World War I

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"Great War" redirects here. For other uses, see Great War (disambiguation).
World War I was primarily a European conflict with many facets: immense human sacrifice, stalemate trench warfare, and the use of new, devastating weapons - tanks, aircraft, machine guns, and poison gas
World War I was primarily a European conflict with many facets: immense human sacrifice, stalemate trench warfare, and the use of new, devastating weapons - tanks, aircraft, machine guns, and poison gas

World War I, also known as the First World War, the Great War, the War of the Nations and the War to End All Wars, was a world conflict lasting from 1914 to 1919, with the fighting lasting until 1918. The war was fought by the Allies on one side, and the Central Powers on the other. No previous conflict had mobilized so many soldiers or involved so many in the field of battle. By its end, the war had become the second bloodiest conflict in recorded history (behind the Taiping Rebellion), though it was surpassed within a generation by World War II.

World War I became infamous for trench warfare, where troops were confined to trenches because of tight defenses. This was especially true of the Western Front. Over 9 million died on the battlefield, and nearly that many more on the home front due to food shortages, genocide, and ground combat. Among other notable events, the first large-scale bombing from the air was undertaken and some of the century's first large-scale civilian massacres took place.

The causes of World War I were complex developments by themselves (see causes below).

World War I proved to be the decisive break with the old world order, marking the final demise of absolutist monarchy in Europe. Four empires were shattered: The German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman, and the Russian. Their four dynasties, the Hohenzollerns, the Habsburgs, the Ottomans, and the Romanovs, who had roots of power back to the days of the Crusades, all fell during or after the war.

The post-war failure to deal effectively with many of the causes and results of the War would lead to the rise of Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany and the outbreak of World War II within a generation. The War was the catalyst for the Bolshevik Russian Revolution, which would inspire later Communist revolutions in countries as diverse as China and Cuba, and would lay the basis for the Cold War standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the east, the demise of the Ottoman Empire laid the basis for a modern democratic successor state, Turkey. In Central Europe, new states Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were born and Poland was re-created.

Activity by the French and British Empire forces in the eastern part of the former Ottoman Empire would give rise to several modern conflicts, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Greco-Turkish conflict over Cyprus, the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s, and the Gulf War of the 1990s by Iraq. The Greco-Turkish conflict, which ended in 1924, was the last direct major conflict of the war.

World War I Summary
Date: 19141919
Locations: Europe, Africa, Pacific, Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Middle East
Outcome: Entente victory
Deaths (approx.)
Military: 8.6 million
Civilian: 6.5 million
Total: 15.1 million
Details: WWI Casualties
Main participants
Entente Forces Central Powers



Gavrilo Princip - the igniting torch of World War I
Gavrilo Princip - the igniting torch of World War I
See also: Causes of World War I and Participants in World War I

On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb student. He was part of a group of fifteen assassins, acting with support from the Black Hand, a secret society founded by pan-Serbian nationalists, with links to the Serbian military. The assassination sparked little initial concern in Europe. The Archduke himself was not popular, least of all in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While there were riots in Sarajevo following the Archduke's death these were largely aimed at the Serbian minority. Though this assassination has been linked as the direct trigger for World War I, the war's real origins lie further back, in the complex web of alliances and counterbalances that developed between the various European powers after the defeat of France and formation of the German state under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck in 1871.

Reasons & Responsibilities

The reasons for the outbreak of World War I are a complicated issue; there are many factors which intertwine. Some examples are:

  • Fervent and uncompromising nationalism
  • Unresolved previous disputes
  • The intricate system of alliances
  • Convoluted and fragmented governance
  • Delays and misunderstandings in diplomatic communications
  • The arms races of the previous decades.
  • Rigidity in military planning
  • See also: Causes of World War I

There are many different hypotheses that try to explain who, or what, is to blame for the outbreak of the First World War. Early explanations, prominent in the 1920s and 1930s, stressed the official version of responsibility as enumerated in the Treaty of Versailles and Treaty of Trianon, that Germany and its allies were solely responsible for the war. However, as time progressed, scholars began looking toward the rigidity of both German and Russian military planning, each of which stressed the importance of striking first and executing plans quickly.

Another cause of the war was the building of alliances and arms races. Nations in the Triple Entente became fearful of the Triple Alliance and vice-versa. Germany would lead by advancing military technology, and Britain, as a sea faring nation, would follow suit with stronger ships. The civilian leaders of the European powers also found themselves facing a wave of nationalist zeal that had been building across Europe for years. This left governments with ever fewer options and little room to manoeuvre as the last weeks of July 1914 slipped away. Frantic diplomatic efforts to mediate the Austrian-Serbian quarrel simply became irrelevant, as the automatic military escalations between Germany and Russia reinforced one another.

Furthermore, the problem of communications in 1914 should not be underestimated; all nations still used telegraphy and ambassadors as the main form of communication, resulting in delays from hours to even days. There is probably no single concise or conclusive assessment of the exact cause of the First World War.

Outbreak of war

This map of Europe shows the layout of the two alliances: Central Powers are shown in red and Entente Powers are shown in green
This map of Europe shows the layout of the two alliances: Central Powers are shown in red and Entente Powers are shown in green

Austria–Hungary was created in the "Ausgleich of 1867" after Austria was defeated by Prussia. As agreed in 1867, the Habsburgs would be Emperors of Austria Empire. With the formation of the Dual Monarchy, Franz Josef became leader of a nation with sixteen ethnic groups and five major religions speaking no fewer than nine languages.

In large measure because of the vast disparities that existed within the Empire, Austrians and Hungarians always viewed growing Slavic nationalism with deep suspicion and concern. Thus the Austro-Hungarian government grew worried with the near-doubling in size of neighbouring Serbia's territory as a result of the Balkan Wars of 19121913. Serbia, for its part, made no qualms about the fact that it viewed all of Southern Austria–Hungary as part of a future Great South Slavic Union. This view had also garnered considerable support in Russia. Many in the Austrian leadership, not least Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph, and Conrad von Hötzendorf, worried that Serbian nationalist agitation in the southern provinces of the Empire would lead to further unrest among the Austro-Hungarian Empire's other disparate ethnic groups. The Austro-Hungarian government worried that a nationalist Russia would back Serbia to annex Slavic areas of Austria–Hungary. The feeling was that it was better to destroy Serbia before they were given the opportunity to launch a campaign.

After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and nearly a month of debate, the government of Austria–Hungary sent a 10-point ultimatum to Serbia (July 23, 1914) — the so called July Ultimatum — to be unconditionally accepted within 48 hours. The ultimatum was the first of a series of diplomatic events known as the July Crisis which set off a chain reaction and a general war in Europe.

The Serbian government agreed to all but one of the demands in the ultimatum, noting that participation in its judicial proceedings by a foreign power would violate its constitution. Austria–Hungary nonetheless broke off diplomatic relations (July 25) and declared war (July 28) through a telegram sent to the Serbian government.

The Russian government, which had pledged in 1909 to uphold Serbian independence in return for Serbia's acceptance of the Bosnia annexation, mobilised its military reserves on 30 July following a breakdown in crucial telegram communications between Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II (the famous "Willy and Nicky" correspondence), who was under pressure by his military staff to prepare for war. Germany demanded (31 July) that Russia stand down its forces, but the Russian government persisted, as demobilization would have made it impossible to re-activate its military schedule in the short term. Germany declared war against Russia on August 1 and, two days later, against the latter's ally France.

The outbreak of the conflict is often attributed to the alliances established over the previous decades — Germany-Austria-Italy vs France-Russia; Britain and Serbia being aligned with the latter. In fact, none of the alliances were activated in the initial outbreak, though Russian general mobilization and Germany's declaration of war against France were motivated by fear of the opposing alliance being brought into play.

Britain declared war against Germany on August 4. This was ostensibly provoked by Germany's invasion of Belgium on August 4, 1914, whose independence Britain had guaranteed to uphold in the Treaty of London of 1839, and which stood astride the planned German route for invasion of Russia's ally France. Unofficially, it was already generally accepted in government that Britain could not remain neutral, since without the co-operation of France and Russia its colonies in Africa and India would be under threat, while German occupation of the French Atlantic ports would be an even larger threat to British trade as a whole.

The spread of war


Opening battles

Haut-Rhin, France 1917. A complete set of these images can be found at World War One Color Photos
Haut-Rhin, France 1917. A complete set of these images can be found at World War One Color Photos

Some of the very first actions of the war occurred far from Europe, in Africa and in the Pacific Ocean. On August 8 1914 a combined French and British Empire force invaded the German protectorate of Togoland. On August 10 German forces based in South-West Africa attacked South Africa. New Zealand occupied German Samoa (30 August 1914) and on September 11 the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force landed on the island of Neu-Pommern, which formed part of German New Guinea. Within a few months the Entente forces had accepted the surrender of or driven out German forces in the Pacific. But sporadic and fierce fighting continued in Africa for the remainder of the war.

In Europe, Germany and Austria-Hungary suffered from miscommunication regarding each army's intentions. Germany had originally guaranteed to support Austria-Hungary's invasion of Serbia, but the interpretations of this idea differed. Austro-Hungarian leaders thought that Germany would cover their northern flank against Russia, but Germany had planned for Austria-Hungary to focus the majority of its troops on Russia while Germany dealt with France on the Western Front. This confusion forced the Austro-Hungarian army to split its troop concentrations from the south in order to meet the Russians in the north. The Serb army, coming up from the south of the country, met the Austrian army at the Battle of Cer on 12 August 1914.

The Serbians occupied defensive positions against the Austrians. The first attack came on August 16th, between parts of the 21st Austro–Hungarian division and parts of the Serbian Combined division. In harsh night-time fighting the battle ebbed and flowed, until Stepa Stepanovic rallied the Serbian line. Three days later the Austrians retreated across the Danube, having suffered 21,000 casualties as against 16,000 Serbian casualties. This marked the first major Allied victory of the war. The Austrians had not achieved their main goal of eliminating Serbia, and it became increasingly likely that Germany would have to maintain forces on two fronts.

Germany's plan (named the Schlieffen plan) to deal with the Franco-Russian alliance involved delivering a knock-out blow to the French and then turning to deal with the more slowly mobilized Russian army. Rather than invading eastern France directly, German planners deemed it prudent to attack France from the north. To do so, the German army had to march through Belgium. Germany demanded free passage from the Belgian government, promising to treat Belgium as Germany's firm ally if the Belgians agreed. When Belgium refused, Germany invaded and began marching through Belgium anyway, after first invading and securing Luxembourg. It soon encountered resistance before the forts of the Belgian city of Liège, although the army as a whole continued to make rapid progress into France. Britain sent an army to France (the British Expeditionary Force, or BEF), which advanced into Belgium. Initially the Germans had great successes in the Battle of the Frontiers (14–24 August 1914).

However, the delays brought about by the resistance of the Belgian, French and British forces and the unexpectedly rapid mobilization of the Russians upset the German plans. Russia attacked in East Prussia, diverting German forces intended for the Western Front. Germany defeated Russia in a series of battles collectively known as the (second) Battle of Tannenberg (17 August2 September), but this diversion allowed French and British forces to finally halt the German advance on Paris at the First Battle of the Marne (September 1914) as the Entente forced the Central Powers into fighting a war on two fronts. However, the German army had fought its way into a good defensive position inside France and had permanently incapacitated 230,000 more French and British troops than it had lost itself in the months of August and September.

Early stages: from romanticism to the trenches

In the trenches: Infantry with gasmasks, Ypres, 1917
In the trenches: Infantry with gasmasks, Ypres, 1917

The perception of war in 1914 was romanticized by many people, and its declaration was met with great enthusiasm by these people. The common view was that it would be a short war of manoeuvre with a few sharp actions (to "teach the enemy a lesson") and would end with a victorious entry into the capital (the enemy capital, naturally) then home for a victory parade or two and back to "normal" life. However, many people regarded the coming war with great pessimism and worry. Many military commanders on both sides, like Lord Kitchener, predicted the war would be a long one. Other political leaders, such as Bethmann Hollweg in Germany, were concerned by the potential social consequences of a war. International bond and financial markets entered severe crises in late July and early August reflecting worry about the financial consequences of war.

The perceived excitement of war captured the imagination of many in the warring nations. Spurred on by propaganda and nationalist fervor, many eagerly joined the ranks in search of adventure. Few were prepared for what they actually encountered at the front.

See also: Recruitment to the British Army during WW I

Trench warfare begins

See main article: Western Front (World War I)

After their initial success on the Marne, Entente and German forces began a series of outflanking manoeuvres to try to force the other to retreat, in the so-called Race to the Sea. Britain and France soon found themselves facing entrenched German positions from Lorraine to Belgium's Flemish coast. The British and French sought to take the offensive while Germany sought to defend the territories it had occupied. One consequence of this was that the German trenches were much better constructed than those of their enemy: the Anglo-French trenches were only intended to be 'temporary' before their forces broke through the German defences. In April 1915,the Germans used mustard gas for the first time,opening a 4 mile wide hole in the Allied lines when French colonial troops retreated from it. This breach was closed by Canadian soldiers. Neither side proved able to deliver a decisive blow for the next four years, though protracted German action at Verdun throughout (1916), and the Entente's failure at the Somme in the summer of 1916 brought the French army to the brink of collapse. Futile attempts at more frontal assaults, at terrible cost to the French poilu infantry, led to mutinies which threatened the integrity of the front line in 1917 after the Nivelle Offensive in the spring of 1917. Throughout 1915-17 the British Empire and French armies suffered many more casualties than the German one, but both sides lost millions of soldiers to injury and disease.

Around 800,000 soldiers from the British Empire were on the Western Front at any one time, 1,000 battalions each occupying a sector of the line from Belgium to the Arne and operating a month-long four stage system, unless an offensive was underway. The front contained over 6,000 miles of trenches. Each battalion held its sector for around a week before moving back to support lines and then the reserve lines before a week out-of-line, often in the Poperinge or Amiens areas.

Southern theatres

Entry of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in OctoberNovember 1914, due to the secret Turco-German Alliance signed on August 2, 1914, threatening Russia's Caucasian territories and Britain's communications with India and the East via the Suez canal. British Empire action opened another front in the South with the Gallipoli (1915) and Mesopotamian campaigns, though initially the Turks were successful in repelling enemy incursion. But in Mesopotamia, after the disastrous Siege of Kut (1915–16), British Empire forces reorganized and captured Baghdad in March 1917. Further to the west in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, initial British failures were overcome with Jerusalem being captured in December 1917 and the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under Edmund Allenby going on to break the Ottoman forces at the Battle of Megiddo (September 1918).

Russian armies generally had the best of it in the Caucasus. Enver Pasha, supreme commander of the Turkish armed forces, was a very ambitious man, with a dream to conquer central Asia. He was not a practical soldier. He launched an offensive with 100,000 troops against the Russians in the Caucasus in December of 1914. Insisting on a frontal attack against Russian positions in the mountains in the heart of winter, Enver lost 86% of his force. A new Russian commander on the front in the fall of 1915, Grand Duke Nicholas, brought new vigour. A major offensive in 1916 drove the Turks out of much of present-day Armenia, and tragically provided a context for the deportation and against the Armenian population in eastern Armenia. With control of part of the southern Black Sea coast, Nicholas pushed forward the construction of railway lines to bring up supplies. He was ready for an offensive in the spring of 1917. If it had gone ahead, there was a very good chance that Turkey would have been knocked out of the war in the summer of 1917. But, because of the Russian Revolution, Grand Duke Nicholas was recalled and the Russian armies soon fell apart.

Italian participation

See main article: Italian Campaign (WWI)

Italy had been allied to the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires since 1882, but had its own designs against Austrian territory in the Trentino, Istria and Dalmatia, and a secret 1902 understanding with France effectively nullifying its alliance commitments. Italy refused to join Germany and Austria-Hungary at the beginning of the war, because the alliance was defensive, while Austria declared war on Serbia. The Austrian govenment started negotiations to obtain Italian neutrality in exchange for French territories (Tunisia), but Italy joined the Entente by signing the London Pact in April and declaring war on Austria-Hungary in May 1915; it declared war against Germany fifteen months later.

In general, the Italians enjoyed numerical superiority, but were poorly equipped; instead, the Austro-Hungarian defence took advantage of the elevation of their bases in the mostly mountainous terrain, which was anything but suitable for military offensives. For the most part the Front in Ice and Snow remained unchanged during the war, while Austrian Kaiserschützen and Standschützen and Italian Alpini fought bitter close combat battles during summer and tried to survive during winter in the high mountains.

Beginning in 1915, the Italians mounted 17 major offensives on the Isonzo front (the part of the border which was closest to Trieste), but all were repelled by the Austro-Hungarians, who had the higher ground. The Austro-Hungarians counter-attacked from the Altopiano of Asiago towards Verona and Padua in the spring of 1916 (Strafexpedition), but they also made little progress. In the summer, the Italians took back the initiative, capturing the town of Gorizia. After this minor victory, the front remained practically stable for over one year, despite several Italian offensives, again all on the Isonzo front. In the fall of 1917, thanks to the improving situation on the Eastern front, the Austrians received large reinforcements, including German assault troops. On October 26, they launched a crushing offensive that resulted in the victory of Kobarid (Battle of Caporetto): the Italian army was routed, but after retreating more than 100 km, it was able to reorganize and hold ground at the Battle of the Piave River. In 1918 the Austrians repeatedly failed to break this Italian line, and, decisively defeated in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, surrendered to the Entente powers in November.

Throughout the war Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf had a deep hatred for the Italians because he had always perceived them to be the greatest threat to his state. Their betrayal in 1915 enraged him even further. His hatred for Italy blinded him in many ways, and he made many foolish tactical and strategic errors during the campaigns in Italy.

Fall of Serbia

After repelling three Austrian invasions in August-December 1914, Serbia fell to combined German, Austrian and Bulgarian invasion in October 1915. Serbian troops continued to hold out in Albania and Greece, where a Franco-British force had landed to offer assistance and to pressure the Greek government into war against the Central Powers.

The Eastern Front

Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war, Russia, 1915
Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war, Russia, 1915
Main article: Eastern Front (World War I)

While the Western Front had reached stalemate in the trenches, the war continued in the east. The Russian initial plans for war had called for simultaneous invasions of Austrian Galicia and German East Prussia. Although Russia's initial advance into Galicia was largely successful, they were driven back from East Prussia by the victories of the German generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in August and September 1914. Russia's less-developed economic and military organization soon proved unequal to the combined might of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. In the spring of 1915 the Russians were driven back in Galicia, and in May the Central Powers achieved a remarkable breakthrough on Poland's southern fringes, capturing Warsaw on August 5 and forcing the Russians to withdraw from all of Poland, known as the "Great Retreat".

The Russian Revolution

Dissatisfaction with the Russian government's conduct of the war grew despite the success of the June 1916 Brusilov offensive in eastern Galicia against the Austrians, when Russian success was undermined by the reluctance of other generals to commit their forces in support of the victorious sector commander. Allied fortunes revived only temporarily with Romania's entry into the war on August 27: German forces came to the aid of embattled Austrian units in Transylvania, and Bucharest fell to the Central Powers on December 6. Meanwhile, internal unrest grew in Russia, as the Tsar remained out of touch at the front, while Empress Alexandra's increasingly incompetent rule drew protests from all segments of Russian political life, resulting in the murder of Alexandra's favourite Rasputin by conservative noblemen at the end of 1916.


In March 1917, demonstrations in St. Petersburg culminated in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the appointment of a weak centrist Provisional Government, which shared power with the socialists of the Petrograd Soviet. This division of power led to confusion and chaos, both on the front and at home, and the army became progressively less able to effectively resist Germany. Meanwhile, the war, and the government, became more and more unpopular, and the discontent was used strategically by the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin, in order to gain power.

The triumph of the Bolsheviks in November was followed in December by an armistice and negotiations with Germany. At first, the Bolsheviks refused to agree to the harsh German terms, but when Germany resumed the war and marched with impunity across Ukraine, the new government acceded to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, which took Russia out of the war and ceded vast territories including Finland, the Baltic provinces, Poland and Ukraine to the Central Powers.

After the Russians initially dropped out of the war, Entente led a small-scale invasion of Russia. The invasion was made with intent to punish the Russians for dropping out of World War I and to support the Tsarists in the Russian Revolution. Troops landed in Archangel and in another city on the Pacific coast of Russia. The Entente forces were initially told they were invading to defend supplies from German troops. In reality, they were defending them from communist Russians. A memorial commemorating the event is located in White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Michigan. The force also included a number of Canadians who were based in Vladivostok. The Canadian force contained an artillery unit, but they saw minimal combat.

The Last Half

Events of 1917 would prove decisive in ending the war, although their effects would not fully be felt until 1918. The Entente's naval blockade of Germany began to have serious impact on morale and productivity on the German home-front. In response, in February 1917, the German General Staff (OHL) were able to convince Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to declare unrestricted submarine warfare, with the goal of starving Britain out of the war. Tonnage sunk rose above 500,000 tonnes per month from February until July, peaking at 860,000 tonnes in April. After July, the newly introduced convoy system was extremely effective in neutralizing the U-boat threat. Britain was safe from the threat of starvation.

The decisive victory of Germany at the Battle of Caporetto led to the Entente decision at the Rapallo Conference to form the Supreme Allied Council at Versailles to co-ordinate plans and action. Previously British Empire and French armies had operated under separate command systems.

In December, the Central Powers signed an Armistice with Russia, thereby releasing troops from the eastern front for use in the west. Ironically, German troop transfers could have been greater if their territorial acquisitions had not been so dramatic. With both German reinforcements and new American troops pouring into the Western Front, the final outcome of the war was to be decided in that front. The Central Powers knew that they could not win a protracted war now that American forces were certain to be arriving in increasing numbers, but held high hopes for a rapid offensive in the West, using their reinforced troops and new infantry tactics. Furthermore, rulers of both the Central Powers and the Entente became more fearful of the threat first raised by Ivan Bloch in 1899, that protracted industrialized war threatened social collapse and revolution throughout Europe. Both sides urgently sought a decisive, rapid victory on the Western Front as they were both fearful of collapse or stalemate.

Entry of the United States

President Wilson before Congress, announcing the break in the official relations with Germany, 3 February 1917
President Wilson before Congress, announcing the break in the official relations with Germany, 3 February 1917

A long stretch of American isolationism left the United States reluctant to involve itself with what was popularly conceived as a European dispute.

Early in 1917 Germany resumed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. This, combined with public indignation over the Zimmermann telegram, led to a final break of relations with the Central Powers. President Woodrow Wilson requested that the U.S. Congress declare war on Germany, which it did on April 6, 1917 (see: Woodrow Wilson declares war on Germany on Wikisource). The Senate approved the war resolution 82-6, the House with 373-50. Wilson hoped a separate peace could be achieved with Austria-Hungary, however when it kept its loyalty to Germany, the US declared war on Austria-Hungary in December 1917.

Although the American contribution to the war was important, particularly in terms of the threat posed by increased US presence in Europe, the United States was never formally a member of the Entente, but an "Associated Power". Significant numbers of American troops only arrived in Europe in the summer of 1918.

The United States Army and the National Guard had mobilized in 1916 to pursue the Mexican "bandit" Pancho Villa, which helped speed up the mobilization. The United States Navy was able to send a battleship group to Scapa Flow to join with the British Grand Fleet, a number of destroyers to Queenstown, Ireland and several divisions of submarines to the Azores and Bantry Bay, Ireland to help guard convoys. However, it would be some time before the United States forces would be able to contribute significant manpower to the Western and Italian fronts.

The British and French insisted that the United States emphasize sending infantry to reinforce the line. Throughout the war, the American forces were short of their own artillery, aviation, and engineering units. However, General John J. Pershing, American Expeditionary Force commander, resisted breaking up American units and using them as reinforcements for British Empire and French units, as suggested by the Allies. Pershing also maintained the use of frontal assaults, which had been discarded by that time by British Empire and French commanders. As a result the American Expeditionary Force suffered a very high rate of casualties in its operations in the summer and fall of 1918.

German Spring Offensive of 1918

Ludendorff made plans for a 1918 general offensive along the Western Front. The Spring Offensive sought to divide the British Empire and French armies in a series of feints and advances. The German leadership hoped to strike a decisive blow before the United States forces could be deployed. Before the offensives even began, Ludendorff may have made the mistake of leaving the elite eighth army in Russia and sending over only a small portion of the forces from the east to aid the offensive in the west.

Operation Michael opened on 21 March 1918 with an attack against British Empire forces, towards the rail junction at Amiens. It was Ludendorff's intention to split the British Empire and French armies at this point. German forces achieved an unprecedented advance of 60 km. For the first time since 1914, manoeuvre had returned to the battlefield.

British and French trenches were defeated using novel infiltration tactics. To this time, attacks had been characterized by long artillery bombardments and continuous-front mass assaults. However, in the Spring Offensive the German Army used artillery briefly and infiltrated small groups of infantry at weak points, attacking command and logistics areas and surrounding points of serious resistance. These isolated positions were then destroyed by more heavily armed infantry. German success relied greatly on this tactic.

The frontline had now moved to within 120 kilometres of Paris. Three super-heavy Krupp railway guns advanced to fire 183 shells on Paris, causing many Parisians to flee the city. The initial stages of the offensive were so successful that Wilhelm II declared March 24 a national holiday. Many Germans thought victory to be close. However, after heavy fighting the German offensive was halted. German casualties between March and April 1918 were 270,000.

United States divisions, which Pershing sought to field as an independent force, were assigned to depleted French and British Empire commands on 28 March. A supreme command of Entente forces was created at the Doullers conference in which British Field Marshal Douglas Haig handed control of his forces over to Ferdinand Foch.

Following Operation Michael, Germany launched Operation Georgette to the north against the Channel ports. This was halted with less significant territorial gains. Operations Blucher and Yorck were then conducted by the German Army to the south, broadly towards Paris. Operation Marne was then launched on 15 July as an attempt to encircle Reims, beginning the Second Battle of the Marne. The resulting Entente counter attack marked the first successful Entente's offensive of the war. By July 20, 1918, the Germans were at their Kaiserschlacht starting lines. Following the last phase, the German Army never again held the initiative.

Meanwhile, Germany was crumbling internally as well. Anti-war marches were a frequent occurrence and morale within the army was at low levels. Industrial output had fallen 53% from 1913.

Entente's victory

On August 8, 1918, the predicted counter-offensive occurred (See Battle of Amiens) with the British Fourth Army III Corps on the left flank, the French First Army on the right, and the Canadian and Australian Corps spearheading the offensive in the centre. It involved 414 tanks of the Mark IV and Mark V type, and 120,000 men. The Entente forces had advanced as far as twelve kilometres into German held territory in just seven hours. Erich Ludendorff referred to this day as "the Black Day of the German army".

Throughout World War I, Entente forces were stalled at trenches on the Western Front
Throughout World War I, Entente forces were stalled at trenches on the Western Front

However, after a few days the offensive had slowed down— British Empire units had encountered problems with all but seven of their 414 tanks. On 15 August 1918, Haig called an end to the offensive and began to plan for an offensive in Albert. That offensive came on August 21. Some 130,000 United States troops were involved, along with soldiers from British Third and Fourth Armies. The offensive was an overwhelming success. The German Second Army had been pushed back over a 55 kilometre front. The town of Bapaume was captured on August 29 and by September 2, the Germans had been forced back to the Hindenburg Line.

The attempt to take the Hindenburg Line occurred on September 26 (known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive): 260,000 American soldiers went "over the top" towards the Hindenburg Line. All divisions were successful in capturing their initial objectives, except the 79th division of the AEF. They met stiff resistance at Montfaucon and were unable to progress. This failure allowed the Germans to recover and regroup. Montfaucon was captured on 27 September; however, failure to take it the day before proved to be one of the most costly mistakes of the entire campaign.

By the start of October it was evident that things were not going according to plan for the Germans. Many tanks were once again breaking down, and those that were actually operable were rendered useless due to tank commanders finding the terrain impossible to navigate. Regardless of this, Ludendorff had decided by October 1 that Germany had two ways out—total annihilation or an armistice. He recommended the latter to senior figures at a summit in Spa, Belgium on that very same day. Pershing continued to pound the exhausted and bewildered Germans without relent for all of October along the Meuse-Argonne front. This would continue until the end of the war.

Meanwhile, news of Germany's impending defeat had spread throughout the German Armed forces. The threat of mutiny was rife. Naval commander Admiral Scheer and Ludendorff decided to launch a last ditch attempt to restore the "valour" of the German navy. He knew that any such action would be vetoed by the government of Max von Baden, so he made the decision not to inform him. Via word of mouth or otherwise, word of the impending assault reached sailors at Kiel. Many of the sailors took unofficial leave—refusing to be part of an offensive which they believed to be nothing more than a suicide bid. It was mostly Ludendorff who took the fall for this—the Kaiser dismissing him on 26 October.

However, since the end of September 1918, Ludendorff had been concocting a plan of his own. Although he was a traditionalist conservative, he decided to try and incite a political revolution by introducing new reforms that "democratized" Germany; also satisfying the monarchists as the Kaiser's reign would continue unabridged. He believed that democratization would show the German people that the government was prepared to change, thus reducing the chance of a socialist style revolt as was seen in Russia in 1917. However, it is the belief of some historians that by doing so Ludendorff had an ulterior motive. His reforms would hand more power over to the members of the Reichstag—particularly the ruling parties, at this time the centre party (under Matthias Erzberger), the liberals, and the social democrats. Therefore, with Ludendorff handing more power to these parties they would have the authority to request an armistice. With 5,989,758 Germans casualties (4,216,058 wounded, 1,773,700 killed), they did just that. Soon after that, Ludendorff had a dramatic change of heart—and began to claim that the very parties who he handed power to had lost Germany the war. These politicians had "stabbed Germany in the back". Prince Max von Baden (SDP) was put in charge. Negotiations for a peace were immediately put into place on his appointment. Also, he was torn between the idea of a constitutional monarchy or complete abolition. However, the matter was taken out of his hands by Philipp Scheidemann, who on November 9, 1918, declared Germany a Republic from a balcony atop the Reichstag. Von Baden announced that the Kaiser was to abdicate—before the Kaiser had himself made up his mind. Imperial Germany had died, and a new Germany had been born: the Weimar Republic.

End of the war

Front page of the New York Times on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918
Front page of the New York Times on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918

Bulgaria was the first of the Central Powers to sign an armistice (29 September 1918). Germany requested a cease-fire on 3 October 1918. When Wilhelm II ordered the German High Seas Fleet to sortie against the Entente's navies, they mutinied in Wilhelmshaven starting 29 October 1918. On 30 October the Ottoman Empire capitulated. On November 3 Austria-Hungary sent a flag of truce to the Italian Commander to ask an Armistice and terms of peace. The terms having been arranged by telegraph with the Entente Authorities in Paris, were communicated to the Austrian Commander, and were accepted. The Armistice with Austria was granted to take effect at three o'clock on the afternoon of November 4. Austria and Hungary had signed separate armistices following the overthrow of the Habsburg monarchy.

Following the outbreak of the German Revolution, a Republic was proclaimed on 9 November, marking the end of the German Empire. The Kaiser fled the next day to the Netherlands, which granted him political asylum. (See Weimar Republic for details).

On 11 November, an armistice was signed in a railroad carriage at Compiègne in France. At 1100 hours that day, a ceasefire came into effect and the opposing armies began to withdraw from their positions.

The state of war between the two sides persisted for another seven months until it was finally ended by the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. Many war memorials thus give the end date of the war as 1919; by contrast, most commemorations of the war's end concentrate on the Armistice of 1918.

For data on military and civilian deaths by nationality, see World War I casualties.

Social effects

One of the most distinguishing impacts of the war was that the reality of totality set in. Many consider World War I to have been the first modern war, as well as a war that would subsequently define the roles and the continued escalation of victimization of civilians in all wars following it (examples: World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War). While civilians have always died or even been targeted in wars, a primary example being the Mongol Wars, World War I re-defined the concept of civilian targeting and turned it more into a numerical statistic and impersonal, routine aspect (such as aerial bombarding). Such practices would only escalate in World War II, and be continued into the Cold War with bombings in Vietnam to destroy villages or starve the population of natural resources. All aspects of the societies fighting were affected by the conflict, often causing profound social change, even if the countries were not in the war zone.

One of the most dramatic such effects was the expansion of government, its powers and responsibilities in Britain, France, the United States, and the Dominions of the British Empire. In order to harness all the power of their societies, new government ministries and powers were created. New taxes were levied, and laws enacted, all designed to bolster the war effort, many of which have lasted to this day.

At the same time, the war strained the abilities of the formerly large and bureaucratized governments such as in Austria-Hungary and Germany. Here, however, the long term effects were clouded by the defeat of these governments.

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 least in many of the Entente powers. At the same time, industry needed to replace the lost laborers sent to war. This aided the struggle for voting rights for women.

At the outbreak of the war, it was a widely held belief that the war would usher in a new age of humanity. In reality, the war failed to deliver on both sides. For combatants and non-combatants alike, the war had been justified for reasons future generations simply would not be able to understand without seeing the war in the context of the "spirit of 1914". Instead of feeling jubilation, the victors entered a period of mourning. For the defeated, the post-war world was an even greater disappointment, for the Treaty of Versailles was a bitter pill to swallow after the armistice.

The severity of the treaty helped to raise suspicions about the Weimar Republic. Germany's new democratic government became associated with the treaty in the public eye. At the same time, the nature of Germany's defeat became another topic of controversy. Accounts from soldiers at the front, as well as the statements made by influencial figures such as Ludendorff, seemed to confirm the theory that Germany had not really lost the war. Instead, it was proposed that Germany had been betrayed from within. The Dolchstoßlegende (literally dagger push legend) suggested that Germany had been "stabbed in the back" by those not committed to the cause. Jews and communists quickly became targets of accusation.

The popularity of the Dolchstoßlegende helped to garner support for the movement for National Socialism. It has also been proposed that the experience of the war established with German youths a militaristic and fascist mindset that made it possible for the Nazi party to take control of Germany two decades later. In the aftermath of WWI, post-war depression and nationalist (retributionist) views were a prominent aspect of German public sentiment; an important cornerstone of what would become Nazi ideology.


Nieuport Fighter, France 1917
Nieuport Fighter, France 1917

See also: Technology during World War I

The First World War was different from prior military conflicts: it was a meeting of 20th century technology with 19th century mentality and tactics. This time, millions of soldiers, both volunteers and conscripts fought on all sides with Kitchener's Army being a notable volunteer force.

Much of the war's combat involved trench warfare, where hundreds often died for each metre of land gained. Many of the deadliest battles in history occurred during the First World War. Such battles include Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Marne, Cambrai, Somme, Verdun, and Gallipoli. Artillery was responsible for the largest number of casualties during the First World War.

The First World War also saw the use of chemical warfare and aerial bombardment, both of which had been outlawed under the 1907 Hague Convention.

Chemical warfare was a major distinguishing factor of the war. Gases used ranged from tear gas to disabling chemicals such as mustard gas and killing agents like phosgene. Only a small proportion of casualties were caused by gas, but it achieved harassment and psychological effects. Effective countermeasures to gas were found in gas masks and hence in the later stages of the war, as the use of gas increased, in many cases its effectiveness was diminished.

Fixed-wing aircraft were first used militarily during the First World War. Initial uses consisted principally of reconnaissance, though this developed into ground-attack and fighter duties as well. Strategic bombing aircraft were created principally by the Germans and British, though the former used Zeppelins to this end as well.

U-boats, or submarines were first used in combat shortly after the war began. Alternating between restricted and unrestricted submarine warfare during the First Battle of the Atlantic, they were employed by the Kaiserliche Marine in a strategy of defeating the British Empire through a tonnage war. The question of "neutrality at sea" would push the United States into the war.

Tanks were developed and used for the first time during this war.


In the trenches
In the trenches
Main articles: Aftermath of World War I, World War I casualties

The First World War ended with a Europe scarred by trenches, spent of resources, and littered with the bodies of the millions who died in battle. The direct consequences of WWI brought many old regimes crashing to the ground, and ultimately, would lead to the end of 300 years of European hegemony.

No other war had changed the map of Europe so dramatically - four empires were shattered: The German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman and the Russian. Their four dynasties, the Hohenzollerns, the Habsburgs, the Ottomans, and the Romanovs, who had roots of power back to the days of the Crusades, all fell during or after the war.


For more details, see World War I casualties.

Country           Casualties     Dead     Wounded
Russia 6,650,000     1,700,000 5,950,000
Germany 5,989,758 2,037,700 4,216,057
France 5,623,800 1,357,800 4,266,000
Austria-Hungary 4,820,000 1,200,000 3,620,000
British Empire* 2,998,671 908,371 2,090,300
Serbia 1,700,000 450,000 950,000
Italy 1,597,000 650,000 947,000
Ottoman Empire 725,000 325,000 400,000
Romania 455,706 335,706 120,000
United States*** 360,300 126,000 234,300
Bulgaria 239,890 87,500 152,390
Canada* 239,605 66,655 172,950
Australia* 218,501 59,330 159,171
New Zealand 76,692 18,166 58,526
Montenegro 60,000 50,000 10,000
Belgium 58,402 13,716 44,686
Greece 26,000 5,000 21,000
Portugal 20,973 7,222 13,751
Newfoundland** 3,565 1,251 2,314
Japan 1,207 300 907
Totals 31,266,438 9,381,551 23,148,975

* British Empire includes Canadian, Irish, Australian, and Indian casualties.
** Newfoundland was a dominion at the time, and not part of Canada.
*** United States official figures, given April 1, 1920 read: 35,560 killed in action; 14,720 died of wounds; 57,460 died of disease; 7,920 died of other causes; 205,690 wounded; 46 missing; 4,480 prisoners. Source: The Communication Trench, Anecdotes & Statistics from The Great War 1914-1918 by Will R. Bird (pg. 75)

Note: Norway had approx. 50 percent of its merchant fleet sunk, percentage-wise the highest loss of any nations' merchant fleet during WWI, killing 1,900 sailors, mostly by their vessels torpedoed by German submarines.

Other names

World War I has also been called called "The Great War" (a title previously used to refer to the Napoleonic Wars) or sometimes "the war to end all wars" until World War II. The term "First World War," implying an event distinct from a "Second World War" has fallen into disfavour by some scholars, who regard World War I as merely the first phase of a three-decade long war spanning the period 19141945.

In Australian popular legend, the First World War is known as the nation's "baptism of fire"; it is seen as one of the first instances of the then-young nation participating so heavily in a major conflict. Moreover, it is claimed that it was one of the first cases where Australian troops fought as Australians, not just subjects of the British Empire. They were tried and not found wanting. Anzac Day is thus held in great reverence by many Australians.


"Yesterday I visited the battlefield of last year. The place was scarcely recognisable. Instead of a wilderness of ground torn up by shell, the ground was a garden of wild flowers and tall grasses. Most remarkable of all was the appearance of many thousands of white butterflies which fluttered around. It was as if the souls of the dead soldiers had come to haunt the spot where so many fell. It was eerie to see them. And the silence! It was so still that I could almost hear the beat of the butterflies' wings." - a British officer, 1919.

"The First World War killed fewer victims than the Second World War, destroyed fewer buildings, and uprooted millions instead of tens of millions - but in many ways it left even deeper scars both on the mind and on the map of Europe. The old world never recovered from the shock." - Edmond Taylor, in "The Fossil Monarchies"

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
- John McCrae, from the poem "In Flanders Fields"

"Gott strafe England" was a common slogan of the German Army, which means "May God punish England".

"In war-time the word patriotism means suppression of truth." - S. Sassoon in 'Memoirs of an Infantry Officer'.

"In war there are three courses of action open to the enemy, and he usually chooses the fourth." - General Helmuth von Moltke'.

"We will support Britain to the last man and the last shilling." - Andrew Fisher, Australian Prime Minister at the outbreak of the war.


  • Herwig, Holger H. Operation Michael: The "Last Card", University of Calgary, 2001. Available online here.
  • Lyons, Michael J. World War I: A Short History (2nd Edition), Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.
  • Pope, Stephen and Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne, eds. The Macmillian Dictionary of the First World War, Macmillian Reference Books, 1995.
  • Ponting, Clive. Thirteen Days, Chatto & Windus, London, 2002.
  • Strachan, Hew ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, a collection of chapters from various scholars that survey the War.
  • Strachan, Hew The First World War: Volume I: to arms, puts emphasis on the extra-European war, but gives extensive coverage of the war on the Western and Eastern Fronts in 1914.
  • Taylor, A. J. P. The First World War: An Illustrated History, Hamish Hamilton, 1963.
  • Tuchman, Barbara The Guns of August, tells of the opening diplomatic and military manoeuvres.
  • The Great War, television documentary by the BBC.

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Bombers of WWI (info)
Video clip of allied bombing runs over German lines.
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Primitive WWI tanks help the Allies with an advance in Langres, France (1918).
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