Introduction to World War I

*Throughout the 19th Century, Europe, although increasingly powerful and militarised, managed to avoid major wars between its countries for 99 years after the defeat of Napoleon.  Partly Europe’s energy was focused outwards, for this was the great era of imperialism, when Europe conquered almost the entire world.  Unfortunately, Germany and Italy got into the race for colonies late, and did not get many compared to Britain or France, and were jealous as a result.

*In the process of conquering the world, Europe developed its old traditions of militarism, a glorification of the military and a focus on military power.  This was useful during the period of colonisation, but with Africa and Asia divided among the nations of Europe, the armies began to grow restless, and a generation grew up weeping like Alexander because there were no more worlds left to conquer.

*Europe also experienced a wave of nationalism in the 19th Century.  Nationalism came in two forms.  In established countries, it was a great pride in one’s country and its traditions, sometimes to the point of chauvinism and arrogance towards other lands.  Other nations—that is, ethnic groups with common languages and cultures but not a common government—wanted to be able to become states as well as nations.  This was a serious problem in some of Europe’s empires, which contained peoples from several of these ethnic nations.  The worst of these was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which encompassed about a dozen different ethnic groups, of whom only two (the Germans and the Hungarians) had much power.

*Finally, Europe had kept the peace for so long through what was called the balance of power.  This was a series of alliances so that each country, if attacked, would be defended by several others.  With each country having a series of these alliances, any attack on anyone was liable to draw most of Europe into a war, so no-one dared attack his neighbour.

*The balance of power was upset, however, by the actions of one rash man.  Gavrilo Princip was a student in Sarajevo, capital of the province of Bosnia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of many uneasy ethnic areas that wanted independence.  Princip learned that the heir to the throne of Austria was coming to town on a state visit.  This was Archduke Franz Ferdinand who, with his wife whom he dearly loved, rode through town in an open car.  Princip and some fellow nationalists plotted to kill the Archduke who, as luck would have it, ran into Princip while taking a shortcut through a back street in Sarajevo.  Princip shot the Archduke’s wife, Sofia, who died instantly, then shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand near the heart. 

*Austria accused  neighbouring Serbia of arranging the assassination.  Serbia was an independent country that shared historical and ethnic ties with Bosnia, and wanted to see Bosnia leave Austria and be added to Serbia so all these Slavic peoples could be in one nation-state together.  After making demands Serbia could not meet, Austria declared war on Serbia in July, 1914.  Then all the alliances began to operate.

*Russia was a Slavic nation like Serbia, and prepared to move troops against Austria.  Germany, in turn, began to mobilise her troops.

*Germany had long had a plan for a war in Europe.  It was called the Schlieffen Plan after Count Alfred von Schlieffen who devised it.  In this plan, Germany would attack France and defeat her quickly.  Before Russia could move (because it was assumed Russia would take a long time to get ready) Germany would have beaten France and could then attack Russia.  The problem was, Germany could not just do half of it and attack Russia, so, when Russia began to threaten Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary, Germany declared war on Russia’s ally, France, and invaded.

*When the Germans invaded France, they did so through the small country of Belgium.  Great Britain, an ally of France and Russia anyway, but reluctantly so, had also promised years ago to protect Belgium from any invaders.  Furthermore, when the invasion began, rumours, mostly false, began to spread that the Germans were treating the Belgians terribly.  Although they were not the kindest of occupiers, the most unbelievable claims (such as the roasting and eating of Belgian babies) were unbelievable because they were, in fact, untrue.  Nonetheless, they were viscerally very moving.  Consequently, when the Germans invaded Belgium, the British had to come to the aid of France.

*The Ottoman Empire also joined the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, who became known as the Central Powers, opposed to the Allied powers of France, Britain, Russia, and a few others.  Italy was supposed to ally with Germany and Austria, but decided to sit back and see who was going to win.  When things started looking good for the Allies, Italy switched sides.

*At the time this was seen as a great adventure.  This generation that had thought it had no great task before itself suddenly rushed into the streets to dance and cheer and celebrate.  Their time had come when they could fight for the glory of their country, as their ancestors had done.  Thousands of young men volunteered for the armies of their nations, and Europe went to war cheering.

*The Great War, as it was called at the time, was characterised by the use of new technology.  The most important were machine guns, poison gas, U-boats, and, to a much lesser extent, aircraft.

*Machine guns made it difficult for armies to attack one another.  Instead, troops pinned down by machine gun fire dug personal foxholes, then connected these foxholes with ditches that they expanded into trenches.  These in turn they made deeper and better and more extensive, with communications trenches connected them, bombproof shelters off the side of them, and twists and turns designed to isolate any invading enemy soldiers.  The trenches eventually stretched for hundreds of miles across the French countryside, which was completely cratered by shells until it looked like the surface of the moon.

*The war, at least in the West, devolved into a stalemate, with two vast armies sitting in trenches facing each other across no-man’s-land, and occasionally attacking one another and being mowed down by machine guns.  Millions of men were killed, almost an entire generation in all the European nations that took part in the War.

*Eventually, America was provoked into joining the War, and tilted the balance in the Allies’ favour, and Germany lost in 1918.  Its borders were reduced, it was forced to pay crippling reparations, and it was forced to sign a clause in the peace treaty (the Treaty of Versailles) admitting that the entire war was Germany’s fault.

*This humiliating defeat, after a war in which almost no German territory was actually occupied, fuelled resentment which would lead to World War II.  The incredible death and slaughter of the war, with no real profit for anyone involved, would also shake Europe’s idealism and its religious faith.  In many ways, World War I was the beginning of the end of Europe’s world dominance.

This page last updated 29 September, 2014.