingdom of Bulgaria 1,200,000
68,208,000 (Total all)
Casualties and losses
  • Military dead: 5,525,000
  • Military wounded: 12,832,000
  • Total: 18,357,000 KIA, WIA and MIA
  • Civilian dead: 4,000,000
further details...
Military deaths by country:[5][6]
  • Russian Empire 1,811,000
  • French Third Republic 1,398,000
  • British Empire 1,115,000
  • Kingdom of Italy 651,000
  • Kingdom of Romania 250,000–335,000
  • Kingdom of Serbia 275,000
  • United States 117,000
  • Belgium 59,000–88,000
  • Kingdom of Greece 26,000
  • First Portuguese Republic 7,000
  • Kingdom of Montenegro 3,000
  • Empire of Japan <1,000
  • Military dead: 4,386,000
  • Military wounded: 8,388,000
  • Total: 12,774,000 KIA, WIA and MIA
  • Civilian dead: 3,700,000
further details...
Military deaths by country:[5]
  • German Empire 2,051,000
  • Austria-Hungary 1,200,000
  • Ottoman Empire 772,000
  • Kingdom of Bulgaria 88,000
World War I: Mobilized forces per total population (in %)[citation needed]

World War I or the First World War, often abbreviated as WWI or WW1, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously known as the Great War or "the war to end all wars",[7] it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history.[8][9] It also was one of the deadliest conflicts in history,[10] with an estimated 8.5 million combatant deaths and 13 million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war,[11] while resulting genocides and the related 1918 Spanish flu pandemic caused another 17–100 million deaths worldwide,[12][13] including an estimated 2.64 million Spanish flu deaths in Europe and as many as 675,000 in the United States.[14]

On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist and member of the Serbian Black Hand military society, assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, leading to the July Crisis.[15][16] In response, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July. Serbia's reply failed to satisfy the Austrians, and the two moved to a war footing. A network of interlocking alliances enlarged the crisis from a bilateral issue in the Balkans to one involving most of Europe. By July 1914, the great powers of Europe were divided into two coalitions: the Triple Entente, consisting of France, Russia, and Britain; and the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. The Triple Alliance was only defensive in nature, allowing Italy to stay out of the war until 26 April 1915, when it joined the Allied Powers after its relations with Austria-Hungary deteriorated.[17] Russia felt it necessary to back Serbia, and approved partial mobilisation after Austria-Hungary shelled the Serbian capital of Belgrade, which was a few kilometres from the border, on 28July 1914.[18] Full Russian mobilisation was announced on the evening of 30July; the following day, Austria-Hungary and Germany did the same, while Germany demanded Russia demobilise within twelve hours.[19] When Russia failed to comply, Germany declared war on Russia on 1August 1914 in support of Austria-Hungary, the latter following suit on 6August 1914. France ordered full mobilisation in support of Russia on 2August 1914.[20] In the end, World War I would see the continent of Europe split into two major opposing alliances; the Allied Powers, primarily composed of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland, the United States, France, the Russian Empire, Italy, Japan, Portugal, and the many aforementioned Balkan States such as Serbia and Montenegro; and the Central Powers, primarily composed of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.

Germany's strategy for a war on two fronts against France and Russia was to rapidly concentrate the bulk of its army in the West to defeat France within 6 weeks, then shift forces to the East before Russia could fully mobilise; this was later known as the Schlieffen Plan.[21] On 2August, Germany demanded free passage through Belgium, an essential element in achieving a quick victory over France.[22] When this was refused, German forces invaded Belgium on 3August and declared war on France the same day; the Belgian government invoked the 1839 Treaty of London and, in compliance with its obligations under this treaty, Britain declared war on Germany on 4August. On 12 August, Britain and France also declared war on Austria-Hungary; on 23August, Japan sided with Britain, seizing German possessions in China and the Pacific. In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Austria-Hungary and Germany, opening fronts in the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, and the Sinai Peninsula. The war was fought in (and drew upon) each power's colonial empire also, spreading the conflict to Africa and across the globe.

The German advance into France was halted at the Battle of the Marne and by the end of 1914, the Western Front settled into a war of attrition, marked by a long series of trench lines that changed little until 1917 (the Eastern Front, by contrast, was marked by much greater exchanges of territory). In 1915, Italy joined the Allied Powers and opened a front in the Alps. Bulgaria joined the Central Powers in 1915 and Greece joined the Allies in 1917, expanding the war in the Balkans. The United States initially remained neutral, though even while neutral it became an important supplier of war materiel to the Allies. Eventually, after the sinking of American merchant ships by German submarines, the declaration by Germany that its navy would resume unrestricted attacks on neutral shipping, and the revelation that Germany was trying to incite Mexico to initiate war against the United States, the U.S. declared war on Germany on 6April 1917. Trained American forces did not begin arriving at the front in large numbers until mid-1918, but the American Expeditionary Force ultimately reached some two million troops.[23]

Though Serbia was defeated in 1915, and Romania joined the Allied Powers in 1916, only to be defeated in 1917, none of the great powers were knocked out of the war until 1918. The 1917 February Revolution in Russia replaced the Monarchy with the Provisional Government, but continuing discontent with the cost of the war led to the October Revolution, the creation of the Soviet Socialist Republic, and the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk by the new government in March 1918, ending Russia's involvement in the war. Germany now controlled much of eastern Europe and transferred large numbers of combat troops to the Western Front. Using new tactics, the German March 1918 Offensive was initially successful. The Allies fell back and held. The last of the German reserves were exhausted as 10,000 fresh American troops arrived every day. The Allies drove the Germans back in their Hundred Days Offensive, a continual series of attacks to which the Germans had no countermove.[24] One by one, the Central Powers quit: first Bulgaria (September 29), then the Ottoman Empire (October 31) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (November 3). With its allies defeated, revolution at home, and the military no longer willing to fight, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated on 9November and Germany signed an armistice on 11 November 1918, ending the war.

World War I was a significant turning point in the political, cultural, economic, and social climate of the world. The war and its immediate aftermath sparked numerous revolutions and uprisings. The Big Four (Britain, France, the United States, and Italy) imposed their terms on the defeated powers in a series of treaties agreed at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the most well known being the Treaty of Versailles with Germany.[25] Ultimately, as a result of the war, the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian Empires ceased to exist, and numerous new states were created from their remains. However, despite the conclusive Allied victory (and the creation of the League of Nations during the peace conference, intended to prevent future wars), a second world war followed just over twenty years later.


The term world war was first used in September 1914 by German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel, who claimed that "there is no doubt that the course and character of the feared 'European War' ... will become the first world war in the full sense of the word,"[26] citing a wire service report in The Indianapolis Star on 20 September 1914.

Prior to World War II, the events of 1914–1918 were generally known as the Great War or simply the World War.[27][28] In October 1914, the Canadian magazine Maclean's wrote, "Some wars name themselves. This is the Great War."[29] Contemporary Europeans also referred to it as "the war to end war" or "the war to end all wars" due to their perception of its then-unparalleled scale and devastation.[30] After World WarII began in 1939, the terms became more standard, with British Empire historians, including Canadians, favouring "The First World War" and Americans "World WarI".[31]


Political and military alliances

Map of Europe focusing on Austria-Hungary and marking the central location of ethnic groups in it including Slovaks, Czechs, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Ukrainians, Poles.
Rival military coalitions in 1914: Triple Entente in green; Triple Alliance in brown. Only the Triple Alliance was a formal "alliance"; the others listed were informal patterns of support.

For much of the 19th century, the major European powers had tried to maintain a tenuous balance of power among themselves, resulting in a complex network of political and military alliances.[32] The biggest challenges to this were Britain's withdrawal into so-called splendid isolation, the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the post-1848 rise of Prussia under Otto von Bismarck. Victory in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War established Prussian hegemony in Germany, while victory over France in the 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian War unified the German states into a German Reich under Prussian leadership. French desire for revenge over the defeat of 1871, known as revanchism, and the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine became a principal object of French policy for the next forty years (see French–German enmity).[33]

In 1873, to isolate France and avoid a war on two fronts, Bismarck negotiated the League of the Three Emperors (German: Dreikaiserbund) between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany. Concerned by Russia's victory in the 1877–1878 Russo-Turkish War and its influence in the Balkans, the League was dissolved in 1878, with Germany and Austria-Hungary subsequently forming the 1879 Dual Alliance; this became the Triple Alliance when Italy joined in 1882.[34][35]

The practical details of these alliances were limited since their primary purpose was to ensure cooperation between the three Imperial Powers and to isolate France. Attempts by Britain in 1880 to resolve colonial tensions with Russia and diplomatic moves by France led to Bismarck reforming the League in 1881.[36] When the League finally lapsed in 1887, it was replaced by the Reinsurance Treaty, a secret agreement between Germany and Russia to remain neutral if either were attacked by France or Austria-Hungary.

In 1890, the new German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, forced Bismarck to retire and was persuaded not to renew the Reinsurance Treaty by the new Chancellor, Leo von Caprivi.[37] This allowed France to counteract the Triple Alliance with the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 and the 1904 Entente Cordiale with Britain, while in 1907 Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Convention. The agreements did not constitute formal alliances, but by settling long-standing colonial disputes, they made British entry into any future conflict involving France or Russia a possibility. These interlocking bilateral agreements became known as the Triple Entente.[38] British backing of France against Germany during the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911 reinforced the Entente between the two countries (and with Russia as well) and increased Anglo-German estrangement, deepening the divisions that would erupt in 1914.[39]

Arms race

SMS Rheinland, a Nassau-class battleship, Germany's first response to the British Dreadnought

The creation of the German Reich following victory in the 1871 Franco-Prussian War led to a massive increase in Germany's economic and industrial strength. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz and Wilhelm II, who became Emperor in 1890, sought to use this to create a Kaiserliche Marine or Imperial German Navy to compete with Britain's Royal Navy for world naval supremacy.[40] In doing so, he was influenced by US naval strategist Alfred Mahan, who argued possession of a blue-water navy was vital for global power projection; Tirpitz translated his books into German, and Wilhelm made them required reading.[41] However, it was also driven by Wilhelm's admiration of the Royal Navy and desire to outdo it.[42]

This resulted in the Anglo-German naval arms race. Yet the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 gave the Royal Navy a technological advantage over its German rival, which they never lost.[40] Ultimately, the race diverted huge resources to creating a German navy large enough to antagonise Britain, but not defeat it. In 1911, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg acknowledged defeat, leading to the Rüstungswende or ‘armaments turning point', when Germany switched expenditure from the navy to the army.[43]

This was driven by Russia's recovery from the 1905 Revolution, specifically increased investment post-1908 in railways and infrastructure in its western border regions. Germany and Austria-Hungary relied on faster mobilisation to compensate for fewer numbers; it was concern at the closing of this gap that led to the end of the naval race, rather than a reduction in tension elsewhere. When Germany expanded its standing army by 170,000 men in 1913, France extended compulsory military service from two to three years; similar measures taken by the Balkan powers and Italy, which led to increased expenditure by the Ottomans and Austria-Hungary. Absolute figures are hard to calculate, due to differences in categorising expenditure, while they often omit civilian infrastructure projects with a military use, such as railways. However, from 1908 to 1913, defence spending by the six major European powers increased by over 50% in real terms.[44]

Conflicts in the Balkans

Photo of large white building with one signs saying "Moritz Schiller" and another in Arabic; in front is a cluster of people looking at poster on the wall.
Sarajevo citizens reading a poster with the proclamation of the Austrian annexation in 1908

In October 1908, Austria-Hungary precipitated the Bosnian crisis of 1908–1909 by officially annexing the former Ottoman territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which it had occupied since 1878. This angered the Kingdom of Serbia and its patron, the Pan-Slavic and Orthodox Russian Empire. The Balkans came to be known as the "powder keg of Europe".[45] The Italo-Turkish War in 1911–1912 was a significant precursor of World War I as it sparked nationalism in the Balkan states and paved the way for the Balkan Wars.[46]

In 1912 and 1913, the First Balkan War was fought between the Balkan League and the fracturing Ottoman Empire. The resulting Treaty of London further shrank the Ottoman Empire, creating an independent Albanian state while enlarging the territorial holdings of Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece. When Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece on 16 June 1913, it sparked the 33-day Second Balkan War, by the end of which it lost most of Macedonia to Serbia and Greece, and Southern Dobruja to Romania, further destabilising the region.[47] The Great Powers were able to keep these Balkan conflicts contained, but the next one would spread throughout Europe and beyond.


Sarajevo assassination

This picture is usually associated with the arrest of Gavrilo Princip, although some[48][49] believe it depicts Ferdinand Behr, a bystander.

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, visited the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. A group of six assassins (Cvjetko Popović, Gavrilo Princip, Muhamed Mehmedbašić, Nedeljko Čabrinović, Trifko Grabež, and Vaso Čubrilović) from the Yugoslavist group Mlada Bosna, who had been supplied with arms by the Serbian Black Hand, gathered on the street where the Archduke's motorcade was to pass, with the intention of assassinating him. The political objective of the assassination was to break off Austria-Hungary's South Slav provinces, which Austria-Hungary had annexed from the Ottoman Empire, so they could be combined into Yugoslavia.

Čabrinović threw a grenade at the car but missed. Some nearby were injured by the blast, but Ferdinand's convoy carried on. The other assassins failed to act as the cars drove past them.

About an hour later, when Ferdinand was returning from a visit at the Sarajevo Hospital with those wounded in the assassination attempt, the convoy took a wrong turn into a street where, by coincidence, Princip stood. With a pistol, Princip shot and killed Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Although they were reportedly not personally close, the Emperor Franz Joseph was profoundly shocked and upset. The reaction among the people in Austria, however, was mild, almost indifferent. As historian Zbyněk Zeman later wrote, "the event almost failed to make any impression whatsoever. On Sunday and Monday (28 and 29 June), the crowds in Vienna listened to music and drank wine, as if nothing had happened."[50][51] Nevertheless, the political effect of the murder of the heir to the throne was significant, and was described by historian Christopher Clark on the BBC Radio4 series Month of Madness as a "9/11 effect, a terrorist event charged with historic meaning, transforming the political chemistry in Vienna."[52]

Expansion of violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Crowds on the streets in the aftermath of the anti-Serb riots in Sarajevo, 29 June 1914

The Austro-Hungarian authorities encouraged the subsequent anti-Serb riots in Sarajevo, in which Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks killed two Bosnian Serbs and damaged numerous Serb-owned buildings.[53][54] Violent actions against ethnic Serbs were also organised outside Sarajevo, in other cities in Austro-Hungarian-controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia. Austro-Hungarian authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina imprisoned and extradited approximately 5,500 prominent Serbs, 700 to 2,200 of whom died in prison. A further 460 Serbs were sentenced to death. A predominantly Bosniak special militia known as the Schutzkorps was established and carried out the persecution of Serbs.[55][56][57][58]

July Crisis

The assassination led to a month of diplomatic manoeuvring between Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France and Britain, called the July Crisis. Austria-Hungary correctly believed that Serbian officials (especially the officers of the Black Hand) had been involved in the plot to murder the Archduke, and wanted to finally end Serbian interference in Bosnia.[59] However, the Austrian-Hungarian foreign ministry had no proof of Serbian involvement, and a dossier that it belatedly compiled to make its case against Serbia was riddled with errors.[60] On 23July, Austria-Hungary delivered to Serbia the July Ultimatum, a series of ten demands that were made intentionally unacceptable, in an effort to provoke a war with Serbia.[61] Serbia decreed general mobilisation on 25July. Serbia accepted all the terms of the ultimatum except for articles five and six, which demanded that Austrian-Hungarian representatives be allowed to assist in suppressing subversive elements inside Serbia's borders and to participate in the investigation and trial of Serbians linked to the assassination.[62][63] Following this, Austria broke off diplomatic relations with Serbia and, the next day, ordered a partial mobilisation. Finally, on 28 July 1914, a month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Ethno-linguistic map of Austria-Hungary, 1910. Bosnia-Herzegovina was annexed in 1908.

On 25July, Russia, in support of Serbia, declared partial mobilisation against Austria-Hungary.[64] On 30July, Russia ordered general mobilisation. German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg waited until the 31st for an appropriate response, when Germany declared Erklärung des Kriegszustandes, or "Statement on the war status".[19][65] Kaiser Wilhelm II asked his cousin, Tsar Nicolas II, to suspend the Russian general mobilisation. When he refused, Germany issued an ultimatum demanding its mobilisation be stopped, and a commitment not to support Serbia. Another was sent to France, asking her not to support Russia if it were to come to the defence of Serbia. On 1August, after the Russian response, Germany mobilised and declared war on Russia. This also led to the general mobilisation in Austria-Hungary on 4August.

The German government issued demands to France that it remain neutral whilst they decided which deployment plan to implement, it being extremely difficult to change the deployment once it was underway. The modified German Schlieffen Plan, Aufmarsch II West, would deploy 80% of the army in the west, while Aufmarsch I Ost and Aufmarsch II Ost would deploy 60% in the west and 40% in the east. The French did not respond but sent a mixed message by ordering their troops to withdraw 10 km (6 mi) from the border to avoid any incidents, and at the same time ordered the mobilisation of their reserves. Germany responded by mobilising its own reserves and implementing Aufmarsch II West. The British cabinet decided on 29 July that being a signatory to the 1839 treaty about Belgium did not oblige it to oppose a German invasion of Belgium with military force.[66]

On 1 August, Wilhelm ordered General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger to "march the whole of the... army to the East" after being informed that Britain would remain neutral if France was not attacked (and, possibly, that her hands might, in any case, be stayed by crisis in Ireland).[67][68] Moltke told the Kaiser that attempting to redeploy a million men was unthinkable, and that making it possible for the French to attack the Germans "in the rear" would prove disastrous. Yet Wilhelm insisted that the German army should not march into Luxembourg until he received a telegram sent by his cousin George V, who made it clear that there had been a misunderstanding. Eventually, the Kaiser told Moltke, "Now you can do what you want."[69][70]

Cheering crowds in London and Paris on the day war was declared.

For years, the French had been aware of intelligence indicating that Germany planned to attack France through Belgium. General Joseph Joffre, chief of staff of the French military from 1911, inquired about the possibility of moving some French troops into Belgium to pre-empt such a move by Germany, but France's civilian leadership rejected this idea. Joffre was told that France would not be the first power to violate Belgian neutrality and that any French move into Belgium could come only after the Germans had already invaded.[71] On 2 August, Germany occupied Luxembourg, and on 3August declared war on France; on the same day, they sent the Belgian government an ultimatum demanding unimpeded right of way through any part of Belgium, which was refused. Early on the morning of 4August, the Germans invaded; King Albert ordered his military to resist and called for assistance under the 1839 Treaty of London.[72][73][74] Britain demanded Germany comply with the Treaty and respect Belgian neutrality; the ultimatum expired on 4 August at midnight Berlin time, 11pm British time. No reply having been received by then, Britain was at war with Germany.[75]

Progress of the war

Opening hostilities

Confusion among the Central Powers

The strategy of the Central Powers suffered from miscommunication. Germany had promised to support Austria-Hungary's invasion of Serbia, but interpretations of what this meant differed. Previously tested deployment plans had been replaced early in 1914, but those had never been tested in exercises. Austro-Hungarian leaders believed Germany would cover its northern flank against Russia.[76] Germany, however, envisioned Austria-Hungary directing most of its troops against Russia, while Germany dealt with France. This confusion forced the Austro-Hungarian Army to divide its forces between the Russian and Serbian fronts.

Serbian campaign

Serbian Army Blériot XI "Oluj", 1915

Austria invaded and fought the Serbian army at the Battle of Cer and Battle of Kolubara beginning on 12 August. Over the next two weeks, Austrian attacks were thrown back with heavy losses, which marked the first major Allied victories of the war and dashed Austro-Hungarian hopes of a swift victory. As a result, Austria had to keep sizeable forces on the Serbian front, weakening its efforts against Russia.[77] Serbia's defeat of the Austro-Hungarian invasion of 1914 has been called one of the major upset victories of the twentieth century.[78] The campaign saw the first use of medical evacuation by the Serbian army in autumn of 1915 and anti-aircraft warfare in the spring of 1915 after an Austrian plane was shot down with ground-to-air fire.[79][80]

German Offensive in Belgium and France

German soldiers in a railway goods wagon on the way to the front in 1914. Early in the war, all sides expected the conflict to be a short one.
A French bayonet charge at the Battle of the Frontiers; by the end of August, French casualties exceeded 260,000, including 75,000 dead.

When the war began, the German Order of Battle placed 80% of the army in the West, with the remainder acting as a screening force in the East. The plan was to quickly knock France out of the war, then redeploy to the East and do the same to Russia.

The German offensive in the West was officially titled Aufmarsch II West, but is better known as the Schlieffen Plan, after its original creator. Schlieffen deliberately kept the German left (i.e. its positions in Alsace-Lorraine) weak to lure the French into attacking there, while the majority were allocated to the German right, so as to sweep through Belgium, encircle Paris and trap the French armies against the Swiss border (the French charged into Alsace-Lorraine on the outbreak of war as envisaged by their Plan XVII, thus actually aiding this strategy).[81] However, Schlieffen's successor Moltke grew concerned that the French might push too hard on his left flank. Consequently, as the German Army increased in size in the years leading up to the war, he changed the allocation of forces between the German right and left wings from 85:15 to 70:30. Ultimately, Moltke's changes meant insufficient forces to achieve decisive success and thus unrealistic goals and timings.[82][dubious (June 2017)

World War I had a lasting impact on social memory. It was seen by many in Britain as signalling the end of an era of stability stretching back to the Victorian period, and across Europe many regarded it as a watershed.[417] Historian Samuel Hynes explained:

A generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy. They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals. Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences, and saw that their real enemies were not the Germans, but the old men at home who had lied to them. They rejected the values of the society that had sent them to war, and in doing so separated their own generation from the past and from their cultural inheritance.[418]

This has become the most common perception of World War I, perpetuated by the art, cinema, poems, and stories published subsequently. Films such as All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory and King & Country have perpetuated the idea, while war-time films including Camrades, Poppies of Flanders, and Shoulder Arms indicate that the most contemporary views of the war were overall far more positive.[419] Likewise, the art of Paul Nash, John Nash, Christopher Nevinson, and Henry Tonks in Britain painted a negative view of the conflict in keeping with the growing perception, while popular war-time artists such as Muirhead Bone painted more serene and pleasant interpretations subsequently rejected as inaccurate.[418] Several historians like John Terraine, Niall Ferguson and Gary Sheffield have challenged these interpretations as partial and polemical views:

These beliefs did not become widely shared because they offered the only accurate interpretation of wartime events. In every respect, the war was much more complicated than they suggest. In recent years, historians have argued persuasively against almost every popular cliché of World WarI. It has been pointed out that, although the losses were devastating, their greatest impact was socially and geographically limited. The many emotions other than horror experienced by soldiers in and out of the front line, including comradeship, boredom, and even enjoyment, have been recognised. The war is not now seen as a 'fight about nothing', but as a war of ideals, a struggle between aggressive militarism and more or less liberal democracy. It has been acknowledged that British generals were often capable men facing difficult challenges and that it was under their command that the British army played a major part in the defeat of the Germans in 1918: a great forgotten victory.[419]

Though these views have been discounted as "myths",[418][420] they are common. They have dynamically changed according to contemporary influences, reflecting in the 1950s perceptions of the war as "aimless" following the contrasting Second World War and emphasising conflict within the ranks during times of class conflict in the 1960s. The majority of additions to the contrary are often rejected.[419]

Social trauma

A 1919 book for veterans, from the US War Department

The social trauma caused by unprecedented rates of casualties manifested itself in different ways, which have been the subject of subsequent historical debate.[421] Over 8 million Europeans died in the war. Millions suffered permanent disabilities. The war gave birth to fascism and Bolshevism and destroyed the dynasties that had ruled the Ottoman, Habsburg, Russian and German Empires.[408]

The optimism of la belle époque was destroyed, and those who had fought in the war were referred to as the Lost Generation.[422] For years afterwards, people mourned the dead, the missing, and the many disabled.[423] Many soldiers returned with severe trauma, suffering from shell shock (also called neurasthenia, a condition related to posttraumatic stress disorder).[424] Many more returned home with few after-effects; however, their silence about the war contributed to the conflict's growing mythological status. Though many participants did not share in the experiences of combat or spend any significant time at the front, or had positive memories of their service, the images of suffering and trauma became the widely shared perception. Such historians as Dan Todman, Paul Fussell, and Samuel Heyns have all published works since the 1990s arguing that these common perceptions of the war are factually incorrect.[421]

Discontent in Germany and Austria

The rise of Nazism and fascism included a revival of the nationalist spirit and a rejection of many post-war changes. Similarly, the popularity of the stab-in-the-back legend (German: Dolchstoßlegende) was a testament to the psychological state of defeated Germany and was a rejection of responsibility for the conflict. This conspiracy theory of betrayal became common, and the German populace came to see themselves as victims. The widespread acceptance of the "stab-in-the-back" theory delegitimised the Weimar government and destabilised the system, opening it to extremes of right and left. The same occurred in Austria which counterfactually considered himself not being responsible for the outbreak of the war and claimed not to have suffered a military defeat.[425]

Communist and fascist movements around Europe drew strength from this theory and enjoyed a new level of popularity. These feelings were most pronounced in areas directly or harshly affected by the war. Adolf Hitler was able to gain popularity by using German discontent with the still controversial Treaty of Versailles.[426] World WarII was in part a continuation of the power struggle never fully resolved by World WarI. Furthermore, it was common for Germans in the 1930s to justify acts of aggression due to perceived injustices imposed by the victors of World WarI.[236][427][428] American historian William Rubinstein wrote that:

The 'Age of Totalitarianism' included nearly all the infamous examples of genocide in modern history, headed by the Jewish Holocaust, but also comprising the mass murders and purges of the Communist world, other mass killings carried out by Nazi Germany and its allies, and also the Armenian Genocide of 1915. All these slaughters, it is argued here, had a common origin, the collapse of the elite structure and normal modes of government of much of central, eastern and southern Europe as a result of World WarI, without which surely neither Communism nor Fascism would have existed except in the minds of unknown agitators and crackpots.[429]

Economic effects

Poster showing women workers, 1915

One of the most dramatic effects of the war was the expansion of governmental powers and responsibilities in Britain, France, the United States, and the Dominions of the British Empire. To harness all the power of their societies, governments created new ministries and powers. New taxes were levied and laws enacted, all designed to bolster the war effort; many have lasted to the present. Similarly, the war strained the abilities of some formerly large and bureaucratised governments, such as in Austria-Hungary and Germany.

Gross domestic product (GDP) increased for three Allies (Britain, Italy, and the United States), but decreased in France and Russia, in neutral Netherlands, and in the three main Central Powers. The shrinkage in GDP in Austria, Russia, France, and the Ottoman Empire ranged between 30% and 40%. In Austria, for example, most pigs were slaughtered, so at war's end there was no meat.

In all nations, the government's share of GDP increased, surpassing 50% in both Germany and France and nearly reaching that level in Britain. To pay for purchases in the United States, Britain cashed in its extensive investments in American railroads and then began borrowing heavily from Wall Street. President Wilson was on the verge of cutting off the loans in late 1916 but allowed a great increase in US government lending to the Allies. After 1919, the US demanded repayment of these loans. The repayments were, in part, funded by German reparations that, in turn, were supported by American loans to Germany. This circular system collapsed in 1931 and some loans were never repaid. Britain still owed the United States $4.4 billion[k] of World WarI debt in 1934, the last instalment was finally paid in 2015.[430]

Macro- and micro-economic consequences devolved from the war. Families were altered by the departure of many men. With the death or absence of the primary wage earner, women were forced into the workforce in unprecedented numbers. At the same time, industry needed to replace the lost labourers sent to war. This aided the struggle for voting rights for women.[431]

World War I further compounded the gender imbalance, adding to the phenomenon of surplus women. The deaths of nearly one million men during the war in Britain increased the gender gap by almost a million: from 670,000 to 1,700,000. The number of unmarried women seeking economic means grew dramatically. In addition, demobilisation and economic decline following the war caused high unemployment. The war increased female employment; however, the return of demobilised men displaced many from the workforce, as did the closure of many of the wartime factories.

In Britain, rationing was finally imposed in early 1918, limited to meat, sugar, and fats (butter and margarine), but not bread. The new system worked smoothly. From 1914 to 1918, trade union membership doubled, from a little over four million to a little over eight million.

Britain turned to her colonies for help in obtaining essential war materials whose supply from traditional sources had become difficult. Geologists such as Albert Ernest Kitson were called on to find new resources of precious minerals in the African colonies. Kitson discovered important new deposits of manganese, used in munitions production, in the Gold Coast.[432]

Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles (the so-called "war guilt" clause) stated Germany accepted responsibility for "all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies."[433] It was worded as such to lay a legal basis for reparations, and a similar clause was inserted in the treaties with Austria and Hungary. However, neither of them interpreted it as an admission of war guilt."[434] In 1921, the total reparation sum was placed at 132 billion gold marks. However, "Allied experts knew that Germany could not pay" this sum. The total sum was divided into three categories, with the third being "deliberately designed to be chimerical" and its "primary function was to mislead public opinion ... into believing the "total sum was being maintained."[435] Thus, 50 billion gold marks (12.5 billion dollars) "represented the actual Allied assessment of German capacity to pay" and "therefore ... represented the total German reparations" figure that had to be paid.[435]

This figure could be paid in cash or in-kind (coal, timber, chemical dyes, etc.). In addition, some of the territory lost—via the treaty of Versailles—was credited towards the reparation figure as were other acts such as helping to restore the Library of Louvain.[436] By 1929, the Great Depression arrived, causing political chaos throughout the world.[437] In 1932 the payment of reparations was suspended by the international community, by which point Germany had paid only the equivalent of 20.598 billion gold marks in reparations.[438] With the rise of Adolf Hitler, all bonds and loans that had been issued and taken out during the 1920s and early 1930s were cancelled. David Andelman notes "refusing to pay doesn't make an agreement null and void. The bonds, the agreement, still exist." Thus, following the Second World War, at the London Conference in 1953, Germany agreed to resume payment on the money borrowed. On 3October 2010, Germany made the final payment on these bonds.[l]

The war contributed to the evolution of the wristwatch from women's jewellery to a practical everyday item, replacing the pocketwatch, which requires a free hand to operate.[443] Military funding of advancements in radio contributed to the post-war popularity of the medium.[443]

See also


  1. ^ Russian Republic during 1917. The Bolshevik government signed the separate peace with the Central Powers shortly after their armed seizure of power of November that year.
  2. ^ The United States did not ratify any of the treaties agreed to at the Paris Peace Conference.
  3. ^ Bulgaria joined the Central Powers on 14 October 1915.
  4. ^ The Ottoman Empire agreed to a secret alliance with Germany on 2 August 1914. It joined the war on the side of the Central Powers on 29 October 1914.
  5. ^ The United States declared war on Austria-Hungary on 7December 1917.
  6. ^ Austria was considered one of the successor states to Austria-Hungary.
  7. ^ The United States declared war on Germany on 6April 1917.
  8. ^ Hungary was considered one of the successor states to Austria-Hungary.
  9. ^ Although the Treaty of Sèvres was intended to end the war between the Allied Powers and the Ottoman Empire, the Allied Powers and the Republic of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, agreed to the Treaty of Lausanne.
  10. ^ A German attempt to use chemical weapons on the Russian front in January 1915 failed to cause casualties.
  11. ^ 109 in this context – see Long and short scales
  12. ^ World War I officially ended when Germany paid off the final amount of reparations imposed on it by the Allies.[439][440][441][442]


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