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Overview - World War I

(1914 - 1918)

The fundamental causes of this war were:

  1. Imperialism and its rivalry for markets, raw materials, etc.
  2. Militarism, which made Europe an armed camp
  3. Nationalism
  4. International anarchy - the absence of any established organisation which might seek to settle differences between nations and work for peace.
  5. The system of alliances, which enabled each member to call for assistance from all other members whenever it was confronted with some difficulty.

The immediate cause was the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary at Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist.

The contestants were called the Central Powers and the Allies.

1914 - The German supreme commander, General Helmuth von Moltke, put into operation a revised version of the so-called Schlieffen Plan. This had been prepared by General Alfred von Schlieffen, who was chief of the general staff from 1891 to 1906. Schlieffen anticipated a war on two fronts. Believing that Germany could mobilise more rapidly than Russia, he called for a holding action on the eastern front by a relatively small number of troops, thus allowing the use of a crushing force against France. The German left wing was to pivot on the fortified area near Metz. The powerful right wing was to follow the Meuse River valley through Belgium, pass Paris on the west, and fall upon the main French army from the rear. Moltke modified this plan to some extent. It was expected to take six weeks to complete the campaign.

As the German armies smashed through Belgium, England entered the war. Despite the assistance of the British, the French fell back before the powerful drive of the German right wing. By 1 September, the Germans were 15 miles from Paris. The French government fled to Bordeaux. General Joffre, noting that the German right wing had lost contact with the rest of the army, launched the First Battle of the Marne (6-10 September, 1914). The German drive was halted. The Germans retreated to the Aisne River, where they "dug in". After the Marne, there began a race between the Germans and the Allies to occupy the Channel Ports. The Germans captured most of these. But the British, in the First Battle of Ypres, kept control of a small part of Southwest Flanders and the French ports of Calais, Dunkirk, and Boulogne. During the winter of 1914-15 the enemies consolidated their positions on the 600-mile front from Belgium to the Alps.

Meanwhile, on the eastern front the Russians made surprising progress. Their rapid advance came to an abrupt end when they were decisively beaten by the Germans under Ludendorff and Hindenburg at Tannenberg (26-31 August, 1914). This was followed by the rout of the Russians at the Masurian Lakes (5-15 September 1914) and at Augustovo (Feb 1915). The Russians lost one and half million men in these campaigns. Against Austria-Hungary the Russians were very successful, capturing most of Galicia and driving the defenders back to the Carpathian Mountains.

1915 - The Central Powers drove the Russians out of Galicia. Bulgaria joined the Central Powers and helped in the conquest of Serbia. Italy entered the war on the side of the Allies (see Treaty of London). A Franco-British attack upon Constantinople by way of the Gallipoli Peninsula failed. On the Western Front the Allies made some progress in Flanders, but were repulsed in the Second Battle of Ypres, where, on 22 April, the Germans first used poison gas. An Allied drive in the summer also failed.

1916 - This year was marked by two enormous campaigns: the German assault upon Verdun, From February to July; the Allied attack on the Somme, from June to November. Although the British used tanks in the Somme offensive weapons that were strong enough to effect a break-through. Both drives resulted in insignificant gains and tremendous casualty lists. The Austrians penetrated deep into north Italy, but had to withdraw when the Russians, under Brussilov, gained much ground in Galicia. The Russians were repulsed in a combined attack by the Central Powers, which also led to the conquest of Romania.

1917 - Early in 1917 the position of the Germans seemed to be fairly strong. They held Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Poland, most of Belgium, and northern France. Russia was beaten down. When the Czar abdicated in March, Russia all but withdrew from the war. One year later (3 March, 1918), Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans and withdrew from the war in fact. However, in April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany.

On the Western Front the Germans retired to the Hindenburg Line. In April, the British attacked at Arras and the French at Leon, without much success. From July to November the British fought the Third Battles of Ypres, eventually taking Passchendaele Ridge. On 24 Oct, the Germans and the Austrians launched a heavy attack on the Italian front, and hurled back the Italians with great losses.

1918 - On 21 March the Germans began a great offensive on the Western Front. To cope with this menace, the Allies created a Supreme War Council and made General Foch commander-in-chief. The German drive was halted at Chateau-Thierry on 18 July. Now the Allies began a counter-attack in which the United States army played a major role and which resulted in bringing the war to an end with an armistice, which was signed 11 November.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
26 June 2002


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