World War I

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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 label World War I or First World War did not come into general use until after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, and until then it was known as the Great War or the World War. The war was fought by the Allied Powers 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 bloodiest war in recorded history.

More than 9 million died on the war's battlefields, and nearly that many more on the home fronts because of food shortages and genocide committed under the cover of various civil wars and internal conflicts (e.g. the Armenian genocide). In World War I about 5% of the casualties (directly caused by the war) were civilian - in World War II, this figure was 50%.

World War I proved to be the decisive break with the old world order. The concept of "national self-determination" arose and 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 the war. The French Empire survived with little change; the British Empire saw the semi-independence of Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

Some historians have argued that upheaval of war led to the rise of Communism in Russia, Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. In the east, the demise of the Ottoman Empire paved the way for a modern democratic successor state, Turkey. In Central Europe, new states such as Czechoslovakia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Yugoslavia were born and Austria, Hungary and Poland were re-created.


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.

Outbreak of war

Austria–Hungary was created in the Ausgleich of 1867 after Austria was defeated by Prussia. As agreed in 1867, the Habsburgs were the Emperors of the Austrian 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 by Gavrilo Princip 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 July 30 following a breakdown in crucial telegram communications between Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II, who was under pressure by his military staff to prepare for war. Germany demanded (July 31) 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.

Greece and World War I

After repelling three Austrian invasions in August-December 1914, Serbia fell to combined German, Austrian and Bulgarian invasion in October 1915. The Serbian army retreated into Albania and Greece. In late 1915, a Franco-British force landed at Salonica in Greece to offer assistance and to pressure the Greek government into war against the Central Powers. Unfortunately for the Allies, the pro-allied government of Eleftherios Venizelos fell before the allied expeditionary force even arrived, and the pro-German king, Constantine, prevented Greek entry into the war though a portion of his realm was already under Bulgarian occupation.

The First World War caused a great divide in Greek politics pitting the adherents of Venizelos' Liberal Party against the conservative Popular Party followers. King Constantine I ended any pretense of being a monarch above politics, siding decisively with the anti-war faction. Finally, officers loyal to Venizelos established the "National Defence" government in Salonica, inviting Venizelos to take power. Greece was split in two with rival governments and the Allies finally took action forcing the King into exile. Greece participated in the war with 11 infantry divisions and its Air Force. Through victory at the Battle of Skra, the Greeks and the Allies were able to make a breakthrough in the Macedonian front, leading to Bulgaria's signing an armistice on September 29, 1918. This was the first front to collapse in World War I, significant in that it left the South side of the Central Powers unprotected.

End of the war

Bulgaria was the first of the Central Powers to sign an armistice (September 29, 1918). Germany requested a ceasefire on October 3 1918. On October 30, 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.

On November 11, an armistice with Germany 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 with Germany and the following treaties with Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and The Ottoman Empire signed at St. Germain, Trianon, Neuilly and Sèvres. However, the latter treaty with the Ottoman Empire was followed by the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) and a revised peace treaty was signed by the Allied Powers and Turkey, at Lausanne on July 24, 1923.


The total death toll (military and civilian) of World War I was at least 16 million, of which about 9 million were military and about 7 million civilian. The Entente Powers lost more than 5 million soldiers and the Central Powers more than 3 million.



Causes and Diplomacy

Specialty Topics

New Weapons: Air, Tank, Gas, Submarine


  • Beesly, Patrick. Room 40. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1982. Covers the breaking of German codes by RN intelligence, including the Turkish bribe, Zimmermann telegram, and failure at Jutland.
  • Kahn, David. The Codebreakers. Scribners, 1996. Covers the breaking of Russian codes and the victory at Tannenberg.
  • Tuchman, Barbara W. The Zimmermann Telegram (1966)

USA & Canada at War

Europe: Economic and Social

Cultural, Literary, Artistic, Memorial

Popular Books & Films

  • Keegan, John. The First World War (1999)
  • Taylor, A. J. P. The First World War: An Illustrated History, Hamish Hamilton, 1963.
  • Editors of American Heritage. History of WWI. Simon & Schuster, 1964. popular
  • The Great War, television documentary by the BBC.
  • Aces: A Story of the First Air War, written by George Pearson, historical advice by Brereton Greenhous and Philip Markham, NFB, 1993. Argues aircraft created trench stalemate

External links