The First World War was the first world military conflict, which took place mainly in Europe and the Middle East between 1914 and 1918. Of the 32 belligerent countries, the main states involved were, on the one hand, the so-called “allied countries”, i.e. France, the British Empire, Serbia, the Russian Empire, the United States and the Kingdom of Italy, and, on the other, the “central powers”, consisting of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Turkish Empire and Bulgaria.
Origins and Motivations of the First World War
The precedents and causes of conflict
Europe was immersed in a new stage of economic growth and profound technological changes (electrification, explosion engines, chemical industry), and the war gave a new impetus to the industrialization process. The preparation for war allowed countries like Germany to enter the industrial career. The pre-war atmosphere was full of nationalism and patriotism.
World War I was preceded by a climate of historical confrontations and rivalries between neighbouring nations. France and Germany disputed the territories of Alsace and Lorraine, at that time on German territory (after the war they became French territory). The two nations also had confrontations after the Moroccan crisis of 1905 that ended with the reinforcement of the French presence in the Protectorate. Another hot spot in Europe before the war was the Balkans. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the detonator of the outbreak of the great war.
At the beginning of the 19th century the Austrian Empire was the state that led the political initiative of the time, through its minister Metternich, during the period of the Restoration begun in 1815. After the reunification of Germany, Vienna lost its former centrality. Austria was therefore forced to turn East and created the Austro-Hungarian Empire (union of Vienna and Budapest). But the eastward expansion inevitably passed through the Balkans, a territory disputed by several powers. In the 19th century the Balkans were occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Russia, in full territorial expansion, also wanted to appropriate the Balkans to go out to sea through the Mediterranean. The clash between Russia and Austria was inevitable, with the Ottoman Empire in the middle.
The War Alliances game
- The Central Powers: the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire went to war together. They were the two central empires, which were also joined by the Ottoman Empire;
- The Allies: France along with the Russian Empire and the British Empire will go to war together. Russia and France woven a traditional alliance, to which England added its control over the seas and the Mediterranean (Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, the Suez Canal) and which was interested in dominating also the Balkans. Great Britain has always had a certain tendency to be linked to the Hellenic world.
The game of political alliances and tensions converged in the Balkans, which became the backbone of the political turmoil of the First World War. Between 1905 and 1914 the period known as Armed Peace was lived. Times of peace but with great tensions in most European territories.
Despite this relative “armed peace,” there were underground military tensions, basically between Germany and England, over the formation of an impressive German army. The arms race took place mainly in the naval field. The military key was in three elements: armour, speed and armament.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and mobilization plans
It was in this scenario of tension, in the Balkan arena, that the Sarajevo incident triggered the outbreak of war.
The Sarajevo incident occurred on June 28, 1914, when the heir to the imperial throne Franz Ferdinand of Austria, nephew of the elderly Emperor Franz Joseph (married to Empress Sisi), was shot dead by a boy of a Bosnian nationalist organization who wanted to free himself from Austrian rule.
The murder of Franz Ferdinand caused a great stir in Vienna. At that time, Austria blamed Serbia for the events and gave them a one-month ultimatum to capture the culprits. One of the points of this ultimatum was that the Austrian police could enter Serbia to look for the murderer, but Serbia did not accept it. On July 28 the ultimatum ended and Austria declared war on Serbia.
The Kingdom of Serbia, as an integral part of the allied countries, had as its main ally Russia, which immediately after Austria’s declaration of war mobilized its army. This caused Germany to mobilize together with its ally, Austria. And France mobilized against Germany to help Russia. And when the Germans invaded Belgium, Britain went to war on August 4.
The game of alliances of the Triple Alliance or central powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany) and the Triple Entente or allied powers (France, Russia and Great Britain) was set in motion. World War I began.
The socialist movement declared itself pacifist, but at the beginning of the war its anti-war stance was set aside by the real patriotic fervour that led them all to war.
Stages of World War I
First stage: the failure of the blitzkrieg (Summer 1914)
During the summer of 1914, the military commanders of the European powers predicted that the war would be short. The high generals had planned a “lightning war,” but it failed. Germany was the central territory of the war. This had advantages and disadvantages. The German generals hoped to win quickly in France to take control of the seas and Great Britain. But these plans failed and the Germans remained on the border with France.
Second stage: the “War of trenches” or of attrition (1915-1916)
The failure of the lightning war gave rise to a long “trench war,” which was a war of enemy attrition in which virtually no army advanced positions. Three battle fronts were established: the western, the eastern and the Turkish.
On the western front, one of the most important battles was that of Verdun (from February to December 1916). It was the largest and longest battle of the First World War and faced the German and French armies.
The eastern front was located in Poland and Central Europe. The vast territory in which the battle was fought meant the development of a more dynamic war, where trench warfare never reached the importance it had on the western front.
And, on the Turkish-Ottoman front, the most important battles took place in Greece. In the territories occupied by the Ottoman Empire, England attempted the armed uprising of Arab peoples through the mythical Lawrence of Arabia.
The trench war caused many deaths. It also gave rise to the typical image of deserters in the armies. In France the protagonist was General Pétain, winner of the battle of Verdun.
Third stage: the crisis of 1917 and the entry of the United States into the conflict
1917 was a crucial year because Russia came out of the war. And also because the United States broke its isolationism and decided to enter the war. In 1917 the blockade of submarines was carried out by Germany.
In 1918 the war ended with a tragic toll: 12 million dead, hundreds of thousands injured and incalculable damage to the civilian population.
The world at the end of the war
Since World War I the world changed completely: Europe went into crisis and with the end of the Great War emerged a new world leader, the United States of America. The war left Russia in the hands of the Bolsheviks and the Revolution. It also meant the fall of the two main imperial monarchies of Europe: Austria and Germany. Borders changed. The Austro-Hungarian Empire fell and the Republic was proclaimed in Austria.
After the war, the Treaty of Versailles imposed economic limitations on Germany, which lost the territories of Alsace and Lorraine. The Second Empire (II Reich) fell and the Weimar Republic was proclaimed. On the rubble of the First World War came Hitler’s Germany.
The war showed the contradictions of a capitalist economy and its expansion since the second half of the 19th century. Also, the contradictions of internal politics, exaggerated nationalism and some alliances often forced the continent to turn to war.
It was an absolutely bloody war. The war was conceived as a 19th century conflict but with 20th century weapons: tanks, gases, heavy artillery, machine guns…
For the first time officers also died on the battlefield, and many chapels were built with the dead of the richer ones. The sense of honour, the arms race, and the patriotic heat brought thousands of people to the battlefield who otherwise would have never been interested in war.