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World War I

A Dictionary of Contemporary World History

Jan Palmowski

World War I (the Great War) 



The first war which involved total military mobilization on a global scale, after earlier global confrontations had only led to brief and strictly limited military battles outside Europe. This in itself was the result of vast improvements in communications, which allowed the speedy deployment of troops via railways and ships (to colonial Empires). German unification in 1871 had transformed the traditional European balance of power, which rested on the assumption of a weak and fragmented Germany in the heart of Europe. When Germany began to assert its nationhood through militarism and a self‐conscious foreign policy, it became an enthusiastic, if belated, participant in imperialist conquests for colonies. Since Britain, Russia, and France had already created vast colonial Empires, German aspirations for the few remaining unclaimed territories in Africa, Asia, and Oceania heightened tensions and suspicions among the traditional powers of a more general nature. In the effort to claim its ‘place in the sun’, Germany pursued an ambitious programme of naval expansion. The ensuing arms race threatened Britain in particular, which aimed at having a bigger navy than its two closest rivals put together, in order to be able to defend the worldwide trading system upon which its economy and Empire rested more than any other country. As a result, international alliances were formed that left Germany increasingly isolated, e.g. the Anglo‐French Entente (1904), and the Anglo‐Russian entente of 1907 (Triple Entente).


Tensions between Germany and Britain erupted first during the South African War, when Germans supported the Afrikaners, and the Daily Telegraph Affair. A number of international crises heightened the tensions, notably in Morocco (Algeciras and Agadir) and Zabern (Saverne). Last but not least, Europe was destabilized by the fragile multi‐ethnic state of Austria‐Hungary. Paralysed by its own bankruptcy and the forces of nationalism, its aggressive claims over Bosnia‐Hercegovina and Serbia ultimately produced the immediate cause of the war. After the assassination in Sarajevo, by Serbian nationalists, of the heir to the Austrian throne Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Austria declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914.

The conflict spread beyond the Balkans through German assistance to Austria, specifically the German declaration of war against Russia (1 August) and France (3 August). Again, Germany's aggressive stance was the result of a sense of weakness, whereby it did not have the resources to compete for long in the arms race which it had helped to precipitate. Given the international tensions, which had increased since 1900, the German political and military leadership believed that war was inevitable. Thus, the Germans were keen to strike before a relative decline of their military power could take place, and in the hope of dividing the Triple Entente.

True to the Schlieffen Plan, Germany attacked France through Belgium on 3 August 1914. In this way, German troops avoided the fortifications along the Franco‐German border, though this also infringed upon a neutral country. It was this violation of Belgian neutrality that finally convinced the British government that it, too, was vitally threatened by a German regime that did not respect the rule of international law. On 4 September, therefore, Britain declared war on Germany, in her own name, and that of the British Empire and her Dominions.

Amongst the Dominions, Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, and New Zealand readily ratified the British move, as they crucially depended upon the free‐trading system which Britain tried so hard to protect against German expansionism. Only in South Africa did the entry into the war cause considerable political tension. With the memory of the recent South African War, there were strong residual anti‐British and pro‐German feelings amongst the vociferous Afrikaners. Perhaps more controversial than entry into the war itself was the issue of conscription, which became important from around 1916. It caused relatively little controversy in New Zealand, but split the British Liberal Party. It was passed only after acrimonious political battles in Canada in 1917. It was rejected in two referendums in Australia, and was never introduced in Ireland (even though this was not a Dominion) or South Africa.

The course of the war

The Central Powers of Germany and Austria‐Hungary were joined by the Ottoman Empire (1914) and Bulgaria (1915). They faced the Allied Powers consisting of Serbia, Russia, France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the British Empire, Japan (1914), Italy (1915), Romania (1916), Portugal (1916), and Greece (1917). The USA entered the war as an Associate Power of the Allies on 6 April 1917, after the resumption of German submarine warfare (Lusitania). Despite the importance of the naval arms race in the outbreak of the war, only one important naval battle took place (at Jutland, 1916). Instead, fighting took place predominantly

(1) on the Western Front (west of Germany); (2) the Eastern Front (east of Germany); (3) in northern Italy; (4) in the Balkans; (5) on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire; (6) in the colonies.

  • 1. The Western Front was opened by a rapid German advance which avoided the fortifications at the Franco‐German border by invading through Belgium and Luxembourg. The advance was brought to a halt just outside Paris, at the first Battle of the Marne. The Germans retreated slightly, and stabilized their positions around an arch stretching from Ypres in northern Belgium to Soisson (halfway between the Franco‐Belgian border and Paris) and Verdun. From late 1914, the conflict developed into a war of attrition. In battles at Passchendaele, Verdun, and the Somme, large‐scale offensives achieved little strategic gain, yet resulted in previously unimaginable slaughter. Hundreds of thousands of men were lost as each side sought to pummel the other to exhaustion. Another dimension to the horror was added in 1916, when the Germans introduced chemical warfare.Despite a final German offensive at the Marne in 1918, this attritional war was eventually lost by the Germans, mainly as a result of two factors. First, the introduction of mechanized warfare by the Allies, especially the use of tanks, made a crucial difference in the Allies' favour. Secondly, in a war which caused such dramatic losses, the Allies' resources of manpower and equipment were greater. The entry of the USA into the war in 1917 added to this imbalance. In summer 1918, most of France was regained from German occupation, with the Germans suffering a heavy defeat resulting from Foch's use of tanks at the battle of Amiens (8 August).

  • 2. On the Eastern Front as the Germans tried in vain to overcome France before Russia mobilized her troops, immediately after the outbreak of the war the Russian army tried to press its advantage and advanced into exposed German territory. Under Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the Russians were beaten in the battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes (5– 15 September 1914), though they remained in parts of Prussia until 1915. After an Austro‐Hungarian offensive in the spring and summer of 1915, the Russian advance collapsed, with most of Poland falling into German and Austrian hands. In September 1915, Tsar Nicholas II took personal command of his troops. In summer 1916 a Russian counter‐offensive produced victories, but heavy casualties eroded Russian morale. The Russian war effort was thrown into confusion by the Russian Revolutions of 1917, which the German and Austro‐Hungarian armies turned to their advantage in a summer offensive, when they reclaimed the Bukovina and almost all of Galicia. Russian troops were at the point of collapse. After a further German offensive the new Bolshevik leaders under Lenin and Trotsky were left with no alternative but to accept the harsh peace treaty of Brest‐Litovsk imposed upon them.

  • 3. Italy's entry into the war in 1915 opened up a new military front, but did not bring about the collapse of the Central Powers that had been anticipated by Britain and France (Treaty of London). In eleven battles at the Isonzo River (1915–17), the Italians failed to break through Austro‐Hungarian lines. In fact the Italian army suffered twice as many casualties (725,000) as their opponents. The twelfth battle of the Isonzo, known as the Battle of Caporetto, produced a victory for the Austrian army, but the Austrian advance was halted and its troops were finally overcome at the battle of Vittorio Veneto.

  • 4. In the Balkans, the Central Powers overcame Serbia, taking Belgrade in October 1915. Allying themselves with the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, they overcame Romania in 1916, but failed to take Greece.

  • 5. The Ottoman Empire proved to be more resilient militarily than had been anticipated. At Gallipoli, the troops from Australia, New Zealand, and Britain incurred heavy losses, but failed to make headway against the Turks. Meanwhile, British advances in the Mesopotamian campaign were halted with the defeat at Kut al‐Amara in 1915. Nevertheless, in 1917 the Empire was in retreat. The Arab Revolt (1916) had freed most of the Arabian penninsula, and the British had successfully taken Baghdad in 1917. In 1918, the country collapsed, with the Russians advancing deep into Armenia, the British taking Kurdistan and, Palestine, and the French taking Lebanon and Syria.

  • 6. The German colonies were protected by relatively few troops, so that Togo, German Oceania, German New Guinea, and its Chinese territory in Qingdao had all surrendered by November 1914. On 9 July 1915, German South‐West Africa (now Namibia) surrendered to South African troops under Louis Botha and Smuts, while Cameroon surrendered on 18 February 1916. Of all the colonies, only German East Africa (Tanganyika) held out until the end of the war, surrendering on 14 November 1918, three days after Germany itself.

End of the war

Although there were virtually no foreign troops on their respective territories in autumn 1918 Austria‐Hungary disintegrated, while Germany's collapse was only staved off by its military surrender. Bulgaria signed an armistice on 30 September, the Ottoman Empire on 30 October, Austria‐Hungary on 3 November, and the German Empire on 11 November. This was followed by the Paris Peace Conference, in which peace terms were dictated to the defeated countries. The Central Powers lost the war due to inferior numbers and equipment on the battlefield. Especially with the entry of the USA and the defeat of Russia in 1917/18, the war developed as a confrontation between, mainly, parliamentary democracies on the one hand, and autocratic regimes on the other. For instance, in Austria‐Hungary, parliament had been suspended for the first three years of the war, while Germany had become a virtual military dictatorship 1916–18. Ultimately, the war proved that democratic systems were much better able to raise resources than authoritarian ones in which large parts of the population would have had no stake and for which they will not allow themselves to be mobilized fully.


Apart from the immeasurable economic damage, the cost of the war was a severe blow especially to the British Empire, which bore almost 30 per cent of the total cost (Germany bore 20 per cent, France 15 per cent, and the USA 14 per cent). It was the human cost, however, which had such tremendous effects on the minds and culture of generations to come. This cultural effect was at least as prominent among Europeans as among the non‐European belligerents in the Dominions whose sufferings were, perhaps, disproportionately high in relation to their population or their interest in the war. With a population of under eight million people, Canada contributed a total of over 600,000 men, of whom 60,000 were killed. New Zealand sent over 100,000 people out of a population of around one million people, 16,781 of whom were killed. Of around five million Australians, 330,000 fought in Europe, of whom almost 60,000 died. In total, around sixty‐five million soldiers participated in the war. Of these, around twenty‐one million were wounded. It resulted in almost ten million dead (including around one million missing), among them 1.8 million Germans, 1.7 million from the Russian Empire, 1.4 million French, 1.2 million from Austria‐Hungary, 950,000 from the British Empire, 460,000 from Italy, and 115,000 from the USA. Relative to the size of the population, the biggest losses were suffered by Serbia, whose number of dead represented almost 6 per cent of the population, followed by France (3.4 per cent), Romania (3.3 per cent), and Germany (3 per cent).